In a varied and interesting life Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, 14th Duke of Hamilton, was not only the premier duke of Scotland but also a Scottish amateur boxing champion, the first man to fly over Everest, a Conservative MP, the co-founder of the Scottish aviation industry, Lord High Commissioner of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and longstanding Chancellor of St Andrews University.
Yet overshadowing all these achievements was the duke’s part in one of the most bizarre and controversial incidents of the Second World War. On 10 May 1941, Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, flew to Scotland with the avowed intention of conducting peace talks with Hamilton, then a serving officer in the RAF, to remove Britain from the war so Germany could concentrate on its conquest of the Soviet Union. Hess’s capture and the uncertain response of the British government to his peace overtures unleashed a series of allegations that Hamilton and sections of the British establishment had colluded with Hess.
It is easy to see how these allegations gained currency. The duke was a Conservative MP whose circle included those with far-right views and he was an avid supporter of appeasing Germany during the 1930s. It was during his visit to the Berlin Olympics in August 1936 as a guest of the German government that Hamilton first became acquainted with Albrecht Haushofer, a foreign policy adviser to Hess but no Nazi. They quickly became firm friends and worked hard to promote closer relations between their respective countries at a time when Nazi foreign policy was becoming ever more strident.
Even after war had been declared in September 1939 Hamilton still worked for a negotiated peace with a democratic Germany devoid of Hitler and the Nazis. A letter to this effect published in The Times that October was duly noted in Berlin and so began extensive efforts by Hess, a convinced Anglophile, and Albrecht Haushofer to involve Hamilton in clandestine peace negotiations. A letter sent by Haushofer on Hess’s behest to Hamilton in September 1940 was diverted to MI5 six weeks later, suggesting that Hamilton might be in cahoots with the Nazis. After rigorous scrutiny had cleared Hamilton of any subversive activity RAF Intelligence later made contact with him to see if he would be willing to go to Portugal, as the letter requested, to meet up with Haushofer in order to glean any useful information about the enemy. With Hamilton reluctant to embark upon such a mission the failure of Haushofer’s initiative persuaded Hess himself to embark upon his foolhardy flight of May 1941. His repeated requests on capture to be taken to Hamilton and erroneous briefings by the Ministry of Information that Hess had met Hamilton before the war helped fuel suspicions about the latter’s patriotism
The failure of the British government then and of successive governments to set the record straight made Hamilton a prime target for conspiracy theorists, despite winning several libel cases at the time, and it is only in more recent times with the release of official files on Hess that Hamilton’s career can b properly reassessed.
Using both official files and Hamilton’s own private papers, Mark Peel, in this first-ever biography of the 14th Duke, takes issue with conspiracy theorists. While not disputing his naivety in attempting to reach an accommodation with Nazi Germany long after the cause had become helpless, he firmly exonerates him of any pro-fascist sympathies and collusion with the enemy. Rather he depicts an aristocrat with a strong social conscience, a patriot of unblemished character and a distinguished serving officer who played his full part in overcoming Nazism.
After Harrow and Edinburgh where he read History, Mark Peel taught History and Politics at Fettes between 1983-2007.A keen biographer, his first book, England Expects: A Life of Ken Barrington, was published in 1992 and won the Cricket Society's Literary Award for the best cricket book of the year.He followed this with biographies of the England cricketers, Colin Milburn and Colin Cowdrey, the maverick headmaster, Anthony Chevenix Trench, the Methodist minister and pacifist, Donald Soper, and more recently the former Labour minister and co-founder of the SDP, Shirley Williams.
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