The epic story of one man’s journey from Sandown schoolboy to the top of the ranks. Roz Whistance meets the Lord Lieutenant of the Isle of Wight.

It was a war unlike any we had previously known. The first Gulf War, which we witnessed in blow-by-blow detail on our television screens depended more than any other on logistical planning, and the man behind the logistics was an Islander. That same man was responsible for the fine-tuning of last month’s visit to the Isle of Wight by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, and indeed all visits by Royals and other social heavyweights. He is the first to greet them and the last to say farewell. So what is it that forges a path from Island schoolboy to one of the highest ranking military posts in the country?

It’s another of those cases when expectation and reality are quite different. You expect, when going to visit the Lord-Lieutenant of the Isle of Wight to find an old buffer, throwing clipped commands to a harassed secretary from the corner of a mouth rigid from the upper lip down. What you actually find is a man relaxed in his shirt sleeves, engaging and interested, thoughtful and reflective.

In truth of course old buffers couldn’t do the job of Lord Lieutenant, at least not as Martin White has shaped it. The role is not merely an honorary shindig where he simply turns up and shakes hands. He is instrumental, fundamental in its organisation. And, incidentally, he doesn’t once refer to his assistant, Gillian (Deputy Clerk to the Lieutenancy), by her title, always by name, a mark of the sensitivity which is key to how he has arrived at his lofty position.

Martin White doesn’t come from a military background. His father was a schoolmaster, his grandfather a seafarer, and great grandfather a pilot in the Solent. It was at Sandown Grammar School that he first became interested in the military.

“I think there are instances or people in your life that influence you, and at Sandown Grammar School there was a master who taught woodwork, and ran the Army Cadet Force, Dick Mabey, who was an inspirational schoolmaster and leader. That’s what took me into the army.”

He has to think when asked how his parents felt about his choice of career, as if the question hadn’t previously arisen. “They were always supportive of what we wanted to do, but allowed us to make our own minds up,” is his eventual answer, and you somehow have an instant picture of that admirable breed of parent that is strong enough to let their offspring plough their own furrow.

The first sign of things to come was when Martin was selected to represent the Island Army Cadets at the Centenary parade at Buckingham palace. “Funnily enough next year is the 150 anniversary of the Cadets! It’s really strange. 50 years on and I’m still in uniform and still involved in the Cadets. I have more than a passing interest in what the Cadets do on the Island of course.”

His bemedalled teacher, Maj Gen White goes on, was hardly the role model that one assumes draws people in. “It’s not discipline that is the draw,” he explains. “It’s a number of things: structure is one, but a bit is a sense of adventure – though that sounds rather corny. It’s a bit about wanting to serve, because that’s what you feel you want to do. I hadn’t left the Island very much at that age, so it was partly about wanting to do that.”

The clincher, it seems, was when two boys who had gone off to the Army sixth form college, Welbeck College, came back and told him what fun you had – lots of rugby and other sports, a great cadet force, and going from there on to Sandhurst for a military training. “I thought it sounded good, so went to see the careers master. He said “You don’t want to go there,” – which actually was completely the wrong thing to say to me. I thought “Ah-hah!” and off I went.”

The interesting thing you find in talking to Maj Gen White is that his tenacity is worn so lightly. He was drawn to the army life in a way that any boy might be attracted by living the boy’s book of adventure – but that doesn’t explain his aptitude. He is the eldest of five and is amused at first by the suggestion that his command skills might have arisen from being top of the pecking order in the family. But later he concedes that it could be one factor:

“I think to some extent if you’ve got leadership you’ve got leadership. But you can learn techniques about how to do things. I think it starts with being a prefect at school, so maybe being the eldest in the family is a start, then being given some responsibility at school, and more at Sandhurst, in the Cadet Government there – as a senior cadet you have some responsibility towards junior cadets. And it teaches you to get the best out of people.”

So to Welbeck College he went, where, he says, he had a high old time. “I did absolutely no work whatsoever. I played lots of sport, I met a lot people I’m still friends with. And we all went off to Sandhurst two years later.”

Friendships begun in such intense circumstances tend to last, though he dismisses the rather clinical notion that he was building a ‘network’. “Call it a network, but it’s a group of friends with whom you share common experiences. You inevitably have a much better affinity with them that with others.”

Sandhurst was then a two year course: unlike today, graduates were in the minority so the academic side was stressed as much as the military part. For Martin, there was some catching up involved because he’d failed one of his A levels, having been distracted by the fun and frolics of Welbeck. But after two years he and his contemporaries were in the final stages of their time at Sandhurst. They all passed out bar two, one who didn’t get through and the other – Michael Morpurgo as it turns out, later to become the Children’s Laureate – left to pursue a literary career.

“Sandhurst was very, very hard work. It shapes you physically, it shapes you mentally for sure. You’re going to be given responsibility for 30 young soldiers lives – and quite soon. At the time I passed out, Aden and Borneo were on, and some of my contemporaries went straight out to those war zones – so the training has to be rigorous. You really felt you’d been through the mill for two years.”

All the time that he was marching and running round the hills, or studying military history and techniques, Martin was absorbing the thing that was surely to set him up for his glittering career: how to get the best out of people. “You learn as much from people who do it badly as people who do it well. So you see a prefect at school, say, who is an absolute swine. And you think ‘yes, he would have got much more out of us if he’d done it in a different way – if he hadn’t shouted at us, for instance, he would have got the message across much more effectively.”

Martin wasn’t sent straight off to a warzone but to join a Unit in Germany. As anyone who has read his Boy’s Own adventure stories would expect, there was a certain ritual leg-pulling involved. “I got picked up at Dusseldorf airport, given a tent and told ‘your troop will be over in the morning.’ Of course nobody came, they just left me.” He laughs at the memory. “There were some wonderful pranks.” He describes that first moment when the young officer and his men eyeball each other for the first time: “They’re looking at you wondering what you’re going to do and you’re looking at them to see how they’re going to react. But you know that your training has been good, and after a while – well you’re all in it together.”

Reflecting on his own time, Martin White frequently refers to the young officers today who finish training and go straight out to Afghanistan. They are ready, he says, because the training at Sandhurst is second to none, which is why so many foreign powers send their men there for training. “And it teaches someone who’s just come from the Isle of Wight all sorts of lessons about getting on with people you wouldn’t meet here.”

These were the experiences which paved the way for his current role. Next time: Rising through the ranks.