Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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See also: An Interview with Bill Harrington.

Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz, President of the German Reich and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, snapped his briefcase shut, sat down and awaited the knock. The banging and shouts were becoming louder, the words more discernibly English. Had it really only been 23 days since the Führer’s suicide? He wondered how the Allies would treat him. He was, of course, Hitler’s designated heir. And, as the mastermind of Germany’s entire U-Boat campaign, the Admiral had already graced the cover of Time magazine on two occasions. But he had never been a member of the Nazi party. And perhaps, with the Russian Red Army running amok across Eastern Europe, the Allies would need a man of Doenitz’s experience to rally a German army in defence against the inevitable Communist onslaught. Hitler himself had been convinced until the end that Britain would eventually side with Germany in this war.

The door did not knock. It was pushed open. A tall, good-looking soldier in the uniform of the 15th-19th Hussars filled the gap. Doenitz noted the man’s rank with dismay.

‘I will not answer to a Lieutenant’, he said haughtily. ‘I wish to see your Commanding Officer’.

William Henry Leicester Stanhope, 11th Earl of Harrington, levelled his Enfield revolver at the Grand Admiral’s chest and replied: ‘You come with me, you bugger’.

At least that was the version of events Bill Harrington gave me when I called to visit him in October 2005. Since his demise, I have tried hard to confirm this tale. But alas I have failed. Bill was certainly in Flensburg when Doenitz was arrested. But the Grand Admiral was arrested, in private, when he stepped on board the house-boat Patria to negotiate with Eisenhower's deputy. Nobody from Bill's regiment was present that day. I've checked everything, including my grandfather's campaign diary. And Bill was my grandfather's No. 2 during the war.

But no matter. Old soldiers are like old fishermen and sometimes the size of the catch increases dramatically. And Bill was nothing if not dramatic. Anyone who knew Bill Harrington was greatly impressed by him. Perhaps it suited him to believe that he was the man who arrested the last President of the Third Reich. Or perhaps he was simply winding me up. He certainly had a wicked sense of humour and was constantly trying to make life more entertaining for those around him.

Bill passed away at his home in Ballingarry, Co Limerick, on Easter Sunday 2009 at the age of 86. Over a thousand people showed up at his funeral in Adare.

Many would have known the Earl for his extraordinary achievements within the Irish bloodstock industry, as a breeder, a huntsman and as the principal organizer of the first international three-day event at Punchestown.

As chairman of the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders' Association, he also gave Ireland’s horse industry a major turbo-boost when he persuaded Charles Haughey, then Minister of Finance, to provide tax breaks for horse breeders.

Bill Harrington was only seventeen years old when the Second World War erupted.[i] Born in 1922 and raised at Elvaston Castle in Derbyshire, he succeeded to the Earldom at the age of seven when his father broke his neck in a hunting accident.[ii]

His mother Margaret grew up on the Mount Coote Stud in Kilmallock, Co Limerick, where Bill spent a good deal of his childhood.[iii] In 1934, Margaret married Captain Luke Lillingston, a fearless huntsman and joint Master of the Meaths who Bill greatly admired.

In February 1942, the 19-year-old Earl married the first of his three wives, Eileen, only daughter and heiress of the late Sir John Foley-Grey of Enville Hall, Stourbridge. She bore him three children, including his firstborn son, Charles, now the 12th Earl. [iv] Bill's coming of age party took place at the Harrington Arms in Elvaston 1943; the pub had been well-stocked with beer and had its piano tuned beforehand. At the event, Bill said that he hoped that when the war was over he would be able to come back to live among them. However, fate would overtake him and the Castle remained requisitioned until 1952; death duties and his own personal life also intervened. [iv.a]

Meanwhile, he joined the King’s Royal Hussars and set off for Europe as the right hand man to Major Rathdonnell of Lisnavagh, Co Carlow.[v] On May 4 1945, they heard the news of the unconditional surrender of all enemy forces in North West Germany, Denmark and Holland.[vi] The Hussars were ordered to proceed north to the Flensburg fjord in Schleswig Holstein where the surviving German high command was based.[vii] By the middle of May, Flensburg was surrounded by Allied forces. And yet the Nazi flag still flew over the castle which Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz had made his headquarters.

