Robert Vansittart

Robert Vansittart

Robert Vansittart, he eldest of three sons among the six children of Captain Robert Arnold Vansittart (1851–1938), army officer, and his wife, Alice Blane Vansittart (1854–1919), was born at Wilton House, Farnham, on 25th June 1881. Five years after Vansittart's birth, his father unexpectedly inherited an estate of some 2,000 acres at Foots Cray.

At the age of seven Vansittart was sent to St Neot's, a preparatory school near Winchfield. In 1893 he arrived at Eton College. He had a special talent for foreign languages and in 1899 he was awarded both the French and German prince consort prizes. He was a keen member of the debating society and according to the Eton College Chronicle, he "held the audience spellbound by the vibrating earnestness of his voice".

According to Norman Rose, the author of Vansittart: Study of a Diplomat (1978) : "Bent on a diplomatic career, Vansittart travelled the continent for over two years improving his proficiency in French and German. In Germany he encountered an intense anti-British hysteria, engendered by the ramifications of the South African War. On one occasion he was challenged to a duel, a predicament from which he escaped by revealing an admirable diplomatic technique. His early experiences in Germany perhaps laid the foundation for his subsequent attitude towards the Germans, and that led him, eventually, with growing experience, to promulgate the doctrine of ‘original German sin’ in international relations; conversely, the warmth of his reception in Paris won him over as an inveterate Francophile. These were to be the twin leitmotifs of his future European policy."

In March 1903 Vansittart sat for the diplomatic examination and passed out top of the list. Later that year he was appointed to the Paris embassy, where he was promoted third secretary in March 1905, passed on examination in public law in December 1905, and was appointed Member of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO) in April 1906. In April 1907 he was transferred to Tehran. He was promoted second secretary in December 1908, and transferred to Cairo in January 1909.

In August 1911 he was sent to the Foreign Office, where he was to spend the remainder of his career. He greatly admired his immediate boss, Eyre Crowe. He was greatly influenced by his ideas on the German menace and urged resistance to this fast-growing power. Crowe argued that the government should never give in to Germany's demands: "To give way to the blackmailer's menaces enriches him, but it has long been proved by uniform experience that, although this may secure for the victim temporary peace, it is certain to lead to renewed molestation and higher demands after ever-shortening periods of amicable forbearance.... The blackmailer's trade is generally ruined by the first resolute stand made against his exactions and the determination rather to face all risks of a possibly disagreeable situation than to continue in the path of endless concessions."

Charles Higham has described Vansittart as: "Tall, broad-shouldered, ruggedly athletic, exuding decency and warm common sense, Vansittart succeeded the very able Sir Ronald Lindsay as permanent undersecretary at the Foreign Office in 1930. He was arguably the most daring, free-thinking, brilliant and piercingly perceptive political figure of his time. John Connell, the author of The Office: A study of British Foreign Policy and its Makers (1958) has pointed out: "He was capable of swiftness of analysis... linked indissolubly to an equivalent swiftness in his desire for action. He was impatient if the action which he believed to be obviously necessary did not immediately and resolutely follow upon the assessment of a situation which he had made or the advice which he had offered. This caused more timorous and less decisive men to regard him as imprudent and injudicious."

Vansittart's biographer, Norman Rose, has argued: "Incisive of thought, diligent, and energetic, possessed of a forceful character and the necessary social graces, Vansittart was soon earmarked as a high-flyer. But not only his routine work brought Vansittart to the attention of his peers and masters. Since his days at Eton, Vansittart had harboured literary ambitions. Occasionally, he contemplated abandoning diplomacy for the profession of a full-time writer. While in Paris he wrote a play in French, Les parias, that ran for six weeks at the Théâtre Molière, a singular feat for a young unpaid attaché, and one that augmented his reputation for brilliance. It marked the beginning of a parallel calling as a dramatist, poet, and novelist."

Lord Rothermere with Adolf Hitler
Robert Vansittart

On the outbreak of the First World War he was appointed head of the Swedish section of the contraband department. In 1916 he was assigned to direct the prisoners of war department under Thomas Legh. This work provided him with conclusive proof of German barbarism. He believed that the Germans were committing atrocities on a massive scale. His attitude towards the Germans got worse after the death of his younger brother, Arnold Vansittart at Ypres. He later wrote: "The personal element should not affect policy, but one cannot prevent experience from confirming conclusions already reached. Why ask for strength to reverse them?"

