Yapou: Governments in Exile, 1939-1945

[Return to Table of Contents]

Chapter 5

The Smallest Ally

Assurances from Powerful NeighboursDisarray in FranceConfusion in LisbonThe British Option

The scenario for Hitler’s occupation of Luxembourg was predictable in its smallest details. Once France and Belgium were attacked, the Grand Duchy was taken over by the Wehrmacht and incorporated de facto into the Third Reich. The Grand Duchess and her government, despairing of an immediate Allied counter-offensive, moved first to France and then to Lisbon. The malevolent actions of the Nazis deprived the Sovereign of any illusions, and during a visit she paid to London it was decided that Luxembourg would join the Grand Alliance and establish the seat of its government in exile in Britain.

Assurances from Powerful Neighbours  [top]

When Grand Duchess Charlotte and her ministers left the Lasauvage area, their refuge in the shadow of the Maginot line, and crossed into France minutes before 8 a.m. on May 10, 1940, the second German invasion of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg in a quarter of a century had already been underway for four hours. The French counter-attack expected at any moment never materialized, and the Sovereign and her government were anxious to ensure Luxembourg’s independence and avoid the experience which had cost Grand Duchess Marie-Adelaide her throne during the First World War following accusations regarding her pro-German attitude. Since 1867 Luxembourg’s international status had been based on a permanent disarmed neutrality as laid down by the London conference which had defused a menacing dispute between Napoleon III and Bismarck. Under this treaty Luxembourg was deprived of military significance by the dismantling of its fortifications and the withdrawal of the Prussian garrison established there. The Grand Duchy’s neutrality was declared perpetual and its independence collectively guaranteed by Britain, France, Austria, Italy, Russia and Prussia. After 1918 Luxembourg also relied for its survival on the collective security system of the League of Nations.

As the clouds of war gathered in Western Europe, the Luxembourg government sought to ascertain the attitude of the three major powers involved with regard to the Grand Duchy. The first to make its position known was Germany. On August 25, 1939, the very day of the signing by Ribbentrop and Molotov of the Soviet-German Pact, the German Minister to Luxembourg, Otto von Radowitz, called on Foreign Minister Joseph Bech and presented him with a statement stressing that, in view of the repeatedly manifested will of the Grand Ducal Government to adhere faithfully to its traditional policy of neutrality, the Reich will observe an attitude which in no circumstances will harm the inviolability of the territory of the Grand Duchy as long as Luxembourg itself observes an attitude of neutrality.[1]

The full text of Radowitz’s communication, published years later, contains an implicit threat. It states that, should Luxembourg’s attitude run counter to Germany’s expectations, in the case of a violation of its neutrality by a third power, or should it not be in a position to maintain its neutrality, “we shall of course be obliged to defend our interests in a way that the ensuing situation will impose upon us.”[2]

Three days later, on August 29, the French Minister, Henri Cambon, informed Bech that France intended to respect the Grand Duchy’s inviolability.[3]

During the “phony war” the Luxembourg government became increasingly concerned about possible German violation of its territory. Since the area between the Maginot and Siegfried lines was a demilitarized no-man’s land, the Germans were quick to protest when Luxembourg established a few gendarme posts along the river marking the border and took civil defense measures. A sudden flare-up was to be expected. The Luxembourg government decided to contact secretly the third major power then involved in the war – Great Britain – which so far had made no specific statement as to its attitude.

In January 1940 Bech called on Sir Lancelot Oliphant, British Ambassador in Brussels, and showed him the copy of an appeal which would be addressed to the French government in the event of Luxembourg being invaded and suggested that a similar note be addressed to Britain. A passage of the proposed note which the Foreign Office wished to see revised appealed for the assistance of France, a signatory of the 1867 treaty, in order to restore “the independence and integrity of Luxembourg.” Ambassador Oliphant was instructed to inform Bech that the British government “did not consider themselves under any obligation to Luxembourg by virtue of the Treaty of London of 1867.” On receiving this comment, Bech revised the draft, and indeed the British response on May 12 to Luxembourg’s appeal for help stated that “the United Kingdom will, in association with the government of the French Republic, come to the aid of Luxembourg with all the forces at their command.”[4] It is not certain whether in the general confusion of the invasion itself this reply ever reached the Luxembourg government.

