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Soldiers on parade

National Service

On 7 May 1963, 23819209 Private Fred Turner cooked his last breakfast at  the home of  the 13/18  Hussars. A few days earlier on 4 May 1963, Lieutenant Richard Vaughan, Royal Army Pay Corps had  left his unit in Germany and  travelled back  to England  to be officially discharged on 13 May. What  was  so special  about  these  two  soldiers? They  were  candidates  for  being  thought  to  be  the  last  serving National Servicemen. If you base the choice of who was the last then it was Lt Vaughan but  Pte Turner  had  the  dubious  honour  of  having  the  last  army  number  to  be  issued  to  a  National  Serviceman. 

There  was  another  reason  for  doubt  about  the  claim.  About  50  national  servicemen  remained  in  Germany until the end of May. These men had all been detained for disciplinary or medical reasons. 

Anyone who suffered the indignities of national service (NS) will at best now be in their late 70s. No  one who reached the age of eighteen after September 1960 was liable  for national service. Before  then, more  than two  million  men  went  through  national  service  between  1947  and  1963.  Many  were caught in conflicts in  far-off places  some had never heard of – such as Korea, Egypt, Malaya  and Cyprus. There were benefits. Some learned a trade or learned to read and write and a few were  even taught Russian in case the Cold War hotted up. The latter and the author were to serve at No. 1  Wireless  Regt  Royal  Signals,  amongst  other  places.  It  is  surprising  that  in  this unit where  most  members had a high ‘trade rating’ (in the case of Intelligence Corps ORs, Clerk SID, B1) the Education 

Corps  were  still  teaching  third-class  certificate (twelve-year-old school  standard)  to  both  regulars  and  conscripts as well as  second-class and  occasionally  first-class,  the equivalent  of O Level in  the  education centre. The brighter did very well, getting nearly a year being  taught Russian  to A level,  with  the  best  of  the  brightest  being sent  to  university  to  complete  in  a year  the  equivalent  of  a  three-year degree at the Joint Services School  for Linguists (JSSL). As many as three in ten national  servicemen were semi-illiterate and as many as ten in one hundred illiterate.  

The British have had a long history of opposition to conscription, seemingly able to manage without  it until half-way  through  the  twentieth century. The army  raised  to  fight  the Boer War was wholly  made  up  of  regulars  and  it  was  half-way  through  the  First  World  War  before  the  stream  of  volunteers  dried  up.  The  introduction of  conscription  in  1916  was  strongly, but  ineffectually, 

opposed by the trades unions and much of the country. It was accepted again in 1939, less than six  months before the war started, but only because it was so evidently near. Universal conscription (of  males) in peacetime had never been seen in Britain, whose defence strategy had for many centuries  been  based  on  a  large,  strong  navy  and  a  small  ready-to-go-anywhere army.  The  large  standing  armies kept by countries like France and Germany were thought by the British to be shameful: ‘No  really civilised nation kept a standing army’. There were impassioned arguments not just on political  and strategic grounds, but on economic ones; the war had brought Britain to its knees, industry was  shattered  and  worn  out.  There  was  a  chronic  shortage  of  housing  and  many  doubted  that  the  country should be deprived of any manpower. Defeat of Nazi Germany had not brought about the hoped-for peace; it would be some months before  the surrender of  Japan. Britain still had clashes  with the artisans in Italy trying to lay claim to the port of Trieste, and in Greece where they  found  themselves fighting the resistance movement that had grown up during the German occupation and  who now wanted a socialist state instead of a return of the monarchy. Britain would be involved in  this conflict until 1948. British  troops had quickly  reclaimed Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong but  the  French  and  the  Dutch  did  not  immediately  have  the  forces  to  do  the  same  in  their  colonial  territories and so Britain committed units on their behalf in Indo-China and Indonesia.1 

The 1948 National Services Acts consolidated wartime legislation.  

One anomaly was exploited both by disenchanted regulars who could not afford to buy themselves  out, and national servicemen. The rules were such that, absurdly, a serviceman only had to apply for  the papers necessary to stand for Parliament; once discharged, he could, if he chose, abandon any  political ambitions without forfeiting an electoral deposit. The rules were tightened when hundreds  of servicemen applied for nomination papers to contest several forthcoming by-elections. It was this  loophole which enabled Lord Heseltine to leave the army.2 He did his utmost to avoid being called  up,  but  was eventually  ordered  to  report  for  duty. He  found  it  so  dull  that  after  nine months,  he  obtained  leave  to  stand  as  a  Tory  candidate  in  the  1959  election,  in  a  hopeless  seat.  When  the  campaign was over, he got his solicitor to persuade the War Office that he didn’t need to return to  barracks. 

