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Remembering.... Group Captain Peter Townsend CVO DSO DFC

Ejected by Palace, Battle of Britain ace fell on his feet in Brussels

By Dennis Abbott

Group Captain Peter Townsend was the Battle of Britain ace who should have married Princess Margaret, only for an out-of-touch political and religious establishment to shoot down their romance. The Royal crisis made Townsend a household name in the 1950s – and thanks to the global success of Netflix series The Crown, his story has captured the imagination of a new generation today.

Almost everyone knows what happened next. Townsend was given his marching orders and packed off to Brussels by the old guard, fearful that a marriage between the Queen’s fun-loving sister and the dashing divorcee would damage a monarchy still recovering from Edward VIII’s abdication for the “scheming” American Wallis Simpson.

What is far less well-known is that exiled Townsend would discover the true love of his life in Belgium, as well as a thirst for new adventures. In his new surroundings, it helped that he could count on the support of the tight-knit British community, with the Brussels branch of the British Legion, at its heart. Townsend had long been a supporter of the Legion and served on the committee of the local branch.

But to start at the beginning....

Peter Townsend caught on camera in Brussels

Peter Townsend was born on 22 November 1914 in RangoonBurma, the fifth of seven children in the family of Lieutenant Colonel Edward Townsend and his wife Gladys. His father was a senior representative of the Crown in what was then part of the British Empire, one of a handful of Britons ruling 15 million Burmese.

Peter was just a few months old when his mother brought him back to the family home in Whitchurch, Devon. She returned to Burma and he was cared for by his aunt Edith until his parents came back to Britain after his father retired in 1917. When Peter was five, the family moved to another Devonshire village, Northam, then to “bourgeois” Bournemouth in Dorset.

School days

From the age of eight, he was sent to a nearby boarding school, Wychwood, where he discovered a passion for cricket and the Bible. At 12, Townsend passed the entrance exam for Haileybury, a private school for boys where his father and brother Philip were educated. A sensitive and shy boy, Townsend was shocked by the bullying and sadism there. But it also toughened him up. “Survive your first two years at Haileybury and you could survive anything,” he wrote.

He later described his time there as “hell”. It didn’t help that he was turned down for cricket coaching after he froze with nerves during a trial in the nets. Townsend tried swimming instead and ended up captaining the team, as well playing scrum-half in the rugby 1st XV.

Townsend credited his father with sparking his interest in flying after taking him to watch an air show in Bournemouth when he was 13. He was spellbound as he watched the planes at full throttle.

First flight

Life at Haileybury gradually improved and Townsend found an ally in a housemaster, Mr Ashcroft, who arranged for him to be taken on a flight – with his father’s permission – in a First World War Bristol biplane. From that moment on, he knew he wanted to be a pilot.

An above-average student, Townsend was good at languages but had to work hard at maths to be accepted at RAF Training College Cranwell as a cadet. He passed the entrance exam first time but failed the medical after admitting he had suffered a head injury playing rugby. He re-took the exam six months later and this time the doctors cleared him.

After just six hours of training, 18-year-old Townsend made his first solo flight on 15 September 1933. For the next two years, he knuckled down to relentless lectures, flying, sport and drill. Punishment was meted out for the slightest infraction and Townsend was frequently saved from extra drill by Blanchard, his devoted batman, who ensured everything shone.

At the end of his first year, Townsend hurried back to the family home after learning that his father was seriously ill. He died days later and, at 19, Townsend found himself as acting head of the family, with Michael far away at sea and Philip with his regiment in India.

Within days of returning to Cranwell, Townsend broke out in eczema on his arms – a condition which would afflict him for the next four years despite being plied with treatments. “Paradoxically, flying, its root cause, was also the best palliative,” he later said.

In his second year, Townsend was designated as a single-seater fighter pilot, training in a Bristol Bulldog. He had a narrow escape with his instructor when their plane failed to come out of a spin until the last moment. Soon after two instructors and two cadets were killed in a mid-air collision. It brought home that flying was a dangerous trade.

Pilot Officer

Towards the end of his training, Townsend found it difficult to hide his impatience with the endless lectures and earned a ticking off from the assistant commandant, Philip Babington. Nonetheless, Townsend left Cranwell with a glowing report from him: “Should make an excellent pilot … will do very well when he gets over his shyness.”

He was commissioned as a pilot officer on 27 July 1935. He asked to go to the elite No. 1 Fighter Squadron in Tangmere and got his wish. The squadron was equipped with the Fury biplane, with a top speed of just over 200 mph. “The Fury was sensual, thrilling, like a lovely girl, perfect in looks and manners,” Townsend recalled in his autobiography.

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia in October 1935 raised the spectre of war and Britain responded by reinforcing its overseas bases from Gibraltar to Singapore. In Spring 1936, Townsend was posted to 36 Squadron, a torpedo bomber unit equipped with the Vickers Vildesbeeste, in Singapore. 

Townsend enjoyed life in the colony though he found the strict social code, which forbade any social mixing with the non-British majority, as stifling as the heat.

Townsend's log book showing entries for January 1936 ©Dix Noonan Webb

India adventure

In October 1936, his squadron was ordered to fly 12 aircraft to Risalpur on India’s north-west frontier – a five-day journey of 4,000 miles. En route, Townsend was able to stop at his birthplace in Rangoon, where he was paraded as “a god from heaven” before the household staff by his godmother and mother’s cousin, Addie Gaitskell. (One of Addie’s sons, Arthur, later married Townsend’s sister Stephanie, while another, Hugh, became leader of the British Labour Party). From Risalpur, Townsend took a train to visit his brother Philip at Abottabad.

On the return journey, he landed at Penang and read in a newspaper that Edward VIII was renouncing the throne for a divorcee. Within days, King George VI was on the throne. “It was an event which riveted the world’s attention – and one of unpredictable consequence to me, years later,” Townsend recalled.

He was promoted to Flying Officer in January 1937 but was ready to quit the RAF due to his recurring eczema. He returned to Britain by ship and, days into the voyage, the condition cleared up. RAF doctors in London passed him fit and in summer 1937 Townsend was posted back to Tangmere, this time with 43 Fighter Squadron. Much had changed and Townsend was sniffy about a new generation of pilots who had answered an urgent appeal for recruits but who did not, in his view, have flying in their blood.

First love

But the clouds parted when he fell in love for the first time with “a blue-eyed fair skinned Danish goddess” called Bodil. The relationship continued even when she had to return to Copenhagen. The besotted Townsend spent a small fortune on phone calls and trips to Denmark when he was on leave. The relationship continued until the outbreak of war.

Meanwhile, as storm clouds continued to gather on the continent, Townsend was uncomfortable that the training at Tangmere was much less about the joy of flying and more about killing the enemy. It was not what he signed up for.

His Cranwell mentor Philip Babington urged him to face up to war, however unpleasant, and, after a course in navigation, Townsend was posted to the Coastal Command squadron. He regarded this as “ultimate humiliation” and wrote to the Air Ministry, complaining that its multi-seat planes worsened his skin condition. He would resign unless he could return to 43 Squadron and the single-seater Fury. He was transferred back to the fighters – and given six months’ leave.

In September 1938, he returned to his unit and found that the painful eczema sores had permanently gone. Any joy he felt to be finally rid of his affliction was eclipsed by the mood of gloom at the base.   

Peace for our time

Signs of a looming war grew daily. Adolf Hitler’s demands for the transfer of the German-speaking Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia to the Reich triggered a crisis, which was only averted when the British and French premiers, Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier, caved into the Fuhrer’s demands with the Munich Agreement on 30 September. It was hailed by Chamberlain as “peace for our time”, a claim that would not age well.  

Townsend and his friends were relieved: they knew their Furies were no match for the German Heinkel and Dornier bombers. The Air Ministry lost no time in equipping Tangmere with the more powerful Hurricane, armed with eight machine guns. It was a huge morale booster.

