When the Second World War ended it didn’t mean the end to all hostilities. Britain still had a commitment to provide military support in Germany, Palestine and India. Opponents struggled with the idea that young men, just returning from six long years of a terrible war, should be called on to serve once more. And so when Clement Atlee’s Labour government presented the National Service Act to Parliament in 1947 it took some persuading to get it through.
However, despite the political disagreements, the Act came into force in January 1949, requiring all physically fit males between the ages of 17 and 21 to join and serve in one of the armed forces for an eighteen-month period. National Service did not extend to women.
Once the eighteen months were complete the men would remain on the reserve list for another four years, during which time they might be called to serve with their units on no more than three occasions, for a maximum of twenty days. Students and apprentices were allowed to defer their call-up until they completed their studies or training and any man objecting on conscientious grounds had to undergo the same tribunal tests as in wartime. The only other way out was on medical grounds.
Nevertheless, some six thousand men were conscripted every fortnight, with the army and RAF taking most of them, but few joining the Royal Navy.
The responses from the young men who joined up were varied, as were their experiences. Some loved the camaraderie and opportunities that National Service offered. But many resented the interruption to their career and education, and their love life, with girlfriends and wives bemoaning the departure of their loved one. And some found the hardships of military life impossible to bear, resorting to suicide.
After six weeks of basic training some conscripts received more specific training – foreign languages – engineering – communications – skills that would stay with them for life. But accommodation was often primitive, cold barracks with basic toilet and washing facilities. Some barracks were nothing more than wooden huts, with twenty men housed to each room. Conscripts were sent overseas after their basic training, where the accommodation might be just a share of a tent, and if they were posted to Malaya or Korea then mosquito nets were vital.
By 1950 the demands of overseas conflicts (in particular the war in Korea) meant that the period of National Service was extended to two years. German bases held 100,000 of UK troops and over time there was Palestine to be policed, Aden to be protected, and the Suez Canal Zone to be held down – as well as Cyprus, Singapore, Hong Kong.
There was little time or money for leisure or luxuries. In 1948 the basic pay for a private soldier was £1 pound eight shillings a week in 1948, with the average weekly wage around that time being eight times that amount. And woe betide any soldier who lost or damaged their kit or equipment as the cost would often be deducted from their wages.
For many it was just a case of counting down the days until they were demobbed, but for some the friendships they made during their time doing National Service would last a lifetime.