Brian Urquhart

Last updated
Sir Brian Urquhart

Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations
for Special Political Affairs
In office
Preceded by Ralph Bunche
Succeeded by Marrack Goulding
Personal details
Born (1919-02-28) 28 February 1919 (age 100)
Dorset, United Kingdom
ProfessionSoldier and diplomat
Military service
AllegianceFlag of the United Kingdom.svg  United Kingdom
Branch/serviceFlag of the British Army.svg  British Army
Years of service19391945
Rank Major
Unit Dorsetshire Regiment
Battles/wars Operation Overlord
Operation Market Garden

Sir Brian Edward Urquhart [1] KCMG MBE (born 28 February 1919) is a British World War II veteran, author and a former Undersecretary-General of the United Nations. He turned 100 in February 2019. [2]

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

Centenarian person who lives to or beyond the age of 100 years

A centenarian is a person who lives to the age of 100 years. Because life expectancies worldwide are below 100 years, the term is invariably associated with longevity. In 2012, the United Nations estimated that there were 316,600 living centenarians worldwide.



Early life

Born and raised in Dorset, Urquhart was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford.

Dorset County of England

Dorset is a county in South West England on the English Channel coast. The ceremonial county comprises the non-metropolitan county, which is governed by Dorset County Council, and the unitary authority areas of Poole and Bournemouth. Covering an area of 2,653 square kilometres (1,024 sq mi), Dorset borders Devon to the west, Somerset to the north-west, Wiltshire to the north-east, and Hampshire to the east. The county town is Dorchester which is in the south. After the reorganisation of local government in 1974 the county's border was extended eastward to incorporate the Hampshire towns of Bournemouth and Christchurch. Around half of the population lives in the South East Dorset conurbation, while the rest of the county is largely rural with a low population density.

Westminster School school in Westminster, London, England

Westminster School is an independent day and boarding school in London, England, located within the precincts of Westminster Abbey. With origins before the 12th century, the educational tradition of Westminster probably dates back as far as 960, in line with the Abbey's history. Boys are admitted to the Under School at age seven and to the senior school at age thirteen; girls are admitted at age sixteen into the Sixth Form. The school has around 750 pupils; around a quarter are boarders, most of whom go home at weekends, after Saturday morning school. The school motto, Dat Deus Incrementum, is taken from the New Testament, specifically 1 Corinthians 3:6.

Christ Church, Oxford constituent college of the University of Oxford in England

Christ Church is a constituent college of the University of Oxford in England. Christ Church is a joint foundation of the college and the cathedral of the Oxford diocese, which serves as the college chapel and whose dean is ex officio the college head.

He was the son of the artist Murray McNeel Caird Urquhart (1880-1972), who abandoned his family in 1925 when Brian was six years old, and Bertha Rendall (1883-1984). [3]

World War II

When World War II broke out, Urquhart joined the Army and, after a brief training period, was commissioned as an officer in The Dorset Regiment. [4] The Battle of France ended before his unit could deploy to the Continent, and he and his men were part of the coastal defence forces in and around Dover during the Battle of Britain. He later transferred to the Airborne Division as an Intelligence Officer. In August 1942, he was severely injured in a training drop, damaging three vertebrae in his lower spine and breaking several bones. [5] He spent months in the hospital, recovering and regaining his strength.

Battle of France Successful German invasion of France

The Battle of France, also known as the Fall of France, was the German invasion of France and the Low Countries during the Second World War. In the six weeks from 10 May 1940, German forces defeated Allied forces by mobile operations and conquered France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, bringing land operations on the Western Front to an end until 6 June 1944. Italy entered the war on 10 June 1940 and invaded France over the Alps.

Battle of Britain Air campaign between Germany and the United Kingdom during WWII

The Battle of Britain was a military campaign of the Second World War, in which the Royal Air Force (RAF) defended the United Kingdom (UK) against large-scale attacks by Nazi Germany's air force, the Luftwaffe. It has been described as the first major military campaign fought entirely by air forces. The British officially recognise the battle's duration as being from 10 July until 31 October 1940, which overlaps the period of large-scale night attacks known as The Blitz, that lasted from 7 September 1940 to 11 May 1941. German historians do not accept this subdivision and regard the battle as a single campaign lasting from July 1940 to June 1941, including the Blitz.

