In August 1946, Colonel Francis P. Miller, an Army whistle-blower who had been stationed in occupied Germany, testified before an executive session of a Senate special committee. “We have had the incredible situation in Germany where, as you realize, much more money was coming home than was being paid to the troops.” A few months before Miller’s testimony, a story had appeared in The New York Times that made his allegation of widespread pocket-padding in Germany seem understated. The paper reported that the Army had increased the valuation of the Hesse crown jewels stolen from the family’s castle, Schloss Friedrichshof, near Frankfurt from $1.5 to $3 million. Implicated in that theft were U.S. Army Colonel Jack W. Durant, his wife Captain Kathleen Nash Durant and Major David F. Watson.
Victors have always enjoyed the spoils of war, and the situation in occupied Germany was no exception. While looting and black marketeering were of course illegal, war-weary American troops, especially the officers, were given the very best accommodations the country had to offer. These included mansions stocked with servants, resort areas in the Bavarian Alps for R&R and beautiful castles such as Schloss Friedrichshof.
The castle, today known as Schlosshotel Kronberg, was built in the 19th century by Victoria, the Princess Royal, daughter of Queen Victoria, wife of Kaiser Friedrich III and mother of Germany’s last emperor, Wilhelm II. She had modeled it after the royal family’s Balmoral Castle in Scotland and decorated the 100-room wooden-beamed edifice with reminders of home like the Tudor roses emblazoned on the castle’s portico. (This building is not to be confused with the nearby Kronberg Castle built in the 13th century.)
Troops of General George S. Patton’s Third Army captured Schloss Friedrichshof in April 1945 and found Countess Margaret of Hesse-Kassel, Victoria’s younger daughter, living in a 12-bedroom villa on the property while Margaret’s widowed daughter-in-law Princess Sophie (sister of Prince Philip, the future husband of Queen Elizabeth II) was living in the castle itself. All were told they had four hours to vacate the property and were allowed to take only food and clothing with them. The following month, the castle was turned into an officer’s recreation center and club under the management of Captain Kathleen B. Nash, Women’s Army Corps.
Meanwhile, Margaret’s relatives in England were becoming increasingly worried that family letters and papers stored in the Hessian castles, such as the lengthy correspondence between Queen Victoria and her daughter, might be stolen, possibly leading to intimate family details showing up in the papers. But far more damaging to the British royal family and government was the possibility that records might be found revealing Adolf Hitler’s use of Margaret’s eldest son Prince Philip of Hesse-Kassel as a back-channel intermediary with King George VI’s elder brother, Edward, Duke of Windsor. Or worse, suppose that actual letters between Hitler and the duke turned up?
Rumors of the existence of those letters “have a basis of fact,” Anthony Cave Brown wrote in his biography of MI6 chief Stewart Menzies. A military intelligence officer from a SHAEF G2 Target T Force assigned to Patton’s command claimed, according to historian John Costello, to have seen references to communications between the Duke of Windsor and Hitler. These he was said to have discovered in a villa, owned by a close relative of the duke, that was serving as an American officer’s club. Shortly after the officer reported his discovery, the British arrived to collect the potentially embarrassing papers.
Unfortunately for Britain, one of the officers chosen to retrieve the Hesse papers was Major Anthony F. Blunt. Seconded from MI5 and soon to be appointed the surveyor of the King’s Pictures and receive a knighthood, Blunt also happened to be a highly placed Soviet mole. Today there is conjecture as to whether Blunt actually found Hitler-Windsor correspondence among the Hesse papers that he later used as insurance against being prosecuted when he was unmasked as a spy in the 1960s.
Blunt and Sir Owen Morshead, the King’s librarian, arrived at Schloss Friedrichshof in early May 1945 with a warrant from George VI requesting permission to take the papers back to Britain. They were met by Captain Nash, who—unimpressed by their credentials—appeared brusque and imperious and actually refused the royal emissaries’ request to have dinner at the club because they lacked reservations. Nash likely was unaware of the Hesse family’s ties to the Windsors and other European nobility. After spending three days at the castle, Blunt and Morshead returned to England with a load of documents destined for Windsor Castle.
While Blunt and Morshead’s visit may have averted a scandal for Britain, Prince Wolfgang, younger son of Margaret, always maintained that it also led to a series of events that resulted in the Hesse crown jewels being stolen. He had ordered the jewels and other valuables hidden in the castle’s cellar in October 1944 because of worsening air raids over Frankfurt. Nash probably told Durant, who was much more sophisticated than she, about the British visit to the castle sometime during the late summer or fall of 1945, when the two became lovers.
Colonel Jack Durant had arrived in Frankfurt in August 1945 from Washington, D.C., where he had spent the war flying a desk. A lawyer in civilian life, he and his assistant, Major David Watson, shared a luxurious house near Frankfurt with some other officers and were frequent visitors to Schloss Friedrichshof that summer. Durant must have sensed the significance of Nash’s information and surmised that there might be other valuable documents in the castle that the British had overlooked. A tip from a castle bartender about a brick wall in the basement that hid a subcellar led the couple to the buried jewels.
Nine bound volumes of letters written by Victoria to her mother Queen Victoria later turned up in the attic of Nash’s sister’s house in Hudson, Wis. These, along with other valuables found with the letters such as solid gold tableware and elaborately decorated Bibles, were not originally part of the jewel cache discovered in the castle’s cellar. If those letters were stolen before the jewels were, then Prince Wolfgang’s theory is probably correct.
