Obituary - Robert McCarter - 1924-2010

27th August 2010 at 01:00

A 35-year Army career, including the liberation of wartime France and the occupation of postwar Berlin, would be enough for most people. For Major Robert McCarter, it was just the beginning of his working life: he went on to spend three decades teaching in Yorkshire schools.

Robert James McCarter was born in Norwich in December 1924. His father, a military man, died when Robert was a baby, and money was tight. So, at 14, he left school and took a job with Start-rite Shoes.

During the Second World War, 17-year-old Robert lied about his age and enlisted with the Coldstream Guards. He was sent to North Yorkshire to train for D-Day.

In 1944, still a teenager, he fought at Caen and in the Ardennes. Finally, after a long, cold winter, his unit rolled into Berlin, pipe-smoking Robert at the helm of his own Sherman tank.

Here, he was transferred to the Army School of Physical Training. He was a keen sportsman: he swam, boxed and played on the athletics field. But his first passion was fencing: he loved the focus, co-ordination and discipline it required and saw nobility in its clear rules and regulations.

He was teaching fencing in Berlin when he met Gladys Friend. Gladys's father had originally come to Germany in 1920 to tend graves on behalf of the Imperial War Graves Commission. Mr Friend fell in love both with the country and with a local woman, and the family lived in Cologne until August 1939. He returned after the war, and Gladys was visiting him when she met the young serviceman Robert in a Berlin swimming pool in 1948. The couple married in July 1949.

Their married life began at cadet school in Aldershot. Robert emerged a commissioned officer in 1953; he received the Sword of Honour that same year. He would eventually rise to the rank of major.

Major McCarter was transferred to the Ordnance Corps but continued to teach fencing to soldiers. His growing family lived on a series of Army bases: Anne was born in Farnborough in 1951, Kevin followed five years later in Oxford, and Justin was born in Nottingham in 1961.

Their final move was to Imphal Barracks, York. When, aged 55, Major McCarter took regulation retirement, he and Gladys settled in the city. For the next 10 years, he continued to work for the Army in Harrogate as a retired officer. But in 1979 he also embarked on his second career: teaching fencing in Yorkshire public schools.

He began with occasional lessons at his sons' alma mater, St Peter's and St Olave's. But as word spread, other schools called on his services. Before long, he was also providing classes at nearby Ampleforth College, Bootham School and Queen Margaret's School.

Teaching children, he found, was different from teaching soldiers: he loved their quickness and willingness to learn. Ever the army man, he took no nonsense: his instructions were clear, his discipline fair. And pupils respected him. They also liked his war stories: tales of driving tanks through Belgian countryside or witnessing the Russian annexation of East Berlin.

He was not, however, one to look backwards. His medals remained in a drawer; he rarely talked to his family about the war. Instead, he preferred to focus on his new career.

He knew that his was a minor sport, but he insisted that it was not ignored. When Ampleforth PE staff left fencing off their sporting calendar one term, he upbraided them for their error. In fact, he enjoyed playful combativeness: a committed atheist, he regularly debated religion with Ampleforth's Catholic staff and pupils.

He remained an avid sportsman and attended the gym every Friday. But he had no time for modern cardiovascular workouts, preferring instead a series of 1940s Army callisthenics.

He developed prostate cancer 11 years ago, but through various treatments he continued to teach fencing. At the age of 84, he was still demonstrating parrying techniques.

In March this year, barely able to walk, he insisted Gladys drive him to Ampleforth and Bootham so he could honour his teaching commitments. It came as a genuine shock to colleagues and pupils that, two months later, their fencing teacher was dead.

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