After his recovery, Urquhart served in North Africa and the Mediterranean, before returning to England to participate in the planning of airborne operations associated with Operation Overlord. In the autumn, as the 1st Airborne Corps Intelligence Officer, he assisted with the planning for Operation Market Garden, an ambitious airborne operation designed to seize the Dutch bridges over the rivers barring the Allied advance into northern Germany. He became convinced that the plan was critically flawed, and attempted to persuade his superiors to modify or abort their plans in light of crucial information obtained from aerial reconnaissance and the Dutch resistance. The episode was described by Cornelius Ryan in his book on "Market Garden", A Bridge Too Far . (In the film version, directed by Richard Attenborough, Urquhart's character was renamed "Major Fuller", to avoid confusion with a similarly named British General.) The subsequent failure of the operation and the heavy casualties that resulted vindicated Urquhart's judgment, but he became deeply depressed by his failure to persuade his superiors to halt the operation and requested a transfer out of the airborne forces. [6]

Operation Overlord Successful invasion of Nazi-held northern Europe in World War II

Operation Overlord was the codename for the Battle of Normandy, the Allied operation that launched the successful invasion of German-occupied Western Europe during World War II. The operation was launched on 6 June 1944 with the Normandy landings. A 1,200-plane airborne assault preceded an amphibious assault involving more than 5,000 vessels. Nearly 160,000 troops crossed the English Channel on 6 June, and more than two million Allied troops were in France by the end of August.

Operation Market Garden Allied military operation during WW2

Operation Market Garden was an unsuccessful World War II military operation fought in the Netherlands from 17 to 25 September 1944, planned and predominantly led by the British Army. Its objective was a series of nine bridges that could have provided an Allied invasion route into Germany. Airborne and land forces succeeded in the liberation of the Dutch cities of Eindhoven and Nijmegen, but at the Battle of Arnhem were defeated in their attempt to secure the last bridge, over the Rhine.

Dutch resistance

The Dutch resistance to the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during World War II can be mainly characterized as non-violent, and was organized by the Communist Party, churches, and independent groups. A peak of over 300,000 people were hidden from German authorities in the autumn of 1944, tended to by some 60,000 to 200,000 illegal landlords and caretakers, and tolerated knowingly by some one million people, including a few incidental individuals among German occupiers and military.

After leaving the Airborne Division, he was transferred to T-Force, a unit responsible for searching for German scientists and military technology. Urquhart captured the German nuclear scientist Wilhelm Groth. [7]

T-Force operational arm of a US Army–UK Army mission to secure designated German scientific/industrial technology targets during the final stages of WW2

T-Force was the operational arm of a joint US Army-British Army mission to secure designated German scientific and industrial technology targets before they could be destroyed by retreating enemy forces or looters during the final stages of World War II and its immediate aftermath. Key personnel were also to be seized, and targets of opportunity exploited when encountered. The effort was a business and technology-oriented parallel of sorts to the Monuments Men pursuit of art and financial treasure.

Wilhelm Groth German chemist

Wilhelm Groth was a German physical chemist. During World War II, he worked on the German nuclear energy project, also known as the Uranium Club; his main activity was the development of centrifuges for the enrichment of uranium. After the war, he was a professor of physical chemistry at the University of Hamburg. In 1950, he became director of the Institute of Physical Chemistry at the University of Bonn. He was a principal in the 1956 shipment of three centrifuges for uranium enrichment to Brazil.

In 1945, Urquhart was one of the first to enter the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

United Nations

Urquhart was a member of the British diplomatic staff involved in the setting-up of the United Nations in 1945, assisting the Executive Committee of the Preparatory Commission of the United Nations in establishing the administrative framework of the organization that had been created by the U.N. Charter. He subsequently became an aide to Trygve Lie, the first Secretary-General of the United Nations. Urquhart helped handle the administrative and logistical challenges involved in getting the U.N. established in New York City. Not particularly well liked by Lie, Urquhart was subsequently moved to a minor U.N. administrative post. When Dag Hammarskjöld became the second Secretary-General in 1953, however, he appointed Urquhart as one of his main advisors. [8] He loyally served by Hammarskjold's side until the latter's death in 1961, admiring him greatly in spite of admittedly never getting to know him very well on a personal level.

