Tag Archives: national service

Not Again !

19 Nov

So, Hugh Grant has urged Britain to reintroduce National Service. He said it suits us and it goes with our personality. What a load of rubbish from a person who has never served or likely to serve. Here we have a celluloid person advocating young men being called up for national service. Does he not realise that the Government have controversial plans to replace regular soldiers with Territorial reserve forces. The regular soldiers are all volunteers who have made the army their career. These brave men and women serve throughout the world in many conflicts. Sadly some pay the supreme sacrifice losing their lives and many suffer with injuries both physically and mentally. This Government and future Governments must look after our forces and not just while they serve, but also in their retirement with good pensions.
For the attention of people who advocate national service please read this. The men who had to do national service all those years ago were originally called up at the outbreak of World War 2. This was in 1939, when Great Britain was in grave danger of being overrun by the jackboot.
National service continued for another fifteen years after the end of World War 2. When each eligible man called up had to do firstly eighteen months service. The length of service was raised to two years due to the Korean War.
The lads of yesteryear mostly came from poor homes where their father went to work for poor wages and their mother cooked, cleaned the house and looked after the children.
Over 80% of the people didn’t have a bathroom just a tin bath brought in usually on Friday night. The brick toilet was outside in the backyard the paper used was the day before newspaper. The bedroom for the children was shared with two in a bed for brothers and sisters depending on the size of the family.
The only wardrobe was in your parent’s room, the children’s wardrobe was a hook screwed to the back of the bedroom door. The heating in the house was just one-coal fire, which was usually lit before the children got up.
I was in a much loved family life with no television to distract conversation, but as you must be aware homes had a radio.
One was made to respect elders, neighbours etc. it was always Mr and Mrs When talking to neighbours; it was no Jim, Tom and Maggie.
When your time came to be called up for National Service whether you were eighteen or twenty one, you knew it had to be done.
No one was looking forward to doing two years in the forces, while just entering the prime of one’s life. All the frightening tales told to by the abundance of ex-servicemen didn’t help, because they did it and you were no exception.
The day came when you reluctantly left your tight knitted community and left to join your allotted service, be it Army, Navy or Air Force. Although it was a shock to the system there was plenty of food and for the first time in their lives there were showers. Young men at that time had so much in common, coming from similar backgrounds, camaraderie and lifelong friendships soon formed.

The lads of today have the better of two worlds, money in the back pockets, cars and a certainly more permissive society. Their homes have all the mod cons. The downside of their family life has been dampened by television.
I am sorry to say now; there are a small minority who have not much respect for elders, neighbours and the law, which of course should certainly be addressed.
Parents and school teachers should play their part in this and stop passing the problem onto others. Discipline when one is young plays a big part in future life.

The politicians, media and sections of the public who have never been in the forces themselves keep bringing this national service question up. Do it to them not to us attitude.
These same young men who keep getting picked on, will I am sure be the first in line to join up if the country was threatened, like it was many years ago.
No one wants to see lads who were forced to do national service being brought home after losing their life in conflicts. It is sorrowful enough seeing our brave service men and women being brought home from Afghanistan.
National Service should not be introduced, because of our country being involved in conflicts in far off places or any other feeble excuse. Do you honestly think the armed forces want to start training lads who are not making the services their career? I am sure they will agree that it would be a complete waste of time for everyone concerned. Look after the lads who are in the forces both now and in the future, because they have earned the respect of the British people.
Politicians should stop swanning around and start earning their wages, in sorting our own country out. Make it a peaceful and happy place to live, with no such thing as dole queues, poverty and racism.


British Women

18 Apr

I have wrote many times about the brave men and women of the British services, but I have missed out the wives and mothers of service men and women, who were at home trying to make ends meet in the very difficult times of World War 2. Every mother had a big part to play in bringing about the eventual victory. These magnificent British women with ration books in hand stood in endless queues to buy food for the families. They cooked the meals, looked after the children. No doubt they went short themselves, because of the many shortages of just about everything. Many women had their sons, daughters and husbands serving in the forces and many had their loved ones killed in action in the many theatres of war. Families at home were killed in the bombing of many British Towns and Cities. The grief was shared with the rest of the residents of their streets throughout the country. Whatever happened and in many cases it was sad, they could not dwell on it, because life had to carry on for the sake of the family.
The British women are a strong breed and it was proved in those dark days of World War Two. Neighbours were closely knit your problem was their problem no family had it easy. Clothes were handed down to others in the family as they got older.
During those dark years and before, child mortality was quite common. Just to use this as an example, my parents lost their first child Freda who would have been my older sister if she had lived; Freda was only 2 months of age when she died. My parents did not talk about it, but my father told me when I was a young man. He said it felt as if the the earth had opened up and swallowed him. Our family, were not on their own, because some of my school friends’ parents had similar experiences. During the war years these brave women had other children and brought them up as happy and best they could in the very trying circumstances.
One must remember the illness’s that families endured did not have the medicines etc. to combat them that we enjoy in this present day. I personally think the school children in this present age should be taught about what happened in Great Britain during the war years. Let them understand what their Great Grand Parents went through in order to give them a better life. I could write about this for evermore. Sadly I know and believe they had a very rough time and it should not be forgotten. The trouble was they still had a tough time in the post war ration book years. There was no magic wand, even with their husbands and sons back from the war they just had to grin and bear it and to their credit they just did that. The British Government should have minted a medal for those brave women, who were on the home front and valiantly put the Great in Great Britain.

