Although buoyed up by the success of his recent tour of Canada and the United States, when King George VI landed at Southampton, in late June, the deteriorating political situation in Europe was a pressing source of concern given Germany’s and Italy’s recent invasions of Czechoslovakia and Albania respectively. Another worry was the situation surrounding the King’s eldest brother, the former King Edward VIII. Following his much-publicised Abdication in December 1936, ‘David’ had been given the title of Duke of Windsor. He subsequently married his paramour, Wallis Simpson, in June 1937, and the couple currently resided, ostracised by the Court at Buckingham Palace, in France.
The King (‘Bertie’) had good reason to be concerned about his brother, as in political matters, the Duke had already shown that he could not be relied upon to display the traditional royal circumspection. In October 1937, David (who spoke good German) and Wallis had paid a controversial visit to Nazi Germany, where they were serenaded by an SS band and met with Hitler at the Berghof in Obersalzberg. Furthermore, as recently as May 1939, while George VI was in the course of crossing the Atlantic, the Duke of Windsor made a radio broadcast at the invitation of the American network, NBC, during which he appealed ‘as a soldier of the last war’ for peace and asked that all statesmen ‘act as good citizens of the world and not only as Frenchmen, Italians, Germans, Americans or Britons.’ Soon letters of appreciation were flooding in, particularly from American listeners. Tellingly, the BBC had decided not to carry the broadcast; while the British press probably more accurately reflected the King’s view that the Duke’s intervention, just prior to such an important royal tour, had been both ill-judged and ill-timed. Indeed, David’s youngest brother, the Duke of Kent went so far as to describe him as ‘a fool’.
In late June, the Duke of Windsor was again back in the headlines, when Buckingham Palace indicated that they were unable to confirm a rumour that the former king and his wife ‘would shortly settle down in England.’ Intriguingly, the Paris correspondent of Reuters added that he had been informed by the Duke ‘that he has no definite plans after the summer‘, which he was spending at the Château de la Croë, his residence at Antibes, in the south of France.
King George VI must have been disturbed by the thought of his predecessor arriving in England at such a precarious time. Nonetheless he carried on with his duties, reviewing a march past of National Service Volunteers in Hyde Park, visiting the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth and entertaining the Prince Regent of Yugoslavia at Buckingham Palace. On reaching Balmoral, in early August, Bertie attended his Duke of York Camp at nearby Abergeldie Castle; this annual event had been established to encourage the integration of boys from different social backgrounds. However, on 9 August, the King broke off his highland holiday to travel south to Weymouth to inspect the Reserve Fleet, before returning to Scotland.
On 23 August, with a German attack on Poland looking increasingly likely, the Duke of Windsor asked the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain to keep him informed of developments in order that he could make plans for the future. David would have been aware that as early as March, Chamberlain had given an undertaking to Poland that the British government would ‘lend all support in their power’ in the event of any action which threatened Polish independence. Four days later, the Duke telegraphed Hitler from the French Riviera and made a ‘very earnest appeal for your utmost influence towards a peaceful solution of the present problems.’ The King, meanwhile, had returned to London as the crisis worsened and offered to make a similar personal approach to Hitler. However, he received a polite rebuff from Chamberlain. Bertie later dined at Buckingham Palace with his brothers the Duke of Gloucester and the Duke of Kent. It seems highly likely that the matter of the Duke of Windsor was discussed in light of the earlier press reports of his possible return to England; the King had doubtless also been informed of his brother’s recent approach to Chamberlain. He probably had knowledge too of David’s view (expressed to his friend and legal adviser Walter Monckton during the Munich crisis of the previous year) that since the British government were responsible for him and the Duchess having to live in exile, they must therefore accept responsibility for getting them and their possessions out of France if the need arose.
On 1 September German troops invaded Poland. At 9AM on 3 September, the British Ambassador in Berlin, Sir Nevile Henderson, handed a note to the German Foreign Minister, Ribbentrop. In this, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax indicated that if hostilities against Poland did not stop by 11AM, a state of war would exist between Great Britain and Germany. Germany did not respond and at 11:15 Neville Chamberlain went on the radio to announce to the British people that they were at war with Germany. In the evening, the King broadcast to the nation and asked that everyone stand ‘calm and firm and united.’
