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How National Service turned boys into men

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THE National Service Act of 1948 called for all physically fit males between the ages of 17 and 21 to serve in one of the armed forces for an 18-month period. I know. I was there.

In August 1949 I went, complaining, unwilling and with some slight fear and doubt like every other 18-year-old, to the RAF initial training centre at Padgate, part of Warrington, then in Lancashire. In the ensuing seven weeks we were transformed from a rabble of unkempt, wary and grumbling youths to a disciplined body in highly polished boots and carefully ironed uniforms, obeying orders without question.

Surprises began early. Several immunisation jabs resulted in half a dozen of the heftiest lads fainting flat on the floor. Uniforms came along on the second day so we had to send our civvy clothes home in a parcel. We were all given ID cards and a service number which I remember to this day, and we had to stamp this on all our ancillary items such as shoe brushes.

We were divided into ‘flights’ of about 20 lads, with a corporal in charge. Very quickly you learned that his two stripes meant he was your God and you did what he said, instantly. These corporals turned human occasionally and taught us how to iron our trousers, polish our boots and fold our blankets very precisely every morning before breakfast. Imagine! Twenty 18-year-olds suddenly aware of what their mothers did.

The training centred largely on the parade ground (‘square-bashing’). This was not only to get us to march in time and in step (normal or slow), but to instil in us that when an order was given you obeyed, again instantly. At the same time we were being gradually welded into a team.

There were more interesting days when we had somewhat perfunctory lessons in aircraft recognition, using leftover charts from the war, and we were taught to shoot. Curiously though (and I have never understood this) we spent some time stabbing sacks of hay with bayonets while screaming as loudly as possible. Surely by 1949 there would be no more fighting with bayonets?

The hardest work we did was on the nights before barrack inspections. Everything was polished, especially the coke stoves in the middle of the room. I was lucky being there in August; what did they do in winter when the stoves would be on most of the night? The floor had to shine which, considering 20 pairs of boots hammered it all day, took some doing. Imagine again: 18-year-olds polishing floors as if their lives depended on it.

There were compensations: a 24-hour pass, for instance, with much-reduced ‘forces’ rail fares. I went to Blackpool with two mates from my flight; the Tower Ballroom was packed as it rained all day. There was overnight guard duty so you had the next morning off, and a turn in the cookhouse so you could choose to have two puddings instead of a main course.

The first occasion when we were allowed to make a choice was towards the end of training when we were asked to consider what we wanted to do for the next 18 months. This was the moment which I think made the whole conscription affair worthwhile for most of the lads, at least in the RAF. I don’t know what it was like in the other two services.

Officers arrived and set out a range of possible activities, such as aircraft engineer, air traffic control assistant, drill instructor, clerical and admin, motor mechanic, radio operator and others that I can’t remember. I was out of all this as I was already working for the Met Office when called up and would continue the same job afterwards, though in uniform.

For some of them the call-up had undoubtedly interfered with their lives, their jobs and their plans. But from what I saw, for the vast majority it suddenly gave them a chance to do something useful which they could carry on into civilian life in 18 months, except that in October 1950, because of the war in Korea, the government added another six months.

We were not asked for our choice of personal pronouns, we all ate whatever food was provided, missing breakfast was a crime, no one had allergies, we didn’t drape protest messages over the site offices, we did not dare to take offence at being told what to do 100 times a day, and if the next training task was to run two miles, we did it, no matter how unfit we were in the first couple of weeks.

You find that last paragraph hard to believe? All true. I was there.

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Ivor Williams
Ivor Williams
Ivor Williams is a freelance writer and has been a fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society since 1984.

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