THE END OF AN ERA; We were very happy to do our bit. The country needed us.
From the final days of the Second World War in 1945 until the last man was discharged on May 16, 1963, more than two million men were conscripted on reaching their 18th birthdays.
National Service was different for every serving man. For some, it was a chance to see the world, gain new skills and earn a wage, while others were forced out of promising careers and given unsuitable roles in the military.
Many never got any further than the depot and spent their two years in Aldershot, while others found themselves peacekeeping in Africa, dealing with guerrilla fighters in the jungles of Malaya or fighting the first war waged by the United Nations in Korea.
To mark the anniversary, the National Army Museum in London has put together an exhibition of the controversial military service that plunged young men from different backgrounds and social classes into a new, shared world.
Museum Curator Keith Miller said: "Peacekeeping and riot control were identified as the main areas for the National Servicemen. But they were also sent to war zones. Altogether, nearly 400 National Servicemen were killed around the world.
"After the Second World War, everyone was demobbed, so there was a shortfall because places like Germany needed to be occupied. Withdrawal from imperial rule and the threat from the Cold War all meant the need for more British soldiers."
Keith added: "It wasn't all roses. In Korea many men were captured, indoctrinated and used as PoWs by the Chinese."
By the late Fifties, support for NS was waning. The Army was to change to a professional force again. At the same time, the economy was on the up and it became a concern that people vital to its growth were removed from their jobs to spend two years sitting in depots or learning meaningless skills.
Here, one of the first men to be conscripted tells how he coped, while one of the last Scots to go through NS explains why it was one of the best experiences of his life.
DR John Blair, 74, lives in Perth with his wife Ailsa. The retired doctor worked at Perth Royal Infirmary. The father- of-three spent his National Service in an army hospital.
Doctors were automatically deferred from National Service until their training was finished so medics tended to be 25 or 26 when they were conscripted.
I studied medicine for several years, then became a resident house doctor and was called up after that in 1952.
For me, the memories of that time are linked to Britain's former standing in the world.
When I was conscripted, we still had an empire and the country was miles more powerful than it is now.
The Cold War had started, so the Allies had to garrison Germany. There was a real worry that Russia would invade.
The British also had troops in Malaya where there was a Communist uprising.
Then there was the Korean War, they had to garrison all over Africa, there were problems in Cyprus and even the Caribbean.
Despite the worry and bad pay that went hand in hand with being conscripted, I was happy to be doing my bit. Patriotism at that time was still running very high.
We'd lived through the war. I'd lived through the bombing in London.
We had relatives who'd been directly affected and I had an older brother who was a Japanese PoW and was kept in a concentration camp, so we were very happy at that time to do our bit.
We realised that the country needed us. People weren't half as cynical as they are now. They were much more patriotic.
It was only years on, in the late Fifties, that people began to get fed up because by that time the post- war effect had cooled off a bit and conscripts became less happy to do it.
Soldiers would be trained in Britain then could be sent anywhere in the world, with no choice but to follow their unit.
Doctors, however, had more choice and could apply for jobs depending what their specialist interest was.
It was quite a joke with us all that nobody ever got what they asked for.
You could be a truck driver and they would retrain you as a typist.
People often had solid reasons for making a specific request and many did want to see the world. A good number went abroad to Africa.
One of the men I knew from Glasgow said he'd never been further east than Edinburgh in his life, so the chance to go to Algeria or through the Red Sea or to India was a terrific thing and that was a big pull.
I didn't do that because I was posted to a hospital in Aldershot, the main British army base and there were hundreds of families there at any one time.
Doctors were needed to care for injured national servicemen who were brought back to be treated at Aldershot. Others cared for pregnant wives at the maternity hospital.
I was about to get married the following year, so wanted to stay close to home. I was very pleased to get the job, but I worked very hard as a GP in a big practice caring for all the families in Aldershot.
I had 1000 patients on my books. I had to do surgery in the mornings then house visits. We had a big measles epidemic - I had 1000 cases.
Then there were also the wounded being flown back from Korea or other places.
Being a maternity doctor, I didn't deal with them directly, but my colleagues did, so we were actually very busy.
The other group of men who were kept in this country were sportsmen. I was on a draft to go to Korea, but was taken off it so I could play golf for the Royal Army Medical Corps.
I was married by then and so I was relieved. We were paid one pound and sixpence a day and there were no extra allowances.
It was hard, particularly if you were trying to start a family. But I made some very good friends.
One of them, General Sir James Baird, of Edinburgh, became the most senior man in the RAMC and he and I have always stayed friends.
The biggest difference is the change in attitude of those perhaps traumatised by the events of war.
There was a much stricter code of discipline in those days. There was no counselling or anything like that.
If people were badly knocked about, their chums supported them.
I don't think National Service could be brought back. There is a case for it, but I don't think young people today would accept it."
I loved it and it changed my life without a doubt
HUGH GRANT, 65, lives with his wife Joan in Inverness. They run a heraldry company and do family-name searches for people tracing their roots.
I have three boys and I would have loved them to have the same opportunity as me. They think I'm nuts, but I've always thought National Service should be brought back.
Coming from the Highlands, it broadened my outlook and matured me in a way that nothing else would have done.
I was called up in 1957 and discovered that if I signed on for an extra year as a regular, I'd be a mercenary National Serviceman and would get pounds 5 a week.
I applied to join the parachute regiment, which paid me another pounds 2 a week `jumping money' on top.
I became a wealthy young man. My older brother went into the Cameron Highlanders and did the normal two years. Compared to him, I was rolling in money.
I loved it and it changed my life. The comradeship was wonderful, I was footloose, well- paid and fancy free. It was a great experience for someone like me.
I look back on my experiences with great affection. The company and the friends I had then were what made it a good time for me.
I had six very close friends and I'm still in touch with all of them. One of them is coming over from Australia next month.
I haven't seen him for 43 years and we're going to have a big reunion.
Despite the horrors of the past two World Wars, I had no worries about being called up.
I was young and gung-ho and I didn't have a care in the world. I went to Cyprus with the 1st Battalion Paras Regiment and served at the time of the troubles in the Fifties.
I also had an exercise in Norway. It was my first time to these places and I found it very exciting.
On leaving the army, I decided not to go to university, as I'd planned before my military service, and went into the hotel industry instead.
I returned to Inverness, where I met and married Joan. Two years ago, I wrote a book about my experiences, A Game of Soldiers 1957-1960.
But while I hold my memories of the time dearly, I was aware that not everyone had such a happy experience.
My brother didn't particularly enjoy his time in the Camerons. I think he regarded it as an interruption of his career.
I didn't have a career at the time and just enjoyed the experience.
I got to see the world, but once I'd done my three years and got the taste for adventure out of my system, I was happy to come home and settle down.
They were the best years of my life, but I never considered a career in the army.
730 Days Until Demob is on at the National Army Museum, Chelsea, London from tomorrow. Call 020-7730-0717 or visit www. national- army-museum. ac.uk.
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|Publication:||Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)|
|Date:||May 15, 2003|
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