He  could  at  least  claim  to  have  been  in  the  army  longer  than  the  former  Liberal  leader  Jeremy  Thorpe, whose stint lasted two weeks. Richard Ingrams, editor of Private Eye, who duly completed  his two years of national service, claims Thorpe found an unusual way to escape the army. He said: ‘I  was  told  by  a  very  good  friend  that  he  wet  his  bed.’ Another  Member  of  Parliament  and  noted  military historian and author of The Donkeys on which Oh, what a Lovely War, was based, Alan Clark  also  found  ways  round  the  system;  his only personal experience of the military was in the army  reserve at Eton and a single day as a member of the Household Cavalry. 

Illiteracy was another problem. The army almost never accepted illiterates as  regular soldiers. The  army  sometimes  defined  illiteracy as meaning a  reading age  of  7  or  5.3 The War Office estimated  that  1 or  2 per cent of conscripts were unable  to  read or write. In October 1952,  the  secretary of state for war told Parliament that 850 of the national servicemen admitted to the army in the year  up to the end of June 1952 were illiterate. It has to be borne in mind that for many their education  had been disrupted by the war. With time, this statistic was to improve.    

Within  a  couple  of  weeks  of  registering, the  eighteen-year-old  would  normally  receive  notice  to  attend a medical examination. If missed, without what was known as ‘good cause’ he could be given  up  to  two year’s imprisonment and a  fine of £100. Some who were determined  to evade national  service saw that failing what was known as The Medical was possibly their best chance of doing so. 

Rumours  abounded  as  to  how  to  fiddle  a  way  out.  Claiming  flat  feet or  defective eyesight  were  popularly believed  to have  the best chance. Stories abounded about  the perils of  the Medical and  how to beat the system. There were numerous half-baked notions: swallowing soap to foam at the  

mouth; eating cordite (but where could you get cordite?) to induce sweating and increase the heart  rate; nutmeg was said to produce the same symptoms.4 

The first thing usually to greet you was a sign reading something like 


This  often  produced  a problem.  Some  could  not  wait,  usually  due  to  nerves, and  had  to  visit  the  toilet  only  to  find when  the  sample  was  required  that  they  were  unable  to  perform. There  were  rumours of their next-door neighbours in the cubicles sometimes helping out, and of samples being  submitted which had been supplied by girlfriends anxious not to lose their beloved ones. 

There were four medical grades into which the potential recruit could fall. The last of these grades  was  for  those  unfit  for  national  service.  Something  like  16  per  cent of  those  examined  found  themselves exempted on medical grounds – perhaps a surprisingly high percentage. It was still quite  difficult to fail. Originally passed as fit, candidates were found to be malnourished, not uncommon,  plus some who were found to be suffering from TB. Bed-wetting was frequently claimed as a reason  for failure, unlike in the case of Jeremy Thorpe, usually unsuccessfully. It was surprising how sleeping  in a urine-soaked bed would lead to a cure. 

Intelligence and mental stability were tested by written tests. Men graded from M2 were considered  able  to  readily  assimilate  ordinary  forms  of  instruction; up  to  M8,  men  who  would require  close  supervision  or  be  unfit  for  service. There  were  many  complaints  that  these  Ministry  of  Labour  medical boards passed an excessive number of men as fit.5 Occasionally, recruits with undiagnosed  conditions died during their service. Around one per cent of men who passed the medical boards in  1952 proved unfit to serve within their first few weeks of service – some after a single day. 

Homosexuality posed particular problems for defenders of national service. In 1954, Arthur Lewis, a  Labour MP asked the minister of labour whether he would ‘permit a National Serviceman … to claim  exemption on conscientious grounds where the person signing on has grounds to believe … he may  be  liable  to  corruption  from  the  practice  of  homosexuality  in  the  armed  forces.6 This  was  almost  certainly  a  deliberate  attempt  to  annoy  the  ex-Guards  officers  who  were plentiful  on  the  Conservative seats in those days, but concern about homosexuality was widely felt among observers  who  were  favourable  to national  service  and  close  to  the  armed  forces.  A  youth  leader  advised  conscripts: ‘I want to put you on your guard about coming up against men who want to be on terms  of close personal affection with a member of  their own  sex’.7  Homosexuality in  the armed  forces  during the national service era caused considerable – unwarranted – anxiety. In Britain there were  worries stirred up by  the defection  to  the Soviet Union of  the homosexual spies, Guy Burgess and  Donald Maclean, and  the  high  profile  of  the  trial  of  Lord Montagu  and his two  co-defendants, in  which the principle witnesses were two regular airmen. 

