Obituary: Maj-Gen Sir Ralph Hone
Friday 04 December 1992
RALPH HONE was a larger-than-life character. He had a very solid presence, being a big, affable, genial man, but withal a quiet one. It is a rare man who can combine jocularity with gravitas; but Ralph Hone could.
Few uninitiated people who met him would have guessed the professions he learnt at the Civil Service and the Law. 'Born to the Purple,' they would have said; 'a Knight of the Shires', they would have guessed, or 'obviously the Squire'. They would have been quite wrong. He came from a family utterly lacking in privilege, living in suburban Hove where he was born. It was by his own efforts, his plurality of talents, but particularly by his quite enviable capacity for hard work and, above all, by his character, that he raised himself to prominence. His father too was a man of character, becoming Mayor of Brighton in 1937. His mother unfortunately died whilst he was in his teens.
Hone's gifts of leadership which led to command in governmental, administrative and legal spheres were foreshadowed at school (Varndean Grammar School, Brighton), where he was Senior Prefect. His character and ease of manner brought him many friends in high places, including particularly Lord Mountbatten. His valour brought him the MC and mentions in despatches. His legal brain brought him a silken gown in two countries (Gibraltar, 1934, and Uganda, 1938) and judge's robes to boot. His enterprise and dash could get him into minor scrapes which he always got out of again, but it also got him memorable occasions as when he cadged a lift in an RFC aeroplane to fly over the lines or retrieved the Regimental Silver of the Somaliland Camel Corps from the Emperor Haile Selassie. But he was never one who could only shine in glamorous roles. He could get down to long, dull detail and indeed prime ministers have thanked him for the meticulous nature of his work on commissions for inquiring into social and legal needs.
From the outset Hone determined to be a civil servant, but after securing his rear by passing the first exam in April 1915 he was off to the Inns of Court Regiment and went to France in January 1916, gazetted to the London Irish Rifles. His destination was Vimy Ridge, recently taken over from the French. His talent for diplomacy came in useful in indicating to his Saxon opponents that any arrangements for mutual quietude would have to be considered as cancelled. But soon destiny, in the shape of various trench-bred ailments, took him for a short spell to England, where he was asked to sit on Courts of Enquiry and Courts Martial, the first steps in the transmogrification of the man of action into the silken pleader. On the same spell he had his first experience of the internal administration of the army in the Record Office of the Rifle Depot in Winchester.
Back in France at last, he found himself in the Couillet Valley, located at 'Highland Ridge' at the very moment of one of Ludendorff's brisker drives on the Somme in March-April 1918. It seems that Ludendorff's drive found itself quite unable to be brisk in Ralph Hone's area, and Hone and his men were feeling well pleased with themselves when the order came to retire five miles. It was during this ordered withdrawal that - as the citation for the MC puts it - when in command of a company Lt Hone led his men with skill and courage, and drove out a party of the enemy who had penetrated into his trench. Later, he held the right flank of his battalion against a determined bombing attack, when he was severely wounded. By his action and example he undoubtedly saved the situation at a critical moment.
The wound, which fractured the bones in his arm, was a Blighty one, and he was never more to return to the fight in France.
After the war he started his colonial experience in Uganda as Assistant Treasurer, where a cousin of Sir Douglas Hogg inspired him to study the law. He studied in his spare time and in a first spell of leave was called to the Bar by the Middle Temple and even collected a noting brief to Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett in the prosecution of Patrick Mahon. Returning to Uganda he sat the London LL B externally. But then he became successively High Court Registrar and Resident Magistrate in Zanzibar. Feeling the want of further legal grounding, he had leave in London to do a six months' pupillage with Tristram ('Chimp') Beresford.
But Hone's legal laurels were not to be won in England. Their collection started with his next appointment as Crown Counsel in Tanganyika, followed by the office of Attorney General in Gibraltar, where he was Commissioner for the revision of the laws and acted as Chief Justice on several occasions. It was whilst he was in Gibraltar that the Spanish civil war broke out and he had to be ready with gallons of cold legal water to restrain itchy trigger-fingers when sea or air space was entered by foreigners. From 1937 onwards however he was Attorney General of Uganda.
The difficulty in giving an account of what he did in the Second World War is knowing where to begin and when if ever to leave off. Such was the esteem in which he was held that he went here, there and everywhere. But the main theatres of his action were first in the Middle East where he was brought in, in February 1941, to advise on law in the conquered Italian territories. It was there, in March 1943, that he was promoted Major-General to ease his command over the Brigadiers under him. At the end of 1943 he was seconded to the Far East and alternated between London and SEAC HQ. There his friendship with Mountbatten began. At the end of August 1945 he was off to Malaya (where military administration ended on 10 April 1946) and he was present at the Japanese surrender at Singapore on 12 September 1945.
After the war he held various distinguished appointments in the Colonial Service, ending as Governor and Commander-in-Chief North Borneo, where his dual qualifications were much appreciated and at the time of his departure the praises of 'soldier-governors' were loudly sung, it being said that no governor ever came to North Borneo with better preparation than Hone, that no administrator in the Commonwealth had better knowledge of taking over territories from the enemy, and that he made more tours in difficult country and paid more attention to distant villages than any civilian governor had ever done.
Thereafter Central Africa (particularly Kenya), South Arabia, Bermuda and the Bahamas availed themselves of his special knowledge. His last official appointment in England was as an Appeal Commissioner under the Civil Aviation Licensing Act, 1961-71. His publications over the years consist of endless reports and revisions of law.
Ralph Hone had such a varied and jam-packed career that it is really not possible to do it full justice in a short compass. He was a devoted father, grandfather and great-grandfather. With the passing of Sir Ralph we have lost yet one more of those indomitable men who made empire-building look so easy.
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