14 October 2013
Biographer and historian Mark Peel looks at the life of statesman and aviator the Duke of Hamilton and explores his role in Rudolf Hess's infamous flight into Scotland in 1941, with which the Duke would be forever after associated ...
Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, Marquis of Clydesdale and later Duke of Hamilton, was an aviator, statesman and patriot of some renown, but he will be chiefly remembered for his inadvertent role in the Deputy Fuhrer of Germany Rudolf Hess’s flight to Scotland in May 1941, one of the great mysteries of World War Two and a topic which continues to excite controversy to this day.
Clydesdale was born in 1903 and educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, where he excelled at sport, most notably boxing winning the Scottish Amateur Boxing Championships in 1924 (middleweight).
In 1930 he became Unionist MP for East Renfrewshire and three years later, by now Squadron Leader of 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron, he and his good friend David McIntyre became the first men to fly over Mount Everest. Their exploits won them international fame, not least in Germany and with Hess, himself an accomplished aviator.
THE DUKE IN GERMANY
In 1936 Clydesdale was invited to the Berlin Olympics by the German government and became friendly with Albrecht Haushofer, a foreign policy adviser to Hess but no Nazi, not least because he was half Jewish. Together they worked hard to improve Anglo-German relations at a time when Nazi aggression in Europe made this ever more difficult.
Following Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Clydesdale, like many of his compatriots, turned firmly against Germany and was vitriolic in his condemnation of Nazi abuses. When war broke out that September he joined 11 Fighter Group, but believing – wrongly – that Hitler could be overthrown internally, he wrote a letter to The Times arguing the case for peace with a German democratic government devoid of expansionist designs.
The letter appears to have caught Hess’s attention and believing Hamilton (as he now was) to be a man of influence who could rally the ‘peace party’ in Britain, he persuaded Haushofer to send him a letter suggesting peace talks in Portugal, a neutral country.
The letter, sent in September 1940, ended up in the hands of British intelligence weeks later and with little coming of it Hess, desperate to make peace with Britain before Germany invaded the Soviet Union, took the initiative himself.
Flying to Scotland in strict secrecy on the night of 10 May, 1941 with the aim of meeting Hamilton at Dungavel, his home on the Lanarkshire moors, he ran out of petrol close by and bailed out over Eaglesham, some twelve miles south of Glasgow, and was picked up by a local ploughman. He was handed over to the local Home Guard and taken to Maryhill Barracks in Glasgow, all the while asking to meet the Duke of Hamilton.
Alerted to Hess’s arrival, Hamilton, then Station Master of RAF Turnhouse, Edinburgh, travelled to Glasgow the next morning to meet him and hear of his designs for peace, before flying south to inform Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister, of his sensational news. He returned north the following evening and met Hess twice more while rumours began to circulate of his collusion with Nazi Germany.
Although winning several libel cases against periodicals that peddled these calumnies, the leaden response of the British government to Hess’s arrival did Hamilton no favours, and although enjoying a highly distinguished career post-war helping to found the Scottish aviation industry and becoming Lord High Commissioner of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on four occasions, he remains a disreputable figure to some historians.
From my extensive research I can find absolutely nothing to substantiate their claims. Douglas Hamilton was a man of unblemished integrity who loved his country and served it with immense distinction. He deserves to be recalled for the right reasons.
Mark Peel is the author of ‘The Patriotic Duke’, a biography of the 14th Duke of Hamilton, published by Thistle Publishing. 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’.