Ken Nicholson Border Regiment 1952-54

17 Oct

Hello, my name is Ken Nicholson. I was brought up in Maryport Cumbria. In 1952 I was called up to do my National service with 1st Battalion Border Regiment which is a Cumbrian Regiment. When, my training at Carlisle Castle was finished. I was posted to the regiment in the Suez Canal Zone, Egypt from 1952-4. While in Egypt I was in a small detachment sent to Cyprus, because of the Greek earthquake in 1953. We had gone to guard the Governor’s summer residence in case of any problems. After a few weeks our detachment returned to active service in Egypt. We hadn’t been back long when all of (A) Company which I belonged to was sent back to Cyprus on earthquake relief. This was a complete godsend from the active service regime in Egypt. While stationed in Cyprus we were liberally plied with food and drink by the very friendly Greeks and Turks and we even got a bit of R and R in Nicosia. This went on for a few weeks until things were tightened up, because of the impending threat of Eoka terrorist activity. When (A) Company was eventually sent back to Egypt, it was back to doing guards in various places, manning roadblocks and frequently undertaking many long route marches and exercises in the hot sun. One of the most heartening memories I have ever been involved with, was on the approach to Falaise Camp. This camp looked like a real Beau Geste outpost. On the way back from a long route march with a load of other footsore and weary squaddies. We were straightened up, shouldered our arms and marched back into camp behind the Corps of Drums They had emerged from behind the sand dunes and they struck up our regiment tune “D’Ye ken John Peel. It certainly brought a spring into everyone’s step and a memory one can never forget. My national service came to an end when I was de-mobbed in1954 and I returned home to Cumbria.
Good luck and best wishes everyone
.Ken Nicholson, Maryport, Cumbria


24 Sep

I know most readers know about national Service and many no doubt will have been a National serviceman, but for the one’s that do not, including students. I hope what is written below helps you understand.
National service came into being in September 1939 by an act of parliament at the outbreak of the Second World War. Britain had a regular army, but it was not up to strength for the conflict that at the time was foreseeable. The men called up in this act were eighteen up to thirty plus, who were not working down the mines or working in armament or aircraft factories or shipbuilding yards. The men who were exempt were classed has reserved occupational as you are aware men and women who worked in the factories etc. during wartime, were just as essential as men on the front line are. I have to point out, those men who were employed in armament and shipbuilding etc. tried in there thousands to join up during WW2. It was to no avail, because of their strategic work they were always turned down. It upset them, because they thought serving personnel would look down on them as dodgers and they certainly were not.

After the war in 1945 all this changed with a new act of parliament. This decreed all male personnel in the British Isles, barring coal miners aged between eighteen and twenty-five years of age had to do eighteen months National service in one of the three services. This went up to two years’ service at the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, much to the dismay of the national servicemen.

After hostilities ceased in 1945 and with the new national service act in force. The national servicemen served alongside the regular servicemen in all theatres of operation throughout the world. India became a large posting for thousands of troops during the India and Pakistan struggle for independence. While all this was going on, a further large presence of troops were engaged in Palestine, of which even to this present day is so frustrating. The fifties were a powder keg of problems for the British services with the Malaya campaign, Korean War and the Mau Mau terrorism in Kenya. Also the EOKA terrorism in Cyprus in the middle fifties alongside the Suez crisis became a big problem. At the same time many countries in Africa and of the old British Empire were gaining their independence, similar to the British Cameroons where my own regiment was posted. Not forgetting the large garrison of troops that were stationed all over Germany and Great Britain
All men called up had to undergo X-rays and a full medical, before being passed fit for service. Lads who had no trade mostly went into the services when only eighteen. Tradesmen went in when their apprenticeship was complete at the age of twenty-one. University students were called up after obtaining their degrees. Some men went into the Merchant navy, but they could not leave until they had completed five years’ service or reached the age of twenty-six. If they left before completing their five years etc. they were liable to be called up for national service.
The shrinking Royal Navy dispensed with national servicemen in the early fifties. The bulk of national servicemen went mostly into the various Corps and regiments of the British Army, with a smaller percentage going into the Royal Air Force.
What is paramount, I cannot forget without writing of the steadfast work of the NCOs and officers of the services. They had the enviable task of training the countless thousands of national servicemen over the years. Also the expertise passed on by the regular servicemen was appreciated by most.
During 1960 National service was terminated, and barring an odd one most national servicemen were demobilised in 1962.
As one can see in the areas British forces served in the years of the national servicemen, was some task for such a small country. Although not fully appreciated, it could not have been achieved without those young men who served their two – year call up. I must add this; during the national service years Great Britain had the cream of the country serving in the forces. Those men were always to the fore in everything the services could offer, whether it was sport, drilling, discipline, smartness and soldiering. There is no doubt everyone who had to do their national service, knows deep down that it did them no harm whatsoever. Strangely it is only years later and well after demobilisation that one comes to that conclusion. They all went in as boys and came out as men and no doubt, better men indeed.
There is situated at Lichfield in Staffordshire the National Memorial Arboreturn and at the site there is a national memorial to all those who undertook National Service. Many national Servicemen lost their lives during their service for their country and their names are inscribed on the memorial. The Veterans community has acknowledged the last Sunday in June each year as National Service Day.The National Service Veterans Association also organizes an annual service of commemoration at the Memorial each year. Details of the event can be obtained from the Association via their website: http://www.seniorsnetwork.co.uk/nsva/index.htm.
The country has recognized all Service personnel, including National Servicemen, who have died since the end of the Second World War, while on duty or as a result of terrorist attack, by the creation of the Armed Forces Memorial, which is also located at the NMA. Details can be found at http://www.forcesmemorial.org.uk/.

