On 27th April
1939, Parliament passed the Military Training Act. This act
introduced conscription for men aged 20 and 21 who were now
required to undertake six months' military training. On the
outbreak of the Second World War, Parliament passed the National
Service (Armed Forces) Act, under which all men between 18 and
41 were made liable for conscription. It was also announced
that single men were called up before married men. The registration
of all men in each age group in turn began on 21st October for
those aged 20 to 23. By May 1940, registration had extended
only as far as men aged 27 and did not reach those aged 40 until
Provision was made in the legislation for people
to object to military service on moral grounds. Of the first
batch of men aged 20 to 23 and estimated 22 in every 1000 objected
and went before local military tribunals. The tribunals varied
greatly in their attitudes towards conscientious objection to
military service and the proportions totally rejected ranged
from 6 per cent to 41 per cent.
By the end of 1939 over one and a half million men had been
recruited into the armed forces. Of these, 1,128,000 joined
the British Army and the remainder were equally divided between
the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Every year from thereon,
twice a month and once in December because of Christmas, an
average of 6000 young men (over 10,000 at peak of Korean War)
said their goodbyes and started a new life, always on a Thursday
for Army and Air Foce, Mondays for the Navy.
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 easiest way to avoid conscription was to ignore the summons
to register for National Service. As a result of a shortage
of people to enforce attendance, this method of avoiding the
joining of the armed forces was highly effective. Another method
was to hire a man who had already failed his medical, to impersonate
you in front of the medical board. Jack Brack was rejected as
unfit for service because of an enlarged heart. A few months
later he was arrested and charged with impersonating eight different
men at military medical boards. It was discovered in court that
one man, a master tailor, had paid Brack £200 (£8,000
in today's money) for this work.
There was also a good market in buying forged medical discharge
certificates. In May 1940 the police in London was investigating
four gangs selling these certificates. Some doctors were willing
to issue false medical certificates to friends and relatives.
An investigation carried out by the General Medical Council
resulted in several doctors being struck off for "infamous
conduct". Others did it for profit, one doctor from London
was found guilty of charging a man £367.10s. (£14,700)
for his certificate. Dr. William St. John Sutton of Stepney,
developed a scheme of selling certificates exempting men from
duty. When he was arrested he was found with 700 forged certificates.
Desertion from the armed forces was a common problem. At one
stage in the war there were over 24,500 men who were wanted
for desertion. At the end of 1941 the government ordered a "round-up"
of deserters. When police raided a Plymouth funfair they discovered
that almost two-thirds of adult males checked did not have identity
cards. However, before the men could be arrested someone let
off a smoke bomb and they all escaped.
Deserters often resorted to crime in order to survive without
identity cards or ration books. One of the most shocking crimes
committed be deserters during the war was looting from bombed
houses. In the first eight weeks of the London Blitz a total
of 390 cases of looting was reported to the police.
The Lord Mayor of London suggested that notices should be posted
throughout the city, reminding the population that looting was
punishable by hanging or shooting. However, the courts continued
to treat this crime leniently. When a gang of army deserters
were convicted of looting in Kent the judge handed down sentences
ranging from five years' penal servitude to eight years' hard
labour. Some critics pointed out that Nazi Germany suffered
less from this crime as looters were routinely executed for
The problem of desertion became worse when soldiers knew they
were about to be sent abroad. Official figures show that large
numbers of men due to take part in the D-Day invasion deserted.
Between 6th June 1944 and 31st March 1945 36,366 of these soldiers
were arrested by the Military Police, of these, 10,363 were
charged with desertion.
The problem of desertion continued after the war. On 29th March
1950 Emanuel Shinwell, the Minister of Defence, announced in
the House of Commons that there were still 19,477 absentees:
1,267 were from the Royal Navy, 13,884 from the British Army
and 4,366 from the Royal Air Force.
The conclusion of the Second World War did not
end the substantial demands on the British Government with regard
to the employment of the country's armed forces. With the majority
of servicemen desperate to return to civilian life it was politically
impossible for wartime conscription to be sustained. The responsibilities
and commitments facing the Government included the enforcement
of the terms of surrender on Germany and Japan, participation
in occupation duties, the maintenance of security within the
diminishing Empire and the re-establishment of British influence
in the world, particularly in the Middle East.