Townsend started enjoying his flying again and his previous pacifism was replaced by a desire to put the “bullying Germans” in their place. He also warmed towards the younger pilots he once resented and formed a strong bond with a band of “embryonic warriors” who included Caesar Hull, Fred Rosier, Joe Sullivan and John Simpson.

Peter Townsend (left) with fellow pilot Caesar Hull (Reproduced from Air Ministry archives)

Outbreak of war

Townsend was at readiness – on five minutes’ notice to take off – when the pilots gathered in the mess on 3 September 1939 to hear a grim Chamberlain announce that Hitler had refused to accept Britain’s ultimatum to withdraw his troops from Poland, and Britain was therefore at war with Germany.

“Wizard!” said Hull, breaking the tense atmosphere and predicting Simpson was sure to be the first to be killed. Simpson, like Townsend, would survive the war, but neither Hull nor Sullivan would. Within a year, RAF pilots would have a one in five chance of survival.

The first few months of the so-called phoney war were quiet for 43 Fighter Squadron, but things would soon hot up when Townsend and his fellow pilots were posted to Acklington in Northumberland, with orders to prevent Luftwaffe attacks on coastal shipping.

First ‘kill’

Townsend, leading B Flight, earned his first “kill” on 3 February 1940, shooting down a Heinkel which crash-landed near Whitby – the first German aircraft to fall on English soil since the start of the war.  Ever the gentleman, Townsend took cigarettes to two of the survivors in hospital. One of them, Karl Missy, the plane’s rear gunner, lost a leg. They would meet again in happier circumstances 25 years later.

A few days after Townsend shot down another bomber. This time, there were no survivors.

The squadron moved to Wick on the north east tip of Scotland to defend the naval base at Scapa Flow. The weather conditions were terrible and visibility often poor. Townsend left for a dawn patrol with Flying Officer “Tiger” Folkes one morning, heading low over the waves. His friend disappeared without trace.

Townsend earned another “kill” after a dogfight with a Heinkel. He recalled the desperate combat in his book Duel in the Dark: “Streaming vapour from its engines, the bomber was going down, but the rear gunner, seeing me silhouetted against the after glow in the north-west, was still putting up a desperate fight. I went in again, guns blazing down his cone of tracers until as I dodged below I could hear his MG 15 machine-guns still firing just above my head. He was a brave man fighting for his life, as I was for mine; two young gladiators between whom there was no real enmity. It was a pity that one of them – and his comrades – had to die.”

It could easily have been Townsend on the losing side – back at base he found his Hurricane was riddled with bullets. In April 1940, Townsend was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in recognition of his third victory. “In each instance he displayed qualities of leadership, skill and determination of the highest order, with little regard for his own safety,” the citation read.

Battle of Britain

The real air war started on 10 May 1940, with the launch of a new German offensive. Townsend was given command of 85 Squadron at Debden, north of London, and soon after was ordered to concentrate the entire squadron at Martlesham near the Suffolk coast. The Battle of Britain had begun. In five months, nearly 1,750 Allied aircraft were lost, with more than 1,870 airmen killed or wounded. The German losses were even greater with almost 2,000 planes destroyed and nearly 4,250 airmen killed, wounded or captured. But the figures were dwarfed by the number of British civilian casualties, estimated at more than 55,000 dead or wounded.

On 11 July 1940, it seemed Townsend’s own luck had run out whilst leading a section of the Squadron on a dawn sortie to protect a convoy. His Hurricane intercepted a Dornier reconnaissance plane, 20 miles off the coast. Both pilots opened fire at the same time, inflicting severe damage on each other’s aircraft. The German managed to nurse his plane back to France, but Townsend’s Hurricane was wrecked.

He was saved by two strokes of luck: while his cockpit was destroyed, he was miraculously unscathed. Townsend jumped for his life, counting “one, two, three”, before pulling his parachute rip-cord. He splashed into the waves, miles from land, with only his Mae West life-jacket to keep him afloat. Fortunately, he was spotted by a minesweeper, Finisterre, which was only in the vicinity because it had strayed miles off course. Revived with a rum, he was flying again the same evening.

Townsend was living a charmed life. He had another narrow escape soon after when he dived into a formation of 30 Messerschmitts and was chased off in a storm of lead.

Losses mount

His squadron was moved to Croydon, in the forefront of the battle. Of its 20 pilots, 14, including Townsend, were shot down in the next fortnight, two of them twice. While the RAF never lost more than a few dozen fighter-pilots in a day, “The Few” were becoming fewer. Experienced pilots were replaced by relative novices as losses mounted.

“Our battle was a small one but on its outcome depended the fate of the western world. We knew we had to win; but, more than that, we were somehow certain we could not lose. Those days of battle were the most stirring and the most wonderful I have ever lived,” Townsend recalled.

On 18 August, Townsend destroyed three Messerschmitt fighter bombers in a matter of minutes during a battle over the Thames Estuary. He described the combat in Duel of Eagles, his account of the Battle of Britain.

 “A dozen Me. 110s cut across us and immediately formed a defensive circle. ‘In we go,’ I called over the R./T., and a moment later a Me. 110 had banked clumsily across my bows. In its vain attempt to escape, the machine I was bent on destroying looked pathetically human. It was an easy shot – too easy. For a few more seconds we milled around with the Me. 110s. Then down came a little shower of Me. 109s. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one diving for me, pumping shells. A quick turn toward it shook it off, and it slid by below, then reared up in a wide left hand turn in front of me. It was a fatal move. My Hurricane climbed round easily inside its turn. When I fired the Me. 109 flicked over and a sudden spurt of white vapour from its belly turned into flame. Down came another. Again a steep turn and I was on its tail. He seemed to know I was there, but he did the wrong thing. He kept on turning. When I fired, bits flew off, the hood came away and then the pilot baled out.”

On 26 August, Townsend led another attack, this time against a large force of Messerschmitts and Dorniers: “We levelled out about two miles on a collision course. Ease the throttle to reduce the closing speed – which anyway only allowed a few seconds to fire. Get a bead on them right away, hold it, and never mind the streams of tracer darting overhead. Just keep on pressing the button until you think you’re going to collide – then stick hard forward. Under the shock of negative G your stomach jumps into your mouth, dust and muck fly up from the cockpit into your eyes, and your head cracks on the roof as you break away below” (from Duel of Eagles). Three Dorniers were shot down.

Three days later Townsend claimed another victory, an Me. 109 which crashed near Hastings.

On 31 August, the British fighters suffered their heaviest losses – and Townsend was among them when his Hurricane’s fuel tank and cockpit were hit by a Messerschmitt over Kent. A shell smashed into Townsend’s foot, leaving him soaked in petrol and blood. A crash landing was impossible and he baled out, landing in a mass of brambles in front of two startled women. Having convinced the Home Guard and a policeman that he was an RAF pilot, everyone adjourned to the Royal Oak Hotel in Hawkhurst for drinks. He was eventually waved off by a “wonderfully friendly little crowd” and that night a surgeon extracted a 20mm shell from his left foot and amputated his big toe.

Townsend was promoted to the substantive rank of Squadron Leader on 1 September 1940, receiving a Bar to his DFC the same week.

The recommendation stated: “This officer assumed command of a Squadron after its return from France at the end of May 1940, and in a very short time, under his leadership and guidance, it became a keen and efficient fighting unit. On 11 July 1940, whilst leading a section of the Squadron to protect a convoy, he intercepted about twenty or thirty enemy aircraft, destroying one and severely damaging two others. The enemy formation was forced to withdraw. Under his command, the Squadron has destroyed eight enemy aircraft while protecting convoys against sporadic enemy attacks. On 18 August 1940, his Squadron attacked some 250 enemy aircraft in the Thames estuary. He himself shot down three enemy aircraft, the Squadron as a whole destroying many others. The success which has been achieved since Squadron Leader Townsend assumed command, has been due to his unflagging zeal and leadership.”

