Princess Elizabeth's Spy
The midday summer sun in Lisbon was dazzling and harsh. But while nearly everyone else was inside taking a siesta, the Duke of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII of England, kept up his British habits, even on the continent.
He and his wife, Wallis Simpson, the woman for whom he’d abdicated the throne and now known as the Duchess of Windsor, sat outside at the Bar-Café Europa, which catered to tourists and British expats. The town square was nearly empty, except for a young American couple walking arm in arm and a few pigeons strutting and pecking for crumbs in the dust.
Wallis, slender and elegant, wore a scarlet Schiaparelli suit, a bejeweled flamingo brooch, and dark glasses. She sipped a Campari and soda, the ice cubes clinking against one another in her tall glass. Next to her, the Duke, slight and fair-haired, toyed with a tumbler of blood-orange juice and read The Times of London. He was only forty-six, but the strain from the abdication, and subsequent banishment from royal life, made him look older.
A shadow passed over his page. The Duke looked up in annoyance, then smiled broadly when he saw who it was—Walther Schellenberg, Heinrich Himmler’s personal aide and a deputy leader of the Reich Main Security Office.
“Shel! Good to see you—sit down,” the Duke said.
“Thank you, Your Highness,” Schellenberg replied in accented English, sitting down on the delicate wire chair. The Duke and Duchess had befriended Schellenberg on their tours to Germany before the war, visiting with Prince Philip of Hesse and Adolf Hitler.
“Hello, Walther,” Wallis said.
Schellenberg removed his Nazi visor hat, with its skull and crossbones, to reveal thick brown hair parted in the center and glistening with a copious amount of Brylcreem. “Good afternoon, Your Highness. May I say you look particularly beautiful today?” he said to Wallis, a smile softening his angular features.
“Thank you, Shel,” she replied, warming to his use of Your Highness, which Hitler had also used when they’d visited him at the Berghof, his chalet in the Bavarian Alps. Technically, neither Hitler nor Schellenberg needed to address her that way, as she’d never been awarded HRH status by the current king, a snub indeed. His wife, Queen Elizabeth, referred to Wallis only as “that woman.”
As she offered her hand to Schellenberg to be kissed, the scent of L’heure Bleue mixed with Mitsouko—a heady mix of carnations and oakmoss, Wallis’s signature scent—wafted around her in the heat.
“They threw a rock at our window last night, Shel.” The Duke frowned. “Shattered the glass. Could have killed us.”
“I know, sir. Terrible, just terrible.” And he did know—Schellenberg himself had arranged the rock-throwing incident in order to frighten the Windsors, leaving false clues to make it look as though British Intelligence were to blame. If the Windsors were scared enough they’d come around to the Nazis’ point of view, he was certain of it.
“It’s terrible,” Wallis said, smoothing her glossy black hair, cut down the middle with a narrow white part. “They hate us. The British just hate us now.”
“Now, now, dear,” Edward said, reaching over to take her hand. “It’s not the British people. It’s Churchill and his thugs. And my brother and that wife of his. Silly old Bertie as King George VI, indeed. It’s as if I’d never been King!”
“You can’t abdicate and eat it too, dear,” Wallis said with a tight smile.
Schellenberg cleared his throat. “I’ve heard from the Führer.”
“Oh, how lovely!” Wallis exclaimed, extracting a cigarette from a gold case and fitting it in a long ivory holder. The Duke pulled out his lighter and lit it for her; she smiled up at him as she drew her first inhale.
“He gave me a number,” Schellenberg said, knowing quite well the two were having money problems since the abdication. He took a small folded piece of paper from his pocket, put it on the table, and pushed it toward the Duke. If fear alone couldn’t persuade them, perhaps money could.
The Duke of Windsor waited, simply looking at the note for a few heartbeats, then reached for it. Slowly, he picked it up and opened it. He read the number and then handed the slip over to Wallis. She examined it, arching one perfectly plucked and penciled eyebrow, then handed it back.
“Quite a bit of money, Shel,” the Duke said, pushing the paper away.
