The royal tragedy of Princess Cecilie.
There have been so many tragedies that have befallen royal families. This was especially the case in the twentieth century. The story of Princess Cecilie and her family must be one of the saddest of all.
It was 1937 – just couple of years before the Second World Way broke out. Celilie was a beautiful young woman married to handsome Georg Donatus, the Grand Duke of Hesse. They had two small sons and baby daughter and now, Cecilie was pregnant with her fourth child.
There was to be a family wedding in London and Cecilie was planning to go with her husband and sons. The baby, Johanna was too young to travel and Cecilie knew she’d miss her but they’d only be away for a couple of days. She didn’t like the thought of flying though but Georg reassured her. Her younger brother, Philip, was enthusiastic about planes too and she knew she shouldn’t worry.
It was a bright November day in 1937 when they made their way to Cologne to board the aircraft that was to take them to London. It was Georg’s brother Louis who was to be the bridegroom and the best man-to-be was also travelling with the royal party as was the children’s nursemaid and Cecilie’s mother-in-law.
The plane was scheduled to make a quick stop at Brussels. Despite the fact that the weather had been good in Germany when they set off conditions had deteriorated and the airport was shrouded in fog. So the pilot decided to land at the next airport along the way, Ostende. As they approached the experienced pilot, Tony Lambotte, realised that the fog had extended there too.
However, he decided to land. Why?
Horrified onlookers watched as the plane emerged from the clouds and its wing crashed into a tall factory chimney. The wing was torn off and the plane lost an engine which flew to the ground. Then the plane burst into flames. It crashed to the ground still ablaze. None of the eleven people aboard the plane survived. But emergency crews who rushed to the scene founds something even more chilling.
Among the wreckage was the body of a newly-born baby
Unaware of what had happened, excited friends and relatives of the family were awaiting their arrival at Croydon Airport in England. They were looking forward to seeing Cecilie, Georg and their children and anticipating the wonderful wedding. Only too soon they heard the news that they would never see Cecilie and her family again
The saddest ever royal wedding
The groom, Louis’ brother you will remember, and his future father-in-law, Auckland Campbell-Geddes, made the decision that the wedding should go ahead as planned.
But the couple were married in a sombre and muted atmosphere – the guests wore mourning clothes.
Margaret Geddes, the English bride, had decided previously that she was going to wear an outfit designed around the German peasant outfit to honour her husband-to-be’s nationality. But when the sorrowful wedding she wore black too, as did her bridesmaids.
Almost immediately after the wedding, the couple left England and travelled to Ostende.
There they had the terrible task of arranging for the bodies to be transported back to Germany for burial.Among the coffins sent from Ostende to Germany a the tiny one for the baby.
When the funeral took place many British friends and relatives were in attendance, most of them from notable or aristocratic families. One young man who walked behind the coffins as they processed through the streets was Celilie’s sixteen-year old brother, Philip.
We know him better today as Prince Philip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II
Adolf Hitler sent wreaths to the funeral.
But the question remains, why did the pilot try to land the plane in thick fog? When the newspaper’s first printed their reports about the tragedy they said that the pilot decided to do so because Cecilie had given birth (or was in labour) during the flight. I imagine this was newspaper hype.
Cecilie was twenty six years old and had already had three children. It’s quite likely that the fourth would have been an easy and straightforward birth as no gynaecological difficulties were reported when her other children had been born. If she had gone into labour on the flight she also had the children’s nurse with her to assist.
I estimate that the plane had been in the air for about an hour. (It was 176 miles from Cologne to Ostende) The 1930s Junkers aircraft had a top speed to 190 miles per hour and a cruising speed of 160. From Ostende to London would have taken a further forty five minutes. The pilot was described as one of the most experienced and capable that the airline employed. Even assuming that the alleged birth was causing a life-threatening situation for Cecilie would the pilot have risked landing in fog and endangering the lives of eleven people, including his own?
Or would he have used that 190 mph top speed to fly to Croydon Airport which was just over a hundred and twenty miles away? There is no pleasant way of putting this – today it’s more generally accepted that the baby boy was ‘expelled’ from his mother’s body during the crash.
In fact, it was discovered that Ostende had reported its bad weather to the airport at Brussels and a Captain Daems, who should have passed the message to the fated aircraft, had not in fact done so. You can see a video of the crash site here.
The final tragedy
The newly-married couple adopted little Johanna. They were unable to have children of their own and intended to bring up Johanna as their own daughter. The little girl died of meningitis before she reached her third birthday.
A cursed family?
This tragedy reinforced the idea that the Hesse family was cursed. So many of them died before their time.
There were two ceremonies that took place within a few days of each other in the sad story, the wedding and the funeral. Both had a strange mix of people attending, both German and English. The book you see on the right goes into these connections in a great deal of detail. Many English people who travelled to Germany in the pre-war years were Nazi sympathisers, including the then King Edward VIII (later Duke of Windsor) and his mistress Wallis Simpson.
We have to remember that at that time, the word ‘Nazi’ didn’t have the connotations it does today. It was merely the ruling political party in Germany. There was no idea of the horrors to come.
Members of the British royal family attended the wedding between Louis and Margaret, as did the German ambassador to Britain, von Ribbentrop. After the wedding ceremony, the German groom made the Nazi salute but again, it’s only now that we see that in a completely different light. Georg and Cecile, who lost their lives in the air crash, were both members of the Nazi party and were both great-grandchildren of Queen Victoria.
Victoria and Albert had nine children and several married into European royal houses.
And as we have seen above, today’s Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, was at the funeral where as we clearly can see in the photograph the Nazi salute was being given.