Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower tried to suppress captured Nazi documents that showed Britain’s former King Edward VIII discussing his desire for peace with Adolf Hitler, according to files newly released in London.
The National Archives published more papers from the U.K. government’s secret basement storeroom in the Cabinet Office where papers deemed “too difficult, too sensitive” for the regular filing system were hidden away. They include a 1953 memo from Churchill, marked “top secret,” explaining the existence of a series of German telegrams carrying reports of comments by the Duke of Windsor, as Edward VIII was known after he abdicated in 1936.
“He is convinced that had he remained on throne war would have been avoided and describes himself as firm supporter of a peaceful compromise with Germany,” reported a telegram from Lisbon in neutral Portugal, where the duke was staying in July 1940. “Duke believes with certainty that continued heavy bombing will make England ready for peace.”
Edward abdicated so he could marry an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. The couple set up home in France, but when World War II broke out they moved to Spain. The government in Madrid, formally neutral but sympathetic to Germany, asked for guidance from Berlin as to what should be done with them. German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop replied, asking if they could be kept there. Then he ordered a watch on their house.
Ribbentrop’s interest was piqued when he was told, a few days later, that in private “Windsor spoke strongly against Churchill and against this war.” While he considered what to do, the duke and duchess made their way to Portugal, where they made similar comments. The Nazis decided to act.
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‘Persuaded or Forced’
“The duke should return to Spain under all circumstances,” Ribbentrop wrote, adding that they should then be “persuaded or forced” to stay there. His plan was then to offer the duke “the granting of any wish,” including “the ascension of the English throne.”
Churchill, meanwhile, was alive to the "danger" of having an alternative monarch so close to "being in Nazi hands". He appointed the duke as governor of the Bahamas. When the Windsors were reluctant to leave Europe, Churchill threatened Edward, who held honorary military rank, with court-martial. Ribbentrop, anxious not to let his prize escape, launched Operation Willi to persuade the Windsors to return to Spain, kidnapping them if necessary. But despite sabotage attempts and bomb threats, the Germans failed.
The plan was “to 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 a note sent to Ribbentrop.
The telegrams describing their operation were found in 1945 as Hitler’s regime collapsed. When they were passed to the British government, Clement Attlee, who had replaced Churchill as prime minister, wrote to his predecessor, saying that their publication “might do the greatest possible harm.” Churchill replied, agreeing and expressing the hope that it might be possible to “destroy all traces” of the files.
But after Churchill returned to power in 1951, he was horrified to learn Attlee had subsequently changed his mind, apparently at the urging of Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin. Historians in Washington now proposed to publish the Nazi telegrams.
In 1953, Churchill wrote to President Eisenhower, expressing his concern that “they might leave the impression that the duke was in close touch with German agents and was listening to suggestions that were disloyal.” Eisenhower, who had been the allies’ supreme commander, had seen the telegrams in 1945, but believed he had successfully suppressed them, arguing they were “obviously concocted with some idea of promoting German propaganda.” He was unaware a microfilm of them had been passed to the State Department.
By the 1950s, too many people had seen the messages for them to be destroyed, and the British historian in charge of preparing the documents for publication threatened to resign if they were suppressed. They were eventually published in 1957, with the duke describing them as “complete fabrications.”