The  one  thing  that  all  national  servicemen  had  in  common  was  ‘war’ since  no  one  born  after  September  1939  was  called  up.  This meant  that  every  national  serviceman  had  lived  through  the  whole  of  the  Second  World  War.  War  changed  family  life  and  dramatically  changed  relations 

between the sexes. From early 1941, it became compulsory for women aged between 18 and 60 to  register  for  war  work.  Conscription  of  women  began  in  December.  Unmarried  ‘mobile’  women  between  the ages of 20 and 30 were called up and given a choice between joining  the services or  working in industry. Pregnant women,  those who  had a child  under  the age of  14 or women with  heavy  domestic  responsibilities  could  not  be  made  to  do  war  work,  but  they  could  volunteer.  ‘Immobile’ women, who  had a  husband at  home  or were married  to a  serviceman, were  directed  into local war work. 

As  well  as  men  and  women  carrying  out  paid  war  work  in  Britain’s  factories,  there  were  also  thousands of part-time volunteer workers contributing  to  the war effort on  top of  their every day  domestic responsibilities. Other vital war work was carried out on the land and on Britain’s transport  network. 

At any gathering of national servicemen – sadly getting less and less – the two subjects likely to be  discussed are ‘heroic  drinking  bouts’ and  basic  training. As  far as  the army was  concerned, ‘basic’  started on a Thursday with usually a train journey, having received a rail warrant and instructions as  to where to report. In the early days, most youths had not travelled much and it was not uncommon 

for some to be making their first rail journey. Disembarking, they would almost invariably be greeted  by immaculate NCOs (as  they were  to discover later) who  seemed  to  think it necessary  to  scream  and shout every instruction; very different from the schools where about 10% had been, just prior to being called up. 

Wes Magee  told  of  his  experiences  joining  an  infantry  regiment  prior  to  being  transferred  to  the  Corps. His story brought back vivid memories: of his fellow recruits and NCOs several of whom were clearly unbalanced. After the eight weeks basic training and ready to go on leave he was told he was  to  report  to  the Intelligence Corps depot,  then at Maresfield. When he queried  the posting asking  ‘What  for’ he  had  the  response ‘Six months  training  course,  old  son,  serves you  right  for  being  so  clever. It was the IQ test that did it”! 8 

John Arden, the playwright who served in the Corps, tells a similar story, of meeting people the like  of  which  he  had  never  come  across  before. He  had  the  advantage  of  having  served  in  the  school  cadet force. When old boys returned to the school after a year or two they usually came in uniform  usually that of an officer and so if all went well he had similar expectations. After initially joining the  Royal Artillery at Oswestry, having completed basic training out of the blue, whilst cleaning various  literary gems from the latrine walls with Peter Burke also  to become a member of  the Corps, they  were  delighted  to  hear  the  following  from  their  drill  sergeant. ‘Yo’  two  – Burke,  Arden,  posted  in  t’morning. Intelligent Corpse Maresfield. Going to mek yo’ into f*****g spies, they are.’ 

They were not made into ‘spies’ – the Intelligence Corps units overseas were at that time being run  down and trained personnel were being drafted into ordinary clerical jobs in all sorts of offices which  could easily carried out by civilians. He ended up a lance corporal in an Edinburgh office.9 Peter  Burke was an extreme example of the bookish national servicemen – his father had been a  bookseller and the son would eventually go on to become Professor of cultural history at Cambridge  University. He kept a diary of his service as a Pay Clerk in Singapore 

The  national  service  years  were  ones  of  terrific  inter-service  rivalry  at  sport  – all  sport:  football,  rugby,  hockey,  boxing,  golf,  cricket, athletics,  skiing. Units  vied with each  other when  outstanding  professionals  or  amateurs  were  about  to  be  conscripted.  Henry  Cooper,  British  heavyweight  champion  later  famed  for  knocking  down  Mohammed  Ali, told of  his  boxing-mad  commanding  officer.  With  Henry, his  twin  brother  Jim, and  Joe  Erskine  in  the  team,  the  unit  never  lost  a  competition. Sir Bobby Charlton, a Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) storeman, based in Shrewsbury, 

got home to play for Manchester United regularly. ‘The Club probably pulled a few strings’ was how  he  summed  it  up.  No. 12 Wireless  Sqn  at  Langeleben  used  to  find  their matches  attracting large  crowds, including scouts from such teams as Wolfsburg. Their goalie was Gordon Banks later to play  for England and in the World Cup. 

