The Chelsea Pensioner who drove everyone from the SAS to popstars and a princess

6th December 2019

Pat McGurkPat McGurk joined the Army at 17 and never looked back. As a driver in the Royal Corps of Transport, he worked with close protection and the SAS, before driving dignitaries, VIPs and royalty.  

After leaving the Army, he continued to work as a driver and in security. He also signed up for the character model agency, Ugly, where his jobs included impersonating Rod Stewart on TV’s Never Mind the Buzzcocks. He decided he wanted to be a Chelsea Pensioner when he was in his 20s and came to the Royal Hospital at the first opportunity. He shared his fascinating story with us.

A boy soldier at Buller Barracks

“My mother was Irish and not married – she dropped me off at a home when I was two weeks old and that was it. I was brought up in foster homes. You live with families but are never part of them – but I didn’t know any different. I wanted to get away so joined the Army as soon as I could, when I was 17. I tried at 15, but I was too small. I loved the Army, people were getting homesick, but I never did. 

I joined the Royal Corps of Transport and was stationed at Buller barracks in Aldershot.  The barracks were very old and the heating for 20 men was just a little fire in the middle of the billet. It was the winter of 1965/6 and it was bloody cold! 

Pat in March 1966 at Buller barracksAfter general rifle training and so on, I did the driver training. I drove for half a day and then passed my test. I’d worked in a factory when I left school and used to drive the delivery trucks in the warehouse when the drivers were having a cup of tea.  

From Bielefeld to Bahrain

I was posted to 20 squadron, but it was in London so I told them I didn’t want to go. Then they posted me to 10 regiment in Germany, Bielefeld. It was a tough regiment. While I was there, I watched the 1966 World Cup.  We were out on an exercise and snuck out to a pub by  the Möhne dam (one of the dams bombed by the dambusters). We were all in uniform and they didn’t like the English anyway. When we beat them and they said ‘They think it’s all over, and it is now’ we left there in a hurry!

After two years driving missiles in Germany, during which time we also went to Denmark to do exercises, I went to Bahrain. I absolutely loved it. I was staff car driving. I drove the Commander of the Royal Engineers through the whole of the Gulf. He was like a father to me. I’d go and pick him up in the morning and his wife would do me breakfast – I was only a youngster of 19 at the time. 

I loved the desert. The skies are amazing – you wouldn’t believe how many stars are out there. It would be very hot during the day, but it felt dead cold at night. It was a nice squadron – Ben, a lance corporal with me, is here at the Royal Hospital. 

Aboard HMS Ark Royal

At the end of 1969 I went back to Germany. They’d started up a new priority freight squadron – 38 Squadron – in a place called Mulheim.  I was driving big trucks again – whatever anybody wanted from the stores we’d pick it up, take it to wherever and drop it off. You could be away for weeks at a time. From there, I got attached to 68 Squadron in Rheindahlen – the headquarters of BAOR (British Army on the Rhine) – because they needed truck drivers. 

I was in Germany until 1973, then I went on HMS Ark Royal until 1975. We were based on the ship, but we’d drive out every day. I was the driver signaller in a team of five Army personnel. My job was driving the Land Rover and trailer with the radios and all the kit. We’d go to an area where the target was. When we could see it, we’d get in touch with the aeroplanes coming in, tell them the target’s bearings and talk them down – it was to train the pilots. Our targets ranged from farmhouses in Northumberland to lochs in Scotland. In Cape Wrath in the north of Scotland our target was a rock in the sea. They put me in overalls and gave me a pot of dayglo paint and put me on a winch from a helicopter flying above the rock. I had to paint a cross on it – I came back covered in paint! 

On board the ship my job was aircraft recognition, maps and things. We went all over the Mediterranean, north America, the Caribbean and Rio de Janeiro – it was absolutely fantastic.


