20th May 1897

Wartime diplomat Wilfred Gallienne born in Guernsey

Wilfred Gallienne was one of Britain’s best-travelled diplomats. He was born in Guernsey on 20 May 1897 and entered the diplomatic service after fighting in the First World War.

Within his first five years, he had taken postings as far apart as Marseilles, Algiers and Chicago. This flitting backwards and forwards was to set the pattern for his career, with much of his time spent in the United States.

After a little over four years in Chicago he was sent south, to the Dominican Republic and then, two years later, north again to Los Angeles. Two years after that, Honduras; two years later, back east to Estonia.

Second World War

By now, another global war was looming. Germany was rebuilding its forces, and Britain abandoned its Estonian outpost in 1940. In June that year, the Soviet government invaded all three of the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – so it could defend Leningrad (St Petersburg) from a potential German invasion. It deposed the national governments and hosted elections that its representatives were guaranteed to win.

Gallienne took a two-week trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and on as far as Tokyo, to assess troop build-ups. From talking to the people he met, and in particular those who were fleeing occupied territories, he learned of racial segregation and that many Jews were dying in concentration camps. This was some time before the full scale of the Holocaust became evident.

In his report, he wrote “A Jewish emigrant from Vienna said that at the outbreak of war all stateless persons in Germany were placed in concentration camps and that 60% of them had died of starvation”.

Meanwhile, in 1941, the Soviet governments of the Baltic states carried out mass deportations of anyone who disagreed with them. Eight days after the deportations, Germany invaded. Life had already become harsh under the Soviets, so many of the Baltic residents had welcomed the German Army as a liberation force, unaware of how much harder life was set to become.

Return to America

In 1941, Gallienne was sent to New York, by which point his name was already on a German list of targets to be rounded up if Germany successfully invaded the British Isles. The list, known as Hitler’s Black Book, contained the names of almost 3000 politicians, agents and cultural figures. Gallienne’s inclusion was on the grounds of espionage, apparently as a result of his information-gathering trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Almost exactly 12 months after being posted to New York, he was back in his old stamping ground, Chicago, where he spent the rest of the war before moving, in 1947, to Guatemala.

Guatemala turned out to be his longest posting, running though to 1954 when he received his final and most important appointment. He became ambassador to Cuba on his 57th birthday. This was his first full ambassadorship – and his last – as he died in office on 17 July 1956, aged just 59.


FREE Guernsey history newsletter

Don't miss our weekly update on Guernsey's fascinating history. We promise never to sell your data to anyone else, and there's a super-easy unsubscribe link on the bottom of each email so you can leave whenever you want.



Other events that occured in May