The SS-Plot to Abduct the Duke of Windsor: Operation Willi (Spain, 1940)

King George VI was king of the United Kingdom from 1936 until his death in 1952. His older brother, Edward, preceded his reign. He was one of the shortest-reigning monarchs in British history, reigning just 326 days. He triggered a constitutional crisis which led him to abdicate after proposing to the American Wallis Simpson, who had been married two times already. Well, long story short, Edward abdicated in December 1936 and became Duke of Windsor. Following his abdication, the couple emigrated to France, toured through Nazi Germany and rumours persisted that the Duke had more sympathies for the new Nazi regime than for his own country and family. The Nazis were well aware of these rumours, and after war broke out with Britain, they figured the Duke could be a willing participant in controlling German-occupied Britain. 

Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson

In short, the Germans wanted the Duke of Windsor to be a compliant ‘king across the water’ in case of a Germany-dominated Britain and the inevitable abdication of King George VI. Yet to secure this course of events, the Duke had to be surrounded by Germans, since they could not risk the British secret service interfering. As such, a mission was conjured up to abduct the Duke to Spain, and from there have him give a statement of his willingness to cooperate to establish peace between Germany and Britain. In order for the mission to succeed, members of the Sicherheitsdienst were permitted to have the Duke reach, and I quote: “the right decision by any means necessary.” But as the plot unfolded, the British secret service and even prime minister Winston Churchill became aware of the German plot. What ensued was a race against time, for control over the Duke of Windsor.

Preparing the Abduction in Spain

Following the invasion of France by Germany, the self-exiled Duke of Windsor and his wife Wallis fled the country to escape an arrest. They arrived safely and unscathed in Madrid, Spain on June 23. Yet they only remained in the capital for nine days before they left to yet another country: Portugal. Portugal’s dictator Dom Antonio Salazar was determined to make the Duke feel safe and welcome. To ensure there would be no issues with either the Brits or Germans, he appointed Portugal’s chief of the secret police, Dom Agostinho Lourenco with the task of protecting the couple.

The Duke rented a villa, the Boca de Inferno, near Estoril, a bit to the west of Lisbon. Owner of the villa was right-wing, upper-class playboy Dom Ricardo Espirito Santo Silva. The British SIS knew he had pro-German sentiments. Lord Halifax even described him as a crook in a memo. Immediately after the Windsors moved in, Lourenco made sure his men observed a security parameter around the villa. As such, the ducal couple was put under effective house arrest near immediately.

Meanwhile, both the Germans and Brits were informed about the new living situation of the couple. In Germany, both Hitler and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joachim von Ribbentrop, had a skewed image of the Duke’s degree of influence in British politics. Ascribing the Duke too much power and authority, they agreed that if he could be lured to Spain, he would willingly become an ally of the Germans. This idea wasn’t entirely unfounded. On July 22, the Italian Gazzetta del Popolo published that ‘The Duke of Windsor telegraphed King George to form a new British government.’ The New York Times of July 23, together with Finnish and Danish press also published that the Duke was forming a new British government in order to ensure a peaceful settlement with Germany. The British government dismissed these reports as propaganda based on false information, but still, rumours like this persisted. 

At this point, a German invasion of the United Kingdom was still the Nazi high command’s main priority. They figured after they invaded the UK and dispelled of the sitting King George VI, his brother, the Duke could be a willing participant to take over the throne and become a puppet king for the Nazi regime. On July 23 Ribbentrop called the SS functionary and chief of counter-intelligence Walter Schellenberg, who had previously been instrumental in the Venlo Incident where the SS abducted two British secret agents from the Dutch border town. Ribbentrop informed Schellenberg that on ‘Hitler’s direct orders’ he was appointed as head of Operation Willi: the luring or abduction of the Duke and his wife to Spain. According to Schellenberg’s memoirs, Hitler himself approved fifty million Swiss francs to be offered to the Duke if he ‘was ready to make some official gesture dissociating himself from the manoeuvres of the British royal family.’

Walter Schellenberg
Bundesarchiv, Bild 101III-Alber-178-04A / Alber, Kurt / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0

Schellenberg was one of the highest-ranking members of the Sicherheitsdienst under Reinhard Heydrich. This connection was precisely why he, at least according to his post-war memoirs, opposed the plan. He knew Heydrich hated Ribbentrop, who he referred to as a ‘bloody old fool.’ Knowing his superior hoped the entire operation would fail, making the foreign minister look inept, Schellenberg begrudgingly flew to Madrid to meet with his connections there. 

Yet as he arrived in Spain, both the Spanish and German diplomatic forces gave him barely less than a cold shoulder. The German Ambassador Baron Eberhard von Stohrer, a career diplomat, despised the Nazis, especially the SS and Sicherheitsdienst. Realising Schellenberg, who enjoyed infamy for his Venlo incident escapade and several other high-profile abductions, came to Spain, meant those ‘criminals in Berlin’ decided to follow up on their ridiculous plan to abduct the Duke of Windsor. 

