Majesty & Grace IV: The Lives & Times of the Windsors – The Reign of ‘Albert the Good’ – George VI, 1936-39.

On 12th December 1936, the new King, George VI, was on his way to the Accession Council.
The Deep Despair of the Duke & Duchess:

The Duke of York, Albert, and his family had been in Scotland during the days preceding the Abdication Crisis. When the British press broke their self-imposed silence about King Edward’s affair with Mrs Simpson on 3rd December 1936, the Yorks were on their way back to London from Scotland on the night train. Alighting from the night train at Euston on the morning of 3 December, they were confronted with newspaper placards with the words, The King’s Marriage. Both the Duke and the Duchess were deeply shocked by what this might mean for them. When the Duke spoke to his younger brother, the Duke of Gloucester, he found him in a great state of excitement. The King himself had not yet decided what to do, saying he would ask the people what they wanted him to do and then go abroad for a while. The same day the Duke of York telephoned the King, who was at his retreat at Windsor Great Park, Fort Belvedere. ‘Bertie’ wanted to make an appointment to see his brother ‘David’ in person, but this was declined. He kept trying over the next few days without success, as the King refused to see him on the grounds that he had still not made up his mind as to his course of action. Despite the huge impact that his decision would have on his brother’s life, Edward refused to confide in him. He must have known that Bertie had no desire to become King. The Duke’s sense of foreboding was growing, and, according to Princess Olga (sister of the Duchess of Kent), he became…

… mute and broken… in an awful state of worry as David won’t see him or telephone. 

On the evening of 6th December, the Duke rang the Fort to be told his brother was in conference and would call him back later, but the call never came. Finally, the next day, the King made contact and invited Bertie to come to the Fort after dinner. Pacing up and down the room, Edward told his brother that he had decided to abdicate. The Duke wrote his own account of this meeting:

The awful and ghastly suspense of waiting was over… I found him pacing up and down the room, and he told me his decision that he would go. 

When he got home that evening, he found his wife had been struck down with flu. Elizabeth took to her bed, where she remained for the next few days as the dramatic events unfolded around her. From her sick bed, she wrote to her sister:

Bertie & I are feeling very despairing, and the strain is terrific. Every day lasts a week & the only hope we have is in the affection & support of our family & friends.

At dinner on the eighth, attended by several men, including the Dukes of York, Gloucester and Kent, and the prime minister, the King made it clear he had already made up his mind. He would go. At 10 a.m. on the 10th, the King signed his brief Instrument of Abdication. The next evening, he made his farewell broadcast to the nation from Windsor Castle. After returning from the Royal Lodge to say his familial goodbyes, he was driven to Portsmouth, where HMS Fury was waiting to take him across the Channel to exile.

On 12th December, at his Accession Council, the Duke of York, now King George VI, made his oath. The newspapers greeted the resolution of the crisis and the arrival of the new king with enthusiasm. Bertie may not have had the charm or charisma of his elder brother and still suffered from a speech impediment, as was evident in the long pauses in his accession speech, but he was solid and reliable. He also had the benefit of a popular, beautiful wife and two young daughters whose every move had been followed by the press since their birth. The whole world worships them today, wrote the Daily Mirror in a feature about the Princesses, whom it called the great little sisters. Some foreign observers were more cynical. Time commented:

‘Neither King George nor Queen Elizabeth has lived a life in which any event could be called of public interest in the United Kingdom press and this last week was exactly as most of their subjects wished. In effect a Calvin Coolidge entered Buckingham Palace with Shirley Temple for a daughter.’

The Virtuous Sovereign & the York Family:

It was now the reign of ‘Albert the Good’, George VI, earnest, dignified, embodying sound family values. Harold Nicolson was encouraged by the outcome. ‘What a solid people we are under all our sentimentality!’ he wrote in his diary. He had long come to the conclusion that the Windsors, as they had now become, had ruled themselves ‘out of court.’ The Duke of Windsor was little more than an obstinate, self-centred, silly little man who had almost destroyed the institution of the monarchy for the sake of a manipulative, self-serving, lying American. To relieve the general gloom, Vita (his wife) passed on the latest ‘silly joke’ circulating about Mrs Simpson: ‘she is writing a book called “The Unimportance of Being Ernest”. ‘

Later that same morning, George was proclaimed King by the Heralds. At his Accession Council, the new King declared his adherence to the strict principles of constitutional government and… resolve to work before all else for the welfare of the British Commonwealth of Nations. His voice was low and clear, though punctuated with hesitations. His accession showed that cherished family values were replaced on their pedestal. His own family, it was said by many, became the first happy family to have its home in Buckingham Palace since it was built. The Victorian sage of the British constitution, Walter Bagehot, had written:

We have come to believe that it is natural to have a virtuous sovereign.

Edward’s belief that the public role of the monarch should be separated from his private life had been rejected. The monarch and the man were once more fused together, if not identical. This has remained the case for the last eighty years of the Windsor dynasty, beginning with the fifteen-year reign of George VI under the steady guidance of Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother which continued into the reign of HM Elizabeth II. Edward’s experiments with modernity were at an end, and, in future, the monarchy would be more concerned with providing continuity of tradition, with only incremental, evolutionary change. This wholesale return to Victorian virtues, if not values, was part of a deliberate attempt by Baldwin and Chamberlain to reverse what they saw as a decline in moral standards that was afflicting the nation as a whole. It was part of a cultural counter-revolution in which a ‘very British coup’ had become an absolute necessity. How else could their steely determination to see Edward depart be explained?

Modernity, Tradition & Reaction – the Greater Good:

Baldwin had twice sacrificed veracity for what he saw as ‘the greater good.’ He had deliberately misled the King both about the need for an act of Parliament to achieve a morganatic marriage and about the position of the governments of the Dominions over the matter. Looking at this from the perspective of the time, however, Baldwin’s handling of the whole transition between monarchs appeared, and still appears, masterful, and it certainly preserved him in office for a time of his own choosing, after the Coronation, now to be that of George VI. Other key ‘establishment’ figures did not reveal the same statesmanlike abilities. On 13th December, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, broadcast a sanctimonious homily in which he compared Edward to James II, fleeing into exile in darkness and attacking him for putting his craving for personal happiness before duty and condemning his morals. He went on to state that it was…

…even more strange that he should have sought his happiness in a manner inconsistent with the Christian principles of marriage, and within a social circle whose standards and ways of life are alien to all the best instincts and traditions of his people. Let those who belong to this circle know that today they stand rebuked by the judgement of the nation which had loved King Edward. 

The directness of the Archbishop’s comments distressed the Duke of Windsor, who listened to them from the Rothschild’s castle in Austria. It produced an angry response from several people who wrote to the newspapers. Letters were published in the Daily Telegraph condemning Lang’s words as needlessly unkind. The Bishop of Durham criticised the broadcast and caused a perfect storm of protest. Lang had offended the British sense of fair play by kicking a man when he was down. H. G. Wells called the sermon a libellous outburst, and lampooned the primate in a memorable verse:

My Lord Archbishop, what a scold you are!

And when your man is down, how bold you are!

Of Christian duty how scant you are!

And, auld Lang swine, how full of cant you are!

Lang had revealed his hatred for Edward and the modernity he stood for. He had done nothing to reassure doubters that he had not abused his high office to force his Supreme Governor to abandon his role on the grounds of his outdated morality. He had also tactlessly referred to King George VI’s long battle to overcome his speech defect. His speech therapist, Lionel Logue, was among the first to send his congratulations to ‘Albert’ on 14 December:

May I be permitted to offer my very humble but most heartfelt good wishes on your accession to the throne. It is another of my dreams come true and a very pleasant one. May I be permitted to write to your Majesty in the New Year and offer my services.

Lionel Logue at his desk in Harley Street.

As Logue complained, drawing attention to the King’s speech impediment at this stage could only worsen matters. Rather than leaving his comment on the new King by referring to the obvious fact that in manner and speech, he was quieter and more reserved than his brother, Lang chose a parenthesis that he hoped would not be unhelpful. He reminded the nation, unnecessarily, of the Duke’s stammering which had been so much worse in the previous decade and which he and Logue had succeeded in controlling where many others had failed:

When his people listen to him they will note an occasional and momentary hesitation in his speech. But he has brought it into full control and to those who hear, it need cause no embarrassment, for it causes none to him who speaks.