The requirement for a peacetime force larger than
that made possible by purely voluntary recruitment led the post-war
Labour Government to move towards establishing a national service
system in 1946. The National Service Act was passed in July
1947 after considerable opposition from some Labour and Liberal
politicians. The Act was to come into force at the beginning
of 1949. The Act initially required a period of one year to
be served in the Armed Forces followed by a liability for a
possible five years in the Reserve. Financial crises, the advent
of the Cold War and the Malaya emergency led to the National
Service Amendment Act in December 1948, increasing the period
of service to 18 months. This enabled National Servicemen to
be used more efficiently and effectively, particularly overseas
The demands of the Korean War (1950-1953) led
to the length of service being extended to two years, surpassing
even the Service Chiefs' original wishes. Liability to further
service in the Reserve was reduced with each of these extensions.
The period of service remained at two years until the end of
However for just a sorry few the NS service was
30 months - here is the experience of Ray Giles.
"I joined on the 7th July 1960 at Blenheim
Barracks, Aldershot. Went to Yeovil for my training and had
a 'home posting' in Germany. I went to 68 Company RASC, Headquarters
BAOR for about six months. I came back to Yeovil for a staff
car driver course, returned to 68 Company, was made up to acting
paid Lance Corporal and posted to 469 Ground Liaison Section,
RAF Geilenkirchen. I was due to be demobbed July 1962 and just
before this date Profumo, the then minister for war, announced
we would have to serve an extra six months. Rumour had it this
was because there were insufficient regulars to carry out the
work the National Service lads were doing and they needed more
time to boost recruitment. This meant I was due to finish early
January 1963. The powers that be decided to let us go early
so we could be home for Christmas and I flew home on 21st of
December 1962." - Ray Giles
When National Service began the Labour Administration
insisted that it should be universal for all able-bodied men.
However, although there was no official ban, very few Black
conscripts and no non-European officers were recruited despite
high levels of immigration in the mid-1950s. To avoid possible
civil unrest Northern Ireland was also excluded from conscription.
The majority of National Servicemen went into
the Army and by 1951 National Servicemen made up half the force
leading to a reduced level of voluntary recruitment to the regular
army. The Suez Crisis in 1956 led to a general review of the
ability of the Armed Forces, both regular and conscripted, to
meet Britain's commitments. The need for a large reserve of
conscripts suitable for post-war occupation duties and the withdrawal
from colonies was replaced by a requirement for a rapid deployment
force with modern weapons and equipment. The Defence Review
of 1957 initiated a difficult period of transition.
The last intake of National Servicemen took place
in 1960 and only the crisis surrounding the erection of the
Berlin Wall delayed the end of conscription. The last National
Serviceman, Second Lieutenant Richard Vaughan of the Royal Army
Pay Corps, was demobbed on 16 May 1963.
A typical passing out parade in the fifties
32nd Intake 1956/57
This is of DCLI 32nd Intake's Passing Out Parade at Victoria
Barracks Bodmin possibly late 1956/57 - picture supplied by
Cpl. Mike Brown who you see as the very smart right marker.He
joined as a National Serviceman with the 19th Intake on the
8th April 1954 and remained at Bodmin until March 1957 when
he transferred to the Royal Army Pay Corps and served until
During the post-1945 period of National Service
some 1, 132, 872 men were conscripted to serve in the British
Army. For some it was a shock to the system, the first time
they had left their homes and families. For others with experience
as Army Cadets, it was a relatively familiar life. It was a
time of great camaraderie, bonds were formed quickly amongst
men from disparate backgrounds thrown together in a strange
situation, made stronger by the discipline imposed on them beginning
with their basic training. Some of these friendships formed
during National Service would last a lifetime.
For many men it was a time to learn new skills,
forge a new career, to distance themselves from the morality
of their parents, or an opportunity to travel at a time in which
it may otherwise have been prohibitively expensive. However,
there was the feeling, often justified, that the Army did not
exploit skills and experience gained as a civilian.
