When Frank Roberts first met Stalin towards the end of 1945 Stalin's first words were, "I know you. You are our enemy. And what's more you are a member of the British intelligence service." Shaken by the encounter, Roberts, who was at that time Minister at the British Embassy in Moscow, left the room wondering whether he had not better ask for a transfer back to London by the next plane.
On reflection, Roberts concluded that Stalin had had in mind his wartime activities in the Central Department of the Foreign Office in London where one of his primary duties had been to support the Polish cause, often against what Stalin considered to be Soviet interests. Roberts was also reassured to be told by a Russian friend that Stalin had paid him a great compliment in "promoting" him to the British intelligence service.
Several years later, in 1948, Roberts found himself on the opposite side of the table to Stalin in negotiations for the lifting of the Berlin blockade. He was by that time Principal Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, and had been sent back to Moscow as Bevin's personal representative at the talks. Looking back, Roberts considered this to be one of the most interesting events of his long career.
Roberts was from the first a high-flier. He passed out top in the Foreign Office entrance examination in 1930 (coming second in the wider Home and Indian Civil Service exam), and by the time he was appointed Minister in Moscow was still only 38. At the 1948 talks on the Berlin blockade his fellow negotiators were the very much senior American and French representatives, General Bedell Smith and Yves Chataigneau.
He possessed outstanding intelligence and was a master of the "think- piece" despatch. In response to a Foreign Office request for an assessment of Soviet policy in 1946, Roberts submitted in short order three despatches which were in substance a tour de force. Constituting a comprehensive and illuminating analysis, they revealed a sound grasp of the history of Russian foreign policy and a unique knowledge of the Soviet press.
Roberts joined the Foreign Office in the days when a young entrant's first obligation was not only to purchase a diplomatic uniform, but also court dress, including knee breeches for palace levees and a special household evening coat for dinners with royalty present. Roberts recalled that all this, together with an ostrich feather hat, evening shoes, a cloak and overcoat, could then be purchased with a grant of pounds 100.
His first overseas posting was to Paris in 1932, where the then ambassador was the immensely well-respected Lord Tyrrell. As one of the few young secretaries who played golf and bridge, Roberts got to know him well. Tyrrell rarely did more than initial papers submitted to him and when, on one occasion, a file was returned to him with a note concluding "This requires a decision", he confined himself to writing "Yes, it does."
One of Roberts's duties at the Paris Embassy was to keep in touch with Stanley Baldwin's Parliamentary Private Secretary, Geoffrey Lloyd. In London Roberts was taken by Lloyd to the House of Commons to hear the debate on air rearmament in which Baldwin dismissed Churchill's statistics on the scope and speed of German air rearmament. Afterwards, Roberts heard everyone congratulating Baldwin on his speech.
In 1935 Roberts was posted to Cairo, a key centre in British diplomacy. Although Egypt was not a part of the British Empire, the British had special rights there, and Roberts was Private Secretary to the powerful High Commissioner, Sir Miles Lampson (later Lord Killearn). It was an enjoyable posting not least because it was in Cairo that he met his wife, Cella, daughter of the late Sir Said Shoucair Pasha, Financial Adviser to the Sudan Government.
Two years later Roberts was recalled to London and assigned to the Central Department of the Foreign Office, so called because it dealt with Central Europe and more especially with Germany, whose activities were already posing a major problem for Britain. Roberts's work brought him into close contact with Anthony Eden and Lord Halifax as Foreign Secretaries, and with Chamberlain and Churchill at l0 Downing Street.
Before the outbreak of war, it was Roberts who carried all the secret communications from the disaffected German Chief of General Staff, General Beck, to Neville Chamberlain. Beck was persistently warning the British and the French of Hitler's expansionist intentions. Chamberlain dismissed the messages as part of a Foreign Office campaign to make him change his policy of appeasement.
When, in 1938, Chamberlain had returned from his Godesberg meetings with Hitler on Czechoslovakia, and was in the Commons explaining his failure to arrange a peaceful settlement, Roberts, stationed in the officials' box, passed him a note. To wild cheering Chamberlain then announced the message just received from Mussolini that he had persuaded Hitler to meet with himself, the French prime minister Edouard Daladier and Hitler in Munich.
A few months later Roberts was acting as contact man between Chamberlain and Birger Dahlerus, the Swedish businessman who provided an unofficial line to Goering. Just after Britain's ultimatum to Germany had expired in 1939, Roberts received a telephone call from Dahlerus, with Goering by his side, in an attempt to save the peace. Roberts told him that it was too late, and that war had broken out.
Roberts remained in the Central Department throughout the war, rising to be its head. While Germany remained the department's prime concern, other key areas of Roberts's responsibility included Poland and Czechoslovakia, Portugal and Spain. During the phoney war he also acted as Secretary to the Supreme War Council, and was then responsible for settling in Britain the Allied governments from occupied Europe.
