Prince Paul Of Yugoslavia meets Hitler.

On 2 March 1941, Prince Paul of Yugoslavia, the senior or ‘chief’ Regent of that country departed Belgrade for his Slovene holiday home at Brdo in what his Greek-born wife, Princess Olga, describes as ‘a depressed condition’. The Prince had every reason to feel so. Firstly, Italy had made no secret of its expansionist desires in the Balkans, as was evidenced by its recent invasion of Greece. Athough this incursion had, for the moment, been successfully repulsed, Prince Paul remained very much alive to the threat that Italy posed to Yugoslav independence. Secondly, the attitude of the British government left much to be desired. Oxford-educated Paul was known as ‘F’ or ‘Friend’ by the British for his solid Anglophile outlook. However, the British had repeatedly avoided the Prince Regent’s numerous requests for ‘material aid’ in the form of weapons and ammuntion etc.. Indeed, Churchill’s government had, until recently, been content with the Yugoslav’s neutral stance. Nevertheless, this had changed in January and February when the British government indicated that they wished Yugoslavia and Turkey to join with them to form a ‘united’ Balkan front to ‘fight’ (even if their own country was not invaded) and provide ‘speedy succour’ to Greece. Thirdly, and most pressing, were the demands currently being made by Germany for Yugoslavia to join the Axis Tripartite Pact. This matter had to be addressed as a matter of extreme urgency for, following Bulgaria’s accession to the Pact on 1 March, Yugoslavia now found itself surrounded by Axis-aligned nations on all borders, a fact emphasised when between twelve to fifteen divisions of German soldiers crossed the Danube into Bulgaria as Paul’s train travelled westwards. Ominously, ‘Fascists’ in Bulgaria were apparently calling out, ‘Down with Yugoslavia.’

Hence, Paul’s final destination was not to be Slovenia but the Berghof, Hitler’s residence in the Bavarian Alps near Berchtesgaden. Word of the meeting had gradually leaked out to the international press as far as Australia. The Fuhrer seemed to be in good form and according to German Foreign Office documents, he informed the Yugoslav Prince Regent that England had already lost the war and other nations would have to adapt themselves to a ‘new order’. Hitler mentioned that he was offering the Slavs a ‘unique opportunity’ to ‘establish and secure’ their ‘territorial integrity’ in this reorganised Europe. The Fuhrer indicated that in order to secure this preferential treatment, Yugoslavia would have to acceed to the Axis Tripartite Pact.

The Prince was not about to be rushed into a decision there and then. He parried that as far as he personally was concerned, the Greek descent of his wife, as well as his sympathies for England, made this a most difficult matter. There was also another complication: It also so happened that one of the ‘founding’ signatories of the Pact was Mussolini’s Italy. Prince Paul firmly believed that Mussolini and Italy were responsible for the assassination of King Alexander of Yugosalvia in Marseilles in 1934.

Nevertheless Hitler persevered and stressed that Yugoslavia, through accession to the Tripartite Pact, could rely on Germany both as a ‘partner’ and a ‘guarantor’ of both her present and future territory. The latter was a reference to Germany’s tempting offer that should they sign the Pact, ‘when the war ended, Salonika would go to Yugoslavia’. The Fuhrer also declared that his country only expected Yugoslavia to acceed. The Slavs would not, however, be asked to participate militarily in any war.

Prince Paul ‘reserved’ his position, having already indicated that if he did as the Germans asked, his position in Yugoslavia might become untenable. The Regent further declared that as this was such a serious matter, he would have to discuss the matter with the cabinet on his return to Yugoslavia. Soon thereafter, the German Foreign Minister, von Ribbentrop contacted the German Minister in Belgrade, von Heeren, and informed him, ‘Please do everything you can in every possible way to hasten the accession of Yugoslavia [to the Pact]’. The Prince, meanwhile, left Bavaria convinced that ‘war was inevitable but that we had to gain time to be able to moblize.’ His viewpoint was echoed by the international press in headlines ‘BALKAN VOLCANO NEARING RUPTION..’

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. ISBN 9781839754425

D Day and King George VI

King George VI was generally kept well informed about the progress of the Second World War by his Government, with the relevant ministerial minutes and other documentation being passed to His Majesty’s Private Secretary, Sir Alan Lascelles via the Cabinet Office. Thus, in the build-up to D Day and the Allied landings in Normandy, the King was already very much ‘in the loop’.

However, prior to the operations, His Majesty was involved in other matters. Firstly, Princess Elizabeth celebrated her 18th birthday, on 21 April, with a low-key family lunch at the Palace. The King had already asked for an amendment to be made to the 1937 Regency Act so to allow her to serve as a member of the Council of State, should the need arise. Secondly, His Majesty was much occupied with entertaining Prime Ministers of the Empire who were attending an Imperial Conference in London which commenced on 1 May. This duty done, the King then took a train northwards, on 9 May, to inspect his fleet at Scapa Flow in Orkney; this included an interesting trip aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious. He returned to London on 14 May.

