During World War II, Sykes serves in the British Army with the Royal Signals from 1940 to 1946. During his service he attains the rank of major. In 1945 he is awarded the Military Cross as well as the Croix de Guerre by France.
Sykes joined HM Foreign Service in 1947 and serves at the Foreign Office from 1947 to 1948. He then serves in Nanjing (1948–50), Peking (1950–52) and returns to the UK to serve at the Foreign Office (1952–56). His next overseas postings take him to Brussels (1956–59), Santiago (1959–62) and Athens (1963–66), before returning to the Foreign Office (1967–69).
Sykes’ first posting as an ambassador comes with a posting to Havana (1970–72) before moving to be a Minister at the British Embassy in Washington D.C. (1972–1975). From there he returns to the Foreign Office as Department Under-Secretary between 1975 and 1977. He is then appointed as Ambassador to the Netherlands in 1977.
Sykes is leaving his residence in The Hague at 9:00 a.m. on March 22, 1979, and is getting into his silver Rolls-Royce limousine when he is shot. He is sitting next to Alyson Bailes. The car door is held by Karel Straub, a 19-year-old Dutch national who works at the embassy. Straub is also shot in the attack. The chauffeur, Jack Wilson, is uninjured and drives Sykes to Westeinde Hospital, where he dies two hours later. Straub is transported by ambulance to the same hospital, where he also dies.
Police report that the shots came from around 10 yards away by two assailants wearing business suits, who escaped on foot following the attack. Suspects for the assassination are Palestinians or Iraqis, although no evidence is ever put forward. It is ultimately confirmed that the IRA had carried out the killings.
The IRA claims responsibility for the assassination in February 1980. In a statement they say of Sykes, “[he was] not just a Brit propagandist, as are all British ambassadors, but because he had been engaged in intelligence operations against our organisation.”
The ‘intelligence operations’ mentioned in the statement relate to a government report written by Sykes following the assassination of Christopher Ewart-Biggs. Ewart-Biggs was the British Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland and was killed by the IRA in 1976. Sykes produces diplomatic security guidelines as part of his report.
Sykes’ position as Ambassador to the Netherlands had been strained due to certain Dutch groups, which were sympathetic to the IRA, and consequent arms smuggling activities.
There is a memorial plaque to Sykes in St. Michael’s Church, Wilsford, Wiltshire.
(Pictured: “Sir Richard Sykes” by Bassano Ltd., half-plate film negative, 20 January 1966, National Portrait Gallery, London)