How many died doing national service or died prematurely because of national service is something  that no one can know. All sources seem to agree that the total number of all servicemen who died  between 1 January 1948 and the end of December 1960 was 1952. Of these, nearly 400 were killed  or died of wounds whilst on active service. Most died in the UK. Of the total, 1109 were the result of  the Korean war. (Compare this with the 7,747 US soldiers still missing). Most men who died during  national service did so for reasons that had nothing to do with enemy action. Almost unbelievably,  one national serviceman died  from a surfeit of cream cakes.10 In West Germany, it was claimed by  one unit that it was possible that their regiment lost more men in a NATO exercise in which soldiers  were  drowned  and  run  over  by  tanks, than  had  been  lost  in  a  tour  of  duty  on  active  service  in  Malaysia.11 

Suicide has always been a problem for the armed services, not only in time of war and conscription  as Deepcut  illustrated  so  clearly. As  Tom  Hickman  points  out,  ‘it  is  almost  impossible  to  read  the  biography of anyone who did national service without finding at least a passing reference to suicide’.  The fear in the minds of many men, coming apprehensively to basic training that they might not be  up to it, and find themselves pushed over the edge was fuelled by stories which in the main appear  to be apocryphal, often having taken place in the previous intake. The subject of suicide was such a  part  of  national  service  basic  training  that it  was  widely  half-believed  that  anyone  witnessing  an  attempted suicide would  be  instantly  demobbed.12 It  has  been  impossible to  trace  any  record  of  anyone who died by their own hand. The army claimed that ‘the figures were comparable to those in  the wider population’ but were unable to produce any actual figures to substantiate the claim. It is constantly alleged  that some cases of  suicide were covered up as ‘accidents’. It can be  speculated  that this is possible where firearms are involved. One would like to think that if this happened it was  to save a family’s feelings, not as Jock Marr put it in true army style ‘to keep someone’s arse out of  the fire’.* 

In response to a widely circulated request for volunteers to take part in tests to find a cure for the  common cold in the 15 post-war years to 1960, 2,644 men – in the main conscripts  – went to Porton  Down  for an additional payment of up  to fifteen  shillings  (75 pence) and a  few days leave. Rather  than being treated for the common cold as they had agreed, they had to breathe in nerve gases or 

had them dropped on their skin in liquid form, or both. The stories are absolutely appalling and too  many  to  quote  here.  None  of  the  authorities  covered  themselves  with  glory, doing  everything  possible to prevent the truth being known. 

The men who went to Porton Down were lied to or at the very least, misled. The many thousands  who,  in  the  Fifties  witnessed Britain’s  nuclear  bomb  test  explosions  in  Australia  and  the  south  Pacific, were  simply  told  nothing.  Between  1952  and  1958  Britain  conducted  21  nuclear  tests  in  Australia and Christmas Island (now Kirimati) in the south Pacific. Around 22,000 servicemen, a high  proportion of them conscripts were involved; 15,000 of them as observers. None of them knew that  they were being exposed to radiation fallout. In February 1997 the European Commission of Human  Rights concluded that Britain had acted illegally and dishonestly to men involved in the Tests yet the  claim that went to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg was rejected and in  January  2000 refused to re-open the case. 

In 2001 the Ministry of Defence (MOD) said on 1 May that it would carry out a ‘historical survey’ of  its service volunteer programme, which ran from 1939 to 1989 at Porton Down.  Formerly the site of  controversial  research  on  chemical and  biological weapons,  the  centre  remains active, working on  defences against such weapons. 

The national service haircut was a constant subject for discussion even to the extent of being raised  frequently in the House  of Commons.13 Barbers were civilians employed by the army who were able  to set their own charges; usually ninepence to a shilling (a few pence). A visit to the barber’s had to  be  made  at  least  once  a  week. NCOs  used  the  threat  of  an  additional visit  to  the  barber’s  as  a  punishment, and a useful outlet  for their infantile senses of humour: ‘Can you feel me treading on  your hair?’ 

