Friday, March 20, 2020

Prince Bernard of Lippe-Beisterfeld: A German Prince in the RAF

by Linda Fetterly Root

A replica of the Beech 17S flown by Prince Bernard of the Netherlands
in WWII; Courtesy of Mike Freer, Touchdown Aviation,
with Robert Lamblough in the cockpit

When I discovered the post I had planned to display on my birthday was too similar to one I had published here two years ago, I frantically searched for another event occurring on the 24th of April which readers might find equally interesting.

In desperation, I researched the date on several sites including www. OnThisDay, and found an intriguing snippet there: on April 24, 1941, Prince Bernard of the Netherlands became a pilot in the RAF.  I had never heard of the gentleman and would have glossed over it had it not juggled a personal memory. My Cleveland-born cousin Guy Patterson had joined the RCAF as a glider pilot in April, 1940. In my family, everything about Guy became a legend. He had been a musician in the '30s, a bassist in the George Duffy Orchestra, who expatriated a few weeks after his heiress wife, my godmother Helen Cooper Patterson, died of tuberculosis. Their tragic romance had a very Eddie Duchin Story tone to it. Although I knew what had prompted my kinsman to renounce his citizenship and risk his life, I wondered what might have precipitated such a move on the part of a European royal. I searched further and discovered Prince Bernard was German by birth, and in his youth had been a National Socialist. I was hooked.

Ian Fleming, by Andrew Lycett
The more I read, the more I became convinced I had uncovered the material for a blockbuster historical novel. I did not discover until much later that a British spymaster and author named Ian Fleming had beat me to it.

The Early Life of Bernard (Bernhard) Lippe

Prince Bernard (Bernhard) of Lippe-Biesterfeld was born in Jena, Germany, in 1911. He was the elder son of the brother of Leopold, Prince of Lippe, an independent German principality until the disasters of WWI. Bernard’s parent’s marriage was morganatic, that is a royal marriage between people of divergent social classes, which did not effect Bernard’s legitimacy but did limit him from the succession unless there were no other Lippes left. At birth, he was given the title of Count, but he was not considered a prince. That deficit was remedied in 1916, when Leopold elevated Bernard and his mother to royal status. The figure at the right is his Coat of Arms.

The family principality and its related revenues were lost at the end of World War I, but the Lippes were far from destitute. Prince Bernard's branch established a base in East Brandenburg in what now is modern Poland, where Bernard was home schooled until age twelve, possibly due to his fragile health. According to an obituary published in the Telegraph in 2004, his nurse was Chinese and English, and English became his first language Thereafter, he attended gymnasiums in Switzerland and Berlin before advancing to the University of Lausanne in Switzerland to study law in 1929. At some point, he studied in Munich and later transferred to The Humboldt University Unter den Linden in Berlin. At this time, his life took a turn that continued to vex him whenever his character came under scrutiny.

The Political Metamorphosis of Bernard Lippe

While Bernard was a law student at Humboldt, he joined the Nazi Party and was a member of its paramilitary wing, the S.A., commonly known as the Brownshirts. He also was on the rolls of the Reiter-SS. Although he had not yet resigned his membership, he ceased his participation in the movement when he graduated and went to work for I.G. Farben in Paris in 1934. His membership in Nazi organizations during his years as a student has been one of several sources of controversy, especially since he denied them when his participation was well documented. He later excused them as necessary if he wished to earn a law degree, although he conceded that space to garage his car was a compelling perk of membership.

There is some evidence he harbored a growing concern about Hitler's seizure of power well before he resigned his membership in the Nazi party. Apparently by 1935-36, his apprehensions had grown to a point where he considered leaving Europe. Acquaintances described the youthful Bernard Lippe as a nationalist but not a racist. Although he had met Hitler on at least two occasions, he was never considered a protégé. One story has Hitler referring to him an an idiot. Bernard had not spoken out publicly against Hitler at the time he formally resigned from the party in 1937, and he signed the letter 'Heil Hitler.' When asked about it later, he confessed to being an pragmatist, not a Nazi.

How Bernhard Lippe Became Bernard of the Netherlands

In 1936 while attending the Olympics, Bernard met Princess Juliana of the Netherlands. After serious vetting by Queen Wilhelmina, he and Juliana became engaged. Not all Dutch were enthusiastic about the match, but there was a paucity of suitable Protestant royals on the horizon, and the forceful queen had her way. She is quoted as stating: "This is the marriage of my daughter to the man she loves...not the marriage of the Netherlands to Germany."

Following the engagement, Bernard became a Dutch citizen and changed the spelling of his names to the Dutch versions. He avoided speaking German on public occasions. Living in the Netherlands, he was comfortable going public with his criticism of Adolf Hitler.

Once married to Princess Juliana, he adopted the attitudes of a royalist Dutchman, and severed all connections with members of his family who were Nazis. Insofar as his politics were concerned, it appeared Queen Wilhelmina had chosen well.