Disarray in France  [top]

The arrival, in May 1940, of the Grand Duchess and the Luxembourg government in Paris was accompanied by expressions of pro-allied solidarity. The French President, Albert Lebrun, sent the Grand Duchess a message expressing his “absolute confidence in the victory of the cause to which France and Luxembourg are now equally attached.” King George VI similarly telegraphed the Grand Duchess, expressing his “disgust” at the “flagrant breach of international law and of solemn undertakings” by Germany. The Pope expressed his “sorrow” that Luxembourg was “surrounded by the tempest of war.”[5] Prime Minister Reynaud hosted a luncheon for the Grand Duchess at the Quai d’Orsay, attended by leading ministers such as Daladier and Mandel. A campaign for the recruitment of volunteers for a Luxembourg Legion was launched, and denunciations of the invasion by Luxembourg leaders were also broadcast.

These reactions were followed closely by the German authorities and were used by General Gullmann, the military commander in Luxembourg acting on instructions from Berlin, as a pretext to declare Luxembourg “an enemy country.”[6]

At the same time, the Luxembourg government tried to avoid a public anti-German stance. A proposal by Justice Minister Bodson at the first meeting of the government in Paris on May 12 to declare war on Germany was not supported by his colleagues, and during the government's six-week stay in France it was never raised again.

The Luxembourg Legion’s recruiting office, opened in the Paris Legation, was transferred to the Luxembourg Chamber of Commerce, a private organization, and the Legion’s name changed to “Legion of Luxembourg Volunteers in France Fighting at the Side of the Allies for the Independence of Luxembourg.”[7] Even at this late hour the government of the Grand Duchy preferred not to encourage too open a break with its traditional principle of neutrality.

Other considerations coloured the attitude of the Luxembourg leaders. The examples of King Christian of Denmark and King Leopold of Belgium who had remained in their countries in the face of the invasion made them wonder whether they had chosen the right path to ensure the survival of their country. Moreover, thousands of Luxembourg refugees who escaped to France when the Germans invaded their country were clamoring to return home. When on June 18 the French government informed the Luxembourg ministers, who had moved to Bordeaux following the collapse of the French front, that it could no longer guarantee their security, their immediate departure from France was inevitable. There was no time to consult the Belgian leaders who at the last moment decided to remain in France. The Luxembourgers hastily envisaged three destinations – French North Africa, Britain or Portugal. Their choice fell on the latter, a neutral and peaceful but temporary haven.[8]

Confusion in Lisbon  [top]

The Grand Duchess and her four ministers were stranded on the edge of Europe, far from home and in an almost complete information blackout as to happenings in Luxembourg. They envisaged four alternative options as events unfolded: a return to Luxembourg; negotiations with Germany; consultations with the President of the Grand Duchy’s Chamber of Deputies and the head of the Administrative Commission; and, last but not least, joining embattled Britain.

Two major developments were unknown at the time to the exiled Luxembourg leaders. Six days after the invasion, on May 16, 1940, Ribbentrop had drawn up fundamental guidelines on the treatment of Luxembourg under German occupation. We must bear in mind, he wrote, that the future destiny of Luxembourg should not be prejudged by measures adopted by the German authorities. Noting the flight of the Sovereign and the government to Paris and the public statements in which the Grand Duchess “has adopted a frankly hostile attitude towards Germany,” Ribbentrop laid down that “in principle Luxembourg should be treated as an enemy country although it did not resist the entry of German troops.” It should therefore be treated “in the same way as occupied Holland. Any assimilation with Denmark should be excluded.” Wehrer, head of the Luxembourg Administrative Commission, should be regarded merely as representing the local authorities and any mention of his position as representing the Luxembourg government should be avoided.[9]

The second development was an abortive attempt to persuade the Grand Duchess to return to Luxembourg without her ministers, who were considered responsible for her flight to France. On June 20, as Marshal Pétain was awaiting German armistice conditions for France, the Luxembourg Chamber of Deputies, under its president Emile Reuter, decided in a secret session to dispatch the following message to the Grand Duchess in Lisbon through the United States chargé d’affaires, Platt Waller: “The people of Luxembourg urgently desire the return to Luxembourg of H.R.H. the Grand Duchess in order to re-establish the constitutional Government and the executive authority. It regrets the departure of the members of the Government on May 10, and through the Chamber of Deputies expresses the wish that the Government by resigning render possible the formation of a constitutional Government as soon as possible. The Chamber of Deputies and the Administrative Commission are ready to send a delegation to H.R.H. the Grand Duchess for discussions, if that is her desire and if that is possible.”[10]

