1950s - National Service

This page is will cover recollections of National Service and is part of a year long project covering the 1950s.

During 2011 the Epsom and Ewell Local and Family History Centre will have a number of displays covering different aspects of the fifties. The Centre also plan on holding, with the assistance of Bourne Hall Museum, a small number of other 50's events. It is hoped that the displays and events will help jog peoples memories and encourage local residents to record their own reminiscences of this decade for future generations.

If you have a recollection or anecdote that you would like to share please see the Record your memories of the 1950s page



National Service Index

Click on the name to jump to the relevant entry
[Content]

National Service with The Royal Air Force: Per Ardua ad Astra - Brian Bouchard
Her Majesty's Forces 1954 - 1957 - Eric Brown (New 05/01/2011)
Experiences of a National Service Man in the 1950's - David Hall (New 14/04/2011)
In the DAZE of National Service - Bert Barnhurst (New 21/05/2011)
Cold - John Carter (New 28/07/2011)
[Content]


Content


National Service with The Royal Air Force:
Per Ardua ad Astra


RAF Cap Badge, Image courtesy of Brain Bouchard © 2010

Conscription had been ended at the end of the Second World War but was reintroduced 18 July 1947, (in those days before sexual equality) for men only, in order to enlarge the armed forces in the face of a perceived threat from the Soviet Union. In the 50's, therefore, as boys came towards the end of their time at school, decisions about further education or the development of a career were blighted by the looming prospect of an extended period of servitude (which, on 1 October 1950, was increased from 18 months to a full two years duration).

Brian Bouchard taken at West Kirby in 1955
Brian Bouchard taken at West Kirby in 1955
Image courtesy of Brain Bouchard © 2010

The process began at the age of 18 with a requirement to register, followed by medical assessment and an opportunity to express a preference for the Navy or RAF rather than the Army. One then waited, without deferment, for about 6 months before being called up. Eventually, in my case, a rail warrant arrived with instructions to report to RAF Cardington.

When a disparate group of nervous young men de-trained at Bedford they were assembled to board a blue RAF bus to be driven to the camp. There, divided into batches of about twenty individuals, they were lined up in threes and directed to one of the many barrack-huts. These had lines of iron beds lined against each wooden wall and divided one from another by a narrow wardrobe and locker. Next the recruits would be led to the Bedding Store to be issued with blankets, sheets and pillow-cases. Further essentials were a set of knife, fork and spoon ('eating irons') with an earthenware mug (pint pot) in time for an evening meal. Finally left to their own devices each group could find the NAAFI to relax and take stock.

RAF Cardington
RAF Cardington
Image By Mac ********** from UK (Cardington Airship Shed), via Wikimedia Commons

Over the rest of the following seven days the recruits were attested before being moved around from section to section in one of the vast old airship hangers to have their 'irons' (and minds) impressed with their respective service numbers and collect various other items of equipment - battledress, 'best blue' uniform, shoes, studded boots, pyjamas, underwear, 4 pairs of woollen socks, a housewife (pronounced 'huzzif') containing darning materials, and a kit bag to hold it all. In the NAAFI the airman's needed to obtain, at his own expense, padlocks to secure his locker and duffle bag, black boot polish, Brasso, soap etc. Ultimately he was instructed to parcel up his civilian clothes to be returned home by post.

National Service Cutlery
National Service Cutlery
Image courtesy of Brain Bouchard © 2010

After induction came basic training at one of five camps in the North of England [Hednesford, Padgate, Wilmslow, West Kirby & Bridgenorth], each recruit's destination being determined by the weekday on which he had arrived at Cardington. So I came to be herded with a number of uniformed 'sprogs' into a troop train waiting at Bedford. It departed to wend its way slowly through the English countryside heading for Merseyside, ultimately arriving at tiny Meols station on the Wirral peninsula. From there we were taken in three ton lorries to be deposited on the parade ground of RAF West Kirby where the conditioning by Corporal Drill Instructors began immediately.

click to see the will form which was towards the end of the book
RAF Service Book issued in 1955 - click to see the will form which was towards the end of the book
Image courtesy of Brain Bouchard © 2010