“But it’s not just about the money, sir,” Schellenberg said, placing the paper in one of the ceramic ashtrays and then lighting it, letting it burn away to ash. “Germany has taken Austria, the Sudetenland, and Poland. We’ve taken the Low Countries and France. When Germany invades England—and it’s just a matter of time before London falls—your people will need you.” He looked to Wallis. “Both of you. You know it’s only a matter of time now. We’re establishing air supremacy, and as soon as we take out the Royal Air Force, we’ll invade. Your younger brother, the present king, has aligned himself with Winston Churchill and his gangsters. He won’t be permitted to stay on the throne, of course.”
“Of course,” Wallis murmured. She had no love for either the King or Queen, who had never acknowledged her and, in her opinion, had taken every opportunity to humiliate her. Why her husband couldn’t have simply stayed on the throne when he’d married her, she would never understand—or forgive.
“And his daughter, Elizabeth, raised with the same propaganda her father espouses, can’t reign either, so . . . And then we’ll need you—both of you,” Schellenberg stressed, “to urge the British to accept German occupation. With you as King, and the Duchess as Queen, of course.”
“It’s not about me, Shel,” the Duke said. “We need to end the war now before thousands are killed and maimed in order to save the faces of a few corrupt politicians. Believe me, with continued heavy bombing, Britain will soon be desperate for peace. The people will panic and turn against Churchill and Eden—and the current King, too, of course. Which presents the perfect opportunity to bring me back as sovereign.” The Duke sighed. “Of course, I can’t officially support any of this, you know.”
“What other options do you have?” Schellenberg asked.
There was a long silence. The Windsors knew they were running out of opportunities.
“Bermuda,” Wallis said finally, rolling her eyes and tapping ashes into a ceramic ashtray crudely painted with a bullfighter holding up a red cape. “Churchill and the present royals want to banish us to that godforsaken little territory. Conveniently out of their way.”
“Then don’t go,” Schellenberg urged. “You have the Führer, and the British people, counting on you to step up. To be their King and Queen.”
The Duke and Duchess locked eyes. “What do you say, dear?” he asked her.
The Duchess took a moment for a long exhale, blowing out a thin stream of blue smoke. It had been a long few years for her. First there was her affair with him, when he’d been the Prince of Wales. The unexpected death of his father, King George V, had been both shocking and painful for both of them. Their relationship nearly collapsed when Edward had taken the throne, crushed by the disapproval of the rest of the royal family.
They’d thought, perhaps foolishly, that once the family got to know her better, they’d accept her. But no. The royal family, in particular the newly crowned George VI and Queen Elizabeth, had made it overwhelmingly clear Edward would never be able to marry her, a two-time American divorcée and a close personal friend of Joachim von Ribbentrop’s, Foreign Minister of Germany, and still stay on the throne.
Edward had chosen her and abdicated—but it had nearly killed him. And it broke her heart to see him made to choose. Their love had survived, but only just. Even in the bright sunshine of Portugal, they had their good days and bad.
“We’re going to enjoy ourselves at the villa of our good friend, Ricardo do Espírito Santo Silva, for now,” she replied, finally. “If—and only if—Germany invades . . .” She shrugged her narrow shoulders.
“—you can count on us to do the right thing,” the Duke finished. “For the British people, of course.”
The three of them nodded.
“Excellent,” said Schellenberg, rising. “That’s what we hoped you’d say. Heil Hitler!”
Bletchley was a small, seemingly inconsequential railway town about fifty miles northwest of London. However, since 1938, the town was also the home of what was officially known as the Government Code and Cipher School. But those in the know referred to it as Station X. Or War Station. Or just the initials B.P., for Bletchley Park.
The Bletchley estate, the former manse of Sir Herbert and Lady Fanny Leon, was a red-brick Victorian monstrosity in a faux-Tudor style. Now, under government control, it bustled with men and women in uniform, as well as civilians—mostly men in baggy wrinkled trousers and herringbone tweed jackets with leather elbow patches. The house’s formerly lush lawns were flattened and worn from all the foot and bicycle traffic. The gardens had been trampled to make room for hastily assembled huts and office buildings.
