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Post-WW2 National Service in the UK


Experiences of post-war National Service in the Royal Signals

badge of the Royal Signals

This contribution on national Service in the Royal Signals (1959-61) emphasises the harshness of the basic training, the Sergeant Major and punishments, but explains how it was ameliorated by the supportive bonding among recruits. Included is the training and work in Cyprus, Libya and Tobruck.


Firsthand recollections of John Gaisford, as told to his wife, Jill Gaisford and edited by the webmaster

The call-up

I originally intended a career in the Fleet Air Arm, which would of course have excluded me from the standard National Service. However, I then met the girl who was to be my future wife and started going out with her. I became convinced that going away so early in our relationship would probably mean that I lost her to someone else. So I told the powers that be that I wouldn't join the Fleet Air Arm. I took a job locally in a garage while waiting for a 'proper job' to turn up. My parents, however, put pressure on me to help my father in my grandfather's business, which I did.

Inevitably, though, the authorities 'caught up with me' and it wasn't long before I was called up for National Service. This began in August 1959.

Basic training

The first month was the worst. Basic training was certainly a 'baptism of fire', but we learnt a lot (in all ways possible). We learnt to cope, simply because we didn't have a choice. It was character building and taught us a lot about ourselves and how to relate to fellow humans.

Square bashing

We did a lot of 'square bashing', ie marching round and round the square. We were shouted at by the Sergeant Major if anyone was out of step and were told to "swing them arms laddie".

The Sergeant Major and punishments

The Sergeant Major shouted a great deal and would stand very close to a man and shout at his face. He would say stupid things like "I am not your mother, I won't tuck you up in bed at night".

The Sergeant Major would shout at us all and say something to the effect, "If you don't do as you are told, then I will pull your arm off and wipe the soggy end around your face". Some of the Non-Commissioned Officers were, in fact, just low intellect bully boys. I understand that the Army isn't like that anymore. I do hope so.

Everything had to be perfect for the Sergeant Major re our uniforms and the dorm where we all lived and slept. The Sergeant Major would try and 'catch us out' and was delighted if he found a speck of dust on a top shelf. If anything was slightly wrong, he would make the dorm untidy and force the soldiers to tidy up and make it absolutely immaculate again. The Sergeant Major would even test the beds to see if the sheets were tucked in properly and tight enough across the bed.

If one of us did anything that was considered wrong, we got what was called 'Jankers', which was the punishment of spend all day peeling endless potatoes or cleaning the gym floor with a toothbrush!

Consequently, young National Servicemen soon learnt to 'do as they were told' without question. We learnt never to argue, or there would be an awful punishment. When an Officer said 'jump the only permissible response was "Yes sir, how high?".

Note from the webmaster

Pointless punishments

I can endorse what John says about pointless punishments in the Royal Signals. My father was also in the Royal Signals, although that was in the Second World War. I particularly remember his irritation that soldiers were punished by being made to sweep up leaves against the wind.

Tricks to avoid punishments

I knew some tricks to satisfy the Sergeant Major. These came from my grandfather who had been a professional soldier. For example, if a beret didn't fit properly, 'accidently' drop it into cold water in order to shrink it. Also, as the army boots had to shine and be absolutely spotless apply a hot iron to the tiny lumps on the end of the leather in order to burn them off and then spend hours polishing them so they were like a mirror. Of course, no-one admitted to the officers that they did this, but no doubt they knew anyway.

We also had a ruse to annoy the Sergeant Major without getting caught. While square bashing, one row would march out of step (on purpose and by pre-arrangement) and then when the Sergeant Major ran along the ranks to see which row was out of step, that row would go back into step and another row would take over being out-of step. So the Sergeant Major couldn't find the culprits or blame anyone in particular. The Sergeant Major got quite irritated, and the soldiers thought that was wonderful.


We were paid very little, I can't remember how much, but each month money was taken out of our pay for 'barrack room damages' even if we hadn't damaged the barrack room!

Bonding with the other recruits

Gathering together a lot of young lads from all parts of the country and all walks of life and expecting them to live together in the barracks was quite an experience! We tended to bond, because of the 'common enemy' - i.e. the Sergeant Major!

We had to have our own rules to a degree and deal with some problems ourselves. For example, there was one lad who didn't wash much and wasn't good on personal hygiene. So we told him to wash or shower. As he still didn't bother much, we told him that he stank and he was to shower. He still didn't bother. So when he was asleep one night, we somehow managed to put his bed (with him in it!) on top of one or two other beds. When the 'unwashed one' woke up and got out of bed, more than half asleep, he had a fall to the floor and a massive shock! He showered after that!

Cyprus for job training

I definitely had a better time when I was posted to Cyprus. I was only in there for two weeks, starting to learn the job.

On the job in Libya and Tobruck

I was in Libya and Tobruck for the rest of the time where learning the job and doing it merged into one another. This was the desert which had it's own challenges, with only sand and camels for miles and miles and miles.

Being in the Royal Signals, the main work was to keep communications going. When something didn't work, we soldiers and/or airmen would have to drive into the desert to make repairs. This was often at night. Quite a lot of cable which was buried in the sand 'went missing'. Sometimes we could see the Arabs in the car headlights rolling it up. When they realised that they had been seen, they disappeared into the night, as if by magic.

Once when I was up a telegraph pole making repairs, a plane flew past me, lower than I was.

I was attached to the RAF at the El Adam airbase in Lybia. While there I went to the beach at Tobruk and even enjoyed being part of an 'exercise' being scooped up from the sea in a big net hanging from a helicopter!

At one stage some umbrellas were put up on the beach where we servicemen were. This was quite a surprise, as only the officers had umbrellas on 'their' beach. All was soon explained! A photographer came along and took photos of 'our servicemen enjoying the sun and beach in Tobruk', after which the umbrellas were taken down and returned to the officers' beach.

I went on a survival course in the desert and was left, with others, for a few days. It wasn't rolling sand dunes; it was flat and scrub-like with scorpions and spiders. We always put our boots upside down and never ever put them on without shaking them to make sure that there wasn't a scorpion inside. We were given food, but had to gather water by putting some cloth down and letting it catch the dew.

On a lighter note, I had the interesting experience of eating food with some Bedouins in their tent.

I was demobbed in August 1961.

by John Gaisford, as told to his wife, Jill Gaisford

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