In July of 1940, Nazi officials hatched a plan to kidnap Edward VIII, who had abdicated the British throne in 1936, and install him as a puppet ruler in England. It was a bit of a harebrained idea and it never came to fruition. But newly released documents from the National Archives reveal that Winston Churchill nevertheless worked furiously to suppress telegrams detailing the plot, as Alan Travis reports for the Guardian.
Churchill’s unseen letters belonged to a Cabinet file that was published on Thursday by the UK National Archives. According to Robert Hutton of Bloomberg News, the papers had been locked away in a “secret basement storeroom” with other documents deemed “too difficult, too sensitive” for the standard filing system.
Among the recently published documents is a 1950s correspondence between the prime minister and U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, concerning captured Nazi telegrams that described the plot involving Edward VIII. Churchill had learned that the U.S. State Department was thinking about including copies of the telegrams in its official history of the war. In a memo to Eisenhower, Churchill expressed his desire to “destroy all traces” of the documents, according to Travis.
The telegrams set Churchill on edge because they recorded damning statements allegedly made by Edward VIII, who was known as the Duke of Windsor after his abdication. One memo, sent by a Nazi operative in 1940, claimed that the Duke was “convinced that had he remained on throne war would have been avoided and describes himself as firm supporter of a peaceful compromise with Germany.”
“Duke believes with certainty that continued heavy bombing will make England ready for peace,” the telegram states.
Edward VIII had surrendered his claim to the throne so he could marry the twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson. He settled with Simpson in France, but when WWII erupted, the couple moved to Spain—a country with fascist leanings, despite declaring itself non-belligerent. As Clive Irving explains in the Daily Beast, Churchill moved the duke and duchess to Portugal, and was determined to get them out of Europe. But Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, wanted them back in Spain.
“Ribbentrop … needed time to move agents into place and to explore how, with Spanish help, the duke and duchess could be lured into a place where they could be persuaded to defect,” Irving writes.
So Nazi officials came up with a plan. A telegram sent to Ribbentrop explained that Spanish friends of Edward VIII would “persuade the duke to leave Lisbon in a car as if he were going on a fairly long pleasure jaunt, and then to cross the border at a specified place, where Spanish secret police will ensure a safe crossing,” according to Hutton.
Nothing came of the plot. Churchill appointed the duke as governor of the Bahamas, and on August 1, Edward and Simpson were shipped out of Europe.
In the years before the war, the duke had shown himself to be receptive to Nazi ideology. As Irving points out, he made a chummy state visit to Berlin in 1937, saluting military cadets that were training to serve in the Death’s Head division of the SS, and spending nearly two hours with Hitler at the Führer’s residence in the Bavarian Alps.
But when summarizing the Spanish plot, the Encyclopedia Britannica writes that the duke was “subjected to a fanciful plan of the Nazis.” Churchill also seemed to think that the telegrams overplayed the duke’s involvement with the Nazis. Writing to Eisenhower in one of the recently released letters, he notes that the telegrams “might leave the impression that the duke was in close touch with German agents and was listening to suggestions that were disloyal.”
Eisenhower agreed. According to Travis of the Guardian, the president wrote in a 1953 letter to Churchill that U.S. intelligence officials believed the telegrams were “obviously concocted with some idea of promoting German propaganda and weakening western resistance” and were “totally unfair” to the duke.
Also in 1953, Churchill sent a “top secret” memorandum to Cabinet assuring them that the duke did not know anything about the German telegrams.
Despite Churchill’s best efforts, the incendiary telegrams were published in 1957. The British leader’s efforts to protect the duke, by contrast, remained unknown to the public for decades.