In Antibes, the Duke of Windsor had received news of Britain’s declaration war in a personal phone call from the British Ambassador in France, Sir Ronald Hugh Campbell. David then telephoned Walter Monckton and instructed him to convey to the King his desire to serve in any capacity His Majesty deemed suitable. George VI responded by offering to send a plane to the South of France to bring his brother and sister-in-law to Britain. However, when Monckton telephoned the Duke with this news, rather than being grateful, he seemed more intent on establishing exactly where he and the Duchess were to be accommodated. When informed that his equerry Edward Dudley ‘Fruity’ Metcalfe might arrange for the couple to stay with him at his home in Sussex, the Duke became difficult and insisted that he would not return to England unless he and his wife were invited to stay at one of the royal residences as a guest of the King. Unsurprisingly, this latest “request” fell on stony ground and the plans to send a plane were put on hold.
However, despite this impasse, Walter Monckton flew out on 7 September to discuss the various posts that were to be offered to the ex-king when he eventually decided to return home. These included a civil defence post as Deputy to the Regional Commissioner in Wales and a job as a liaison officer in the British Number 1 Military Mission attached to the French General Headquarters in Paris. It was also made clear that there was no question of the couple staying at a royal residence; nor should the Duchess expect to be received by Their Majesties. In the meantime, another problem emerged: The Duchess had a fear of flying and asked if it might be possible to provide transport by sea to England. One can imagine the sighs in London as the harassed powers-that-be struggled to arrange this. In the interim, the Duke and Duchess departed Antibes and headed northwards via Vichy to await further instructions. The Duke of Windsor’s old friend and champion, Winston Churchill soon came to the rescue: He had recently been appointed First Lord of the Admiralty and arranged for Captain Louis Mountbatten, a cousin and former naval Aide-de-Camp to Edward VIII, to travel to Cherbourg aboard his ship HMS Kelly and transport the Duke and Duchess to Portsmouth.
Following a six-hour crossing, the ducal party landed in England late on the evening of 12 September. The difference in David’s status was immediately apparent to him. As a Prince of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Duke was only entitled to the first six bars of the National Anthem from the Royal Marines band (rather than the full version he had become accustomed to as Sovereign). Furthermore, there was no member or representative of the royal family to greet him and his wife. After an overnight spent at Admiralty House (a kind gesture arranged at the last-minute through the intervention of Churchill), the Duke and Duchess were ferried in the Metcalfe’s car to their country residence, South Hartfield House. From there, the Duke and Duchess would make regular visits by car to London, using the Metcalfe’s town house in Wilton Street as a daytime base.
On 14 September, the Duke of Windsor had an afternoon meeting with the King at Buckingham Palace, their first meeting in three years. George VI would later recall in his diary that ‘we talked for an hour. There were no recriminations on either side…’; yet to his youngest brother George, the Duke of Kent, he confided that David’s demeanour ‘was his usual swaggering one, laying down the law about everything.’ The Duke thought it ‘cordial enough’ and indicated his preference for the civil defence post in Wales, which was unsurprising given that he had a deep affection for the Principality which he had visited on numerous occasions during his years as Prince of Wales. The King replied vaguely that there was no hurry about making a decision.
Next day, the Duke had meetings with Churchill at the Admiralty, followed by an uneasy encounter with the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street. The reason for this would soon become apparent: During a subsequent meeting at the War Office with the Secretary of State for War, Leslie Hore-Belisha, David was informed that the King had now withdrawn the offer of the post in Wales for which he had expressed a preference. Bertie felt that his older brother would be ‘most suitably employed’ in France. The Duke would now return there as a member of the Military Mission with the temporary (lower) rank of Major-General. As a “sweetener” the Prime Minister was ‘making enquiries’ as to whether the former king and his wife could first make fortnight’s tour of the English Commands before returning to the Continent.
However, on 16 September, Hore-Belisha had two audiences with the King. He observed that George VI was ‘in a distressed state’ and took the view that if the Duchess of Windsor visited the Commands she might receive a hostile reception, particularly in Scotland. Nor did he want the Duke to visit the Commands in England. During the second audience, the King remarked that while all his predecessors had succeeded to the throne after their predecessors had died, ‘Mine is not only alive, but very much so.’ He concluded that it better for the Duke to return to France as soon as possible. Within the hour, Hore-Belisha met up with his former king at the War Office. He handled the delicate situation with great tact by explaining that if the Duke was to tour the Commands, it might attract undue attention and be a threat to security. By contrast, if David showed readiness to take up his new appointment at once, it would create an excellent impression with the public-at-large. Hore-Belisha also pointed out that the Head of the British Military Mission, Major-General Richard Howard-Vyse was awaiting his new royal liaison officer’s arrival in Paris as a matter of urgency. Tellingly, as he departed the War Office, the Duke was cheered by onlookers. He also received many letters of encouragement from his former subjects. Word of this would have reached the Palace and would hardly have endeared David to the King.
