Britain needed a large army after 1945 as she struggled to retain her remaining imperial possessions. For some colonies, the transition to independence took place relatively peacefully. In others, such as Kenya and Malaya, national servicemen found themselves in the front line fighting guerrilla wars. It was also essential that Britain provide a large garrison force in Germany and a smaller one in Japan. Troops were also needed to maintain peace in places experiencing civil unrest, such as Cyprus. National servicemen were vital in providing the Army with manpower.
The advent of the Cold War between the communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the capitalist United States forced Britain to maintain a large standing army in the event of war. Divided Germany became a hotspot for tension and the national serviceman was the first line of defence. Many of them served with the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR). In the end a global war never came to pass. However, national servicemen did see action against communist forces in places such as Korea and Malaya.
After the shared experience of army training, national servicemen were then posted to one of Britain's many garrisons around the world. For many, this was the first time they had visited a foreign country, let alone lived in one. National servicemen could end up in places as diverse as the deserts of Egypt and Libya or the jungles of Malaya and Borneo. They could be manning a checkpoint or engaged in active combat in a war zone. Given these varied roles, not all national servicemen fully understood the political factors leading to their deployment.
For some, the dramatic changes in climate, culture and landscape were what occupied their thoughts. For those deployed to a war zone, the possibility of death was suddenly part of daily life.
'I was very conscious of the fact that there was no way that I could have ever hoped to visit any foreign country without the assistance of the Queen. As we progressed along the Canal we were constant witnesses to the hostility of the Egyptian people. British Army vehicles travelling along the Canal road had metal struts attached to the front of the vehicle. The purpose of this was to cut any wire which was from time to time strung across the road for the sole purpose of separating the driver's head from the rest of his body.'
Gordon T Kell, Royal Army Medical Corps, 1952-54
The experience many men had of being thrown into combat situations such as Korea, Malaya, Suez and Aden would never be forgotten. Men with minimal training were expected to fight guerrillas or cope with riots or civil war situations. A total of 395 national servicemen were killed on active service.
'So I looked and all his side was out and he was dead. He'd been in the Army only a few months. He was a new draft...I should think he'd done about six weeks' intensive training in the desert and then he chopped it...I felt in a daze really, it was something...I just can't pinpoint how I felt, but I know I was shi*ting myself, I was frightened.'
Private Eric Pearson, Lancashire Fusiliers, 1948-60
A national serviceman's time in the Army ended when he was discharged, or 'demobbed' back to civilian life. Soldiers greeted demob with mixed feelings. Some had lost friends in action. Many would miss the camaraderie and time abroad. A few would choose to stay on as regular soldiers. However, most were impatient to escape the monotony of training and the dangers of life on the front line.
'I remember most standing outside our barracks, waiting for the truck to take us to...the [troopship SS] Nerassa to take us home. Private Sullivan said to me while we waited. "Jim" he said "When people ask you what National Service was like, don't forget to tell them it was awful. It was f**kin' awful" he said. I have never forgotten that chap's words.'
Private J Vinall, Royal Army Pay Corps, 1958-60
The Suez Crisis of 1956 forced the British government to re-assess their use of the armed services. Britain was no longer a world superpower. Troops were not needed to maintain an overseas empire. The new nuclear threat had to be met with a nuclear deterrent, and rendered a large defence force ineffective. Britain's large conscript garrison army was to be replaced by a rapid deployment force with modern weapons and equipment. The Defence Review of 1957 initiated a difficult period of transition.
The manpower absorbed into National Service had become a burden, tying up regular soldiers in training new recruits. National Service also drained workers from the economy. This resulted in the public, government, industry and many high-ranking officers opposing it. The last national serviceman, Second Lieutenant Richard Vaughan of the Royal Army Pay Corps, was demobbed on 16 May 1963.
'So, in general, here's the youth of the country, dissipating their energies in utterly non-productive wasted activity, while the country, badly needing their labour, moulders and stagnates. Even the Roman Empire didn't have it that bad before its decline and fall.'
Corporal Ian Colquhoun, Royal Engineers, 1953-55
Although National Service was a shock to the system and a horrible experience for many, others saw it as a time of great camaraderie. Bonds were formed quickly amongst men from disparate backgrounds thrown together in a strange situation, made stronger by the discipline imposed on them beginning with their basic training. Some of the friendships formed during National Service would last a lifetime.
'I made comrades the like of which I have never done ever again. I looked forward to demob for two years but when the day came, "Christ, hey, I'm going to miss you guys".'
Trevor Baylis, Royal Sussex Regiment, 1959-61
'National Service changed me. I'd seen men fighting. I'd seen dead men for the first time, I'd been in a situation where I could have been killed. Looking back, National Service seems strange, surreal. I behaved in a way I have never done since...When I got to Fleet Street my Suez experience qualified me to be a war correspondent and I went to the Congo...and was mostly terrified.'
Captain Michael Parkinson, Royal Army Pay Corps and Army Public Relations, 1955-57
'When the time came to board our various trains at Southampton, the feeling was of sadness rather than the feeling of joyous relief which was the feeling we had been looking forward to for the last two years. We had made friends who had been "FAITHFUL IN ADVERSITY". My final summing up of the last two years was that I would not have missed it for the world.'
Gordon T Kell, Royal Army Medical Corps, 1952-54