On the morning of 28 March, Princess Olga of Yugoslavia and her family, including her husband Prince Paul, who had only the previous evening been forced to abdicate as Prince Regent of Yugoslavia, following a British-backed coup, were journeying towards Athens from Belgrade by rail accompanied by what were ominously referred to as ‘escort officers.’ On reaching the Greek border, these two gentlemen bid the Greek-born Princess farewell. At the first large town, Larissa, Olga took the opportunity to telephone her mother, Princess Nicholas, in Athens. The latter informed her astonished daughter that it was widely being reported (and even credited in Athens) that Prince Paul (who was standing nearby) was already en route to Germany. Olga was also shaken by the Greek press’ enthusiastic support for the coup d’état in Yugoslavia, which had occurred as a counter-reaction to the Slavs accession to the Tripartite Pact with the Axis powers on 25 March, a piece of slick diplomatic manoeuvring which might well (due to its exceptional terms) have kept Yugoslavia out of any conflict in the Balkans or at the very least given the country time to mobilise fully and build-up its military strength. The Greeks now expected the new government of Dushan Simovic to join with the Allied cause and fight alongside Britain and Greece against the Germans and Italians. They were about to be sorely disappointed.
Later in the evening of 28 March the British Foreign Minister, Anthony Eden (who had arrived in Athens by air from Malta) held talks with King George II of the Hellenes, whom he found to be in good spirits but not very confident about the situation in Belgrade, which he described as ‘that hive of intrigue.’ The King also indicated that he would be meeting Prince Paul and his family at the railway station the next day, but added that it might be an awkward meeting. George II must have mentioned to Eden about the constant speculation over the BBC radio about the recent whereabouts of Prince Paul, for the British Foreign Minister telegraphed London, stating this should be ‘ceased’ as it was embarrassing for the King of Greece (although not as much as it must have been for the subject of these false rumours).
On 29 March, Princess Olga and her family arrived in Athens. All the Greek royal family were at the station to greet them and appeared outwardly friendly, except Paul’s mother-in-law, Princess Nicholas, who was noticeably stiff. The Yugoslav family were staying with ‘Ellen’, as she was known in the family, at her large house in the upmarket suburb of Psychiko. It was not long before this Romanov Grand Duchess had a heated conversation with Prince Paul and Princess Olga in her salon and gave vent to her frustration over recent events in Belgrade. Ellen basically implied that Yugoslavia should have done everything in its power to protect Greece from the machinations of the Germans and Italians rather than sign the Pact.
The following day, the Greek King came to lunch at Princess Nicholas’ home at Psychiko. He had a long talk with Paul and promised to find out if Eden would agree to hold a meeting with him. However, the British Foreign Minister subsequently declined to do so citing that it would be ‘rather awkward’ given ‘the feelings in England just now’. Further still, although King George was in favour of Olga, Paul and the family remaining in Athens, Eden (later backed by Churchill) indicated that he was totally opposed to such a move. Eden’s mood was not helped by his failure to secure a personal meeting with an evasive Simovic in Belgrade. Although a delegation, headed by General Dill, flew to the Yugoslav capital on the evening of 31 March for a ‘secret’ meeting, the visitors left with nothing except the now familiar entreaty that the Slavs badly needed arms from Britain. The new Simovic government, to the Brits consternation, also deemed it inexpedient to attack the Italians in Albania and the visiting delegation also concluded the Yugoslavs would engage with German forces only if Yugoslavia was first attacked. Suddenly, like Prince Paul before him, Simovic found that he was spending much of his time trying to keep the delicate alliance of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes on-side. He was particularly wary of Croat intentions.