And the Baron was utterly right about Schellenberg’s motives. The Baron reported to Ribbentrop that the Duke and Duchess ‘very much desired to return to Spain,’ and even received intel that they acquired a visa from the British Embassy in Lisbon to travel to Spain. In Madrid, Schellenberg began organising the plan to lure the Duke to Spain. First, he formed a team around him. Among them was the Sicherheitsdienst representative in Madrid and the Abwehr agent Alcazar “Angel” de Velasco. Velasco was a former matador, Falangist fascist and all too keen to help the Germans out. To give you an insight in the ridiculous infighting among the high echelons of Nazi Germany: although Angel was an Abwehr agent and thus formally working for Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, he had to promise Schellenberg not to breathe a word to Canaris about the mission. Because Canaris, head of the German Abwehr, was known to not be enthusiastic about the Nazi regime. What the SS didn’t know at the time was that Canaris, in fact, played a crucial role in convincing Franco not to allow German troops on his territory and to refuse to join the Axis powers. Towards the end of the war, he even engaged in more subversive activities. It would cost him his life, eventually. In return for his secrecy, Angel was promised a crucial role in the plan that could very well turn the tide decisively in Germany’s favour. 

The Duke of Windsor in Portugal

On July 26, Schellenberg flew to Lisbon. Forcing the Duke to Spain with threats of violence could very well be counter-productive. As such, he decided to use his growing network of agents around the Duke. He hoped that it would spook the couple enough for them to seek refuge in Spain, more precisely among the Germans residing in Spain. An old friend, the Japanese head of intelligence in Lisbon, came in handy. He acquired maps, plans and drawings of the villa the Windsors resided in. 

Another agent of Schellenberg referred to as “C” and who most likely was a deputy of Dom Lourenco, provided 18 agents of the Portuguese security agency. These began shadowing the Duke. Subtly making their presence aware, the Duke knew something was up. During this time, Velasco invited the Duke on a hunting trip, where he revealed a supposed British plot to have the Duke assassinated. He offered refuge guaranteed by the Germans in Spain. The Duke requested 48 hours to think about it. The couple must have been rather confused and frightened: previously Wallis received a bouquet of flowers with a hidden note warning them of an impending hit job by the SIS, stating a bomb would be planted on a ship if they decided to leave the European mainland. Another night a rock was thrown through their windows, and the subsequent nightly manhunt only added to the unease. In short: the couple started to genuinely consider the fact they could not trust the British government and their own royal family anymore. Schellenberg’s plan seemed to work.

Meanwhile across the English Channel during these weeks, the Brits realised there was a very real risk, or at least the belief among the Germans, that the Duke may actually go to Spain. An official memo sent by Lord Halifax from early August shows that the SIS was aware of the fact the owner of the Duke’s villa was very pro-German. Also, they were aware of the Duke manifesting extreme defeatist and pacifist sympathies. In short: they had to get him as far away from the Germans as possible before something bad happened. Churchill was informed of this, as well. Already in late June, he sent the Duke a telegram ordering him to return to Britain. He followed that one up with the announcement the Duke had been appointed as Governor of the Bahamas and to go there via New York liner, the Excalibur, leaving on August 1st. Yet the couple remained in their villa, and to the Brits it was somewhat uncertain what their plan of action was.

And then things began moving rapidly. The day after the final telegram, a flying boat arrived from Bristol. In it was Sir Walter Monckton, a confidant of Churchill and close advisor of the Windsors. In fact, when Edward was still King, Monckton was the lawyer who guided him through his abdication process. Monckton’s task was to convince the Duke to not travel to Spain. Two days earlier he had been summoned to a secret meeting with Churchill in Downing Street. There, Churchill told him to see to it that the Duke would board on the New York liner Excalibur, to his new occupation: as governor of the Bahamas. Monckton himself described the mission as the oddest job of the ‘odd jobs he has done.’ 

From his arrival onwards, Monckton didn’t leave the Duke’s side. Meanwhile, Ribbentrop ordered Schellenberg to use any means necessary to bring the Duke to Spain. But it was no use, according to Schellenberg’s personal logs from that time. On July 29, he realised that “Willi will nicht” which translates to as much as “Willi doesn’t want to go.” He sent a report to Berlin stating the curious Monckton who didn’t look like a spy, and didn’t even carry a gun, was more likely to ‘be a member of the personal police of the reigning King by the name of Cameron.’ They didn’t know how to perceive Monckton, all the Germans could tell was that in his presence the Duke now became more hesitant about moving to Spain. And there wasn’t much time left, merely two days before Excalibur set sail.

Walter Monckton
Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use

With Ribbentrop’s words undoubtedly in mind, Schellenberg decided it was time to resort to more coercive tactics. The first subject was the duchess’s maid, Jeanne-Marguerite Moulichon. The girl was on a mission to retrieve the duchess’s favourite linen from Paris, where they left it as they fled from the invading Germans. On her trip back, however, the maid was taken into custody by the Germans. The first bargaining chip was secured. Secondly, the Duke’s Spanish friend, Don Miguel Primo de Rivera was flown to Lisbon. With his charm and persuasiveness, he convinced the Duke it wouldn’t take much longer for Germany to force Britain to negotiate peace, leading to King George’s abdication. To add weight to his argument, he also emphasised there were impending plots by the SIS to assassinate him. The Duke now begged Monckton to delay the trip, which he refused. As such a hesitant Duke ended up being near physically forced onto the Excalibur.

On August 1st, as planned, the Duke left on the New York liner to the Bahamas, together with Monckton and a Criminal Investigation Department officer. In the last hours before their departure, Schellenberg contemplated abduction but decided against it. The Duke sent a telegram to Hitler personally, stating he was willing to cooperate at a suitable time to establish peace, and he paid tribute to Hitler’s desire for peace. And as such, the Excalibur sailed off. The Duke would sit out the war as governor of the Bahamas, and King George remained King until he died in 1952. As for the idea of an Anglo-German peace agreement, it was completely dead on the German side after this incredible failure of a mission.

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