The haunted look of tragic Unity Mitford
This is the tragic tale of an eccentric aristocrat, and English party-girl, her love of Nazi Germany, Hitler in particular, and her eventual retreat after a failed suicide attempt, to Mitford Island, where she retained some incredible wartime memorabilia, complete with its associated dark memories.
Exclusive archive story by Don Hale
Unity's family home in Scotland on Inche Kenneth - better known to the locals as Mitford Island
Within the walls of a cold bleak tower house marooned on the shores of a remote Scottish island, the crackling sounds of provocative Nazi speeches and deafeningly powerful boot stomping German military marches could still be heard playing on an old phonograph.
As if completely frozen in time, a large pile of 1930’s LP’s, rare pre-war souvenirs and personal artefacts remain stacked in the lounge and throughout the home once owned by the eccentric and controversial aristocrat Unity Mitford, Adolph Hitler’s former party girl.
Her prized red Nazi Party armband with a dominant black swastika still exists and was often used by her as a bookmark.
Enhancing haunting memories from a remarkably dangerous era, the wallpaper and décor of her bedroom, and much of the interior of this tall, dominant, white towered house, also remain just the same, as when she, and her family occupied the property during WW2.
Officially called Inch Kenneth after St Kenneth, but fondly known as ‘Mitford Island,’ this tiny outcrop overlooking the Isle of Mull, has a famed heritage with ancient burial plots for numerous Scottish Kings.
Another view of the lounge and (below) the music room and bedroom
Scottish film producer Paul Murton visited the island in 2014 whilst researching for his ‘Grand Tour’ television series and discovered Unity’s rare record collection, and experienced a brief glimpse inside this extraordinarily spooky building.
He explained: “It was quite eerie and creepy to be allowed into the house Unity once lived in. The caretaker let me in and I was shown into her bedroom. The wallpaper hadn’t been changed and it was all pretty much the same as it would have been in her time.
“There was a phonograph in the lounge area with stacks of Unity’s favourite musical records, and recordings of German military bands. We wound this thing up and suddenly you heard these emotive 1930’s sounds echoing through this near empty house, which still contains many tangible artefacts of her time there.
“It was like being transported back in time, seeing the things she would have seen, and hearing what she would have listened to.”
Unity’s family said she ‘lived to shock,’ and for a girl who was born in a place called Swastika, Ontario, in 1914, when her father was prospecting for gold, she certainly lived up to her title, with regular expulsions from boarding schools, and scared gatherings at prestigious dances whenever she took her per rat and snake along.
Unity (centre) with her parents Lord and Lady Redesdale and (below) the view
As one of six outspoken Mitford sisters, who each had their own exceptional stories to tell, she loved watching boxing and wrestling and in 1932 joined the British Union of Fascists, which was founded by her sister Diana’s then lover, and later her husband, Oswald Mosley.
Her brother Thomas later died fighting the Japanese in Burma in 1945.
Unity proudly wore an outrageous black shirt and became besotted with fascism, and particularly, the Nazi Party’s fanatical leader Adolph Hitler. Two years later she moved to Munich and quickly learned to speak fluent German.
Unity at the Nuremberg Nazi Rally
Unity with her sister Diane and members of the Nazi Party
Adolph Hitler with Unity at his home in Berlin
She even attended the famous Nuremburg rally and became obsessed with both the man and his ideals. Unity used to wait to watch Hitler arrive at his favourite Munich restaurant, even applauding when his black Mercedes arrived.
At the time, she claimed: “The very first moment I saw him, I knew there was no one I would rather meet.”
He often acknowledged her and finally asked her to join his exclusive inner circle. An attractive, well-bred young woman, she was tall with near perfect Aryan looks, and it was said, ‘no one ever spoke to Hitler the way Unity did.’
As their friendship developed, she accepted an apartment given to her by the Fuhrer following the eviction of a Jewish family, and became his ‘English party girl,’ attending more than 150 prestigious public functions with him.
Unity with Nazi Party official Fritz Stadelmann
It all changed however following the declaration of war. She refused to be torn between the two nations and attempted to take her own life with a small pearl handled pistol once given to her as a special gift by Hitler.
On 3rd September 1939, just as UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, declared war on Germany, she visited the English Garden in Munich and shot herself in the temple. The bullet however, lodged precariously in her brain, and she lay unconscious for several weeks surrounded by flowers personally delivered by Hitler, Von Ribbentrop, and Joseph Goebbels.
Unity's Nazi armband
Although twice attended by Hitler and his personal surgeon, she never fully recovered, so the dictator paid for all her medical treatment and then arranged safe passage for her back home to the UK via Switzerland, accompanied by her mother and sister Deborah.
