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The audacious plan was executed with trademark Teutonic efficiency. By the time that the former King of the United Kingdom and Emperor of India realised he had fallen into a trap it was too late – he was a prisoner of the Abwehr and heading for the Third Reich. Whilst the Duke of Windsor had expressed certain pro-German sympathies, this outrageous treatment had certainly soured his enthusiasm for the Nazi project. Could he be mollified by promises of a future role in a Europe firmly under Hitler’s control?
It is the perfect counterfactual basis for a historical novel. A former king is captured by the Germans and used as a puppet. Whether broadcasting to his former subjects from occupied Europe or reigning once more over a conquered Britain, it would send a powerful and clear message of the extent of German power. A combination of good luck and German incompetence or sabotage meant the plot was not ultimately successful. But it very nearly was.
Whilst the rest of Europe had been ignited in the conflagration of the Second World War, the Iberian peninsula was enjoying a precarious peace. Spain had been bloodied and broken in the savage fighting of the Spanish Civil War but, by the end of the 1930s, Republican forces were faltering. Nationalist control of Spain was finally achieved on 1 April 1939, just months before the outbreak of the European war.
The first years of Franco’s Spain were difficult enough for ordinary Spaniards as hunger and disease stalked an exhausted population. Republicans and their sympathisers suffered even more as state directed political persecution saw hundreds of thousands interned in what were euphemistically referred to as ‘political re-education’ camps.
To the west, the authoritarian and conservative Estado Novo led by António de Oliveira Salazar brought a stifling stability to Portugal. By the time of the fall of France in 1940, it looked as though Mussolini would easily succeed in his dream of turning the Mediterranean into the Mare Nostrum of a fascist Europe.
The Windsors of Paris
The outbreak of war had been a huge inconvenience to Edward and Wallis Windsor. Following his painful abdication, the disgraced ducal pair had left the oppressive and condemnatory air of Britain for the easy, convivial and racy atmosphere of Paris. For over two years, they had enjoyed a high life freed from the burdens of duty and formality.
The declaration of war cut short their agreeable French exile. Edward and Wallis were whisked back to England by Lord Louis Mountbatten on board HMS Kelly. But in the false calm of the Phoney War, the Windsors had returned to Paris. They were still in the French capital when Germany invaded the Low Countries and northern France in May 1940.
The speed of the German advance had forced them to flee south to Biarritz in the furthest south-west of the country. By June, the Anglo-French forces had been beaten back and France was on the cusp of capitulating to the Nazis. At this point, the pair crossed the border into neutral Spain. By July, Edward and Wallis had made one more move to Portugal, taking up residence in Lisbon.
The British Establishment was paranoid about the Duke of Windsor falling into German hands. Lord Caldecote had written a warning to Churchill stating that: “[the Duke] is well-known to be pro-Nazi and he may become a centre of intrigue.” It was soon decided that putting the Duke far away from both harm and intrigue would be the best solution. Fortunately, the British Empire was, at this time, not short of far-flung outposts to shelter inconvenient former monarchs.
By August, the Duke was aboard a warship and sailing towards the Caribbean. Formally, he would be the Governor of the Bahamas. Informally, he was being placed in as comfortable a confinement as possible.
This leaves those summer months in 1940 as the time for one of the most intriguing plots of the Second World War. Codenamed Operation Willi, the plot to kidnap the Duke of Windsor and use him to further German ambitions and plans for a post-war Europe.
The Windsors and Operation Willi
Having the former King Emperor on fascist soil was a tempting prospect for the German intelligence services. They were nearly handed the Duke and Duchess when the Spanish foreign minister, Colonel Juan Beigbeder y Atienza, asked the German embassy in Madrid what he should do with the royal visitors.
The issue was escalated to the very top, with Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi foreign minister, asking for the royal couple to be detained for two weeks. Instead, Beigbeder deferred to protocol and undoubted monarchist sympathies and met with the Duke. Frantic diplomatic cables passed between Madrid and Berlin, with reports of the Duke’s pro-Nazi sentiment and his indiscreet criticism of the Royal Family and the Churchill government.
Before anything else could be done, the Windsors progressed to Lisbon. British intelligence picked up some of the signals reporting the Duke’s unpatriotic stance and relayed them to the Prime Minister. Churchill sent an angry and pointed telegram to the Duke to remind him that he was under military jurisdiction as a major general in the British Army and ordered him back to Britain with the threat of a court-martial if he refused.
Back in London, the Court and Cabinet discussed what to do with the wayward Windsor. The British Empire still offered plenty of exotic, far flung and, perhaps most importantly, safe territories. They all needed governors to represent the Crown, and it was felt that this was an excellent way of getting the Duke out of the harms way and away from the centre of attention.
Was the selection of the Bahamas a punishment for Edward’s disloyal statements against his family and government? To modern eyes, the Bahamas is a tropical Caribbean paradise and far away from the danger of war torn Europe. To the Windsors, however, it was a “a third-class British colony” and far removed from the glamour and sophistication of pre-war Paris. However, it was an order and the Windsors were scheduled to leave Lisbon for the Caribbean on 1 August 1940.
How could the Germans get to the Duke and Duchess before they reluctantly left for the Bahamas? The sheer range of plots and plans for enticement, kidnap and abduction gives Operation Willi more than a touch of farce. The Iberian representatives of the German secret services were either incompetent or not convinced of the feasibility or sense of the operations.
The Duke was to be invited on a hunting trip in Spain and then, once over the border, could be invited or forced to stay. The Duke prevaricated and then declined, on the grounds that the British government were pressing him to leave for the Bahamas.
Scare tactics were employed to make the ducal couple feel threatened and to reinforce the German claims that the British establishment wanted them out of the way. Stones were thrown at their Lisbon residence and a bouquet of flowers arrived for Wallis with a warning message attached.
To try and delay the departure of the Windsors a bomb threat was made against their scheduled liner, the Excalibur. But it was too late; the couple left on schedule for their uneventful and undoubtedly boring wartime sojourn in the Bahamas. The prospect of a German puppet King of England was left for counterfactual histories and the curious.