Back in the cockpit

In September, 85 Squadron was transferred to Church Fenton in Yorkshire. Townsend’s wound prevented him from walking properly, but not from flying, He was helped into a Hurricane and took off. Reporting to the base doctor, he was told: “It will be some time before you can fly again”. “I’ve just been flying,” dead-panned Townsend, and no more was said.

In October, Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring gave orders for the annihilation of London. Townsend’s squadron was moved to Gravesend, east of the capital, then back to Debden, to carry out night-fighting patrols during the Blitz. The Hurricanes were not well suited to this role and losses mounted – but the RAF’s stubborn resistance had also taken its toll on the enemy. By the end of October, Hitler had abandoned his plans to invade and the Battle of Britain was over.

Days after their return to Debden, the King and Queen visited the aerodrome to inspect 85 Squadron and 242 Squadron, commanded by Douglas Bader DFC. For Bader, who lost both legs in a flying accident before the war, standing to attention on prosthetic limbs was a challenge. “If I overbalance, please come to the rescue,” he told Townsend. Bader’s war would end in August 1941 when his Spitfire was downed near Dunkirk, possibly as a result of friendly fire. After several escape attempts, he was sent to Colditz Castle.

In February 1941, 85 Squadron moved to Hunsdon in Hertfordshire. The Luftwaffe’s night raids against London and other cities continued remorselessly and Townsend’s Squadron frequently found themselves in action. 

On 25 February, Townsend, whose Hurricane was by now equipped with the new De Wilde explosive rounds, achieved another “kill” to his name, bringing down a Dornier near Sudbury in Suffolk.

On 9/10 April, he led the Squadron in more successful engagements, badly damaging two Junkers Ju 88 fighter bombers.

The following May Townsend was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). The citation stated: “Acting Wing Commander P.W. Townsend, D.F.C., has been engaged in active operations against the enemy without respite, except for the very short period when he was wounded, since the outbreak of War. He has flown over 300 operational flights including 95 at night. During the Battle of Britain he led every patrol against the enemy except one and it will be noted that the Squadron total was excellent in comparison to its losses. This very light loss of pilots by No. 85 Squadron can only be attributable to the excellent, courageous and well thought out leadership of its Commanding Officer.

Townsend's medal collection, sold for the third time on 21 July 2021 ©Dix Noonan Webb

“Acting Wing Commander Townsend since taking over command of No. 85 Squadron has infused into his pilots and ground personnel a spirit of tremendous keenness and devotion to duty by his example and personal character. Apart from his ability as a leader he is a gallant, determined and courageous fighter. Acting Wing Commander Townsend in all has destroyed eleven enemy aircraft, probably destroyed three, as well as damage others.”

In truth, Townsend was exhausted. “Twenty months of day and night operations had reduced me to nerve-racked, sleep-starved wreck. I had flown myself to a standstill,” he admitted. Today, his condition would probably be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Marriage

He was given a staff job and promotion: his new title, Wing Commander, Night Operations, provoked smiles when he met Rosemary Pawle, a Brigadier’s daughter, who lived near the base. “She was 20, tall and lovely,” in Townsend’s words. Within weeks, they were engaged and married on 17 July.

By the end of the year, Townsend was promoted to Station Commander at Drem, near Edinburgh, commanding 611 Squadron, a Spitfire unit. His first son, Giles, was born four months later on 27 April 1942.

Keen to return to operations, Townsend was posted to command 605 Squadron, a night fighter unit based at Ford in West Sussex. Peter Middleton, the grandfather of today’s Duchess of Cambridge, was one of his pilots.

It was not a happy period for Townsend. He was flying relentlessly, but every time he took off he was convinced that he would not return. 

A stint at Staff College followed and in January 1943 he was appointed Station Commander at West Malling in Kent. In the autumn – postings came thick and fast in wartime – he was given command of No. 23 Initial Training Wing, training French pilots at Hunmanby Moor, near Filey in Yorkshire. In January 1944, he was sent to the Instructors’ Flying Training School in Montrose, Scotland.

By now, the war had begun to turn in favour of the Allies and Townsend must have known it was unlikely he would fly combat missions again. He could look back on an impressive record: nine enemy aircraft destroyed, two shared kills, two “probables” and four damaged.

Air Equerry

But Townsend, still only 29, would remember 1944 for an unexpected posting – his next appointment was as Air Equerry to King George VI. The King had asked the Air Ministry for suitable candidates who had seen action and Townsend’s name stood out.

On 16 February, after a briefing by Sir Piers “Joey” Legh, Master of the Household, Townsend found himself face-to-face with George VI in the Regency Room. “King though he was, Defender of the Faith and Emperor of India, the humanity of the man and his striking simplicity came across warmly, unmistakably,” recalled Townsend.

On his first day in the job, he was introduced to the King’s daughters, Elizabeth, then 17, and her 13-year-old sister Margaret.

The King appreciated Townsend’s quiet efficiency and his appointment, initially intended for three months, was soon made permanent. Townsend quickly made himself a popular and trusted member of the Royal Household. Other than the Queen, he was one of the few who could handle the King’s notorious short fuse.

Churchill’s goldfish

The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, came every Tuesday to discuss the war and matters of state with the sovereign. He would arrive with head bowed, shoulders hunched, invariably wearing a black coat, stiff collar and striped trousers. Townsend could see how tired he was. Sometimes, the Premier would have a brief word with the equerry as he waited for his audience. On one occasion, he complained about missing his morning bath – because it was needed for one of his goldfish which was ill. On another, discussing the Middle East, Churchill growled “We must hold Suez!” as if assigning the vital task to Townsend himself. 

In his role as equerry, Townsend led a host of important guests into the presence of the King, quietly putting them at their ease. His manner was appreciated: King Frederick IX of Denmark later made Townsend a Knight of the Order of Dannebrog, French President Vincent Auriol made him an Officier de la Légion d’honneur – while the Shah of Iran gave him a rug.

In autumn 1944, Townsend and his wife moved from “Bomb Alley” in Kent to a house in Windsor, which they shared with two newly-weds, Lord Rupert and Camilla “Micky” Nevill. The following spring, in a sign of the esteem in which he was held by the King, the Townsends were given a grace-and-favour cottage close to Windsor Castle. Originally built as a tea-house for the wife of King William IV, Adelaide Cottage unfortunately turned out to be extremely damp.

Life as a Royal servant had its advantages but it was no picnic either. In many ways it was worse for Rosemary, pregnant with their second child, who became a “court widow” when Townsend was on duty. He would get long breaks in between but it was an “unbalancing routine”.

Royal godfather

The Townsends’ second son, Hugo, was born on 29 June 1945. He was christened in St George’s Chapel and the King was his godfather.

Townsend’s duties meant accompanying the Royal Family wherever they were staying, including on their holidays. He liked the informal atmosphere at Balmoral in Scotland, where he often rode with the princesses and became adept at deer-stalking. After dinner, the party would play games or, “most enchanting of all”, listen to Princess Margaret singing and playing the piano. The King spent Christmas 1945 at Sandringham, where Townsend found himself doing the hokey-cokey dance with Queen Mary.

On 1 February 1947, the Royal Family set off for a lengthy tour of South Africa. Townsend was asked to act as master of the reduced Household during the three-month trip. The princesses, accompanied by Townsend, would regularly ride before breakfast. The King found the tour hard-going and on one occasion took out his nervous exhaustion by berating the chauffeur. It was too much for Townsend, sitting in the front seat, who turned round and snapped: “For Heaven’s sake, shut up, or there’s going to be an accident.”

Tensions were not helped soon after when a man grabbed the car door and the Queen, fearing an assassination attempt, chopped him down with her parasol. The would-be assailant was beaten by police but it later emerged he was trying to hand over a present for Princess Elizabeth.

Tensions were also evident when Townsend returned home in May. It became increasingly clear that he and Rosemary were incompatible.  

Aide to Princess

Meanwhile, Townsend found his Royal duties now involved more contact with Princess Margaret. He was attached to her entourage when she launched the Edinburgh Castle at Belfast on 16 October 1947 and was again at the 18-year-old’s side when she represented her father at the investiture of Queen Juliana of the Netherlands on 6 September 1948. “Without realising it, I was being carried a little further from home, a little nearer to the Princess,” he later wrote.