The army made NCOs  out  of  some  unpromising material. The authors  of a War Office  study were  disconcerted to  find that 8 per cent of national servicemen who had been referred to psychiatrists  during basic training because of perceived defects in personality or intellect, subsequently became  NCOs. The army found it curious that men graded 3 for emotional stability had been promoted more  frequently than those graded 2, and that NCOs included those who had been deemed to ‘lack even  the normal aggressive vigour which would have been thought necessary for the control of men by an  NCO, even  in  peacetime’. The  authors  of  the  report discounted  the  possibility  that ‘unstable men  and negative weaklings are more likely to be chosen as NCOs14 – though their own survey suggested  that  the  colourless  stable  group  performed  better  than  some  ordinary  soldiers, and  that  a  simple  ability to stay out of trouble was enough to get a man promotion in some fighting units.15 

In  the  army,  a  large  proportion  of  national  service  NCOs,  sergeants  especially,  held  their  rank  because  they  did  some  particular  job  that  brought  an  automatic  promotion  rather  than  they  had risen through the ranks. Half the total number of sergeants in the army in 1958 served in the Royal  Army  Education  Corps  (RAEC).  Interestingly  there  is  no  statistic  for  the  Intelligence  Corps, but  undoubtedly they formed a large proportion of the 584 unaccounted for. It was a constant source of  irritation  that  those who  passed  the  course and went  on  to  field  security (FS) units  seemed  to  be

made up to sergeant, whereas those who had followed the MI8 (now known as Sigint) route rarely  achieved much more than corporal. 

Like  clerks  and  army  teachers, men  in  the  Intelligence  Corps  were  often  given  non-commissioned  rank and,  independently  of  rank,  the  Corps  had  special  prestige  in  the  eyes  of  some  national  servicemen.  Perhaps, just  because those  whose  lives  had  revolved  around  the  Eleven-plus, they  were fascinated by the very word ‘intelligence’. This was a time when Dick Barton: Special Agent was  listened  to  every  night  by  the  bulk  of  the  population.  Seeking  to  find  out  why  some men  did  not  want  commissions in the army,  the War Office asked a  sample  of  suitably educated men whether  they would prefer a ‘special job’ as a sergeant in the Education Corps or a private in the Intelligence  Corps to being an officer, a significant minority of candidates said that they would prefer a ‘special  job’. 

The  writer  left  school  at  the  age  of  16  and  spent  two  years  training  and  qualifying  as  a  librarian  before  being  called  up  to  the  RASC. He asked  to  be  posted  to  the Intelligence  Corps  following  on  from a close neighbour, Brian Bolton, who had  served with  the Corps in Trieste and Austria. After  repeated  failures  he  suddenly  found  himself  at  Maresfield  and  after  FS  and  MI8  training  found  himself  posted  to  GCHQ  Cheltenham, and  then  No. 1  Wireless  Regt  and  No. 12  Wireless  Sqn  in  Germany. Langeleben as it was called, had the unenviable reputation as being the worst army camp  – deservedly. Initially it was housed in tents on the edge of the Harz mountains close (4 miles) to the  actual East/West border in those days, marked only by a white band painted on a tree. Unlike as it  was seen by some as a punishment posting, the writer spent 15 blissful months there believing that  they were making an actual contribution to the security of the West.  

The elite of  those who would work in intelligence in all  forces, were  those who learned Russian. It  was  an  exceedingly difficult  course and  required  total  dedication.  Those  who  failed  to  learn  fast  enough faced the indignity of being returned to their original regiments, not the Intelligence Corps.  There  was  a  division  between those  considered  good  enough  to  go  to  university  and  become  interpreters, and  those who  were  merely  allowed  to  become  translators.  Geoffrey  Elliott  and  Shukman  describe  life  there  vividly.16 Lambasted  by  the  Soviets  as  a  ‘spy  school’  The  JSSL  was  a  major Cold War initiative, which pushed 5000 young national servicemen through intensive training  as Russian  translators and interpreters, primarily  to meet  the needs of Britain’s signals intelligence  operations. Over its nine-year life it operated from military camps in Surrey, Cornwall and Scotland,  and  special enclaves  created  at  Cambridge  and  London Universities. It  had  parade  grounds  rather  than sports fields and pupils included a remarkable cross-section of talented young men who came  to JSSL as national servicemen and went on to a diversity of glittering careers: professors of Russian,  Chinese,  ancient  philosophy, economics,  history;  authors  such  as  Alan  Bennett, Dennis  Potter  and  Michael  Frayn;  screenwriter  Jack  Rosenthal;  and  churchmen  ranging  from  a  bishop to  a  displaced  Carmelite friar.17 officers had a totally separate course which inexplicably involved spending several  months in Paris.18 

