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National Service

National Service was a means to develop a greater pool of resources for a future war. Ross and Emmett discuss why it was needed
EMMETT 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?
ROSS MAHONEY: Young men.
EMMETT 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?
ROSS 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.
And eventually the National Service Act is passed in 1948, comes into effect in 1949, and is there until the early 1960s.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Did National Service affect the standing of what we described as the professional Air Force?
ROSS 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.
So, of course, there’s that flexibility, along with the regular reserves, that if the worst case would happen, they can be called up.
EMMETT 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?
ROSS 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.
It 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.
ROGER 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.
But 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.
ROSS 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?
ROGER 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.

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.

Here, Stephen Martin explains the origins of ‘National Service’.

Extract from Stephen Martin ‘Your Country Needs You: Attitudes towards National Service in Britain 1945-63’ Oral History 25:2 (1997): 67-73

The onset of the Cold War meant a new set of problems for a Britain already ravaged by world war. With the defeat of Germany the allied alliance had quickly disintegrated, and the Western nations joined together to defend Europe from what it perceived as the new threat of a Communist invasion.

Britain was now committed to Europe, and so had to provide troops for both defence and occupation duties. Elsewhere in the world, the demands of Empire meant the continued presence of troops in the Middle and Far East. Manpower was thus the vital commodity, and so the Labour government under Clement Attlee was obliged to continue the existing policy of National Service and formally set the length of full-time and part-time service by Act of Parliament.

This was something of a revolution in post-war Britain, as not only was a Labour government proposing the continuation of conscripted service, but it was being done at a time when Britain had just won a war, and so was deemed to be at peace. Certainly, conscription had been introduced during both world wars, but Britain was almost two years into the Great War before conscription became a necessity, and on the brink of the Second when it again came to the fore. Thus in both world wars, the issue of conscription had been accepted because Britain was facing a national emergency, and so this rather over-rode traditional thinking on the subject of compulsory military service. At first glance then, the rationale for continuing National Service, which was barely acceptable in times of national emergency, had gone, and indeed the revolt by Labour back benchers against the original National Service Bill of March 1947 forced Attlee to compromise and reduce the length of full time service from eighteen to twelve months. However, within a year of this amended Bill becoming law the international situation was such that the original eighteen months was restored, and the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 added a further six months to this, much to the chagrin of National Servicemen already in the ranks. This period of two years’ full time service with three and a half years in the reserves was to remain until the last National Serviceman was demobbed in May 1963.

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

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