Spartacus Blog

Robert Vansittart's Spy Network

Thursday, 17th October 2013

John Simkin

At the age of only forty-eight, Robert Vansittart was appointed permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office. 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."

Robert 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 recruited 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.

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".

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.

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.

After the war, Wolfgang zu Putlitz became a Communist and settled in East Germany, whose nationality he adopted in 1952. According to Chapman Pincher Putlitz had always been a Marxist and had been passing information to the Soviet Union: "From 1935 to 1939 Putlitz passed secret information both to the British and the Russians, being at heart really a Soviet agent but prepared to do anything against the Nazis." Putlitz later published his autobiography, The Putlitz Dossier (1957). However, he has become one of the forgotten heroes of the Second World War. Even the English edition of Wikipedia does not have a page on him.

Other Posts

The Allied Plot to Kill Lenin (7th March, 2014)

Was Rasputin murdered by MI6? (24th February 2014)

Winston Churchill and Chemical Weapons (11th February, 2014)

Pete Seeger and the Media (1st February 2014)

Should history teachers use Blackadder in the classroom? (15th January 2014)

Why did the intelligence services murder Dr. Stephen Ward? (8th January 2014)

Solomon Northup and 12 Years a Slave (4th January 2014)

The Angel of Auschwitz (6th December 2013)

The Death of John F. Kennedy (23rd November 2013)

Adolf Hitler and Women (22nd November 2013)

New Evidence in the Geli Raubal Case (10th November 2013)

Murder Cases in the Classroom (6th November 2013)

Major Truman Smith and the Funding of Adolf Hitler (4th November 2013)

Unity Mitford and Adolf Hitler (30th October 2013)

Claud Cockburn and his fight against Appeasement (26th October 2013)

The Strange Case of William Wiseman (21st October 2013)

Robert Vansittart's Spy Network (17th October 2013)

British Newspaper Reporting of Appeasement and Nazi Germany (14th October 2013)

Paul Dacre, The Daily Mail and Fascism (12th October 2013)

Wallis Simpson and Nazi Germany (11th October 2013)

The Activities of MI5 (9th October 2013)

The Right Club and the Second World War (6th October 2013)

What did Paul Dacre's father do in the war? (4th October 2013)

Ralph Miliband and Lord Rothermere (2nd October 2013)