Archbishop Cosmo Lang

The Archbishop clearly thought his words were for the best. In a speech the following day in the House of Lords, he praised the new King’s ‘sterling qualities’; his “straightforwardness, his simplicity, his assiduous devotion to public duty”, which, even though he did not say so directly, were clearly in direct contrast to the brother whom he had succeeded. As one prominent ‘courtier’ Henson observed about Lang’s broadcast ‘homily’, there was an assumption of patronising familiarity with the new King and his family, which was also offensive. On Christmas Eve, Lang sent out an urgent clerical circular imposing a period of silence. I think enough has been said on this painful matter, and the time has come for reticence, he told his colleagues, fearing that they might use their Christmas sermons for further attacks. He had received a telephone call from the Palace the previous night in which Lord Wigram had told him that the King was ‘put out’ and urged ‘reticence’ on the ‘leaders of religion’.

Lang’s comments were picked up by the American press, and Time magazine asked all three hundred Privy Councillors if the king still stuttered. On 21 December, it reported that none could be found willing to be quoted as saying that His Majesty does not still stutter. Although the British press refrained from discussing such matters, Lang’s comments helped fuel a whispering campaign of gossip against the new King and his fitness to rule. This grew in intensity after he announced in February that he was postponing a Coronation Durbar in India, which his brother had planned for the following winter, blaming the postponement on the weight of duties and responsibilities he had faced since his unexpected accession to the throne. For some, though, it was taken as a sign of weakness and frailty; several among the Duke of Windsor’s dwindling band of allies suggested Bertie might not be able to survive the ordeal of the Coronation, let alone the strains of being King.

For their part, the British newspapers ensured a smooth transition and did not comment on the King’s speech impediment. However, as Lloyd George commented from his isolated rest in Jamaica, this second king was…

…just the sort of King which suits them, (one who) will not pry into any inconvenient questions: he will always sign on the dotted line and he will always do exactly what he is told’.

Inadvertently, Lang’s comments helped fuel a whispering campaign of gossip against the new king and his fitness to rule. Several among the Duke of Windsor’s dwindling band of allies suggested ‘Bertie’ might be too weak and frail to survive the ordeal of the Coronation, let alone the strains of being king. They also made sure that the idea took hold that there had been an establishment plot to remove King Edward. Certainly, all the evidence we now have, suggests that just because Edward himself may have believed it to the point of paranoia, that did not mean that there were not those in the Establishment who were ‘out to get him,’ Baldwin, Chamberlain and Lang among them. Vera Brittain expressed the view of many liberal intellectuals that the whole Simpson affair had been…

…a convenient excuse for removing a monarch whose informality, dislike of ancient tradition, and determination to see things for himself had affronted the “old gang” from the beginning.

‘Baldwinian’ Public Opinion & Mass Observation:

Certainly, whatever tributes Baldwin may have paid the retiring monarch from the floor of the Commons, he showed in private how relieved he was that Edward had been persuaded to depart. There was little, if any, sign of regret. Both Nicolson and Bernays recorded similar gleeful reactions from him in their exchanges with him on the corridors of the House. No quiet reflection, certainly no remorse or guilt. Most tellingly, Baldwin told Bernays that a crisis was bound to come and that it might have come on a more difficult issue. In this remark, at the time it was made, he can only be referring to one issue – that of unemployment and the distressed areas. The timing of ‘the crisis’ and the nervousness of ministers and civil servants before, during and after his visit to South Wales is a clear sign that his intervention in social policy was what precipitated his downfall.

Though there was undoubtedly a sizeable body of opinion supporting Edward when they eventually heard of the crisis, which was unable to find its own voice, free from the machinations of politicians, there was also a strong feeling of disappointment in him, even a sense that he himself had betrayed them, or at least let them down at a time of great need. Nevertheless, the sense of exclusion from the process leading to the Abdication, and of the ‘democratic deficit’ it demonstrated led one young man in Lancashire to set up an organisation to gauge public opinion. Tom Harrison set up Mass Observation in December 1936 to find out and publish ordinary people’s views on social and foreign policy issues.

George V had started Christmas Day broadcasts from Sandringham four years earlier, and as the festive season approached, there was some speculation as to whether George VI would keep up the tradition. In the event, Alec Hardinge, acting on the advice of Lionel Logue, decided against it. The King was nervous about it, partly due to the Archbishop’s recent tactless remarks, which had made him even more self-conscious and the public even more aware of his impediment.  There was also a feeling at court that a period of silence from a monarchy still in disgrace would be appropriate. So, the royal family continued to enjoy a quiet family holiday together.

Back in Australia, Bertie’s accession to the throne had led the newspapers to refocus attention on the role of one of their own in helping cure his speech impediment. However, a rare note of dissent was struck in the letters column of the Sydney Morning Herald on 16th December 1936 by the honorary secretary of the Stammerers’ Club of New South Wales, H. L. Hullick, who took exception to Logue’s diagnosis of the King’s speech disorder as physical in nature. Hullick’s letter provoked a spirited response from several other correspondents, including that of Esther Moses and Eileen M. Foley of Bondi, whose letter was published on 24th December:

During a visit to London and in 1935 and 1936, we were the privileged guests of Mr and Mrs Logue in their private home at Sydenham Hill, and are therefore in the position to prove to your correspondent that without doubt the Mr Logue did cure his majesty of his stammering, after all other specialists had failed.

In vindication of this statement we have read letters, personally written by his Majesty, to Mr Logue, in which he gratefully thanked him for the success of his treatment. This was effected just prior to the Royal visit to Australia of the Duke and Duchess of York in May 1927, and greatly contributed to the success of their tour.

Much credit is given to her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, who during the entire trip, untiringly carried out instructions, personally given to her by Mr Logue.

Back in Britain, the brouhaha died down after Christmas, but for some time, there remained a lingering sense of dissatisfaction that the views of the people themselves about the abdication had not been taken properly into account, and there had been a democratic deficit in the press and in Parliament. Without the evidence of polling, the range of feeling over an issue that split the nation will never be fully known. Baldwin, always convinced he had his finger on the popular pulse, was certain that public opinion had been expressed through the views of MPs in Parliament. But this confidence was challenged by the many letters of support that Edward VIII had received. Edward did indeed seem to have a measure of public support that the ‘Establishment’ was unable or unwilling to measure. One supporter wrote directly to him:

‘There is a vast body of the English Public inarticulate … who were unable to have any influence on the outcome of the crisis.’

Another complained to Churchill that:

‘… no means existed for ascertaining the the guidance and extent of the “public opinion” to which the newspapers so glibly referred’.

Nonetheless, it seems that the majority supported Baldwin and backed King Edward’s abdication. There was undoubtedly a widespread sense of disappointment in Edward and a feeling that a much-loved monarch had betrayed his people. He was popular because, as one working-class Briton told his son, Edward was someone who identified with the people, so there was a feeling of being let down, that he had feet of clay.

Many of the moneyed upper class preferred to spend Christmas in the Alps. Geoffrey Dawson headed with his family to Kitzbuhel in Austrian Tyrol. Before leaving, he learnt that the former King, who was in Austria staying with the Rothschilds, had taken a house in the resort for some skiing during the break. The thought of bumping into him on the slopes was a ghastly prospect for Dawson, who had already been forced to defend himself against attacks from Churchill for the ‘cruelty’ with which he had treated Edward during the crisis. Fortunately for him, however, the Duke of Windsor remained near Vienna. Dawson did bump into the Duchess of Saxe-Coburg, like her husband, a fervent pro-Nazi, who told him that the Duke “moved in the worst rich Jew set in the Austrian capital”.

As 1936 drew to its close, a pivotal year in which much changed, optimism swung to pessimism, with conflict emerging abroad and the hopes of pacifism being dashed at home. Rearmament, rather than social and economic reform, became the priority. As the British people continued to long for peace, they began to prepare for war once more. Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement grew directly out of a sense that in the coming of another European war, all would be lost. Wilson Harris, the editor of The Spectator, expressed the fear that many felt as the prospect of a second Armageddon overshadowed the country:

‘Life goes on; trade slowly but consistently expands; stock exchange values mount; unemployment diminishes, slums are cleared and houses built. But through it all pnetrates ceaselessly the recurrent thought that all our building is for destruction … all the wise expenditure of the nation on the education and health of its children and the support of the unemployed, its sick and aged will be checked or disastrously contracted by the need for laying on ourselves and future generations insupportable burdens in preparation for a new war.’

However, there was one glimmer of hope through the gathering gloom. Over the next four years, rearmament would finally bring an end to the suffering of the depressed areas. But then, the dreams of many were to come to an abrupt end, just as Harris foretold. It would not be until after the war that the hopes born in 1936 out of the dignified protests of the Jarrow Marchers and the miners and steelworkers of south Wales and the work of economists such as Keynes and social surveyors such as Orwell could be given full expression. And if the attempts of Edward VIII to modernise and challenge the values of the post-Victorian generation failed that year, something of his more informal style and more tolerant values were to prevail in the British monarchy and establishment after the Second World War.

