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He wanted only what every journalist of the time did: an exclusive interview with the Duke of Windsor. What he got was an astonishing proposition that sent him on an urgent top-secret visit to the White House and a once-in-a-lifetime story that was too hot to print—until now.
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
Perhaps the most curious revelation concerning the duke in recent years is one that appears to add damning con- firmation of the suspicions that FDR shared with my father. It comes from reports sent to the Nazi secretary of state in Berlin by the German minister to the Netherlands, Count Julius von Zech-Burckesroda, in January 1940. “Through personal relationships,” the count wrote Baron Ernst von Weizsäcker, “I might have the opportunity to establish certain lines leading to the Duke of Windsor.…When he was recently in London, I had explained to him through an intermediary why it is completely Utopian for England to effect a change of regime in Germany…”
These words were written after the duke had concluded months of service as a member of a military delegation sent from the British War Office to Gen. Maurice Gustave Gamelin, France’s chief of national defense. The duke had made a number of inspections of troops and fortifications, including one of the Maginot Line.
The delegation had been billeted at the town of Nogent-sur-Marne, some five miles south of Paris. In late 1939, during the time of his visits to the defense lines, Windsor made frequent trips to Paris. There he and the duchess entertained Charles Bedaux, a multimillionaire entrepreneur whose Nazi sympathies were obvious. In fact, Bedaux, who would eventually commit suicide after his arrest as a Nazi collaborator, had helped arrange a visit between Hitler and Windsor at Berchtesgaden in 1937, a few months after the duke and duchess were married in Bedaux’s castle in France.
That the former king could have consorted with this man during a military mission for Britain after his abdication seemed worse than irresponsible to many observers. It could only inspire such suspicion and disgust as Roosevelt expressed when he told my father of the short-wave communications that sent such accurate information to the Germans from Paris.
A month after he had hoped to establish “lines” to the duke, Count von Zech-Burckesroda had important news. “The Duke of W…has said that the Allied War Council devoted an exhaustive discussion at its last meeting to the situation that would arise if Germany invaded Belgium,” he wrote in February 1940. The count continued with details he had received: The Allies would maintain a line of resistance along the Belgian-French border.
This account of what the duke revealed made no mention of whom Windsor had talked to or how the information had reached the count. It was sent to the Foreign Office in Berlin and was considered so important that it apparently came to the attention of Hitler. The baron’s jubilant reply to Zech-Burckesroda notes that the duke’s report was of interest to the Führer and asks for further information.
But strangely, as the author Michael Bloch and others have commented, the Allied plans for the defense of Belgium were in complete contradiction to what the duke is reported to have said. (British forces met the Germans at two points deep within Belgium.) This has led to speculation that the duke might have been part of a disinformation operation, to confuse the Germans. That is possible, but a corollary scheme seems just as likely: a test to find an insecure or traitorous source of information to the enemy.
Given the suspicions that swirled about both the duke and the duchess, British intelligence could have leaked the false report to Windsor as a “marked card,” a unique piece of information that, if it reached German hands, could be traced only to the duke. Such a test would require a British spy with access to the “marked card” when it appeared.
In his recent book The Duchess of Windsor, Charles Higham does not advance this theory but presents information that supports it. He learned that the defense of Belgium was discussed at a secret meeting of the British War Cabinet when the duke visited London in January 1940 and that the duke had met with Gen. Sir William Ironside, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, at the War Office. In an interview with Higham, Lord Ironside, the son of the general, declared: “My father determined that the duke was a serious security leak. He was giving the duchess a great deal of information that was classified in the matter of the defenses of France and Belgium. She in turn was passing this information on to extremely dangerous enemy-connected people over dinner tables in Paris. As a result, this information made its way into German hands.”
Who could have seen a “marked card” and alerted British intelligence? Higham reports that a British agent, Wolfgang zu Putlitz, was in the German Embassy at The Hague when the count’s report about Windsor was sent to Berlin. His bona fides were later called into question when he defected to East Germany.
What actually came into the hands of British, Nazi, and Soviet intelligence concerning the Duke of Windsor? Sometime after Sir Anthony Blunt, surveyor of the queen’s pictures, was exposed as a Soviet spy, I began to hear rumors that he had been sent on a secret mission to Germany toward the end of the war. Philip Knightly and Colin Simpson raised the issue in a Sunday Times article in November 1979, and in the past few years the speculation about Blunt’s mission has hardened.