Obituary: Robert Saunders; senior diplomat who supervised the imprisonment of Hitler’s deputy

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Born: 14 March, 1918, in Dundee. Died: 2 April, 2012, in Broughty Ferry, aged 94.

With a heritage that embraced the diverse cultures of Scotland and Russia, plus a background in wartime intelligence, it was perhaps not altogether surprising that Robert Saunders would end up working for the Foreign Office.

His command of languages, particularly Russian, his discretion and an ability to turn on the charm when required made him a valuable asset in diplomatic circles.

And those attributes saw him posted to Berlin in the aftermath of Second World War where he came into contact with one of the most notorious figures of the 20th century, Hitler’s right-hand man at the start of the war, Rudolf Hess.

As an official of one of the city’s occupying powers, he was involved in meetings over the running of Spandau Prison, which housed the Nazi warlord, and he often met Hess in his cell.

It was a part of his professional life he would never discuss, however. His time in Berlin also gave him the opportunity to enjoy cultural events, such as the ballet, theatre and opera in the Soviet zone, something denied to many of the ordinary Berliners in the divided city. It was an interest that remained with him when he returned home.

Although the nature of his work meant he was frequently far from Scotland, he regarded his birthplace of Dundee as his base. It was from where his grandfather, another Robert Saunders, had left for life as a flax merchant in St Petersburg and where, a generation later, his father, a bank worker also named Robert, had fled to as the Bolsheviks revolted in 1917.

The end of the Great War was in sight when the next Robert Saunders was born in Dundee in March 1918. Educated at Dundee High School, he went to study languages at the University of St Andrews in the mid-1930s, graduating with an MA at the start of the Second World War.

He then became part of the army’s Intelligence Corps and served in Persia, where his knowledge of the Russian language was utilised during communications with the Soviet Union.

After being demobbed he joined the Foreign Office and was posted to the British Embassy in Moscow where he spent a couple of years.

For several years after that he was based at the Foreign Office in London before being sent to Berlin. By this time the city had been partitioned, by the victorious Allied Forces, into four sectors.

East Berlin was the capital of Soviet East Germany and West Berlin became a Western enclave of the United States, the United Kingdom and France, eventually surrounded in 1961 by the Berlin Wall.

All four powers shared administrative duties, including the incarceration of Hess, who had been arrested in Scotland after an abortive mission to broker a peace deal in 1941.

Having flown secretly to Britain he crash-landed in a field in Renfrewshire and was found by a local farmer who alerted the Home Guard. Hess was subsequently disowned by Hitler, tried and convicted at Nuremberg of conspiracy and crimes against peace and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Saunders regularly met him at Spandau Prison in West Berlin, where he was held from 1946 until his death in 1987.

It was a small but significant part of his role in the UK administration, and again utilised his Russian language skills in meetings with the Soviets as decisions were made about Hess, his conditions and any complaints he had – one of which apparently was that he did not get enough reading material.

In his spare time Saunders, who had access to East Berlin and travelled there fairly frequently for both work and pleasure, attended performances of the ballet, theatre and opera which were superior to those in the West. During his time in Berlin he also enjoyed playing tennis and was secretary, and later treasurer, of the British Forces Sports Club.

After retiring in the mid-1980s, he based himself in Dundee but continued to travel, particularly to Czechoslovakia, Italy and France, and visit many friends abroad. Always interested in music, he had seen 80 per cent of all operas and was an amateur artist as well as a knowledgeable art lover, a gardener and member of Broughty Ferry Games Club and St Andrews Tennis Club.

Despite having suffered a stroke after playing tennis on a cold winter’s day just before turning 79, he remained active well into his 90s, reading Russian poetry to keep his mind alert.

He is survived by his brother, Ivan, sister-in-law Teresa and niece Clare.

ALISON SHAW