Though unsuccessful in realising its immediate objectives, the Jarrow Crusade entered the folk memory of post-war reforming movements.

New Year’s Eve was a quieter affair than the previous year, with no half-naked bacchanals at the Craven Lodge ball. The royal family rested in retreat at Sandringham as the new King came to terms with his unwanted destiny. From his fairy-tale Schloss, the Duke of Windsor fretted on the phone to Wallis, who suspected him of infidelity with Baroness Rothschild. Winston Churchill told a friend that he had no regrets about the year just gone:

“As you know, in politics I always prefer to accept the guidance of my heart to calculations of public feeling.”

However, the lack of exact knowledge of popular feeling about the abdication of Edward VIII revealed a glaring omission in the British political system. As Churchill’s correspondent put it, it was a triumph for dictatorship. This democratic deficit so incensed Tom Harrison, a ‘Lancashire lad,’ that he set up an organisation to gauge public opinion on a range of ‘burning’ issues. He called it Mass Observation, through which he sought to find out and publish the views of ordinary people on such issues. Within a month, in January 1937, ‘MO’ had enlisted five hundred volunteers, who kept diaries and filled in questionnaires. The Mass Observers also went to shops, clubs, churches and sporting events, asking questions and even eavesdropping on conversations in the pubs. In this way, they got the feel of the popular mood. The début subject, appropriately, was the Coronation of King George VI, due to take place on 12th May 1937.

Coronation Spring Chickens:

On 15 April 1937, Lionel Logue received a call asking him to go to Windsor Castle four days later. He was not told the purpose of the visit, but it was not too difficult to guess. The King greeted him warmly as he walked into the room and told him that he could be ‘of great help.’ The reason for the invitation soon became clear; the Coronation was less than a month away, and Bertie required Logue’s help with it. It was to be a massive event, dwarfing in scale George V’s jubilee in 1935 and even his coronation a quarter of a century earlier. Every town already had decorations in its streets, while shops in London competed to produce the most impressive window displays of loyalty to the monarch. Huge crowds of people were expected to converge on the capital.

For the King, the main cause for concern was the ceremony itself, particularly the responses he would have to make in the Abbey. Would he be able to speak the solemn words without stumbling over them? Just as daunting was the live broadcast he was due to make to the Empire on the following evening. As the occasion approached, the King became increasingly nervous. The Archbishop suggested using a voice coach, but Dawson, the royal physician, said he had full confidence in Logue. The King agreed. Alec Hardinge, who had been King Edward’s private secretary and was now fulfilling the same role for his successor, suggested that it might help to have a glass of whisky before speaking, but this was also rejected. At their first session, the King and Logue went through the text of the speech the King was to deliver in the evening, making considerable alterations. Although a bit stiff around the jaw, the King was in excellent health and anxious to do his best.

Any concerns began to fade after 23rd April when the King went, with members of the royal family and Lang, to unveil a memorial monument to his father, making his first speech as monarch since the one he made at the Accession Council. Logue was pleasantly surprised to hear how many people openly expressed astonishment as to how well the King spoke. The following week the King went downriver to Greenwich to open a new hall. He was given a wonderful reception and spoke well, although Logue noticed that he had some difficulty with the word ‘falling.’ The main challenge began on 4th May, at 5.45 p.m., when Logue met Sir John Reith to check that the microphone was properly installed for his broadcast. It fitted to a desk to enable the King to broadcast, as he preferred while standing up. He tried it out, speaking some of the words from the text of the planned broadcast speech, which the princesses were excited to hear from a nearby room, rushing in to congratulate him. He had also attended a rehearsal at the Abbey earlier that day and had been amused by the fact that everyone except the bishops seemed to know their role.

The King continued to practise over the next few days but with mixed results. On the 6th, with the Queen listening, things went badly he became almost hysterical, although she managed to calm him down. Logue wrote of the King, ‘He is a good fellow and only needs careful handling.’ The next day, with Reith and the BBC sound engineer in attendance, they recorded a version of the speech. It was too slow, and the King was disgusted with it. On the third attempt, he was quite pleased, and Logue wrote, He always speaks well in front of the Queen. On the seventh, Reith wrote to Logue suggesting that a composite gramophone record be made from all the records made that morning in case anything went wrong. Writing back, Logue insisted that the final decision was up to Hardinge but added that the third one should make an excellent record. While there would be no microphone in the Abbey, the King would have to make his speech into one in the evening. Logue wrote in his diary:

‘In an ordinary speech, he is ever nigh perfect, he makes a good speech, and enjoys it, but loathes the microphone.’

On the same day, Logue received a call from his friend John Gordon, editor of the Sunday Express. The Coronation itself and speculation about how well the King would speak his lines were inevitably reviving the newspaper’s interest in his speech impediment and in the assistance Logue had given him in fighting it. Gordon read him an article about the King which, Logue was pleased to note, did not mention him by name. But an hour later, Gordon called him again to say that a reporter on the Daily Telegraph – Mr Miller – had sent in an article to the Sunday Express another article about the King that began:

‘A black-eyed grey-haired man, aged sixty, an Australian, is in constant attendance on the King and is his greatest friend. They ring each other up every day, etc. etc.’

It was, Logue considered,

all wrong. Very scurrilous and would do a tremendous lot of harm. … John sent for him and said that the article… could cause a lot of harm. He put the fear of hell into Mr Miller and said that if he sent it to anyone, he would never have another article published. Mr Miller left the article with John… Thank heavens!’

On the morning of the 10th, with two days to go before the Coronation, Logue went to the Palace. The tension was clearly getting to the King, who was not sleeping well and appeared very nervy to Logue. That evening, at eight o’clock, he received a telephone call telling him he was being recognised in the Coronation Honours List for his services to the King. Clearly thrilled, Logue ended his diary for that day: ‘Everything Splendid. “MVO” – Member of the Victorian Order.’ When Logue saw the King the following afternoon, he thanked him for the great honour. The King grinned and said, ‘Not at all. You have helped me. I am going to reward those who help me.’ He then took the order out of his drawer, showed it to Logue and told him to wear it at the Abbey. While he was there, Logue and the King listened through their recording of his speech. It was good enough to broadcast, but Logue hoped it wouldn’t be necessary to use it. He wrote in his diary:

‘HM improves every day, getting good control of his nerves and his voice is getting some wonderful tones into it. Hope he does not get too emotional tomorrow. HM offered up a prayer tonight. He is such a good chap – and I do want him to be a marvellous King.’

George VI’s Coronation on 12 May 1937: Inside Westminster Abbey.

Both the Coronation itself and the speech to the Empire that evening had been a triumph for the King – as the next morning’s newspapers noted. ‘Slow, deliberate and clear, his voice betrayed no sign of fatigue,’ the Daily Telegraph commented. A clergyman from Manchester wrote to the Daily Mail to express delight at ‘the sound of the King’s voice and the purity of his diction.’ He continued:

‘With all the depth of his father’s voice, there is an additional softness which makes it it even more impressive for the listener. I think it was the nearest approach to perfect “standard English” I have ever heard. There was no trace of anything which could be called accent.’

Those listening from around the ‘anglophone’ world were also pleasantly surprised by the fluency of the supposedly tongue-tied monarch. The Detroit Free Press‘s radio notes compiler was baffled by what he heard coming loud and clear over the ether from London. He wrote:

‘Now that the Coronation is over, listeners are wondering what became of the speech impediment the King was supposed to have. It wasn’t apparent throughout the entire ceremony, after hearing the new King deliver his address, many persons are classifying him with President Roosevelt as possessing a perfect radio voice.’

The Honeymoon Months for Albert and David:

With the Coronation behind him, the King was able to relax a little more. He was still not completely ‘cured’ of his speech impediment, but with Logue’s assistance, he was gradually getting the better of it. Logue, meanwhile, suffering from what Time described as nervous exhaustion, was reported to have left London for a long rest. On his return, he helped the King to prepare for the various speeches that were now becoming routine. Although such speeches passed off fairly successfully, the King’s staff were concerned about the effect his continuing speaking problems were having on him and were forever on the lookout for ways of treating them.

On 22nd May, Sir Alan ‘Tommy’ Lascelles, the King’s assistant private secretary, wrote to Logue referring to a letter he had received relating to correspondence in The Times about how forcing left-handed children to act as if they were right-handed could cause speech impediments such as stammering. In his reply, four days later, Logue notes how such practice can lead to a disorder which may disappear if the patient is changed back to his natural hand. He stressed that it was too late for the King, however. It became increasingly difficult to change the patient back again, and he had rarely heard of a successful case in middle life. Logue concluded:

‘… unfortunately in the matter of Speech Defects, when so much depends on the temperament and individuality, a case can always be produced that can prove you are wrong. That is why I won’t write a book.’

