Military history


More amusing than important, but not without its insight into the ludicrous side of the rulers of the Third Reich that summer of their great conquests, is the story of the Nazi plot to kidnap the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and induce the former King of England to work with Hitler for a peace settlement with Great Britain. The evolution of the fantastic plan is told at length in the captured German Foreign Office documents40 and touched on by Walter Schellenberg, the youthful S.S.-S.D. chief who was designated to carry it out, in his memoirs.41

The idea, Schellenberg was told by Ribbentrop, was Hitler’s. The Nazi Foreign Minister embraced it with all the enthusiasm to which his abysmal ignorance often drove him, and the German Foreign Office and its diplomatic representatives in Spain and Portugal were forced to waste a great deal of time on it during the climactic summer of 1940.

After the fall of France in June 1940, the Duke, who had been a member of the British military mission with the French Army High Command, made his way with the Duchess to Spain to escape capture by the Germans. On June 23 the German ambassador in Madrid, Eberhard von Stohrer, a career diplomat, telegraphed Berlin:

The Spanish Foreign Minister requests advice with regard to the treatment of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor who were to arrive in Madrid today, apparently en route to England by way of Lisbon. The Foreign Minister assumes that we might perhaps be interested in detaining the Duke here and possibly establishing contact with him. Please telegraph instructions.

Ribbentrop shot back instructions by wire the next day. He suggested that the Windsors be “detained for a couple of weeks in Spain” but warned that it must not appear “that the suggestion came from Germany.” On the following day, June 25, Stohrer replied: “The [Spanish] Foreign Minister promised me to do everything possible to detain Windsor here for a time.” The Foreign Minister, Colonel Juan Beigbeder y Atienza, saw the Duke and reported on his talk to the German ambassador, who informed Berlin by “top secret” telegram of July 2 that Windsor would not return to England unless his wife were recognized as a member of the royal family and he himself given a position of importance. Otherwise he would settle in Spain in a castle promised him by the Franco government.

Windsor has expressed himself to the Foreign Minister and other acquaintances [the ambassador added] against Churchill and against this war.

The Windsors proceeded to Lisbon early in July and on July 11 the German minister there informed Ribbentrop that the Duke had been named Governor of the Bahamas but “intends to postpone his departure there as long as possible … in hope of a turn of events favorable to him.”

He is convinced [the minister added] that if he had remained on the throne war would have been avoided, and he characterized himself as a firm supporter of a peaceful arrangement with Germany. The Duke definitely believes that continued severe bombing would make England ready for peace.

This intelligence spurred the arrogant German Foreign Minister to get off from his special train at Fuschl a telegram marked “Very Urgent, Top Secret” to the German Embassy in Madrid late on the evening of the same day, July 11. He wanted the Duke to be prevented from going to the Bahamas by being brought back to Spain, preferably by his Spanish friends. “After their return to Spain,” Ribbentrop advised, “the Duke and his wife must be persuaded or compelled to remain on Spanish territory.” If necessary Spain could “intern” him as an English officer and treat him “as a military fugitive.”

At a suitable occasion [Ribbentrop further advised] the Duke must be informed that Germany wants peace with the English people, that the Churchill clique stands in the way of it, and that it would be a good thing if the Duke would hold himself in readiness for further developments. Germany is determined to force England to peace by every means of power and upon this happening would be prepared to accommodate any desire expressed by the Duke, especially with a view to the assumption of the English throne by the Duke and Duchess. If the Duke should have other plans, but be prepared to co-operate in the establishment of good relations between Germany and England, we would likewise be prepared to assure him and his wife of a subsistence which would permit him … to lead a life suitable for a king.*

The fatuous Nazi Minister, whose experience as German ambassador in London had taught him little about the English, added that he had information that the “British Secret Service” was going to “do away” with the Duke as soon as it got him to the Bahamas.

The next day, July 12, the German ambassador in Madrid saw Ramón Serrano Suñer, Spanish Minister of the Interior and brother-in-law of Franco, who promised to get the Generalissimo in on the plot and carry out the following plan. The Spanish government would send to Lisbon an old friend of the Duke, Miguel Primo de Rivera, Madrid leader of the Falange and son of a former Spanish dictator. Rivera would invite the Duke to Spain for some hunting and also to confer with the government about Anglo-Spanish relations. Suñer would inform the Duke about the British secret-service plot to bump him off.