The training establishment was based on four squadrons each divided into five 'flights' of 22 men allocated to a particular billet. Each hut was similar to those described for Cardington. The central space between the two opposing ranks of beds had been provided with two tables, having respectively four wooden chairs. Towards each there stood a black solid fuel stove on a stone plinth with a coke container. Two long green painted racks were provided to hold rifles. The hut had two small private rooms at one end used by NCO's and was connected via a spinal corridor, to ablution blocks. The floor had been covered brown linoleum and highly polished (with the aid of a long handled 'bumper'); each bed-space was provided with a thin mat. Small squares torn from old blankets were piled by the entrance on which the occupants shuffled around to preserve the lino's burnished surface.

Basic training, extending over eight weeks, consisted saluting, marching, bayonet drill, shooting with rifle and bren gun, exposure to tear-gas, lectures on the hazards of a nuclear attack and sexually transmitted diseases, guard duty and so on. Inevitably there was 'bull' - cleaning the hut and equipment for regular inspection. It was a bitterly cold Winter but the stoves were left unlit, partly because fuel was difficult to obtain but mainly to avoid the chore of cleaning and re-polishing to the standard demanded. Pay parades took place in a huge echoing shed: stand in line, wait for name to be called, step forward and come to attention, state 'last three' of service number, salute the officer and bring right hand down to collect a note and few coins from the table. The rate was then 4 shillings a day or a total of £1.40 per week in decimal currency. Having been vaccinated, inoculated and lined up to donate blood, we were granted leave home over Christmas on the strict condition that full-dress uniform was to be worn when 'walking out'. Finally we began preparations for the passing out parade and took aptitude tests for trade training. Having demonstrated that I was not colour blind, it was possible to proceed to No.1 Radio School, RAF Locking, Weston super mare, for instruction in the duties of a Ground Wireless Mechanic ( C ).

During 12 weeks at Locking under technical training one could get back to Surrey on the occasional 48 hour pass and conditions were generally relaxed. Guard duty, however, needed to be taken seriously because of threats from the IRA. As the course moved towards its end each man's thoughts were turned to what next? Could one be given a 'cushy' billet close to home or posted to a trouble spot in the Near or Far East? In the event, my assignment was to 2nd Tactical Air Force, RAF Geilenkirchen, in Germany.

After embarkation leave, off to Liverpool Street and a troop train to Parkstone Quay, Harwich, to board HMT Empire Parkstone, one of three transport ships operating a shuttle service to the Hook of Holland. Having been battened down below decks in bunk beds for a queasy journey overnight it was a pleasure to come up to see the dawn break. After breakfast ashore joined a modern train operated by the Dutch which serviced bases of the British Army of the Rhine - and served lunch in a dining car.

Geilenkirchen
Geilenkirchen
Image source GeilenkirchenAB.JPG: BabyNukederivative work:
El Grafo (GeilenkirchenAB.JPG), via Wikimedia Commons

Geilenkirchen, called locally Flugplatz Teveren, had been newly built as a fighter base by the British in 1953. At the time of my arrival 2 Squadron was there with Supermarine Swift photo reconnaissance aircraft, 3 Squadron operated Hawker Hunter F4 day fighters, and 234 Squadron flew American F86 Sabre jets. What has become a NATO base is sited close to Heerlen just over the border in Holland. The accommodation was good and centrally heated. With personnel working in shifts during operations the atmosphere became more informal within the limits of good order and military discipline particularly for specialist ground staff. When the Suez Crisis developed, however, vehicles carrying mobile workshops and high frequency radio equipment were re-sprayed in a sand colour and disappeared - never to be seen again! The station was put on high alert: during festive celebrations at Christmas 1956, other ranks were served lunch by their officers whilst some pilots sat in their aircraft waiting at the end of the runway in case of a call to 'scramble'. After the tension subsided, day to day life reverted to a familiar routine with ample time for study by correspondence course.