Completely ignorant of what was going on in Lisbon and of the intentions of the Grand Duchess, the Chamber of Deputies a month later drafted a letter to Ribbentrop asking him to assist the return of the Grand Duchess, but its dispatch was delayed pending soundings with the German occupation authorities. When it was ascertained that General von Falkenhausen, German military commander in Belgium and Luxembourg, seemed favorable to the appeal and was ready to transmit it to Berlin, Reuter visited Brussels and handed him the letter signed personally by all the members of the Chamber of Deputies and exceptionally also by the members of the Administrative Commission. They were never honored with a reply and, furthermore, the signatories of the letter were later subjected to Gestapo treatment and classed by the Gauleiter (regional overseer) as anti-German elements.[11]

In the mid-summer of 1940 Luxembourg and Lisbon were poles apart. The initial message of the Chamber of Deputies reached the Portuguese capital on July 12, the same day that the US cruiser Trenton docked in Lisbon, where it had been diverted on President Roosevelt’s personal instructions in order to bring the Grand Duchess and her family to the United States. A more unpropitious moment for such a far-reaching decision could scarcely be imagined. On the arrival of the message from the Chamber of Deputies, the Luxembourg ministers collectively resigned in order to give the Grand Duchess a free hand to deal with the situation. Their resignation however was not accepted. The one immediate decision taken was that Prince Felix, husband of the Grand Duchess, and her six children would sail on the Trenton in response to Roosevelt’s gesture.

Left to herself, the Grand Duchess felt torn, as she told her intimate circle: “my heart says yes but my head says no”[12]  to the Chamber of Deputies' request. She embarked on a wide range of consultations with various personalities. Prominent Belgians such as former Prime Minister Paul van Zeeland, the President of the Chamber of Deputies Frans van Cauwelaert, and ministers De Vleeschauwer and Gutt expressed faith in a British victory and recommended that the Luxembourg Sovereign should not return home. On the other hand American diplomats passing through Lisbon, such as outgoing Ambassadors Cudahy, back from Brussels, and Phillips, returning from Rome, were convinced that Britain would lose the war and urged the Grand Duchess to go back to Luxembourg. At the same time Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles told the Luxembourg chargé d’affaires in Washington that he thought the Grand Duchess’s return would serve no useful purpose since the German authorities seemed to oppose any meeting between her and emissaries of the Chamber of Deputies.

The Grand Duchess was persuaded nevertheless to await the result of her meeting with a delegation from the Chamber of Deputies, and clarification of the German government’s attitude and the guarantees it would provide regarding her freedom of action. A Spanish contact, Ambassador Eduardo Aunos, failed, however, to elicit a reply as to the German plans for Luxembourg and a possible return of the Grand Duchess, while the United States declined to consider a meeting between the Grand Duchess and a delegation of the Chamber of Deputies at the United States Legation or on board a ship flying the United States flag. Vichy was consulted and recommended “in the interests of both France and Luxembourg not to envisage at present the return of the Grand Duchess,” which the Germans were likely to oppose in any case. The Grand Duchess also drafted an appeal to the King of Italy, but this was never sent.[13]

In the circumstances the Grand Duchess decided to await the outcome of unfolding events. She listened carefully when the minister of the Netherlands in Lisbon, Sillem, told her on August 2 that to consider the present military situation as final would mean to abandon oneself “to unmotivated pessimism,” that her eventual return to Luxembourg would render her a prisoner of the Germans and that furthermore, if she were to adopt this course and a negotiated agreement was reached between Britain and Germany, the voice of Luxembourg would have no hearing at all.[14] The minister also reminded her of the cynical way in which the Germans had treated the Dutch Royal family and members of other dynasties in Europe.

The Grand Duchess was even more impressed by the views of Sumner Welles expressed to Prince Felix in Washington. The U.S. Undersecretary of State considered that she should not return to her country without obtaining formal promises from Germany. To satisfy Luxembourg public opinion she should strive to meet with the parliamentary delegation or a trusted delegate, perhaps in Switzerland, although he was afraid the Swiss government, too, would decline. Welles repeated that the Grand Duchess would be welcome in America and could meet there freely with anybody she wished.[15]

Within days, the media reported Hitler’s appointment of a Gauleiter to take over the civil administration of Luxembourg, and a German military parade was held when the main artery of the capital, Avenue de la Liberté, was renamed Adolf-Hitlerstrasse. Later the Constitution was abolished and German was declared the official language. The curtain had come down on the abortive attempt to find an accommodation with the invaders. Through the Portuguese Honorary Consul in Luxembourg, Victor Buck, the head of the Administrative Commission, Albert Wehrer, sent the government a verbal message that nothing could be expected any more from the Germans, that the only hope was an Allied victory, and that all efforts should go in this direction.[16] This message only reached the government in October.

