He was hardly a conventional fit for an assassin. A club foot, a twitch and a nervous disposition all buttoned up inside a shabby brown suit
He was hardly a conventional fit for an assassin. A club foot, a twitch and a nervous disposition all buttoned up inside a shabby brown suit.
Consider also that he had removed the critical bullet from the first chamber of the loaded revolver he hid beneath a newspaper, suggesting that he wanted his shooting to be foiled.
But on a hot July day almost 84 years ago this unremarkable figure stood amid the cheering crowds on Constitution Hill on the verge of a place in history — as the would-be killer of a king.
George McMahon’s target was King Edward VIII, barely six months into his reign and still uncrowned.
The young monarch was on horseback returning to Buckingham Palace after reviewing a colours ceremony of the Brigade of Guards in Hyde Park.
Every so often McMahon turned to look over his shoulder towards the railings of Green Park, an agitated movement that had already caught the attention of another sightseer, a woman called Alice Lawrence.
At 12.25 the sound of distant cheering and applause told the crowd that the King was only moments away.
As Edward drew near behind the massed bands of the Guards regiments, McMahon, whose left hand twitched nervously against his leg, let the newspaper fall to the ground revealing the revolver which he raised and levelled at the King.
With a shout, Mrs Lawrence grabbed his arm while a police constable in front, alerted by her cry, spun round, punching McMahon on his outstretched arm, causing the gun to fly out of his hand.
It flew into the road and struck the King’s horse. Edward, spotting the commotion, assumed it was a bomb and braced himself for the explosion which never came.
He then rode on without another glance. ‘The King rode on in complete calm, not even quickening his horse’s pace,’ his equerry John Aird would later write.
By now after a blow to the chin by an outraged member of the public, McMahon was seized by four policemen and another had pocketed the gun.
One of the first telegrams Edward, who at times attracted criticism for his alleged Nazi sympathies, received on his safe return to the Palace was from Adolf Hitler who wrote: ‘I have just read of the abominable attempt on the life of your Majesty, and offer the heartiest congratulations on your deliverance from this danger.’
Italy’s fascist leader Mussolini added his goodwill, instructing his Charge d’Affaires in London to call at the Palace to ‘present his heartfelt felicitations at the King’s escape from danger’.
As for the would-be assassin, Scotland Yard later told the palace he was a ‘frustrated Irish journalist’ with a grudge against the Home Secretary who had prevented him publishing a journal.
With a shout, Mrs Lawrence grabbed his arm while a police constable in front, alerted by her cry, spun round, punching McMahon on his outstretched arm, causing the gun to fly out of his hand
His action was not to harm the King, but to publicise this perceived injustice.
But by the time McMahon went on trial at the Old Bailey that explanation was fast unravelling.
He claimed a foreign power had paid him to kill the King but that he deliberately bungled the assassination. He was convicted of a lesser offence of ‘unlawfully possessing a firearm and ammunition to endanger life’ and was jailed for 12 months.
And that is where the story remained, even though police knew McMahon had warned of a plot against the King. Until this week.
Now claims of a cover-up have emerged following the discovery of the would be assassin’s memoir, in which he detailed the plot, his subsequent arrest and trial.
This account has been unearthed by historian Alexander Larman, who says its claims were ‘explosive’ because significant details matched those in declassified MI5 documents, including memorandums of their meetings with him.
In the memoir, entitled He Was My King, McMahon asserted that he was recruited by the Italian embassy in London to kill the King and his attempts to warn the security services and the then Home Secretary were ignored.
‘His account corroborates a lot of previously . . . sealed MI5 papers in the National Archives, which reveal that McMahon was also a paid MI5 informant who passed them information about the workings of the Italian embassy in his guise as a double agent,’ says Larman, whose book The Crown In Crisis: Countdown To The Abdication is published on July 9.
But why would MI5 ignore a warning about an attempt on Edward’s life? Might the powers that be have wanted the King to be killed?
‘Certainly the authorities ignored McMahon’s information because they considered him unreliable,’ says Larman.
‘So when this attempt did take place on July 16, 1936, it was hugely embarrassing to the country and a cover-up took place.’
Why MI5 would want to recruit a hard-drinking petty criminal and fantasist like McMahon, who was suspected to have pro-Nazi sympathies, is another mystery.
Larman describes some passages of the 40-page memoir as ‘absolutely bonkers’.
But adds: ‘It would be easy to write him off as nuts but there are declassified memos of all these meetings MI5 had with him.’
One of the documents records that some of his information was ‘undoubtedly accurate’.
Whatever the truth, McMahon claimed he had been offered £150 to kill the King and, more fancifully, that the Vatican was behind the plot.
Since the assassination attempt was so shocking, Larman claims that ‘the best thing the establishment could do was essentially neutralise McMahon as an attention seeker’.
That is certainly what the King, who just five months later was to renounce the throne to marry divorcee Wallace Simpson, came to believe. So who was George McMahon and how did he become an MI5 ‘asset’?
Special Branch had established his real name was Jerome Bannigan, born in Ireland but raised in Glasgow.
If he had a career it was as a travelling salesman, but his main profession appears to have been fraud and embezzlement.
He first came to MI5’s attention when he wrote to the Communist Party chairman via the Daily Worker newspaper complaining about the police.
By now he was involved in gun-running to Abyssinia — now Ethiopia — then under Italian rule. He was then offered cash inducements for information about British armaments.
But in September 1935 he approached MI5 and, as his memoir records: ‘I was to act thenceforth under the direction and supervision of the military intelligence department.’
Official records show he met with intelligence service figures frequently in late 1935 and early 1936. He was paid in cash, most of which he spent in the Hog in the Pound pub on Oxford Street.
In the memoir, entitled He Was My King, McMahon asserted that he was recruited by the Italian embassy in London to kill the King (above and centre) and his attempts to warn the security services and the then Home Secretary were ignored
As Larman cautions, McMahon was ‘something of a Walter Mitty character, prone to exaggerating his achievements and accomplishments’. But the MI5 files revealed a ‘surprising degree of correlation between his stories and their own activities.
Larman made the startling discovery of the memoir in the papers of Walter Monckton, who became Minister of Defence in the mid-Fifties, at Balliol College, Oxford.
‘Monckton was Edward’s advisor. He not only acted for him during the Abdication but also stayed in touch afterwards,’ says Larman.
‘The accepted version of the events,’ writes Larman, ‘is that McMahon was a confused attention-seeker who never had any serious intention of doing any harm to the King.
‘However, [the] declassified MI5 files, to say nothing of an extraordinary autobiographical document . . . offer a stranger and more complex narrative.’
Certainly MI5 had an uneasy relationship with Edward — they were bugging his telephone and following Mrs Simpson. And there were the King’s apparent pro-Hitler views.
‘It is entirely possible MI5 were aware of McMahon’s planned attempt and were happy to let him assassinate Edward, thereby removing an internationally embarrassing monarch with believed Nazi sympathies from the throne.
‘Or, alternatively, simply they were embarrassed by their arrogance and incompetence [at ignoring him].’
As for McMahon, his life of larceny continued and he was in and out of prison. He died forgotten and penniless in 1970, hardly the dramatic ending he once had in mind.