In August 1950, Townsend was made assistant Master of the Household, a role that put him at the heart of the Royal Family’s administration. It came with a new office on the sunny side of Buckingham Palace.

Frequently at the King’s side, he was aware than most of the severity of his health issues. On 5 May 1951, two days after opening the Festival of Britain, the King, accompanied by the Queen, Princess Margaret, Townsend and a lady-in-waiting, headed to Balmoral for a much-needed Whitsun break. The King would normally use the Royal train for the journey to Dee-side but was advised it would be less tiring to fly instead.

British Legion rally

But he was determined to continue with his duties.

On 17 May, Townsend accompanied the King at a huge rally in London’s Hyde Park to mark the 30th anniversary of the founding of the British Legion. Some 6,000 members lined up with their standards as the sovereign, standing in an open Land-Rover, with Townsend to his side, inspected the proud lines of veterans (archive news report). 

Peter Townsend pictured with King George VI at a Royal British Legion rally in Hyde Park on 17 May 1951

Though he was visibly ailing, the King did his best to make light of his health issues – especially from his devoted daughters.

If Princess Elizabeth was the King’s pride, Princess Margaret was his joy. Her vivacious personality was contagious to all around her – including Townsend.

“She was a girl of unusual, intense beauty … [with] large purple-blue eyes, generous, sensitive lips and a complexion as smooth as a peach. But what ultimately made Princess Margaret so attractive and loveable was that behind the dazzling façade, the apparent self-assurance, you could find, if you looked for it, a rare softness and sincerity. She could make you bend double with laughing; she could also touch you deeply,” he wrote in his autobiography.

There were signs that Margaret was not immune to Townsend’s charms either. On a return trip to Balmoral in August, Townsend dozed off in the heather after a picnic lunch. He stirred when he became aware that someone was covering him with a coat. “I opened one eye – to see Princess Margaret’s lovely face, very close, looking into mine,” he recalled.

Death of the King

But it was clear on the visit that the King’s health was getting worse. Doctors found a malign growth on his left lung and removed it during an operation in Buckingham Palace on 23 September. The King initially appeared to make a rapid recovery and asked Townsend to make arrangements for him to continue his convalescence in Natal.

His death at Sandringham on 6 February 1952 came as a huge shock to his daughters. The future Queen was in Kenya with the Duke of Edinburgh, en route for a tour of Australia and New Zealand, when she heard the news.

Townsend was a pillar of strength for the King’s grieving widow and Princess Margaret. He was responsible for tactfully organising their move from Buckingham Palace to Clarence House, while the new Queen and Prince Philip moved in the opposite direction.

The King’s death left a void in the Princess’s life, while Townsend’s was clouded by his disintegrating marriage. Although their situations were completely different, the pair found solace in each other’s company.

Princess Margaret pictured in 1949 aged 19 (Cecil Beaton, Creative Commons) 

Divorce and love

On 1 August 1952, Townsend was appointed Comptroller to the Queen Mother’s household and promoted to Group Captain on 1 January 1953. His marital status had also changed; his decree nisi came through just before Christmas. Townsend was granted legal custody of his sons, but in practice they were mostly in the care of Rosemary. Two months after the divorce, she married John de László, the son of a well-known portrait painter. (She later married a third time to John Pratt, the 5th Marquess Camden).

Around this period, during a quiet afternoon at Windsor Castle, Townsend and the Princess confided their feelings for each other. “Our love, for such it was, took no heed of wealth and rank and all the other worldly, conventional barriers which separated us,” Townsend wrote.

The Princess quickly told the Queen, who invited her sister and Townsend to spend an evening with her and Prince Philip. The Queen was sympathetic and the Prince tried to make light of what everyone knew was a tricky situation. Princess Margaret also broke the news to her mother.

Townsend informed the Queen’s secretary, Sir Alan Lascelles, about the situation. “You must be either mad or bad,” he replied. Lascelles advised the Queen that, as head of the Church of England, she could not consent to her sister marrying a divorced man under the 1772 Royal Marriages Act. However, if the Princess could wait until she turned 25 on 21 August 1955, she would no longer require her sister’s approval, but still need the consent of Parliament and the Dominion parliaments.

Lascelles also consulted the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. Both agreed that Townsend should leave the Queen Mother’s household. Lascelles wanted him posted abroad immediately. Meanwhile, rumours about the Princess and Townsend started to circulate in foreign media, but not in Britain.

Coronation gaffe

It was decided to let matters lie until after the Queen’s coronation on 2 June 1953. But the “bombshell burst”, as Townsend’s biographer Norman Barrymaine put it, when the Princess was spotted removing a piece of fluff from Townsend’s uniform just after the ceremony in Westminster Abbey. Her spontaneous gaffe created a frenzy of media coverage in the US and the continent, and, after restraining themselves for a week, the news hit the British public. The People was first, reporting that newspapers abroad “are openly asserting that the Princess is in love with a divorced man and that she wishes to marry him”.

The issue could no longer be ignored. The Queen sought the advice of Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher. It was agreed it would be best if Townsend was immediately posted abroad.

Townsend was given a choice of three posts: Singapore, Johannesburg or Brussels. The latter was the obvious choice: it meant he could stay close to his sons – and continue to see Princess Margaret, though his visits to Clarence House would have to be “under the radar”.

Exiled

Townsend’s appointment as Air Attaché was arranged quietly and quickly – so speedily in fact that the British Ambassador to Belgium, Sir Christopher Warner, knew nothing about decision until he read about it in a newspaper during a visit to Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) in what was then the Belgian Congo.

In a touching gesture, the Queen insisted that Townsend accompany her and Prince Philip for the last time as equerry on a visit to Northern Ireland on 30 June.

Princess Margaret had set out the day before with the Queen Mother for a visit to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). She was assured Townsend’s exile would be held back until after her return on 17 July. However, Lascelles informed Townsend his posting would start on 15 July. After breaking the news to her disconsolate daughter in Africa, the Queen Mother carried out their duties alone for 48 hours, while the Princess suffered from a “bad cold”.

Townsend’s parting from his sons, eight and eleven years old and boarding at a prep school in Kent, was “harrowing”.

Townsend now found himself subject of intense media scrutiny. Despite their initial reluctance to cover the story, the British press now made up for lost time. Even the Socialist weekly Tribune weighed into the debate, demanding that “Princess Margaret should be allowed to make up her own mind whom she wants to marry”. The Sunday Express said: “If they want to marry, why shouldn’t they?” The Daily Mirror ran a poll which showed that 97% of readers supported the marriage.

Arrival in Brussels

Any thoughts Townsend might be able to enjoy a quiet life in Brussels were quickly dispelled. Twenty police officers instead of the usual two were on duty outside the British Embassy in Rue de Spa when he arrived for his first day, having driven straight from London in his green Ford Zephyr via the cross-Channel ferry.

The Embassy issued a communiqué 20 minutes later stating that “Group Captain Townsend will be staying for some days from his arrival as the guest of the British Chargé d'Affaires, Mr. C.C. Parrott (69 Avenue Churchill).”

How journalists today would enjoy such transparency.

Townsend quickly found himself showered with invitations and initially sought to keep a low profile. He did, however, attend a ball hosted by the Ambassador soon after his arrival, but politely declined invitations to dance. Belgian Prime Minister Jean Van Houte’s daughter Marie Louise commented to a reporter: “We had been saying: ‘If Group Captain Townsend does not dance, he must be in love’, and, voila, he does not dance.”

Townsend settled into a furnished ground-floor flat in the fashionable Square du Bois, off Avenue Louise. He wrote to Princess Margaret almost daily.

He developed a close circle of associates very quickly. The Ambassador got over his umbrage at Townsend’s appointment and, with his sister Jeannetta (who ran his bachelor household), became a firm friend. His closest colleague was Military Attaché Colonel Robin Drummond-Wolff, “a formidable giant in his Black Watch regalia and bristling moustache”, but with a mellow heart behind his tartan façade and a kind-hearted wife, Anne.