The British Option  [top]

For almost two months after the message sent by King George VI and the British government on May 10, 1940, offering sympathy and a promise of help, the Luxembourg government had kept aloof from Britain. It was only on July 5 that John Ward, in a Foreign Office minute referring to the Luxembourg government, wrote that it would be of some importance to know the whereabouts of “these people.” Two days later Sir Walford Selby, British Ambassador to Portugal, had a wide-ranging conversation with Bech, who gave him a full account of his government's hesitations. While discussing the pros and cons of the Grand Duchess going to the U.S. or Canada, Bech asked in passing what the British government's sentiment would be if Charlotte asked to proceed to Britain.[17] This meant that from now on the Luxembourg leaders had decided to back Britain [“jouer la carte anglaise”]. When Buckingham Palace was consulted, its first reply was rather dry: the King had no objection to the Grand Duchess coming to Britain if she so wished; the Foreign Office couched this in somewhat more diplomatic terms, stating that her visit would be “agreeable” to His Majesty. It was agreed that the Grand Duchess would spend three or four days in London, and her visit would be preceded by that of Foreign Minister Bech. Indeed, officials in the Foreign Office still wondered whether the Grand Duchess had finally abandoned her intention to return home.

Bech’s first talk with Lord Halifax hardly touched on Luxembourg affairs, ranging as it did from the reasons for the fall of France, which the Luxembourger had witnessed at first hand, to boar-hunting, his favorite sport.[18] But the Grand Duchess, in an intensive round of talks with the King and the Queen Mother, and as the guest of Lord and Lady Halifax, King Haakon of Norway and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, paved the way for Luxembourg to join the Grand Alliance. She was obviously carried away by the atmosphere of determination to fight to victory which she found in London. Despite the warning received from her husband, who was then in America, to avoid public statements offensive to the Germans, in order not to jeopardize relations with their Portuguese hosts, the Grand Duchess declared in a BBC broadcast on September 5, prior to returning to Lisbon: “We have powerful friends on this side and on the other side of the ocean. Our cause is in the hands of those who fight for the rights and liberty of the small nations. I am convinced that one day they will return our fatherland to us.”[19]

When Charlotte left Lisbon for New York on October 3, the government agreed on arrangements which indeed were to last throughout the war. The Grand Duchess, Prime Minister Pierre Dupong and Justice Minister Bodson were to establish residence in Canada, with occasional visits to London as necessary. This decision was dictated by personal and security considerations but primarily by the desire to maintain close personal relations with the White House and with Americans of Luxembourg origin, who were as numerous as the Luxembourg population at home. Bech and Social Affairs Minister Pierre Krier were to keep the Luxembourg flag flying in London. The British government saw no inconvenience in this arrangement.

Soon after Bech’s arrival in London, planning got underway for the inter-allied conference to be held during the following summer. The case of the Grand Duchy was special in that its status as defined by the Treaty of 1867 was that of permanent and disarmed neutrality. Could a country enjoying this status become a belligerent and join in an international alliance? Such was the question discussed at the Foreign Office. Both legal adviser Malkin and Sir Roger Makins of the Central Department answered affirmatively, noting that Luxembourg’s refusal to submit to the German attack rendered it a belligerent, thereby justifying its participation in the inter-allied conference. No opposition on the part of the Luxembourg government was anticipated, since it would thus be able to make its voice heard in the peace settlement. Makins also called attention to Luxembourg’s membership of the League of Nations.[20] When Bech called on Halifax on November 6, the Foreign Secretary invited Luxembourg to participate in the forthcoming inter-allied conference, an invitation which Bech accepted immediately.[21]

Thus Luxembourg assumed its full status as an ally and participant in the three inter-allied conferences held during the war at St. James’s Palace. The first, on June 12, 1941, attended by Prime Minister Dupong, approved a resolution stating, “We will continue the struggle against German or Italian oppression until victory is won,” adding, “during the war we all fight together, strong and weak, until the victory of justice over brutal force is achieved.” At the second meeting on September 24, 1941, Bech joined in unanimous support for the Atlantic Charter, stating that “to the oppressed peoples the declaration has brought renewed encouragement in their resistance; to all peoples a cause worth every sacrifice.” And when the inter-allied conference reconvened on January 13, 1942, and declared punishment of Nazi crimes a major war aim, Bech supported the resolution.