Robert Vansittart was the first secretary, in the British delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference. At the conference Vansittart dealt mainly with the Turkish settlement. Impressed with Vansittart's competence and diplomatic skills, George Curzon appointed him as his private secretary in December 1920. Now holding the rank of assistant secretary, Vansittart worked under Curzon until he lost office in January 1924.

Vansittart returned to the Foreign Office as head of the American department. In February 1928 he was promoted to assistant under-secretary and joined the staff at 10 Downing Street, where he acted as private secretary to prime ministers Stanley Baldwin and Ramsay MacDonald. At the age of only forty-eight, Vansittart was appointed permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office.

On 29th July, 1931, he married for a second time. His first wife, Gladys Heppenheimer had had tragically died in July 1928. A daughter, Cynthia, had been born in 1922. His bride, Sarita Enriqueta, was the widow of Vansittart's late colleague, Sir Colville Adrian de Rune Barclay. Vansittart himself had little private income, but Sarita was a considerable heiress (her income at the time was estimated at £40,000 per annum) and her money enabled them to live in splendour. They acquired Denham Place, a magnificent manor house in Buckinghamshire, standing in almost 100 acres of gardens, where they employed a staff of twelve servants and five gardeners. When in London, they lived at 44 Park Street, Grosvenor Square. His biographer states that their union was one of "conjugal bliss".

When Adolf Hitler became Chancellor on 30th January 1933, Vansittart became his leading opponent in the Foreign Office. He wrote on 6th May: "The present regime in Germany will, on past and present form, loose off another European war just so soon as it feels strong enough … we are considering very crude people, who have very few ideas in their noddles but brute force and militarism." Norman Rose, the author of Vansittart: Study of a Diplomat (1978) has argued: "But how would he combat the German menace? First, by redefining the aims of British strategy, by isolating Germany as Britain's most immediate danger, and then by boosting the British defence programme to meet this changed order of priorities. Well out of the public eye as a member of high-powered government committees, Vansittart laboured ceaselessly to realize these aims."

Vansittart worked very closely with Admiral Hugh Sinclair, the head of MI6, and Vernon Kell, the head of MI5. According to Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009): "Robert Vansittart, permanent under secretary at the Foreign Office, was much more interested in intelligence than his political masters were... He dined regularly with Sinclair, was also in (less frequent) touch with Kell, and built up what became known as his own private detective agency collecting German intelligence. More than any other Whitehall mandarin, Vansittart stood for rearmament and opposition to appeasement."

Vansittart arranged for Nicholas Elliott to join MI6. Elliott worked closely with another of Vansittart's recruits, Wolfgang zu Putlitz, First Secretary at the German Embassy and Jona von Ustinov, a journalist to work for MI5. Putlitz later recalled: "I would unburden myself of all the dirty schemes and secrets which I encountered as part of my daily routine at the Embassy. By this means I was able to lighten my conscience by the feeling that I was really helping to damage the Nazi cause for I knew Ustinov was in touch with Vansittart, who could use these facts to influence British policy." Putlitz insisted that the only way to deal with Adolf Hitler was to stand firm.

Charles Higham argues that Vansittart received information from the Russian secret agent Anatoly Baykalov, that Wallis Simpson was was a Nazi collaborator. Baykalov had obtained this information, while posing as a White Russian, in the group that included Anna Wolkoff (she was Wallis's dressmaker). Vansittart had two reliable plants in the German embassy who could inform him when any material arrived for transmission to Germany in the diplomatic bags.

Vansittart was also concerned about the political views of the Prince of Wales. In July 1933 Vansittart recounted in his diary that at a party where there was much discussion about the implications of Hitler's rise to power. "The Prince of Wales was quite pro-Hitler and said it was no business of ours to interfere in Germany's internal affairs either re- the Jews or anyone else, and added that dictators are very popular these days and we might want one in England."

In April 1936 Joachim von Ribbentrop, arrived as the new German ambassador in Germany. Ribbentrop soon identified Robert Vansittart as the major problem and told Berlin that his mission in London would be very difficult. He later commented: "Never was a conversation so barren, never did I find so little response... One thing was clear, an Anglo-German understanding with Vansittart in office was out of the question." He then talked to Geoffrey Dawson about the possibility of meeting Stanley Baldwin. Dawson told him that he saw no prospect of a meeting with Baldwin before July or August. When the ambassador did meet Baldwin he stated that the "old fool does not know what he is talking about".