During a meeting on 28 July, Hardinge said the King was talking well but was overtired. Logue agreed, saying it was a shame he did get more time to himself as he was overloaded. This impression was confirmed when he saw the King later that day: he seemed very drained, and they had a long talk about his weak stomach and how it affected his speech. Logue wrote in his diary the same day:

‘They certainly don’t understand the King. I, who know him so well, know just how much work he can stand up to and talk splendidly – give him too much work and make him too tired and it impacts the on his weakest part – his speech. They are very foolish to overwork him. He will crash and they will only have themselves to blame.’

The fear of a crash in the King’s speech: the State Opening of Parliament was only a few months away and, though not nearly so much of an ordeal as the Coronation, it would still pose a considerable challenge of a different nature. It required the Monarch to visit Parliament and read out the programme of Neville Chamberlain’s government. Chamberlain had just become Prime Minister on the resignation of Stanley Baldwin in May (see below). It was an unavoidable part of his duties as monarch, but that did not prevent him from worrying about it. He was preoccupied with how well George V had spoken on such occasions and feared he might fall short. As Logue noted in his diary after they met in early October to run through the text,

‘He is still worrying over the fact that his Father did this sort of thing so well. As I explained, it took his Father many years before he got in the excellent state he did.’

The King had already made good progress with the text itself, which ran to 980 words and took him ten to twelve minutes to get through. But there was the further challenge of having to do so while wearing a heavy crown. When Logue arrived for practice on the eve of the ceremony, he was surprised to see the King sitting on his chair, running through the speech with the crown perched on his head. He had put it on so that he could bend to the left or the right without it falling. Logue wrote, retrospectively, in his diary on the 25th that, in fact, the crown fitted so perfectly that there was no need to worry in the slightest. After two successful run-throughs, Bertie put the crown away. The speech to parliament passed off successfully, with that weekend’s edition of the Sunday Express describing it as a triumph. It reported:

‘He spoke slowly, but there was no hesitation or stammer. Indeed it took on a dignity and actual beauty from the tempo that he had wisely imposed on himself. … One does not need to be clairvoyant to understand what was passing through the Queen’s mind. When the King had finished she could not keep from her eyes the pride of a woman in her husband.’

Eating with the Lions:

Meanwhile, the recently married Duke and Duchess of Windsor, exiled in Austria, caused further controversy and embarrassment for George VI when they met the German Führer in the Bavarian Alps…

This ill-advised visit, where they were met by Hitler and other Nazi leaders, could by no means be described as frittering away their time, as Tommy Lascelles, George VI’s private secretary, had predicted they would. Its political connotations were clear, even if discounted by the Duke. It left Harold Nicolson considerably on edge. He refused to travel through Germany himself ‘because of Nazi rule,’ telling Chips Channon:

‘We stand for tolerance, truth, liberty and good humour. They stand for violence, oppression, untruthfulness and bitterness.’

For Harold, these were distinguishing traits that obviously had eluded the notice of the Windsors. It must have confirmed for him what many suspected: that the Windsors had fallen heavily for the ‘champagne-like influence of Ribbentrop.’ Joachim von Ribbentrop, the former German ambassador in London and, in October 1937, the Nazi Party’s foreign affairs spokesman in Berlin, was probably the instigator of this meeting. In February 1938, he replaced the non-party figure Neurath as Hitler’s Foreign Minister. Ribbentrop had helped secure the Anglo-German Naval Agreement in 1935 and was sent as Hitler’s special representative to London to try to secure a wider British alliance. His aims, first as special commissioner and then from August 1936 as German ambassador to London, were frustrated by his own diplomatic ineptitude but more seriously by the Baldwin government’s unwillingness to make any substantial concession to the German position.

Rumour in London had it that Ribbentrop ‘had used Mrs Simpson’, and even Channon had admitted that King Edward was ‘going the dictator’s way, and is pro-German, against Russia and against too much slip-shod democracy.’ It has been persuasively argued that Edward differed in many aspects from the British government’s foreign policy and foolishly allowed his tongue to wag in an ‘unconstitutional fashion.’ However, Harold Nicolson concluded that Edward believed more than he should have, both in German integrity and in his ability to influence the course of events. Of course, he was by no means alone among the members of the ‘young’ western European élite in suffering under the first of these delusions. Ribbentrop’s ‘charm offensive’ on the British establishment had shown, for a time, signs of making inroads. He once told Thomas Jones, Baldwin’s cabinet secretary, that the Führer was really just like Mr Baldwin, a shy and modest man, a gentle artist. Rather than bursting out laughing, Jones felt that Ribbentrop was probably right in his assessment. Hitler himself was the object more of fascination, even infatuation, than repugnance.

A constant stream of approving visitors to Berlin or Berchtesgaden came back to Britain glowing with enthusiasm for the miracles he had wrought in Germany. David Lloyd George declared him the greatest living German and an Anglophile who wished nothing but the best for the British Empire. The former PM’s only regret was that Britain had no leaders of his calibre. For the historian Arnold Toynbee, Hitler was indistinguishable from Mahatma Gandhi, both being teetotal and vegetarian men of peace. Lord Rothermere, the newspaper magnate, swore that he was a ‘perfect gentleman.’ These apparent expressions of admiration helped to persuade Hitler that an understanding could be reached between the British government and the Third Reich. Their fundamental strategic interests seemed to be in accord. Ribbentrop told Lord Halifax that Germany simply wanted a ‘freer hand’ in eastern Europe while allowing Britain to protect and promote its empire in Asia and Africa. In London, Ribbentrop played this tune like a virtuoso, exploiting issues where he thought the British had a tender conscience, as Simon Schama has put it.

Well before the annexation of Austria in 1938, Ribbentrop – by then back in Berlin – like many in the German government and Nazi party, were deploring France’s alliances with small eastern European states and saw the ‘reorganisation’ of eastern Europe under the leadership of the German Reich as both inevitable and innocuous. A strong German presence in the east would be a cost-free buffer against the Bolshevik menace that was the real threat to peace and freedom.

For Britain in the 1930s, German strategic plans in the east, whatever they might be, were certainly not worth risking another pan-European war for. In this, Baldwin’s and Chamberlain’s governments were indeed in tune with the opinion of the vast majority of Britons right through 1939. Memories of the last war were still raw and traumatic for many families. But the passionate desire for peace was the monopoly of neither the right nor the left. This was what Ribbentrop failed to understand about the views of ordinary Britons whose opinions, in a democracy, had to be taken into account by their leaders. At the time of the Abdication Crisis in November-December 1936, Ribbentrop had completely misread British public opinion with calamitous consequences. From the very beginning of the crisis, he had asserted confidently, ‘the whole affair will go up in smoke.’ By ‘affair’, he clearly meant the crisis, not the King’s relationship with Mrs Simpson, as is evident from what he also told his staff:

“You’ll see, the King will marry Wally, and the two will tell Baldwin and his whole gang to go to the devil.”

Quoted in Fritz Hesse (1954), Hitler and the English, p. 31. London: Allen Wingate.

He went on to pronounce that, far from being Baldwin’s triumph, the abdication was his nemesis. Of course, Baldwin himself described the abdication, in the House of Commons, as a ‘failure’ on his part. He had simply wanted the King not to marry Mrs Simpson and, if possible, to give her up. And, in any case, he retired as PM soon after the Coronation, as he had intended to do a year earlier. But for Ribbentrop, ‘this was the end of Baldwin,’ as he told a startled lunch guest, predicting:

“… there would be shooting in the streets, and the King’s Party would eventually restore Edward VIII to the throne.”

The situation was so grave, he believed, that he was extremely nervous about walking in the streets of London. His misreading would have been laughable had its effects not been so grave. The hapless diplomat had built up the King as a man of destiny, capable of forging a new alliance with Germany. He had convinced Hitler that the monarch held the key to Germany’s future in Europe. But by abdicating, Edward had sacrificed everything for love, a humiliating blow to Ribbentrop’s strategy, making him look a fool in the eyes of his Führer. Instead of accepting that he had made a serious error of judgement, however, he presented the Abdication to Hitler as an anti-German conspiracy of Jews, freemasons and plutocrats. Hitler readily accepted his Ambassador’s explanation. Ribbentrop’s mission to London, which had begun with high hopes on all sides, was now heading for disaster for all sides.

Von Ribbentrop became ever more ill-tempered, laughed at behind his back, insulted to his face and lampooned in the newspapers. The diplomatic dance was over. His feelings of affection and admiration for Britain turned to detestation. From being an anglophile in 1936, he had become an Anglophobe just a year later. In his final dispatch from London, he briefed Hitler that the departure of the well-disposed King had ended forever the hopes of an alliance between the two countries. He warned the Führer that Britain and her Empire must henceforth be regarded as Germany’s most dangerous enemy. After that, he spent little further time in London, preferring to advance his Anglophobic cause in Berlin.