The playwright Dennis Potter was first posted to the Royal Army Ordnance Corps on 17th May 1953.  As  he  said ‘He was  so  shocked  by  the army,  his  first and  only  thought was  how  he  could  survive.  

After  two weeks, on I1 October, he was  transferred  to  the Intelligence Corps. It was  there  that he  met  Kenith  Trodd  who  would play  an  enormous  part  in  Potter’s  life  as  his  constant  TV  producer.  Though  they  were  now  in  the  Intelligence  Corps, Potter  and  Trodd  found  that  life  at  Maresfield  consisted  of ‘more  square-bashing’. Trodd,  in  particular  struggled  with  army  life. Things  improved  when In early November 1953 they were transferred to the JSSL at Bodmin. Potter achieved 82% at  A level Russian. Trodd explained ‘They were running a superior Russian course at Cambridge and a  small proportion at Bodmin were creamed off for that. Michael Frayn, a year earlier had gone on it;  possibly because with their very working-class backgrounds, unlike Frayn, they were not considered  officer  material.  Those  who  did  succeed  became  second  lieutenants.  Alan  Bennett  was  equally  unsuccessful. There is a story that despite their having been the best of  friends whilst studying, on  being commissioned, Frayn insisted that Bennett salute him. It is said that this caused a rift. Potter  and Trodd had quite a colourful national service career, being posted to the War Office during May  1953. Denis was in MI3(D) whilst Kenith was adjacent in MI3© next door. This period would play a  vital  role in some of Potter’s greatest work. His death in 1994 deprived British  television of one of  the most  controversial  figures it  has ever  known. While  his  subversive  plays  such as Pennies  from  Heaven and The Singing Detective scandalised and delighted the nation, they also made him the butt  of the tabloids, who nicknamed him ‘Dirty Den’ for his 1989 serial, Blackeyes

National service found recruits serving in some unlikely places. John Quentin, later to be a successful  banker, was  called up  in May  before  going  up  to  Cambridge  in  1948  and  found  himself  having  to  serve an extra six months due to the Berlin airlift. Like many not wanting to be an officer, he joined  the  Corps  and  became  a  sergeant.  He  was  sent  to  Trieste  where  he  interrogated  refugees  from  Croatia and Slovenia in his primitive Italian. Aged nineteen, he set up a smuggling ring  that moved  contraband and information across the Yugoslav frontier. One day, a member of the gang staggered  into his office leaving a trail of blood. As he recalled some  fifty years later, ‘all except one of them  were shot dead on the frontier because of a mistake by my commanding officer’.19 

One of the biggest bones of contention during national service – particularly basic training – was the excessive  cleaning  of  equipment known  as  ‘bulling’, with  various materials  all  of  which  had  to  be  bought out of the pittance twenty-eight shillings (£1.40p) ‘deductions’) that they were paid. Recruits  were issued with two pairs of boots which were handed out with the rest of their kit on their  first  day.  Boots  and plimsolls,  black  came  in  full  sizes  only;  a  request  for  a  half  size  to  the  storeman  merely brought about a grin. Recruits spent hours with a hot spoon heated over a candle, removing  the  pimples  on  the  leather, then  circling  a  mixture  of  spit  and  Kiwi  (not  Cherry  Blossom which contained wax) boot polish into the toecaps and heels until they shone like glass. Toecaps and heels  were sufficient  for everyday boots but ‘best boots’ had to shine with the same lustre on their side  surfaces. Sadistic NCOs, not satisfied with the results, would frequently throw the boots across the  room  resulting in  the work all having  to be done again. It was claimed by  troops who escaped  the  German invasion of Crete by marching  through  the mountains  to  the south  that  their boots  fell  to  pieces on the rocky terrain, as a result of bulling with the hot spoon having destroyed the stitching. 