History is kinder to Doenitz than to many of his colleagues in Nazi Germany’s elite. This remarkable Berliner enjoyed an outstanding naval career, commanding his first U-boat at the age of 25 and taking control of the entire U-boat fleet in 1935. In January 1943, he became commander in chief of the German Navy. Like Rommel, he was highly esteemed by his men. The Allies also respected him; German U-boats may have fought hard, but they fought fair.

The poisoned chalice came his way when Hitler committed suicide on 30 April 1945. In his last political testament, he appointed Doenitz as President and Supreme Commander of the doomed Reich.

The following day, as the Soviet victory flag was raised over the Reichstag in Berlin, Donitz assumed office, establishing his headquarters at the naval academy in Flensburg.[viii] He attempted to direct the German forces through a local radio station, urging those on the Eastern Front to keep fighting against the Russians because the Russians would show them no mercy. Meanwhile, he authorized all forces in north-western Europe to surrender, again urging them to seek out Americans and British troops rather than the avenging Soviets

Doenitz still harboured ambitions that his ‘Flensburg Government’ could somehow be a palatable option for the Allies. But such aspirations were futile. Eisenhower refused to recognise the Flensburg Government and, on May 22, the American General issued orders for the arrest of Doenitz and his entourage.

Operation Blackout, the formal conclusion of the Flensburg Government, commenced on the morning of May 23.[ix] The Royal Hussars, with Lord Harrington to the fore, received the code word to advance on the German governments headquarters, bayonets at the ready.[x] Some three hundred officers, as well as hundreds of secretaries, civilians and soldiers, were rounded up and made to stand in a line down the corridors, face to the wall, hands on head. Intelligence officers went from room to room, gathering documents, wireless sets and personal belongings. Many prisoners were stripped and, in some cases, subjected to personal investigations of a most uncomfortable nature. No shots were fired. [xi]

Doenitz was escorted to the Patria, an old luxury liner down anchored in Flensburg Harbour, and presented to US Major General Lowell W. Rooks, representing Eisenhower.[xii] Rooks quickly and curtly informed Doenitz that he and his entire government were to be taken into custody as prisoners of war. Asked to comment, Doenitz replied, ‘Any words would be superfluous’. [xiii]

In January 2011, I was contacted by Mr. Ken Taylor who advised me that his late father Lewis Taylor, a sergeant in the Intelligence Corps, had accepted the Admiral's pistol in the arrest. 'He didn't talk about it much', wrote Mr. Talor, 'but was very very clear he was there and accepted the pistol. The incident was reported in the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette of the time.' Further clues may be found in Vaughan Kathrens memoirs of the 39-45 war; his daughter, Jacqueline Brooks, refers to letters written by Kathrens written at the time of the arrest which were apparently published in a local newspaper.

On 10th May 2013, an article by Gerry Gregg in the Evening Herald entitled "DESERTERS HONOURED" referred to 88 year old John Stout from Blackpool in Cork who recalled that being with The Guards Armoured Division when they were involved with the capture of Admiral Karl Doenitz in Flensburg. He apparently saw Doenitz being "led away, ultimately to face judgment at Nuremberg".

Most of the Nazi elite were captured that same day, with two notable exceptions. Admiral von Friedeburg, head of the German Navy, slipped into a toilet and swallowed a poisoned capsule. Heinrich Himmler, former head of the SS and probably the most hated man in Europe, likewise managed to commit suicide at nearby Lüneburg.

Now classified as war criminals, the members of the Doenitz government were marched back to their quarters at machine-gun point, hands behind their heads. Briefly presented at a press conference, they were subsequently stripped, looted and placed in a prisoner of war cage. Doenitz was subsequently found guilty of war crimes at Nuremburg and served 11 years and 6 months in prison. As Lord Harrington put it, he ‘wasn't the worst of them’. After his release in 1956, he settled in a small village near Hamburg where he wrote two books and a history of the U-boat. He passed away on Christmas Eve 1980.

