Eighty-two years ago this week, five bombs tore through the grounds of Buckingham Palace, two exploding in the inner courtyard as the queen sipped her Sunday morning tea. “The scream hurtled past us,” former queen of England Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon recalled, “and exploded with a tremendous crash in the quadrangle.” From 7 September 1940, Nazi Germany had begun air strikes on London. The afternoon the palace was bombed, the queen visited the devastated East End. She saw “a dead city.”
Three months earlier, her brother-in-law Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor—forced to abdicate as king in 1936 because of his insistence on marrying a divorced American woman—had sought the devastation of his people.
At a secret meeting with the diplomat Eugenio de los Monteros y Bermejillo, Edward VIII said he believed that if the Germans “bombed England effectively this could bring peace.” “He seemed very much to hope that this would occur,” historian Karina Urbach records Bermejillo writing to his leader, the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.
Elizabeth II, daughter of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and king George VI, niece to Edward VIII, was hailed in life—and after her passing this month—for her sense of duty to family and nation. That sense of duty may have driven one of the most bizarre stories to emerge from the Second World War—the allegation that Elizabeth II and her mother protected a KGB spy for fear he might reveal the dark family secrets of Edward VIII.
The Marburg mission
Late in 1963, as British counter-intelligence officer Peter Wright prepared to interrogate Anthony Blunt—eminent art scholar, director of the Courtauld Institute, surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures and for years a KGB mole in the Security Service, or MI5—he received an unexpected call from Elizabeth II’s private secretary. “You may ﬁnd Blunt referring to an assignment he undertook on behalf of the Palace—a visit to Germany at the end of the war,” Michael Adeane said. “Please do not pursue this matter.”
Wright asked the question anyway. “This isn’t on,” Blunt snapped. “You know you’re not supposed to ask me.”
Enough of Blunt’s mission to the castle in the old German town of Marburg, though, has become public to ignite the curiosity of generations of historians. Elizabeth II’s grandmother and Blunt’s mother were childhood friends. George VI had promoted the career of the Trinity College and Cambridge-educated mathematician and linguist—a connection that likely eased his recruitment into MI5 in 1940.
Following the end of the war—all through which Blunt passed the KGB top-secret intelligence gathered from the United Kingdom codebreakers who had cracked the Nazi Enigma cypher—the young scholar was appointed surveyor of the King’s Pictures and became responsible for the royal art collection.
The official purpose of the Marburg mission was to retrieve Kaiser Wilhelm II’s mother, Empress Frederick and her own mother, Queen Victoria. This is almost certainly true—but there is reason to believe Blunt was tasked with scouting for more sensitive documents, too. “The royal family knew where the bodies were buried and sent their courtiers off to dig them up,” writer Andrew Mortimer observes.
The Nazis and the Royals
From at least 1938, Edward VIII’s brother, George, the Duke of Kent, had been engaged in secret diplomacy with his cousins, the princes of the house of Hesse, historian Jonathan Petropoulos has written. Through Phillip Hesse—among the courtiers of Nazi second-in-command Hermann Göring—the Duke of Kent sought a meeting with Adolf Hitler. The effort had the support of George VI and then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who were seeking to avert a war.
Another Hesse cousin, Prince Ludwig von Hesse, made these observations in his diary after meeting the Duke of Kent: “Very German-friendly. Clearly against France. Not especially clever, but well-informed.”
Edward VIII also operated a separate line of dialogue with Charles Edward, the Duke of Coburg—stripped of his royal titles in the United Kingdom in 1919 for having fought in the German army. The Duke of Coburg went on to join the Nazi Party and its militia, with the ‘Sturmabteilung,’ rising to become head of the Third Reich’s Red Cross. The contact between Edward VIII and Charles Edward culminated in a high-profile visit by the former to meet with Adolf Hitler at the dictator’s home in the German border town of Berchtesgaden.
German intelligence agents reporting on Edward VIII from Spain were convinced the Nazis had a friend. In one, an intelligence officer reported the former king was “convinced that had he remained on throne, war would have been avoided.” In his conversations with Bermejillo, Edward VIII blamed “the Jews, the Reds and the Foreign Office for the war.”
Little of the archive on the Royal engagement with the Nazis survived the war, though. Some historians believe Blunt’s secret mission to Marburg is the reason why. The United Kingdom demanded that the one Nazi foreign office file on Edward VIII that was recovered in Marburg be destroyed, a plea that failed thanks to trenchant resistance from historian and archivist Paul Sweet.
Even if we may never know exactly what Blunt found, there are excellent reasons to suspect a copy made its way to the KGB.
Also read: Elizabeth II visited India thrice; got rousing reception at Ramlila Maidan in 1961, inaugurated AIIMS buildings
Evidence of treason
From 1948, United States National Security Agency (NSA) operations targeting Soviet communications began uncovering evidence of KGB moles in the West. The operation, code-named Venona, led to the discovery of Klaus Fuchs, the physicist who provided information on the United States’ nuclear weapons programme to the Soviet Union. The NSA also discovered information that would lead them to Kim Philby—in line to become chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6—along with the diplomats Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess.
Linked by friendships dating back to college, Blunt was an obvious suspect. MI5 interrogated him at least 11 times between 1951 and 1964, but never pressed him too hard. Gossip on Blunt’s KGB links spread in MI5, and even among undergraduates in Courtaulds, but the agency claimed there was no evidence to justify a prosecution.
There is some suspicion that the intelligence establishment hoped the problem would disappear on its own. Burgess and Maclean defected to Moscow in 1953. Philby, for his part, was eased out of MI6, and later began working as a journalist in Beirut.
Ten years later—having confessed to MI5—he also fled to Moscow. A succession scandal rocked the British intelligence community. Top officials Gordon Lansdale, George Blake and John Vassal were all revealed to be long-serving KGB agents.
When John Vassall had been arrested by MI5, Former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told MI5 chief Roger Hollis, “I am not at all pleased. When my gamekeeper shoots a fox, he doesn’t go and hang it up outside the Master of Foxhounds’ drawing room: he buries it out of sight.”
The story, however, refused to be buried. In 1964, United States National Endowment for the Arts deputy director Michael Straight offered the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) testimony on Blunt’s recruitment as a college student. That led MI5 to secretly offer Blunt immunity from prosecution in return for a full confession. The confession was finally made public four years before his death, by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Blunt was stripped of his knighthood and removed as an honorary fellow of Trinity college.
Elizabeth II maintained a cordial relationship with Blunt long after she was informed of his treason in 1964, historian Miranda Carter reveals. Adeane, her private secretary, was advised to do nothing. The queen continued to maintain a public relationship with Blunt, visiting Courtauld’s new galleries in 1968. In 1972, she wrote to congratulate Blunt on his retirement and signed off on his appointment as an honorary advisor, an association that continued for six more years.
For her part, Elizabeth II’s mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, also maintained a cordial relationship with Blunt. Her private secretary sent the spy a thank-you note after visiting Courtaulds as late as 1968.
There’s too little evidence to conclude Elizabeth II or her mother provided this safe haven out of gratitude for his Marburg services. Fuelling suspicion, though, British archives continue to deny access to critical royal correspondence and there are fears that considerable material was destroyed in 1945. There are too many questions for the truth to remain hidden—especially now Elizabeth II has passed.
Footage leaked seven years ago showed the queen, aged seven, raising her arm in the Nazi salute at the family home in Balmoral along with her sister, mother, and two kings, George VI and Edward VIII. The defiant images of the royal family in bombed-out London are not the only ones history has left behind.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)