For readers who want to learn more. I have written my own memoirs of the time building up to call up and the two years I served. It will give one plenty of insight to what their fathers, uncles and grandfathers went through many years ago.
It is on my web site http://www.getingetoutandgetaway.co.uk. The book itself is available from Amazon on a kindle e-book. I pad / I Phone or PC apps – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Get-Out-Away-National-Serviceman/dp/B0050I6A2E


Les Lowther, Friend And Man

14 Sep

When I was seventeen years old in 1955, I went to the local night school in trying to further my education! In the class was a well-built lad who wore a long midnight blue jacket with velvet collars and matching drain pipe trousers with all the accessories that go with it. He was the same age as me and he was named Les Lowther. His father was the landlord of the Devonshire Hotel on Barrow Island where Les was brought up, which is a tough part of Barrow-in-Furness and still is
Every week for the first five weeks, Les came to the class in a different coloured long jacketed velvet collared suit with drainpipe trousers, including a post box red one. He was a tough lad, but he never threw his weight around. As you the reader are aware one has to be tough wearing those suits. I knew from the first time I laid eyes on him one noticed how smart and articulate he was wearing those suits. At that time he also had a friend in the class named Martin Bowes, both he and Les had motor bikes and rode them very fast. Those days you did not need a helmet and many a lad lost his life, because of that. A year or so later Martin Bowes was killed in an accident. Les told me many years later that Martin’s death was a big blow.
Les Lowther was also a very good rugby league player who signed professional forms for Barrow when he was eighteen years old in 1956. He was a very fast tenacious player and played on the wing many times for Barrow.
I got to know Les Lowther a bit more the day we were called up to join the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment. Along with Geoff Stubbs, I met him on Barrow Station on route to Fulwood Barracks. During training and at the battalion we were in different platoons and Companies. But we kept in contact. When the regiment went to the Cameroons I was in (S) Company at Bamenda and Les was in (B) Company at Kumba. I never saw him again until I was on the troopship Devonshire returning home 10 months later.
Returning after disembarkation leave to Barford Camp at Barnard Castle, Les and I were put in the same billet. Both of us played for the regiment and we became good friends and he was a man one could rely on 100%. He was the best turned out man in the company if not the battalion. Les spent time on his uniform, boots, beret and overcoat; he was also excellent at rifle drill. This paid dividends, because he was always picked out as stickman. Both Les and I were on three guards of honour for Generals who visited the battalion at Barford Camp. As Bobby Driver the CSM said we were his bullshit men!
It was at this time in 1961 that the new dance craze hit Great Britain it was called the Twist and with Les being a good dancer he taught all the lads in the billet how do the twist, but it wasn’t easy as you must understand. The laughs and mickey taking as we learned this dance was so humorous. This week in our local paper they have 50 years ago articles. It read, more than 700 people attended the final of the twist competition held in the Barrow Public Hall. It was won by a Whitehaven Rugby League player Les Lowther and an unnamed partner.
I travelled home with Les on our Demob day back to Barrow in February 1962 and after that I hardly saw him again. He was transferred to Whitehaven RLFC from Barrow. He later packed it all in and moved away. I never knew what happened to him until his daughter Sally wrote to me and told me Les got married and happily raised his family. Sally said he was a good father and provided well for the family. The sad part was a few years back Les took ill and after bravely fighting his illness, he passed away.
I look back on my time both during national service and civilian life and I feel honoured that Les Lowther passed through my life. He was indeed a friend and  man.