Once in charge of Nazi foreign policy, following his return to Berlin in 1937, Ribbentrop did everything he could to isolate Britain, especially its new King and Prime Minister. Instead, he forged a global alliance with Germany’s fellow dictatorships in Italy and Japan. He began by wooing Mussolini, using Italy’s isolation since the Ethiopian War and the tensions with the western states from the summer of 1936 over Italian intervention in the Spanish Civil War. This pushed Mussolini towards an alliance with Hitler, and the Führer rewarded Ribbentrop by appointing him Foreign Minister in February 1938. By May of that year, he had persuaded Hitler that Britain and France were decadent and isolationist. But Chamberlain did not think of himself as an isolationist; rather as someone who would engage actively with Hitler and make him see reason by promoting the peaceful ‘rearrangement’ of Europe. Halifax, his new Foreign Minister, had already been to Germany at the end of 1937, and was heartened in the belief it had given him, already indicated by Ribbentrop, that a deal by which Germany was left to do what it wanted in Europe and Britain left alone in the empire, could indeed be struck.

George VI’s Radio Broadcasts:

On 25 December 1932, George V had begun what was to become a national tradition of the annual radio broadcast to the British nation and Commonwealth. Seated at a desk under the stairs at Sandringham, he had read out words written for him by Rudyard Kipling, the great imperial poet and author of the Jungle Book:

“I speak now from my home and from my heart to you all, to my peoples throughout the Empire, to men and women so cut off by the snows, the desert or the sea that only voices of the air can reach them, men and women of every race and colour who look to the Crown as the symbol of their union.”

George V made broadcasts on the following Christmas Days until 1935, when he reflected not only on his Silver Jubilee but on the two other major royal events of the year: the marriage of his son Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, and the death of his sister, Princess Victoria. The broadcasts, which were mildly religious in tone, were intended to cast the monarch in the role of a great family spanning not just the United Kingdom but also the whole Empire. However, neither George VI nor those around him saw the broadcast like that. For him, the Christmas message was not a national tradition but simply something his father had chosen to do, and Bertie did not want to emulate him. The previous Christmas, with his brother’s abdication only two weeks old, there had been no expectation that he should speak. By December 1937, at the end of the Coronation year, though, the situation was completely different, and there was a clamour from the Empire, in particular, for the new King to speak.

Nevertheless, Albert George was still reluctant, partly due to the trepidation he always felt about public speaking engagements, especially those requiring him to speak alone into a microphone to tens, maybe hundreds of millions of people. He also felt that he would encroach on his father’s territory and memory by making such a speech. At a meeting on 15th February, at which Logue was present, Hardinge proposed a solution whereby the King would read a lesson in Church on Christmas morning. However, the idea was dropped for fear that it might alienate other denominations. The Palace was coming around to the idea that the King might read a short message to the Empire, and after a meeting on 4 November, when Logue worked with the King on a few routine speeches, Hardinge showed him a rough draft which he proclaimed to be ‘quite good.’

Logue, meanwhile, had another concern. There were false but persistent rumours that Princess Margaret Rose, now aged seven, suffered from the same speech impediment as her father. Logue suggested that the next time she was in a newsreel, she should make her a point of saying a few words, something like “come on, Mummy!” or “Where is Georgie?” to prove that she could talk clearly and easily without stammering. On Remembrance Day, the service was interrupted by an ex-serviceman, who had escaped from a mental asylum interrupted the two-minute silence with a shout, ‘All this hypocrisy.’ When Logue met the King on 23rd November, Bertie revealed that he still hadn’t decided whether or not to go ahead with his first Christmas radio broadcast. Even if he made a speech, he was certain it would not be seen as reinstating an annual tradition. It was decided to make a final decision the following week at Sandringham. Logue wrote that he thought it would be a good thing to do a small broadcast that Xmas but certainly not every year. At dinner, the King was in a good mood, reading Logue a rhyme about his brother and Mrs Simpson, chuckling when he reached the line, ‘looked after State in the day time and Mrs Wally at night.’

Logue was invited to join the King at Sandringham for Christmas Day 1937. He recalled that nothing could have been more homely or sweeter than the welcome they gave me. There were about twenty guests gathered in the reception room, gloriously carved in light oak with thirty-foot ceilings and a musician’s gallery at one end. Just as they were about to go in for lunch, a woman dressed in light blue moved up to his elbow and held out her hand. As he recorded in his diary, he had ‘had the privilege of at last meeting one of the most wonderful women I have ever seen – Queen Mary. Logue sat between the Queen and the Duchess of Kent. The King was directly opposite. After lunch, he joined the King in his study, the same room from which King George V had broadcast between 1932 and 1935. The two men discussed the text of the 1937 broadcast and went through the procedure to ensure that everything was in place. They then went down the main hall, through the reception room to the broadcasting room. In the centre of the room was a large desk with two microphones and a red light in the centre. Since his Coronation broadcast, Logue had found that the King was much easier and less constrained in his speech when he could walk about. He began to speak in a beautifully modulated voice:

“Many of you will remember the Christmas broadcasts of former years, when my father spoke to his peoples, at home and overseas, as the revered head of a great family… His words brought happiness into the homes and into the hearts of listeners all over the world… I cannot aspire to take his place, nor do I think that you would wish me to carry on, unvaried, a tradition so personal to him. …”

Three minutes later, it was all over. Logue was the first to congratulate him on his first Christmas Broadcast: ‘Just a shade too long on two words through trying to get too much of an emphasis,’ he recorded later in his diary. They went back into the reception room, where the royal family and the other guests crowded around, adding their congratulations. Queen Mary, aged seventy, went into the Broadcast room with the King and Queen Consort to wait to hear the broadcast played back from London, and she was as interested as a schoolgirl in all the paraphernalia. Then they heard the speech back again, and Queen Mary thanked the engineers, asking them:

“Was all this done when my late husband broadcasted and were all you gentlemen here?… And I knew nothing about it.”

As they passed through the microphone room, Queen Elizabeth stopped Lionel, and putting her hand on his shoulder, she told him:

“Mr Logue, I do not think that Bertie and I can ever thank you enough for what you have done for him. Just look at him now. I do not think I have ever known him so light-hearted and happy.”

The Royal Family in Coronation robes. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth with their daughters Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. The King gave this framed portrait to Lionel Logue as a gift.

After an hour-long conversation, in which they talked about the many things that had happened since the Coronation, the King took Logue into the library and took from his desk a picture of himself, Queen Elizabeth and the two little princesses in their coronation robes, which the couple had autographed, which he gave to Logue as well as a beautiful replica of a silver tobacco box, and a pair of gold sleeve links in black enamel with the royal arms and Crown. The King had given the Queen a sapphire coronet, but Logue was struck by the whole simplicity of the party and the other presents, especially those given to the children. Then they all played ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’ with the two princesses and the other royal children. Lionel described his Christmas Day to his own family and guests at Sydenham later that night as ‘one of the most wonderful days I have ever had in my life.’

Myrtle Logue was not at home, however, since she had gone to Australia at the beginning of November to recover from a gallbladder operation. She arrived by ship in Freemantle on 5th December, spent four weeks in Perth and then continued eastwards to across the country. It was the first time Myrtle had been home since she and Lionel had left for England more than a decade earlier. She was the guest of the Governor of Victoria, Lord Huntingfield and his wife at Government House. Journalists flocked to interview the woman described as the ‘wife of King George’s voice specialist.’ While Lionel had always exercised careful discretion when it came to talking about his work, his wife was far less reticent in talking about the King. She told one interviewer that he was ‘the hardest worker in the world,’ a man of ‘enormous vitality and strength’ that enabled him to cope with his equally enormous workload. She spoke warmly of his ‘particularly happy smile’ and his ‘wonderful sense of humour.’ She told another interviewer:

“His majesty frequently comes to our house – he is most charming. So are the Princesses, who are completely unspoilt, although Margaret Rose is the most joyous – Elizabeth has rather more sense of responsibility. They both speak beautifully and are simple and unassuming. My husband goes to the Palace almost every night now, and always the little Princesses come in to say “Goodnight, Daddy”

The Sun, 18 January 1938.
Appeasement & ‘Bloodless’ Conquests, 1938-39:

While Myrtle was making her triumphal progress through Australia (she was due home in April), Europe was moving inexorably towards war. In September, Chamberlain met Hitler at his lair in Berchtesgaden, where the Duke and Duchess of Windsor had visited him in October 1937. In the early spring of 1938 came the Anschluss with Austria.

