Skip to 0 minutes and 6 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: Welcome to RAF Cosford, the museum here. We're standing in the National Cold War Exhibition, and behind us we have some information about the National Service, that a number of young men and-- young women?

Skip to 0 minutes and 22 secondsROSS MAHONEY: Young men.

Skip to 0 minutes and 23 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: Young men, OK, so moving on-- were required to do during the late 1940s and through to 1960. Now we talked a little bit earlier Ross, about pruning down the size of the RAF. Why did the British government introduce National Service in 1949?

Skip to 0 minutes and 40 secondsROSS MAHONEY: Again, it's context. Two issues, really. One is the empire. There's still a need to maintain forces in the empire. By the late 1940s, the Malayan confrontation has flared up, and there are problems there, the decision that we are slowly withdrawing from the empire. And, of course, recognition that the world is changing. Need to maintain the forces, and of course, eventually the threat from the Soviet Union. So there is a process that starts essentially as soon as the war ends, where there's a recognition that while wartime conscription has ended, there is a need for peacetime conscription. Of course it's not called conscription, that's politically unsavoury, so it's referred to as National Service.

Skip to 1 minute and 23 secondsAnd eventually the National Service Act is passed in 1948, comes into effect in 1949, and is there until the early 1960s.

Skip to 1 minute and 33 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: Did National Service affect the standing of what we described as the professional Air Force?

Skip to 1 minute and 38 secondsROSS MAHONEY: It's quite interesting. At times, there are more people available for National Service than the armed forces, in general, need. But also, the RAF only receives a proportion of those. Majority of National Service personnel go to the Army. The RAF get the next highest proportion, and the Navy are at the bottom. They don't need as many. It doesn't really affect the professional standing, there is still a professional core to the RAF. What the National Service gives is, it gives a bit of oomph to the service. There's a bit of a resilience in the service that can expand, because they do 18 months to two years in service. And then they go to four years in the Reserves.

Skip to 2 minutes and 18 secondsSo, of course, there's that flexibility, along with the regular reserves, that if the worst case would happen, they can be called up.

Skip to 2 minutes and 26 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: Now you mentioned oomph and the Air Force. National Service has phased out in the late 1950s. Was this a positive experience for the Air Force overall, having National Servicemen in RAF colours?

Skip to 2 minutes and 42 secondsROSS MAHONEY: Yes, of course, National Service ends in 1960, the last National Serviceman leaves in 1963. It's a fairly positive experience. The RAF is generally a very positive experience for the majority of people who go through it. There are, of course, people who didn't enjoy it. It is, at the end of the day, conscription. You don't have a say in whether or not you get called up. But some people it is there. Culturally, Get Some In! in the 1970s is an interesting reflection on the effect of National Service and the Royal Air Force, as a sitcom. But in general, it's not a negative experience.

Skip to 3 minutes and 18 secondsIt has its problems, some of which the students might want to go and have a research on. But it's there. And it's not as bad, in my opinion, as it might have been. Roger, you joined the RAF in 1949 as part of National Service, but went on to do pilot training. Can you just tell us something about that, because National Services, and pilot training, weren't that common.

Skip to 3 minutes and 44 secondsROGER WILKINS: Well as most people know, National Service-- every young man had to join the forces at the age of 18. And so what happened was, I got my call-up papers towards the end of '48, reported at Padgate, and then you're given a piece of paper asking you what you want to do in the next 18 months. Which is the time it was in those days. And I just put down pilot at the top of my paper, not expecting for a minute to get it.

Skip to 4 minutes and 12 secondsBut I'd been in their training corps for four years, on the pilot stream, so I assume that had something to do with it, and I was sent down to Hornchurch for the square pegs in round holes bit. And when I got back, I was summoned to the station adjutant saying, you've passed as pilot. That was as simple as that. I was then taken away from the rest of my corps, which was 30 young men of my own age. And I went one way, and they went the other.

Skip to 4 minutes and 43 secondsROSS MAHONEY: And you also decide to make the RAF your career at the time. What made you to go from being a National Serviceman to being a career RAF officer?

Skip to 4 minutes and 52 secondsROGER WILKINS: Well, I started training at Feltwell, on the Percival Prentice and the Harvard-- the North American Harvard. And then I realised that I just couldn't bear to go back to civilian life, after being allowed to fly these beautiful airplanes. And so, towards the end of my time, I signed on.

National Service

When we were thinking how to develop a discussion around this topic, we thought about addressing these questions:

  1. Why did the government introduce National Service?

  2. Did it affect the standing of the professional air force?

  3. National Service, as a practice, was phased out in the late-1950s - was it a positive experience for the Air Force?

As with the previous videos, these questions were largely for us; but you are welcome to think about them as a basis for your own comments.

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This video is from the free online course:

From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

Royal Holloway, University of London