Robert Vansittart, 1st Baron Vansittart

Robert Gilbert Vansittart, 1st Baron Vansittart, GCB, GCMG, MVO, PC (25 June 1881 – 14 February 1957), known as Sir Robert Vansittart between 1929 and 1941, was a senior British diplomat in the period before and during the Second World War. He was Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister from 1928 to 1930 and Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office from 1930 to 1938 and later served as Chief Diplomatic Adviser to the British Government. He is best remembered for his opposition to appeasement and his strong stance against Germany during and after the Second World War. Vansittart was also a published poet, novelist and playwright.

The Lord Vansittart

Sir Robert Vansittart in 1929.
Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
In office
Preceded bySir Ronald Lindsay
Succeeded bySir Alexander Cadogan
Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister
In office
Personal details
Born25 June 1881 (1881-06-25)
Wilton House, Farnham, Surrey, England
Died14 February 1957 (1957-02-15) (aged 75)
Denham Place, Denham, Buckinghamshire, England
Spouse(s)Gladys Heppenheimer (died 1928)
Sarah Enriqueta Ward

Background and education

Vansittart was born at Wilton House, Farnham, Surrey, the eldest of the three sons of Robert Arnold Vansittart, of Foots Cray Place, Kent, a Captain in the 7th Dragoon Guards, by his wife Susan Alice Blane, third daughter of Gilbert James Blane,[1] landowner, of Foliejon Park, Berkshire. His younger brother Guy Nicholas (Nick) Vansittart had a successful career with General Motors before and after the war. He was recruited into "Z" Network during the 1930s and served in Special Operations Executive during World War II.[2]

Cognatically (patrilineally) the family is of Dutch descent; ancestors included Arthur Vansittart, Member of Parliament (MP) for Windsor, and the Colonel of the same name, MP for Berkshire. Henry Vansittart, Robert Vansittart and Lord Bexley were in the other branches. A female-line ancestor was Lord Auckland.[3] Vansittart was also a second cousin of T. E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia).[3][4]

Widely nicknamed Van, he was educated at St Neot's Preparatory School and Eton College, where he was a member of the Eton Society and Captain of the Oppidans.[1] He then travelled in Europe for two years to improve his French and German, where his experiences and study of the political systems prevailing may have contributed to his Germanophobia and Francophilia.

Diplomatic career

Vansittart entered the Foreign Office in 1902, starting as a clerk in the Eastern Department, where he was a specialist on Aegean Islands affairs. He was an attaché at the British Embassy in Paris between 1903 and 1905, when he became Third Secretary. He then served at the embassies in Tehran between 1907 and 1909 and Cairo between 1909 and 1911. From 1911, he was attached to the Foreign Office. During the First World War he was joint head of the contraband department and then head of the Prisoner of War Department under Lord Newton. He took part in the Paris Peace Conference and became an Assistant Secretary at the Foreign Office in 1920. From that year to 1924, he was private secretary to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon.

From 1928 to 1930, he was Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin and then Ramsay MacDonald. In January 1930 he was appointed Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, where he supervised the work of Britain's diplomatic service.[1]

Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, 1930–1938

Vansittart was suspicious of Adolf Hitler from the start and claimed that what Hitler said was "for foreign consumption". He thought Hitler would start another European war as soon as he "felt strong enough".[5]

Vansittart supported revising the Versailles Treaty in Germany's favour but only after Hitler was no longer in power. Vansittart believed that Britain should be firm with Germany, with an alliance between France and the Soviet Union against Germany essential. Vansittart also urgently advocated rearmament.[6]

In the summer of 1936, Vansittart visited Germany and claimed that he found a climate that "the ghost of Barthou would hardly have recognised" and that Britain should negotiate with Germany.[7] He thought that satisfying Hitler's "land hunger" at Soviet expense would be immoral and regarded the Franco-Soviet Treaty of Mutual Assistance as non-negotiable. It was because he believed that Germany had gained equality in Europe that Vansittart favoured facilitating German expansion in Africa.[7] He thought that Hitler was exploiting fears of a "Bolshevist menace" as a cover for "expansion in Central and South-Eastern Europe".[8]

Like Sir Maurice Hankey, Vansittart thought in power politics terms. He thought Hitler could not decide whether to follow Joseph Goebbels and Alfred von Tirpitz in viewing Britain as "the ultimate enemy" or on the other hand adopting the Joachim von Ribbentrop policy of appeasing Britain in order to engage in military expansion in the East.[8]

Vansittart thought that in either case time should be "bought for rearmament" by an economic agreement with Germany and by appeasing every "genuine grievance" about colonies.[8] Vansittart wanted to detach Benito Mussolini from Hitler and thought that the British Empire was an "Incubus" and that Continental Europe was the central British national interest, but he doubted whether agreement could be had there.[9] That was because he feared that German attention, if turned eastwards, would result in a military empire between the Baltic Sea, the Adriatic Sea and the Black Sea.[10]