Above and below: The final two pages of These Tremendous Years, 1919-38, published in 1938.

But as tension rose between Berlin and Prague during the summer of 1938, Britain and France sought to intervene in the conflict over the Sudetenland.

Czechoslovakia came next on the Nazi target list, with its substantial ethnic German population, which formed a majority in some regions of the Sudetenland. At Berchtesgaden, Chamberlain agreed that Germany could annexe the Sudetenland, provided a majority of its population voted in favour in a plebiscite. But when Chamberlain flew back to see the Nazi leader in Bad Godesberg, near Bonn, on 22nd September, Hitler brushed aside the previous agreement, by which he had guaranteed the independence of the ‘rump’ of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain flew home again, and now, at last, it seemed like he was going to stand firm, promise support for the Czechs and persuade the French to honour their treaty obligations. The British Fleet was mobilised on 28th September, and when Parliament assembled the same day, Chamberlain made a speech the whole drift of which seemed to be pointing to war. But before he reached the climax, there was a dramatic interruption. Harold Nicolson noted that a sheet of Foreign Office paper was being rapidly passed along the Government bench to the Prime Minister:

‘He adjusted his pince-nez and read the document that had been handed to him. His whole face, his whole body, seemed to change. He raised his face so that the light from the ceiling fell full upon it. All the lines of anxiety and weariness seemed suddenly to have been smoothed out; “Herr Hitler,” he said, “has just agreed to postpone his mobilisation for twenty-four hours and to meet me in conference with Signor Mussolini and Seignour Deladier at Munich”.

‘That, I think, was one of the most dramatic moments I have ever witnessed. For a second, the House was hushed in absolute silence. And then the whole House burst into a roar of cheering, since they knew that this might mean peace. That was the end of the Prime Minster’s speech, and when he sat down the whole House rose as a man to pay tribute to his achievement.’

Harold Nicolson (1967), Diaries and Letters, 1930-1939. pp. 370-71.

Chamberlain was still in Germany when Logue met the King the next day. The reason for their meeting was a speech the King had to make for the launch of the new liner, Queen Elizabeth. He was understandably preoccupied with the worsening international situation and wanted to know from Logue what ordinary people thought about the prospect of war. Like so many of his generation, the King had been so appalled by the slaughter of the First World War that he seemed to consider anything, even the appeasement of the Nazi leader, preferable to another all-out conflict. He told Lionel:

“You would be astonished… at the number of people who wish to plunge this country into war, without counting the cost.”

Although his brother might have thought otherwise during his brief but controversial reign, King George VI knew there was little he could do directly about the situation. In reality, as the Abdication Crisis had shown, the influence of the monarch had declined considerably during the reigns of his father and grandfather. In foreign policy, Edward VII had been actively involved in paving the way for the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904. Some held, even at the time, that this had so alienated his nephew, the Kaiser, that it set the course for Germany’s declaration of war on France and Britain’s subsequent involvement. By contrast, George VI had little scope for changing the policies of Baldwin and Chamberlain, even had he wished to do so. In any case, while they pursued a policy of non-intervention and appeasement, he had no reason to do so.

Hitler (centre left) leads Chamberlain past the guard of honour as he arrives in Munich on 30 September 1938. Ribbentrop is on the right, and Sir Neville Henderson, the British Ambassador to Berlin, walks a pace behind. The swastika and the union flags wave together for the last time
(Radio Times Hulton Picture Library)

And so, in the early hours of 30th September, Chamberlain and his French counterpart, Edouard Daladier, together with Hitler and Mussolini, signed what became known as the Munich Agreement, allowing Germany to annexe the Sudetenland. Chamberlain and Hitler also signed a separate document declaring that their countries would never go to war with each other. On his return to London, Chamberlain waved a copy of this agreement to jubilant crowds at Heston airport in west London, stating his conviction that it meant ‘peace for our time.’ Many believed him, but the BBC’s Illusions of Reality programme in the 1970s questioned how the newsreel companies had built up a ‘cinematographic image’ of Neville Chamberlain to bolster his popularity and the apparent trust he inspired in the hearts of ordinary people. Without this, it argued, the Munich Crisis of September-October 1938 would hardly have taken the turn it did. When Chamberlain left Heston airport, everything depended on whether he could get and keep the public’s support for what was, in fact, an unprecedented personal deal with a foreign dictator.

Neville Chamberlain (left) with Joachim Von Ribbentrop (right) during the Czech Crisis, October1938.

The Munich Crisis was the first major international crisis covered by the newsreels. They used the image of the PM they had built up to justify their giving him unqualified support before the negotiations had even begun, let alone succeeded. Years of hard work by Chamberlain forging close links with the newsreels and mastering the technique of creating cinematic images of him as the champion of the ordinary person’s viewpoint finally paid off. British newsreel companies collaborated with the German Ministry of Propaganda to provide massive coverage of Chamberlain’s three visits to Hitler. This provided the cinema audience with a diet of mounting excitement. The famous newsreel of Chamberlain’s return from Munich is both the climax of the media campaign and historical evidence of its result. The Gaumont-British newsreel of October 1938 reported:

“There was no sign of British reserve as the crowds fought to get near the Premier’s car. As we travelled back with Mr Chamberlain from Heston were drove through serried masses of happy people, happy in the knowledge that there was no war with Germany.

“The premier drove straight to Buckingham Palace; here he was received by the King while London waited. And history was made again when their Majesties came out on to that famous balcony with the Prime Minister.

“Posterity will thank God, as we do now, that in the time of desperate need our safety was guided by such a man: Neville Chamberlain.”

Illusions of Reality: 2, Men of the Hour, BBC Continuing Education TV written by Nicholas Pronay, produced by Howard Smith.

The newsreels were clearly unabashed in using the image of the balcony scene of the King and Queen with Chamberlain, to the tune of ‘Land of Hope and Glory,’ as Royal confirmation of their Prime Minister’s ‘great triumph.’ In Chamberlain’s own account of his return from Munich, he was similarly far from reticent in comparing himself with a previous, ‘great’ Conservative PM who returned from Germany having achieved ‘peace with honour’:

‘Even the descriptions in the papers give no idea of the scenes in the streets as I drove from Heston to the Palace. They were lined from one end to the other with people of every class, shouting themselves hoarse, leaping on the running board, banging on the windows and thrusting their hands into the car to be shaken. The scenes culminated in Downing Street, when I spoke to the multitude below the same window, I believe, as that from which ‘Dizzy’ (Benjamin Disraeli) announced peace with honour sixty years ago’.

Quoted in René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties, p. 121.
The Prime Minister at Heston Aiport on his return from Munich.

At the same time, however, Chamberlain did not abate the rearmament programme, which has, ever since, provoked speculation that he was simply buying time to prepare for a war that he saw, in reality, as almost inevitable by the time of the Munich Agreement. It’s not clear that Chamberlain really believed in the ‘hero of peace’ image he created of himself. Meanwhile, Hitler had his own image of the PM and the agreement, as the following satirical comment of his reveals:

The contemporary newsreel footage of the return of Chamberlain from Munich has dominated our historical view of the event itself and his peacemaking efforts over three visits to Germany. As one historian commented in the 1970s:

A piece of film is not some unadulterated reflection of historical truth captured by the camera, which does not require the interpretation of the historian.

J. A. S. Grenville.
The euphoria of relief. Chamberlain received a tremendous ovation, and huge crowds followed his entourage to Buckingham Palace, where he appeared on the balcony with the King and Queen. The large smiling face behind him to the right is that of Leslie Hore-Belisha, Minister of War.

Nicholas Pronay, one of the writers of the BBC programme, pointed out how the newsreels laid stress on the points of similarity, identity and interest between the world of the government and the people, symbolised by the monarch. By doing so, they stressed the points of consensus rather than the points of conflict and debate about the Munich Agreement. Effectively, either wittingly or unwittingly, the ‘participants’ and producers of the newsreels presented a national viewpoint on the role of Britain in Europe that was difficult to challenge at the time because it was on screen for all to see. However, Munich did not prevent war; it merely postponed it.

The Trans-Atlantic Trip – The Royal Visit to Canada & the USA, 1939:

In the months that followed, Logue continued to meet the King, becoming a frequent visitor to Buckingham Palace. The first major challenge the King faced was the speech he had to make for the State Opening of Parliament, set for 8th November. He was also preparing for a visit to Canada, starting in early May 1939, the first by a reigning British monarch. If anything, it was more important than his voyage to Australia and New Zealand more than a decade earlier as Duke of York. While in Canada, the King was to accept an invitation from President F. D. Roosevelt to make a short private visit across the border to the USA. The visits to Canada and the USA were not just about strengthening Britain’s bonds with those North American powers but also a deliberate attempt to shore up sympathy there ahead of the looming pan-continental conflict. Logue was asked to go to the Palace on 3rd November to run through the speech with the King. He arrived early and dropped in on Alec Hardinge, who showed him the text. As he read it, Logue was pleased to see the King would be accepting Roosevelt’s invitation. He wrote in his diary:

‘I consider it the greatest gesture for world peace that has ever been made. Of course a lot of US citizens will argue and say it is a political dodge but they read either politics or money into everything’.