The Minister [the German ambassador informed Berlin] will then add an invitation to the Duke and Duchess to accept Spanish hospitality, and possibly financial assistance as well. Possibly also the departure of the Duke could be prevented in some other way. In this whole plan we remain completely in the background.

Rivera, according to the German papers, returned from Lisbon to Madrid after his first visit with the Windsors on July 16 and brought a message to the Spanish Foreign Minister, who passed it along to the German ambassador, who, in turn, flashed it to Berlin. Churchill, the message said, had designated the Duke as Governor of the Bahamas “in a very cool and categorical letter” and ordered him to proceed to his post at once. Should he fail to do so, “Churchill has threatened Windsor with a court-martial.” The Spanish government agreed, the dispatch added, “to warn the Duke most urgently once more against taking up the post.”

Rivera was back from a second visit to Lisbon on July 22, and the next day the German ambassador in Madrid duly reported on his findings in a “most urgent, top secret” telegram to Ribbentrop.

He had two long conversations with the Duke of Windsor; at the last one the Duchess was present also. The Duke expressed himself very freely … Politically he was more and more distant from the King and the present British Government. The Duke and Duchess have less fear of the King, who was quite foolish, than of the shrewd Queen, who was intriguing skillfully against the Duke and particularly against the Duchess.

The Duke was considering making a public statement … disavowing present English policy and breaking with his brother … The Duke and Duchess said they very much desired to return to Spain.

To facilitate this, the ambassador had arranged with Suñer, the telegram added, to send another Spanish emissary to Portugal “to persuade the Duke to leave Lisbon, as if for a long excursion in an automobile, and then to cross the border at a place which has been arranged, where the Spanish secret police will see that there is a safe crossing of the frontier.”

Two days later the ambassador added further information from Rivera in an “urgent and strictly confidential” telegram to Ribbentrop.

When he gave the Duke the advice not to go to the Bahamas, but to return to Spain, since the Duke was likely to be called upon to play an important role in English policy and possibly to ascend the English throne, both the Duke and Duchess gave evidence of astonishment. Both … replied that according to the English constitution this would not be possible after the abdication. When the confidential emissary then expressed his expectation that the course of the war might bring about changes even in the English constitution, the Duchess especially became very pensive.

In this dispatch the German ambassador reminded Ribbentrop that Rivera did not know of “any German interest in the matter.” The young Spaniard apparently believed he was acting for his own government.

By the last week in July, the Nazi plan to kidnap the Windsors had been drawn up. Walter Schellenberg was assigned personally by Hitler to carry it out. He had flown from Berlin to Madrid, conferred with the German ambassador there, and gone on to Portugal to begin work. On July 26 the ambassador was able to file a long “most urgent and top secret” dispatch to Ribbentrop outlining the plot.

… A firm intention by the Duke and Duchess to return to Spain can be assumed. To strengthen this intention the second confidential emissary was sent off today with a letter to the Duke very skillfully composed; as an enclosure to it was attached the very precisely prepared plan for carrying out the crossing of the frontier.

According to this plan the Duke and his wife should set out officially for a summer vacation in the mountains at a place near the Spanish frontier, in order to cross over at a precisely designated place at a particular time in the course of a hunting trip. Since the Duke is without passports, the Portuguese frontier official in charge there will be won over.

At the time set according to plan, the first confidential emissary [Primo de Rivera] is to be staying at the frontier with Spanish forces suitably placed in order to guarantee safety.

Schellenberg, with his group, is operating out of Lisbon in closest relation to the same purpose.

For this purpose, the journey to the place of the summer vacation, as well as the vacation itself, will be shadowed with the help of a trustworthy Portuguese police chief …

At the exact moment of the crossing of the frontier as scheduled the Schellenberg group is to take over the security arrangements on the Portuguese side of the frontier and continue thus into Spain as a direct escort which is to be unobtrusively changed from time to time.