Lord Harrington and the Hussars remained in the Flensburg area for several months after the conclusion of the war. They were subsequently posted to Palestine, from where the Earl demobbed and returned to civilian life.

With Clement Atlee’s Labour Government in power in Britain in 1945, Lord Harrington decided to abandon his castle in Derbyshire, joining many other well-heeled British citizens in the so-called ‘flight from Moscow’. He turned his sights on his mothers’ homeland, Ireland.

In 1946, he secured a divorce from his first wife, Eileen and, in January 1947, married a Limerick heiress, Ann Theodora Chute, only daughter of Major Richard Arenbourg Blennerhassett Chute of Dooneen, near Patrickswell, Co. Limerick. Her brother, Major Challoner Chute, known as Chally Chute, lived at French House, Co. Kildare and was one of the most colourful characters on the Curragh prior to his death in 2004. By 1951, the Earl was father to another three children.[xiv]

Between 1955 and 1999, Lord Harrington was based at Greenmount Stud, Patrickswell, the site of the present-day Limerick racecourse. Here Bill ran a flourishing commercial stud where stallions such as Tin Whistle, Montaval and Flyover stood. He owed much of his success as a breeder to the Nepenthe mare Ash Plant, dam of the 1960 Belmont Stakes winner Celtic Ash and Irish Oaks third Ashavan. He also ran what was considered the country's premier point-to-point on his lands.

A passionate huntsman, Lord Harrington reputedly rode out at least four days a week, keeping some fifty hunters for himself and his family. He was joint master of the Co Limerick Foxhounds from 1972 to 1993 and again from 1997 until his retirement in 2001. In this capacity he helped form the internationally acclaimed Clonshire Equestrian and Polo Centre.

During the 1960s, he combined forces with Judge Wyle to form the Irish Olympic Horse Society, raising enough money to send Ireland’s first ever three-day event team to the Olympic Games. As part of this, he organised the first international three-day event at Punchestown.

As well as chairing the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders' Association, he achieved remarkable success as an adviser to the British entrepreneur, Sir David Robinson, one of the most successful flat racing owners of the 1960s and 1970s. [xvi]

In 1962 the Earl and the Countess were divorced and, two years later, he married his third wife, Silla Cubitt, a granddaughter of Baron Ashcombe and first cousin of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.[xvii] They had a son and a daughter and later moved to Ballingarry.

The Earl was a wealthy man, with lands across Ireland and considerable property in the heart of London, including much of Stanhope Gardens. His honours now devolve upon his eldest son Charles, 12th Earl of Harrington. The new Earl is the father of Serena, Viscountess Linley, whose husband is the furniture-designing son of the late Princess Margaret and nephew of Queen Elizabeth.


[i] Too young to enlist, the restless young Earl joined the Derby Militia. He stayed with them for two years, tramping the beat for six days a week.

[ii] Bill Harrington was born at on 24 August 1922. His ancestor, the 1st Earl of Harrington, was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1746 to 1751. His father was Major the 10th Earl of Harrington (1887-1929) and his mother, the former Margaret Trelawney (Susan) Seaton. His father Charles succeeded as 10th Earl in 1928, but broke his neck out hunting just one year later. Bill duly succeeded in the Earldom of Harrington and Viscountcy of Petersham and Barony of Harrington. As such he was 8 months short of achieving 80 years as a peer. On the demise of his kinsman, the last Earl Stanhope, in 1967, he also succeeded to the Viscountcy of Stanhope of Mahon and Barony of Stanhope of Elvaston. His full compliment of titles were 11th Earl of Harrington (Great Britain, let. pat. 9 Feb 1742); 8th Viscount Stanhope of Mahon, (Great Britain, let. pat. 2 Jul 1717); 11th Viscount Petersham (Great Britain, let. pat. 9 Feb 1742); 8th Baron Stanhope of Elvaston, of Elvaston in the County of Derby (Great Britain, let. pat. 2 Jul 1717); 11th Baron Harrington, of Harrington in the County of Northampton (Great Britain, let. pat. 6 Jan 1730).

[iii] Margaret’s father, Major HHD Seaton lived at Mount Coote, Co Limerick.