During the Suez Crisis of 1956, Urquhart played a critical role in creating what turned out to be the first major U.N. effort towards conflict resolution and peacekeeping. Urquhart, as the only major advisor of Hammarskjold's with military experience, took the lead in organizing the first U.N. peacekeeping force, which was designed to separate the Egyptian and Israeli forces then fighting each other in the Sinai Peninsula. To differentiate the peacekeepers from other soldiers, the U.N. wanted to have the soldiers wear blue berets. When that turned out to take six weeks to make, Urquhart proposed the characteristic blue helmets, which could be converted in a day by painting over regular ones. [9]

In the early 1960s, Urquhart served as the main U.N. representative in the Congo, succeeding his friend Ralph Bunche. His efforts to stabilize the war-torn country were hampered by the chaos created by innumerable warring factions. At one point, Urquhart was abducted, brutally beaten, and threatened with death by undisciplined Katangese troops. He survived only by persuading his captors that his death would bring retribution by U.N. Gurkha troops, whom the Katangans greatly feared. [10]

As Undersecretary-General, Urquhart's main functions were the direction of peacekeeping forces in the Middle East and Cyprus, and negotiations in these two areas; amongst others, his contributions also included work on the negotiations relating to a Namibia peace settlement, negotiations in Kashmir, Lebanon and work on peaceful uses for nuclear energy.

Alongside his autobiography, A Life in Peace and War, his work with Erskine B Childers includes several books of methods which he believes would make the United Nations more effective. In Renewing the United Nations System, he recommended the establishment of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly through Article 22 of the United Nations Charter. [11] [12] His book Decolonization and World Peace [13] is based on his 1988 Tom Slick world peace lectures that he gave at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin. The appendices offer further insight into his views on the peacekeeping potential of the United Nations. Included are his remarks at the Nobel Prize banquet in Norway on the occasion of the award of the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize to the United Nations Peace-Keeping Forces. He also wrote biographies of Dag Hammarskjöld and Ralph Bunche.

See also


Reflections on the United Nations: Interviews of Sir Brian Urquhart by Ms. Virginia Morris, Principal Legal Officer Codification Division, United Nations Office of Legal Affairs in the Lecture Series of the United Nations Audiovisual Library of International Law



  1. "Sir Brian Edward Urquhart". National Portrait Gallery . Retrieved 2 March 2019.
  2. "Marking Sir Brian Urquhart's 100th birthday". Scoop . 1 March 2019. Retrieved 2 March 2019.
  3. Urquhart, Brian (21 February 2013). "My Father Murray Urquhart". The New York Review of Books . Retrieved 2 March 2019.
  4. Urquhart, Brian (1987). A Life in Peace and War. New York: Harper & Row. p. 38.
  5. Urquhart, Brian (1987). A Life in Peace and War. New York: Harper & Row. pp. 55–56.
  6. Urquhart, Brian (1987). A Life in Peace and War. New York: Harper & Row. p. 75.
  7. T Force: the Race for Nazi War Secrets, 1945 by Sean Longden Published by Constable & Robinson, Sep 2009
  8. Urquhart, Brian (1987). A Life in Peace and War. New York: Harper & Row. p. 125.
  9. de Volkskrant - Archief
  10. Urquhart, Brian (1987). A Life in Peace and War. New York: Harper & Row. pp. 180–184.
  11. Charter of the United Nations: Article 22
  12. Renewing the United Nations System - A Summary - UN Reform - Global Policy Forum
  13. U.of Texas Press, 1989. ISBN   0-292-71559-5
Preceded by
Ralph Bunche
Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations
for Special Political Affairs

1971 1985
Succeeded by
Marrack Goulding

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