For the security of the entire plan, the [Spanish] Minister has selected another confidential agent, a woman, who can make contact if necessary with the second confidential agent and can also, if necessary, get information to the Schellenberg group.

In case there should be an emergency as a result of action by the British Intelligence Service preparations are being made whereby the Duke and Duchess can reach Spain by plane. In this case, as in the execution of the first plan, the chief requisite is to obtain willingness to leave by psychologically adroit influence upon the pronounced English mentality of the Duke, without giving the impression of flight, through exploiting anxiety about the British Intelligence Service and the prospect of free political activity from Spanish soil.

In addition to the protection in Lisbon, it is being considered in case of necessity to induce willingness to leave by a suitable scare maneuver to be charged to the British Intelligence Service.

Such was the Nazi plan to kidnap the Windsors. It had a typical German clumsiness, and it was handicapped by the customary German inability to understand “the English mentality of the Duke.”

The “scare maneuvers” were duly carried out by Schellenberg. One night he arranged for some stone-throwing against the windows of the Windsors’ villa and then circulated rumors among the servants that it had been done by the “British Secret Service.” He had a bouquet delivered to the Duchess with a card: “Beware of the machinations of the British Secret Service. From a Portuguese friend who has your interests at heart.” And in an official report to Berlin he reported that “a firing of shots (harmless breaking of the bedroom window) scheduled for the night of July 30 was omitted, since the psychological effect on the Duchess would only have been to increase her desire to depart.”

Time was getting short. On July 30 Schellenberg reported the arrival in Lisbon of Sir Walter Monckton, an old friend of the Duke and an important official in the British government. His mission was obviously to get the Windsors speeding toward the Bahamas as soon as possible. On the same day the German ambassador in Madrid was telegraphing Ribbentrop “most urgent, top secret” that a German agent in Lisbon had just informed him that the Duke and Duchess were planning to depart on August 1—two days hence. In view of this information he asked Ribbentrop “whether we should not, to some extent, emerge from our reserve.” According to German intelligence, the ambassador continued, the Duke had expressed to his host, the Portuguese banker Ricardo do Espirito Santo Silva, “a desire to come in contact with the Fuehrer.” Why not arrange for a meeting between Windsor and Hitler?

The next day, July 31, the ambassador was again wiring Ribbentrop “most urgent and top secret,” telling him that according to the Spanish emissary, who had just returned from seeing the Windsors in Lisbon, the Duke and Duchess, while “strongly impressed by reports of English intrigues against them and the danger of their personal safety,” apparently were planning to sail on August 1, though Windsor was trying “to conceal the true date.” The Spanish Minister of the Interior, the ambassador added, was going to make “a last effort to prevent the Duke and Duchess from leaving.”

The news that the Windsors might be leaving so soon alarmed Ribbentrop and from his special train at Fuschl he got off a “most urgent, top secret” telegram to the German minister in Lisbon late on the afternoon of the same day, July 31. He asked that the Duke be informed through his Portuguese banker host of the following:

Basically Germany wants peace with the English people. The Churchill clique stands in the way of this peace. Following the rejection of the Fuehrer’s last appeal to reason, Germany is now determined to force England to make peace by every means in her power. It would be a good thing if the Duke were to keep himself prepared for further developments. In such case Germany would be willing to co-operate most closely with the Duke and to clear the way for any desire expressed by the Duke and Duchess … Should the Duke and Duchess have other intentions, but be ready to collaborate in the establishment of a good relationship between Germany and England, Germany is likewise prepared to co-operate with the Duke and to arrange the future of the Ducal couple in accordance with their wishes. The Portuguese confidant, with whom the Duke is living, should make the most earnest effort to prevent his departure tomorrow, since reliable reports are in our possession to the effect that Churchill intends to get the Duke into his power in the Bahamas in order to keep him there permanently, and also because the establishment of contact at an appropriate moment with the Duke on the Bahama Islands would present the greatest difficulty for us …

The German Foreign Minister’s urgent message reached the legation in Lisbon shortly before midnight. The German minister saw Senhor Espirito Santo Silva during the course of the night and urged him to pass the word on to his distinguished guest. This the banker did on the morning of August 1 and according to a dispatch of the legation the Duke was deeply impressed.

