Original photo by Willy Rogg: The royal couple's car is totally destroyed.
Original photo by Willy Rogg: The royal couple's car is totally destroyed. Heimatmuseum Küssnacht

The tragic death of Queen Astrid

On 29 August 1935, Queen Astrid of Belgium dies in a car accident on Lake Lucerne. Just one day later, the whole world knows. Thanks to a resourceful Swiss photographer and the help of a well-known aviation pioneer.

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw has a PhD in history and is a performance poet and author. He regularly publishes historical books.

29 August is the last day of the holiday, the sun is shining, people are drawn outside. He says to her that he wants to drive along Lake Lucerne himself today, after all they have a new convertible with eight cylinders and whitewall tyres. But the car driver is inexperienced, between Merlischachen and Küssnacht he runs over the kerb and crashes straight into a pear tree. His passenger flies out of the open car and dies at the scene of the accident. The tragic accident occurred in 1935, the driver was the Belgian King Leopold III, his companion was the Belgian Queen Astrid. The Astrid Chapel at the site of the accident stands as a reminder of the drama and still attracts the public and mourners.
The Astrid Chapel on the shore of Lake Lucerne commemorates the queen who died in an accident.
The Astrid Chapel on the shore of Lake Lucerne commemorates the queen who died in an accident. Swiss National Museum
But what few people know: After the accident, the story continues. An employee of the Küssnacht district office learns that a celebrity has been involved in an accident. So he calls his son and says: "Willy, go immediately to the accident site on Luzernerstrasse with the camera." So this Willy Rogg, a student of dentistry, pedals off on his bicycle and arrives at the scene of the accident to find a dented Packard convertible, a king in shock and a dead queen. It is a drama beyond compare!
The car is half submerged in Lake Lucerne. Original picture by Willy Rogg.
The car is half submerged in Lake Lucerne. Original picture by Willy Rogg. Heimatmuseum Küssnacht
Willy is one of the first on the scene and later reports on the injured queen: "I went up to her, put my hand to her cheeks, which were already cold, and took hold of the still warm hand to check the pulse. But the heart had already stopped beating. The dead woman had injuries on the right side of her face, and on looking closely, one could see her temple was dented. In her hair there were still small pieces of the bark of the unlucky tree."
Photo by Willy Rogg: The body of Queen Astrid (under a white cloth) is lifted into a coffin.
Photo by Willy Rogg: The body of Queen Astrid (under a white cloth) is lifted into a coffin. Heimatmuseum Küssnacht
What Rogg fails to mention: he carries out his father's order, grabs the camera, focuses on the accident site and pulls the trigger a total of six times. The exclusive pictures show the destroyed car, the scene of the accident and the moment when the queen's body is coffined. Without realising it, Willy Rogg writes international photography and media history.
Leopold III of Belgium married the 19-year-old Astrid of Sweden in 1926. The media have been interested in the glamorous couple ever since.
Leopold III of Belgium married the 19-year-old Astrid of Sweden in 1926. The media have been interested in the glamorous couple ever since. Wikimedia
The young paparazzo wants to sell the photos to the Swiss photo agency Photopress, but they cannot bring themselves to take them. So Rogg cycles on to Weggis to have the pictures developed in a photo studio. He then contacted the world's largest news agency, the Associated Press (AP). They showed interest in Rogg's exclusive pictures and paid 100 Swiss francs for each of them.

First night flight in Swiss aviation

But the pictures have to get from Weggis to London as quickly as possible. That is why AP recommends taking a taxi all expenses paid and driving to Dübendorf. This is the site of Switzerland's first airport, over which Walter Mittelholzer (1894-1937), already a world-famous pilot at the time, is walking at thaz moment. Mittelholzer was the technical director of Swissair, founded in 1931. Such celebrity pictures as Rogg's are entirely to his taste, for the aviation pioneer is also a shrewd media entrepreneur. Only - it's getting dark. Because pilots fly their planes on sight at this time, flights through the black night are out of the question.
Walter Mittelholzer is not only an aviation pioneer, but also a media professional. He immediately recognises the explosive nature of Rogg's photos.
Walter Mittelholzer is not only an aviation pioneer, but also a media professional. He immediately recognises the explosive nature of Rogg's photos. ETH Library Zurich
But Mittelholzer knows that Rogg's photos are explosive thanks to their topicality. He wants to attempt the first night flight in Swiss aviation history. To do so, he asks Robert Gsell (1889-1946) to come on board. Gsell, a better pilot than Mittelholzer, holds the world record in endurance flying, is a senior expert and ETH lecturer in aviation. He finds it a little strange to fly through the night in a Douglas DC-2 for six photos – a plane for 14 people! But he goes along with it. The night flight is not without danger. Gsell and Mittelholzer calculate the right flight angle with a circular slide rule, from time to time they thunder through a hole in the clouds. Despite being a summer night, it is bitterly cold. At the altitude of 4500 metres, ice forms on the propellers and the cabin windows are frozen shut. Suddenly, pebbles seem to patter on the fuselage - but it is only an icy rain. To the pilots' reassurance, the precipitation turns to rain. Gradually the clouds give way and there is great relief when the lights of London airfield become visible. The plane touches down at 0:55 at night and comes to a stop. Seconds later, a messenger snatches the precious photos from the pilots and speeds away on a motorbike.
For the valuable photos, Walter Mittelholzer, together with Robert Gsell, ventured on a return flight to London in one such Douglas DC-2.
For the valuable photos, Walter Mittelholzer, together with Robert Gsell, ventured on a return flight to London in one such Douglas DC-2. ETH Library Zurich
Swissair's first night flight is a success – and it leads to Willy Rogg's accident pictures being broadcast all over the world, because the AP news agency uses the new method of picture broadcasting. As a result, the photos of the dead young queen reached editorial offices all over the world during the night and made readers shudder at the time of "early morning tea".

The Royals are coming

13.03.2021 03.10.2021 / Forum Schweizer Geschichte Schwyz
The list of royal visitors to Switzerland is long – and equally impressive: Emperor Wilhelm II, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Queen Elizabeth, Astrid, Queen of the Belgians, and Queen Victoria. These are some of the many crowned heads who have visited Switzerland. Their reasons for doing are so as varied as their backgrounds. Whether for a state visit, rest and recreation, or even exile, crowned heads have long favoured Switzerland as a destination. The exhibition reflects the diversity of royal visitors to Switzerland and features fascinating stories and impressive mementos of their time here.

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