Putlitz reported that Ribbentrop's arrival transformed the previously staid atmosphere on the London embassy into a "complete madhouse". Ribbentrop had brought with him a team of SS officers who carried out searches in the desks of officials every night. He also informed MI5 that Ribbentrop had said that an invasion of the Soviet Union as being "as certain as the Amen in church" and that he was confident that the British government "would not lift a finger" to prevent this. Chapman Pincher, the author of Their Trade is Treachery (1981) Putlitz was also passing information to Winston Churchill: "It was through Putlitz that Winston Churchill, when outside the government, obtained his accurate information about the true strength of the Luftwaffe, which he used to attack Neville Chamberlain in Parliament."

Neville Chamberlain became prime minister in May 1937. Vansittart strongly disagreed with his policy of appeasement. According to Norman Rose: "Vansittart's techniques also worked against him. His memoranda, drafted in a convoluted, epigrammatic style, faintly condescending in tone, warning of terrible dangers if his advice went unheeded, all too often irritated his political masters... In some quarters, his anti-Germanism was viewed as excessive, even paranoid.... In January 1938 Vansittart was 'kicked upstairs', assuming the high-sounding, but politically meaningless, title of chief diplomatic adviser to the government".

Vansittart was angry when Chamberlain appointed Nevile Henderson, as the British ambassador to Berlin. On 1st June, 1937, Henderson attended a banquet arranged by the German-English Society of Berlin. A large number of leading Nazis were in attendance when he made a speech where he defended Adolf Hitler and urged the British people to "lay less stress on Nazi dictatorship and much more emphasis on the great social experiment which is being tried out in this country."

This speech provoked an uproar and some left-wing journalists described him as "our Nazi ambassador at Berlin". However, some newspaper editors, including Geoffrey Dawson, the editor of The Times, who supported this approach to Nazi Germany. In the House of Commons the Conservative Party MP, Alfred Knox offered congratulations "to HM Ambassador in Berlin on having made a real contribution to the cause of peace". Richard Griffiths, the author of Fellow Travellers of the Right (1979), has pointed out that "Henderson was not just an eccentric individual, as has been suggested; he stands as an example of a whole trend in British thought at the time."

Nevile Henderson also received support from the House of Lords and Henry Wilson, Bishop of Chelmsford, the fervant anti-Communist, who praised Henderson's attempt to develop a better relationship with Germany: "I am perfectly certain that it is only an insignificant minority of our people who do not long for friendship and goodwill between ourselves and the German people, and I can truthfully say, I do not number among my friends any person who does not regard with horror and dismay the possibility of any serious misunderstanding between ourselves and the Germans. The whole world lies under a great debt to the German people; it is quite true to say their achievements are regarded with admiration in this country."

Nevile Henderson developed a good relationship with Hitler: "In democratic England the Nazis, with their disregard of personal freedom and their persecution of religion, Jews, and trade unions alike, were naturally far from popular. But they were the Government of the country, and an ambassador is not sent abroad to criticise in that country the government which it chooses or to whom it submits. It was just as much my duty honourably to try to co-operate with the Nazi Government to the best of my ability as it would be for a foreign ambassador in London to work with a Conservative Government, if it happened to be in power, rather than with the Liberal or Labour opposition."

Robert Vansittart was furious when Henderson decided to attend the annual Nuremberg Rally and objected to a memorandum written in May 1937 that suggested that Britain should not object to Germany's desire to take action against countries in Eastern Europe.

Wolfgang zu Putlitz reported that Joachim von Ribbentrop was pleased when Chamberlain became prime minister. "He (Ribbentrop) regarded Mr Chamberlain as pro-German and said he would be his own Foreign Minister. While he would not dismiss Mr Eden he would deprive him of his influence at the Foreign Office. Mr Eden was regarded as an enemy of Germany." Chamberlain did indeed dominate the making of British foreign policy and Anthony Eden eventually resigned in February 1938, exasperated by the Prime Minister's interference in diplomatic business. He was succeeded as foreign secretary Lord Halifax, who strongly supported Chamberlain's appeasement policy. Putlitz constantly warned MI5 that "Britain was letting the trump cards fall out of her hands. If she had adopted, or even now adopted, a firm attitude and threatened war, Hitler would not succeed in this kind of bluff. The German army was not ready for war."