Webbing  which  supported  the  various  packs was  a  constant  source  of  excuses  for  NCOs  to  show  their power. All webbing apart  from  the brass  fittings had  to be coated in blanco – basically mud.  There were various shades of khaki and green, white and for the armoured units, black. Every time

one changed units, it seemed inevitable that a change of blanco colour was require., Despite having  spent literally hours polishing brasses, rarely would  the  result gain  the approval of  the NCO. Brass  buttons and cap badges (which had to be polished until they were smooth) were eventually replaced  by Staybrite, releasing hours  to be  filled in other ways. As the use of cotton webbing declined and  was  replaced  by  nylon and  other  synthetic materials,  the  need  for  blanco, and its  complementary  products, Brasso and Duroglit in maintaining personal military equipment, disappeared.  

There is still one aspect of national service that still haunts us today. A lot of men started to smoke  during  national  service and  the  majority,  who  already  did,  smoked  far  more  than  they  would  otherwise have done. With free and subsidised cigarettes they got men to smoke like chimneys. But,  as  Albert  Tyas  philosophically  put  it  ‘you  can’t  blame  national  service, it  was  society  then’.  Small 

consolation for those lucky 80-year-olds as they cough and splutter their way to the surgery for the  COPD clinic! In Germany, selling a packet of 20 for DM1.20 on the black market, usually the local bar,  helped  to make life more comfortable. Almost enough  for a good night out on  that  fizzy cold stuff  the Germans called beer. Despite  the German brewers having  to maintain  far higher standards  for  their beer, there was a strongly held belief amongst aquaddies that it was ‘chemical muck’. 

Many  of  the  hundreds  of  camps  to  and  from which national  serviceman  would  hitch-hike  (a  forgotten art) are gone or abandoned. The Maresfield site in Sussex, now split by a bypass, is part housing estate, part-leisure centre and part-fire brigade  training centre. Who of  those who served  there will ever forget the Chequers and the landlady who knew everything that was going on? The  Corps moved to Ashford and then its current home in Chicksands. Those who were with the JSSL in  the  early  days  will  recall  the  Guards  depot  at  Caterham  – that  has  gone.  Bodmin  is  an  industrial  estate  and  little  is  left  of  Crail. No  more  Blenheim  and  Buller  Barracks,  Aldershot  or  Reservoir  Barracks, Gloucester where those destined for MI8 were trained and to which the Glosters returned  after  their  appalling  time  in  Korea  and  Korean  prison  of  war  camps; all  were  briefly  homes  to  national servicemen. 

No history of national service can omit the horror of the Korean War. More British troops,  fighting  under  the United Nations, would  die  in  this  conflict  than  in Iraq,  Kuwait,  Afghanistan  and Malaya combined.  National  servicemen expecting  to  be  demobbed, instead  found themselves  in  a  godforsaken hole somewhere in the Far East. Some would spend three years in prison, others would  die.  National  service  was  extended  to  two  years, so  affecting  all  national  servicemen – even  conscripts who never went near the Far East. 

The British government of the time saw national service as an insurance policy in the event of future  global conflict, and  seemed  not  to  have  expected to  stay much  longer  than the  resolution  of  the  turmoil and uncertainty left behind after WWII. The ‘bear in the east’ had still to show its teeth and  claws. The Government envisaged national service as a kind of auxiliary that for a few years would  flesh out the professional armed forces. It did not envisage anything like the Korean war hitting the  fan, or  that  the  armed  services would  be so  stretched  that,  by  the  time  fighting  was  over, nearly three-quarters of the men in the trenches would be conscripts.  

It can be fairly said that national servicemen acquitted themselves as well as regulars, in some cases  better.  National  servicemen  who were  promoted  were too  often found  to  be  quicker-witted  and  more responsive that the regulars who had spent far too much time presiding over pay parades and  kit inspections. Bluntly,  they were more cautious, many of  them  thinking  that  they had done with

real soldiering but too scared of the real world to have considered leaving. D.F. Battett, one of the  men eventually  promoted  to  corporal, wrote  in  1950 ‘the  situation  within  the  platoon  is  that  our  regular army mentors are literally fading away before our eyes’.20 

A  total  of  about  1,000  British  servicemen  were  captured  in  Korea. Most  of  them  belonged  to  the  Royal Ulster Rifles who were captured in January 1951, and to the Glosters captured in April 1951. It  seems  that  100  British  servicemen  taken  prisoner  remain  unaccounted  for.  One  single  defector  returned to Britain in 1962. There are no complete figures for the proportion of national servicemen  among prisoners, but by the end of September 1952 119 conscripts had been captured and six were  known to have died in captivity. 

