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  • Print publication year: 2021
  • Online publication date: April 2021

4 - National Service


IT WAS IN March 1950, shortly before my nineteenth birthday, that I at last received joining instructions and a travel warrant. So the die was cast. I took a train from King's Cross to Darlington where regular soldiers, older men, met us. They shouted orders at all and sundry as if we were already in uniform and eventually corralled us innocents into 3-ton lorries for the short drive to the North Yorkshire moors and Catterick Camp: the reality of National Service was upon me.

The first days were the worst. Basic training was a total melting pot, all walks of life and social backgrounds lumped together in a vast stone barracks. Terrible coarse language. Impenetrable accents. A shock to the system.

Ikept my father in the picture throughout my National Service and will use excerpts from my letters to provide impressions of my army life, which was, to say the least, a formative experience.

Catterick Camp, Yorks 29.3 [1950]

Dear Philip,

I doubt whether the Army is as bloody as it was in your day, though these first few days have certainly been pretty dreadful. We suffer no real hardship: there is drill, and P.T., getting up at 5.45AM and eating pretty awful food; but I feel quite fit – the point is that there is absolutely no chance to sit down and really think, or even write letters. Every moment finds something to do, especially when you spend hours bullshitting boots you will only wear once or twice. At the moment I’m in with the mob, but on Saturday the elite transfer to a Potential Officer's Training Regiment, which is much tougher work, we’re told.

In these fairly modern barracks we’re well off in that we eat in the same building, wash-house next door, with lots of basins and generally boiling hot water; only 14 in the room, radiators, quite good beds, a Naafi next door. The Corporals to our Troops are quite fair, if you work hard, but they swear so much! (As do the other blokes in this room.) The routine at the moment is mainly drill alternating with weapon training; up at 6 or earlier; 5.30 onwards is spent cleaning, which takes ages.