God save the Queen from Brexit plotters, who this week have tried to drag her further into the row over our departure from the EU by claiming plans are afoot to evacuate her from Buckingham Palace in the event of riots triggered by a no-deal withdrawal.
Palace officials stamped on the rumour, calling it ‘fantasy’. But it did highlight the question of ensuring the safety of the monarch in a case of national emergency.
For centuries, Britain never took the prospect of invasion or civil unrest too seriously. Only in the early 20th century, with the Russian revolution and later the threat of Nazi Germany, did politicians and civil servants start to think about how they should protect their sovereign.
The Coats Mission, led by Coldstream Guards officer Jimmy Coats was a posse of aristocratic officers who agreed among themselves that they would go down fighting rather than let the Royal Family ever be captured during World War II. Pictured: Elizabeth , George VI and Coats Mission officers
To begin with, the security schemes were amateur to the point of farcical. King Haakon of Norway, staying at Buckingham Palace at the beginning of World War II, asked King George VI what would happen if Germans parachuted into the palace grounds.
The king’s lofty response was to walk over to his desk and press an alarm bell. Nothing happened. After a long wait, an equerry was sent to find out why no one had come to their rescue. He returned with news that the policeman on duty had told the palace guard he hadn’t heard from anybody thereabouts of any pending attack, so it was probably best to ignore His Majesty’s summons.
Eventually, to George’s chagrin, a few soldiers turned out ‘and proceeded to thrash the undergrowth in the manner of beaters at a shoot, rather than men engaged in the pursuit of a dangerous enemy’.
This ramshackle defence system was soon replaced by a do-or-die enterprise called The Coats Mission. Led by Coldstream Guards officer Jimmy Coats, whose sister-in-law Audrey had been the King’s mistress before his marriage, this was a posse of aristocratic officers who agreed among themselves that they would go down fighting rather than let our Royal Family ever be captured.
During the Cold War there were plans to whisk royals away to safe houses including Madresfield Court (pictured)
Their plan was that, in the event of invasion, they would whisk the family away, the King and Queen in one armoured Daimler limousine, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in another. They would all meet again at one of several country houses a long way from London.
There was more than a touch of Boy’s Own Paper derring-do attached to the ambitions of the Mission, whose vow was ‘to the last man, to the last bullet’. In training, they set themselves a number of near-impossible objectives — one, bizarrely, being to kidnap the film actress Merle Oberon. It failed.
On another occasion, they decided to capture a serving general who had planned to attend Ascot races. ‘This involved setting up an ambush at a level-crossing near Windsor,’ runs one account. ‘The soldiers, hidden in gardens and houses beside the railway track, attacked under cover of a heavy smokescreen. Unfortunately the smoke got in the general’s lungs and he emerged from his car coughing and spluttering — but still capable of saying in uncompromising language what he thought of their failed plot.’
King George VI and the Queen Mother taking part in rifle shooting with the crew of HMS Vanguard, during the royal family’s trip to South Africa, on February 17 1947
During the Cold War, with the Soviet Union pointing hundreds of nuclear warheads at Britain, the Government’s solution, should it escalate further, was to put the Queen, Prince Philip and other royals aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia (pictured) and sail them off into the Scottish lochs
The King proudly described this bunch of upper-class brigands as ‘my private army’, and during a lengthy stay at Sandringham, they became almost part of the family.
Major Malcolm Hancock, a Coldstream Guards officer and one of the team, recalled: ‘I remember on one occasion the two princesses came back to have tea with us, and we had a game of animal grab [a riotous card game] — Princess Margaret got so excited she jumped on the table.
‘It was terribly cold and the lake opposite York Cottage, where King George V had lived, had frozen over. So Princess Elizabeth played ice-hockey with us.’
The future queen rewarded her bodyguard with whisky and cake.
Back at Windsor Castle, the Coats Mission assisted in hiding the Crown Jewels, buried in a biscuit tin for the duration of the war in an underground chamber near the castle walls.
The Coats Mission was disbanded in 1942 as the risk of German invasion receded but — just in case — Winston Churchill authorised the purchase of a castle in Canada to which the Royal Family could be dispatched if things hotted up again.
Hatley Castle, on Vancouver Island, is a 40-bedroom mock-Tudor mansion built in the early 1900s. Nobody ever discovered how much it cost to buy (it now houses a whole university) but at any event, the plan was a non-starter.
Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother, declared when asked about leaving Britain: ‘The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave without the King — and the King will never leave.’ She started practising with a pistol so that, if the worst came to the worst, she could take a few Nazi invaders with her.
In the early 1960s, with the Cold War at its height, a trigger-happy America deployed ballistic missiles in Italy and Turkey. Russia responded by shipping missiles to Cuba, close to the U.S. mainland.
The Cuban Missile Crisis, for a few weeks in the winter of 1962, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. In Britain, part of the nation’s preparations included the top-secret Operation Candid.
With the Soviet Union pointing hundreds of nuclear warheads at Britain, the Government’s solution, should it escalate further, was to put the Queen, Prince Philip and other royals aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia and sail them off into the Scottish lochs.
This plan also provided an alternative strategy for keeping the royals on land, protected by a heavy-duty 1,300-strong Royal Duties Force consisting of a regiment of Foot Guards, Household Cavalry armoured cars, a medical unit, communications vehicles and other logistical support. The force was designed to be split in four, so as to disperse key members of the Royal Family to different locations. The safe houses included those envisaged by the original Coats Mission 20 years before — Madresfield Court, the home of Earl Beauchamp, near Malvern; Pitchford Hall, on the Shropshire borders; and Newby Hall, in North Yorkshire.
After plans were made to whisk royals away in event of invasion during World War Two, Queen Elizabeth (pictured), later told the Queen Mother, when asked about leaving Britain: ‘The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave without the King — and the King will never leave. ’Queen Elizabeth II arriving at King’s Lynn railway station Royal visit to Sandringham, Norfolk in December
The focus would be on the Queen and Prince Philip, and the plan was to include the Home Secretary travelling with them wherever they went, so that if the government of the day were ousted or assassinated, this triumvirate could convene a Privy Council to appoint the next government.
Operation Candid was renamed Operation Synchronise in 1965, and in 1968 this was absorbed into PYTHON — the strategy to relocate the whole government, in case of emergency, to the central war headquarters at Corsham in Wiltshire.
Under this plan, the Queen and Philip would move to nearby Corsham Court, a grand Elizabethan manor house with gardens designed by Capability Brown, that is currently the home of Lord Methuen.
As I am free these days to name Corsham Court, it’s fair to assume the plan has moved on since then — and that, somewhere deep in the English countryside, another stately home owner is rubbing his hands at the prospect of a national emergency — and a money-spinning royal house guest.