At the Foreign Office in the 1930s, Vansittart was a major figure in the loose group of officials and politicians opposed to appeasement of Germany. In spite of his harsh opposition to appeasement with Germany, Vansittart had been on "very friendly terms with Herr (Konrad) Henlein".[11] Henlein was the Nazi leader of the  Sudeten German Party, which was officially committed to autonomy for the Sudetenland, but secretly wanted annexation of the Sudetenland by Germany. He was plotting with Hitler the partition of Czechoslovakia, which would be agreed at the Munich Agreement (1938). Vansittart genuinely liked Henlein, the mild-mannered and easy-going gymnastics teacher, and believed in assurances that all he wanted was autonomy for the Sudetenland.[12] Much of Vansittart's later turn towards Germanphobia was provoked by the way his discovery that Heinlein had deceived him.[12]  

Vansittart told Henlein that "no serious intervention in favour of the Czechs was to be feared from Great Britain and probably also from France."[13] That reached Hitler in the second half of 1937, when he was deciding about his plan to overthrow Austria and Czechoslovakia; his decisions were not proof of high intuition or intellect but were based on information received from Vansittart, among other well-placed politicians and officers in Britain, like Lord Lothian, Lord Mount Temple, Oliver Vaughan Gurney Hoare (Sir Samuel Hoare's younger brother) and others. It is not known how much that encouraged Hitler, but he later stated very similar views: "the Führer believed that almost certainly Britain and probably France as well, had already tacitly written off the Czechs and were reconciled to the fact that this question would be cleared up in due course by Germany."[14]

After the war, an effort was made to cover up Vansittart's embarrassing "real friendship" with Henlein.[15] In the late 1930s, Vansittart together with Reginald Leeper, the Foreign Office's Press Secretary often leaked information to a private newspaper, The Whitehall Letter, edited by Victor Gordon Lennox, the anti-appeasement diplomatic editor of the Daily Telegraph.[16]

That brought him into conflict with the political leadership at the time, and he was removed as Permanent Under-Secretary in 1938. A new post as "Chief Diplomatic Adviser to His Majesty's Government" was instead created ad hoc for him in which he served until 1941.[1]


Vansittart was also involved in intelligence work. In 1940, Vansittart sued the American historian Harry Elmer Barnes for libel for an article, written by Barnes in 1939, accusing him of then plotting aggression against Germany.[17]

During the war, Vansittart became a prominent advocate of a very anti-German line. His earlier worries about Germany were reformulated into an argument that Germany was intrinsically militaristic and aggressive. In Black Record: Germans Past and Present (1941), Vansittart portrayed Nazism as just the latest manifestation of Germany's continuous record of aggression from the time of the Roman Empire. Therefore, after Germany was defeated, it must be stripped of all military capacity, including its heavy industries. The German people enthusiastically supported Hitler's wars of aggression, just as they supported the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and World War I in 1914. They must be thoroughly re-educated under strict Allied supervision for at least a generation. De-Nazification was not enough. The German military elite was the real cause of war, especially the "Prussianist" officer corps and the German General Staff: both must be destroyed. In 1943 he wrote:

In the opinion of the author, it is an illusion to differentiate between the German right, centre, or left, or the German Catholics or Protestants, or the German workers or capitalists. They are all alike, and the only hope for a peaceful Europe is a crushing and violent military defeat followed by a couple of generations of re-education controlled by the United Nations.[18]

He also wrote that "the other Germany has never existed save in a small and ineffective minority".[19] On other occasions, he made similar remarks:

We didn't go to war in 1939 to save Germany from Hitler ... or the continent from fascism. Like in 1914 we went to war for the not lesser noble cause that we couldn't accept a German hegemony over Europe.[20]

The British historian R. B. McCallum wrote in 1944: "To some, such as Lord Vansittart, the main problem of policy was to watch Germany and prevent her power reviving. No one can refuse him a tribute for his foresight in this matter."[21]


Vansittart was appointed a Member of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO) in 1906, a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in 1920, a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) in 1927, a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) in 1929, a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) in 1931 and a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (GCB) in 1938. He was sworn into the Privy Council in 1940[22] and raised to the peerage as Baron Vansittart, of Denham in the County of Buckingham on 3 July 1941.[23]

Literary career

Vansittart was also a published poet, novelist and playwright. This is a partial list of his literary works:


  • Les Pariahs (1902)
  • The Cap and Bells: a comedy in three acts (1913)
  • Dead Heat: a comedy in three acts (1939)


  • The Gates: A Study in Prose (1910)
  • John Stuart (1912)
  • Pity's Kin (1924)


  • Black Record: Germans Past and Present (1941)


  • Songs & Satires (1909)
  • Foolery: a comedy in verse (1912)
  • The Singing Caravan, a Sufi Tale (1919)
  • Tribute (1926)
  • Green and Grey: Collected Poems (1944)


  • Lessons of My Life (1943)
  • The Mist Procession (1957), Hutchinson & Co. London (published posthumously with a prefatory note by his wife Sarita)

Film career

Vansittart was a close friend of producer Alexander Korda. He helped Korda with the financing of London Films. His barony's territorial designation was of Denham, the parish where London Films had its studio and he owned Denham Place. Vansittart contributed to four motion pictures.

