British Empire Books

National Service: From Aldershot to Aden: tales from the conscripts, 1946-62

AuthorColin Shindler
PublisherSphere Publishing

Colin Shindler has collected together tales and stories from a variety of men who were forced to serve their country in the immediate post-war period. Each National Serviceman is given a good chunk of space to detail the highlights (or lowlights) of their experience. The author attempts to put the experiences into context breaking them up into those who served immediately after the war, those who served in the early 1950s with the Korean War raging and those who served at the tale end of the National Service program in the late 1950s. One thread that does seem to dominate this period is the extent of the possible postings for these National Servicemen as the British Imperial obligations collided with the Cold War and Post-War realities. Soldiers and airmen in the book recall service in all sorts of locations from Aden to Ghana to Korea to Germany and of course many who got stuck in blighty and never got to see any of the World. I was interested to learn how few National Servicemen were taken by the Royal Navy. They were only interested in officers and so took less than 2% of those eligible for National Service. It did seem from the contributors that the RAF was likely to be a more comfortable service than the army which paradoxically took by far the lion's share of the eligible candidates.

It is clear that many of the contributors had similar feelings towards the institution. Nearly all of them complained about the NCOs and difficulty of the initial Basic training. Swearing and thieving were other concerns that seemed to afflict nearly all the participants. On the positive side, most were happy to have met and mixed with people from all walks of life. It seems to have opened the eyes of the youngsters and certainly sped up their maturing process. Many were happy to have served but plenty had serious reservations and could not wait for their obligation to end and be demobilised. Having said that, many seemed to think that it would still be a useful institution even today. The author is less sure and believes that it belonged to a certain period in history.

I really enjoyed the variety of entries and experiences relayed in this book. It was repetitive in places, but that is only to be expected in an institution that was based on conformity and tradition. It shines all sorts of interesting lights on this crucial period of British Imperial and Political history. Britain may have been a declining power in the late 40s and 50s but its obligations and reach was still remarkable as these stories make clear. And these were National Servicemen who where not even sent to all the weird and wonderful places that the regular servicemen might have been eligible to serve in. I love these old reminiscences and could have kept going with as many entries again. They may not have been overly analysed and challenged in authenticity and accuracy but they are very interesting nonetheless. Besides, what people think they know is often as important as what they do know.

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by Stephen Luscombe