I recently saw a newspaper article about the last National Serviceman to be demobilised fifty years ago. How can fifty years pass so quickly? It only seems last year that I received my call-up papers.
National Service had been hanging over me for three years after leaving school. To many people it blighted their lives in the interim between school and call-up. If you were lucky enough to be studying for an apprenticeship a professional exam or a university degree you could apply for deferment. In my case I had no reason to apply for deferment so I entered Her Majesty’s Service at the appointed time - or almost. Government had decided to phase out NS gradually and I was part of the first group to be deferred by six months. All that meant was that I joined in the heat of summer instead of the cold of January, at the tender age of 18 and six months.
Call-up started with a medical. Everyone who has seen a Carry On film will have visions of that experience. "Cough!" But it also included a series of intelligence and aptitude tests plus an interview when one was asked "What would you like to do during National Service?" I knew nothing about radio so said that I would like to spend my time learning something useful that I didn’t know. The Royal Signals would be perfect thank you. Six weeks later I was told to report to Devizes. The training camp for the Royal Army Pay Corps.
I had always felt myself a square peg in a round hole when working in advertising. The military mind seemed to think that square pegs should continue to be put into round holes if that is where they chose to live their lives, though choice had little to do with it in my case. An office worker was a clerk in the military mind, so a clerk I would continue to be.
The intelligence and aptitude tests included one with 100 questions to be answered in one minute. They were simple questions but answering them in one minute was a challenge. I did my best and nearly managed it. Whether they were right answers is another matter. Afterwards I spoke to other chaps taking the tests who seemed to think it was all a big joke. "Ask silly questions and you get silly answers" was the general response. Perhaps giving correct answers to the questions was not the point of the test, but rather finding the attitude of the participants to the test. So maybe it was not such a bad way of separating potential RASC from RAPC. For those not familiar with the services. Royal Army Service Corps and Royal Army Pay Corps. In army patois better known as Rubbish And Sh...t Collectors or Rob Any Poor Charlie. Perhaps I should have been more pleased than disappointed at the result. One of the few moments in life when I wished I was dead was the first morning I awoke in the barrack room. At roughly 5 a.m. the training corporals went through each barrack room with a big stick which they hammered onto the frame of each bed as they walked down the rows shouting "GET YOUR FEET ON THE FLOOR NOW!" Rude awakening doesn’t begin to describe it.
Oh, how we hated those corporals. Little men in starched uniforms and gleaming polished boots. For the next six weeks they shouted and cajoled us into a group of clockwork soldiers and by the time they had finished, we loved them all. First impressions were that these corporals were sadists, They were not. We thought our treatment was harsh, but it was nothing compared with the training those chosen for that job had to go through. They were brilliant psychologists who managed to shape a bunch of the most diverse individuals into a team. They put confidence into the feint hearted and shocked the life out of the cock-sure. If National Service had any worth at all it was all achieved in those first six weeks; unfortunately it lasted two years.
I was lucky. I had a reasonably responsible job and I was able to see a little of the world. They say "Life is what you make of it" and it was certainly true of National Service. I met all sorts. There were those who spent their entire two years inside whichever camp they were posted to. Others explored their surroundings and met local people. You could suffer the army or exploit it. One I met who hated it spent his entire two years writing "I Hate The Army" in small letters on anything and everything he came into contact with. They tried everything to stop him, including making him a military policeman guarding the camp gate. His response was to write his message all over the white gates of the camp. Like that wonderful character in Mash 4077 who dressed in women’s clothes in order to be discharged unfit, the army didn’t comply and he served his two years, half of it cleaning off the mess he made.
Back row, fourth from the right. At the training camp, Devizes.
The RAPC was the haven of sportsmen. Any well-known sportsman of that time was assured a place in the RAPC and a home posting whilst doing National Service. This allowed them to carry on with their sport and bring kudos to the corps. This was never admitted to or official policy, but it was common practice at the time. Home postings for everybody else were reserved for compassionate cases.
During my training we were given instruction in rifle, bren gun and sten gun use by a Sgt who was a full time soldier and who was a champion shot at Bisley. He was a short, dapper man who liked to display his skill. I suffer from tinnitus to this day caused by him letting off a few rounds with a rifle, unexpectedly while we were standing under a metal roofed shelter on the firing range. We had not been issued with any ear protection and the noise was literally deafening.
Fast forward two years to when I arrived at the demobilisations camp at Ash in Surrey having completed my two years in BAOR. I went into the washroom on the morning after arrival and found the toilets being cleaned by that very same Sgt. who taught me to use a rifle, only he was now a private soldier. He had, apparently, been found in bed with another soldier. It was probably well known that he was homosexual, but he had committed the crime of getting caught.
As a National Serviceman one spends two years longing for the day when it will all end. RAPC Pay Clerks are attached to regiments and in the 2nd Regt RHA we were only four pay clerks to 600 men. This means that RAPC men arrive alone rather than as part of a group. They also leave alone. I found myself at the demob barracks at Ash and was duly processed. I changed into civvies and walked through the gate – alone. I felt that there should be bands playing, flags waving and people cheering. There was, of course, nothing but an empty street. It was the biggest anticlimax of my life.
Before joining up I was told by an older friend that I would meet the best friends I would ever have. He was right. The odd thing is that at the end of those two years we all reverted to civilian life and those undying friendships faded quickly away. Where are they all now I wonder.
National Service was a complex experience. I didn’t want to do it any more than any other conscript does, but the comradeship, the travel, the adventures – and there were many, made it a memorable experience and one that I surely must have benefited from.
The discussion as to whether NS should be reintroduced is a complicated one; just like life itself. It benefits some and hinders others. I did well from the experience but would have preferred the cost being spent on my education instead. That last man to be demobbed that I read about recently had been deferred while he finished his Chartered Accountancy studies. He too served in the RAPC though he had a pip on his shoulder for two years rather than a chip. Spending two years in uniform before being allowed to start his career was in his case an obvious disadvantage.
National Service is both expensive for a nation to operate and not compatible with everyone’s beliefs in a multicultural society. Perhaps Community Service might be a better alternative. Taking young people from all walks of life and teaching them to integrate with each other while providing useful services for the community would be better. But in a world where too many people are chasing too few employment opportunities that might be a problem. One thing is certain, we do not need more soldiers.
Vic Howard June 2015
Call up the Army and the Navy. Call up the rank and file. Call up the gallant territorials – They’ll save England with a smile. Call up the boys and the old diehards To fight for liberty. Call up my brother, my sister and my mother But for Gawdsake don’t call me.