Little did I realise that my decision to embark on a military career at the age of 17 would alter my life in more ways than one.
I left school at 15 with no formal qualifications, as my teachers thought it would be pointless for me to stay on. Little could they imagine that I would go on to obtain three degrees, two at master's level, become a successful businessman, a university lecturer, a guest speaker on cruise ships, and obtain the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the British army.
On leaving school I had trialled a few different jobs but had failed to develop a passion for any. My stints putting flower seeds into packets, as a furniture and an encyclopaedia salesman, an apprentice electrician, and a hotel porter taught me valuable life lessons, primarily that I wanted more for myself. As the age of entry to the Royal Marines approached, a military career became all the more appealing.
What I didnít realise was my application to join the military was also about to reveal previously unknown information about my heritage and throw open a mystery that remained unsolved for over fifty years.
A copy of my birth certificate was necessary in order to complete the Royal Marine application and without giving it a second thought, I asked my mother to request a copy from the registrarís office.
Up until that time, I had lived a happy life with my family: my mother Marie, my father Jim, and my sister Rose-Marie. My family was what might be considered a typical working-class family in post-war England. It had all the appearances of a standard nuclear family, and I had no reason to believe it was anything other than that.
That image was shattered when returning home from work one day, I found my sister, Rose-Marie, in a state of agitation, deep in conversation with my mother. The source of her discontent was my birth certificate. It had arrived in that dayís post. On opening it, Rose-Marie had been distraught to discover that the man recorded on the document as my father was not Jim James, the man who had reared my sister and me and who was the only father we had ever known. Instead, the certificate recorded one Pierre Lazare Gatepain as my father.
Rose-Marie was livid and as I walked into the room, she dramatically announced to me that my father was not my father. I think what upset her most was that she hadnít been told and now she needed to know the truth. It was a tense situation and as my mother began to talk, she revealed to us a tragic story.
Our mother was born in Britain and raised in east London. However, my grandmother remarried when my mother was nine and, due to her new stepfatherís work as an engineer, spent years in Argentina, South Africa, and France. The family settled down in Paris in 1931 and Marie remained there throughout the Nazi occupation. She later moved to Lille, France, before returning to live in the UK in 1947.
She explained to us that she had been married when she lived in France and that was where Rose-Marie was born and where I was conceived. She told us that her husband and our father, Pierre Lazare Gatepain, had been killed in a car accident, and so she had returned to England while pregnant with me in order to be with Jim James. We had always believed Jim to be our father, but now we understood him to be our stepfather.
The news came as a crushing blow. Jim was our father and, although a typically reserved Englishman, he loved and supported us in every way a father could. I was able to move past the news quickly. It wasnít going to change my relationship with Jim Ė nothing could. He had always been and would always be the solid and steady father figure in my life. Rose-Marie felt the same, but the news did impact her relationship with our mother and led to tension between them.
For me, I wasnít negatively affected by the news. Regardless of the information on my birth certificate, it was the document I needed to secure my place in the Royal Marines, so I went along to the recruitment office and applied to join. Having duly sat all the tests and had the required medicals, I was accepted. On July 27th, 1965, I reported for duty to the Royal Marines Barracks in Deal for my basic training.
The identity of my real father was put to the back of my mind as I embarked on my new life in the military. It would be many years before question marks began to surface about the story my mother had told my sister and I on that fateful day.
Me with my Mum, Dad, and Rose-Marie
Chapter 1 - Childhood & Early Years