Although it was a secret to most who worked there, the real business of Bletchley was breaking Nazi military code. The cryptographers at Bletchley Park had a reconstructed Enigma machine used by the Germans (a gift from the Poles), a code key used in the Norway campaign, and two keys used by the Nazi air force. Though they received a huge volume of decrypts, they still couldn’t be used for practical purposes. Under the leadership of Alan Turing, Peter Twinn, and John Jeffreys, they were still waiting and working, hoping for a miracle.
The Nazis thought their codes were unbreakable, and they had good reason to believe so. When a German commander typed in a message, the machine sent electrical impulses through a series of rotating wheels, contacts, and wires to produce the enciphered letters, which lit up on a panel above the keyboard. By typing the resulting code into his own machine, the recipient saw the deciphered message light up letter by letter. The rotors and wires of the machine could be configured in an almost infinite number of ways. The odds against anyone breaking Enigma were a staggering 150 million million million to one.
Benjamin Batey, a graduate of Trinity College at Cambridge with a Ph.D. in logical mathematics, worked in Hut 8 trying to break Nazi naval decrypts. Batey had been toiling away for eight months in the drafty hut. It stank of damp, lime, and coal tar.
His office was one room of a dozen, divided by flimsy partitions made of plywood. The noise from the other workstations drifted about—low conversations, thudding footsteps, a shrill telephone ring, the steady clicks of the Type-X machines in the decoding room.
The harsh fluorescent overhead light cast long shadows across the concrete floor as Batey and his officemate, both youngish men in rumpled corduroy trousers and heavy wool sweaters, worked at mismatched battered wooden desks piled with sheaves of papers. Thick manila folders with top secret stamped in heavy red ink across them were heaped haphazardly on the floor, dirty tea mugs were lined up on the window’s ledge, and steam hissed from the paint-chipped radiator. Blackout curtains hid the view.
Usually a prodigious worker, Batey couldn’t wait to leave. He had a date.
“So, is she an imaginary girl? Or a real one?” asked James Abbot, his officemate. Abbot was young, but his face was pale and drawn, and he had dark purple shadows under his eyes. They all looked like that at Bletchley. Sleep was considered an unnecessary extravagance.
Batey was not amused. “I don’t kiss and tell, old thing,” he said, shrugging into a wool coat and wrapping a striped school scarf around his neck.
“I say,” said Abbot, putting his worn capped-toe oxfords up on the desk and leaning back, “at least comb your hair. Or what’s left of it.”
It was true. Batey might have been only in his late twenties, with a face that still had the plushness of youth, but already his dark hair was receding. It could have been genetics, or the prodigious stress Batey was under as a boffin, as the cryptographers were called at Bletchley. Generally, he was too sleep-deprived and distracted to give his appearance much thought, but it hadn’t gone without noticing that in the confines of B.P., the boffins were at the top of the pecking order, as far as the women there were concerned.
It was the first time Batey had been viewed by the fairer sex in such a positive light, and, suddenly, he was in demand. And so, while at first he believed it was absolute insanity that someone like Victoria Keeley, who turned heads at Bletchley with her tall, slim figure, pale skin, and dark hair, would be interested in someone like him, he’d slowly grown to accept and even appreciate it.
There was a knock at the door. Abbot’s eyebrows raised.
Batey cracked the door open, but it was too late, Abbot had already caught sight of who it was. “Victoria Keeley, Queen of the Teleprincesses—what brings you to our humble abode?” Abbot said, leaning back even farther in his desk chair.
Victoria had a profile as sharp as Katharine Hepburn’s and an aura of offhand glamour that came from being a recent debutante who spoke flawless French and rode and played tennis superbly. “Only a telecountess, Mr. Abbot,” she replied with her best cocktail party smile. “Despite my family’s august lineage, I can’t quite aspire to royalty.”
“Ah, all you lovely girls are princesses to me,” he quipped, grinning at her.
“That’s funny, I’ve heard you say we’re all the same in the dark.” She batted her eyelashes as Abbot gasped and nearly fell over in his chair. “The walls are thin, Mr. Abbot,” she admonished, as he tried to right himself.
She turned to Batey. “Are you ready?” She already had her gray overcoat on and was finishing pinning on her black velvet hat. Batey caught a whiff of the pungent, oily scent of the teletypewriters she worked with all day. It clung to her dress and hair, as alluring to him—on her, at least—as Shalimar or Chanel No. 5.
