Tuesday’s Telegraph records the passing of Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Boileau,
a dashing cavalry officer and Arabist whose adventurous post-war career took him to a succession of remote outposts.
(He attended) Cranbrook School, Kent, whence, aged just 17, he enlisted in the Royal Armoured Corps.
His entry to Sandhurst having been delayed by ill health, Peter was commissioned into the 1st King’s Dragoon Guards in August 1945. He joined the regiment in Palestine, served there for 18 months during the Zionist disturbances, and then spent a further year at Cyrenaica, Libya, as regimental transport officer.
On his return to England Boileau discovered that service at home was beyond his means. He volunteered for the East African Independent Armoured Car Squadron, shifting for the next two years between Kenya and Somaliland.
Impressed by his flair for languages, Boileau’s commanding officer recommended him for the official Arabic course. A year’s instruction at Beirut qualified him as a second-class interpreter, and he was posted to HQ British Troops in the Canal Zone. As a GSO 3 (Intelligence), he was responsible for the interrogation of prisoners and for translating captured documents in a period of mounting tension.
There followed three months as Commander of the Libyan Army – he had been promoted to temporary major but was known by the native title of kaid (chief) – until he was relieved by a Turkish officer.
Still as a temporary major, Boileau came into his own with his appointment, in December 1952, as armoured car adviser to the Sheikh of Kuwait, a state newly enriched by oil. Relations with the Arabs deteriorated after Suez, and the Kuwaiti minister of defence delighted in making Boileau’s life difficult. Much to his relief he was transferred, after six years in Kuwait, to HQ Intelligence at Maresfield, Sussex, his services being recognised by his appointment as MBE in 1959.
In 1960 Boileau was appointed equerry to Crown Prince Mohammed of Jordan during an official visit. Bored and truculent, the young man showed little interest in military organisation. He was unaware that Boileau understood the dialect in which he conversed with his entourage, usually to plan some more agreeable distraction. Bewildered that he was constantly forestalled, the prince cut short his visit after only three weeks.
Later in the year Boileau was posted to Aden in an unglamorous intelligence role, and from July 1962 was military liaison officer to the Arab minister of defence in the Federation of South Arabia. In 1964 he was seconded as a political officer in the Radfan area. Back in Aden in 1965, he was upgraded to deputy permanent secretary in the ministry, in the temporary rank of lieutenant-colonel.
Boileau was a marked man with the terrorists, who made a last attempt to assassinate him before he left. A grenade was thrown on to his terrace while he was sitting there with his wife and some friends. Boileau miraculously escaped injury, though his wife was peppered with fragments and all their companions were more or less seriously wounded.
Boileau decided to retire, and joined a firm of overseas consultants, based in Beirut, with responsibility for its office in Rome. In 1971 he moved to Rhodesia, and later to Cyprus and Andorra, before settling at Mirande in the Gers, where he shed the anglicised pronunciation of his name (“Boylow”) in favour of the French one.
Tall, fine-featured and bookish, Boileau loved music, poetry and armoured cars in equal measure. His tolerant, philosophical view of life made him the most relaxing of companions and inspired a devoted following, which included cats and dogs, and children for whom he made up stories.
Always a nonconformist, he had no intention of retiring to Dorset like his father. He once astonished friends and fellow diners at a Chelsea restaurant by bursting into song in Italian. His marriage, in 1950, to Jean, daughter of Walter Fitzgerald Hill, whom he had met in Mogadishu, was in defiance of his commanding officer. He described her as the wittiest and kindest of women and they were a devoted couple until her death in 1999. There were no children.
Boileau’s daily routine at Mirande included collecting his reserved copy of The Daily Telegraph from beneath the town’s ancient arcades, and strolling across the square to greet French Muslim veterans, or harkis, in Arabic. In his final maison de retraite, he was curtly ordered by a newly-arrived nurse, of North African appearance, to undress and put on his pyjamas. He reproved her gently in Arabic: “Would you speak to your father like that?” The girl swiftly joined the ranks of his admirers, observing that he “spoke the Arabic of kings”.
Peter Boileau was an active member of the Anciens combatants at Mirande who provided a guard of honour at his funeral.