Could operation Willi have changed the course of the second world war?
In May 1945, shortly after the end of World War II in Europe, American First Lieutenant David D. Silberberg made a remarkable discovery. Beside a road in the German Harz mountains, he found several destroyed German cars, one of which was surrounded by paperwork. It turned out to be part of an archive containing signed letters from all kinds of high-ranking Nazis. Further investigation revealed a complete archive in the Degenhausen estate with signed correspondence from Hitler, Otto von Bismarck and the deposed German Emperor in 1918, among others.
From several documents, a mysterious German plan emerged: Operation Willi. According to these documents, also known as the Windsor Files, Operation Willi was to ensure that the British ex-king and Nazi sympathiser Edward VIII would defect to Germany in 1940. Violence was not to be shunned. But how realistic was Operation Willi, and what was Hitler’s plan for Edward VIII?
With the death of his father, George V, Edward VIII became King of the United Kingdom and Emperor of the Indies on 20 January. Less than a year later, before he was even crowned, Edward abdicated the throne. He wanted to marry the American Wallis Simpson, who had already been divorced twice. The Anglican Church, however, did not want this because of its divorces. The British royal family was also not amused by Simpson. Edward had to choose: the English crown or love. He chose the latter.
Because of his deteriorating relationship with the British royal family, Edward VIII, who held the title of Duke of Windsor after his abdication, decided to move to France with Simpson. There the couple married on 3 June 1937.
In October 1937, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor travelled to Germany. There they paid a personal visit to Hitler. During the visit, which the English royal family distanced themselves from, the Duke of Windsor gave several Hitler salutes. This only increased the already existing rumours that the Duke was a Nazi sympathiser.
With the German invasion of France, the duke and duchess fled the country. Via Spain and Portugal, they hoped to travel to England again. The Windsor files show that Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s minister of foreign affairs, wanted to do everything to keep the couple in Spain. In Spain, which was officially neutral, but had good ties with Nazi Germany, they could be convinced of the fact that England sooner or later would lose the Second World War. Edward would then have to defect to the Germans. When the Nazis had won the war, England would be created as a vassal state, with Edward VIII on the throne.
That the duke would be open to such plans became clear from several telegrams. One telegram described how the duke and duchess reacted when they were informed about the plan to put Edward VIII back on the throne; “Both seemed to be fully occupied with formal thinking since they answered that this [the plan to re-crown Edward VIII] was not possible according to the British constitution after an abdication.” Another telegram reads that “When [an] intermediary remarked that the course of the war might cause changes even in the British constitution, the Duchess, in particular, became very thoughtful.”
Also, the duke was “convinced that if he had remained on the throne, the war would have been prevented.” The duke is said to have favoured “a peaceful compromise with Germany” and believed “[…] with certainty that continued heavy bombing would make England ready for peace.”
Despite the Windsor Files making it clear that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor did not take a negative view of Hitler’s regime, the German plan to overthrow Edward proved difficult. The couple had fled France and travelled via Spain to Portugal. Winston Churchill doubted Edward’s loyalty and had forcibly offered him a position as governor of the Bahamas. In this way, he wanted to get the former king of his country away from continental Europe as quickly as possible.
With the help of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, Ribbentrop hoped that he could convince Edward to travel to Spain again. A friend of Franco’s, Miquel Primo de Rivera, was sent to Portugal to convince Edward to come to Spain. There the two would go hunting and in the meantime discuss Anglo-Spanish relations. The real plan there was to “inform” the Duke of a concocted plot that the English secret service was trying to kill him. If Edward decided to defect, he would receive 50 million Swiss francs as a reward. Edward eventually decided to decline the offer. Because he held the rank of major general in addition to the title of duke, Churchill threatened to court-martial him if he did not listen to him
With the failure of the ‘diplomatic’ plan, Hitler decided to take a different approach. He appointed SS-Oberführer Walter Schellenberg to get the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to Spain. Schellenberg did not use fabricated sinister plots but had a more intimidating method. He had the villa where the two were staying pelted with stones, after which he circulated rumours that the British Secret Service was responsible. Later he had a bouquet sent to the Duchess. The flowers were accompanied by a warning about the dangers that the British secret service posed to them. In this way, Schellenberg hoped to convince Edward that he was not safe in Portugal and that he should leave for Spain.
When this plan also failed and it became clear that Edward was about to leave for the Bahamas, Schellenberg was ordered to kidnap Edward and his wife. At the last moment, the luggage of the duke and duchess was ‘sabotaged’ and a bomb threat was devised on the ship with which Edward and Simpson were to depart. The German attempts proved unsuccessful; the couple left for the Bahamas on 1 August 1940 and thus remained out of German hands. Edward stayed in the Bahamas for the rest of the war, where he remained pessimistic about the possibilities of victory for the British army.
The grand plan to make Britain a German vassal state with Edward VIII on the throne proved unworkable. Despite the fact that Edward was absolutely sympathetic to the Nazi regime, even after the war he would insist that “Hitler was a good guy”, his loyalty still turned out to lie in Britain.
After the Windsor files, and thus Operation Willi, became known to Churchill, he did everything in his power to keep the documents secret. He claimed the documents were “misleading and unreliable” and asked US President Dwight D. Eisenhower if the documents could remain secret for “at least 10 or 20 years.” Eventually, the Windsor files would leak out in America in 1957 anyway. Edward himself immediately stated that the documents had been fabricated.