“Yes,” he said, putting on his felt hat and pulling on leather gloves.
“So, where are you two going?” Abbot asked. He picked up a sheaf of tea-stained papers and rose to his feet. “Mind taking these out for me?”
“Concert,” Batey said, as he accepted the papers. “Bach. Fugues. Bletchley Park String Quartet.”
“Well, have fun, you two,” Abbot said. “Someone has to stay here and mind the shop.”
In the narrow hallway, Victoria pulled Benjamin close. “I thought this day would never end,” she said, nuzzling his neck.
“Not here.” He still needed to dispose of the papers in his hand. There was a room with a shredder, and then all the tiny scraps of paper were put into a large bin marked confidential waste.
She was tall in her heels, and her lips reached his ear easily. “We don’t even have to go to the concert,” she whispered. “I don’t even know how I’d be able to sit through it, knowing . . .”
Her tongue swirled in his ear and Benjamin groaned.
“Let’s go,” he said in a low, anxious voice.
On their way out they saw Christopher Boothby, who worked in the main office, doing administrative work. The two men were wearing the same navy, red, and yellow striped Trinity College scarf. As they passed, Boothby gave the couple a wink and a smile.
Afterward, in Victoria’s tiny bedroom in the drafty cottage she shared with one of the other teleprincesses, Benjamin fell asleep.
As he snored lightly, Victoria slipped out of the warm bed and wrapped herself in her chenille robe. Going to his coat, she rummaged through the pockets, taking the papers he was supposed to have shredded and dropping them into a drawer.
Then she crawled back under the covers and gave him a gentle nudge, then a harder one.
“What?” he mumbled.
“Darling, I’m so dreadfully sorry. But my roommate is such a little priss—and if she catches you here she’ll tell the landlady . . . who won’t approve at all.”
“Sorry?” Benjamin echoed, rubbing his eyes. “Right. Yes, of course,” he said, standing up and pulling on his plaid boxers.
“Thanks ever so much,” she said, “for understanding. Well, and that, too.”
“Oh, thank you.” He stepped into his trousers, his features boyish when he smiled. “You know, I really do want to take you out. A concert, the pictures, a nice dinner—or at least as nice as you can get these days. Please, let me take you somewhere.”
“You’re a sweet boy, Benjamin Batey,” she said with a sigh, getting up and kissing the back of his neck as he finished buttoning his shirt. “A very, very sweet boy.”
She helped him with his coat, scarf, and hat, and then sent him on his way. The door clicked closed and she waited as the sound of his footsteps receded.
Then she picked up the black Bakelite receiver and dialed. “Yes,” she whispered into the telephone, “I have something you’ll want to see. I’m leaving for London now. Should be there in a few hours, give or take. Yes, of course I’ll use an alias.”
Then, “I love you too, darling.”
Claridge’s in London was a large red-brick hotel located in fashionable Mayfair, still elegant despite the removal of all of its lavish wrought-iron railings, which had been taken down to be melted for munitions. After her long train trip in the blackout, Victoria was grateful to check in, under an assumed name, and retire to a warm, damask-swathed room, worlds away from the shabby indignities of Bletchley.
After placing the decrypts carefully on the bed, she went into the marble bathroom and drew a bath, noticing that Claridge’s had “forgotten” the five-inch watermark for hot water rationing. She turned on the tap and out poured a scalding stream, to which she added a liberal handful of sandalwood-scented Hammam Bouquet bath salts. She sighed as she undressed, then slipped her long and elegant limbs into the bath, reclining against the slanted back of the tub. Benjamin was just such an easy target. He was lovely, really. It wasn’t his fault, the poor dear. . . .
The front door clicked open, then closed quietly. With the water still running, Victoria didn’t hear it. Then there was a loud thud. “Darling, is that you?” she called, lifting her head.
There was a silence, then the bathroom door creaked open.
“Darling?” Victoria called, sitting up in the tub.
The shot went directly between her eyes. She slumped back into the bath, bright red blood streaming down her face and into the water, turning the froth pink and then crimson. As her pale slim body slipped down under the bubbles, her mouth fell open into a perfect O of surprise.