Post World War Two 'National Service' in Britain:
The start of peace-time National Service in Britain
Although to most of the population National Service
was something that started after World War
Two, some 90% of the armed forces were National Service during the
war. This meant that they were legally required to join the armed forces
or undertake some form of war work - and it applied to women as well as
men between the ages of 18 to 51. After the war, they were
from this National Service.
Some soldiers were kept under arms for quite a
while after the end of the WW2 and made to fight the communists in Malaya. One group refused,
were court martialled for treason and due to be executed. However when eventually questions
were asked in Parliament, it was discovered that under the Act of Parliament that conscripted them
they were not obliged to fight at all in any conflict which did not directly threaten the security of the Kingdom. They were quietly released and shipped home.
So when the Bill setting up National Service was passed, it did not contain such an exclusion clause which meant that National Servicemen could be sent to Korea and Aden and anywhere else the government of the day decided it needed to interfere.
The basic idea behind post-war National Service
was that in the event of another war young men who had undertaken it would
be re-called and within days be ready to serve again. In 1939 at the beginning
of World War Two we had a very small standing army and as a result it took
years to build up the forces to defeat the Germans.
After the end of World War Two, National Service as peacetime conscription was formalised in the UK by the
National Service Act of 1948. From 1 January 1949, all fit young men between 17
and 21 years of age were required to serve in the armed forces for 18 months, and
remain on the reserve list for four years. In October 1950, in response to the
British involvement in the Korean War, the service period was extended to two
Not that I knew any of this at the time:
'National Service' as I understood it as a teenager in 1950s Britain meant
that when boys were 18 years old they had to spend two years training in the
armed forces. Among the people I knew, this was deeply resented - even though
they may have seen the necessity for it following the events of World War Two.
It was seen as a serious disruption to boys' continuing education and career
development and something that would be distinctly unpleasant. While I was a
teenager, the hope seemed to be all around me that National Service would end
before it would affect my age group. In fact it didn't, not that it affected
me, as a girl.
National Service ended gradually from 1960. In November 1960 the last men entered service, and call-ups formally ended on 31 December 1960.
The last National Servicemen left the Armed Forces in May 1963.
Deferral of National Service
In my experience, the call up board was very helpful
and did all they could to accommodate people seeking deferment. So there
were men aged 21/22 and older, having been called up after their degree courses were
finished, working alongside the last of the 18 year olds who had been called
Although all fit young men between 18 and 21 were required to do National
Service, they could get this 'deferred' if they had a place for an
apprenticeship or higher education. Most degree courses qualified for
Deferral simply meant that the deferred young men were excused National Service
until after their further or higher education - but then they still had to do
it. In this respect, my generation was fortunate. I left my
grammar school in 1957 and for
those of my contemporaries who went on to higher education, National Service
had finished by the time they had completed their degrees or apprenticeships.
My husband was one of those who never did National Service.
The form of national service
The first part of the period of national service consisted of what was called ‘basic training’ which was more or less the same for every conscript.
This was followed by further training which was related to the work that each
conscript was to expected do during the rest of his national service. The personal experiences pages
- see the menu on the left - give more details.
The value of National Service
Resented as National Service was, most of the men I have since spoken to
report that it was the making of them. They may not have enjoyed it but were
the better for it. They ended up fitter than they had ever been in their lives;
some learnt trades and all acquired skills that remained useful.