Obituary: Norman Reddaway

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NORMAN REDDAWAY was an expert in the field of intelligence and counter-propaganda, an enthusiastic advocate of closer relations between Britain and its European neighbours, and a diplomat who served in North America, the Middle and Far East before ending his career as ambassador to Poland between 1974 and 1978.

Coming from an academic family (his father, William Reddaway, was Professor of History at Cambridge University), Norman Reddaway made a brilliant start in life, winning an open scholarship to Cambridge, where he gained a Double First in Modern Languages. On the outbreak of war in 1939 he went straight from Cambridge to join the Army as a private. It is a good indication of his personality and capabilities that he left it six years later as a lieutenant-colonel.

During most of those years he was a member of the unit known as "Phantom", or more properly the GHQ Liaison Regiment, which used various unconventional methods to gather front-line intelligence for the forces operating on the continent and in the Middle East. For his services he was appointed MBE in 1946. After a short spell in the Allied Control Commission in Germany, Reddaway joined the Foreign Service, where he was able to make use of his wartime experience in the developing propaganda battle with the Soviet Union.

He joined the office of Christopher Mayhew, Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office under Ernest Bevin, where the two men, who were friends and colleagues from their days in Phantom, set out to take the offensive against the spread of Soviet propaganda in Britain. With Bevin's support they established the Information Research Department, which provided ammunition for ministers, among them the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, who in a notable broadcast in December 1947 warned the nation that hard-won political freedom could be in danger from the new form of imperialism represented by Soviet Communism.

In his autobiography, Time to Explain (1987), Christopher Mayhew tells a story, characteristically at his own expense, about a disaster from which he was saved by Reddaway. In the search for qualified personnel to serve in the Intelligence Research Department (IRD), Hector Macneil, the Minister of State at the Foreign Office, offered Mayhew a recruit of whom he said that he was uniquely qualified for work in the new department.

Mayhew said he only wanted people with "exceptional knowledge of Soviet Communism". Was this true of Macneil's candidate? Yes, replied Macneil. Mayhew interviewed the man and, finding that he did indeed show "a dazzling insight into Communist methods of subversion and propaganda", took him on. His name was Guy Burgess - but fortunately, wrote Mayhew, shortly afterwards "my alert private secretary, Norman Reddaway" advised me to make some enquiries about this brilliant young man. Having done so Mayhew dismissed him, minuting on his file "Burgess is dirty, drunken and idle!"

After postings to Ottawa and Rome and back to IRD in London, Reddaway next took his family in 1960 to Beirut, where he was appointed director of the Foreign Office's Regional Information Office for the whole of the Middle East, a sensitive post at a time when Britain's long-established primacy in the Arab world had been dealt a mortal blow by Anthony Eden's adventure over Suez. There he spent four busy years, travelling widely and exercising among his Arab hosts a personality which won him many friends in unpromising places. His success was rewarded with advancement as CBE in 1965.

There followed a period in which Reddaway was called upon to revive his skills in the field of counter- propaganda, operating from Singapore to lead an information offensive to combat the insurgency in Malaysia and to co-operate in bringing about the downfall of President Sukarno in Indonesia. From Singapore he was recalled to the Arab world, this time to Khartoum, where for much of his time he acted as charge d'affaires, since the Sudanese had broken off relations with Britain over this country's equivocal attitude towards the latest episode in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the British ambassador had been withdrawn.

In 1970 Reddaway returned for a last spell in London, promoted now to be Assistant Under-Secretary for Information and Cultural Affairs in the Foreign Office. It was not the easiest of his appointments, since his superiors gave a lower priority than he would have liked to his field of interest and expertise. He spent much of his time resisting cuts in the information budget and assaults on the freedom of action of the BBC's embattled World Service. Eager for closer co-operation in Europe, he did his best to promote the case for Britain's accession to the European Community.

When in 1974 the time came for him to head an embassy, there were two possible openings: Athens and Warsaw (still of course under the Communist shadow). Characteristically, Reddaway chose Warsaw, a challenge rather than a spell of lotus-eating; and, characteristically again, he threw himself into a task which was not always immediately rewarding, and acquired fluent Polish on the side.

In retirement after 1978 he remained active in the field to which he had devoted most of his working life. He became chairman of International House, working to extend the teaching of English overseas, and he was also a trustee of the Thomson Foundation, which operated in the opposite direction, bringing young journalists from other countries to train in Britain. These activities, as well as work in his garden, were only discontinued after he fell victim to a rare and disabling disease three years ago.

George Frank Norman Reddaway, diplomat: born 2 May 1918; MBE 1946, CBE 1965; Counsellor, Beirut 1961-65; Counsellor, Office of the Political Adviser to the Commander-in-Chief, Far East, Singapore 1965-66; Counsellor (Commercial), Khartoum 1967-69; Assistant Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 1970-74; ambassador to Poland 1974-78; married 1944 Jean Brett (two sons, three daughters); died 12 October 1999.