You are here: Sir Brian Urquhart - anecdotes from 'A life in peace and war'

How pride caused two large statesmen to sink to the bottom of the Palais de Nations in a struggling elevator

“Lie’s Secretary-Generalship was not without moments of farce, even of slapstick. In the summer of 1946, we went to Geneva for the final conferences of the League of Nations and the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), the immense, American-led reconstruction operation that began to put the war-shattered world on its feet again. UNRRA was headed by Fiorello LaGuardia, the famously eccentric former mayor of New York City. In the ghastly Palais des Nations in Geneva, former home of the League of Nations, there is a small private elevator originally intended to take the president of the League of Nations Assembly to the podium of the Assembly Hall. On the way to the UNRRA meeting, Lie and LaGuardia, whose combined weight must have approached 500 pounds, both claimed this small and uncertain vehicle as their personal right. Neither would give way and, against all advice, they squeezed into it together. When the doors closed on the competitive statesmen, the elevator, instead of rising, descended slowly out of sight. In the stricken silence that followed, multilingual imprecations arose from the depths. Tweedledum and Tweedledee came to mind. A Swiss engineer was summoned, and the elevator was cranked up to its original position to release its disheveled cargo. The conference started late.”

How a goat helped win Congolese respect for the United Nations

“The task Bunche had in mind for me was to take a detachment of troops, open up the railroad, and restore order in Thysville and Matadi.  We were discussing what troops were available when the incoming transport planes began to disgorge the Moroccans.  They looked tough and taciturn and marched off the runway preceded by a band and a venerable black goat, their regimental mascot.  They were obviously just the thing for Thysville and Matadi.  Their commander, a compact and urbane veteran, was Colonel Driss Ben Omar.

Our next problem was how to get a train and, more difficult, an engineer willing to drive it.  We managed to locate an engineer and overcame his natural timidity by liberal administrations of beer. He was even induced to bring the train, an elegant white diesel affair to a siding near the airport to pick us up. [...]

Having no idea of the situation down the line, Colonel Driss and I agreed that we would stop at each station and formally address whomever happened to be on hand.  If mutineers appeared, the Moroccans would detrain and look tough, and the mutineers would be told to report back to barracks.  If this proved insufficient, limited forceful action would be taken.  The colonel and I travelled in a first-class compartment with the goat, which smelled awful but was very dignified. The goat had a tremendous effect on the crowds along the way and did more than anyone else to secure respect for the United Nations.”

A demonstration of ‘Britain’s Airbourne Might’ for Churchill and Eisenhower

“I remember a demonstration of ‘Britain’s Airbourne Might’ (as the Daily Express persisted on calling it) for Churchill and a newly arrived American major-general, Dwight Eisenhower. The appointed day was cold and blustery, with a wind well above the maximum speed for safe and orderly parachuting.  Although the Royal Air Force warned that in these conditions the drop would be ragged and quite possibly in the wrong place, it was impossible to disappoint the distinguished audience, which at that very moment was making its way to a windswept row of chairs on Salisbury Plain. [...]

Emerging last from our aircraft, I could easily see that the situation was not promising. The line of seated VIPs, which was supposed to be at a safe distance, seemed rapidly to get nearer as I descended and the wind blew our little group off course.  At about 300 feet I could sense the distinction of the lonely line, the Prime Minister, the Air Minister Sir Archibald Sinclair, the sinister Lord Cherwell, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and the American general as well as our own General Browning. Shouting a warning and trying to side-slip, I landed with a sickening bump just in front of General Eisenhower. The wind then took my parachute and dragged me at 30 miles an hour straight through the VIP line. Detaching my parachute harness, I came to a halt, stood up and, for want of anything better to do, saluted.

The British, except for Browning, behaved badly, muttering “Disgraceful,” “Dammed poor show” and so on, and looking embarrassed. General Eisenhower on the other hand, was perfectly charming. “Are you all right, son?” he asked. “You shouldn’t be jumping in this wind anyway” He looked quizzically at the cylindrical cardboard container around my neck. I explained that it contained two carrier pigeons for communicating with Headquarters, and I extracted one, attached a message cylinder to its leg, and threw it into the air to launch it on its mission. The pigeon had evidently had enough nonsense for one day and flew to the top of a nearby bush, where it sat cooing and eyeing the company with an evil look.”

About Sir Brian Urquhart

A Life in Peace and War – Sir Brian Urquhart’s 1987 autobiography is described by current Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as “required reading for all who work for the United Nations and for all who wish to understand the Organization’s work.”

Find out more about Sir Brian Urquhart