The story of how the British Royal Family was protected during the Second World War has not previously been studied in any great detail. Whilst I was conducting research for another book about the invasion threat Britain faced throughout the wartime years (which will be published by Oxford University Press in 2018), I found passing references to plans to evacuate King George VI and his family and the existence of a special bodyguard called ‘The Coats Mission’.
I have been studying the Second World War for 30 years but had never heard of this before. When I investigated further, I found that there was very little previously published information. I thought this was such an important aspect of British history that I began to dig deeper and see what more I could find. Encouraged by Duncan Rogers and Helion, the result has now been published as The King’s Private Army. Protecting the British Royal Family During the Second World War.
All of my publications are built around extensive archival research but this proved to be both the most challenging and rewarding book I have written. An obvious starting point was the Royal Archives at Windsor, but they declined to offer any access to their papers. I approached them on a number of occasions over a period of five years but each time it was the same response: ‘national security’. This in itself seemed rather unusual – particularly as my research developed and provided me with information about the original plan produced in 1940 and the various revisions that were made in the years that followed. My conclusion at the project’s end is that there is no modern link with a plan that is now 76 years old, but the archivists still consider any discussion of an evacuation to be too sensitive. Ultimately, this did not prove an insurmountable obstacle.
The ‘Coats Mission’ was an ad-hoc force of Coldstream Guards and troopers from the XII Royal Lancers who – between them – prepared to fight their way from Buckingham Palace in central London and Windsor Castle to one of four remote country houses that had been prepared as secret bolt-holes. I was fortunate in managing to track down the last surviving officer from this group and – along with various archives that had been overlooked – this allowed me to overcome the lack of access to official documents and write what I hope will prove to be an interesting story for a wide general readership.
Without the insights Brigadier Jeffrey Darrell shared with me this could, however, have proven an impossible project to complete. At the time he had been very junior figure (albeit in a small group of men), but subsequently, he had a distinguished career and retired as a brigadier. He had written about his experiences but only for military publications and without any context or reference to the wider story surrounding the mission. Following his death I felt I could now tell the story of why the evacuation of the Royal Family was planned and how it was to take place.
The resulting book shows just how great the threat was in 1940 to the country’s senior figures and just how stretched Britain was in terms of providing security for even its most important national treasures. At the same time I hope it highlights why this proposed course of action was not simply prudent and sensible but also of vital importance to the war effort. Based on what happened elsewhere in Europe, if the Royal Family had been captured or killed, an invasion would have likely had a far greater chance of success. The final chapter discusses how the mission continued after the war and – very possibly – continues to this day. This was a plan that, thankfully, never actually had to be employed, but it is now another one of the war’s great secrets that will have the readership it deserves.