Meanwhile, having been told by the King to keep a low profile, Olga sat in the sun teaching her children some words and phrases in Greek. She also made a visit to the graves of her ancestors up at Tatoi and entertained Crown Princess Frederika to tea. On 31 March, the Princess tried to be put through to King Peter in Belgrade but was informed he was in bed. She tried again on 1 April, but an A.D.C. informed her that he ‘was away’ and refused to say where. The following day, Olga inspected a house for rent next to her mother’s home. At this stage, the Princess still seems to have been under the impression that she and her family might be able to live in Athens. Friends called by and tactfully spoke of everything apart from the Yugoslav royals’ recent troubles in Belgrade. However, events were about to take a dramatic turn…
In the early hours of Sunday morning, 6 April 1941 (Palm Sunday), the German minister in Athens handed a note to the Greek Foreign Office stating that Germany was going to attack Greece. The Germans also marched into Yugoslavia and bombed Belgrade. At nine o-clock that evening several flights of German aircraft flew in over Piraeus and dropped magnetic mines, one of which set on fire to the freighter Clan Fraser. She was loaded with two hundred tons of explosives due to be delivered to the Greek Powder Factory. A further six ships were written off. The naval college was also attacked and Olga was in despair that a hospital under her mother’s patronage at Piraeus had to be evacuated as bombs fell all around it smashing all the windows. Next day, Eden departed Athens for London.
On 9 April the Germans swept into Salonika having advanced almost unopposed down Yugoslavia’s Strimon Valley and then overcome Greek forces at Doiran Lake. HQ British Forces Greece now began to consider how best to withdraw the RAF squadrons from Greece. In Athens, Olga was receiving reports of the death toll of the recent air raids on Belgrade [some 17000 souls] and was distressed to learn that corpses filled the streets and the old Royal Palace-their former home-had been severely damaged. Already, there was talk of the Greek royal family evacuating to Crete and the question now arose as to where Olga and Paul and their family might go. The decision was actually to be made for them. On the morning of 10 April, Crown Prince Paul informed Olga and Paul that the Greek government could no longer guarantee their safety. Later in the day, ‘Palo’ returned to tell his cousin and her husband that it had been arranged for the Yugoslav royals to fly next day from Tatoi Aerodrome to Egypt in a British Royal Air Force plane. Olga was in dismay at leaving her mother behind in Athens (where she would remain for the duration of the war).
On 11 April, Olga, Paul and their three children Alexander, Nicholas and Elizabeth flew into Heliopolis, after a flight lasting four hours. They were greeted by Peter Coats, A.D.C. to General Wavell, the Commander-in-Chief Middle East, and taken to a comfortable house which belonged to a British officer who had been taken prisoner by the Germans in Libya. The house was staffed with a cook and some soldiers mounted guard on the lawn. The British officials in Egypt were, on the whole, well-disposed towards the Yugoslav royals and the British High Commissioner, Sir Miles Lampson, called to visit them, accompanied by his wife, on 15 April. He informed the Foreign Office in London that he was ‘rather appalled at [the] humiliating conditions in which they are held there.’ Lampson was particularly concerned about Princess Olga and observed that ‘surely it is not right to ignore Princess Olga as a Greek princess and sister of the Duchess of Kent?’ He wanted to invite Olga and Paul to lunch or dinner and ‘generally help them in a purely unofficial manner and informal way.’
Meanwhile, arrangements were being made for the Yugoslav family’s transfer to Kenya and Lampson was already in touch with the Governor of Kenya, Sir Henry Moore. Sir Miles was also impressing on a sceptical Princess Olga ‘what an excellent climate there is in Kenya and how much better than [spending] the summer in Egypt.’ However, Olga seemed ‘preoccupied about educational facilities’ (or the lack of them in Kenya!) and rightly feared that both she and Prince Paul might be ‘ostracised’ in Kenya ‘or in any other British territory to which they may go.’ Interestingly, during his visit to Heliopolis, Lampson found the Yugoslav royal couple displayed a ‘detestation of the Axis and all its works’. Their ‘sentiments’, he added, ‘could not have been more thoroughly English.’
Unlike Lampson, Anthony Eden seemed to have no interest in the welfare of the Yugoslav royal couple. He telegraphed back to Lampson next day, stating that it was a, ‘Bad idea to entertain them or exceed original instructions.’
And so it was that in the early morning of 25 April the family were driven in two cars down to the River Nile and taken out in a motor boat to the waiting flying boat. A party of friends, including Olga’s long-time friend Lilia Ralli, who had recently escaped from Athens, waved them off. A new life in Kenya now beckoned…..
A new biography Princess Olga of Yugoslavia: Her Life and Times was published on 1 April 2021 by Grosvenor House Publishing. This is now available to purchase on Amazon in hardback or e-book.