For Martin White, it wasn’t a matter of balancing his high-flying military career with the needs of his family. The two went hand in hand. Part 2 of 3.
When you meet people who have been in the military there is always a sense of buttoned lips, of mum’s the word, of careless talk costing lives. Talking to Martin White, the Isle of Wight’s Lord Lieutenant, about his military career, you realise why: – that the army is sufficient family, while operations are experiences so intense that they cannot be expected to be understood by outsiders. You had to be there.
Martin’s career culminated with his key role in the first Gulf War. But when do you identify the start of a glittering career? For Martin White it was so far, so sure-footed. He had gone from Island schoolboy who had cut his teeth in the Army Cadets to training at Sandhurst. From there he commanded a troop for two years in Germany. It was the start of two love affairs – one with Germany and the other with his future wife, Fiona, who was also in the Army.
A civilian might assume an army marriage is one characterised by sacrifice of one’s rightful freedom. But Martin describes a life in which the benefits far outweigh the strictures. “I don’t think there was any tour of duty that we had where I thought ‘I was glad to leave that’. Every posting had something good about it, whether it be the job, or whether it was associated with some family event, or both.”
Their first posting as a couple was to a training unit in north Wales. “Fiona and I had a great time. It was a junior soldiers unit in Snowdon, and we were running lots of adventure training for boys of 15 and 16, and while in some ways you’re like a school master to them it was great fun and an essential start to their Army careers.”
He explains the structure of life in the army. “You do a couple of tours as a lieutenant, one commanding soldiers in the field and perhaps one in a training unit.” After two years he was just coming up to being made captain, and was sent off to Air Despatch, working with the RAF. By the time they had completed their time there, they’d gone from no children to three – their first son was swiftly followed by twins, also boys.
“Your life then takes on a different dimension, but you still have the demands of your profession. Fiona had left the Forces by then, being busy with the family. But living on a base, be it RAF or army, you are very much part of wider army family.” It was the 1970s and the troubles in Ireland were at their height. “Army bases might seem to be a bit insular but they are a great support for all the wives and families whose husbands are going through a common experience.”
After his time with the RAF Martin was posted to Cyprus. This was just before the Turks invaded the island in the 1970s, so while the threat of dispute was very present there were opportunities to enjoy the island, and Martin’s love of water sports came to the fore as he captained the army water polo team.
From water polo in Cyprus to the somewhat greyer existence of the Ministry of Defence in London. The whole experience was ‘a bit of an eye-opener’ for him, from the surreal presence of the shared office bowler hat, to be donned by anyone needing to be seen on the City streets, to the fact that he’d had no idea what went on in the Ministry. “Actually when I left I still had no idea what went on there,” he grins. “They didn’t expect very much of captains in the Ministry of Defence then, and I didn’t let them down: I didn’t do very much!”
Staff College, however, made rather more demands on him – and, one suspects, was all the more welcome because of that. Martin had passed an exam which got him there – a goal much sought-after but not achieved by many. It was also a settled time for his family. His daughter Anna was born, then to his and Fiona’s delight they were sent off to Germany where Martin, now a Major, commanded a squadron.
The world stage was not a comfortable one. The Cold War was at its height, and his squadron was involved with the nuclear delivery business. For Martin, though, it was the best time. “You know enough to be able to guide people and yet you’re not involved in the higher military politics of the thing.”
He had reached one of those stages in his military career when people often decide to quit: he was in the enviable position of being pensionable at 38. His claim that ‘inertia kept me in the army’ is hard to believe, that not being a quality one associates with our Lord Lieutenant. But, stay he did.
He didn’t regret it. He was posted to Bielefeld, the second-most important HQ in Germany, as a Staff Planner. “It was very much in the Cold War context and was fascinating. Had we been at war I would have been responsible for organising the logistic support from a deployed HQ.” The other plus was that many of his contemporaries from Staff College were serving there, so they had a lot of friends in Germany. “I like Germany, and I like the people. I knew the country better in those days than I did England,” he says, adding that the Isle of Wight was always home and of course the children were at school on the Island.
The only note of regret is missing out on some of the everyday events in his childrens’ school lives: “You can never recreate those times, even with grandchildren. Once you’ve lost it you’ve lost it.”
While at Bielefeld, Martin ‘pinked’ – that is, he was selected for promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, so called because the relevant papers are pink. The youngest Lieutenant Colonels are in their mid thirties. Martin pinked at 38, and so describes himself, rather modestly, as “not a real high flier,” adding “but I was happy.”
By this time it was 1983 and Martin went off to command a regiment in Minden, supporting the 4th Armoured Division. “Commanding a regiment is what every army officer aspires to,” he says proudly. It was a regiment of around 800 soldiers and their families, and their 400-or-so pieces of equipment. “We always had people in Northern Ireland, which made it quite challenging but nothing compared to current operations in Afghanistan,” he says.
From here he was sent back to Staff College at Camberley, this time as an instructor. “You meet the next generation coming through. They’re always very demanding, but they’re enormous fun.” He also had groups of overseas officers under his wing. “Officers from Saudi or Belize, with their families, dumped in Camberley! What a culture shock that must have been. But each officer is well looked after with a system of sponsors, both military and civilian, to help them adjust and to find out about our life in the UK.”
The pinnacle of Martin White’s career was when he was promoted to full Colonel. Now he was commanding up to 8,000 people. From a family point of view the timing was good because as Martin was ‘off round the world doing things’ the boys began University and his daughter was away at school.
Then came the first Gulf War. “The Commander-in-Chief, General (later Field Marshal) Lord Inge for whom Martin worked in Rheindahlen said ‘I want you to go and organise the logistics there.’ Then began a life changing eight months or so for Martin overseeing the movement of UK forces into Saudi Arabia and commanding the logistic support to the ground war.
The first Gulf War was a very different theatre of war to any most of us had experienced before. It was the beginning of every stage being covered by the media, though that was nothing, Martin says, to what those people in Helmand and Basra are experiencing now. “We had Kate Adie and the BBC, but it wasn’t with the same intensity as they have now.” It is irresistible for a civilian who has the ear of a senior army officer to want to know about a soldier’s opinions and political instincts.
“You don’t get involved in politics, but you do of course have an opinion,” says the Lord Lieutenant, carefully. “For those of us who deployed to Saudi Arabia, the issues for us, and for the general public in the UK were very much more clear cut than in Iraq second time and in Afghanistan now: Saddam Hussein had invaded a sovereign state and the coalition, including the Arab world, wanted to throw him out.” We now face an altogether different threat.
The Gulf War was there for us all to watch on our television screens but General Martin White does not reveal his thoughts and feelings about the operations.
NEXT TIME: When the Wall comes down, to becoming Lord Lieutenant of the Isle of Wight.