Operation Willi

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Operation Willi was the German code name for the unsuccessful attempt by the SS to kidnap Edward, Duke of Windsor in July 1940 and induce him to work with German dictator Adolf Hitler for either a peace settlement with Britain, or a restoration to the throne after the German conquest of Great Britain.

Background[edit]

Edward, the son of George V assumed the throne on January 1936 when his father died. But it was already clear by then that he wanted to marry the American Wallis Simpson, and since the Church of England proscribed the marriage since she was divorced, he stunned the world by abdicating his throne in favour of his brother Albert, the Duke of York, who became George VI.

The ex-king and Mrs. Simpson were married in France, and as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, in October 1937 toured Nazi Germany as personal guests of Adolf Hitler, fanning speculations that they were sympathetic to Nazism. The trip was paid for by the Nazi government, which believed that the duke was a potential ally.

When World War II broke out in September 1939, the Duke became liaison officer with the British military mission with the French Army High Command. He actually served as an agent for British military intelligence, which wanted information on French defences, specifically the Maginot Line. (While his reports gave a very accurate assessment of French unpreparedness, they were generally ignored.)

After the fall of France in June 1940, the Windsors made their way to neutral Spain through Biarritz to escape capture by the Germans.

Beginnings of a plot[edit]

On June 23, the German ambassador to Madrid, Eberhard von Stohrer, a career diplomat, telegraphed Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi Foreign Minister that the Spanish Foreign Minister, Colonel Juan Beigbeder y Atienza, was inquiring on how to deal with the Duke who was on his way to Lisbon, with the possibility of detaining him.

Ribbentrop instructed von Stohrer the following day to forward the suggestion that the Duke and Duchess be detained for two weeks, but not let it appear that the suggestion came from him. Stohrer replied that Beigbeder would do as Ribbentrop asked. The Spanish Foreign Minister then wired Ribbentrop on July 2 that he met with the Duke and reported the Duke's alleged antagonism against the Royal Family due to the treatment meted to his wife, as well as criticising Winston Churchill and his wartime policies.

The Windsors then proceeded to Lisbon in early July. The British government got wind of the Duke's alleged indiscreet remarks with Beigbeder, and as a result Churchill sent the Duke a telegram, ordering him back to Britain. Churchill pointed out that the Duke was under military authority, and unless he obeyed, he would be subjected to a court-martial. (The Duke had the temporary rank of major general.) Then came another telegram designating him as Governor of the Bahamas, and ordered him to assume this post at once. Nevertheless, the Windsors stayed a month in the villa of Ricardo do Espirito Santo Silva, a banker said to have pro-Nazi sympathies.

The German minister to Lisbon reported this to Ribbentrop on July 11 and added the Duke "intends to postpone his departure as long as possible... in hope of a turn of events favourable to him," and basically reiterated what was reported by Minister Beigbeder.

Ribbentrop took this as an encouraging sign, and cabled the German embassy in Madrid to try to prevent the Duke from going to the Bahamas by being brought back to Spain — preferably by his Spanish friends — and be persuaded, even compelled to remain in Spanish territory. He further intimated that the "British Secret Service" was going "to do away" with the Duke as soon as he arrived in the Bahamas.

The emissary[edit]

The next day, July 12, von Stohrer saw Ramón Serrano Súñer, Spanish Minister of the Interior, who promised to get his brother-in-law Generalissimo Francisco Franco in on the plot and carry out the following plan. The Spanish government would send a friend of the Duke, Miguel Primo de Rivera, leader of the Falange and son of Miguel Primo de Rivera, a former dictator, as an emissary. Rivera would invite the Duke to Spain for a hunting trip and also to discuss Anglo-Spanish relations. There he would also be informed of the "plot" by the British secret-service to liquidate him. If the Duke would agree to stay, he would be given financial assistance to permit him in maintaining a lifestyle befitting his station. (Reportedly 50 million Swiss francs were set aside for this.)

Rivera agreed to the task, although he was not told of German involvement in this. He visited the Windsors on July 16 and presented the offer to the Duke; while he was receptive to the offer, the Duke also expressed reservations for several reasons, not least of which were the telegrams from the British government urging him to leave for the Bahamas. Another visit on July 22 gave similar results.

