As the shadow of Nazism spread across Europe, London rapidly became the centre of the continent’s fight for freedom. And throughout the war the capital served as an adopted home to no fewer than eight governments-in-exile as well as one officially-sanctioned resistance movement and two deposed heads of state. Such a situation was unique in diplomatic history — and not without its administrative headaches.
Matters were made clearer on 6 March 1941 when Parliament passed the Diplomatic Privileges (Extension) Bill, which conferred full diplomatic protection on all representatives of national resistance. The bill was passed on its second reading, overcoming objections from some obstinate MPs that the plan might increase the number of parking tickets diplomats felt entitled to leave unpaid.
By this point in WWII, London was already home to the governments of Poland, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Czechoslovakia — and would soon be further crowded by official representatives of Greece and Yugoslavia. Full diplomatic privileges had also been extended to the leaders of the Free French movement, including the notoriously irascible General Charles de Gaulle, though the group would not be recognised as official spokesmen of the French people until after the D-Day landings.
The final addition to this “Miniature Europe in London”, as the Glasgow Herald called it, occurred in December 1941. Over a year after the German occupation of his country, the Danish ambassador to London, Count Reventlow officially broke off from Denmark’s puppet government and assumed the Honorary Presidency of the Association of Free Danes.
King Zog of Albania and Emperor Haile Selassie of Abyssinia also sought refuge in London during the war: and although Haile Selassie would leave his suite at Langham’s Hotel to march triumphantly through a liberated Addis Ababa in May 1941, King Zog’s years at the Ritz marked the first chapter of a lifetime in exile.
The first governments to arrive in London mirrored the sequence of Hitler’s own territorial conquests. The former Czechoslovakian President Edvard Beneš, who had been forced to resign under German pressure in 1938, secretly flew to London where he took up residence at 26 Gwendolen Avenue in Putney. He was soon joined by other former politicians and military officials, who were officially recognised as the representatives of the Czechoslovak people in December 1940.
The governmental military intelligence service, however, was located in Porchester Gate on Bayswater Road, which was where one of the most daring resistance acts of the war was planned and put into operation — the assassination of senior SS official Reinhard Heydrich.
Following the Fall of France in 1940, Winston Churchill gave Polish Prime Minister-in-exile Władysław Sikorski permission to move his government to London from the French town of Angers. Sikorski’s cabinet operated out of the Polish embassy at 47 Portland Place until the end of the war, while exiled President Władysław Raczkiewicz set up his official residence at 43 Eaton Place.
Less than two months after Germany began its assault on Norway in April 1940, those members of the Norwegian government committed to resistance set sail for London. Accompanied by King Haakon and Crown Prince Olav, Prime Minister Nygaardsvold and his cabinet arrived at Euston Station late in the evening of June 10th. While the King would occasionally spend nights at Buckingham Palace as well as Claridge’s Hotel, his official residence was the Norwegian embassy at 10 Kensington Palace Gardens. Nygaardsvold’s government-in-exile, however, would meet at Kingston House North on Prince’s Gate, a mere twenty minute walk away.
Two weeks after the Norwegian exodus, a wary Belgian ambassador greeted the first of his country’s ministers to arrive in London: the Minister for Health Marcel-Henri Jaspar who had abandoned his cabinet colleagues in the French town of Bordeaux, where he believed they were planning to negotiate a Belgian surrender to the Nazis. Under mounting pressure from London, however, a slow trickle of Belgian officials crossed the Channel to join him, culminating in Prime Minister Hubert Pierlot’s arrival on 22 October 1940.
For the remainder of the war, the bulk of Belgium’s government-in-exile would be based at 105 Eaton Square, the location of its pre-war embassy. The locals became so used to seeing the effusive Belgians greeting each other with a physicality uncharacteristic of the British that the area was eventually nicknamed ‘shake hand square’.
Towards the end of the year, the smallest of the Allied nations joined the Belgians in establishing an official government-in-exile in the vicinity of Belgrave Square. Governed from its headquarters at 27 Wilton Crescent, the ostensibly neutral Luxembourg refused to submit peacefully to the second German invasion in forty years and was officially invited to join the allied movement in November 1940.
Although the Dutch government-in-exile had relocated to London as early as May 1940, regularly meeting in the Dutch Reformed Church at 7 Austin Friars, concerns remained as to its authority to speak on behalf of its citizens. These were finally put to rest in 1941, when a British court officially ruled that the government-in-exile was permitted to fulfil all sovereign functions.
While Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands spent the war at Claridge’s Hotel, the Dutch government was set up at Stratton House, on 79 Piccadilly. The building is currently occupied by a branch of the no-less-beleaguered HSBC, and is marked by two stone plaques commemorating the 1945 liberation of Holland.
Not only was the Dutch government based in London, but the nerve centre of its resistance movement was as well. Operatives regularly met in The Macclesfield pub at the heart of Soho, since renamed De Hems in honour of its wartime history. Today it stands out like a Dutch boy’s sore thumb amidst Chinatown’s restaurants and shops, even resisting the encroaching Chinese new year decorations visible in the photograph below.
In September 1941, the Durban Castle passenger ship arrived in Liverpool bearing the government and royal family of the newly-occupied Greece. King George II would eventually join Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands and King Haakon of Norway at Claridge’s, which was rapidly running out of rooms in which to house Europe’s fallen monarchs.
Fortunately for King Peter II of Yugoslavia, they still found room to squeeze in him and his young wife when they were forced to flee in 1941. Housed in Claridge’s Suite 212, the King was on the other side of the park from his government-in-exile, which spent the war at Belgravia’s Kingston House.
Perhaps the most important of London’s exiled residents throughout the war were General de Gaulle and his fellow representatives of Free France. As the British government never formally broke off relations with the collaborationist French Vichy regime, however, it could not officially recognise de Gaulle’s authority.
The Free French forces therefore occupied a curious diplomatic limbo, though this did not prevent them from playing a crucial role in the eventual liberation of Europe. The achievements of these brave men and women are commemorated today by a plaque on their wartime headquarters at 1 Dorset Square, now the home of the Alliance Française.
Written by Gilead Amit.