Unity eventually returned from Munich with all her personal effects to live-out her short life exiled on Mitford Island (Inch Kenneth), whilst Diana and Oswald Mosley were arrested and interned throughout WW2.
Once installed, Unity accepted occasional boat trips across to the mainland to dance the night away in her elegant finery, adored by simple Scottish crofters and farmers, in stark contrast to her former glitzy lifestyle.
The ruined old chapel on Mitford Island
During an exclusive interview with me at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, some time later, her sister Deborah, then the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, explained: “My sister Unity was thought to be a dangerous person because of her friendship with Hitler, and all the other bigwigs of the Nazi Party.
(Above) a wartime photograph of Unity Mitford, and (below) her sister Deborah the Duchess of Devonshire
“She always said she would shoot herself if war began between the two countries she loved so much, and said she couldn’t face a future with one or the other having to give up.
“So indeed, she did, and she very nearly died – but not quite – but the wound from the bullet changed her character and she was only just recognisable from the person we knew.
“Unity also became incontinent, and my mother had to wash the sheets every day. She gave up her life completely to look after her. At times, Unity would think she was a clergyman, and used to dress up to give services in the ruined chapel.
“It was completely surreal, and of course she used to forget the words and storm off in a rage. It was incredibly difficult and very sad. In 1948, the bullet in her brain moved, and the doctor said, it just wasn’t safe to take it out, so she was moved to a hospital on the mainland in Oban, where she later died from meningitis aged just 34.”
Deborah also loved this ‘Mitford Island’ retreat, and added: “There was something thrilling about a unique house in a unique setting with nobody to tell you what to do, or not to do.
“There’s a sort of fairyland to it, and it’s both the best and worst place but when you first see it, and when you hear the the sounds, you’re just stopped in your tracks.”
Secret Intelligence files claimed Unity was a ‘right-wing extremist’
Secret British Intelligence files released more than four decades later, reveal that Unity was once listed in confidential documents during the late 1930’s (KV 2/875-908), as a ‘Right-wing extremist.’
Another report (KV 2/882), stated: ‘Unity Mitford, the fourth daughter of Lord Redesdale, and known as 'Baba,' became famous as a society girl who was a fervent admirer and friend of the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
‘She, along with her sister Diana, spent much of her time in Munich, and supported the Nazi cause. Diana later married the prominent British fascist Oswald Mosley, and according to additional SIS documents, says was married in Hitler’s own house.
‘After the outbreak of war however, Hitler quickly snubbed Unity, partly for her own good. And, it was claimed, that subsequently, Unity attempted suicide by shooting herself in the head.
‘The attempt failed, but left her in a semi-vegetative state. Unity was brought back to Britain by Lord and Lady Redesdale and spent the rest of her life being cared for by her mother. She died in 1948.’
The file added that a Special Branch report from Aug 1935, and another in 1936, said, ‘Unity, who was also a great friend of Mosley, sees a lot of Hitler when he is in Munich, and she is “more Nazi than the Nazis,” and gave the 'Hitler salute' to the British Consul General in Munich, who requested that her passport be impounded.’
Page 5a, of a further Special Branch report, following a search of her personal belongings, in February 1937, revealed that her baggage contained Nazi literature and several portraits of Hitler. In April, Special Branch conducted another search, now referred to as 'the usual search', and noted she was now wearing a swastika lapel badge.
Unity was considered a right-wing extremist by British Intelligence agencies
The file also included intercepted correspondence, a passport photograph, an application, and an account of her being chased in Hyde Park at a Socialist Party demonstration. There was a comment from MI5, that noted, 'she seems fundamentally a hysterical and unbalanced person who would probably be of no use to the Germans in case of war. In May 1939, it ‘recommended a restriction of her movements.’
A secret transcript of a family telephone conversation, recorded Lord Redesdale complaining to his wife about the cost of hiring an ambulance train to pick Unity up after her failed suicide attempt. In addition, another report by a security control officer atFolkestone Docks, refuted claims made by a national newspaper about a search and interrogation of Unity, upon her arrival back in the UK on 3rd January 1940. It also included a summary of correspondence discussing the case for Unity Mitford’s internment. She was not interned however, and the files suggest the decision was taken against MI5’s wishes, as the police were satisfied that she was not engaged in activities against the national interest, and was also simple-minded, after her suicide attempt and therefore incapable of doing so.
Page 91 of the document provided a summary of the Mitford case, and mentioned Guy Liddell (then head of MI5, B-Division), who suggested that if she were left at liberty, the Home Office might be criticized, to the effect that she owed her immunity to her being the daughter a Peer. A further note though, dated 8th June 1941, and submitted by the Chief Constable of Oxfordshire, gave alternative reasons why Mitford should NOT be interned.