During nearly five years in exile the Luxembourg government was called upon to perform a variety of tasks. These ranged from ensuring that the Luxembourg national anthem was played every Sunday along with the other allied anthems on the BBC and arranging special broadcasts to Luxembourg to efforts to prevent Luxembourg’s assets abroad from being repatriated to the German-occupied Grand Duchy. The offer of a 125-million Belgian franc loan to Great Britain out of deposits held by the Belgian authorities and Luxembourg’s active participation in postwar planning were crowned by the conclusion of the Benelux Treaty uniting Luxembourg’s economic policies with those of Belgium and the Netherlands.

Luxembourg’s military contribution to the war effort could not be more than symbolic. Luxembourg volunteers continued to escape to Britain, mostly arriving exhausted after a prolonged stay in Spanish detention camps. Many of them were enrolled as officer cadets and later joined the “Luxembourg Battery” of the now famous Belgo-Luxembourg Piron Brigade which on D-Day fought its way across Belgium to Holland. Luxembourgers conscripted into the Wehrmacht made a significant contribution to allied military intelligence in 1943 by relaying information that was to lead to the discovery and later the destruction by the RAF of the German experimental rocket-launching station at Peenemunde on the Baltic. Léon-Henri Roth, a twenty-year-old student expelled from school for starting a resistance cell, reported to his father who belonged to a Belgian underground network that he had seen “a large rocket which makes a noise resembling a squadron flying at low altitude.” Another report by the bacteriologist Dr. Schwachtgen, through a network called “Famille Martin,” mentioned a rocket about ten meters long fired from a cubical structure. Roth was killed by American army fire in 1945 while escaping with two Frenchmen in a German military car. He was re-interred in Luxembourg in 1968 and awarded the highest decoration of the resistance.[22]

Failure to mention the Grand Duchy among the Allied nations was often resented by the Luxembourgers. As early as November 12, 1940, Funck, the chargé d’affaires in Vichy, called Bech’s attention to the fact that Churchill on several occasions had omitted to mention Luxembourg among the “captive and subjugated” Allies and suggested calling this to the attention of the British authorities. Similarly, Prime Minister Dupong called the attention of his Minister in Washington to an omission in Roosevelt’s 1941 New Year’s broadcast.[23] In a letter to the British Foreign Secretary in August 1944, Alison Koch-Kent, British wife of the president of the association of Luxembourgers in the United Kingdom, wrote: “Luxembourgers everywhere are very worried, wondering whether these omissions [in speeches by Churchill and Eden] have any significance for their country's future independence.” In reply F. K. Robert of the Foreign Office stressed that Luxembourgers’ apprehensions about the future independence of their country were “unfounded,” and that the “valiant conduct” of the Luxembourgers participating in the battle for the liberation of Western Europe “has not passed unnoticed.”[24]

Along with such preoccupations the government had to fight opposition among its own countrymen in Britain. These were mainly supporters of a group which in June 1937 had brought about the withdrawal of a government draft law calling for the “dissolution of the Communist Party and associations which by violence or threats aim at changing the Constitution.” The subsequent downfall of the government of Bech, whom they accused of association with the Belgo-Luxembourg steel consortiums, had continued to be a source of agitation. Now in exile they were joined by those who reproached the government and the Grand Duchess for not going straight to Britain when France fell and for envisaging a possible return to their Nazi-occupied homeland. Criticism was also voiced on what they termed the government’s inept dealing with Luxembourg refugees, particularly volunteers who crossed into Spain illegally on their way to Britain and were being held in internment camps. Bitter polemics on these and later developments continued well into the post-war era.

Yapou: Governments in Exile, 1939-1945

Chapter 5: LUXEMBOURG – The Smallest Ally
[go to top]

Assurances from Powerful NeighboursDisarray in FranceConfusion in LisbonThe British Option

  Preface & Introduction
  Chapter 1: CZECHOSLOVAKIA – From Putney to Prague
  Chapter 2: POLAND – The Polish Eagle
  Chapter 3: NORWAY – Neutral into Ally
Chapter 4: BELGIUM – Disintegration and Resurrection
 Next: Chapter 6: THE NETHERLANDS – Under the Banner of the Queen of Orange
  Chapter 7: GREECE – From National Unity to Civil War
  Chapter 8: YUGOSLAVIA – Between Četniks and Partisans

Return to Table of Contents