Suez Christmas Menu Card - Click to see what was served
Suez Christmas Menu Card - Click to see what was served
Image courtesy of Brain Bouchard © 2010

WW2 had been over for only 11 years and the scars remained all around but particularly in Cologne following the devastation of wartime bombing. RAF Geilenkirchen had been established amongst woodland and fields tended by hand and there was little contact with local residents. Domestic services and maintenance on site, including the barber, cobbler etc., were provided by civilians employed in a German Service Organisation (GSO) so the camp became a largely self-contained community using British Armed Forces currency designated in sterling, 'BAFS'. Deutche marks and Dutch Guilders could be obtained for trips and outside purchases and recreation could be sought across the border in Heerlen, Netherlands, where the population was more kindly disposed towards British servicemen.

British Armed Forces Currency
British Armed Forces Currency
Image courtesy of Brain Bouchard © 2010

As a consequence of a family bereavement at Easter 1957, I was granted a compassionate home- posting to a Radio Maintenance Unit at RAF Chigwell. The explanation for its unusual location was that the workshops and other buildings had been erected in the Roding Valley to support barrage balloons raised in defence of London during WW2. To get there one simply took the Central Line to Buckhurst Hill! Pay rose to the Regular's rate for a Senior Aircraftman - four guineas a week. Nevertheless, even with easy access to central London, the last six months seemed interminable as each day was crossed off the 'demob chart' but at last one was released to walk past the guard room out of the gates to freedom.

Brian Bouchard taken in Geilenkirchen1956.jpg
Brian Bouchard taken in Geilenkirchen1956.jpg
Image courtesy of Brain Bouchard © 2010

Ironically, by chance, I went back to live and work in the area almost a quarter of a century later only to discover that the M11 had been put through part of the site and much of the remainder incorporated in the Roding Valley Nature Reserve.


Brian Bouchard © 2010
Member of Leatherhead and District Local History Society

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Her Majesty's Forces 1954 - 1957
S/Bombardier Eric Brown - 23211622


Gunners Badge

In 1954 when I was 'called up' to do my National Service - enlistment was still mandatory. Unless you were serving an apprenticeship or were in ill health you had to do two years service.

I went to Croydon for my medical and was passed A1. In my mind at that time, as far as I can remember, was the thought that if I did my National Service in the U.K. then I would probably be able to get home every other week or so and that would have made the two years drag. So I signed on as a Regular Soldier for 22 years. My reasoning behind this decision was the fact that as a Regular Soldier it was 99% certain that I would be sent abroad, and that would reduce the time factor, plus the fact my pay would be more and, if I got abroad I would also receive an 'Overseas Allowance'. I could also 'get out' after three years if I signed a form before I had completed two and a half years service. (the weekly 'pay' for a National Serviceman in 1954 was, in to-day's money - £1.40p).

I wanted to join the Royal Artillery. I got my wish and was posted to a camp in North Wales for my Basic Training at a barracks in Tonfannau situated on the cliff top. The nearest towns were Rhyl and Colwyn Bay. My first day of actual 'service' was 13th July 1954. Our P.T. 'Physical Training' was done early in the morning in vest and shorts - whatever the weather. I knew what it was like to be fit then.

Basic Training is almost exactly as it sounds. When you consider that the three monthly intake - on a regular basis was a couple of hundred teenagers from all walks of life - then you can see that everyone had to be treated as 'one'. It had to be drummed into everyone that if anyone in authority told you to do something - no matter how daft it may have appeared to you - you did it without question. Once a week we would have a barrack room inspection by an officer and a sergeant. Part of this inspection was that all your kit was to be laid out on your bed - to a specific format - in squares that measured 9" x 9" (23cm x 23cm). This included: underpants, vests, shirts, trousers, jumpers - these had to be washed, ironed and folded into squares of the above size. This was interspersed with other kit - gaiters, belts, bullet pouches, backpacks all cleaned and all brasses polished. This was topped off by a 'bedroll' placed at the top of the bed i.e. blanket/sheet/blanket/sheet and the final blanket rolled around the lot. All this had to be done by 9.00 a.m. the next morning with only one iron available to the whole barrack block - say twenty plus soldiers! In other words you possibly had to stay up all night to get a turn at the iron!