In the event, owing to red tape, the Duke and Duchess did not return to France until 29 September. The couple made use of the time to drive out to their former love nest, Fort Belvedere at Sunningdale. It proved to be a sad visit as the gardens were overgrown and the house was shuttered up and decaying.
On 30 September Major-General HRH the Duke of Windsor reported for duty at his HQ at Nogent-sur-Marne, east of Paris. He quickly settled in and was popular with his fellow officers. In the first instance David was dispatched, with the approval of the French Commander-in-Chief, General Maurice Gamelin (who was delighted to have an ex-king and former combatant of the Great War of 1914-1918 in his midst) on a tour French fortifications along the Belgian border with France. However, unknown to the French High Command, the Duke’s expedition had a serious purpose. He had been asked to write a report on how secure the French defences were in this low-lying area as this would be of relevance to the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) who were responsible for the defence of Lille and the surrounding locality but who, in the words of one British officer, ‘knew so little of the doings of the French army’. After a brief visit to the British GHQ at Arras , where he took tea with his younger brother Harry, the Duke of Gloucester (currently serving as ‘Chief Liaison Officer’ to the Commander-in-Chief of the BEF, Major-General Lord Gort), David set out on four day, 50-mile tour of inspection. His report, dated 10 October, was damning: French tank defences were inadequate, while the main fortified positions were not camouflaged and lacked any anti-aircraft cover. Furthermore, not only was their a shortage of French military personnel but many of those the Duke encountered seemed to lack proper training. Major-General Howard-Wyse was impressed by the ‘valuable’ report and forwarded a copy to Gort. The Duke took the trouble to send a copy, with a personal letter enclosed, to General Edmund Ironside, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff in London. Sadly, the report seems to have been left to gather dust.
As the Duke was not due set out on his next tour of inspection (along the Vosges section of the Maginot Line) until 26 October, it was decided to send him on a visit to the BEF. The ex-king was ‘full of go and interest’ according to one British General and his spirits had undoubtedly been lifted by the warm welcome he received from the troops. However, an unfortunate incident occurred when a guard at headquarters presented arms and the Duke, without thinking, returned the salute, as he had been accustomed to doing in the past, both as Prince of Wales and as King. Unfortunately, the salute was intended for the senior officer present, the BEF’s commanding officer, Lord Gort. It also so happened that the Duke of Gloucester was part of the official group. Technically speaking, he also outranked his eldest brother, both militarily and in terms of royal precedence. An aggrieved Harry Gloucester later informed the King of his ‘horror’ at David’s behaviour. The Duke of Kent only added to George VI’s disquiet when he asked if the rumours were ‘true’ that David had ‘seemed to get all of the attention’ when he and Harry had reviewed the troops together. The King in turn was furious and felt that the Duke of Windsor had ‘made everything extremely difficult for all concerned during his recent visit to the Front.’ It appears that secret instructions were subsequently sent from London to say that the British Sector was to be off-limits to the ex-king. Furthermore, David also received a formal reprimand from his superiors over his actions.
Nevertheless, the Duke was allowed to continue with his tour of the Maginot Line, probably because no other member of Howard Wyse’s staff would have been permitted similar access by the French. He covered this stretch in three days (26-28 October) with visits to Fort Hochwald (where the French greeted him with the firing of some shells into no-man’s land and the British National Anthem) and army headquarters at Ingwiller. However, when David-keen to compare defence methods used by the BEF with those of the French forces-learned from an embarrassed Howard-Wyse that his contact with British troops was now being deliberately restricted to occasional visits to GHQ, he became most annoyed. The Duke wrote to Churchill in mid-November, indicating that this blow was ‘merely fresh evidence of my brother’s continued efforts to humiliate me in his and his courtier’s power.’ He was now determined to travel to London and have it out with the King. Monckton, who continued to act as an intermediary between David and Bertie, indicated that he doubted the King ‘would be willing to discuss the matter yet.’ Walter also pointed out to the Duke that should he be involved in ‘an open quarrel’ with the King, ‘people would in the vast majority support him because there is a war on and because he is who he is.’ Matters then seemed to settle down and, at the end of November, David was informed by Howard-Vyse that London had indicated, ‘there was no objection’ to him visiting British military units ‘for a definite purpose, and with prior approval.’ The Duke informed Monckton ‘I have won my point…’ Nevertheless, the altercation left the ex-king disillusioned, and as I will explain in a later instalment, highly unpredictable and increasingly difficult to handle. It also left relations with his brother, the King, in a fraught state, for when George VI paid a visit to the BEF in northern France in early December, there was no contact between the brothers.