He wrote the screenplay for Wedding Rehearsal (1932), contributed dialogue to Sixty Glorious Years (1938) and, under the pseudonym "Robert Denham", provided song lyrics for Korda's The Thief of Bagdad (1940) and Jungle Book (1942), in collaboration with the noted Hungarian composer Miklós Rózsa with whom he also wrote the concert musical work for voices, "Beast of Burden" (1940).[24]

Personal life

Vansittart married his first wife, Gladys Robinson-Duff (née Heppenheimer), daughter of General William C. Heppenheimer, of the United States, in 1921. They had one daughter, the Honourable Cynthia Vansittart (born 1922). Gladys died in 1928. He married his second wife, Sarita Enriqueta Ward, daughter of the explorer and sculptor Herbert Ward, of Paris, and widow of Sir Colville Barclay, on 29 July 1931.[25] They lived in London and at Denham Place, Denham, Buckinghamshire. He died in February 1957, age 75, and the barony became extinct.[3][25]


Coat of arms of Robert Vansittart, 1st Baron Vansittart
An eagle’s head couped at the breast between two wings elevated and displayed Sable the whole resting on two crosses pattée Argent.
Ermine an eagle displayed Sable on a chief Gules a ducal coronet Or between two crosses pattée Argent.
On either side a greyhound Argent gorged with a collar flory counter-flory Azure.
Fata Viam Invenient[26]


  1. Williams, E. T., Palmer, Helen M. The Dictionary of National Biography 1951–1960. Oxford University Press, 1971.
  2. [bare URL]
  3. Robert Gilbert Vansittart, 1st and last Baron Vansittart
  4. "T.E. Lawrence Family History".
  5. Maurice Cowling, The Impact of Hitler. British Policy and British Politics 1933–1940 (Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 156.
  6. Cowling, p. 156.
  7. Cowling, p. 157.
  8. Cowling, p. 158.
  9. Cowling, pp. 158-159.
  10. Cowling, p. 159.
  11. Czechoslovakia Between Stalin and Hitler: the Diplomacy of Edvard Benes in the 1930s, p.89, by Igor Lukes, Oxford University Press, 1996, quoting Vansittarts's own words: "I have been on very friendly terms with Herr Henlein for some years past and have seen him frequently during his visits to London." Herr Henlein's conversations in London, May 1938, Note of a Conversation with Sir R. Vansittart. See also Czechoslovakia before Munich, p.212, by J. W. Bruegel, Cambridge University Press, 1973 and Remarks on the Roundtable 'Munich from the Czech Perspective', in East Central Europe-L'Europe du Centre-Est 10, nr. 1-2, 1983, 158-59.
  12. Weinberg, Gerhard The Foreign Policy of Hitler's Germany 1933-1939, New York: Enigma Books, 2010 p.582
  13. Czechoslovakia Between Stalin and Hitler: the Diplomacy of Edvard Benes in the 1930s, p.81, by Igor Lukes, Oxford University Press, 1996, from Documents on German Foreign Policy, 1918–1945, series D (1937-45), Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1949, 2:22-23, Minister Ernst Eisenlohr's report to the German Foreign Ministry dated 22 October 1937.
  14. Czechoslovakia Between Stalin and Hitler: the Diplomacy of Edvard Benes in the 1930s, p.81, by Igor Lukes, Oxford University Press, 1996, from Documents on German Foreign Policy, 1918–1945, series D (1937-45), Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1949, series D, 1:29-39, the (Friedrich) Hossbach Memorandum.
  15. Czechoslovakia Between Stalin and Hitler: the Diplomacy of Edvard Benes in the 1930s, p.89, by Igor Lukes, Oxford University Press, 1996.
  16. Watt, Donald Cameron "Rumors as Evidence" pages 276-286 from Russia War, Peace and Diplomacy edited by Ljubica & Mark Erickson, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004 page 278.
  17. Lipstadt, Deborah Denying the Holocaust (New York: Free Press, 1993), p. 80.
  18. Robert Vansittart, Lessons of My Life, front dust jacket copy.
  19. Vansittart, Lessons of My Life, p. 146.
  20. Sunday Correspondent, London (17.9.1989)
  21. R. B. McCallum, Public Opinion and the Last Peace (London: Oxford University Press, 1944), p. 147.
  22. Privy Counsellors 1915–1968
  23. "No. 35217". The London Gazette. 11 July 1941. p. 3991.
  24. Eder, Bruce. "Robert Vansittart: Biography". MSN Movies. Archived from the original on 22 May 2011. Retrieved 5 August 2008.
  25. Norman Rose, 'Vansittart, Robert Gilbert, Baron Vansittart (1881–1957)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011.
  26. Burke's Peerage. 1956.


  • Maurice Cowling, The Impact of Hitler. British Policy and British Politics 1933–1940 (Chambridge University Press, 1975), pp. 156–159.
  • Sir Robert Vansittart, Lessons of My Life (London, 1943).
  • Sir Robert Vansittart, The Mist Procession (London, 1958).