Recently I read a book review about nation service (National Service: Conscription in Britain 1945 – 1963 by Richard Viven) that described the basic training as ‘hellish’ and ‘brutal’. I did my national service from March 1957 – March 1959 and, whilst it was certainly tough, I wouldn’t describe it as hellish. I found it picky and petty and a very good test of your sense of humour.

I was 20 in 1957 and joined the Royal Artillery at Oswestry for my basic training. It is hard to describe the absurd maelstrom that suddenly struck as soon as you passed through the gates and reported to the guard room; where before you had walked, now everything had to be done at the double. The idea was to knock you into shape and turn you into an obedient zombie (they failed!).

One of the first things that happened was everyone was given an identical haircut – not just short back and sides, short everything! You were shouted at from dawn till dusk by corporals, sergeants and sergeant majors.  Every morning started with a rude awakening. The lights in the barrack room would suddenly be flicked on and a corporal, shouting, ‘hands off cocks, on with socks’ or ‘feet on the floor before I reach the door’, would march up the central aisle banging his drill stick on the metal frame of each bed.

You were made to do crazy, utterly pointless things like bleaching the barrack room floor boards, painting coal white (‘if it moves salute it, if it stays still paint it’), digging weeds out of the parade ground with a pen knife and so on.

There were endless kit inspections. Bedding had to be folded it into a bed pack each day. There was a precise way to do this but often, on a whim, the sergeant carrying out the inspection would toss the whole thing out of the nearest window.  Every evening was spent putting layers of blanco on webbing, polishing brasses, applying spit and polish to boots (after you had smoothed out the pimples on the leather with a hot spoon or iron), pressing uniform and even lacquering the thin leather band on our berets.  Everything was done at the double – getting on parade, getting changed for PT, getting back into uniform again for more square bashing, going for runs in full kit.  After a couple of weeks of marching and stamping feet, we all suffered from bruised heels (very painful).

This relentless treatment got some people down but I got through it fairly cheerfully – mostly by being as inconspicuous as possible and seeing the funny side of things.  Not that you dared to laugh aloud of course; that would simply attract punishment.  Remaining inconspicuous was difficult because I was the tallest person in our squad which meant that I was the right hand marker; the person called out first that everyone else lined up on.

After some weeks we were told to volunteer to join the paratroopers. By then we had all learnt that was wise to volunteer for everything regardless of one’s real level of interest (people who didn’t volunteer, finished up being given far worse jobs than those who did!).  Accordingly, I, along with everyone else, put my name down for an interview.

All the volunteers were interviewed in alphabetical order, so there were plenty of interviews before H was reached.  Naturally, rumours circulated about the sort of questions put at the interview one of which (unsurprisingly) was, ‘Why do you want to become a paratrooper?’. I prepared an impressive answer.  I forget the exact words, but it certainly included Queen and Country, possibly even the Empire, and other indications of an unswerving sense of duty and patriotism.

When my turn came to be interviewed, I marched into the room, clicked my heels and saluted.  A major, wearing his red beret, sat impassively at a desk. The interview was conducted with him seated and me standing awkwardly ‘at ease’.  After the usual name and number formalities, the major popped the expected question and I gave my premeditated answer. The major remained impassive and just looked at me with transparently blue eyes. There was a long silence. He then asked me to leave the room and come back in five minutes and tell him the real reason (he probably nipped out for a smoke).

I stood in the corridor wondering what to do.  Would it be more impressive to stick to my answer, thereby demonstrating consistency?  Or to alter it, thereby demonstrating flexibility?  I decided to opt for consistency.  Needless to say the major remained unimpressed and that was the end of my bid to become a paratrooper.

It didn’t really matter because a few weeks later I passed WOSB (War Office Selection Board) to be trained as an officer. This was quite an achievement because relatively few national servicemen became commission officers.  I remember travelling on the train to Salisbury Plain and psyching myself up for the intensive two-day selection process.  I was the only one in my group to pass and I’m convinced that my pushy behaviour caused everyone else to fail!

Then a posting to Singapore where I fought the Communists in Malaya and met my future wife (an army padre’s daughter, not a communist terrorist!).

So, I have never regretted doing National Service, a bizarre rite of passage for which I am grateful.

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