Harry Challenor: SAS war hero whose subsequent police career ended in disgrace

Tuesday 23 September 2008 00:00
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The remarkable career of Harold Challenor took him from Second World War heroism to a mental institution, via a highly controversial period in the Metropolitan Police.

As a member of the SAS he was decorated for spending seven dangerous months behind German lines. But as a member of the Met he was institutionalised after planting evidence on an innocent person. In later life he cheerfully acknowledged his psychiatric problems. "I accept that I'm mad," he once said. "I don't say mentally ill, that's a bloody silly expression. I'm mad and I get on with it."

He had a tough upbringing at the hands of a father who was described as brutal. Born in Staffordshire in 1922, Harry Challenor worked as a barber and a mechanic before joining the army. He was obviously unsuitable for the Royal Army Medical Corps, describing himself as "the most aggressive medical orderly they ever had". He transferred to the SAS, where his combative streak was given full rein. The stocky Challenor saw service in France, Norway and elsewhere.

Dropped by parachute into the Spezia region of occupied Italy, he and an officer succeeded in derailing three trains within a week. After spending weeks attempting to reach allied lines, both were captured but Challenor escaped twice, eventually passing through enemy lines. For his exploits he was awarded the Military Medal, the citation declaring: "Throughout the seven months spent behind enemy lines this NCO displayed the highest courage and determination."

Challenor was never noted for subtlety. He described being ordered to exercise German prisoners: "One of them made the mistake of smiling at me. The gaze I returned had him backing away. Then I took them out one by one and exercised them with some stiff fisticuffs."

He ended the war as a senior NCO, going on to work in a factory before joining the Metropolitan Police in 1951. He made rapid progress in the Met, gaining first promotion to the CID and then a transfer to the Flying Squad. A report frowning on his "noisy tactlessness" did nothing to impede his progress.

Moving to Soho as a detective-sergeant, he was hailed as a particularly determined opponent of local gangsters and extortionists. As he told it, "Fighting crime in Soho was like trying to swim against a tide of sewage. For every villain put behind bars there were always two more to take their place."

It was a tough beat, and he used tough methods. Many of those he helped put behind bars complained that he had planted evidence on them and used his fists against him, but if his superiors and the courts had misgivings about his methods they took no action. He was, after all, a genuine war hero working a tough beat and achieving results against hardened criminals: as such he was regarded as a real asset to law and order.

But Challenor was to go over the top in 1963, when he claimed that he had found a left-wing cartoonist, Donald Rooum, with half a brick while taking part in a public political protest. It was a stitch-up of a type deployed by Challenor in the past but Rooum, a member of the National Council for Civil Liberties, was able to show that his pockets contained no brick dust.

As a result Challenor was charged with corruption, but increasingly erratic behaviour on his part meant he was deemed unfit to plead and the case against him did not proceed.

He was committed to Netherne mental hospital, an official inquiry concluding that he was suffering from "paranoid schizophrenia". Some of those put behind bars by Challenor had convictions quashed and received compensation.

Opinions differ on whether the episode should have caused the authorities to take a much closer look at the practices of some parts of the Met's CID. Certainly the affair did not serve as a wake-up call, for in the 1970s a series of scandals was to demonstrate that corruption was endemic, going much deeper than the behaviour of a single wayward detective.

Challenor was depicted in The Strange Affair, a novel by Bernard Toms which dealt with police corruption and was made into a film. He was also the inspiration for the character of Inspector Truscott in Joe Orton's play Loot, and a character with strange delusions in the Sixties TV drama The Bone Yard.

Challenor once described some of his visions, telling of secret messages which instructed him he had a mission to save the world. Sometimes, he said, he had to cover his head because everyone around him could read his thoughts. This once happened to him on a plane journey "so I wrapped my coat around my head and remained like that through the flight." On another occasion he had a fantasy that he was one of the robbers on the cross beside Christ.

After many years of treatment he went to work in a solicitors' firm as a clerk. The SAS did not abandon him in his later years, inviting him to regimental occasions.

Pondering on the possible roots of his illness, he once mused that spending months behind enemy lines, sometimes killing, was bound to leave some mark on a personality. But on another occasion he discounted any wartime cause: "It's hereditary," he said. "I think somewhere in my family line there's madness."

His 1990 memoir, Tanky Challenor: SAS and the Met, featured on its cover the two elements he will be remembered for: his medals and a half-brick.

David McKittrick

Harold Gordon Challenor, soldier and police officer: born Bradley, Staffordshire 16 March 1922; married Doris May 1944 (one son); died 28 August 2008.

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