Somewhere on one of the rolls of microfilm in the RAF archives is the record of my dad, who achieved the lofty rank of Leading Aircraftman, period of whole-time service from 3 December 1952 to 28 December 1954. One of millions of post-war National Servicemen, his Service career was almost entirely unremarkable – no operations, no medals, not even any charges – and yet it is representative of many of his contemporaries whose eighteenth birthday was closely followed by their call-up for 2 years away from home, family and civilian job. We’re now more than half a century from the discharge of the last National Serviceman and with much nostalgia for a lost ‘golden age’ of discipline, selflessness and opportunity represented by conscription. So, with no attempt at political or social comment, however, I offer a few vignettes from one airman’s recollections of the National Service experience.
For Dad, call-up was an inevitable but unwelcome interruption to a career at Lloyds of London which he’d begun on leaving school at 15. The experience was made no less palatable by his arrival for basic training at RAF Hednesford in the depths of winter. Situated in what was, for a city boy, the remote wilderness of Cannock Chase, Hednesford was an archetypal National Service training camp: serried ranks of wooden huts each with its carefully delineated bedspaces and solitary coke stove whose principal purpose seemed to be providing more something for the occupants to clean than any noticeable heat for their comfort. Alleviating the endless round of square-bashing and bull took initiative – such as arranging never to get issued with the webbing which took inumerable hours of blanco-ing to bring to inspection standard. Cultivating a mate in stores ensured that one only visited when no webbing was in stock, resulting in an automatic renewal of one’s deficiency chit which was, of course, carefully ironed and placed neatly on one’s bed where the webbing should be laid out for inspection before disappearing to the NAAFI to beat the queue.
Another item of kit to avoid if possible was the formal Service Dress cap, the lack of which was handy when escaping camp for a night out. For all its dearth of cosmopolitan attractions, Cannock at least boasted a dance hall, and where there are dance halls there are women. At every opportunity, the paladins of Hednesford would descend on the Cannock palais de danse, each depositing his cap at the cloakroom in exchange for the usual ticket. It was only at the end of the night that the airman, eager to escort home some young local debutante, would discover that there was no corresponding half to his ticket, leaving he, dozens of his colleagues and one beleagured cloakroom attendant to spend the next hour establishing whose hat was whose. Meantime, 553 AC2 City Boy, free from the burdens of cap ownership, could whip beret from beneath battledress epaulette and disappear into the night arm-in-arm with his dancing partner.
Not all life at Hednesford was hallmarked by good-natured camaraderie between the trainees and there were those who attempted to exert their influence by throwing weight and fists around. A stand-up fight with one of these over-sized, intellectually-challenged characters was unlikely to gain you anything more than a thick ear and bloody nose; however, if you were careful to make sure any argument reached a peak when you were at opposite ends of the hut, your opponent’s bull-like charge could be neatly interrupted by a chair strategically placed in his path. Leaving momentum, furniture and the braking effect of the hut wall to do your work for you, it remained only to beat a swift retreat until the heat, dust and bruises had died down.
Passing out from Hednesford (in an ill-fitting borrowed SD cap, of course) was followed by wireless mechanic training at Yatesbury. Hours of classroom instruction on the intricacies of valve radio sets were at least alleviated by the attractions of nearby Calne or, to be more precise, the cinema and especially the young ladies employed in the local meat pie factory. Having escaped the rigours of basic training discipline, rebellious streaks emerged more openly and taunting WAAF officers by giving left-handed salutes became a favourite sport amongst the erks. Less dangerous, but more self-important figures of authority earned more direct retribution, such as the Air Training Corps Warrant Officer in charge of a party of cadets who attempted to upbraid Dad and his mate (who must have been virtually the same age) for failing to show him due respect. Clearly, he can’t have been that popular with his cadets, either, for none of them appeared unduly upset when the two ACs left him upside down in the nearest rubbish bin.
Fully trained and ready to do his bit in staving off the Soviet threat or defending the far-flung outposts of Empire, in autumn 1953 Dad found himself on a draft to the Middle East. The journey was not a swift one – after embarkation leave at home in London, he spent a week in Lytham St Annes, before returning via Hendon to Southend, and thence flying out to Malta. Onwards flights via El Adem and Fayid left him at a tented transit camp in El Hamra for another week, before arriving at RAF Habbaniya on posting. That posting lasted a whole 2 days before he was on the move again, by road to Baghdad and rail to Shaibah, a remote but busy staging post not far from Basra in Southern Iraq and home to a massive runway, lots of fuel tanks and, at least from an airman’s perspective, not much else. Clearly, it wasn’t the most sought-after posting – Dad’s diary for the day the news arrived contains just one line: ‘Posting changed to Shaibah – ouch’. With few aircraft remaining long enough to have their radios serviced, the new arrival was assigned to the Control Tower where he found himself working for an ageing regular SNCO whose lack of administrative expertise had created a string of deficiencies in the inventory. Together, they set about capitalising on the guile of the National Serviceman to rectify matters. Replacements for missing items were ‘acquired’ from elsewhere on the Station; the bases of worthless broken light bulbs were passed off for exchange at Supply Flight as the remains of valuable valves; items long lost were written off in incidents which explained away the absence of any remains. In the end, their efforts were so successful that they had to spirit away an entire radio set and bury it in the desert to bring their holdings back down to match the inventory.
Away from work, additional duties consisted mainly of security patrols – long hours wandering through huge metal hangars, endlessly expanding and contracting as the heat of the day came and went, creaking in the desert winds, and conjuring up visions of hostile natives lurking around every corner. And to counter this threat – one LAC armed with one Mk 1 pickaxe handle, guards for the use of. In reality, the threat was far greater in downtown Basra where wandering from the beaten track of main thoroughfares could bring you face-to-face with the locals, intent on separating you from your pay at the point of a wicked-looking knife. The only way out: pull out a bigger and wickeder flick-knife, then run like…
Life at Shaibah did have its perks, though, not least the opportunity to make up some of the difference between Service pay and civilian income. For a keen amateur photographer like Dad, there were always those wanting a portrait shot to send home to girlfriends or family, or an atmospheric snap of downtown Basra for the souvenir album. The real moneyspinner, however, came when he managed to negotiate exclusive rights to photograph the dancing girls in one of the local nightclubs. A few hours labouring away in a home-made darkroom making a stack of postcard-sized prints, and thereafter the arrival of any visiting British or American ship in port meant another windfall to add to the demob pot.
In December 1954, the squadron leader commanding RAF Shaibah signed off a discharge certificate offering, for a wireless mechanic, the superbly unimaginative recommendation “suitable for employment as a radio mechanic on RAF-type wireless equipment”; declining this mouth-watering career opportunity Dad flew back to resume life in the City insurance market. Like some 75% of his contemporaries, the National Service experience was one he neither actively liked nor disliked, but could well have done without and, despite an invitation at one stage to apply for a National Service commission, he was keen to complete it and return to ‘civvy street’. I wonder what he’d have had to say had been able to learn that, 50 years later, British forces were back at Shaibah, occupying many of the same buildings! But the simple fact that these anecdotes remained so clear in his mind years after, along with the lifelong friendships made in that two years’ service, suggest that the experience was far from painful and – in retrospect – it wasn’t a bad thing to ‘Get Some In’.