He regularly met US Air Attaché Colonel James Currie and his wife Donna, French Military Attaché Colonel René de Wattre, Henri Claudel from the French Embassy, and his neighbour Renée Lippens. Townsend also re-discovered Belgian friends who had escaped during the war to join the RAF, such as Général Aviateur Léo de Soomer DFC, who commanded No. 3 Fighter Squadron at West Malling when Townsend was Station Commander.

British Legion

Townsend soon got involved with the Brussels branch of the British Legion, serving on the committee and attending its social events. This was a golden era for the branch, then presided by Lieutenant Colonel George Starr DSO MC, who led the Special Operations Executive “Wheelwright” resistance network in France during the Second World War.

The branch often benefitted from glamorous fund-raising film galas – and Townsend was expected to do his bit. He and Starr joined mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary at the premiere of Conquest of Everest on 29 October 1953, together with actress Celia Johnston, star of Brief Encounter, and India’s Ambassador P.A. Menon.

Townsend (centre) with mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary and actress Celia Johnson before the premiere of Conquest of Everest, captured in Le Soir

Around this time, Townsend attended a horse-show in Brussels. A young Belgian competitor, Marie-Luce Jamagne, caught his eye as she flew over the jumps. Suddenly, her horse fell and the rider was thrown, right in front of Townsend. He immediately leapt from his seat to where she lay on the ground, unconscious. One of his friends, Didi van Derton, had also rushed to help. “She’ll be all right,” he said and later introduced Townsend to Marie-Luce’s parents.

Early in 1954, the Jamagnes invited Townsend to their home near Antwerp. The family showered him with kindness and their house soon became a haven from the endless press speculation around Townsend’s relationship with Princess Margaret.

Drawing of Peter Townsend by Clementine Verheyden, original held by the Royal Library of Belgium

On the gallops

The Jamagnes may have influenced Townsend’s decision to try his hand at show-jumping and racing. He competed in his first event in April at the Hippodrome de Groenendael (sadly the course no longer exists – it went bankrupt in 2001 and all the buildings except the Royal box were demolished). Soon, Townsend was rising at dawn every morning to drive through the Forêt de Soignes to the Groenendael gallops, where he was put through his paces by Alfred Hart, one of Belgium’s leading trainers.

The same month he joined fellow Brussels branch Legion members Colonel Louis Medlam, the new Military Attaché, and Wing Commander Edgar “Wally” Wurtele, Canada’s Military Attaché, on a NATO fact-finding trip to the Congo laid on by the Belgian government. Le Soir reported that the delegation arrived in Léopoldville on a Fairchild Packet cargo plane named Vilde Beeste on 17 April 1954.

In July, Townsend met Princess Margaret for the first time in a year. Townsend described their joy at being together again as “indescribable”. “We did not discuss the future; all we knew was that for the present our feelings for one another had not changed,” he said.

It was a joy, too, for Townsend to be reunited with his sons, Giles and Hugo, who were reassured that their father had not been “banished for life”.

Back in Brussels, the standard of Townsend’s riding improved significantly. He kept his weight at a constant 65kg (10 stone 3lbs) and rode his first winner soon after returning from Britain. He was still riding in show-jumping events but racing was his preference.  By 1955, he was competing in races all over Europe – in Paris, Deauville, Madrid, Frankfurt, Neuss, Saarbrucken, Vienna, Malmö, Oslo, Copenhagen, Merano and Aarau.

Media pressure

But, with the Princess Margaret’s 25th birthday less than six months away, Townsend once again found himself besieged by reporters, who camped on his doorstep. The “dawn patrol” would even turn up at Alfred Hart’s stables in Hoeillart. Throughout this time, Townsend received no help or advice from Buckingham Palace.

He became an expert at politely brushing aside interview requests or offering only the most anodyne responses, but this did not prevent others commenting. Asked about the “Margaret-Townsend affair” during a visit to Cape Town, the Archbishop of Canterbury stated: “The whole thing – and you can quote me – was purely a stunt.”

There was no announcement on Sunday 21 August, the Princess’ birthday. Margaret was at Balmoral and worshipped, as usual, at Crathie Kirk. Townsend was among a congregation of five at the English church in Ostend. He arrived at the port the day before, accompanied by his sons, to compete in a race, which he won.

His presence at race meetings drew crowds and Townsend was often embarrassed by the adulation, especially if his mount finished down the field. But he loved the sport and did not want to hide away. His celebrity also attracted another form of unwanted attention – a death threat from the Irish Republican Army. The Belgian authorities provided Townsend with a personal bodyguard, Commandant Etienne de Spot.  

Eden advice

The Princess still seemed set on the marriage going ahead, although a letter which emerged recently, sent to Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden, made it clear she had not made up her mind entirely. Nonetheless, the Prime Minister flew to Balmoral soon after, on 1 October, to discuss the situation with the Queen.

At the time, it was thought Eden advised the Queen that the Princess would have to relinquish her Royal status and allowance if the marriage went ahead. However, official papers released in 2004 show the Prime Minister, twice married himself, planned to amend the 1772 Royal Marriages Act. This would allow the Princess to marry Townsend by removing her and any children they had from the line of succession. The Princess would be allowed to keep her royal title and her allowance, stay in the country, and continue with her public duties.

It is unclear if the Princess was aware of these developments. Townsend was, as usual, kept in the dark by the Palace.

On 12 October, the couple both made their way to London – the Princess travelling from Balmoral and Townsend by plane from Le Touquet. Townsend was swamped by press and photographers as he made his way to a flat at 19 Lowndes Square, lent to him by John Nevill, Marquess of Abergavenny, the brother of his old friend Lord Rupert Nevill.

He was reunited with the Princess the following evening at Clarence House. In the coming fortnight, the Princess and Townsend met on every day bar two, often dining with friends including Major John Wills, whose wife Jean was a cousin of the Princess, and Mark Bonham Carter, the Liberal politician and uncle of actress Helena Bonham Carter.

Their every movement was tracked by the media. While the popular press backed the marriage, most of the political Establishment and the Church remained steadfastly opposed. It was thought that Robert “Bobbety” Gascoyne-Cecil, 5thMarquess of Salisbury, leader of the House of Lords and hardline member of Eden’s cabinet, would resign rather than sanction a law to enable the marriage. The only reaction from the Palace came via the Queen’s Press Secretary, Commander Richard Colville: “No statement is at present contemplated.”

Times editorial

In what was seen by many as a turning point in the saga came with the publication of a lengthy editorial in The Times on 24 October, warning the Princess from “entering into a union which vast members of her sister’s people, all sincerely anxious for her life-long happiness, cannot in conscience regard as a marriage”. “The Queen's sister married to a divorced man (even though the innocent party) would be irrevocably disqualified from playing her part in the essential royal function,” it added.

The Archbishop of Canterbury and Dr Leslie Weatherhead, President of the Methodist Conference, weighed in with further criticism.

In his autobiography, Townsend says his mind was actually made up before he saw The Times leader: “The previous week had ended with our feeling hardly able to endure any longer the solemn pontifications, the debates which raged, at home and the world over, for an against our marriage. The painful facts of the situation were only too clear: the country, the Commonwealth, the entire world, was in an uproar over us.”

Townsend and the Princess met again at Clarence House on Saturday 22 October. “We were both exhausted, mentally, emotionally, physically,” he wrote.

Engagement off

It was time to put an end to the situation. Townsend drafted a statement and showed it to the Princess on Monday. “That’s exactly how I feel,” she said, using the same words that had heralded the start of their story. “Our feelings for each other were unchanged, but they had incurred for us a burden so great that we decided, together, to lay it down,” said Townsend.

They wanted to issue the statement immediately but the Palace blocked its publication for another week as they haggled over the wording. 