[iv] Eileen was the only child of Sir John Foley-Grey, a well-known National Hunt figure. Sir John lived at Enville Hall, Stourbridge. Eileen was a daughter by his first wife Jean Jessie Mary de Sales de Terriere, of that LG family, dau. of Capt de Sales de Terriere, of Dunastair, co. Perth. Bill and Eileen Harrington had issue a son, Charles, 12th Earl of Harrington, and two daughters, Lady Jane (b. 1942) and Lady Avena (Margaret Clare) (b. 1944).

[iv.a] As Jean Eckersely advised me in September 2017, 'in the twenty years after the end of the war, within a twenty mile radius of Elvaston, no fewer than five similar houses were demolished. One, Sudbury Hall, a much grander house was given with many of its contents to the National Trust in lieu of death duties. So Elvaston was not unique but part of a national trend which was affecting the aristocracy and landed gentry.' Such observations remind me of how Manny Shinwell (the then Labour Party's Minister of Fuel and Power) converted the gardens at Wentworth Wodehouse into the largest open cast mining site in Britain just after the war!

[v] The regiment was stationed in England until August 1944 when sent to Normandy. However, Bill was severely injured shortly before departure in an accidental explosion. His stepfather, Luke Lillingston, died from wounds received in action just days later.

[vi] Bill Harrington listened to the VE Day speeches by Churchill and King George on a wireless with mixed emotions. The end of the war in Europe was something of an anti-climax and many were fearful of Soviet intentions.

[vii] On May 4th, ‘a gorgeous afternoon with the cherry trees in blossom’, Lord Harrington and his immediate superior, Major the Lord Rathdonnell, were making their way around a coastal road in a scout car when, ‘all of a sudden, a big cloud of dust came up towards us’. Rathdonnell turned the Bren gun on the cloud ‘in case there was some nonsense’ when ‘out of the dust, a gentleman appeared in full dress, waving his sabre around his head and pointing furiously’. Lords Harrington and Rathdonnell followed the rider who galloped back down the road ‘absolutely flat out, his cloak filling out the road’. At length, they arrived in what transpired to be a Cossack colony, maintained by Germany for propaganda purposes, complete with wives and horses. The leader of the colony bade the two men to the Mess where he poured three glasses of vodka and said: ‘Let us drink, first of all … to the Horse’. Vodka down the hatch, the glasses were refilled. ‘And now, to the Horse's nostrils’, said the Cossack, deadly serious. ‘And I can't remember much more after that’, recalled Lord Harrington, ‘but we had the Horse's eyes, the Horse's teeth, the Horse's head… until all the vodka went, and then we got on to kirsch and schnapps’. That evening the two officers returned to base and heard the news of the unconditional surrender to Montgomery of all enemy forces in North West Germany, Denmark and Holland.

Over the next two weeks, the Hussars gathered up hundreds of disheveled German prisoners, along with some useful cavalry horses and show-jumpers. One of the most popular lines from their German prisoners was to ask ‘When will the war against Russia start, with Germany allied to Britain?’ It was a question Admiral Doenitz might well have asked himself. The concept of an alliance between Germany, Britain and the USA against Stalin’s Soviet troops was not without foundation. Several senior figures in the Allied Command saw it as, at the very least, probable. And for Hitler’s designated successor, that slim possibility emboldened his flagging spirits during the last days of the conflict in Europe.

[viii] The month of May held unhappy memories for Donitz; he had lost his two sons to enemy action in May 1943 and May 1944. The Third Reich territories still consisted of all of Denmark and Norway, as well as pieces of Holland, France, Great Britain, Greece, Italy, Russia, Czechoslovakia and Crete.