CSM’s Rule Okay

4 Sep

I can only speak for the men who serve or served in the army in saying the regimental Company Sergeant Majors run each individual company. They get to know each and everyman’s name and face. This takes some doing but they do it. What is more they know every trick and dodge in the book known to a soldier. This is because they have been down that road when they were Privates. The organisation is massive for the work they do in making their Company’s tick over and this must take some doing. The rank and file such as me did not fully appreciate this, all we remember is the tongue lashings we got from the CSM’s. Believe me, nobody escaped the tongue lashings!
During my time with the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment, I was transferred from Charlie Company to Support Company. On reporting to the (S) Company office I noticed a CSM stood by a desk giving me the once over. He shouted to me what’s your name, on my reply he glared at me and with a louder voice he said stand to attention when you talk to me. This was my first encounter with Company Sergeant Major Kershaw and it certainly wasn’t my last. The lads in my new billet said have I met the screaming skull yet, referring to CSM Kershaw. I just nodded with a grin
For the next 15 months both here in England and abroad if he was around everything you were involved in such as equipment, tents, weapons, weapons, ammunition and general smartness had to be spot on. I will say this for CSM Kershaw his drilling was of the highest order and he was always well turned out. Obviously he set by his high standards and we the rank and file had to follow suit or else!
I was a few hours late getting back to Barnard Castle after my dis-embarkation leave and I put my hand up and say it was my own fault. Next day along with five or so others, I was on OC’s orders. Outside the OC’s office was the CSM, he inspected all of us and then double marched us into the OCs office. The OC gave all five of us a dressing down and said “don’t let it happen again.” That was it and we were marched out. Not content with this and because he knew me, he dismissed the others. He put his head right up to mine and said in a loud voice, “If it wasn’t for the fact I was leaving the battalion, I would give you a dog’s life.” With this ringing in my ears I was dismissed and I never saw him or wanted to see him again.
He took a post as an RSM to territorial units, probably until he retired. When, I now look back over those years that involved CSM Kershaw. I know he had a job to do, which in his eyes was done to the book. In our eyes, that is the rank and file it was definitely a bit over the top. It is a soldier’s lot to moan and did we moan. I have no axe to grind with CSM Kershaw if I had met him I would shake his hand and wish him all the best (stood to attention of course)
When CSM Kershaw left the battalion, we had a new CSM named Driver. He was good but not as good has CSM Kershaw at drill. On the good side we never saw him much after muster unless you went into the company office, don’t get me wrong he knew all our names. CSM Driver only came into the billet odd times and always looked into one’s locker. He always looked to see if your utensils were in the right order etc. such as Knife, fork, spoon, lather brush, razor, button stick, and button brush. All in our billet made certain of immaculate lockers and CSM Driver loved it. He had a human side about him and we all thought he was okay. There was only one CSM Kershaw and we certainly did not want another one.
I am sure the present day soldiers will have tales to tell about their Company Sergeant Majors. No doubt some good and no doubt some bad.

Proud To Be British

8 Aug

Hello Everybody I am back from my holiday in Spain
The opening Olympic ceremony for the London Olympics was absolutely first class. It is about time this great nation of ours showed the world what makes the British people great.
Back in September 1938, the then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from meeting Hitler in Germany. He had in his hand a document signed by both men that the two countries would never go to war with each other and they would contribute to assure the peace of Europe. Within one year we were at war with Germany, just the same as all promises done by the infamous Hitler he was a complete liar. The British people had suffered many loss of life in the First World War as the many monuments in every City, Town and Village will testify. Following the war in the twenties, factories shut down and unemployment was rife, families throughout Britain suffered with poverty. During the thirties when the country was getting back to some normality, Hitler and his Nazi followers turned up.
In 1939 Great Britain was totally unprepared for war and by 1940 we stood alone in Europe. Hitler thought he would steam roll over the British people as he had done in Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Holland and France. How wrong he was. I am not a conservative, but lucky for Great Britain we had a new Prime Minister in Winston Churchill. Like him or like him not he was the right man for the dark days that lay ahead for the British people. Obviously the services had to be brought up to strength and indeed they were. I am going to write about the British People who were on the home front
In May 1940 Anthony Eden broadcast to the nation for civilians not eligible for the military services to join the Local Defence Volunteers later called the Home Guard. Although unpaid, over one and a half million had joined by June. Throughout the country these men when they returned home from work on various nights and week-ends they were put through their paces by Regular soldiers. Soon they became quite capable of being a rear guard action group. The sitcom Dad’s Army, which is good to watch, makes the Home Guard out to be a load of idiots of which they were not. One has to remember the overwhelming majority of the Home Guard, including the Officers and NCOs had fought in the First World War and some were still in their early forties. These brave men had known what war was all about and passed their knowledge onto the others. Whatever anyone wants to think, these men would have laid down their lives for their country, that is for sure.
There were millions of men in the country who were in reserved occupations. That means they were exempt from call up, because of their employment in factories that were on strategic work such as Engineers, boilermakers, coalminers etc. Many of the men who were in reserved occupations wanted to join up in the services, but they were quickly shown the door. The work they did in the factories was just important as the men in uniform. All men who were exempt from the forces had to enrol for other duties when off work such as ARP Wardens, Fire Watchers, Observers, Ambulance Drivers, Civil Defence. The list is endless, but they had to do it and they were in big trouble if they did not turn up to do their duty.
Women worked also in many factories and did sterling work throughout the war. They also worked in their own time at various jobs in the Women’s Voluntary Services, Civil Defence and Hospitals etc. The British housewife no doubt had the hardest job of all, bringing up their children during the war years when all food was rationed. They queued for everything in all weathers so that they could put food on the table, probably going short themselves in doing this. Some of the women had their husbands in the forces, some were war widows, they were all in it together come what may. The British women all those years ago were true heroes. They struggled and suffered during those dark days, but what is paramount they survived and brought up a new generation, who enjoyed a free world.
The people I have mentioned above are only a few of the people who have put the Great in Great Britain. We are only small in comparison to other countries, but we have something they haven’t. We are British and proud of it.