The inspection would take place and if the officer was not happy with what had been done by an individual I have seen him order the poor guy responsible to open the nearest window to him and throw out all his gear onto the flower beds outside. He would then order him to go outside in his boots and mark time over it trampling everything into the earth (and being Wales it was wet quite often). He would then be told to retrieve his gear and ordered to get it washed and ironed and the officer would inspect it again the following morning!! We would be told to get dressed in FSMO (Full Service Marching Order) e.g. khaki battledress, boots, helmet, rifle, bullet pouches and backpacks all fully packed and then taken out into the countryside and marched through farmland for 'manoeuvres'. This was to get us used to 'facing the enemy' if ever required. When the order 'take cover' or 'drop' was given you had to throw yourself face down onto the ground immediately - no matter what was directly under you (there were lots of sheep and cows around in North Wales!!). Nine times out of ten it would have been raining the day before and some of the above mentioned sheep and cows would have relieved themselves prior to you getting there. Then, guess what, correct - "barrack room inspection at 9.00 a.m. in the morning".

I have to admit that on the whole I thoroughly enjoyed the majority of training, in particular drill: e.g. marching etc. especially with rifles. I was selected at the end of training to join what was known as 'Con Troop' (an abbreviation of 'Continuation Troop') and we were given extra training on the 3.7 inch Heavy Anti Aircraft guns - and our target practice was firing at a target towed behind an aircraft flying parallel with the line of the cliffs. We were also given a Drill Sergeant, who was a Royal Marine, he instructed us on various other marching skills together with Ceremonial Drill i.e. drills that were used on ceremonial occasions, I lapped that up. In total I had 162 days in training and arrived in Hong Kong on the 22nd December 1954. (Merry Christmas!)

We sailed from Liverpool and were the last ship to pass through the Suez Canal before President Nasser blockaded it. From sleeping in your own bed to sleeping in a bunk with, if you were on the bottom, two other people above you, with possibly twelve inches between each of you isn't a thing I would want to experience too often. You can imagine that personal hygiene was of the upmost importance. This was even more so when we got into warmer climates. One of the guys would not comply so he was taken into the showers one day by a few of the people sleeping closest to him and they scrubbed him all over with a bass broom until his back bled. He never made the same mistake again! Our journey took us from Liverpool around the bottom of Portugal and Spain into the Mediterranean and down to Port Said and then through the Suez Canal. That led to the Red Sea and then into the Indian Ocean calling in at Colombo. From there to Malaysia calling in at Singapore before turning North and passing between Vietnam and the Philippines before arriving in Hong Kong.

We immediately had to do a couple of weeks Acclimatization Course to get our bodies accustomed to the drastic change in temperature. This was held on a small island called Stonecutters which was in the harbour off the coast of mainland China and more or less in the shadow of Hong Kong Island itself. On completion of the course we were transferred to Stanley Fort barracks which was on the far side of Hong Kong Island. The powers that be, during World War II, never believed that the Japanese army would come down the mainland and cross the harbour to get onto the island. Based on that thought they built all the defences at the back of the island facing out to sea because they believed that any invasion would come from there. The British Army was therefore quite surprised when the Japanese army came across the harbour without any challenge and said "Hi we have arrived would you like to surrender"?

I found myself in 137 H.A.A. (Heavy Anti-Aircraft) Battery which was part of the 27th H.A.A. Regiment. After a short while I was transferred back to Stonecutters Island to become part of a team looking after the new arrivals coming in from the U.K. and helped in their Acclimatization Course.

Part of one of the Acclimatization Courses.
Part of one of the Acclimatization Courses.
Eric Brown, 3rd from left in front row.
Image courtesy Eric Brown © 2011

I returned to Stanley Fort and became a Drill Instructor. Marching along with possibly a hundred men in addition to drilling them was something I very much enjoyed.

All this in addition to being selected to take on the running of the Battery Office; taking the Army 3rd Class Certificate of Education; passing my BIII and then BII Clerical Examinations enabled me to be promoted to a Lance Bombardier (one stripe) and then Bombardier (two stripes) all within one year of arriving in Hong Kong.