Townsend drove to inform his mother, who had found refuge with her cousin Addie in Hampshire, that the nuptials were off. The Princess told the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The couple then spent a “goodbye weekend” together at Uckfield House in Sussex, the country home of Lord Rupert Nevill. They were joined by John and Patricia Abergavenny – as well as a media horde outside the gates. They returned separately to London on Monday 31 October and met at Clarence House for a final farewell. The Princess’s statement was broadcast worldwide at 7pm:

I would like it to be known that I have decided not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend. I have been aware that, subject to my renouncing my rights of succession, it might have been possible for me to contract a civil marriage. But mindful of the Church's teachings that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before others. I have reached this decision entirely alone, and in doing so I have been strengthened by the unfailing support and devotion of Group Captain Townsend. I am deeply grateful for the concern of all those who have constantly prayed for my happiness.

Princess Margaret's decision to renounce Townsend was front-page news in Belgium

In his biography of Townsend, Norman Barrymaine praised him for acting with “remarkable restraint and dignity” during a painful period. “He went with his own self-respect intact,” he said.

In an interview with BBC journalist Richard Dimbleby, the Archbishop of Canterbury insisted the Princess acted of her own free will, but then contradicted himself by saying “of course she took advice”, adding: “We are fighting against a great popular wave of stupid emotionalism. We are fighting it and winning.”

Back to Brussels

Townsend quietly left London and, after staying a few days at Uckfield House, took a flight back to Brussels. Seeing his apartment surrounded by reporters, he took up an offer from the new Ambassador, Sir George Labouchere, to stay at his residence in Rue Ducale for a couple of days.

Townsend received no shortage of sympathy and was able to count on the support of his friends, including those at the Legion. In December 1955, he was named as an Honorary Vice-President on the Brussels branch, along with Colonel Louis Medlam, Wing Commander Edgar “Wally” Wurtele, and Captain F.J. Cartwright. The following month, he represented the Embassy and branch at a reception hosted by Lieutenant-Colonel Aviateur Adelin Marissal in honour of the Ambassador.

Townsend rode the winner in a race at the Wellington Hippodrome in Ostend on the day of Princess Margaret's 25th birthday

Townsend had been promised an important command in the RAF but was increasingly thinking of making a fresh start in his life. He toyed with becoming a race-horse trainer, but a different idea began to crystallize in his mind during a NATO mission to the Belgian Congo in March 1956. There and then he decided he would make a solo journey round the world – and write a book about it.

“I knew it was the only course to take to liberate my restless, fettered spirit,” he wrote.

Townsend planned to write a travelogue series of articles during his trip but first wanted to discuss the idea with an expert.

He contacted Barrymaine, who had earlier signalled interest from a US magazine for Townsend’s memoirs (which he turned down). Barrymaine came straight over to Brussels and convinced him that he had nothing to lose.

Townsend gave Barrymaine the green light to negotiate a contract with the Daily Mail in which Townsend insisted on a clause that there should be no reference to the Royal Family in the presentation or promotion of the articles, which were also published in Le Soir in Belgium.

Le Soir published a series of articles before Townsend took off on his world tour

Farewell my friends

Meanwhile, Townsend planned his epic journey with the precision of a military operation. He had to obtain dozens of visas, as well as information on potential routes and climatic conditions to ensure he would reach the right place at the right time, avoiding monsoons or snow. He was injected with vaccines to protect him from every known plague.

The long farewell lasted over a month. 

On 11 September, Townsend spent an afternoon with Princess Margaret at Clarence House.  He said goodbye to his sons.

The Brussels branch of the Legion held a farewell dinner for Townsend at the Prince Albert Barracks on 25 September. Over the meal, he revealed the details of his ambitious journey. It would take him across five continents, travelling from Belgium through Europe, across Turkey, Iraq, Burma, the country of his birth, then via Singapore to Australia and New Zealand. From there, he would pass through Hong Kong, China and Japan. He would pick up again in Canada, cross the US from west to east, before heading down through South America, finishing in Brazil. He would then travel from South Africa through the Congo, Nigeria and the Sahara, before crossing the Mediterranean for the final leg through France, and finally back to Belgium.

He drove to Antwerp to say a final farewell to the Jamagne family. Marie-Luce, now 17, etched her initials on the back of the Land Rover he had bought specially for the trip. “I felt something of a pang on leaving them, perhaps even a little more on leaving her,” he wrote.

In the same week, on 15 October, Townsend retired from the RAF after 23 years’ service.

He began his 90,000 km journey on 21 October, Trafalgar Day, driving out of Brussels into dense fog, “bent on escaping into the unknown world which lay beyond the confines of conventional society”.

Birthday in Quetta

After crossing through several European countries, Townsend arrived at Istanbul, where his journey was interrupted by a posse of journalists. He kept to his tight schedule up to Teheran, where the British Ambassador, Sir Roger Stevens, warned that anti-British feelings were running high in neighbouring Pakistan and his life would be in danger. The crisis eased and Townsend, who travelled unarmed, celebrated his 42nd birthday at the Staff College in Quetta with the Pakistani army elite. 

On Christmas Day, he reached the north east tip of India and celebrated in black tie. It was there he met Fred Warner, chargé d'affaires at the British Embassy in Rangoon (and future Ambassador to Japan and member of the European Parliament), who offered to accompany Townsend through Burma – the land of his birth – a proposal he gladly accepted.

With the help of a local guide, Mynt Wai, they struggled to cover 24 miles in seven days along a crumbling track, strewn with boulders and six-foot high elephant grass. New Year’s Eve was spent with Warner, Wai, three Chinese muleteers and five opium-smoking Naga tribesmen. “It was a far cry from the elegant soirees at Brussels … [but] I felt, at last, master of my own destiny,” wrote Townsend.

From Bangkok, where Townsend enjoyed the hospitality of the British Ambassador, Sir Berkeley Gage, he made his way through Malaya, stopping off for a brief visit to his brother Philip, who was commanding the 6th Gurkhas in what was then a British territory.

In Australia, he drove through the arid expanse of the Nullarbor Plain, pushing on into the rolling grasslands beyond Adelaide and onto New Zealand. Townsend travelled through China by plane and train, at the insistence of the authorities, and shipped his Land Rover from Sydney via Honolulu to Vancouver. Of all the cities he visited, he found Peking (Beijing since 1979) the most remarkable, full of hardy, good-humoured people and adorable children who followed him everywhere.

Mountains & earthquake

In Hong Kong, he was introduced to Eugene Black, president of the World Bank, who arranged for Townsend to stay with one of his friends when he reached Japan. From there he flew to Honolulu and then took a boat to Vancouver, where Townsend was reunited with his Land Rover.

His route would take him through the Rocky Mountains, into Minnesota and across to South Carolina, with an unplanned detour through Georgia and Alabama, followed by Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado. He then turned south through New Mexico and Texas to cross the Rio Grande into Mexico, where he was caught in an earthquake which rocked the capital on 28 July, leaving dozens dead. 

In Guatemala, the President, Castillo Armas, had just been assassinated so Townsend had to load his vehicle on a train bound for the only frontier post still open. 

He was invited for a flight over the miles of swamp and jungle separating Panama from South America with Tommy Guardia, the engineer responsible for building a road through the Darien Gap (the National Geographic Institute in Panama City carries his name).

Townsend then travelled via cargo boat from Colón at the north end of the Panama canal to Caracas in Venezuela, before climbing into the Andes to Colombia and Ecuador, the land of the Incas. After crossing into Peru, he drove on the desert road between the Andes and the coast, heading to Lima and then onto La Paz, the capital of Bolivia.

Meeting Miss Universe

Townsend then tracked back into Peru via Lake Titicaca to Arequipa, where he was photographed with Gladys Zender, the 17-year-old Miss Universe. The pictures appeared in the media and sparked rumours of a possible relationship, but Townsend was quickly back en route, driving through the desert to the Chilean frontier at Arica. After the long solitude of the desert roads, he longed again for human company – and found it at Le Serena in the form of a group of friendly reporters, who followed him to Santiago.