Marching Tunes of the Regiment

7 Jul

Hello Everybody
In the British Army, the infantry Regiments march behind their bands quite often. When I was a young boy I often watched soldiers marching behind their bands through the streets of my home town. Sometimes it was the brass band other times the kilted Scottish pipe bands. There were many army camps surrounding the Furness peninsular during the war years. All youngsters in fact everyone young and old, love to see marching troops and my family were no different.
During my national Service days with the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment. I proudly marched behind the regimental band on many occasions. The main parades when we returned from the Cameroons were Arroyo Day parade, which involved all the regiment. Also our regiment The King’s Own Royal Border was given the freedom of York in the autumn of 1961. All Companies of the regiment with a spring in their step marched behind the band through the streets of York. The trouble was, I was on a 24 hour guard that day, so consequently I was not on the parade. Believe me I was very disappointed, because all the lads who took part, said it was brilliant. Back in those days as other ex- servicemen will tell you, one had to be bulled up in your best uniform. All personnel involved looked smart and were drilled to perfection by the senior NCOs
I mention all this because the Kings Own Royal Border Band played “Corn Rigs are Bonnie” as a quick march. Although the Scottish tune, which was composed in the 17thCentury? The title and words were written in the latter part of the 18th Century, by no other than the great Robbie Burns. Prior to this tune, like many other British regiments the Lincolnshire Poacher was played.
The interesting slow march music adopted by the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment, Just after the amalgamation of the Border Regiment with The King’s Own Regiment. Was “The Song of the Western Men” It is also known as “Trelawny”? The music and lyrics were written by Robert Stephen Harker. He wrote the song in 1824 depicting events that happened in 1688. John Telawny was one of seven bishop imprisoned in the tower of London by King James 11 for petitioning against the Declaration of Indulgence. Due to the imprisonment of John Trelawny a march on London was organised, but before they reached London the Bishops were acquitted by a jury and set free.
The song is taught in Cornish schools and is sung at all big occasions where Cornwall is involved. The line of the famous song that warms the hearts of Cornish people is. “And Shall Trelawny Die There’s 20,000 Cornishmen Will Know The Reason Why”.
One might ask why a Northern England Regiment plays a Cornish tune. I can only assume, because two Colonels of The King’s Own Regiment 1688 to 1692 were brothers Maj- General Charles Trelawny and Brig-General Henry Trelawny. They were also brothers of John Trelawny the imprisoned bishop. I hope all this is not too confusing.
The song, being sung by a Cornish choir is quite good listening and can be heard on different websites.
I cannot leave this article without mentioning another tune that in my opinion was the best of all. The name of which is D’Ye ken John Peel, a tune and song very significant to Cumbria. The Border Regiment which mainly recruited from the then Cumberland County made this tune into a quick march. When the Border Regt amalgamated with the Kings Own to Form the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment the tune went with it. I personally love the tune, because on returning to England with the King’s Own Royal Border Regt after our service in the Cameroons. The regiment came home on the Troopship S.S.Devonshire. While entering the dock complex of Southampton, in the distance caught in the wind, we could hear faintly D’Ye ken John Peel being played and as we got nearer to the ship’s berth, the tune became louder and louder. The cheering by my fellow soldiers was quite deafening to say the least. The tune was being played by the band of the Lancashire Prince of Wales Volunteers who were stationed in the South of England. It was a moment in my life that will be with me until the day I die. As I write this, I have a tingling feeling that brings back that wonderful day. So you the reader will understand why I love the tune D’Ye ken John Peel. I am also sure also, that many readers of this article will have had similar homecomings as this and I am also sure it would have been one of the happiest days of your life.


Get In Get Out and Get Away – Memoirs of a National Serviceman

16 Jun

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John E. Favill REME 1956-58

18 May

John sent me this short story a few years back. At the time I never published it. It is an unusual view of John’s time doing his national service.

