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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

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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