THE HIGH-FLING WREN WHOSE AFFAIRS WITH FELLOW OFFICERS ARE ROCKING THE SERVICES; EXCLUSIVE: HOW A SENSATIONAL COURT MARTIAL COULD THROW INTO QUESTION THE WHOLE ISSUE OF WOMEN IN THE ARMED FORCES 'Amazed That They Put Her on a Ship Full of Virile Men'

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Byline: DAVID WILLIAMS;MICHAEL SEAMARK

A GROUP portrait taken in Whitehall shows some of the most powerful men in command of Britain's military defences.

Beaming broadly in the centre is the most powerful of them all, Sir Peter Harding, then Chief of Defence Staff.

Within weeks of the photograph being taken in early 1994 his glittering career and 39-year marriage lay in tatters when his affair with Spanish beauty Lady Bienvenida Buck was sensationally exposed.

Now the relationship between two other members of this group threatens an equally damaging scandal. Standing immediately behind Sir Peter is Lieutenant Commander Karen Pearce, a highflying young officer destined to become one of the most senior women in the Royal Navy.

Seated to their extreme right in his khaki uniform bearing the wings of the Army Air Corps is Lt Colonel Keith Pople.

Their time together in Whitehall is to be subject of a sensational court martial. During that period they were part of a team regularly briefing the then Defence Minister Michael Portillo and Armed Forces Minister Sir Nicholas Soames.

Sandhurst-trained father of two Pople, 42, is accused of 'scandalous conduct' unbecoming a gentleman officer and sexual harassment of the married 34-year-old woman after their affair, which blossomed in the corridors of Whitehall, came to an end.

While the Aldershot hearing in April will see Pople battling to save his career - the Army took the unusual step of removing him from his post as a commanding officer of the Air Training Corps because of the allegations - it will also raise disturbing new questions about relationships within the armed forces.

For Pearce is now involved in another affair with another married officer who she met at sea while they served together aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. This relationship and other alleged affairs, the Daily Mail can reveal, is now the subject of a top-secret combined forces investigation triggered by a complaint from the embittered wife of her former lover, Lt Col Pople.

THE court-martial will hear claims that within weeks of the affair with Pople ending, Pearce had become involved with 42-year-old Lieutenant Nigel McTear who had worked his way up through the ranks after joining the Navy at 19.

It will hear how Pearce and McTear are said to have had sex in the back of a car while on shore leave in Malta and how Pople allegedly bombarded the female officer with phone calls and love letters.

The proceedings, hugely embarrassing for the Armed Services with two high-ranking officers involved, comes at a difficult and highly-sensitive time. Last month life between Wrens and male colleagues aboard HMS Coventry was brutally laid bare during the court-martial of so-called 'Officer Underpants' Lt Commander David Bellingham.

This followed the wave of adverse publicity surrounding the criminal trial of six Army officers accused of raping a 24-year-old woman at the Royal Military College near Swindon.

The men were acquitted but are now at the centre of an internal investigation into behaviour that brought shame on their unit.

Later this month a married Army captain in the Logistical Corps based at Aldershot faces a court martial after allegations of sexual impropriety with a woman sergeant.

But investigators have told those involved in the Pople-Pearce case that it is potentially the most explosive they have seen.

Pople joined the Army in 1977. He was earning [pounds sterling]45,000 a year as commanding officer of 4 Regiment Army Air Corps at Middle Wallop in Hampshire when the investigation was first launched by MoD police last year. He had only just returned from Bosnia where he had been a high-ranking member of the staff of General Sir Michael Walker, the British officer in charge of 60,000 Nato peacekeeping troops in the former Yugoslavia. …