Roberts acted as interpreter between Churchill and General de Gaulle at some of their most important and difficult meetings. At one, he recalled, Churchill was furious with de Gaulle over the seizure by the Free French of islands in the St Lawrence estuary. When de Gaulle made no attempt to explain matters, but politely took his leave, Churchill remarked, "That was very well done. I couldn't have done it better myself."
In 1942 Roberts was responsible for the organisation of the high-level conference at St James's Palace on the question of war crimes. The conference, held at the initiative of General Sikorski, was attended by all the Allied governments in London (with the British and Americans as observers), and resulted in the modifications in international law that eventually led to the Nuremberg trials.
In 1943 he spent seven weeks in Lisbon with the British ambassador, Sir Ronald Campbell, in negotiations with Dr Salazar for an Allied airbase in the Azores. Salazar conducted the talks at his home with no one but Campbell and Roberts in the room. Roberts was fascinated by this glimpse of a dictator in action, and considered the experience as instructive as his post-war negotiations with Stalin on the Berlin blockade.
At the end of 1944 Roberts was appointed Minister in Moscow, attending the Yalta Conference en route to his new posting. His new ambassador, Sir Archibald Clark Kerr (later Lord Inverchapel), had as his passport photograph a portrait in oils of himself as a young man and kept a few geese to supply the quill pens he continued to use. Roberts's arrival in the Moscow Chancery in 1945 was felt by one contemporary, Tommy (later Lord) Brimelow, to mark its final emergence from the 18th century.
One of the major issues facing the British Embassy in 1945 was the follow- through to the Yalta agreements on Poland and Eastern Europe. Because Roberts had been dealing with Poland throughout the war, he became the ambassador's chief adviser on a commission consisting of the Soviet Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, and the American and British ambassadors. He also dealt with issues on Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary.
In 1948 Roberts was back in London as PPS to Ernest Bevin. He found Bevin a delight to work for and, with others, grew to regard him as the greatest of Britain's modern Foreign Secretaries. Bevin, who liked to run things himself and not to be run by his Private Secretary, was rumoured to find Roberts's irrepressible activity slightly irritating but none the less recognised his precocious talent.
When the British ambassador in Moscow fell ill in 1948, Bevin sent Roberts as his personal representative to talks with Stalin on the Berlin blockade, an exceptional honour for a junior official. While Roberts always accepted that policy is laid down by governments, and therefore never exaggerated his role as negotiator, the eventual result of the talks was the end of the Berlin airlift.
Roberts found that Stalin and Molotov conducted the talks in a forthright way, although inevitably there were difficult moments. While Molotov, Roberts recalled, "when angry used to turn pea-green and stammer", General Bedell Smith discovered the best technique for dealing with Stalin, who invariably appeared in his generalissimo uniform, was the "We generals together" approach.
In 1949 Roberts was appointed Deputy High Commissioner in India, his only posting outside Europe. Two years later he returned to London as Deputy Under-Secretary of State responsible for German affairs. One of his first duties was to submit recommendations for the revision of sentences imposed at the Nuremberg trials on war criminals below Hitler's immediate circle, from General Manstein down.
Roberts was the king-pin of the British delegation at the Four Powers Conference in Berlin in 1954. The British, French and American delegations were concerned to facilitate the progress of West Germany towards an independent democratic state, while Molotov was determined to block change. Although the conference was a failure, it opened the road to progress, without Soviet participation, in West Germany.
After an agreeable two years as ambassador to Tito's Yugoslavia, in February 1957 Roberts was posted to Paris as the British Permanent Representative on the North Atlantic Council. Major political issues arising during his tenure were the Budapest, Suez and Cyprus crises and the U-2 incident. A persistent concern in Nato's internal affairs was how to bring Germany fully into the Alliance.
In 1960 Roberts returned to Moscow as ambassador. By then Khrushchev had out- manoeuvred Georgi Malenkov in the bid for the Soviet leadership, and Roberts got to know him well. Unlike Stalin, Khrushchev liked to conduct relations directly with Western ambassadors, and he also loved to go to parties. As a result, a week rarely went by when Roberts did not have the opportunity to converse with him at length.
During two years in Moscow Roberts entertained 6,000 people at the embassy. His last meeting with Khrushchev took place shortly after the Cuba missile crisis, the main event of his posting in Moscow. Khrushchev, on whose instructions the Berlin Wall had recently been built, already knew that Roberts was going as ambassador to Bonn, and talked to him for two hours, mostly about his admiration for the Germans.
Five years as ambassador to Bonn from 1963 marked the summit of Roberts's career. The post of ambassador included the role of Head of the British Military Government in Berlin, which Roberts made a point of visiting once a month. His time at the embassy coincided with the Queen's highly successful state visit to Germany, first proposed by Roberts to Rab Butler in the wake of President Kennedy's famous visit to Berlin.
On retirement Roberts was invited by Michael Stewart to join the Foreign Secretary's Review Committee on Overseas Representation, better known as the Duncan Committee. A small group with three members, the committee completed a wide-ranging influential set of recommendations on Foreign Office reforms within nine months. In 1991 Roberts published his memoirs, Dealing with Dictators.Reuse content