Author of the best selling Times of Our Lives, Michael Oke works with individual clients through his company Bound Biographies. Mike also lectures extensively, runs workshops and appears regularly in the media. He is based in Oxfordshire.
Whilst this chapter concentrates on National Service after the war, it is recommended that it be viewed in conjunction with Chapter 8 as some of those case studies might also strike a chord. Whether enjoyed or endured, National Service invariably evokes a multitude of stories for those who went in as boys and emerged as men.
National Service commenced after the war, taking over from conscription; it continued until the end of 1960 although the upper age limit was reduced to 25. The original length of service of one year was increased to 18 months in December 1948, and then to two years with the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. Exemptions for reserved occupations continued.
The Royal Navy took few national servicemen after the early 1950s, and whilst many raw recruits might have had visions of joining the Royal Air Force, by far the majority found themselves in the Army.
There is a tendency for the value of National Service, especially in the 1950s, to be belittled; however, men served alongside the regulars throughout the world and 400 or so lost their lives. Along with postings in conflict areas like Malaya, Korea, Palestine, Kenya, Cyprus and Suez, many national servicemen served in countries that were gaining their independence from the British Empire.
Describe your feelings about National Service.
- You might have been looking forward to getting away from home, relishing the excitement of what was in store, seeing the world and living a bit.
- If you had led a sheltered life, perhaps you were apprehensive about the rough types you would undoubtedly encounter. Relate any stories you heard in advance, and how exaggerated they were in reality.
- Perhaps you saw National Service as an inconvenience, preventing you from getting on with your career or studies. If you had the option of deferring your National Service, what choice did you make and why?
- Did you use the experience of National Service to your advantage, like learning to type, drive, lecture or some other skill useful in later life?
- Did you try to avoid National Service on medical, compassionate, political or religious grounds, or on some pretext? Maybe you considered an alternative to National Service, like joining the police or the merchant navy?
If you experienced basic training it is unlikely that there will be any shortage of stories, not least how you prepared for the inspection party:
- using a heated spoon or fork handle, or perhaps an iron, to smooth out the dimples on the toecaps and heels of your boots … then the endless hours of bull until you could see the reflection of your face in the shine;
- perhaps paying someone to do this for you – invariably someone had a knack for it, and might be open to the offer of a few extra fags;
- blancoing belts and webbing;
- taking an eternity to make your bed so that it was perfectly square, then carefully laying the pack on top; & leaving squares of old blankets by the door to ‘skate’ over the floor in an effort to protect the hard-won shine;
- ensuring the window was spotless if you were unlucky enough to have your bed next to one.
Then, of course, came the actual inspection.
The parade ground
Learning to march as one took some doing, and early attempts probably brought the forlorn realisation that it was never likely to happen. Describe your parade ground experiences … and the repartee.
Then there were the punishments meted out for your heinous misdemeanours, not just the doubling up and doing countless press-ups, but also the mind-numbingly tedious tasks:
- painting coal white;
- cleaning the latrines;
- sweeping the parade ground with a toothbrush;
- spud bashing – tons of them;
- washing hundreds of greasy pots and pans in the ‘tin room’;
- extra drill at night.
Never complaining or volunteering
Any complaints tended to be counter-productive as Joan Belk and her colleagues found to their cost. Whilst they were regulars in the WAAF, any national serviceman will be able to identify with their plight.
Initiative was not favoured, the whole idea being to instil total and unquestioning obedience so that the unit functioned as one. Any ‘Jack the lads’ were singled out and made to conform … and sooner or later they did, the easy way or the hard way. Faced with all this, some tried to get discharged on medical grounds. The MOs knew all the scams, but that didn’t stop them being tried:
- the bad back;
- deliberately worsening rashes caused by irritation of the uniform;
- swallowing cotton wool;
- wearing boots at night to deteriorate the condition of feet;
- feigning madness.
Competition was encouraged between the huts, often resulting in nocturnal sabotage. However, this had the desired effect of engendering camaraderie within each flight or platoon.
If you were ‘encouraged’ to apply for a short-term commission, or to sign on as a regular, you might like to describe the selection criteria and the aptitude tests for potential officer material. Record your reactions to the outcome – whatever the decision was – and the implications this had on your service career.
How you enjoyed the remainder of your time in National Service was largely dependent on where you served and in what capacity. For some it was an educational and enjoyable time seeing the world and experiencing other cultures. Others learnt a trade or pursued one started in civvy street. A third category might have found their time futile and tedious, whilst a fourth group may have feared for their lives. Describe your feelings on being told what you would be doing next and where you were going.
Some national servicemen had dangerous overseas postings alongside war veterans like Robert Measures.
The final analysis
It will be interesting to record how you felt at the end of your National Service as well as a longer-term reflection with the benefit of hindsight. It might be that you did not appreciate quite how much you had learned, something that only became apparent in later years. This could relate to skills you were taught, or perhaps more to do with your personal development, confidence and self-sufficiency.
Points to ponder
- Given your time again, would you want to do National Service?
- What was the value of National Service to the country? & What did you feel about it ending in 1960?
- Speech can embellish a good story. Artistic licence is allowed where you cannot remember the actual words spoken, always ensuring that they are not libellous. When it comes to barrack room language, you might want to tone it down anyway!
- Whilst not wanting to miss out on a good story, take care with the emphasis – if you write something that is purely malicious, it might say more about you than the person concerned!
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