The speech was written in the usual political language, though, and so needed two further appointments to practice it. Logue commented that ‘the redundancy of words is dreadful’. In the event, there were four hesitations in the King’s Speech, which took thirteen minutes to deliver, two minutes longer than when rehearsed. To the relief of both the King and Logue, it was decided that there would be no Christmas Broadcast that year; the previous one had been a one-off for the Coronation year, and during the North American tour, the King would have to make a number of speeches.

In February 1939, a general distribution of air-raid shelters began. Here the inhabitants of a street in North London turn out to welcome their steel Anderson shelters, which they dug into their small back gardens.
(Radio Times Hulton Picture Library)

The most important would be in Winnipeg on 24th May, Empire Day. First marked in 1902 on the birthday of Queen Victoria, who had died the previous year, the day was intended to teach children ‘what it meant to be sons and daughters of a glorious Empire.’ At a time of unprecedented international tension, it also provided an opportunity for a display of solidarity on the part of the members of the Empire with the mother country and each other. The number of speeches to be rehearsed also required a similar number of sessions for Logue with the King.

The King and Queen were due to leave on 5th May for Canada on the Canadian Pacific liner RMS Empress of Australia on what would be a twelve-day voyage across the north Atlantic. On this occasion, there was no question of Logue being included in the Royal party, nor did he want to be. Neither did he think it necessary or desirable for the King to have him in attendance, despite all the speeches to be made. The journey was not without incident: the ice field had come much further south than usual during the winter, and there was a thick fog, just as there had been in 1912 when the Titanic came to grief. On this occasion, the ship only narrowly avoided an iceberg. The King and Queen landed safely in Quebec on 17th May, albeit a few days later than expected, and embarked on a tight schedule that took them across the country. They received such an enthusiastic welcome that one Provincial premier told Tommy Lascelles:

“You can go home and tell the Old Country that any talk about Canada being isolationist is just nonsense.”

Wheeler-Bennett, op. cit., p. 379.

A week later came the Empire Day Broadcast, heard back in Britain at 8 p.m. Logue listened to it and afterwards sent a telegram to Lascelles, then aboard the royal train to Winnipeg:

‘Empire Broadcast tremendous success, voice beautiful, resonant speed, eighty minimum atmospheres. Please convey congratulations to His Majesty. Regards Logue.’

The USA leg of their journey, which began on 9th June, was more important for the King and members of the Royal family than the Canadian one. If the latter had been intended to underline Commonwealth solidarity, the King’s presence south of the 49th parallel would provide powerful proof of the strength of the friendship between the UK and the US. Although family members had visited the United States before, this was the first time a reigning British monarch had set foot in the country. As the royal train pulled in, a red carpet was spread on the station platform at Niagara Falls in New York State. President Roosevelt was keenly aware of the symbolism when he issued the invitation but had sent his secretary of state and his wife. Nevertheless, the reaction to the royal couple on the streets of Washington was extraordinary. An estimated 600,000 people walked the royal route from Union Station, past the Capitol, down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her diary:

In the course of a long life I have seen many important events in Washington, but never have I seen a crowd such as lined the route… They have a way of making friends, these young people.

Wheeler-Bennett, op. cit., p. 383.

For the King, the high point of the visit was the twenty-four hours that they spent at Hyde Park, Roosevelt’s country house on the bank of the Hudson River in Dutchess County. Although the Royal Standard was flown from the portico, the two men put all protocol aside and spoke frankly about the worsening international situation and its impact on their respective countries. The two couples quickly developed a familial rapport. Wheeler-Bennett, the King’s official biographer, later speculated that Roosevelt, confined to a wheelchair by polio and the King, with his speech impediment, had been brought closer together by ‘that unspoken bond which unites those who have triumphed over physical disability.’ Queen Elizabeth wrote to Queen Mary that the Roosevelts were:

‘… such a charming & united family, and living so like English people when they come to their country house.’

The King and Queen set off for home from Halifax, Nova Scotia, on board the liner Empress of Britain on 15th June. The Press on both sides of the Atlantic hailed the tour as having made an important contribution to the relationship between Britain and North America. Four days later, Time noted how far the King had come since his ascent to the throne:

‘The trip nowhere had more influence than on George VI himself. Two years ago he took on his job at a few hours’ notice, having expected to play a quiet younger brother role to brother Edward all his life. Pressmen who followed him around the long loop from Quebec to Halifax were struck by the added poise and self-confidence that George drew from the ordeal.’

Wheeler-Bennett later commented that the trip had taken the King out of himself and ‘opened up for him wider horizons and introduced him to new ideas.’ He further noted that:

‘It marked the end of his apprenticeship as a monarch, and gave him self-confidence and assurance.’

The King’s British subjects had a chance to appreciate his newfound self-confident manner at a lunch at the Guildhall on 23rd June, the day after the Royal couple returned to London to a tumultuous welcome. Speaking with great emotion, the King described how the visit had underlined the strength of the links between Britain and Canada:

“I saw everywhere not only the mere symbol of the British Crown: I saw also, flourishing as strongly as they do here, the institutions which have developed, century after century, beneath the aegis of that Crown.”

The verdict of both his seven-hundred-strong audience and the press was very positive. William Hickey of the Daily Express described it as ‘an admirable, shapely speech’ with personal touches that gave the impression the King had composed it himself. It was well delivered, too. The newspaper also noted that:

‘… the King has improved so enormously in this respect since the early days of his reign that one is not now conscious of any impediment.’

The newspaper also praised his development as an orator, as did many former and current associates. Within little more than two months, he was to need all these hard-acquired skills to face a situation in Europe that he, his government ministers and his subjects had hoped could be avoided.

From ‘Phoney Peace’ to ‘Phoney War’, 1939:

In the euphoria of his post-Munich moment, it seems that Neville Chamberlain really believed that he had plucked the safely from the nettle danger, as he put it, quoting Shakespeare. Yet there were signs, even then, that he was looking to the future. He had persuaded Hitler to put his name to a document in which it was agreed that consultation would be the method adopted to deal with any other questions that might arise concerning the two countries. He had risked his entire career to achieve the Munich Agreement. He hoped that it would endure and inaugurate a lasting peace in Europe, but it would not be prudent to assume this would be so. Hitler had been given the benefit of the doubt, and his word was now on trial. The German dictator does not seem to have been unduly concerned. He had raised the stakes, and the British PM had come flying.

Munich has always been seen as an apotheosis of appeasement in action. Ultimately, Chamberlain’s behaviour during these dramatic weeks in September 1938 gave the entire strategy a bad name. Whatever his initial intentions, it has generally been thought that the PM’s zeal for an agreement was ultimately humiliating for him, his King and his country. He allowed himself to be outplayed by Hitler at almost every point. That has been the prominent verdict of posterity. At the time, whether or not the policy could be justified hinged upon what actually happened next. Europe showed no signs of settling down in the early months of 1939 as rumours of further German action abounded. However, six months after the Munich conference, Czechoslovakia again occupied the headlines. German troops entered Prague and established a Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Hungary annexed Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, and Slovakia became nominally independent under German ‘protection’.

After the Prague debácle, Hitler’s aims could no longer be seen to be restricted to the inclusion of all Germans in one German state. Secondly, he could no longer be considered a man of his word. The hopes that Chamberlain had entertained came crashing to the ground. His only consolation was that Chamberlain was able to demonstrate to the important non-European opinion that he had gone to the limits of reasonableness and been rebuffed. Following the King’s visit to Canada, the detachment displayed by most of the Dominions six months earlier began to shift. After Prague, the British government felt more confident in offering a guarantee of independence to the Polish government. But in reality, there was very little that Britain could do in the event of a German attack. The guarantee was designed to warn Hitler that Britain intended to make a stand, but the Führer still believed that Britain would back down when it came to a crisis.

Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov (seated), Von Ribbentrop (standing, left), and Stalin when the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was signed in the Kremlin in August 1939. Stalin and Ribbentrop were obviously at ease with each other.