I was 25 years of age when I began my National Service. I was married with a six month old son and my wife and I lived in two rooms in a house belonging to my wife’s Aunt.
For five years from the age of 17, I had served one of those now old fashioned apprenticeships at Henry Meadows Ltd., a manufacturer of gasoline, diesel engines and matching transmissions. The apprenticeship enabled my National Service to be deferred until it was completed and then, because I was employed on work that enabled me to continue deferment. I made the decision to gamble on the ending of National Service in the relatively near future. When I reached the age of twenty five, the gamble was lost and I was requested to present myself at Blandford in Dorset to begin my National Service in R.E.M.E.
The six long weeks of square bashing finally came to an end knowing I was fit, I could stamp my right boot on to the ground with the best of them, I could bull a boot and get a coating of shiny wax on the toe, I could fire a rifle and a Bren gun, and I could take the Bren gun apart and re-assemble it while lying on my side, I could name parts and I had all the other useful attributes that the Army considered I needed for my future. I had not however developed a liking for the Army. The passing out parade was memorable in that the band expected to play during the ceremony was somehow unable to attend and a lone piper and drums was recruited at short notice. The only tune that the piper could play was “Scotland the Brave” and having marched to it and then being positioned immediately in front of the piper while he played his one tune repertoire over and over while the Commanding Officer slowly inspected each man of each platoon, was an experience that forever made me hate the out of tune strains of a Scottish bagpipe and the oft heard notes of “Scotland the Brave”.
I was now a qualified member of R.E.M.E., almost, and I was ready to do whatever was needed to make my two years pass as quickly as possible. I was posted to Arborfield near Reading which in those days of 1956 was where the Training Battalion was located. It was also the location for the R.E.M.E. Depot from where all R.E.M.E. personnel who were being posted to places around the world, departed. Also Arborfield was the location for an Army Apprentice school. I had been posted to the Headquarter Company of the 5th Training Battalion. Of course in the fine army tradition, no paperwork had preceded me so I wasn’t expected. I was told that until the paperwork caught up with me, I was too loose myself and was given a bed in a room in a remote corner of the camp. I then proceeded to learn the layout of the camp and how to get lost.
The 5th Training Battalion concentrated upon teaching the intricacies of the complex electronic and mechanical workings of the Army tanks and other equipment used by the British Army. This included the system whereby the gun on the tank would maintain a constant aiming position irrespective of the movement of the tank during its manoeuvring’s and considered to be at the time very high tech. The battalion also provided training for the various radar systems that the Army used. The duties of the headquarter staff was to provide support and the organizational structure to all this training activity. Included in this was a drawing office that was to become my home for the duration. The task of the drawing office was to provide all the training aids needed by the teaching staff at the training battalion.
With retrospect I suppose I was not a good example of a keen recruit as I was a very reluctant member of the British Army. I resented being forced to become part of an organization in which I had no interest and I made no attempt to fight the system, I had quickly developed a healthy cynical attitude to what I considered to be a very inefficient organization, that had taken my liberty and placed me in an open prison that was called National Service.
This was all at a critical point in my career and I was now being expected to give two years to what I considered to be a complete waste of time. I decided very early on what I should do and that was to make the best of the situation. My plan was to use the system and the circumstance in which I found myself, to my advantage in as many ways as possible.
One of the characters on the base was of course the RSM. As most RSM’s he was attached to his pace stick which he carried around as his badge of office. I only saw him use it for one thing and that was when he charged onto his beloved parade ground shouting in his best RSM voice to chase a flock of birds that had dared alight on his beloved patch of concrete. He would wave his pace stick high in the air as he ran onto the concrete and although it was such a strange action, everyone ignored what was going on, including the birds. The birds would soon return from their place of safety when he had departed. The RSM certainly helped to add to my cynical view of all things army. His one other action for which he was noted was his practice to choose a passing soldier and finding something wrong with his appearance or behaviour either actual or more likely imagined. He would point out the misdemeanour in the traditional army loud voice face to face manner.
The afternoon I arrived at the camp this RSM saw me make a mistake, although later on, in my career at Arborfield, I realized that it turned out to my advantage. On my first afternoon I had no idea who was who and which side was “up” at that time. I saw this person walking towards me who looked, in my very limited experience, to be an officer. So I saluted it. Immediately his voice stopped me in my tracks and in, for him, a very gentle manner he pointed out that as a lowly RSM, he didn’t warrant a salute. He said in future I should keep my salutes to reward the numerous officers that I would see.
From that point on I am convinced that my wasted salute did two things. Firstly it brought me to his attention quickly but secondly from that day on I found I could pass him with complete confidence as he never once pulled me over or stopped me for some appearance or other reason. While my colleagues would always move through the camp in expectation of being stopped. My early salute had paid off and taught me another lesson about what I became to know as the Army mentality.
I hated parades, but then didn’t everyone who were forced to take part? I could see no reason for them except to cause a great deal of work with a potential of being punished for some appearance or other problem. I had adopted the habit of always leaving one of my buttons half fastened that drew attention away from anything that might have been punishable. This simple half button always seemed to satisfy the inspecting officer as his eyes found some not punishable defect, and then pass on to look at the next man.
Being not at my best first thing in the mornings the parades I hated most were those on Monday mornings. In my resolve to not kick against the system I had been searching for something that would allow me to miss this Monday morning ritual in an approved manner. Then I found it.
The camp had a fire brigade. Or rather it had a water pump mounted to a two wheeled trailer that carried hoses, standpipes, and a couple of stirrup pumps. It was fully equipped to an Army specification to be able to fight any fire on the base, before the civilian fire brigade could arrive. The fact that the engine didn’t have an electric start and the alternative was the starting handle was one of those things one learned very quickly to accept, but thank God no-one ever had to rely on the piece of equipment to help save their life in a fire. I found that there was a group who were trained to operate this fire pump and they comprised of individuals selected from Headquarters Staff. They had the reputation of being trained to the peak of condition to fight any kind of fire, but I found the truth was a little different. The important part was that training for this critical and important safety operation took place on Monday mornings “at the same time as the parade!” So I quickly volunteered and as others who worked in the Drawing Office had control of membership, as soon as a vacancy occurred, the job was mine.