It was during the time of the last visit by Rivera that the Nazis were drawing up the plan to kidnap the Windsors. Hitler personally assigned Walter Schellenberg to handle the operation.

Schellenberg's role[edit]

Schellenberg, who was awarded the Iron Cross for his role in the Venlo Incident the year before, flew from Berlin to Madrid, conferred with von Stohrer, then went on to Portugal to begin work. The final plan would be to entice the Windsors over the border to Spain (with the collusion of cooperative border officials since they did not have passports) and keep them there to "protect them from plotters against their lives, specifically the British Intelligence Service".

He carried out scare tactics to induce the Duke's willingness to leave the villa while trying to pin the blame on the British. Schellenberg arranged for some stone-throwing against the windows of the villa while circulating rumours among the servants that the British were responsible. A bouquet of flowers was also sent to the Duchess warning her of "the machinations of the British intelligence service". Another scare tactic, the firing of shots resulting in the harmless breaking the windows scheduled on July 30, was not carried out due to possible psychological effects on the Duchess.

On that same day, Schellenberg reported that Sir Walter Monckton, an old friend of the Duke, had arrived, evidently tasked by the British government to speed the Windsors toward the Bahamas as soon as possible. Moreover, the German ambassador reported that the Windsors would be leaving on August 1 for the small British possession. According to Schellenberg in his memoirs, when Hitler learned of this, he urged Schellenberg to take away all pretence, and abduct them outright.

Departure and failure[edit]

Even while the Spanish ambassador to Lisbon was prevailed upon to make a last-minute appeal to the Windsors, the automobile carrying the ducal baggage was "sabotaged", according to Schellenberg, so the luggage arrived at the port late. A bomb threat on the liner Excalibur was also spread by the Germans, which further delayed its departure while Portuguese officials searched the ship.

Nevertheless, the Windsors departed that evening. While Schellenberg blamed the failure of the plot on Monckton, the collapse of the Spanish plan and the alleged "English mentality" of the Duke, it was also probable that Schellenberg deliberately refused to carry out the plan, which seemed doomed from the start. Even he admitted in his memoirs that his role in the affair was a ridiculous one.

As for the Duke of Windsor himself, upon the release of the German papers pertinent to the plot in 1957, he denounced the communications between Ribbentrop and his ambassadors as "complete fabrications and, in part, gross distortions of the truth", while the British government issued a formal statement declaring the Duke's unwavering loyalty during the war.

But the question persisted: did the Windsors have any pro-Nazi sympathies? Both the Americans and the British had suspicions. The Federal Bureau of Investigation initiated an investigation on Mrs. Simpson when President Roosevelt expressed concern over the political leanings of the Windsors. This investigation suggested that their pro-German leanings were stronger than previously thought.

This investigation, based on a combination of surveillance, informants and hearsay, alleged that the Windsors, especially the duchess, had been passing secrets to the Nazis to wreck the Allies' war effort, primarily through Ribbentrop, who was said to be Mrs. Simpson's lover. Ribbentrop was the ambassador to the Court of St. James's at the time of the abdication prior to becoming Foreign Minister. Ribbentrop himself tried to curry Edward's favor by using the Duke of Coburg, Edward's cousin and Nazi party member as an emissary, the latter brazenly attending the funeral of George V in his SA uniform.

Moreover, there was a memorandum by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin that the British government had known for some time that Mrs. Simpson had pro-German sympathies. This, among other reasons, made her so obnoxious to the government that they would not permit the King to marry her.

In addition, according to files released in 2003 by the British Public Record Office, there were rumours that Mrs. Simpson had been passing information to Germany. Edward, being notoriously lax in security, often left top secret government files sent to him unguarded in his Fort Belvedere residence, giving Mrs. Simpson every opportunity to do so.

This was probably the reason why the Duke was appointed to the Bahamas post: to keep them as far away as possible from the war and to prevent Mrs. Simpson from having any contact with Ribbentrop as well as to make it easier for the FBI and the British to keep them under surveillance.

Further reading[edit]

Bloch, Michael. Operation Willi: The Nazi Plot to Capture the Duke of Windsor. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1984. ISBN 1-55584-020-5