The experience many men had of being thrown into
combat situations such as Korea, Malaya, Suez and Aden would
never be forgotten. Men with minimal training were expected
to fight guerrillas or cope with riots or civil war situations.
During this period a total of 395 National Servicemen were killed
in active service.
'Of the million and one half men called up on
reaching the age of eighteen, about a hundred and twenty-five
thousand, or one in twelve, served in an active theatre of operations,
for which a campaign medal was awarded. Approximately four hundred
conscripts were listed as killed in action, while many more
were lost in tragic accidents. (About 600). Of NS casualties
from all causes throughout the NS years using normal statistical
analytical methods is 12 percent of all HM Armed Forces during
the relevant years. The true figure of NS lost during those
years could well run into thousands.
One interesting stastic is that approx 140 NS
men took their own lives, this was often hidden in files and
attributed to an accident of some sort.
Suez: Total British dead - Oct/Nov 1956 were 16,
with 96 wounded. (2 killed were NS soldiers - 8 wounded)
Please read the Latest & Up-to-date Roll of
Honour produced by Edwin Sparrow for the Suez Veteran's Association
Korea: British casualties were 1,078 killed in
action, 2,674 wounded and 1,060 missing or taken prisoner. (Includes
204 NS soldiers killed - Wounded about 300)
Malaya: 104 NS soldiers killed.
The figures above were supplied by HQ Land Forces
If you count National Service from its inception
from 1939, the total number of deaths would run into many thousands.
Registration and Basic Training
The National Servicemen's experiences were many and varied but
despite the harshness of Army discipline and the conditions they
were sometimes expected to endure, the majority of National Servicemen
agree that these experiences have remained with them and transformed
the rest of their lives .
The National Service experience began with registration
at the local branch of the Ministry of Labour and National Service.
Two or three weeks later, the conscript would receive a notice
to attend a medical examination, to ensure that the man was
fit for military service. To ensure no one was missed conscripts
could be traced through their National Health records.
The conscript would then be interviewed by a MIO (Military Interviewing
Officer) in order to match him to the Service that would be
the most suitable for his skills and experience; in practice,
most of them went into the Army.
Within six weeks an enlistment notice would be
sent to the conscript to report for training. Included with
this would be a rail warrant and, at least early on in National
Service, an advance of four shillings pay. The conscript had
a little time to arrange his affairs at home and he then had
to report for basic training. Basic training lasted between
eight and twelve weeks. Recruits usually arrived on a Thursday
and, generally speaking, the new intake were issued with their
uniform and kit and given the regulation Army haircut on the
afternoon of arrival.
Although the daily life of soldiers could vary
greatly some aspects of service, like basic training, often
followed a standard routine.
Servicemen were woken early, around five thirty
or six in the morning, very often by the shouting of a sergeant.
They would then wash, and make their way for breakfast. After
breakfast, more shouting; in the parade ground, they would learn
to obey orders and react to commands from the drill sergeant.
Field training or rifle training would follow. Tea was at five
thirty but bedtime varied, the conscripts having to accommodate
barrack cleaning and kit maintenance before they could rest
for the night. Room inspections occurred about once a week and
kit inspections were even more frequent.
If kit or barrack conditions were not up to standard, strict
punishment would follow. A serviceman with dirty kit could be
put on Company Orders or confined to barracks (CB) for seven
days. Those who committed more serious charges could face 28
days CB, stoppage of pay or menial tasks, such as washing latrines,
or 'spud-bashing'. Really serious offenders would face court
martial or imprisonment. In most cases, however, punishment
was for largely trivial offences.
Basic training consisted of drill, weapons training,
marching and parade. Officers who did four years or more on
a Short Service Commission were allowed to train in a speciality.
Many other ranks were trained in general clerical duties such
as typing and some received more specific training in subjects
such as tactical sketching and air-photo reading or radio work.
Languages could also be learnt, especially Russian in the Cold
War period, at the Joint Service School of Languages (JSSL)
at Bodmin, Cornwall. Conscripts who were illiterate were taught
to read. Many other jobs were available to the NS man such as
driving all types of vehicles including Tanks, Weapon Training,
Stewards and Inteligence work, it was very up to the individual
to apply for these jobs and show some initiative, in most cases
they would be given a chance to show what they could do.