[ix] ‘At 10:00am, Operation Blackout began when Flensburg was ‘attacked’ by 1 Cheshire, supported by A Squadron, and by 1 Hereford, supported by B Squadron, from the east and south-west respectively. C Squadron remained in reserve with the RHQ. ‘No risks were taken and there was support from the Royal Navy, two squadrons of the RAF, and some Royal Marines. Not a shot was fired and in a few hours the operation was over. A and B Squadron had blocked various roads and had seized some barracks near the Patria, the SCHAEF Mission ship, which had been the largest liner of the Hamburg-America Line and which had been throughout the war the luxury headquarters of the submarine base at Flensburg. There were several thousand German troops in the town and the surrounding area, but none gave trouble. All the important Nazis were captured, including Doenitz and Jodl. Only von Friedeburg escaped, by taking poison. Such was the end of the Doenitz ‘Government’, which had been allowed to officiate for the last fortnight. It was all very dull and we did very little, although many exciting accounts appeared in the Press – the only occasion on which the Regiment was mentioned by name. Before going back to Kappeln, we took our talks for a tour through the streets of Flensburg as a demonstration’. (Courage, p. 241)

[x] They were joined by battalions of the Cheshires and Herefords. These troops were part of the 11th Armoured Division and seem to have worked in conjunction with 61 FSS (Filed Security Service).

[xi] Dr. Albert Speer, the Nazi Minister of Industry and Production, was arrested in 15th century Flensburg Castle. Also captured were Colonel General Jodl, General Major Dethleffsen, Admiral Wagner, two Reichsministers and six State Secretaries. ‘The Section's official report to GSI (b) at HQ VIII Corps described their difficulties in gathering in the bodies and their documents, as Press Teams and Shaef observers were wrongly allowed to accompany the arrest task force. These onlookers "lifted" souvenirs such as watches and wallets, which in the case of Category I arrests may well have contained highly important evidence.’ (http://www.fpp.co.uk/Himmler/death/Britton_report.html)

[xii] The Patria, the largest liner of the Hamburg-America Line, had been luxury headquarters of the submarine base at Flensburg prior to its seizure by the Allies some days earlier.

[xiii] In his own (unpublished) account, Brigadier General John Bryan Churcher (1905-1997) tells how General Rock and he personally (with other Staff Officers of his brigade) invited the remnant government led by Donitz to a meeting in Flensburg (where the Germans thought they were about to discuss joint administration) and then "seized" Donitz, Speer etc. - to their considerable surprise - and placed them under arrest. Churcher commanded the 1st Battalion Hereford Regiment (which included the 4th KSLI) at Flensburg. Doenitz’s baton was given to Churcher during the surrender process. The Baton remained in his possession until 1964 when he gave it to his Regimental Museum at Shropshire Castle in Shrewsbury where it has been on show ever since. It has U- Boat motifs to reflect his status as commander of the U-Boat fleet before becoming commander of the entire fleet. The baton does unscrew; there is nothing in its centre. Information courtesy of : Peter Duckers, Curator, Shropshire Regimental Museum.

The remainder of the day was not without incident. Von Friedeburg gave his British captors the slip and swallowed a poisoned capsule. Heinrich Himmler, former head of the SS and probably the most hated man in Europe, likewise managed to commit suicide at nearby Lüneburg that afternoon. He is buried in an unmarked grave on Luneberg Heath.

[xiv] Trina Maria (b. 1947) was followed by twins, Steven Francis Lincoln and Sarah Sue in Dec 1951.

[xvi] He also played a role in the Northern Irish peace talks, about which he was extremely proud but details are thus far elusive.

[xvii] On 14 Oct 1964, he married thirdly Priscilla Margaret Cubitt, 2nd and only surv. dau. of Maj Hon Archibald Edward Cubitt, of Dedington, co. Oxford (by his second wife Sibell Margaret Norman, of that LG family, 1st dau. of Ronald Collet Norman, of Moor Place, Much Hadham), 5th son of Henry [Cubitt], 2nd Baron Ashcombe, and a kinswoman of HRH The Duchess of Cornwall.

With thanks to the late Piers Dennis, the late Ben Jellett, the late Thady Dunraven, the late Sue Craigie, Cilla Harrington, Charlie Murless, Michael Purcell, Hugo Jellett, Ana Wyndham-Quin, Alan Lillingstone, Brendan McNally, Elizabeth Perez, Peter Duckers, Doug Mayman, Harold Peacock, Frankie Ward, Ken Taylor, Aylson Doyle, Jean Eckersley and Karen Shanahan.