The Duke paid tribute to the Fuehrer’s desire for peace, which was in complete agreement with his own point of view. He was firmly convinced that if he had been King it would never have come to war. To the appeal made to him to co-operate at a suitable time in the establishment of peace he agreed gladly. However, at the present time he must follow the official orders of his Government. Disobedience would disclose his intentions prematurely, bring about a scandal, and deprive him of his prestige in England. He was also convinced that the present moment was too early for him to come forward, since there was as yet no inclination in England for an approach to Germany. However, as soon as this frame of mind changed he would be ready to return immediately … Either England would yet call upon him, which he considered to be entirely possible, or Germany would express the desire to negotiate with him. In both cases he was prepared for any personal sacrifice and would make himself available without the slightest personal ambition.

He would remain in continuing communication with his previous host and had agreed with him upon a code word, upon receiving which he would immediately come back over.

To the consternation of the Germans, the Duke and Duchess sailed on the evening of August 1 on the American liner Excalibur. In a final report on the failure of his mission made in a long telegram “to the Foreign Minister [Ribbentrop] personally” on the following day, Schellenberg declared that he had done everything possible right up to the last moment to prevent the departure. A brother of Franco, who was the Spanish ambassador in Lisbon, was prevailed upon to make a last-minute appeal to the Windsors not to go. The automobile carrying the ducal baggage was “sabotaged,” Schellenberg claimed, so that the luggage arrived at the ship late. The Germans spread rumors that a time bomb had been planted aboard the ship. Portuguese officials delayed the sailing time until they had searched the liner from top to bottom.

Nevertheless, the Windsors departed that evening. The Nazi plot had failed. Schellenberg, in his final report to Ribbentrop, blamed it on the influence of Monckton, on the collapse of “the Spanish plan” and on “the Duke’s mentality.”

There is one last paper on the plot in the captured files of the German Foreign Minister. On August 15 the German minister in Lisbon wired Berlin: “The confidant has just received a telegram from the Duke from Bermuda, asking him to send a communication as soon as action was advisable. Should any answer be made?”

No answer has been found in the Wilhelmstrasse papers. By the middle of August, Hitler had decided to conquer Great Britain by armed force. There was no need to find a new King for England. The island, like all the other conquered territory, would be ruled from Berlin. Or so Hitler thought.

   So much for this curious tale, as told by the secret German documents and added to by Schellenberg, who was the least reliable of men—though it is difficult to believe that he invented his own role, which he admits was a ridiculous one, out of whole cloth.

In a statement made through his London solicitors on August 1, 1957, after the German documents were released for publication, the Duke branded the communications between Ribbentrop and the German ambassadors in Spain and Portugal as “complete fabrications and, in part, gross distortions of the truth.” Windsor explained that while in Lisbon in 1940, waiting to sail for the Bahamas, “certain people,” whom he discovered to be pro-Nazi sympathizers, made definite efforts to persuade him to return to Spain and not assume his post as governor.

“It was even suggested to me that there would be a personal risk to the Duchess and myself if we were to proceed to the Bahamas,” he said. “At no time did I ever entertain any thought of complying with such a suggestion, which I treated with the contempt it deserved.”

The British Foreign Office issued a formal statement declaring that the Duke never wavered in his loyalty to Great Britain during the war.42

* And to gaze down at the tomb of Napoleon at the Invalides. “That,” he told his faithful photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, “was the greatest and finest moment of my life.”

† The emphasis is Jodl’s.

‡ Jodl also suggested the possibility of “extending the war to the periphery”—that is, attacking the British Empire with the help not only of Italy but of Japan, Spain and Russia.

* Even so astute a military critic as Liddell Hart neglected always to do so, and this neglect mars his book The German Generals Talk. Talk they did, but not always with very good memories or even very truthfully.

