On the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, Elizabeth Stewart looks back at the life and times of wartime diplomats and their governments-in-exile
As one country after another fell under German occupation, wartime London became the last staging post for the fight back by an assortment of governments-in-exile. And by the autumn of 1940, entire swathes of London were occupied by refugee governments.
A report in the Daily Telegraph of 1940 compiled a list of them with their relative staff sizes: Belgium, 550; Poland, 98; Netherlands, 94; Norway, 83; and Luxembourg with just four – by then most of the cabinet had moved on Canada.
The Free French, under the hitherto unknown General de Gaulle, and Czechoslovaks led by Edvard Benes, were not mentioned, perhaps because official recognition only came later.
Despite this, the Czechoslovaks had ministries dotted around Belgravia, while President Benes set up shop in Putney. Speaking at a seminar co-hosted by the Czech, Slovak and Polish Embassies on the Battle of Britain, Madeleine Albright – or Madlenka Korbelova – recalled her Blitz memories in Notting Hill, as the daughter of a member of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile.
The ‘republican’ Belgian government, formed in Bordeaux against the orders of the capitulating King Leopold III, fled to Britain following the fall of France. They set out their stall in Eaton Square, while the Belgian rump parliament was based in Arlington Street.
Unlike Leopold III, the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina refused to make deals with Germany and secretly sought refuge in Britain in May 1940, establishing her offices at 77 Chester Square. Her government followed later, setting up office down the road from the Belgians in Arlington Street.
General Sikorski set up the Polish government headquarters in Kensington Palace Gardens not far from the Norwegian Embassy in Palace Gate, which had been in the possession of Norway since 1938. Throughout the war, around a polished dining room table still in use today, King Haakon continued his weekly Council Meetings with the cabinet, which had its offices in nearby Kingston House.
Diplomacy as usual
Meanwhile the American Embassy ballooned to 4,000 staff to cope with the increased demands of diplomatic activity. An independent mission was even created to handle relations with governments-in-exile, headed by Ambassador Anthony Biddle.
For the envoys, diplomatic life in the capital continued as normal, with its rounds of meetings and lunches and dinners, in spite of air raids and rationing.
The consuls had their work cut out, looking after waves of refugees from the continent, as the Polish Ambassador Count Edward Raczynski recorded in his journal: “The Embassy soon became the target of all who sought either work or assistance…Thanks to the refugee invasion, the Embassy furniture has in no time become shabby, since whole groups of exhausted people have been sitting on it…”
The Embassy was also shaken by bombs, due to its proximity to the BBC, from where many an exiled monarch or prime minister would broadcast. One day the windows were shattered by a blast during a lunchtime meeting. Barely pausing, the blinds were drawn, and lunch continued with only the chef fretting that his preciously rationed food had been ruined by shards of glass.
But the incident did prompt the Ambassador to convert the servants’ dining room in the basement into a bomb shelter.
Soviet Ambassador Ivan Maisky had an Anderson Shelter (still visible today), and a few doors down, Norwegian Ambassador Erik Colban fortified the basement (which is now a bomb-proof wine cellar).
At the height of the blitz, most heads of state were moved to the countryside. Queen Wilhelmina (who used to spurn the bomb shelters) was persuaded to move to Stubbings House near Maidenhead.
De Gaulle moved his government-in-exile to Oakley Court in Berkshire, while the Czechoslovaks moved en-masse to the picturesque villages of Aston Abbotts and Wingrave in Buckinghamshire.
King Haakon moved to Windsor where the English princesses were relocated after Buckingham Palace was bombed.
With foreign governments living cheek-by-jowl in wartime Britain, it is not unreasonable to assume that diplomats would be surplus to requirements. The opposite was true: the access and personal rapport diplomats had built up with the British establishment proved crucial in the overcrowded capital.
Some had it easier then others. The Norwegian and Dutch were respected for their resistance to the invading Nazis. Arriving in London with seals of office in tact, their legal status was unquestioned. Nevertheless Dutch Ambassador Michiels van Verduynen and his Norwegian counterpart played an important role in organising their merchant navy fleets under the flags of their governments-in-exile, preventing them from falling into enemy hands.
For the Belgian Ambassador, Baron Emile de Cartier de Marchienne, it was more awkward. He found himself having to defend his King’s capitulation in the face of British fury, while at the same time persuading the British authorities to recognise the legitimacy of the republican government-in-exile. Fortunately the Ambassador had been in London since 1927 and with his mix of easy charm and shrewd diplomacy, he managed to reconcile these divided loyalties.
The French Ambassador, Charles Corbin, was faced with a similar predicament. With 800 of his staff returning to Paris in 1940, Corbin rallied behind Charles de Gaulle. Having served in the UK since 1933, he was an anglophile and his persuasive skills helped convince the British to recognise the General as the “leader of all free Frenchmen”.
Czechoslovak Ambassador Jan Masaryk, who had resigned in protest in 1938 after the Munich Agreement, worked tirelessly alongside President Benes for official recognition of the Czechoslovak Republic (and the revocation of the Munich Agreement). Official recognition eventually came in 1941– thanks in no small part to the valiant efforts of the Czech airmen who fought in the Battle of Britain.
Masaryk also worked closely in London with his Polish counterpart, Count Raczynski, to create more secure post-war future for their countries. There was even talk of a Polish-Czechoslovak Confederation but plans were shelved when the Soviets entered the war on the Allies’ side.
Everything changed. Polish friction with their former enemy was bad for the fragile alliance and the warm support the Ambassador had enjoyed at the start of the war – again thanks to the efforts of Polish soldiers – evaporated. Instead Soviet Ambassador Ivan Maisky became the toast of the town.
Count Raczynski would spend the rest of his days in exile after the Soviets installed a puppet regime in his homeland. A shrunken Polish government-in-exile continued to operate until 1990, when the legal symbols of state were handed over to the new democratically elected government.
Czechoslovakia did not immediately fall under Soviet influence and Masaryk returned home to participate in the new coalition government, only to fall to his death a few years later.
Maisky was not immune to changes in fortune either. Posted to London in 1933 he enjoyed the trust and respect of Churchill. But Maisky’s rapport with the British Prime Minister was also his undoing, arousing the suspicion of Stalin, who replaced him with the inexperienced Fedor Gusev in 1943. Maisky was later sent to a labour camp in 1951 during one of Stalin’s purges, but was released after the dictator’s death.
At the close of the war, the exiles went their separate ways. Some got a heroes’ welcome, while others were condemned to live in exile or return home to an uncertain future. Whatever their fate, the courage they had shown during the war years was indeed their finest hour.
St Pauls Cathedral
Winston Churchill with exiled wartime leaders
General Sikorski and General Charles de Gaulle
Anthony Biddle, America’s Ambassador to the London’s