National Service was a life-changing experience for many COME the end of the Second World War, and many young men breathed a sigh of relief. They would not be called up into the Armed Forces after all.
More fool them. The demands of a peacetime Army spread out across the old British Empire, plus the occupation forces in Germany, were more than could be met by volunteers alone.
It was to be 1960 before the last batch of conscripts signed up, and 1963, with the Swinging Sixties well under way, before the final reluctant soldier left the Army.
For most, it was to be a love-hate relationship. The Army – and most conscripts were in the Army, rather than the Navy or Air Force – could seem to be an unfeeling and unfair institution, but it was also a substitute family for those who were leaving home for the first time. There are many affectionate memories, perhaps made a bit warmer by the passage of time.
Many conscripts were given chances during their military service they would not have had in civilian life.
Anyone with a performing talent was likely to be hauled into forces’ entertainment. Typical of the wartime generation were the four key members of the Goon show in the 1950s, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine. Many an ex-conscript recognised the sheer madness of the military in the Goons’ anarchic humour, and Milligan’s war memoirs went on to become comedy classics.
In post-war years, musicians like Bill Wyman, right, later of the Rolling Stones, would have the freedom to perform while in the Army, while the Wirral-born DJ John Peel, top, discovered rock and troll from Armed Forces Radio while serving as a radar operator in the late 1950s.
Sport was always a way of avoiding the worst boredom of Army life. The Army encouraged it, as it kept people fit and encouraged leadership – or at least that was the theory.
Certainly, nearly all the top footballers of the day passed through the Army’s hands before turning professional. Many of the English World Cup winning side of 1966 had done their spell in the Army, including Liverpool’s Roger Hunt and Bobby Charlton of Manchester United.
They may all have hated it at the time – but many now appreciate the chances that an initially unwanted spell in the military gave them. THE POST