National  service  was seen  as  vital  to  maintaining Britain’s  position  internationally.  It  enabled  the  army  to meet  widespread  and  heavy  commitments  throughout  the  period  in  Germany, Palestine, Malaya, Korea, the Suez Canal Zone, Kenya and Cyprus, in addition to bearing the brunt of the basic  defence  of  Britain.  There  is  one  school  of  thought  that  the  preservation  of  such  a  large, totally  unproductive army at that time together with the Marshall Plan, gave Germany the chance to create  an economic lead still to be overcome – if ever. Between 1945 and 1963, Britain was to change from  being  the greatest power  that  the world had ever known  to a small island  ruling over a  few other  small islands. It acquired nuclear weapons which enabled her to cling to a place at the top table, but  at what may prove to be an unacceptable price. 

It  is  odd that National  service  left  behind  it  what  Tom  Hickman  described  as  ‘a  curious  nostalgia amongst those who had served’. Originally hostile, public opinion after 1970 seemed to have swung  back in favour of there being some sort of community service ‘something short of military service’.  Earl  Attlee,  son  of  the  Labour  prime  minister who  had  doubts  about  the  need  for  peacetime  conscription right from the beginning of his premiership in 1945, surprisingly supported the idea. He  veered towards an expansion of Voluntary Services Overseas ‘because the youth of today has been  raised on such a diet of  television and screen violence  they should be made  to do something  that  shows  respect  for  their  fellow  men’.21 We have  progressed  no  further in  this  discussion. One  unexpected consequence was that It threw open to closer inspection all of the armed services, all of  whom had been  found wanting at the outbreak of war in a way totally alien to them. Hopefully, it  put an end to them being ‘ready to fight the last war’, a claim frequently made of the British Army in  the past. 

‘You read  that distance lends enchantment; that with  the passing of  time men only remember the  good  bits about  national  service, and  for  some  that may  be  true’  commented  Adrian Walker who  was in Cyprus with the Intelligence Corps. He added ‘But if it is possible in a single phrase to cover  what the majority of national serviceman feel about their time in uniform it’s – rueful affection’. 

If one were needed, Tom Hickman probably gives as good an epitaph as any: ‘Two millian eighteen to twenty-year-olds, give or take, served whatever way they were asked to fighten the Russians for  twenty eight shillings or whatever and they deserve recogntion’. 

It was a tremendous gift to the nation.

23035134 Paul Croxson 

12 October 2017 

Squad 5412. 1954-1956

1 B.S.Johnson ed. All Bull: the National Serviceman, 

2 Heseltine served nine months in the ranks as a guardsman. He became a Junior Under Officer whilst training at Mons. Alan Clark &  Jeremy Thorpe were other well-known MP’s who found ways around serving. There were undoubtedly others.

3 TNA WO 32/10994

4 Tom Hickman. The Call-up. 

5 Hansard 28/02/1956 Marcus Lipton MP. 

6 Hansard 2 February 1954. Arthur Lewis MP. 

7 Basil Henriques, So you are being called up 1947-52

8 All Bull p. 26 

9 All Bull p. 230

10 IWM15316. P Houghton-Brown. National Service June 1955-1957. R.Vinen National Service p. 13. 

11 NAM 2006-12-77-83, Malcolm Edward Barker. The article alluded to nine people killed by shellfire, drowning and a jeep Land Rover? crash. 12 Tom Hickman. The Call-up

13 Mr Simmons MP asked the Secretary of State for War what proficiency regimental barbers were required to attain. In reply he quoted  Queen’s Regulations which stated only that ‘hair was to be kept short’, to ironic laughter. 

14 Any national serviceman would confirm that this was the case. There was universal condemnation of them.


16 G. Elliott & H. Shukman. Secret Classsrooms  

17 Amazon 

18 NAMSA 2000-04-2

19 John Quintin interviewed by Paul Thompson.NLSC: City Lives 1988

20 NAM 2000-08-55. D.F.Barrett, diary entry, 29 December 1950 

21 Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) is an international development charity with a vision of a World without poverty and a mission to  bring people together to fight poverty – Wikipedia