Princess Olga of Yugoslavia: January 1941, The Gathering Storm.

As January 1941 dawned, Princess Olga of Yugoslavia was enjoying a visit from her sister Elizabeth and her family from Munich. There were also lots of official engagements to undertake including the distribution of coats, sweets and toys to underprivileged children in Belgrade (under the auspices of the ‘Winter Help” charity of which the Princess was patron) as well as a charity concert at the local Y.M.C.A. Much to Olga’s relief, a new Lady-in-Waiting, Madame Babic, had agreed to assist the Princess with her increasing round of duties and audiences.

However, always in the background was the deteriorating situation in the Balkans, and in particular, the expansionist desires of Mussolini. Italy occupied Albania in the spring of 1940, from there it led air attacks on Greece on 28 October. As a Greek, the Princess was encouraged by her homeland’s successes over the Italians during a counter-offensive which saw them penetrate deeply into Italian-held Albanian territory. The recent capture of the strategically vital Klisura Pass was particularly welcome. However, as the Consort of the Prince Regent (Paul) of Yugoslavia, Olga was increasingly anxious over her adopted country’s future. As Head of State of a neutral country, Prince Paul was having to balance an increasingly difficult tight-rope of not provoking the Germans (who had already ‘persuaded’ Yugoslavia’s neighbours of Hungary and Romania to join the Axis Tripartite Pact), while at the same time keeping relations with Britain and the Allied powers on an even keel. The Regent had little room for manoeuvre. Unlike her anxious husband, the Princess could at least relax by skating on an ice rink near her home, the magnificient neo-Palladian style Beli Dvor (White Palace) or take drives to nearby Avala. When all else failed, there were five dogs to be walked!

On 12 January the British MP, Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, arrived in Belgrade. He was an old friend of Prince Paul’s from Oxford University days and part of the Anglophile Prince and Princess’ social circle in London. However, this was no mere social visit but rather one for taking ‘soundings’, as his arrival coincided with the British Minister, Ronald Ian Campbell, informing Paul that Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, was intent on sending a mechanized force into Greece. Campbell also indicated that Yugoslavia’s current policy of neutrality was no longer enough, for Churchill now wanted the Slavs to join the war on the Allied side and assist British, Greek and Turkish troops in the southern Balkan peninsula (often referred to as ‘ forming a United Balkan Front’). The Prince told the American Minister, Arthur Lane, that he simply could not agree to this as Yugoslavia would be overrun in a matter of weeks by militarily superior Axis forces. Such an action might also precipitate a civil war in this ethnically diverse country.

Meanwhile, Olga ploughed on with a batch of official audiences in what she descibes as ‘anxious days’. A visiting Greek diplomat came to lunch, on 16 January, and this provided the Princess and her sister Elizabeth with the ideal opportunity to catch up on fresh news from Athens. Olga also found time to give Chips Channon a tour of the royal air raid shelter. When he departed for Athens, on 20 January, carrying a large pile of Christmas cards and presents from the Princess to her Greek relatives, Channon was in tears as he truly feared for the future wellbeing of the Regent and his wife. Bidding her Bavarian-based sister Elizabeth farewell, on 26 January, was also a heartrending ordeal for Olga, as neither of them could be sure when they might see each other again. At least the Princess had all her children for company, as Nicholas and Alexander had not returned to their boarding schools in England following the summer 1940 recess. They were currently attending the Second Gymnasium School in Belgrade. King Peter was also close to his ‘Aunt’ Olga. He was due take over full powers as Head of State from the Regency Council on reaching his majority (at the age of 18) in September.

But as I will reveal in a later instalment, things were to take a different course……

A new biography Princess Olga of Yugoslavia: Her Life and Times by Robert Prentice was published on 1 April 2021 by Grosvenor House Publishing. This is now available to purchase on Amazon in hardback or as an e-book.

A Royal Wartime Christmas in Belgrade.

With war declared throughout most of Europe, Princess Olga of Yugoslavia, the wife of the Prince Regent, Paul, was in a difficult position during that first Christmas of the Second World War. Like many of Europe’s royalty, she had family members on both the Allied and Axis sides. However, as Yugoslavia was still officially neutral, it had already been arranged that Olga’s sister, Princess Elisabeth of Greece and Denmark, who was married to the wealthy Bavarian aristocrat, Count Karl Theodor ‘Toto’ Toerring, would travel from Munich to Belgrade to celebrate the Orthodox Christmas (on 7 January 1940) at Olga and Paul’s luxurious home, the White Palace (Beli Dvor). Elisabeth’s children, Hans Viet and Helen were already in Belgrade having been brought there by their mother from Munich, in early November, at their Aunt Olga’s request. The presence of these extended family members was fortuitous as the Yugoslav royal couple’s sons, Alexander and Nicholas, would not be present in Belgrade over the Festive Season, as both were spending Christmas in England, where they attended boarding school.

Olga had always adored Christmas and was meticulous in her preparations. Her old nurse, Miss Kate Fox, who lived in London, was always sent a detailed list of the Princess’ requirements many months in advance. Christmas puddings from Fortnum and Mason’s were a particular family favourite, as were toys and jokes from Hamley’s celebrated Regent Street toyshop. However, wartime was playing havoc with Olga’s attempts at gift-giving. Hamley’s catalogue had been late in reaching the Serbian capital and the choice was limited. Nevertheless, the Princess soon selected a ‘nice [imitation] Xmas pudding with toys to pull out’ for the entertainment of her two-year-old daughter Elizabeth and the Toerring children. However, when this item failed to materialise, Olga was left with little choice but to scour the local shops for toys with which to fill the children’s Christmas stockings. Her sense of ‘despair’ was only heightened when a luxurious array of gifts arrived, via the diplomatic bag, from her sister, Princess Marina, the Duchess of Kent, in London.

Olga’s gifts were more of a practical nature. When she learned that foodstuffs were scarce in Bavaria, the Princess provided the Toerrings with a Christmas parcel filled with groceries and some soap. Princess Elisabeth and her husband arrived in Belgrade by rail just in time to watch King Peter (who lived in the Royal Palace adjacent to the White Palace at the Royal Compound in the suburb of Dedinje) preside over the traditional Orthodox Christmas Eve Badnjak celebrations. During this event, a troop of the Royal Guard accompanied a decorated gun carriage bearing the large Badnjak (Yule) log which was then carried into the Royal Palace and placed in a large hearth in the hall to burn throughout the Festive celebrations. The Prince Regent and Princess Olga (wrapped up against the cold in a full-length fur coat) accompanied the King throughout the ceremony and then joined him in raising a toast to the good health of his officers. The whole proceedings were captured for the first time on cine film.

In the evening, after Prince Paul had rung the traditional Christmas bell, Elizabeth, Helen and Hans-Veit ‘rushed in’ to the drawing room to gaze at the Christmas tree candles and then open their gifts with the aid of their nurses. The family then ate a traditional Christmas meal rounded off by some good English Christmas puddings. But Olga was soon in despair to receive news by letter that none of her Christmas presents (including those for her sons and a cheque for Miss Fox) had reached England. Clearly, even royal parcels were not exempt from the vagaries of war! Yet, there was little time to mope as Prince Paul and Princess Olga had to leave on a four-day morale-boosting visit to Zagreb.