Unity Mitford and 'Hitler's baby'

As war broke out, Hitler admirer Unity Mitford made a botched suicide attempt and was invalided home

Journalists on national newspapers get used to crank calls from people claiming the government is controlling their minds using radio waves or the Duke of Edinburgh is opening their post. So when Val Hann first called me at the Observer almost exactly five years ago, I was, I have to say, extremely sceptical about what she told me.

She had read an article I had written about Unity Mitford, the 1930s society beauty who became a groupie to Adolf Hitler and shot herself in Munich at the outbreak of war. Although the bullet entered her brain, Unity survived and lived out the rest of her short life as an invalid. But my caller claimed to have an extraordinary new angle on the story.

Val was a little nervous as she explained that her aunt Betty Norton had run a maternity home to the gentry in Oxfordshire during the war and that Unity Mitford had been one of her clients. Her aunt's business, in the tiny village of Wigginton, had depended on discretion and she had told no one except her sister that Unity had had a baby. Her sister had passed the story on to her daughter Val.

I casually asked who she thought the father might be and there was a short silence on the other end of the line before she said: "Well, she always said it was Hitler's."

I must say I was tempted at this point to put down the phone. Christmas was coming and I was very busy. But for some reason I decided to carry on listening to this bizarre tale. Val didn't sound mad, and she said she was merely passing on a family story.

The child was a boy, she believed, and he had been given up for adoption. She didn't want any money; she just wanted me to look into it. So here was the prospect of Adolf Hitler's love child alive somewhere in Britain - it was either the scoop of the century or completely bonkers. But it had to be worth a few hours of my time, even if it turned out to be a dead end.

My original story had cast doubt on the official version of events about Unity Mitford's return from Germany. In the millions of words written about the Mitfords, accounts of Unity's movements in those early months of 1940 remain sketchy. And, despite the obvious trauma to the family, only a handful of the hundreds of letters that the letter-writing sisters have had published discuss this period.

The newly released diaries of Guy Liddell, number two at MI5 during the war, suggested that the security service was not even convinced Unity had shot herself in the head. Liddell was determined that Unity should be searched and interrogated on her return from Germany and then interned for her Nazi sympathies.

Writing on 2 January 1940, Liddell made a powerful case. "Unity Mitford had been in close and intimate contact with the Führer and his supporters for several years, and was an ardent and open supporter of the Nazi regime. She had remained behind after the outbreak of war and her action came perilously close to high treason. Her parents had been associated with the Anglo-German Fellowship and other kindred movements, and had obviously supported her in her ideas about Hitler.

"We had no evidence at all in support of the press allegations that she was in a serious state of health and it might well be that she was being brought in on a stretcher in order to avoid publicity and unpleasantness to her family."

However, Liddell failed to convince his superiors and the home secretary himself, Sir John Anderson, finally intervened to say that nothing should be done on Unity's return. In fact, Liddell was wrong about her injuries. She had indeed shot herself and later died of an infection caused by the bullet in the brain.

Nonetheless, it still seems astonishing that she was never questioned, considering how close she was to Hitler. As Liddell wrote at the time: "If we had been dealing with Miss Smith or Miss Joyce, the probability was that we should not be arguing the case."

If it hadn't been for Wigginton, I would never have taken it any further. Val gave me an address for the maternity home, Hill View Cottage, and I contacted the present owner, who agreed to show me around. She confirmed that Nurse Norton had indeed used the cottage in her work as a midwife. She also agreed to introduce me to the one person in the village who remembered Unity being there. Audrey Smith was a little girl at the time, but by pure chance her sister (now dead, unfortunately) had worked at the home and had talked about Unity. Audrey herself claimed she had seen Unity wrapped in a blanket and looking very ill. However, she insisted that she was at the home not to have a baby, but to recover from a nervous breakdown.

By now I was intrigued and wrote to Unity's surviving sister, Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire. She had been angry at my original article and had written a furious letter to the Observer denouncing Liddell's claims that her sister might not have shot herself. She also suggested I take less notice of the gossip of villagers. The Duchess of Devonshire was adamant that there was nothing in the Wigginton story and claimed she could, if necessary, produce her mother's diaries to prove it.

At this point I decided to return to the National Archives, where I discovered a file on Unity that had been sealed under the "100-year rule" - reserved for only the highest classification of top-secret files. An official told me that it was possible to have the classification of such files reviewed and I applied to have the file opened. To my great surprise, the Home Office agreed. Inside was a startling new piece of information: it wasn't quite the birth certificate of a child, but here was hard evidence that Unity might not have been quite the invalid it was supposed.

By October 1941, while she was living at the family home in Swinbrook, Oxfordshire, the police picked up rumours that "Unity Mitford has formed an attachment for an officer in the RAF". Further investigation found that she had been "consorting with Pilot Officer John Sidney Andrews, an RAF test pilot".

As a result, Andrews, married with a child, was transferred to the far north of Scotland.

At this point, the trail went cold. There were too many loose ends for a news story and my research sat in my notebooks until this year when I mentioned it to Mark Roberts, an executive from Channel 4, who agreed to put the story on film. Further research, including an exhaustive trawl through birth records at the Oxfordshire register office, confirmed that Nurse Norton had helped dozens of wartime mothers give birth at her maternity home. But no record of Unity Mitford. Airman Andrews, it turns out, was a former bank clerk, and died in a Spitfire crash in 1945. There is no evidence that he ever saw Unity after his transfer to Scotland.

So what is the truth about Unity Mitford's missing months? Is it possible that the sightings in Wigginton were a case of mistaken identity? Or was she there to recover from a nervous breakdown? One woman still alive who could add to the story is the Duchess of Devonshire, formerly Deborah Mitford, who travelled back to Britain with Unity in 1940. But she has so far declined to be interviewed for the programme. She has also told people close to her that any suggestion of a child is fanciful.

Five years on from that original phone call, I have taken this story as far as I can. It remains a mystery and I remain as sceptical as I was when I first spoke to Val Hann. But one nagging thought remains: if Unity Mitford was in Wigginton during the war, what was she doing at a maternity home?

"Hitler's British Girl" will be shown on Channel 4 on Thursday 20 December at 9pm

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.