I did have one reservation in that just before I had arrived at the camp there had been an explosion at a local fireworks factory and the members of the fire picket had taken part in searching the remains of the building for body parts. I reasoned that this was unlikely to happen twice and as the advantages seemed to outweigh the disadvantages, with a smile on my face I looked forward to missing the Monday morning parades. The procedure each Monday morning was to assemble at the shed in which the fire pump was housed, and then take the pump trailer outside. The trailer was designed to be towed by a Jeep type vehicle but in accordance with the time honoured Army tradition, in all the time I was a member of the picket, there was never a vehicle allowed to be used for this purpose. Our group would gather around the trailer, each choosing a position where he could either push pull or guide the trailer, and off we would go. Advancing at a trot always in step of course, and passing down the service road that ran past the parade square and the massed ranks of the lined up platoons enjoying their Monday morning parade. Always we were spurred on by muted or otherwise cheers or shouted remarks as we made our way to where we did our training. We there awaited the appearance of the Fire Officer. The Fire Officer was our Platoon Captain who had the job of providing training instruction in the art of fighting fires. I think in all the times I was a member of the Fire Picket he turned up twice and each time demonstrated very well that he knew next to nothing about his responsibilities. I must admit however that he was always immaculately turned out in his uniform, so he at least looked the part. My cynical attitude was once more forever reinforced. So we trained ourselves. Some mornings we would start the pump engine but as it was not equipped with an electric start as I said earlier, we had to use the starting handle. Achieving success and getting the engine to start was for most of the time shall we say, very difficult. Sometimes miraculously we did manage to start this pig of an engine after numerous tries, and we were able to pump water and to get the hoses wet. When we did this it was clear to us all that if we were called to a fire it would have burned itself out long before we could have contributed. Even if we had been able to get there we would have been so exhausted pushing or pulling the trailer and then trying to start the engine, we would have been little use in an emergency.
Our prayers that a real fire would never occur must have been effective as we were never called out while I was a member the picket. In the training periods we became experts at appearing busy. We did have a tower where we hoisted the wet hose pipes. When we had one that had to be dried out after we had managed to push water through it, and climbing the tower and re-arranging the drying hoses was always good for a half hour or two. Some days we would practice with a ladder drill. We would place our extended ladder against a second floor window and by using the traditional fireman’s carry, bring someone down the ladder. We soon grew tired of carrying each other down the ladder as being carried down the ladder once, by one of your colleagues, was an experience you didn’t want to repeat and small and light volunteers were very hard to find.
In those days I weighed in at around 140 pounds so until I was able to hide behind a couple of stripes, I was usually the patsy that was carried. With eyes tightly shut and fingers and everything else crossed, resting on the shoulders of a shaking colleague as he climbed down the rungs of the ladder was never something you wanted to experience very often. A very good reason for the expression “——- that for a game of soldiers.” Sometimes we did see action. We would get a call out to a chimney fire in one of the houses provided for the officers. Most times the fire was out when we got there, understandably so as our instruction was that the equipment to be used in order to put the fire out was a bucket of water and a stirrup pump. These would be carried, after we had run a mile or two pulling and pushing the trailer, into the house and to the base of the offending chimney. We would then proceed with skilled manipulation of the pump nozzle, to squirt water up the chimney until the fire was out. When the fire was seen to be out the procedure was to pack up and return to base, leaving the occupants to clear up the mess of the mixture of soot and water we had made in the house. This policy certainly had a desired effect in that if a chimney fire occurred, (coal fires in the houses were the usual form of heating), and the occupants would make strenuous and usually successful efforts, to put it out themselves before the troop of exhausted members of the fire picket arrived to demonstrate their expertise.
One of the most important jobs I managed to obtain at Arborfield was to organize coaches that would take those who could and wanted to go home for the weekend with the privilege of either a 48 or 36 hour pass. Coaches would leave the camp at 5.00PM on Friday evenings for those with a 48 hour pass to either Birmingham or Manchester arriving back between 3.00AM to 5.00 on Monday mornings. For those with a 36 hour pass the coach would leave at 12.00 noon on Saturday to Birmingham and return for around 3.00AM on Monday mornings. In addition to this I would arrange coaches on Wednesday sports afternoons to go to Wembley Stadium in London when International football matches were taking place. This would be followed by a show at one of the London theatres with free tickets given out at the Union Jack Club. My reward for organizing the coaches, collecting the money and making all the arrangements was a free ride on the coach.
I very rarely missed a weekend going home to my wife and son. If I was placed on weekend duty there would always be someone to take my place either in exchange for a small monitory reward, but more likely someone would do my duty on a “prid pro quo” basis. Each Monday morning when I arrived back at camp around 3.00AM I would always find my bed made up ready for me to crawl in and get a few hours’ sleep. No-one ever told me they had done this for me and it was one example of the fact that everyone looked out for everyone else and things were done without the expectation of being rewarded. Sometimes we had problems with the coach drivers. The company, Smiths of Reading, I found were very well organized but in retrospect I realize that to provide drivers who were willing to spend a weekend away from home staying either in Birmingham or Manchester was difficult. Some drivers were, shall we say, one or two cards short of a full deck. On one occasion with the Manchester coach, the driver had prepared for the drive back by consuming a little too much alcohol. The journey back began well enough but as the alcohol took effect the driving became more erratic. When a traffic island was ignored and the coach bumped straight over without deviating, the passengers quickly realized that they had a problem. As it was impossible to get to the driver in his little box cabin up front and relieve him of his duties, everyone moved to the back of the coach and awaited developments. As the journey took five hours everyone could do nothing except watch helplessly as other traffic and road signs, including traffic lights were ignored it became a long night. Miraculously the coach arrived at the camp, late of course, with its compliment of shaking passengers, without an accident. We didn’t see the driver again of course after I had made the phone call of complaint.