WWII and the Birth of James Bond: The British Connection

There were other causes of concern beyond Bernard's political past, not the least of which was the bridegroom’s tendency toward acts of derring-do. Some analysts speculate that he translated his survival of poor health in childhood as a victory over death. Whatever the case may be, Prince Bernard enjoyed living on the edge of the abyss. He raced, collected and demolished expensive high-powered race cars. Ferraris were his favorites. He crashed two airplanes. In one of his misadventures, he broke his back and fractured ribs. He had at least two extramarital affairs yielding daughters, risky business when your mother-in-law is the queen. He showed no fear in confronting Hitler’s advancing army. When Hitler’s forces invaded the Netherlands, Bernard organized the Palace Guard into a fighting force to shoot at German airplanes with machine guns. He was critical of the queen when she elected to flee to England. He preferred to stay and fight. But, when Hitler’s forces overran the country and German victory seemed inevitable, he escorted his family to England but returned to lead the resistance. When the overwhelmed Dutch defenders surrendered, he escaped to England with a remnant of his men.

During the Blitz, Bernard escorted Princess Juliana and their daughters to safety in Canada, but he returned to England to resume the fight. He learned to fly a variety of fighters and bombers and sought a commission with the RAF. At first the English did not trust him quite enough for that, but trained pilots were scarce and eventually they relented. During his days with the RAF, the Prince flew thousands of air miles of missions into occupied Europe under the alias Wing Commander Gibbs. Among his many medals are English campaign ribbons for service in France and Germany. He was an advisor on the Allied War Council, and the military head of the Royal Dutch Army in exile. However, not all of his wartime exploits were in the air.

When Prince Bernard expressed a desire to aid the intelligence efforts, the request met with the same reluctance he had experienced earlier. Flying was one thing, but trusting a former member of the S.A. with military secrets was quite another.

However, Sir Winston Churchill was reluctant to let a man of such obvious talent and connections go to waste so he ordered him assessed by his famous spymaster, Ian Fleming. Fleming was impressed and cleared him for work at the highest levels of planning of the Allied Offensive.

There are rumors that the suave Fleming and fearless Bernard were combined to give life to the spy James Bond. In an article that appeared at the MI6 Community site [1], Gustav Graves recalled an incident from Andrew Lycett’s biography Ian Fleming, describing a caper of Bernard’s during a dinner with Fleming at the Lincoln Inn. A German bomb exploded, destroying a 200 year old staircase leading to the entrance of the hotel. Bernard descended with great panache to the lowest point and loudly thanked Fleming for ‘a most enjoyable evening,’ as if the incident was an everyday occurrence. Fleming does not report how Bernard made it down to the demolished lobby. Gingerly, I presume. Lycett also notes that according to Fleming, Prince Bernard's cocktail of choice was a martini made with ‘Wodka’ rather than gin, an unusual cocktail made to His Highness's exacting specifications.

Bernard served on the Allied War Council and personally led the Dutch forces during the Allied Offensive in the Netherlands. He was present at the negotiations for the Armistice and the surrender of Germany. Throughout the proceedings, he spoke English and Dutch, but not a word of German. He was highly decorated by governments throughout the world, was friendly with Harry S. Truman and a colleague of the usually distant Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, as seen in the photo below.

In spite of post war scandals regarding his financial dealings and a reluctance of some to overlook the affiliations of his youth, he remains a popular hero in the Netherlands and a larger-than-life character of flamboyance and charm to the rest of us--the quintessential sophisticated man of action who took his vodka martinis straight up, always shaken, not stirred, a deviation from the customary martini of which Ian Fleming took note and used. How much else of Commander Bond is borrowed from the Prince is a matter of conjecture.

Prince Bernard followed Princess Juliana in death by mere months in 2004 [2]. There is no question that he suffered from an advanced cancer, nor is there any doubt his remaining days were shorten by Princess Juliana's death. I am delighted to have made his acquaintance.
Queen Juliana and Prince Bernard
Sculpture by Kees Verkade

Author's Note
There is much more to Prince Bernard Lippe-Biesterfeld’s story after WWII. However, this chapter is the one most appropriate to the timeline and subject matter of the English Historical Fiction Author’s blog. As stated above, both he and Juliana died in 2004. Referring to Juliana as a Princess in this post and not as a queen is not an error. The times mentioned are before she succeeded her mother or after she abdicated in favor of her daughter Queen Beatrix.


[2] BBC Obituary of Prince Bernard, December 2004

An Editor's Choice from the #EHFA Archives, originally published April 23, 2017.

Linda Fetterly Root is a retired major crimes prosecutor and a historical novelist writing of events in 16th and 17th century Scotland, France and England. She lives in the Morongo Basin area of the California desert with two wooly malamutes, a flock of chickens and assorted wild things. Her books are on Amazon.

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