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British Armed Forces & National Service


National Service - History.

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 June 1941..

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 Force, 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 this offence.

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 National Service.

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 1976.


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 Canal Zone 1950-1956: Total all services British dead - 463 (2 killed were NS soldiers - 8 wounded)

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 UK

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.

Daily Routine

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.

Overseas kit

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 to buy.


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 NAAFI tea!

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 unit.

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 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.

Read more at.....

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 who died."
Picture and information supplied by: Tony Ruhl.




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