* German intelligence overestimated British strength on the ground throughout July, August and September by about eight divisions. Early in July the German General Staff estimated British strength at from fifteen to twenty divisions “of fighting value.” Actually there were twenty-nine divisions in England at this time but not more than half a dozen of much “fighting value,” as they had practically no armor or artillery. But contrary to widespread belief at the time, which has lingered to this day, the British Army by the middle of September would have been a match for the German divisions then allocated for the first wave of invasion. By that time it had ready to meet an attack on the south coast a force of sixteen well-trained divisions, of which three were armored, with four divisions plus an armored brigade covering the east coast from the Thames to the Wash. This represented a remarkable recovery after the debacle at Dunkirk, which had left Britain virtually defenseless on land in June.

British intelligence of the German plans was extremely faulty and for the first three months of the invasion threat almost completely wrong. Throughout the summer, Churchill and his military advisers remained convinced that the Germans would make their main landing attempt on the east coast and it was here that the bulk of the British land forces were concentrated until September.

* In his diary entry that evening Halder did not quote himself as above. He declared, however, that “the talk led only to the confirmation of an unbridgeable gap.” The Navy, he said, was “afraid of the British High Seas Fleet and maintained that a defense against this danger by the Luftwaffe was impossible.” Obviously by this time the German Navy, if not the Army, had few illusions about the striking power of Goering’s Air Force.

* Churchill says that neither he nor the chiefs of staff were “aware” that the decisive code word Cromwell had been given. It was sent out by Headquarters of the Home Forces. (Their Finest Hour, p. 312.) But four days later, on September 11, the Prime Minister did broadcast a warning that if the invasion were going to take place it could not “be long delayed. Therefore,” he said, “we must regard the next week or so as a very important period in our history. It ranks with the days when the Spanish Armada was approaching the Channel, and Drake was finishing his game of bowls; or when Nelson stood between us and Napoleon’s Grand Army at Boulogne.”

† The Germans were greatly impressed by reports from the embassy in Washington, which relayed information received there from London and embroidered on it. The American General Staff was said to believe that Britain couldn’t hold out much longer. According to Lieutenant Colonel von Lossberg (Im Wehrmacht Fuehrungsstab, p. 91) Hitler seriously expected a revolution to break out in Britain. Lossberg was an Army representative on OKW.

* On September 16, according to a German authority, R.A.F. bombers surprised a large invasion training exercise and inflicted heavy losses in men and landing vessels. This gave rise to many reports in Germany and elsewhere on the Continent that the Germans had actually attempted a landing and been repulsed by the British. (Georg W. Feuchter, Geschichte des Luftkriegs, p. 176.) I heard such a “report” on the night of September 16 in Geneva, Switzerland, where I was taking a few days off. On September 18 and again on the next day I saw two long ambulance trains unloading wounded soldiers in the suburbs of Berlin. From the bandages, I concluded the wounds were mostly burns. There had been no fighting anywhere for three months on land.

On September 21, confidential German Navy papers recorded that 21 transports and 214 barges—some 12 per cent of the total assembled for the invasion—had been lost or damaged. (Fuehrer Conferences on Naval Affairs, p. 102.)

* The Luftwaffe claimed 134 British craft against a loss of 34. From that date on both sides grossly overestimated the damage they did the other.

* In London that evening an official communiqué reported 182 German planes shot down and 43 more probably destroyed. This gave a great fillip to British morale in general and to that of the hard-pressed fighter pilots in particular.

† At this time night defenses had not yet been perfected and the German losses were negligible.

* R.S.H.A., the initials of the Reich Central Security Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt), which, as has been noted, took over control in 1939 of the Gestapo, the Criminal Police and the Security Service, or S.D.

* Dr. Six was sentenced in 1948 at Nuremberg as a war criminal to twenty years in prison, but was released in 1952.

* The famous psychoanalyst had died in London in 1939.

† A number of Americans are on the arrest list, including Bernard Baruch, John Gunther, Paul Robeson, Louis Fischer, Daniel de Luce (the A.P. correspondent, who is listed under the D’s as “Daniel, de Luce—U.S.A. correspondent”) and M. W. Fodor, the Chicago Daily Newscorrespondent, who was well known for his anti-Nazi writings.

* Fifty million Swiss francs, deposited in Switzerland, Ribbentrop told Schellenberg, adding that “the Fuehrer is quite ready to go to a higher figure.”

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