Those serving in Malaya 1948-1960 initially had
no experience of jungle warfare, but as the conflict progressed,
specialized jungle warfare schools were established and manuals
covering all aspects of operations in the jungle became available.
Brasso, blanco and bull
Special attention was placed on uniform during basic training
as part of 'bull', the term used for the cleaning rules and
presentation regulations surrounding kit. The recruits were
introduced to Number 3 Green Blanco, to be rubbed into all webbing
items and Brasso, used to polish brass buckles, cap badges,
and buttons. 'Bull' took up a large part of the new recruits'
daily routine, despite the fact that often there did not seem
to be much practical purpose for the rules of kit maintenance.
It was, however, an integral part of the regime of discipline
that would transform civilians into soldiers.
A recruit's uniform had to be meticulously presented in accordance
with Army specifications. In order to meet these, new soldiers
devised a variety of methods to maintain the appearance of their
kit. For example the usual way of creating the crease in the
standard issue thick woollen trousers was with damp brown paper
and an iron.
Weapons were also supposed to be cleaned thoroughly
and oiled using flannels soaked in oil and drawn through barrels
with weighted pieces of lead, the pull-through.
Kit and equipment
New recruits were issued with their kit, including best uniform,
second-best uniform, best boots, second-best boots, Physical
Training (PT) kit, utensils, gas mask, weapons, headwear, and
bed linen. The uniform was notoriously ill-fitting. Although
it could be tailored to fit later, for the first eight weeks
of basic training, the recruits had to make do with what they
had been given. They were also assigned a barrack room and their
civilian clothing could then be parcelled up and sent home,
beginning to sever the ties with their civilian life.
The uniform and equipment issued to the Servicemen varied
considerably, this was particularly true for those serving
abroad. In Korea, the uniform was the 1944 pattern Tropical
issue. However, during the first very cold winter, this proved
inadequate and the uniform became a mixture of British and
American issues, consisting of as many layers as possible.
Most conscripts were accommodated in ramshackle barracks with
little heating, primitive toilets and poor washing facilities.
Some were lucky, and had newly built brick barracks with central
heating. Some were housed in a 'Barrack Spider' - wooden huts
with eight rooms and washing area. Twenty men were housed in
each room, and had a steel wardrobe, an iron bed, and a foot
locker for small items of kit. Those posted overseas often found
themselves packed aboard ships with, as in the case of the converted
aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, a whole hangar converted into
a barrack room with hammocks to sleep in. Accommodation conditions
abroad varied greatly depending on where one was posted. The
camps on the border with China at the Sham Chum River in the
New Territories were rough and extremely primitive. Accommodation
for servicemen in the Suez Canal Zone was poor and surrounded
by hostile locals. Servicemen could find themselves sharing
a tent with three other men, as in camps in Cyprus , or as many
as fifteen, as in Korea. Mosquito nets were necessary in malarial
areas such as Malaya and toilet conditions were often unpleasant,
consisting of a bucket with a seat fixed to it, or a merely
a dug trench. In contrast men sent to Germany found barracks
that on the whole were luxurious compared to those in Britain.
Money, Pay and the cost of living
Basic pay for a private soldier was 28 shillings (£1.40)
a week net in 1948. This compared poorly with the average weekly
wage in 1951, which was 8 pounds 8 shillings and 6 pence. Those
on a Short Service Commission would get extra pay, and were
entitled to married quarters. A notice at the Quartermaster's
Stores reminded them that their kit was twenty pounds worth
of government property, and that if they lost any of it, they
would not only have to pay the cost of that item, but also pay
for the item to be replaced.
There were other, 'unofficial', expenses. Some recruits found
that they had to pay NCOs a shilling for their first 'free'
haircut. Other 'scams' included selling on Navy, Army and Air
Force Institute (NAAFI) cleaning supplies at inflated prices.
The cost of living would vary depending on where
a conscript was posted. At camps in Britain, Servicemen might
send some money home. They would also have to pay income tax
of about 2 shillings. There may also be occasional fines for
damages to barracks (whether there had been any damage or not).
The Army also expected men to join the Post Office Savings Bank.
