John Colvin

Diplomat and spy who served in Hanoi during the Vietnam War
Click to follow
The Independent Online

John Horace Ragnar Colvin, intelligence officer and diplomat: born Tokyo 18 June 1922; Consul-General, Hanoi 1965-67; CMG 1968; ambassador to People's Republic of Mongolia 1971-74; Director for International Relations, Chase Manhattan Bank 1980-86; married 1948 Elizabeth Manifold (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1963), 1967 Moranna Cazenove (one son, one daughter); died London 4 October 2003.

John Colvin progressed from wartime service in the Navy to the Secret Intelligence Service and the Foreign Office, in the kind of postings which did not include photo-opportunities for visiting government ministers.

He was the British Consul-General in Hanoi from 1965 to 1967 as the Vietnam War intensified, and witnessed the massive American bombardment of North Vietnam. He later served two years in Ulan Bator as ambassador to the People's Republic of Mongolia.

Colvin was born in 1922 in Tokyo, the son of the British naval attaché there who later became Admiral Sir Ragnar Colvin and commanded the Royal Australian Navy in the early years of the Second World War. He was educated from the age of 13 at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, and served in the Far East during the war. He was sunk with the battleship Repulse in 1940 and then sunk again with the hospital ship that rescued him. Since Colvin's birth had been registered in Tokyo he had the satisfaction, after these involuntary immersions, of receiving his Japanese call-up papers while recuperating in a Durban hospital.

Undeterred, Colvin transferred to Combined Operations and in 1945 landed from a midget submarine in Vietnam, where he organised guerrilla raids on the occupying Japanese. At the end of the war he found himself, at the age of 23, as the senior ranking Allied officer authorised to accept the enemy surrender. Voltaire said that no man was a hero to his valet, but Colvin certainly earned the esteem of his nine-year-old grandson, who asked him whether he had shot many Japanese. "No," was the laconic answer, "but I garrotted quite a few!"

Since his superiors learned that Colvin was enjoying post-war Saigon with its mixture of French civilisation and the Orient he was naturally transferred, in the guise of a stoker to a Yugoslav cargo ship, cruising the Balkan coast and learning Serbo-Croat. He then made a pro-forma transfer to the Foreign Office in 1951, though in reality he was an officer for the Secret Intelligence Service, and went to Oslo for two years, another culture shock and more local-patois lessons.

Then followed two years in Austria and getting to know all the locals who had spent the years since the Anschluss playing the zither and slaloming. One reputed intelligence coup involved Colvin in recruiting a sub-agent in a neighbouring country behind the Iron Curtain. Apparently the Russians were acutely short of paper and were therefore using highly sensitive defence memoranda in the army latrines, which, after cleaning, could be forwarded to Colvin.

Colvin's most interesting assignments came in the late Sixties. In 1965 he was posted to Hanoi as the resident British Consul-General; his dispatches were one of the main sources of intelligence from North Vietnam for both London and Washington. Since the Communist government refused permission for an air-raid shelter to be built below the Consulate, Colvin would calmly install himself with a drink on his balcony and watch the bombs fall on the city, while drafting long-distance missives to Moranna Cazenove, who was to become his second wife.

An interesting rift developed between the Soviet Union and China and this made Outer Mongolia of sudden, transitory, importance. Colvin was sent to Ulan Bator as ambassador to the People's Republic of Mongolia. He later described his years in Vietnam and Mongolia in a moving book, Twice Around the World: some memoirs of diplomatic life in North Vietnam and Outer Mongolia (1991).

His last official posting was to Washington (1977-80), cementing old friendships in those corridors of power, leading on to his departure for Hong Kong on behalf of David Rockefeller and the Chase Bank and ultimately retirement, but certainly not idleness.

Colvin wrote a number of books, among them The Lions of Judah (1997), about great Jewish war leaders in history; Not Ordinary Men (1994), about a vital battle on the Burmese-Indian border in the Second World War; and Nomonhan (1999), a study of the victory of Soviet forces against a Japanese invasion a year before the outbreak of war in 1939. This battle has been practically ignored, yet it was of great importance. The Japanese defeat meant that they decided to turn their aggression southwards towards the British, Dutch and French empires in the East, and consequently brought the United States into the war. His last book, Decisive Battles, came out this year.

Many who encountered John Colvin remarked on his quiet elegance, sharp mind and sang-froid. He was a warrior, a lover of Annamite porcelain and a scholar.

Claus von Bulow

Comments