In the long ago grey times of the nineteen fifties, National Service was the name given to a nightmare, the prospect of which blighted what should have been the carefree teenage years of all young men. It began as a distant but gradually approaching darkening cloud which, some time after the age of eighteen, coalesced into the imminent prospect of two years of servitude: a fettered existence which would encompass a mixture of experiences of varying proportions for each individual. Some of the constituent parts of this penal life would certainly be onerous discipline and despair, boredom and 'bull', foul language and fear, but these would always be leavened to varying degree by cheerfulness and comradeship, excitement and education, travel, and rite-of-passage experiences in infinite variety. Rarely remembered is the sad fact that an unfortunate minority were handed the shortest of straws, for amongst all these variables another lurked sinisterly - that of untimely death. Over five hundred soldiers died in the Malayan emergency and over a thousand in the Korean war, many of whom were national service men.
The State required that this most harsh of finishing schools be endured by the participants for what to them was two seemingly unending years.
And the reason for this mandatory service? Well, the War had been over for ten years but the USSR and the Western Allies continued to regard each other with ever increasing deep suspicion during the ensuing decade. The ownership of nuclear weapons by both sides was supposed to make the prospect of another war unthinkable, but each side feared a pre-emptive strike by the other. Also, a large scale tank attack from the east into Germany was considered a serious possibility, and as our country had many other commitments around the world, a large standing army, navy and airforce were considered essential. Indeed, the requirement was for an Army of 600,000, a Royal Navy of 90,000, a Royal Airforce of 250,000 men and in addition to these, the National Coal Board also required miners. The only way to provide this manpower was by requiring all young men to donate a period of their lives to one of these services. Only those who were unhealthy or who could manage to remain as students until they had passed the age of twenty-five could escape this near equivalent of a prison sentence, thus in those days, for most young men these were their "Gap Years".
By 1956 my elder brother who was four years older than me, had been out of the RAF for only a year as he had opted for a three year term, having done that to receive more pay and technical training than he would have received as a National Serviceman. He seemed to have almost enjoyed his service during which he had been able to buy two motorbikes, latterly replaced by a rather ancient car. Accordingly, influenced by his experiences I decided that when the time came I would also 'sign on for three'.
One day in April the dreaded buff envelope duly arrived and I found myself on a No.8 bus on the way to the Government Buildings in Marston, an eastern suburb of Oxford. There, in a low hall, as if on a moving walkway, scores of nervous young men slowly progressed past a series of desks where ancient and jaded doctors prodded torsos, examined bodily apertures and filled in forms. There was little privacy and occasional nudity but the bored staff so regarded us as 'units' rather than people, that only those of very susceptible sensibilities were much embarrassed by the unseemly process. I learnt with gratification that it was the consensus view of this veterinary panel that all my parts were of sufficient quality to satisfy Her Majesty and that she would be pleased to accept me into her service forthwith. Finally on yet another form I recorded my desire to serve her as a regular member of her Royal Air Force. In a dreamlike state I returned home pondering my fate.
To some degree I might have looked forward to the prospect of this great adventure which would take me out of the rather sheltered life I had led before, but my brother of course took huge delight in recounting endless anecdotes regarding the future indignities in prospect. Thus a few weeks later the contents of another buff envelope (similar to the one shown on the left) caused me great misgivings. I gave the required week's notice to my employers, Messrs. Russell Acott, and one day early in June, feeling quite sick with apprehension, I duly returned to the Government Buildings and became one of a group of about a dozen required to travel together by rail to Bedford. Although each having been given a shilling for the bus fare and a railway warrant, the group elected to amble across Oxford to the small LMS terminus where we boarded a short awaiting train which although clanking as slowly and as gently as it could from village to village in an almost apologetic manner, could not prevent us from eventually arriving at our destination. A blue RAF bus awaited our arrival and that of other small bands of nervous young men as various trains delivered them from every corner of Britain.
A short journey took us to the huge sprawling and far from pristine RAF camp at Cardington where in a large green wooden hut, our group now about forty strong, was brusquely greeted by a grizzled man in blue uniform, each sleeve of which bore three stripes surmounted by a crown. He explained that this meant that he was nearly the most important man in the whole of the Royal Air Force. This seemed somewhat at variance with his duty of issuing each man with a large white mug and a set of cutlery, although this was done begrudgingly and only as a reward for the completion of more forms. He summoned a minion who, after advising us that the propeller badge on his arm meant that as a Leading Aircraftman he too was of a very high rank, arranged us in lines of three and by causing us to do what he called 'marching' we arrived more or less en-masse at the particular shabby wooden hut, number 439, which was to be our temporary home, our shambling group having been navigated through a huge maze of identical ones en route. Inside on polished brown linoleum, twenty iron beds were arranged along the walls separated by narrow wardrobes and lockers. We threw our cases on the beds and urged by our vociferous LAC, reformed our group to be herded off to the Bedding Store to receive blankets, sheets and pillowcases.
After returning to the hut to deposit these we were goaded again en masse to a much larger building and this we were informed was the 'cook-house' which until that moment, due to the odour of stale cabbage which emanated from it, I would have identified as a Dining Hall.
Our first meal was typical of hundreds which we would be required to consume, produced to an unchanging formula. There was the essential plastic fried egg waiting to be selected from an oily colony simmering on an iron hot-plate inside the servery. A large dollop of stewed tinned tomatoes accompanied the lonely egg and the space on the plate filled with chips, or if preferred, Pom potato substitute. There was probably some sort of pudding, and bread, margarine and jam was available to those not already nauseated. The whole lot could be swilled down with large mugs of tea or coffee. Having washed our 'irons' by gingerly dabbling them in the cattle trough of superheated water thoughtfully provided for that very purpose, we ambled in ones and twos back to our 'billet'.