As I stated earlier in this essay I was 25 years of age when I began my National Service. So I was much older than most of the new recruits and was regarded by my younger colleagues as their advisor or mentor. One result of this can be typified by the following story. One of the nearest small towns near to Arborfield was Wokingham and in the town was a decent collection of Pubs that too many of my colleagues, offered an appeal. Better than “Paraffin Lills” the local cafe. In those days if I had more than a ½ pint of beer I would get a severe migraine, not knowing the cause at the time. ( I was allergic to milk and the alcohol was the trigger) I found it wise not even to have the ½ pint, so I stayed on base. Usually it was a bus ride into Wokingham and if the last bus back was missed, there was the long seven mile walk along pitch black country roads.
One evening the lads departed early and had not returned well after lights out so I knew they must have had a good time and missed the last bus. Around 2.00AM I was woken to be told that one of the lads had been walking back and had decided that the most important thing he wanted to do was to lie down and go to sleep. His friends had persuaded him several times to continue walking but finally he refused all kinds of encouragement and decided that he was going to crawl under a hedge and go to sleep. He did say to his friends before drifting off to sleep that the only person he would listen to and be persuaded to walk back to the camp was me. Consequently his friends had come, found my bed, woken me up and asked for help. After I hurriedly dressed I then joined the party to walk back to where they thought they had left him. Walking back along the dark country road gave me time to wonder if we would be able to find Peter before daylight. As I was the only person in the party who was sober, I had severe doubts that anyone would remember where they had left him, let alone which road. I reasoned that it would be doubtful we would be able to find him and we would have to spend hours, until daylight, trying to find him. Even now I cannot understand how I was taken straight to the location without a pause or hesitation. No-one could have done that when sober. Then I had to crawl under the hedge, wake him up, persuade him I was who I was, and gently get him to crawl out from underneath the hedge with me and begin walking him back to the camp. We made our way back into the camp through the back way over the hedge (usual unofficial method) surrounding the camp, avoiding the guards. Luckily it was the lads from our company on guard that night and we knew they wouldn’t be very vigilant that time and then getting everyone into their beds and settled down…
The camp, while I was there, was always nervous about potential raids from the IRA. A few months before I arrived at the camp, when again the headquarter company had provided the guards, members of the IRA had come to the camp, overpowered the guards, broken in to the Armoury and stolen rifles and Bren guns and ammunition.
One or two of the guards had been beaten badly although, as it was termed, injuries they were not “life threatening”. A little while later in the early hours, on a main road leading back towards London, two alert but unarmed policemen in a squad car saw a van being driven a little above the speed limit. The police car gave chase and soon they stopped the van in the traditional way by overtaking and waving the van down and thus instructing it to stop. The van stopped and the two policemen walked back from their car to the van. While one engaged the driver in a conversation the other walked to the back of the van and flashed his flashlight into the inside of the van through the rear windows to see the rifles and the Brens
My two years passed all too slowly although compared with many others I had a great deal with a very cushy occupation. The man who ran the drawing office was a civilian and my colleagues in the office were all of a like mind and used the system to advantage. The talent, represented by the Drawing Office staff was completely wasted. Important as the work was it could have been done by a much smaller staff of civilians who did not need the technical qualifications that we all possessed. This waste was typified by the fact that soon after I became a civilian again, I began working for a company on the design of a tank recovery vehicle for the Army through the Fighting Vehicle Research and Development Establishment (FVRDE). Why couldn’t this work have been done directly by the Army using the talent they had available? Still to this day I will never understand the army mentality and my experience typifies the incompetence and the wastefulness of the whole National Service system and the complete disregard to find ways of making the system more efficient.
With retrospect however, there was one part of my experience I am delighted not to have missed and that was the lasting friendships and the comradeship that was like no other I have experienced before or since. Both the National Service and the Regulars were united against a common enemy that was everything Army. The result was a togetherness that is I think, unique to servicemen everywhere.
My two years were a financial hardship, particularly for my wife as the monetary support from the Army was almost non-existent and without doubt our income was way below the poverty level. Without family support things would have been far more difficult than they were. At least we learned what it was like to live hand to mouth with next to nothing and without any luxuries whatsoever.
This left us both with a caution for spending, a frugality and guilt whenever we spend money on non-essentials. I left the Army with my cynical attitude fully in place and a lack of respect for the armed forces system with its inefficiencies and the incompetence of most of the officers. There is a saying that in the event of hostilities the Armed forces could not succeed in any venture without the recruitment of civilians to bring some sense into the system. No evidence has ever been presented to me that dispute that saying
What I did come away with was a lasting delight in the people I met and with whom I spent time during my National Service. Certain of these friendships have continued and I still correspond or visit with some of these long term friends. I wish I could contact others I knew and find out how the world has treated them over the years.
My National Service was, compared with many, a very easy existence. For instance I stayed in England, I was home most weekends and I worked in an office without ever getting my hands dirty except if I spilled some ink. Although my wife and I were forcibly made to live apart, the job I did was justifiably considered “cushy”. Although I took advantage where I could to use the education opportunities offered by R.E.M.E to further my career, I still consider that the two years wasted.
The site of the R.E.M.E. camp at Arborfield is now, I understand a housing estate although the old guard house from either Number 5 or the R.E.M.E. Depot has been retained as an R.E.M.E. museum. The parade ground where the RSM objected to the birds has been built on, and perhaps that is how it should be.
I intend to pay a visit before the time comes when I will be too old to hire a car during my visits to England and with a glass of wine in my hand, I intend to stand before the guard house museum and give thanks, and make a toast to all those “absent friends.”

The author, John E. Favill, now lives in Brookfield, Wisconsin, USA having emigrated in 1979


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