I was appointed Battery Chief Clerk in 1956. I received one more promotion which added the term of Substantive (permanent), to my rank of Bombardier. This in fact meant that my stripes could only be taken away by a Court Martial. I was offered a promotion to Sergeant if I would return with the Regiment at the end of my tour and be posted to Scotland where the Regiment was to become a Guided Missile Regiment. I declined the offer.

Regimental Sergeant Major Isherwood with his N.C.O's
Regimental Sergeant Major Isherwood with his N.C.O's
Stanley Fort Barracks, Hong Kong, 1955
Image courtesy Eric Brown © 2011

I took part in a couple of 'armed border patrols' - a patrol was made up of a number of soldiers (12 - 20), including an officer and a couple of medics. A border patrol meant exactly that. We crossed to the mainland and were driven up country towards the Communist border where we then patrolled (fully armed) across country passing through villages looking for anything untoward. The medics tried to give help to the villagers where they could with very limited supplies to some - at times - horrible cases. We came across some very nasty cases of gangrene.

Hong Kong provided quite a few memories for me. For instance I have seen, in some violent storms, boats being plucked from the harbour and deposited in the road above the promenade. Our barrack blocks were concrete built and three storeys high. The ground floor of our block housed offices and the Quartermasters Stores. Floors 1 and 2 each had three rooms sleeping about 20 - 30 soldiers and each floor had an ablutions room at opposite ends of Floor 1 and 2.

During storms when there were very high winds we had to rig up ropes to enable us to pull ourselves from the barrack room into the ablutions room to save us from being blown over a balcony.

3.7 inch Heavy Anti Aircraft Guns
3.7 inch Heavy Anti Aircraft Guns.
Image courtesy Eric Brown © 2011

In hindsight I really do believe that the Army experience gave me quite a lot and the discipline did not do me any harm overall. The Army also allowed me to meet a cross section of the 'public' and that has helped me - I believe - to get on with almost everyone in later life. It also helped me to stand on my own two feet. I don't think that I would have seen quite so much of the world as I have done - at no cost to me. It also gave me the opportunity to see 'real poverty'. When people in this country talk about poverty they really have no idea what the word means. In Hong Kong for example I have seen people fighting over the corpse of a dog that had been run over or even a centipede that had been trodden on - this would be for them to add it to the pot for a meal! (I am not joking). News items after a severe storm stating that over night 500 homes had been destroyed and 5000 people had been made homeless. The type of 'homes' that had been destroyed were possibly made out of bits of wood, metal, cardboard etc. and it was nothing for a family of ten to live in one of these 'homes'. One of the 'villages' in Hong Kong was called Aberdeen. This was totally made up of boats - there were no houses as such. The people lived, ate and slept on these - it really was a sight to behold, seeing them getting to the shore by walking across many other boats.

Coming home was completely different - Hong Kong to Singapore where we were allowed to get off and we spent about a day and a half wandering around the city. We then sailed across the Indian Ocean to Cape Town. We were looking forward to getting off there and seeing something of the City but unfortunately we had Asian flu on board and they would not let anyone off. They brought a circus down to the quayside and we were able to watch a performance with everyone hanging over one side - the boat must have had a very large list to it. Well I have at least seen Table Mountain with and without its 'cloth'. From Cape Town to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands and then finally into Southampton. A train to Woolwich for de-mob (demobilisation) and back into life as a civilian.

In total I spent 3 years and 15 days in the Army and returned to Civvy Street on the 27th July 1957. After that I was required to serve 4 years in the Army Reserve which meant that I could have been called up again at any time in those 4 years, if required.

Old Gunners Never Die: A re-union of the 27th H.A.A. Regiment, Royal Artillery, Hong Kong Gunners Association, was held at The Charlton Park Hotel, Rotherham, South Yorkshire, on Saturday 10th October 2009. I attended this with my son Mark.

Old Gunners Never Die
Old Gunners Never Die
Image courtesy Eric Brown © 2011

Eric Brown © 2011

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