In February 1938, Adolf Hitler appointed Ribbentrop as his foreign minister. Jona von Ustinov summed up Putlitz's view of this appointment: "The German Army will in future be the obedient instrument of Nazi foreign policy. Under Ribbentrop this foreign policy will be an aggressive, forward policy. Its first aim - Austria - has been partly achieved... Austria falls to Hitler like a ripe fruit. After consolidating the position in Austria the next step will be against Czechoslovakia."

International tension increased when Hitler began demanding that the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia should be under the control of the German government. In an attempt to to solve the crisis, the heads of the governments of Germany, Britain, France and Italy met in Munich. On 29th September, 1938, Neville Chamberlain, Adolf Hitler, Edouard Daladier and Benito Mussolini signed the Munich Agreement which transferred to Germany the Sudetenland, a fortified frontier region that contained a large German-speaking population. When Eduard Benes, Czechoslovakia's head of state, who had not been invited to Munich, protested at this decision, Chamberlain told him that Britain would be unwilling to go to war over the issue of the Sudetenland.

Guy Liddell of MI5 passed an updated digest of Putlitz's intelligence to John Curry, a member of B Branch, who was asked to give it to the Home Secretary, Samuel Hoare, who was part of Chamberlain's inner circle of foreign policy advisers. Hoare was the first former MI5 officer to become a cabinet minister. According to Curry: "As Hoare read it, the colour faded from his cheeks. He made a few brief comments, showed no desire to have the matter discussed or elaborated, and dismissed us." Curry believed that Hoare had been shocked by Putlitz's insistence that "if we had stood firm at Munich, Hitler might have lost the initiative".

Jona von Ustinov reported that Wolfgang zu Putlitz was extremely disconcerted by the Munich agreement, complaining that, in passing on, at great personal risk, intelligence about Hitler's plans and intentions, he was "sacrificing himself to no purpose". In January 1939, Ustinov arranged for a secret meeting between Putlitz and Robert Vansittart. Putlitz later recalled that Vansittart said: "Well, Putlitz, I understand you are not too pleased with us. I know Munich was a disgraceful business, but I can assure you that this sort of thing is over and done with. Even our English forbearance has its limits. Next time it will be impossible for Chamberlain to allow himself to be bamboozled by a scrap of paper on which Hitler has scribbled a few words expressing his ardent desire for peace." Vansittart also promised Putlitz asylum if he ever decided to defect.

Vansittart passed information to the anti-appeasement M.P. Robert Boothby: "In 1938 I took Vansittart, who had been kicked upstairs at the Foreign Office by Chamberlain, to lunch... He came down the steps of his hotel to greet us, a picturesque figure in a black cape, with the wind blowing through his white locks, his face wreathed in smiles. At lunch he was highly critical of President Roosevelt for his failure to check the economic recession in the United States, and for his failure to rearm... He was far more critical of the British government." Vansittart told Boothby: "They (the British government) have now succeeded in quarrelling simultaneously with Germany, Japan and Italy; in alienating Russia; and in being at least two years behindhand with armaments."

On 20th February, 1939, Vansittart sent Lord Halifax a report, based chiefly on intelligence from Putlitz that Hitler had decided to "liquidate" Czechoslovakia. Vansittart predicted a German coup in Prague during the week of the 12th to the 19th March. Vansittart passed this information to Vernon Kell who told the Foreign Office on 11th March that "Germany was going into Czechoslovakia in the next 48 hours". Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax were both unconvinced by the intelligence warnings. Halifax said he saw no evidence that the Germans were "planning mischief in any particular quarter".

On 15th March Hitler's troops occupied Prague and announced the annexation of the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia. Vansittart was bitter about the rejection of his warnings. He wrote in his diary: "Nothing seems any good, it seems as if nobody will listen to or believe me." On 18th March Chamberlain finally acknowledged to the cabinet that: "No reliance could be placed on any of the assurances given by the Nazi leaders." As Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009) has pointed out: "a conclusion which the Security Service had put formally to the cabinet secretary almost three years earlier."

In early April, 1939, Dick White visited the Foreign Office to deliver a warning from Putlitz that Italy was preparing to invade Albania. At a cabinet meeting on 5th April Lord Halifax discounted reports of an impending Italian invasion. Two days later Italy occupied Albania. Chamberlain took the invasion as a personal affront. He wrote to his sister: "It cannot be denied that Mussolini has behaved to me like a sneak and a cad."