In his testimony at Nash’s trial, Corporal Roy C. Carleton, who worked under Nash at the castle, gave a different version of how the jewels were found. He claimed that in early November he had inadvertently stumbled upon the wall that hid a subcellar. He knocked the wall down, revealing 1,600 bottles of wine. Next day, after asking a German castle employee if there were other valuables in the castle, he discovered a suspicious patch of newer concrete on the subcellar floor. Once the concrete was broken open, Carleton claimed, Nash and the bartender were summoned to help with the hard digging. Carleton’s story was corroborated by others, but his discovery of the brick wall may not have been an accident; he may have been told by Nash to be on the lookout for potential hiding places.
A zinc-lined wooden box was lifted up from the hole and taken to Nash’s room, where Nash and Carleton pried open the lid and spread the contents out on the floor. The treasure must have made a dazzling display. It included nine diamond tiaras studded with hundreds of diamonds and rubies, a platinum bracelet filled with 125 diamonds, another bracelet containing 365 large diamonds, a 12- carat yellow diamond ring, a wristwatch decorated with so many diamonds that its hands were almost obscured, and hundreds of other pieces of jewelry set in gold and platinum, studded with emeralds, diamonds and rubies.
Durant’s initial reaction was to find out whether there was a legal basis for keeping them. He asked Watson to research Army laws about abandoned and found property, and after consulting with the legal branch, Watson informed Durant that that there were no hard and fast rules concerning this. Watson was then invited to the castle to see the jewels. After some discussion about the definition of war trophies (which were legal for occupying troops to liberate) and debate about how much of the hoard they should take, the trio decided to steal it all.
After her arrest, Nash gave some insight into the mind-set of the robbers, justifying the theft with an “everyone is doing it” excuse. She implied that her trial would backfire by exposing the rampant looting going on in Germany and accused the Army of making her a scapegoat. During her trial, American newspapers, reflecting the attitudes of that era toward Germans, were not in the least sympathetic toward the Hesse-Kassel family. Instead the press made disparaging allusions to their ethnicity and highlighted the family’s Nazi past (Prince Philip was a general in the paramilitary Sturmabteilung, and Margaret was a Nazi Party member).
But the thieves were also shrewd operators. Durant most likely came up with the idea of separating the gems from their settings, as this would make it much easier to move them around undetected and sell them to fences. So the Hesse crown jewels were pried from their beautiful settings and packed into Nash’s footlocker, which was stored at Durant and Watson’s house. Meanwhile Countess Margaret had heard about the discovery of the jewels. Thinking that they had been stored away for safekeeping, she asked Nash for a receipt through a retainer. Her request, of course, was denied.
The trio then began making arrangements to get the jewels out of Germany. Nash mailed two shipping boxes to Arizona. Durant sent packages to his brother in Alexandria, Va., while Watson sent shipments to Ireland and California. Watson also made a trip in late November 1945 to Belfast, where he had a girlfriend, and sold some gems there to a pawnbroker. In January 1946, Nash and Durant drove to Bern and Zurich, where they sold some of the gold settings.
That same month, Princess Sofie asked for an interview with Nash about the jewels. She was planning to remarry and wanted to wear some of them at her wedding. Nash refused her first request, and after the princess asked again, Nash claimed that she didn’t have time to see the princess but promised that she would see her in the near future. In February Nash left Germany for Le Havre, France, and from there she sailed back to the United States. She left in such a hurry that she didn’t even pack her belongings. At about this time, Durant asked a female friend to smuggle some of the jewels back with her to the United States; a month later he also returned to the States and began trying to sell some of the hoard in the Washington, D.C., area.
By April, the army’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID) was becoming increasingly interested in the jewels. Once officials determined that the gems had actually been stolen, they found that the three Americans had left an easy trail with many witnesses. Nash even showed off the jewels, claiming they were gifts from a wealthy ex-husband. She gave some of the stolen valuables to her sister and perhaps to others as well. Her attitude was bolstered by the mistaken assumption that because she was on terminal leave and would soon be discharged from the Army, she was beyond its reach.
The Durants were in Chicago when the CID finally caught up with them. (Watson didn’t leave Europe until after his conviction.) Since returning to the States, they had traveled almost continually. Jack had been back and forth several times between Washington and Chicago, trying to sell the jewels. He and Kathleen had also driven down to Florida and on to Texas, where they visited Carleton. Back in Chicago, Nash and Durant had gotten married on May 28. They were arrested early on June 3 in their hotel room. Nash was initially charged with being AWOL because she had ignored orders to report to a nearby military post. There, the Army would have informed her that her terminal leave was canceled and she had been recalled to active duty. (The Army wanted her under its jurisdiction while investigating the theft.)
Later that same morning, Kathleen Durant was given a lie-detector test, administered by its inventor, Leonard Keeler. After about two hours of questioning, she confessed to the thefts and implicated her husband, Watson and Carleton. She later recanted her confession and refused to cooperate further, maintaining her innocence throughout her trial. Durant initially cooperated with the authorities by submitting to a polygraph test and unsuccessfully trying to recover some of the jewels from a Chicago hoodlum to whom he had fenced them. But then he stopped cooperating.
The couple was flown back to Germany on June 17 to stand trial with Watson. Their separate trials lasted almost a year. Kathleen was tried first and got a five-year sentence. Watson was tried next and received a three-year sentence, and Jack Durant, whose trial lasted longest, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. After several appeals, Kathleen served her complete sentence. Her husband was released in November 1952, whereupon the couple resumed living together. During the trials others, including three generals, were implicated in the looting of Schloss Friedrichshof, but no further arrests were made.
In August 1951, the Hesse family was given back the stolen valuables and what remained of the jewels—about half of what had been stolen. These were worth only about one-tenth of their original value because the settings had been destroyed. The family later sold about a third of the recovered jewels to pay for lawyers’ fees incurred during the trials.
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.