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17 Carnations

Andrew Morton
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
‘Hark the Herald Angels sing,
Mrs Simpson’s pinched our King’
Christmas carol 1936

An experienced biographer, Mr Morton has now graduated to a serious subject and here focuses on the life of the Duke of Windsor and his unwise flirtations with the German Nazi leadership. He has had access to primary records and papers in Germany and post-Soviet Russia and also presents a ‘Select’ but actually extraordinarily comprehensive bibliography. He has also sourced some very interesting photographs which have not been in the public gaze before.

My take on Edward has three strands, all reinforced by Morton:

1. Edward was dim.

2. He never experienced loving parenting.

3. In spite of his professed sympathy for Welsh miners, he had little sympathy for the British people, possibly due to the bullying he had experienced in his schooling and as a naval cadet.

An example (not in the book): A parent of a contemporary of Edward’s, visiting Dartmouth, recalled a rather sad boy standing alone with fifteen pairs of rugger boots tied by their laces and hung round his neck. The explanation was that his confrères felt the need to take him down a peg.

It seems to me that it was because of Edward’s want of brain power that he did not understand the self-discipline required by his situation. Perhaps as a result of his early experiences, he always exhibited an attitude that he should be able to behave just as he pleased, without regard for the consequences to his country, which indeed he lacked the wit to comprehend.

4. He was much affected by the Bolshevik murder of his close relations. His entirely justified loathing of Communism blinded him to the equal ghastliness, and more immediate threat of the Nazi regime, and its leaders had no trouble running rings round him and easily taking him in, Edward being a sucker for flattery because unable to see through it. However, while one may calumniate the Duke, clearly many much brighter people, such as IBM’s founder Thomas Watson [‘Hayes’ reference one of those tantalisingly unsourced] , were equally taken in by Hitler, and British high society of the 1930s was riven with – often anti-Semitic – Nazi sympathisers.

It is ironic that the Duke’s prediction that the winner of any war between Britain and Germany would be the Soviet Union appeared until the late 1980s to have been uncannily prescient, even if born out of flawed reasoning, and perhaps pumped into his skull by his German contacts.

The social tittle-tattle, with which the book is replete, provides important background. Morton has extensively trawled the available sources to give a remarkably coherent picture, but unfortunately it is sometimes presented in rather shrill and slangy journalese, and comes with the odd ignorant solecism such as (p.39) “Ernest [Simpson], in his full dress uniform of a Coldstream Guard ..” This and other tantalising one-liners sent me to seek their origins; some are sourced and referenced but many are not. Wallis’ husband Ernest Simpson comes across as not much more than a pimp.

It is clear that, contrary to his self-belief, the Duke’s usefulness to our country at war was limited if not destroyed by his failure in any official capacity to stick to the script, his casual attitude to official documents, and his and Wallis’ perhaps deliberate blabbering of what should have been secret information – leave alone their unhelpful, even treacherous sympathies. Other commentators have accused the Duke of deserting his post in France in 1940. His subsequent self-serving behaviour does him no credit even if one does not see a treasonous flavour on his activities; he was certainly acting against the policy of Churchill, Roosevelt, and the British Government which was his employer first as a soldier and then as a colonial governor. In many ways the Duke comes across as a pawn of pro-Nazi manipulators & British traitors, if not as a fifth columnist. In that context however other defeatists in high places in Britain were trying to put out feelers to the enemy even during the Battle of Britain. Underlying it all was being too thick to understand political realities and totally deluded as to his ability to deliver anything from Churchill. The Duke was only finally sharpened up by Pearl Harbor.

Two-thirds of the way through the book changes gear. Morgan navigates with great skill the confused and contradictory record of the 1945 discovery and recovery of the German Government’s files and the unedifying saga of the British Government trying to get some of them suppressed, interfering with and bullying the professional historians charged with bringing the material to notice. Morgan chronicles very well this major US/UK row and the efforts by Eisenhower (illegally in US law) and Churchill to bury what Bevin had called an “ ’ot potato’”. Nevertheless the files involved in this paper chase survived intense pressure for their destruction and their content was embarrassingly supported by others discovered elsewhere. The (not then unmasked) traitor Blunt’s involvement in recovering Hessian material meant that the Stalin will have been far better informed of some of the story at the time, than we ever shall be.

The veracity of the German agents’ reports can fairly be questioned. However their version of the Duke’s recalcitrance over his Bahamas posting is borne out by other sources, and the Duke’s mendacity in the matter, and thus probably in others is sadly clear. The complicated story of the Duke’s removal to the Bahamas and the German attempts to snare, even kidnap him is related with great lucidity.

Was the Duke of Windsor Britain’s would-be Quisling? Perhaps unsurprisingly we never quite come to a ‘smoking gun’.

His father King George V had called him a cad to his face and was plumb right. It was precious, stupid, inconsiderate and despicable of the Duke, if not caddish, to pester Churchill and others with private business, particularly concerning his ridiculous caravan of personal possessions and baggage, when his erstwhile subjects were suffering far greater torments and their leader was embroiled in fighting a world war.

The Duke’s story has been covered before, by among others Florence Donaldson (1974) and the authoritative, even definitive Philip Zeigler (1991), leave alone the Duke’s and Wallis’ own self-serving vapourings. However as time passes new material does become available and Morton has therefore moved the game forward. Even so one suspects that there are other vital contributions to this story in the Royal archives which we shall never see.

The odd typo such as ‘weal’ for ‘wheel’ (p.65) gives away the usual problems of dictating to a computer. On p.321 ‘careened’ for ‘careered’ is I think not a typo – five pages further on ‘prevarication’ appears in place of ‘procrastination’ which suggests that Morton needs to get closer to his Fowler.

For the record, the attempted attack on the new King in the Mall on 16 July 1936 (p.79) was indeed foiled by police overpowering the would-be assassin, but the felon McMahon had already been seized by a member of the public; Hitler sent his friend Edward a comforting telegram [see The Times 17.6.36].

Personally I thank God for the abdication. Without that I fear Churchill would never have become PM in 1940 and we would have cut a very losing deal with Hitler – until such time as he chose to break it. In a bizarre sense I should thank the Duke’s gold-digging whore of a partner for being the catalyst that enabled me to grow up in a free country.
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