This might leave a man with eight to fourteen shillings a week
to spend on razor blades, shaving soap, Brasso, boot polish,
hair cuts, cigarettes, dusters or blanco. Visits to the cinema
or for a decent meal at the NAAFI would be few and far between.
In Hong Kong, however, all ranks appreciated the glut of luxury
goods on sale at low prices and the availability of exotic fruit
that was still not freely available in Britain. In Germany,
servicemen were issued with British Armed Forces currency ('Baffs').
Pay for conscripts rose to 30 shillings in 1961.
The average weekly wage for men in 1961, however, was £15
10 shillings, and by this time there were more products available
National Service leave consisted of 14 days after
eight months and weekends off. For many young men, National
Service was often their first experience of drinking alcohol
and getting drunk. As the Army generally discouraged this, much
of the drinking took place out of camp at dance halls and pubs.
However the NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institute), was
the chief provider of leisure and recreation in most camps.
Music was very popular and activities included dances and jazz
concerts. Film, radio and television were also popular forms
of recreation and newspapers were widely read.
Although in the late 1940s and 1950s, sex before marriage was
still taboo, Army camps attracted prostitution and illicit sex
surrounded the servicemen from the outset. Brothels were tolerated
abroad particularly in Malaya and Hong Kong. Advice was given
in books and leaflets and contraceptives were issued when men
went on leave. There were even rumours about the Forces attempting
to control the libidos of recruits by putting bromide in the
The ARMY encouraged all sports as they generally
kept the servicemen fit, and were thought to inspire leadership
and teamwork skills, and the motivation to succeed. Playing
football, rugby, cricket, boxing, or various other sports often
meant an easy life in the Army, as sportsmen were often excused
from military duties to make more time for training. Famous
sportsmen who played in National Service teams, included Bobby
Charlton, Duncan Edwards and Richard Sharp, among others.
Royal Air Force
Entrants seemed mostly to go to RAF Padgate
for kitting out, some stayed there for their basic training
and thereafter dispersed to RAF units all over the world. Others
went to RAF Hednesford and RAF West Kirby and then off to their
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 late 1950's,
all entrants then being regular servicemen.
Mike Crowe writes:
I was called up and went straight to H.M.S.Collingwood
the Royal Navy Radio, Radar and Electrical School at Fareham
just outside Portsmouth on January 27th 1958!!! along with another
couple of dozen National Servicemen. 6 weeks later another couple
of dozen were called up as well
There were all Electrical Ratings and I guess
that the other branches were also taking men in.
We were mixed in with Regulars and had the same
treatment, pleasures and privileges, except two. They were given
a made to measure uniform of fine cloth for Number 1 uniform
and they were given nice fluffy Bath Towels :-) We had to buy
ours from 'slops' for 10/-.
Sources for the above information: - HQ Land
Forces Wilton UK - The late Major General Peter J. Bush OBE.
- Alan Tizzard NSVA and many others.
National Service in the Australian Army
More than 287,000 Australian men were called
up for service in the Army, Navy and Air Force from 1951-1972.
Of that number only 19,450 served in Vietnam, all with the Army.
The commemorative coin below is a new 50 cent coin, unveiled
at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
The new fifty-cent commemorative coin acknowledges
the sacrifice of Australia's drafted servicemen.
The coin, which marks the 60th anniversary of
the introduction of compulsory national service, was laid
under a plaque at the recently constructed National Service
memorial site, alongside a medal with coloured stripes representing
Australia's Armed Forces. "Now in place for eternity,
this commemorative coin honours the role that these young
men played in Australia's history," says the War Memorial's
Director, Major General Steve Gower.
The coin is engraved with elements of the memorial
site, and was designed for the Royal Australian Mint by internationally
regarded engraver and sculptor, Wojciech Pietranik.
Sources for the above information: - Graeme
Quinn who was a full time regular in the Australian Army.
This Memorial was dedicated on 8th September
2010 in Canberra by Australia's Governor General, M/s Quentin
Bryce. The inscription round the rim of the Memorial reads "Dedicated
to all Australian National Servicemen and in memory of those
Picture and information supplied by: Tony Ruhl.