Brian Urquhart

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Brian Urquhart

Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations
for Special Political Affairs
In office
Preceded byRalph Bunche
Succeeded byMarrack Goulding
Personal details
Brian Edward Urquhart

(1919-02-28) 28 February 1919 (age 100)
Dorset, England
Alma materChrist Church, Oxford
ProfessionSoldier and diplomat
Military service
Allegiance United Kingdom
Branch/service British Army
Years of service1939–1945
UnitDorsetshire Regiment
Battles/warsSecond World War

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


Early life[edit]

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

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[edit]

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.

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]

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]

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

United Nations[edit]

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[edit]


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


  • Hammarskjold (1972)
  • A Life in Peace and War (1987)
  • Decolonization and World Peace (1989)
  • A World in Need of Leadership: Tomorrow's United Nations (1990)
  • Towards a More Effective United Nations (1991)
  • Renewing the United Nations System (1994)
  • Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey (1998)


  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

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Ralph Bunche
Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations
for Special Political Affairs

1971 – 1985
Succeeded by
Marrack Goulding