He then crossed into Argentina, travelling via Buenos Aires to Uruguay and then Brazil. He was pursued by a determined journalist again in Sao Paulo but managed to drive unnoticed into Rio de Janeiro, his South American journey’s end.

A letter was waiting for him there from Barrymaine, who revealed he was writing a biography on Townsend. “The book, which would make him a fortune, was to be a load of trouble for me,” wrote Townsend 20 years later.

The cover of Barrymaine's biography of Townsend

After basking in the “sybaritic atmosphere” of Rio for a few days, Townsend felt ready to face the sterner test of crossing the fifth continent on his journey, Africa.

He left Cape Town on 21 December 1957 and started on the great drive north. He crossed the frontier into what is now Zimbabwe at Beitbridge, sleeping in the bush. His route took him through Nyasaland, Tanganyika and the Serengeti to Kenya and then west into Uganda. At Entebbe, he could see aircraft taking off and landing. He could be home within 24 hours on one of them, but the road would take another two months. 

Dr Schweitzer, I presume

He then journeyed through the Belgian Congo, where he recalled the enthusiastic welcome he received in every village. Two years later the country was aflame. He met Doctor Albert Schweitzer at his hospital in Lambaréné in what was then French Equatorial Africa, now Gabon. Schweitzer, who won the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize, made a huge impression on Townsend with his warmth and simplicity. 

His route then took him through what is now Cameroon into Nigeria. From Agadez, he prepared for one of the most challenging parts of his journey, crossing the Sahara. The wind had all but swept away the track and he lost his way at one stage, but as he drove deeper into the desert he found its silence and immense space exhilarating.

The military insisted on giving him an escort as he travelled through Algeria, which was in the throes of a war of independence against its French colonial masters. It was symbolic, he felt, of his hard-won freedom ebbing away the nearer he got to “civilisation”.

In the Atlas mountains, he was followed by reporters until he reached Algiers – where Barrymaine was waiting for him. “He was the last person I wished to see but, in my disarray, I was putty in his hands,” Townsend later wrote. Barrymaine offered to handle the press for him. In the meantime, Townsend arranged for his Land Rover to be loaded on Le Ville de Bougie, a cargo vessel bound for Sète in south-east France. Townsend was the sole passenger.

Reporters were waiting when he landed but he quickly lost them and drove the final 1,000 km to Brussels, arriving in the city at 1.30am on Monday, 24 March 1958, at the wheel of the same Land Rover in which he had set off 17 months earlier.

They’re Together Again

He telephoned Princess Margaret and they agreed to meet in London two days later. “There was nothing more in it than a meeting between two old and devoted friends,” he wrote. It was impossible, however, to keep the visit secret and within minutes of his arrival, the London Evening Standard had the story under the headline “They’re Together Again”.

An avalanche of coverage followed. After spending 36 hours holed up in a flat with Barrymaine, Townsend issued a short press statement via his lawyer to clarify that the situation had not changed since Princess Margaret’s statement in October 1955 – in other words, no wedding plans.   

Palace circles were unhappy the meeting took place while the Queen was on a state visit to the Netherlands, claiming that she had been embarrassed by Townsend “barging in” while her back was turned. The truth was that Princess Margaret had informed her sister before she left for The Hague and the Queen Mother was also aware of the situation.

Townsend and the Princess abandoned plans for a second meeting. He visited his 75-year-old mother, who was staying at his sister Stephanie’s home in Somerset, managing to evade waiting journalists by scaling a six-foot wall into her back garden.

He returned to Brussels, before spending a fortnight’s holiday in Spain over Easter with his sons. At this stage, Townsend was keen to move back to Britain. He met the Princess, who had just returned from a successful official visit to the Caribbean, on two occasions in May.

The Tribune de Genève in Switzerland confidently predicted “an engagement may be announced soon”. The Queen’s Press Secretary was forced to issue a statement in response, dismissing the claim as “entirely untrue”. 

The Princess and Townsend agreed that it was in their best interests if he returned to Brussels to work on his book. Despite his misgivings about Barrymaine, Townsend stayed with the journalist overnight before returning to Belgium on 24 May 1958.

Falling for Marie-Luce

He rented a stone cottage, surrounded by meadows, and started writing the story of his journey around the world. But he now found the solitude which he had so enjoyed on his trip unbearable. He found consolation in the company of Marie-Luce who had matured “into a delightful girl, now 19, tall and alluring” with a passion for literature, the theatre and the open-air. A champion show-jumper, success had not changed her “simple, straight, generous, and pleasingly witty” personality.

They attended Expo 58, the international exhibition in Brussels, in June. While there, they met a group of Americans, mostly in show business. It was mooted that Townsend could make another world tour, this time by air, and film at locations he had visited previously.

Townsend leapt at the idea of a documentary but would later describe it as a disastrous decision which would land him in “a morass of cheap sensationalism”.

Travel film

Victor Stoloff, who had made a number of travel films, was the director and the French film team included André Bac, a respected cinematographer. Townsend invited Marie-Luce to join them as a photographer.

Townsend hoped that Stoloff would incorporate footage he had taken on his original journey but the director had more ambitious ideas for a Hollywood production in which Townsend would act out the moments he had lived. There would be a dramatic scene in the Sahara where Townsend would “heroically” rescue a Bedouin who had run out of water. In the end, Townsend persuaded Stoloff not to try to turn him into a star but to make a documentary.

But a bigger problem was that Stoloff, in a bid to gain publicity, invited a women’s magazine to cover the four months of film-making and brought in an extra photographer, a seasoned pro, who sold images of Townsend and Marie-Luce to a Sunday newspaper in Britain.

On top of this came the publication, in September 1958, of Barrymaine’s biography, The Story of Peter Townsend.

Townsend was unhappy that the journalist suggested he had collaborated on it and was an almost lifelong friend. It was true, however, that Townsend, on legal advice, agreed to read the manuscript. After days of haggling, a “relatively harmless” version of the text was agreed. Barrymaine added an epilogue, which Townsend saw only when the book was in print.

The filming and editing for Passeport pour le Monde were completed in December 1958 in Paris, and the documentary film was released the following May. In the meantime, Townsend got down to finishing his book, Earth My Friend, published in June 1959.

He attended screenings of Passeport pour le Monde in cities across France and was moved by the reception he received everywhere he went. There were receptions and speeches in cities from Lille to Lyon and Bordeaux to Strasbourg, where the deputy mayor had tears in his eyes as he recalled what France owed to its allied liberators in 1944.

On 12-13 June, Townsend returned to Brussels to promote both the film and his book.

Peter Townsend's Passport pour le Monde 

Marriage to Marie-Luce

By now, Townsend and Marie-Luce were inseparable, but she feared being a “second best” after Princess Margaret. Townsend, at 42, was also more than twice her age. Despite her anxiety, Marie-Luce accepted his proposal and, in October, they announced their engagement in Antwerp – an event which attracted considerable media attention (video). Townsend wrote in advance to Princess Margaret, who had recently formed an attachment with the photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, to tell her about the engagement, so she wouldn’t hear about it first in the newspapers. She reportedly later explained, “I received a letter from Peter in the morning and that evening I decided to marry Tony. It was no coincidence.”

Marie-Luce Jamagne and Townsend announce their engagement in October 1959

Townsend and Marie-Luce were married by Mayor Jacques Wiener at the hôtel de ville in Watermael-Boitsfort on 21 December 1959. After honeymooning in Switzerland, they settled in an apartment on the Quai Louis Blériot in Paris, a fitting choice for a former airman, before moving to a maison bourgeoise in Sainte-Gemme, a village 18 miles to the west of the city. The couple planted trees and created an English garden.

They had three children, Isabelle (born June 1961), Marie-Françoise (July 1963), and Pierre (December 1964).

Townsend planned to make further documentary films in France, but the promised financing fell through. He longed to continue writing but was put off because producing books inevitably meant he would have to promote them, with all the attendant publicity involved. 

