top of page

National Service


National Service

1948 - 1963

Many past members of 63 HAA Regiment, 37 Regiment and indeed 36 Regiment started

their army life as National Servicemen. I thought I would tell you a bit about National Service

 and Conscription which finished in 1960.


If you have any stories about your time as a National Serviceman, then please tell me

your story and I will publish it on this page.


The National Service Act was introduced in the United Kingdom in 1939 at the outbreak of

 the Second World War. A new National Service Act came in 1945 and ended in 1963. For

thousands of young men conscripted into the three services it was their first time away from home,

they all coped with it in their own way.


At 18yrs of age young men had to register for service and you had a choice, if you were doing an

apprenticeship or any sort of training for a career you could opt to defer your service until you were 21.

The period of basic duty was extended to two years in 1950 as a response to the Korean War.

Although it officially ended in 1960, the last National Serviceman was not discharged until 1963.


Initially the period of service was eighteen months but later increased to two years, this meant that men

that were coming up for release had an extra six months to serve, you can imagine how they felt.Young

men having received the call-up papers had a thorough medical and were classified A1 to A3 and then

had to report to various military establishments for basic training.


In the case of the Army this was regional training depots and thereafter posted to regiments or units,

 many of them overseas. Royal Air Force entrants seemed to all go to RAF Padgate for their basic

 training and thereafter dispersed to RAF units all over the world. Royal Navy entrants reported to either

Chatham, Portsmouth or Plymouth and then dispersal to ships or shore establishments. In the case of

the Navy conscription ended in the early 1950's, all entrants then being regular servicemen.


All three services operated along the same lines, basic training consisting mostly of drill/parade work,

(this was to instill discipline and unity of mind). then further training for a trade or job within the various

 units. All NS men were treated just the same as regular servicemen, the same discipline, punishments

and danger. The only difference was the pay, National Service pay was very poor indeed!!


During the period National Service was in operation, many NS men lost their lives in action,

 Korea and Malaya to mention just a couple of locations. In recent years a National Service

Medal has become available.


The British Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy have been professional organisations

 since the end of National Service, despite repeated calls from social conservatives for a

return to enforced conscription.


National Service had a profound effect on British society and culture. Bill Wyman

of The Rolling Stones, along with many young men, first heard and then played Rock and Roll whilst

stationed in West Germany; authors like Leslie Thomas wrote books based on their experiences;

Tony Hancock, and his writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, developed their talents whilst

serving in the armed forces.Most importantly, though, National Service gave something for young

 men to rebel against, and the end of National Service was when the idea of the

teenager in Britain really began.

The years of National Service cover almost two decades - from World War Two to

the birth of the Beatles. In all, between 1945 and 1963, 2.5 million young men were

compelledto do their time in National Service - with 6,000 being called up every fortnight.


Some went willingly, while others were reluctant but resigned. A few were downright

bloody-minded, seeing little difference between their call up and the press

gangs of Britain's distant past.


At first public opinion was behind the idea of peacetime conscription, or national service.

 It was clear in the immediate post war political landscape that Britain had considerable

obligations, and only a limited number of men still in service.


There was Germany to be occupied with 100,000 troops; and Austria too. In the Middle

 East there was Palestine to be policed, Aden to be protected, the Suez Canal Zone to

 be held down - as well as Cyprus, Singapore, Hong Kongand a chain of lesser military bases.


However, in the milk bars and Lyon's tea shops of those days, no amount of government

 propaganda could stop youngsters of both sexes grousing about the disruption to their lives

caused by national service. It would have an effect on education plans, young boys starting

apprenticeships, and ongirlfriends faced with the prospect of their partners disappearing with only

 occasional leave. The only escape, so it seemed, was failing the medical.


The inventor Trevor Baylis managed to become an army physical training instructor.

Like every ex-conscript, the medical is etched into his memory - it was a comic ritual performed

 like everything the military did, strictly according to king's regulations. And it ended with the

dreaded moment when a lady doctor asked the young lads to drop their trousers and cough.


The summons came a few weeks after the medical, delivered by the postman in a plain

brown envelope, with the instruction that the prospective recruit had to report to barracks for

the start of ten weeks of basic training. For reasons no one can now remember,

 the first day of soldiering was always on a Thursday.


Bruce Kent, many years later a leader of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament,

was a happy and willing warrior in 1947, but quickly came to consider his sergeant majors as

 demented psychopaths, who positively enjoyed shouting at and insulting the new recruits.


Overnight, the national servicemen had to learn a new language. 'Blanco', 'spit n polish',

 'rifle oil', 'pull throughs', and the dreaded 'bull' and 'jankers'. Once they had been shaved and

kitted out - all within a few hours of arrival - the rookie national servicemen all looked identical,

even if, back in the barrack room, every man was still an individual.


The arena for the breaking in of these young men was the parade ground. In squads they

learnt how to obey orders instinctively, and to react to a single word of command, by coping

with a torrent of abuse from the drill sergeants.


After basic training, the raw recruits would be turned into soldiers , sailors and airmen,

 and they would be posted to join regiments at home or abroad. Nearly 400 national servicemen

would die for their country in war zones like Korea and Malaya. Others took part in atomic tests on

Christmas Island, or were even used as human guinea pigs for germ warfare tests. There are tragic

stories too, of young men who simply couldn't cope with military life, or the pain of separation

from their families and for whom suicide was the only way out.


But what of the longer term impact on these men? Among the more independent

young soldiers, they learnt a contempt for the army, which damaged morale and affected the image

 of the army to the outside world. As news of the absurdities of army life spread, this may have had its

impacton the recruiting of regulars, which fell sharply during the 1950s.


In addition, as early as 1949, it had become apparent to political and military leaders

that the principal of universal liability to national service was a double-edged sword: not only was it

supplying more men than the services could absorb, but it was draining resources to train them,

and taking fit and able young men out of the economy.


It may have started with honourable intentions of keeping Britain's post-war army viable,

but nobody expected that it would last until the 1960s and have a profound effect on an entire generation.

Play Me

bottom of page