With over 33 years of service to the military, Varn Jassal is the first Indian to have the prestigious role of Honorary Colonel in the North East.

Born in Punjab, India, he first moved to the UK when he was only eight months old in 1954 to join his father who was settled in Newcastle.

Varn, his mum and oldest sister jumped on a ship with one case, travelling nearly 4,000 miles to start a better life in England.

After three months of travelling, the family arrived and settled in the West End of Newcastle.

The 66-year-old father-of-three said: “A lot of Indians around that time wanted to go to the UK as it was like going to the motherland.

“Everyone referred to the UK as London, no-one knew what to expect but there was a very tight community and we all looked after each other to help integrate into society.

“I remember my mum telling me about someone being amazed on the bus at seeing a brown baby for the first time.

Varn Jassal during his time in the territorial army
Varn Jassal during his time in the territorial army

“It wasn’t easy growing up, there wasn’t much money but our parents wanted to give us an education, something that they didn’t have.”

Varn went on to study at Westgate Hill School and Rutherford Grammar School before at 20 years old he became a Postmaster at Howard Street Post Office, Byker - which later grew into a thriving family business.

In 1976, Varn, aged 21, went back to India to visit his grandparents.

During his time in India, he realised the difference between living in the UK against India.

He noticed the extreme poverty, the large population and lack of infrastructure.

After dinner with another family, his father told him he'd marry the girl sat beside him and so he returned to Newcastle with a wife.

They continued with the post office family business and Varn and his wife, Sumedha, went on to have three sons.

But in 1983, Varn's life took an unexpected turn.

When in Newcastle city centre, he noticed an army barracks open day so he decided to take a look.

Impressed by the weapons, artillery and uniforms, at the age of 27 he was persuaded to sign up but thought nothing of it until a letter arrived inviting him to take part in an army induction day.

Varn Jassal during his time in the territorial army
Varn Jassal during his time in the territorial army

Varn had a medical and background check where he was recommended for officer training due to his academic background.

Varn said: “There was magic in what I saw. There was this camaraderie and discipline shown and there was this sense of pride.

“I was sent away for a potential officer’s basic course for two weeks. Those weeks were the hardest two weeks of my life.

“I did no preparation for fitness, we were running from 5am with full kit until evening. I was thinking 'this is not me, I have a business and family at home I don’t need this.'”

A few weeks later, he was invited to an interview with his commanding officer who reported he was not fit enough to pass.

Feeling like he had no hope, his commanding officer decided to give him a chance to train to become an officer cadet.

Varn Jassal who has dedicated 33 years of his life to the armed forces
Varn Jassal who has dedicated 33 years of his life to the armed forces

So Varn threw himself into two years of intense training and became an officer cadet in the Territorial Army.

After achieving his role, he returned to his business and family but this was just the beginning.

Just two years later, he received a commission from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst as Second Lieutenant into 216 Squadron Royal Corps of Transport in Tynemouth.

And his dedicated and hard work continued, leading him to be appointed Officer Commanding in the Rank of Major 216 Squadron Royal Logistic Corps in 1990.

He then went on to be appointed Commanding Officer 150 Transport Regiment Royal Logistic Corps in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1997.

After three years, it was time to retire, and he was offered a staff job but Varn felt it wasn’t suited for him so decided to return back to his family post office and help with their business.

Varn Jassal has dedicated 33 years of his life to the armed forces. Pictured with his son
Varn Jassal has dedicated 33 years of his life to the armed forces. Pictured with his son

But his retirement didn’t last long. In 2005, aged 51, he was appointed Commandant of Cleveland Army Cadet Force in the rank of Colonel of 700 young cadets.

And in 2010 he was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Tyne and Wear where he continues his duties today.

At the age of 66, Varn has not given up working and is still dedicating his time to the forces.

Alongside his position, he is also a president of the Royal Army Service Corps and Royal Corps of Transport Tyneside Branch, Trustee of Lord Ridley’s Cadet Forces Trust and Vice Chairman of North of England Reserve Forces‘ and Cadets’ Association.

He now works towards educating and empowering future generations.

He said: “I found more personal satisfaction working with cadets because I have the ability to change people’s lives and inspire them to go onto greater things through education.

“I did really enjoy being in the army and I love my role as Deputy Lieutenant. I really enjoy the citizenship ceremonies as it’s quite something to represent Her Majesty the Queen as an Indian, to feel part of the community and allow me to represent them.

‘’As a person coming from my community, we need to be role models to help others to integrate into society, and it is our job to motivate our children to be in positions of respect and aspiration."

ChronicleLive is working with retired teacher Veena Soni, who is launching a project to document a series of nostalgic stories from the North East Indian community.

The aim of the project is to capture the history of the Asian community who travelled overseas to Newcastle during the 1950-70s to allow future generations to have memories and prevent these stories from being forgotten or lost over time.