Peter Townsend with son Pierre, daughters Isabelle and Marie-Françoise (on horse), and wife Marie-Luce at the family home in Saint-Léger-en-Yvelines, France in the mid-70s.  Image kindly provided by Isabelle Townsend

Wine merchant

Thanks to a helpful tip from a friend, Townsend was approached by a New York firm of wine-shippers who asked him if he would be interested in setting up a subsidiary in France and writing a monthly newsletter for their clients. The fact he knew next to nothing about wine didn’t put them off and by the end of 1960 he started his new career.

He enjoyed meeting the vignerons who cultivated the soil which produced the grapes that give every wine its distinctive bouquet and taste. Two or three times a year, he would travel the length and breadth of the US, extolling the virtues of le vin français to distributors, wine-store owners and the public.

In autumn 1964, at the behest of the company, Townsend upped sticks and moved to Connecticut, leaving behind Marie-Luce, who was six-months pregnant with Pierre and adamant that the baby would be born in the same Paris clinic as their daughters. Townsend was back in time for his son’s birth in December.

The family departed for the US in February 1965, taking a leisurely voyage across the Atlantic to New York on the Queen Elizabeth. The company expected them to fly and Townsend faced a cool reception when he arrived. Things didn’t improve from there. Townsend’s heart wasn’t in selling and his habit of taking a lengthy lunch break each week at an arts club didn’t help his cause. Townsend and the firm decided it was in their mutual interests to go their separate ways.

The only snag was he had sold the house in France so when the family left the US in August 1965, on a Sabena jet bound for Brussels, it was to return to no job and no home of their own.

Writing offer

A break came when Townsend was approached by Paris-Match to pen an article for the magazine on the Battle of Britain, published in two parts in September 1966. It immediately triggered offers from three publishers for a book.

The following month a PR company he had teamed up with in London invited him to open an office in Paris and the family moved into a small house in Lévis-Saint-Nom, south-west of the capital. But Townsend soon decided that he wanted to devote all his energies to writing, rather than business.

The research for his next book, Duel of Eagles, took him to Germany, where he was reunited with Karl Missy, the navigator whose plane he shot down in 1940. He also met Emmy and Edda Göring, the widow and daughter of the Luftwaffe chief who committed suicide at Nuremberg just before he was due to hang.

Meanwhile, in summer 1968, the Townsends decided to buy Le Mareaux-Oiseaux, a dilapidated farm near Saint-Léger-en-Yvelines, not far from the house they were renting.

His soon-to-be published book received a boost when Harry Saltzman, best known as a producer of the James Bond and Harry Palmer films, brought in Townsend as an adviser on Guy Hamilton’s epic Battle of Britain movie. Townsend’s main role was to help promote the film in Europe and the US.

Brussels premiere

Together with other British and Belgian pilots, he was a guest of honour at the film’s premiere at the Marivaux cinema in Brussels on 24 September 1969. The screening was also attended by Prince Albert, Belgium’s future King, and the British Ambassador, Sir John Beith. The RAF Germany band performed Spitfire Prelude, Churchill March and The Dambusters. Interviewed at the premiere, Townsend announced that his own account of the battle was about to be published. For once, he didn’t mind the publicity.

By the early 70s, Townsend had become an established writer, not only of books but also as a special correspondent for Paris-Match. In October 1973, he was asked to report on the Yom Kippur War. It was the first time he had seen a conflict from ground level.  

Time and Chance, first published in 1978 with plans for re-publishing in 2021

His next literary project would also focus on a subject he knew more about that most: The Last Emperor was a biography of his former employer, King George VI, published in 1976. His other books included The Girl in the White Ship: A Story of the Vietnamese Boat People (1983), The Postman of Nagasaki, about a survivor of the atomic bomb (1984), and Duel in the Dark, his account of the night fighters’ battle against the Luftwaffe (1987). His autobiography, Time and Chance, from which many of the quotes in this article are taken, was published in 1978.

Duel of Eagles, Duel in the Dark (also released as The Odds Against Us), and Time and Chance will be re-published later this year by Silvertail Books. A documentary film on The Postman of Nagasaki is also in the pipeline.

Peter Townsend with, from left, wife Marie-Luce and daughters Marie-François and Isabelle at the Christian Dior ball held at Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte in 1985.  Image kindly provided by Isabelle Townsend

In summer 1992 Townsend travelled to London to attend a reunion of those who had travelled to South Africa with the Royal Family in 1947. Princess Margaret did not attend the event but invited her former suitor to tea at Kensington Palace. It was the last time they saw each other. She was by then long divorced from Lord Snowdon. They chatted as old friends and she reportedly commented afterwards that Townsend was as charming as ever and hadn’t changed, except for his grey hair. On her instructions, letters they exchanged during their courtship will not be released until 2030.

Final tribute

In the final years of his life, Townsend developed cancer. After bravely fighting his last battle, he died at home, aged 80, on 19 June 1995. The funeral service took place four days later at the 10th century church in Saint-Léger-en-Yvelines.

His coffin was draped in the Union Jack and RAF flag. The British Ambassador to France, Sir Christopher Mallaby CMG, represented Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, while Battle of Britain pilot Air Commodore Sir Archie Windskill KCVO CBE DFC & Bar AE represented the Queen Mother. Princess Margaret was not represented but was thought to have sent a private message to Marie-Luce, who led mourners at the ceremony.

Standard bearers from the Royal British Legion, the Royal Air Force Association, and French veterans’ associations also attended. Obituaries were published in the UK, Belgium, the US, and across the world.

Princess Margaret died on 9 February 2002, aged 71, six weeks before her mother. Townsend’s former wife Rosemary passed away on 27 February 2004, aged 82. His eldest son Giles, a wine merchant, died on 7 July 2015, aged 73.

Princess Margaret pictured in 2000.  Image kindly provided by Arthur Edwards

Marie-Luce and his other children are all still living. Hugo became a Catholic monk before leaving holy orders to become a psychotherapist. He is married to Belgium-born Princess Yolande de Ligne, a cousin of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, and lives in London. Isabelle is an actress and former fashion model, living near Paris with her husband, estate manager Patrick Deedes-Vincke. Marie-Françoise works for an interior designer in Paris. Pierre has spent his career in the humanitarian sector working for, among others, the UK Department For International Development and the International Committee Of The Red Cross.  

Group Captain Townsend’s decorations

The Royal Victorian Order, CVO

Distinguished Service Order (DSO)

Distinguished Flying Cross, with Bar (DFC)  

1939-45 Star, Battle of Britain clasp

Air Crew Europe Star

Defence and War Medals 1939-45, Mentioned in Dispatches oak-leaf

Queen Juliana’s Coronation Medal 1948 (Netherlands)

Order of Orange-Nassau

Elizabeth II Coronation Medal 1953

Elizabeth II Jubilee Medal 1977 

In November 1988, Townsend decided to sell his decorations and donate the proceeds to a charitable fund set up to assist vulnerable children.  They were “lying around in a bag at the bottom of a drawer ... I thought it would be sensible to put them to use”, he commented. The medals were bought for $35,200 then re-sold in 2004 for £62,000, before going under the hammer for a third time on 21 July 2021. The collection, including 11 medals and Townsend’s original flying logbooks, fetched £260,000 (€300,000) at London specialist auctioneers Dix Noonan Webb.

Townsend's original flying logbook sold as part of a collection on 21 July 2021 ©Dix Noonan Webb

Two of Townsend’s older brothers also ended up as decorated war heroes, Rear Admiral Michael Townsend DSO DSC OBE and Philip Townsend DSO, who commanded the 6th Gurkhas in Malaya.

Sources:

Peter Townsend, Duel of Eagles (Simon and Schuster, 1969)
Peter Townsend, Time and Chance – an autobiography (Methuen, 1978)
Norman Barrymaine, The Story of Peter Townsend (Peter Davies, 1958)
Royal British Legion, Brussels branch archives
Le Soir archives
Dix Noonan Webb, auctioneers

With special thanks to Isabelle Townsend

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