It was by then early evening and some of our number went to find the NAAFI for it was rumoured that beer was to be found there, and indeed that Tombola could be played. This was a gambling game in which the general public was not allowed to indulge at that time, but in a later age of less severity it became a craze that swept the country under its more familiar pseudonym of 'Bingo'. Others wandered in small groups across the airfield to investigate the huge pair of old air-ship hangars and there within the cathedral-like interior they found a hundred feet above their heads, a few silver barrage balloons benignly bobbing about for all the world like enormous aquarium fish asleep in their gigantic tank. The huge amount of hydrogen gas required for the airships had required a standard type gasworks to be built within the camp and the smoke from this accounted for the grubby state of all the buildings.
Most turned in early and everybody was in bed by 22.00 in anticipation of a stressful tomorrow. We had conformed to the official 'lights-out' at 22.30 but just as everybody was wiffling happily we were very rudely awakened. The door burst open with a crash and the lights blazed on and there was our guide-dog LAC literally revealing himself at the threshold. He strutted up and down the length of the hut obscenely brandishing his awful appendage whilst regaling us in slurred drunken tones with an account of his supposed multiple amorous adventures of the evening. However the impressive but unwilting evidence in hand gave the lie to this professed surfeit by its weedy owner and our mesmerised silence gave way to nervous mirth, so, becoming at first non-plussed by our seeming indifference and then angered by our collective derision, the pathetic creature snarled a few obscenities over his shoulder and vanished just as quickly as he had appeared.
We were all thoroughly awake again by then of course and an individual inspired no doubt by the surreal pantomime just witnessed, commenced to recount a smutty anecdote. Then from each bed in turn came a fresh joke and each in a different accent. When my turn came I offered the only rude joke I knew : 'What is the biggest drawback in the jungle?' The answer being 'An elephant's foreskin' which I thought somewhat appropriate in the circumstances, and it gained a few laughs. Finally it was the turn of a Geordie : there came a few guttural garbled sentences and then a pause as he waited for the laugh. But not until the man from North Yorkshire had duly translated this strange dialect, did the Geordie finally receive his reward.
The following day and those that followed were a constant whirlwind of activity as we were marched around to the various departments of the camp. We were issued with uniforms with the storemen guessing our sizes and throwing the items across the counter, however the boots and shoes we were allowed to try on for fit. Later, newly attired in this unaccustomed blue serge, we solemnly packed away our civilian clothes into our suitcases and handed them in to be sent home. A civilian photographer was allowed to roam the camp and magically he appeared, to capture for a small fee, our very first moments in our 'best blue' uniforms.
Attired in our 'working blue' uniforms we were herded into a barber's shop where our hair was shorn to a common standard - none must show below the rim of the uniform beret, and incredibly we had to pay with our own money to receive this humiliation. Following that we were issued with our service numbers and then each in turn chalked it on a board which had to be held across the chest while mug-shots were taken. The result of this later became apparent when each was issued with his Form 1250, the official RAF identity card. Next we embossed our numbers into the handles of our cutlery using a hammer and selections from the dies provided.
We spent some considerable time in a large careers hut and mused over the trades available, some of which required one to sign-on for many years. To become a Balloon Handler for instance required ten years of one's life. To attract the mechanically minded there was a beautifully sectioned Merlin aircraft engine on display and for the remainder there were posters and photographs depicting very happy looking men engaged in a whole variety of trades. However the choice for a two year National Serviceman was very limited and could in no way be guaranteed. We underwent general knowledge and 'trade test' examination papers, but the results of these were not revealed. However on noting my request to become a Radar Mechanic (as my brother had instructed), I was told that Radar Fitters were more urgently required, so I would be put down provisionally for that. Finally, on an occasion with a degree of the ceremonial about it, we were all required to attest that we would serve loyally The Queen and those officers appointed by her. By so swearing we gave up certain rights as civilians and became subject to the more onerous military law.
When parading ourselves the next day we discovered that we had completed all of the induction procedure, but of course there was no chance of being allowed to remain idle, and accordingly we were introduced to something called 'Fatigues'. There were a variety of domestic jobs that needed to be done to keep the RAF going, usually the dirty ones for which no one was specifically employed. Defaulters were used to fill this gap but when those were not present in sufficient numbers, anyone who was 'spare' was liable to be drafted to such duties. On that occasion I was required to report to one of the cook-houses to work in the 'Tin Room'. This particular torture chamber was in fact an outdoor roofed area at the rear of the cook-house containing a huge tank of steaming water surrounded by tables loaded with the large greasy tins in which the food had been cooked. Rubber gloves, dish mops and bottles of detergent were provided, all of which turned out to be insufficiently ideal to effect the required result: the gloves were split, the mops worn away and the detergent corrosively strong. For a couple of hours I did my best, but out of respect for my sore hands I then daringly crept away, expecting to be spotted at any second, but luck was on my side and nobody complained of my lack of dedication.
The very next day, our fifth at Cardington, we were told to put on our best uniforms and pack everything else into our kit-bags. We reported to the cook-house to be issued with packed lunches and with these stowed in our small-packs we then marched down to Cardington's very own little railway station. One train on each weekday set out from there to deliver several carriage-loads of recruits to one or another of the five RAF Basic Training camps. At 10.00 we departed for West Kirby, a village in Cheshire and which we were told, was not far from Liverpool.
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Text & Picture © 2006 D.C.Adams