Operation Willi (i)


'Willi' (i) was a German unsuccessful attempt to kidnap the Duke of Windsor (ex-King Edward VIII) and persuade him to collaborate with Adolf Hitler either in effecting a peace settlement between Germany and the UK or in agreeing to being restored to the throne after a successful German conquest of the UK (July 1940).

After his abdication and move to France, the ex-king married Mrs Wallis Simpson, and the two escaped to neutral Spain in June 1940 at the time of the fall of France. On 23 June the German ambassador to Madrid, Eberhard von Stohrer, contacted his superior, Joachim Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister, with the information that Colonel Juan Beigbeder y Atienza, the Spanish foreign minister, had asked how to deal with the duke, who was travelling to Lisbon in Portugal, with the possibility of detaining him. Ribbentrop instructed von Stohrer to forward the suggestion that the Spanish delay the duke and duchess for a fortnight without any hint that the suggestion was of German origin. Stohrer replied that Beigbeder would do this. Beigbeder then telegraphed Ribbentrop on 2 July with the information that he met with the duke, who had expressed an antipathy to the British royal family as a result of his treatment of the duchess, and also criticised Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his policies.

The duke and duchess travelled to Lisbon early in July. The British soon learned of the duke’s alleged indiscreet remarks to Beigbeder, and Churchill therefore sent the duke a telegram asking him to return to the UK. Churchill pointed out that the duke was still under British military authority as, on the outbreak of war, he had become an army liaison officer (with the temporary rank of major general) to the French army high command, and that unless he complied he could be court martialled. The duke then received another telegram telling him that he had been appointed governor of the Bahamas, and ordering him to assume this post at once.

Nevertheless, the duke and duchess tarried for a month at the villa of Ricardo do Espirito Santo Silva, a banker said to have pro-Nazi sympathies. The German ambassador in Lisbon reported this to Ribbentrop on July 11 and added that the duke 'intend[ed] to postpone his departure as long as possible… in hope of a turn of events favourable to him'. Ribbentrop took this as an encouraging sign, and cabled the German embassy in Madrid to try to prevent the duke from going to the Bahamas by being brought back to Spain (preferably by his Spanish friends) and being persuaded or even compelled to remain in Spanish territory. He further intimated that the 'British Secret Service' was preparing 'to do away' with the duke as soon as he arrived in the Bahamas.

On the following day, 12 von Stohrer saw Ramón Serrano Súńer, the Spanish interior minister, who promised to get the co-operation of his brother-in-law, General Francisco Franco y Bahamonde, the Spanish leader, and effect a plan in which the Spanish government would send a friend of the duke, Miguel Primo de Rivera, the leader of the Falange and son of Miguel Primo de Rivera, a former dictator, as an emissary. Rivera would invite the duke to Spain for a hunting trip and also to discuss Anglo-Spanish relations. There he would also be informed of the 'plot' by the British secret service to kill him. In return for an agreement to remain in Spain, the duke would be given financial support to maintain a lifestyle befitting his station.

Rivera agreed to the task, although he was not told of German involvement in this. He visited the duke and duchess on 16 July and presented the offer to the duke, While basically receptive to the offer, the duke also expressed a number of reservations, not least of which were the telegrams from the British government urging him to leave for the Bahamas. Another visit on 22 July 22 had a similar result.

It was during the time of the last visit by Rivera that the Germans were drawing up the plan to kidnap the Windsors. Hitler personally allocated the implementation of the task to Walter Schellenberg, a specialist in unconventional undertakings. Stellenbosch flew to Madrid, conferred with von Stohrer, and then travelled to Portugal. The final plan was to entice the Windsors over the border to Spain (with the collusion of co-operative border officials since they did not have passports) and keep them there to 'protect them from plots from their lives, specifically the British intelligence service'. Schellenberg attempted to scare the duke into leaving the villa while trying to pin the blame on the British. Schellenberg arranged for some stone-throwing against the windows of the villa while circulating rumours among the servants that the British were responsible. A bouquet of flowers was also sent to the duchess warning her of 'the machinations of the British intelligence service'. Another scare tactic, the firing of shots to break windows, was scheduled for 30 July but no effected for fear of the possibly adverse psychological effects on the duchess.

On that same day, Schellenberg reported that Sir Walter Monckton, an old friend of the duke, had arrived, evidently tasked by the British government to speed the Windsors to the Bahamas. Moreover, the German ambassador reported that the Windsors would be leaving on 1 August. According to Schellenberg’s memoirs, when Hitler learned of this, he urged Schellenberg to drop all pretence and abduct them outright. Even while the Spanish ambassador in Lisbon was prevailed upon to make a last-minute appeal to the Windsors, the automobile carrying the ducal baggage was 'sabotaged', according to Schellenberg, so the luggage arrived at the port late.

A bomb threat on the liner Excalibur was also spread by the Germans, which further delayed its departure while Portuguese officials searched the ship. Nevertheless, the Windsors departed that evening. While Schellenberg blamed the failure of the plot on Monckton, the collapse of the Spanish plan and the duke’s alleged 'English mentality', it was also probable that Schellenberg deliberately refused to carry out the plan, which seemed doomed from the start. Even he admitted in his memoirs that his role in the affair was ridiculous.