Putlitz discovered that a agent working for the British, Folkert van Koutrik, had been turned by Abwehr and that it would only be a matter of time before he was arrested. On 15th September, 1939, Putlitz and his partner and valet, Willy Schneider, fled to London. MI5 officer, Guy Liddell, wrote that "the whole situation had rather got on his nerves and that he felt he could not go on."

Vansittart caused considerable controversy when he published Black Record: Germans Past and Present (1941). Hostile questions were raised in parliament. His critics suggested that a civil servant should not be allowed to air such controversial issues in public. In July 1941 Vansittart decided to resign from the service. In recognition of his long public service, he was raised to the peerage as Baron Vansittart of Denham. In the House of Lords, he continuing his campaign against Nazi Germany. He also published an autobiography, Lessons of My Life (1943).

Robert Vansittart died on 14th February 1957. His autobiography, The Mist Procession: The Autobiography of Lord Vansittart, was published posthumously in 1958. Vansittart's final sentence in the book was striking: "Mine is a story of failure, but it throws light on my time which failed too".

Primary Sources

(1) Charles Higham, Wallis: Secret Lives of the Duchess of Windsor (1988)

Sir Robert Vansittart, the controversial eminence rise of British intelligence, took charge. Tall, broad-shouldered, ruggedly athletic, exuding decency and warm common sense, Vansittart succeeded the very able Sir Ronald Lindsay as permanent undersecretary at the Foreign Office in 1930. He was arguably the most daring, free-thinking, brilliant and piercingly perceptive political figure of his time apart from his close friend and neighbour Winston Churchill.

Poet, gambler and bon vivant, Vansittart was a close friend and partner of Alexander Korda's; in the late 1930s, as his associate and boss in London Films, he hired Korda for the Secret Intelligence Service along with other German-speaking Hungarian employees of that company. Vansittart had been in the foreign service in Paris, Teheran, Cairo and Stockholrn, and he had the clearest head in London where the German menace was concerned. He was the unofficial head of MI6, which was nominally run by - Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair - until 1939.... He was Wallis's implacable enemy from the day that he was convinced she was a Nazi collaborator.

How did Vansittart reach the conclusion that Wallis was responsible for leaking crucial documentary information to the German government? According to the late historian John Costello, the Russian secret agent Anatoly Baykalov was the source of this intelligence...

Posing as a White Russian, Baykalov was part of the same set that included Wallis's dressmaker Anna Wolkoff, which would explain his knowledge of the matter. He appears to have acted as a double agent for the British. He took the information about the leak to the Russians and also in February 1936 to J. C. C. Davidson, who was now Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Davidson in turn took the information to Vansittart, who then conveyed it, to Stanley Baldwin.

Vansittart had two reliable plants in the German embassy who could inform him when any material arrived for transmission to Germany in the diplomatic bags. Wolfgang zu Putlitz was one of these spies; later, when posted at The Hague, he would reveal the Duke of Windsor's leakage of important information on a British War Council meeting. Putlitz worked in association with another British spy, the German press attaché Jona von Ustinov, father of the actor and playwright Peter Ustinov.

(2) John Connell, The Office: A study of British Foreign Policy and its Makers (1958)

He was capable of swiftness of analysis... linked indissolubly to an equivalent swiftness in his desire for action. He was impatient if the action which he believed to be obviously necessary did not immediately and resolutely follow upon the assessment of a situation which he had made or the advice which he had offered. This caused more timorous and less decisive men to regard him as imprudent and injudicious.

(3) Richard Deacon, The British Connection (1979)

Baykalov had a trump card up his sleeve, one which he played very skilfully during the later years of the Baldwin government and which paved the way towards the abdication... Baykalov reported to MI5 that Mrs Simpson was a secret agent of the Germans. He noted that she was very frequently at the German embassy... The information was passed to Baldwin by his Secret Service Liaison Minister, J. C. C. Davidson.

(4) Keith Middlemas, Baldwin (1969)

About Mrs Simpson, greater suspicions existed. She was believed to have close contact with German monarchists circles... she was under close scrutiny by Sir Robert Vansittart and both she and the King would not have been pleased to realize that the Security Services were keeping a watching brief on her and some of her friends. The red boxes sent down to Fort Belvedere were carefully screened in the Foreign Office to ensure that nothing highly secret should go astray. Behind the public facade, behind the King's popularity, the Government had awakened to a danger that had nothing to do with any question of marriage.

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