Colonel Ronald Challoner, who died not long before Christmas a few days off his 90th birthday, will be recalled by many for his impressive physical appearance: tall, ramrod straight, impeccably dressed and with a splendid Kitchener-style moustache.
The look of the man alone would have discouraged those summer scroungers who climbed the stairs to the consular office on rue Paradis. At first glance he may have seemed almost a cartoon version of a retired British officer but there was much more to him than that. As those who spent any time with him soon realised he was a man of subtle intelligence and complex character.
A natural citizen of Greeneland
Ronald Wallace Challoner (below, in Gibraltar, 1954) was born in Crewe and after Manchester Grammar School gained a place at St John’s College, Oxford, which he gave up to join the army on the outbreak of war. After a spell in the Irish Guards he transferred to the Reconnaissance Corps, an elite group engaged in front line intelligence gathering. In 1943, while serving in North Africa, he was wounded and captured.
Put on a prison ship, he joined other POWs in overcoming the guards and sailing to freedom. He was subsequently posted to Italy, becoming successively town major in Bari, Ancona and Naples. Marcella di Borghetti, the young woman who was his interpreter, later became his wife. After the war he remained with Military Intelligence, acting as adviser to the rulers of Jordan and Morocco with other postings in Gibraltar and Cyprus. During this period he had his first meeting with Kim Philby with whom his later contacts were in rather different circumstances.
In 1960 he moved to the War Office. Working on a recruitment campaign, he became involved with the advertising and PR firm CPV. After leaving the army he went to work for them and later launched his own successful PR agency.
In 1982, settled on the Côte d’Azur, he was asked by the Foreign Office to become Honorary Consul in Nice. With some reluctance he accepted and remained in the post for ten years. He carried out his duties with notable efficiency, showing sympathy where merited and dealing brusquely with those parasites so familiar in consular offices. His interests extended well beyond his official activities: he had many friends in the literary world, including Anthony Burgess, Muriel Spark, Lawrence Durrell and, especially, Graham Greene whose apartment in Antibes he took over after the writer’s death. That the novelist and the soldier got on so well was no surprise. Challoner was a natural citizen of Greeneland with an instinctive understanding of the ambiguities of loyalty and behaviour which existed within the Intelligence community during the Cold War period.
Cairncross: A hard case to make
I first realised this when I had a long talk with him during a dinner to mark the 60th birthday of John Livingstone, then chaplain at Holy Trinity, Nice. To my surprise, he argued that Kim Philby’s defection to the Soviet side had been of great advantage to the West since, trusted by the KGB and especially by its head Yuri Andropov, he had brought the Russians to a more realistic understanding of their opponents’ points of view. He based this opinion largely on conversations with Philby on regular trips to Moscow. In this he had, some would say, an arguable case.
Much stranger, to my mind, was his vigorous defence of John Cairncross, another Cambridge traitor who, like Anthony Blunt, had been spared prosecution and was then allowed to skulk abroad for years, latterly in St Antonin-du-Var. Challoner showed the man great solicitude and (at Greene’s prompting) edited – and partly ghosted – his memoirs. In reply to my review of the book (Reporter n° 64 and our website) he wrote, “John was not a traitor. It was all a misunderstanding.” A hard case to make given that Cairncross admitted sneaking copies of cabinet papers out of Number 10 to pass on to his KGB handler and later going home at night from Bletchley with Enigma material “stuffed down [his] trousers”. Here was an evil man who could happily envisage an England ruled by fur-hatted barbarians. And he was not quite the noble idealist, remarking that Moscow’s silver had allowed him to join “a decent club”! For me, the Colonel’s attitude remains very odd. Unless there’s something we still don’t know.
Ronald Challoner’s wife died last year. He is survived by his two daughters – of whom one, Pauline, succeeded him for a while as Honorary Consul – and his son Richard, also a local resident. R.I.P.