Pat and his team (and a sailor) from the Ark Royal in Sardinia

From the Troubles in Ireland to the Army Youth Team

I was on HMS Ark Royal until 1975, then I moved to Munster as part of 8 Regiment – a specialist squadron moving missiles around. I loved that regiment. I was married to my wife Sue by then, and a corporal in charge of a section. I did three tours in Ireland, during the Troubles. I was driving armoured vehicles. I supported the King’s Own Scottish Borderers on the first tour, the Welsh Fusiliers on the second one, and for the third emergency tour I was with the Green Jackets. We got slung in the deep end – wherever there was trouble, we went. I saw some nasty things.

After that, I got promoted and went to 19 Army Youth Team, based in Hartlepool. Five of us used to visit schools and youth clubs and play them at sports and things. I was on outward bound and taught children how to camp. There was a fire strike during this time and the Scots Grays were staying with us – I used to go out with them sometimes and drive the Green Goddess fire trucks. We also went to Catterick camp to teach fitness to the youth teams.

When they disbanded the Army Youth Team, I got posted to 43 Squadron in Shorncliffe as troop commander. There was a military troop and a civvy troop – the civvies drove all the buses and my troop drove the trucks and staff cars.

The close protection driver who wanted to be a Chelsea Pensioner 

At the beginning of 1980, I went back to Northern Ireland, where I was put in charge of close protection, as a sergeant – I was on the first close protection course they ran at Longmore. I was in Northern Ireland for three years. Then I got posted to the HQ of the UKLF (United Kingdom Land Forces) just outside Salisbury. I was driving the Commander in Chief, who I had a brilliant relationship with. Then I went to drive the SAS director based at the Duke of York’s barracks, near the Royal Hospital. 

Driving Princess Diana

Next I went to 20 Squadron, based in Regent’s Park, near the zoo. I was close protection -driving Royals, dignitaries and VIPs. I drove Princess Diana and her two boys for a while, when her driver was ill. She was brilliant – so down to earth, an absolute diamond. I used to take the boys to school. They were much the same as they are now. Harry was very cheeky, William was a bit more serious. They were just like normal kids and got on well with their classmates. When Harry was here for Founder’s Day, I said to him ‘You’ve grown’ and he laughed – although I don’t think he recognised me!

I bumped into Fergie too, as she was good mates with Diana. It was good to see them going out and enjoying themselves. When Princess Diana died, I couldn’t believe it. I also drove Princess Anne a couple of times, and her dad Philip! 

At the end of 1988 I was asked to sign on for another three years, but I said no. I regret it now, because I would have gone to the first Gulf War. Instead I came back as a civvy driver. I drove VIPs, visiting dignitaries and also the current governor, General Sir Adrian Bradshaw, on his visits, when he was Deputy Supreme Allied Commander. Apparently, when he got here, he said, ‘I used to have a driver who always wanted to be a Chelsea Pensioner’ and they said, ‘He’s already here’! I finished work at 17.00 hours on 31 May 2017 and arrived at the Royal Hospital at 8.00 on 1 June. 

Celebrity encounters

One of my jobs was for a firm called Showsec, providing security for pop stars and so on. I worked with the Pet Shop Boys and George Michael. George was a diamond geezer.   I worked with Su Pollard too – where does she get her energy from?

I also signed up for a character model agency called Ugly, because my mate worked for them. I went for an interview and ended up going on the gameshow Never Mind the Buzzcocks as a Rod Stewart lookalike. I met all sorts of people in the green room, like Hugh Dennis and Paul O’Grady.

“That’s the life for me when I retire”

I first found out about the Royal Hospital when I was in Rheindalen. It was Christmas 1971, I think, and three Chelsea Pensioners came over to spend Christmas with us. They drank us under the table, came to night clubs with us and were brilliant. I thought, ‘That’s the life for me, when I retire’. They were a good bunch in their scarlet coats and I thought the Royal Hospital sounded like the Army. I was 20 or so when I decided I wanted to be a Chelsea Pensioner. 

I’m very happy here. I’ve got my Harley Davidson here and go all over on it – rallies, charity rides and things like that. Last year, I went to Ypres and I also go to the arboretum to raise money with a group called Ride to the Wall. I’m a British Legion rider too. I get involved with other things as well – I went to the cenotaph and the Albert Hall for Remembrance Day and did poppy selling for the MoD. The Royal Hospital is a fantastic place. I’m so lucky to be here."

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