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Playing the Army game - ​Charles Pasternak

Blog | By Charles Pasternak | Nov 25, 2022


Charles Pasternak loved National Service, which ended 60 years ago, even if an officer thought he was a Russian spy

Sixty years ago, on 31st December 1960, the last men in Britain to do National Service were called up. For just under 12 years, from 1st January 1949, men between the ages of 17 and 21 did National Service for 18 months.

In 1953, I was called up. I was allowed to make three potential choices for National Service. My choices were Royal Artillery, Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry and the Intelligence Corps – four years at university would give me an edge in getting my choice, I thought.

Instead I was bidden to Buller Barracks in Aldershot, and inducted into the Royal Army Service Corps, a regiment barely superior to the Army Catering Corps. A group of Geordies were fellow recruits. After confessing to having passed School Certificate, I soon found myself reading and writing letters for some of the less literate squaddies.

In the POC (potential officer cadet) platoon, we were put through our paces with drill, assault courses and route marches. Weighed down by large pack, small pack, ammunition pouches, water bottle and rifle, we resembled Napoleonic grenadiers trudging across the Austrian plain to Austerlitz.

Room inspections were preceded by late nights when we polished the floor of our barrack room until it shone like our ‘best’ pair of boots. Even the coal in the grate (which was never lit) was smartened up with blacking.

The humour of the army professional occasionally shone through. When, during one of the innumerable ‘smoke breaks’, our weapons instructor was asked why the butt of a Sten gun was not solid like that of a rifle or light machine gun, he replied, ‘Holes for lightness.’

While my fellow POCs would be summoned, one by one, to attend the four-day War Office Selection Board appraisal for assessment as officer material, I remained at Buller Barracks for so long that I was made an acting, local, unpaid lance corporal. Then one day I was summoned – not to WOSB, but to an office in London, where I was questioned by a man in civilian clothes.

‘When you were at Oxford you were a member of the Anglo-Soviet Society?’

‘No, sir,’ I answered. ‘I was a member of the Oxford Union, but I didn’t participate in debates. I joined the Patten Club [for members of my alma mater, Magdalen College School] and the Spectator Club.’

The latter was an arty-crafty society addressed by eminent speakers. During my time as President, I invited Evelyn Waugh, making clear that we were a non-political, non-sectarian society. ‘I speak only to political, sectarian organisations,’ he replied.

‘Oh, I think you were,’ my interlocutor continued. ‘Did you not attend a showing of the film Battleship Potemkin in the School of Geography on 7th June 1950?’

‘You’re absolutely right, sir – I did.’

I recalled signing my name in a book on display as one entered the auditorium. The showing of Eisenstein’s iconic film had obviously been sponsored by the Anglo-Soviet Society. MI5 might have missed Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt, but they knew that I had watched Battleship Potemkin in 1950.

After my admission, I was soon summoned to WOSB. For my lecturette, I chose the ascent of Everest by Colonel John Hunt’s team who were inching their way up the mountain at that precise moment, according to reports sent by the team’s photographer James (subsequently Jan) Morris.

IQ assessments, initiative tests and obstacle courses followed. I remember hauling myself laboriously up some wall while the watching officer, a clipboard containing each aspirant’s background in hand, exhorted me on, shouting, ‘Too much sherry at breakfast?’

At the end of the evaluation, everyone was handed a piece of paper on which was written either RTU (return to unit) or OCTU (proceed to Officer Cadet Training Unit). I got the latter. The relief that I wasn’t going to spend the next year and a half in a barrack room was seismic. Buoyed up, I asked for a transfer to the Artillery.

Off I went to Mons Officer Cadet School, where Armoured Corps and Artillery cadets were trained. For the next few months we were shouted at by the iconic RSM Brittain of the Coldstream Guards – said to possess the loudest voice in the British Army. My first brush with him resulted in my being told to get rid of the fungus on my upper lip. I had thought a moustache appropriate to my new position.

Life was distinctly better at Mons. We were allowed out in the evenings when we were not on guard duty. A fellow cadet invited a few of us to dine at his parents’ home nearby. I recall a large, alarmingly modernised house in which King Haakon VII of Norway had spent the war years.

At our passing-out parade, the invited audience must have been amused by the less than Anglo-Saxon sounding names of the top cadets. ‘Best cadet, Royal Armoured Corps, Senior Under Officer Pasteur,’ the adjutant hollered. ‘Best cadet, Royal Artillery, Senior Under Officer Pasternak.’

Years later, I found myself sitting next to Lord Carrington at a dinner party. To make conversation I told him of my brush with MI5.

‘How extraordinary,’ he harrumphed. ‘When I was appointed Foreign Secretary, and later Secretary General of NATO, I was never positively vetted.’

‘That,’ I replied, ‘is because your name is Carrington, not Pasternak.’