Von Ribbentrop had urged Hitler to strike against Britain at the earliest opportunity and had done everything he could to obstruct Chamberlain’s overtures in the autumn of 1938. So great was his hostility to the western powers by this time that he pulled off a master-stroke, a pact with the Nazi’s long-declared arch-enemy, the Russian Bolsheviks, completing the encirclement of the British Empire and making war almost inevitable. In August 1939, Hitler sent Ribbentrop to Moscow to negotiate a deal with Stalin in order to complete Poland’s isolation.

The diplomatic coup convinced Hitler that the West would not intervene, and on 1st September, Germany invaded Poland. Yet even when the German blitzkrieg on Poland began, there was still some suspicion on the part of Hitler that Britain and France would refrain from declaring war. Chamberlain continued to negotiate directly with Hitler, even turning down the King’s offer to write a personal letter to the Nazi leader. On Sunday, 3rd September, Sir Neville Henderson, the British ambassador to Berlin, delivered the fateful, final note to the German government stating that unless the country withdrew its troops from Poland by eleven o’clock that day, Britain would declare war. No such undertaking was given, and at 11.15, Neville Chamberlain went on the radio to announce, in sorrowful and heartfelt tones, that Britain was now at war with Germany. France followed suit a few hours later.

On 3 September 1939, Chamberlain made his famous broadcast to tell the British people that it was at war with Germany.
A Royal Proclamation was issued calling up Reserves, and Churchill was finally back into the cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty.

(Radio Times Hulton Picture Library)

Chamberlain had been forced to declare the war he had always wanted to avoid. Even after its outbreak, there was no enthusiasm for a protracted conflict nor an expectation of one. But with his declaration of 3rd September, the people of Britain at least knew where they stood. Logue wrote of ‘a marvellous relief after all our tensionThe universal desire is to kill the Austrian house painter.’ The King expressed similar sentiments in his own diary, which he kept dutifully for the next seven and a half years. He wrote:

‘As eleven o’clock struck that fateful morning I had the a certain feeling of relief that those ten anxious days of intensive negotiations with Germany over Poland, which at moments looked favourable, with Mussolini working for peace as well, were over.’

A few minutes after Chamberlain had finished speaking, the unfamiliar wail of air-raid sirens could be heard across London. In Buckingham Palace, the King and Queen were also surprised to hear the ghastly wailing. The two of them looked at each other and said, ‘it can’t be.’ They went downstairs to the air-raid shelter in their basement. There, in the Queen’s words, they felt ‘stunned and horrified, and sat waiting for bombs to fall.’ There were no bombs that particular night, and about half an hour later, the ‘all-clear’ went up. Like the others fortunate to have access to a shelter, the royal couple returned to their homes. It was to be the first of many such false alarms as the much-feared air raids on London were not to start in earnest until the Blitz almost exactly a year later. Poland was subjected to Blitzkrieg from Germany and Soviet occupation in the East, leading to its complete surrender and partition by 6th October. In the West, meanwhile, Chamberlain’s ‘Phoney Peace’ was over and the ‘Phoney War’ had begun.

The King’s Speech & Christmas Broadcast, 1939:

Now that the war had been declared, Logue knew he would have an important role at the King’s side. At midday on 3rd September came the call he had been dreading. Eric Mieville, who had been the assistant private secretary to the King since 1937, rang to say that the King would broadcast to the nation at 6 p.m. The King received Logue in his private study rather than the room they normally used, which was being prepared for the post-broadcast photograph. He was dressed in his admiral’s uniform, with all his ribbons, and they ran through the speech. Its message, according to his biographer, was…

‘a declaration of simple faith in simple beliefs… which gave encouragement, as perhaps nothing else could, to the British peoples in the face of the struggle which lay ahead, and united them in their determination to achieve victory.’

Wheeler-Bennett, op. cit, p. 406.

Logue went through the text, marking pauses between words to make it easier for the King to read out. He also changed a few words; ‘government’ was replaced with ‘ourselves’; later in the speech, ‘call’ took the place of ‘summon’. Logue was struck by the sadness in the King’s voice as he read and did his best to cheer him up, reminding him of how he and the King and Queen had sat in that same room for an hour on coronation night before the broadcast he had made then, which he had approached with equal trepidation. They laughed and reflected on how much had happened in the thirty months since. At that moment, the door at the other end of the room opened, and the Queen came in, looking, as an infatuated Logue put it, ‘Royal and lovely’. The broadcasting room had just been redecorated and was bright and cheerful, but the mood was sombre. The King knew how much was riding on this speech, which would be heard by millions of people across the Empire. As the clock in the Quadrangle struck six, he began to speak:

When it was over and the red light had faded, Logue extended his hand to the King. “Congratulations on your first wartime speech,” he said. The King, his latest and most crucial ordeal over, simply stated, “I expect I will have to do a lot more.” While the King went to have his photograph taken, Logue stayed with the Queen in the passage. She told him:

“Bertie hardly slept at all last night, he was so worried, but now we have taken the decisive step he is much more cheerful.”

It was a sign of the importance attached to the next day’s newspapers reported that the King had ‘consented’ to have fifteen million copies of the text printed, with a facsimile of his signature, which would then be sent to every household in the country. This massive mail shot never happened, however: officials estimated that the exercise would require 250 tonnes of paper, which was already in short supply, while the Post Office was alarmed at the extra burden it would impose on its already depleted staff. The newspapers had already printed the speech in full, accompanied by a photograph of the King dressed in his admiral’s uniform.

The State Opening of Parliament was due to take place that November, so the King looked to Logue to help him make sure that the speech he had to make went smoothly. The ceremonial robes and ornate costumes that were traditionally such an important part of the occasion were abandoned. The King and Queen arrived at the Palace of Westminster by car rather than by royal coach and with a minimum of retinue; the King wore his naval uniform; the Queen was in velvet and furs. For commentators, the quiet solemnity of the occasion was in sharp contrast to the vulgar fanfare accompanying Hitler’s public appearances. The speech itself, which in peacetime would have set out the government’s proposed legislative programme, was short and to the point:

“The prosecution of the war demands the energies of all my subjects. (Members would be asked to make) further financial provision for the conduct of the war.”

The year also brought one last major speech – the Christmas Broadcast. With the nation at war, everyone knew there could be no question but that he would address his subjects at home and overseas. It was therefore decided that, as his father had done, he would deliver his personal message at the end of the BBC’s annual Round the Empire programme on the afternoon of 25th December. Striking the right tone was a challenge: although the conflict was now well into its fourth month, nothing much had actually happened, apart from isolated raids by scouting parties and aircraft. All had so far remained quiet on the ‘Western Front’, and, despite the occasional false alarm, the much-feared air raids had not happened. Many of the children who had hurriedly evacuated to the countryside had since returned home. The only real action was at sea, and it was not going well for Britain: on 13th October, a skilful U-boat commander had managed to penetrate the defences at Scapa Flow, off the coast of Scotland, and sank the battleship HMS Royal Oak while she was at anchor, with the loss of more than 830 lives. British merchant convoys across the Atlantic were being harassed by the German navy. A rare success was the sinking of the German battleship, the Graf Spee, during the Battle of the River Plate, off the coast of Uruguay.

The War at Sea:
Grey lines show the extent of Allied air cover; red lines show the main convoy routes; Allied merchant ship losses are marked in red;
U-boat losses are marked in green.

The mood at the end of 1939 was generally one of anti-climax; apathy and complacency were rife, something the King was eager to counter. He spoke of what he had seen at close hand: of the Royal Navy, ‘upon which, throughout the last four months, had burst the storm of ruthless and unceasing war’; of the Air Force, ‘who were daily adding laurels to those that their fathers had won’; and of the British Expeditionary Force in France: ‘Their task is hard. They are waiting, and waiting is a trial of nerve and discipline.’ He completed his speech by saying:

“A new year is at hand. We cannot tell what it will bring. If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings continued struggle we shall remain undaunted. In the meantime, I feel that we may all find a message of encouragement in the lines which, in my closing words, I would like to say to you. …”

At that point, apparently on his own initiative, the King quoted some lines from a hitherto unknown poem he had just been sent. It was written by Minnie Louise Haskins, who taught at the London School of Economics, and had been privately published in 1908. The poem she had titled ‘God Knows’ became hugely popular and widely published under the title…

The Gate of the Year:

“And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:

‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’ And he replied:

‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.’

That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’ “

Minnie Louise Haskins (1908)

The King finished with the words, “May that Almighty hand guide and uphold us all.” The Haskins poem deeply impacted the Queen, who had it engraved on a brass plaque fixed to the gates of the King George VI Memorial Chapel at Windsor Castle, where the King was interred twelve years later. The King had dreaded delivering this Christmas message, like almost every other speech before it. He wrote in his diary that night, ‘this is always an ordeal for me & I don’t begin to enjoy Christmas until after it is over.’ Yet there is no doubt about its hugely positive impact on popular morale.

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