The following day, the King was finally able to focus on the forthcoming landings in France (‘Operation Overlord’) when he visited General Montgomery’s headquarters at St Paul’s School for a final briefing. Apart from the military ‘top brass ‘, other guests included Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Jan Smuts, the South African Prime Minister. To Lascelles astonishment, after the top-level meeting had ended, the King rose to his feet and made an impromptu speech which Montgomery would later describe in his diary as ‘absolutely first class’.

During one of their weekly lunches at Buckingham Palace on 30 May, Churchill informed the King that he proposed to observe the opening stages of ‘Overlord’ from a destroyer (HMS Belfast) off the French coast. This must have appealed to the sailor in George VI (who had after all served as a midshipman aboard HMS Collingwood at the Battle of Jutland in 1916) and he indicated he would do likewise. However, when Lascelles learned of his Sovereign’s intentions, he was horrified and immediately brought the King back down to earth by asking him whether he was prepared to offer (advance) advice to Princess Elizabeth on the choice of her first Prime Minister in case he and Churchill were both ‘sent to the bottom of the English channel.’

However, Churchill was not to be so easily dissuaded, despite the King writing to his Prime Minister the following day, mentioning his own change of position and asking Winston ‘in all seriousness’ to ‘reconsider your plan.’ George VI then engaged the services of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay (the Naval Commander-in-Chief of ‘Overlord’) and General Hastings Ismay, the Prime Minister’s chief military assistant and Staff Officer. Their intervention seemed to have some effect: On 2 June, on being informed that Churchill was ‘wobbling’, the King decided to write a second letter to his Prime Minister again appealing to him to review his position. However, having heard nothing from Churchill by the next day, George VI then threatened to drive down to the English coast at dawn on 4 June to personally ensure that his Prime Minister did not go to sea. The King’s main concern was that Winston was an indispensable part of the overall war machine and that the trip involved a totally unnecessary risk to his life. Eventually, an alarmed Lascelles reached Churchill by telephone aboard his train. The premier gave the Private Secretary a verbal assurance that he would now abandon his nautical jaunt. This he later backed up in a written pledge to the Sovereign to ‘defer to Your Majesty’s wishes, and indeed commands.’

Meanwhile, on 4 June it was decided to postpone D Day from 5 June to the following day as high winds and heavy seas would make it impossible to launch landing craft, while low clouds would prevent aircraft from finding their targets. On D Day, the first assault took place in the early hours of the morning. Churchill lunched with the King at the Palace. Thereafter, the duo motored to Air Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory’s HQ at Stanmore and thence to the Supreme Allied Commander’s (US General Dwight Eisenhower) HQ at Bushey for information on how events were progressing across the Channel. That evening, at 9pm, the King broadcast to the nation (the text having been perused in advance by President Roosevelt). He spoke haltingly but from the heart: ‘That we may be worthily matched with this new summons of destiny, I desire to call my people to prayer and dedication.’ Acknowledging ‘our shortcomings’, he continued ‘We shall not ask that God may do our will, but that we may do the will of God.’

Once word came through that a bridgehead had been successfully established on the Normandy coast, plans for a brief visit by the King were considered-and approved- by the Cabinet on 13 June. George VI and his party departed Victoria Station at 7.45pm on 15 June. After spending the night at Horsley in Surrey, the royal group then proceeded to Portsmouth where they boarded the cruiser HMS Arethusa at 8am and crossed the English Channel in choppy seas. Arriving off Courseulles to the sound of gunfire, the King and his aides then transferred to one of the amphibious DUKWs for the short journey ashore. They were greeted by Montgomery who then drove his VIP guests to his headquarters at Creully (some six miles from the front line) for lunch, followed by a visit to the map room. After holding a brief investiture, the King and his party then visited General Dempsey, the commander of the British Second Army, at his headquarters nearby. Although George VI would have loved to have moved nearer the action, Montgomery would not hear of it for enemy snipers remained at large. Similarly, once he had re-embarked his ship at 4pm for the journey home, His Majesty was prevented by recently dropped German mines from cruising along the shore to inspect the floating Mulberry Harbours which had proved so useful in facilitating the rapid offloading of cargo and equipment onto the beaches.

Nevertheless, when he returned to Windsor Castle at 11.30pm, the King must at least have felt satisfied that he had at last been able to visit his troops in person and learn first hand from both Montgomery and Dempsey of their plans for the next stage of the battle. The visit also had an interesting postscript: George VI’s brief foray only served to whet his appetite for further adventure, and on 11 July, during one of their weekly luncheons, he pressed Churchill for a longer trip to his troops in recently liberated Italy.