After the second World War ended many service men and women were demobilised, so the armed forces were left somewhat thin. By 1949 peacetime conscription was introduced for all able-bodied men between 17 or 18 to 30 years of age, to serve in one of the armed services. Men could have their National Service deferred for approved apprenticeships and study. By joining the Merchant Navy for at least seven years, men could avoid the two year National Service. Conscription ended in 1963.
I began an engineering apprenticeship in 1945 and commenced studying part time for the Higher National Certificate in Electrical Engineering. Therefore I was deferred under both counts, until my apprenticeship ended at age 21, in 1950, when I joined an Electrical Design Office. I was still deferred for a further year to complete my HNC at Bristol College of Technology, then I was called to Salisbury for my entrance medical for National Service. After a brief examination I was told to sit in the waiting room and they would call me back later. This did not occur and the caretaker told me to go home and I would probably receive a letter.
A letter duly arrived from the Ministry, with the simple statement “You are medically deferred”. I immediately visited my Doctor, who told me I was perfectly fit, which surprised us both. A year passed with nothing more from the Ministry and I wrote to them, questioning my situation. I immediately received a reply, telling me to go to Salisbury for a second medical examination. On its conclusion I was told that I would be called up for military service, as Grade 2.
I had previously opted for service in the Royal Air Force and was called up to the camp at Padgate, near Warrington, for basic training, in August 1952. I had for some years made and flown model aircraft, so I volunteered for aircrew. This meant I joined a “Fatigue Flight” of other volunteers and we commenced daily fatigues, one of which I recall was painting small pebbles white, with a small brush, surrounding a garden, or lawn. At intervals we were called back on parade, several times daily, and asked if anyone wished to withdraw their application for aircrew. Frequently at least one colleague would step forward and tell us later that they had received a letter from their mother, or girlfriend, that a friend from the next street had crashed, and they should not risk their life. However I persisted and was sent to RAF Hornchurch, the centre for Aircrew Medicals. I underwent much more searching tests, over perhaps two days, than my entrance tests at Salisbury and I was called in to the Senior Medical Officers office. He told me that I had passed, grade A1. (In a month, after being grade 2!) However, on my original form I had mentioned that I suffered from migraine attacks occasionally and the officer asked if this was true, or only an attempt to avoid call up. When I told him it was true, he said I could not fly, as they were uncertain of the effects of high G forces, which might initiate an attack. He said otherwise you are absolutely A1. I then asked if this was the reason for my medical deferment and he referred to his papers and said there was nothing there which mentioned medical deferment. I also said that I had been given a card, stating that I was Grade 2 and received the same response and a look which questioned if I was OK mentally!
So I returned to Padgate and joined the “square bashing” contingent, sleeping in a room with some 20 others. One or two pointed out that we were all deferred apprentices and therefore several years older than the normal intake, hence we were segregated with a view to “breaking our wills”. In retrospect I doubt that we were treated differently from the others. At some point we were also asked if anyone would like to learn the Russian language, if they had a credit at School Certificate in English and at least one foreign language. This had been mentioned to me back in the Design Office as it was likely that Russian could be a technical language of the future. So I volunteered to learn Russian.
The daily grind continued, until we were directed to a hangar for our “Job Interview”. We went in one at a time, into a small makeshift office, to be interviewed by a Flight Sergeant. When I entered he said “You will go to RAF Melksham (the Electrical School) for a few weeks course of familiarization on RAF equipment, then if you pass you will become a Junior Technician Electrician”. I replied that I was hoping to learn a different technology, such as radio or radar. He replied that these courses would be eighteen months, during which I would earn 30 shillings a week, whereas a Junior Technician will earn 3 Guineas weekly, backdated to entry to the RAF. I declined the suggestion and he then said I could not take up the courses I had proposed. I then enquired about the Russian language course, at which he became very angry, thumping the table and said “If you reject the JT course at Melksham, you will go to the cook house, or be a dog handler, and I am sure you would not prefer that”. So I humbly acquiesced and rejoined my colleagues, who said “What happened, we heard all the noise and shouting!”
In due course we “passed out” from Padgate and about six of us, all unknown to each other arrived at Melksham. One week we were lectured by a JT who was also National Service and he opened up by saying, “So you are all EX Specs”. As we all looked blank, he explained that all our papers were marked “EX Spec”, presumably because we had been “specially selected”. Before the course ended, our “Passing Out” details came to us, all to different places, together with our inverted chevrons. We were told to quickly sew them onto our uniform and then we would be excused guard duty, which was imminent. We were billeted with a number of “old hands”, with frayed uniforms, who were on a long term course of about 18 months to their JT. They had to take over our guard duties.
When I reached my final posting, Chivenor, between Barnstaple and Ilfracombe, I was probably the first Junior Technician to arrive. Then I discovered how short of technical personnel they were. One individual spent a week as Duty Electrician, with possible call outs to switch on, or off, the “flasher beacon” which announced in morse code the station call sign, in case aircraft were lost at any time of night. Another was charging batteries by day and night. Night duties meant trying to sleep by day, but with a supper at midnight in the Mess from the Duty Cook. Someone had to ensure the runway lights were always available and carry out minor repairs elsewhere. Frequently one person would be on leave, or another on sick leave, so we often found that duties meant “confined to camp” all the week, possibly repeated after a break to normal duties for a week. So it was not surprising National Servicemen were needed, with the new technical people being trained up to JT standard.
Later back in civilian life, I began to think about my year lost due to medical deferment and Grade 2, which was not known to the Senior Medic and yet he knew of my migraine? “Conspiracy theories” became the vogue in the 1970s. Was I the subject to one? After Melksham we were all dispersed and had no contact with each other. Was it just administrative errors, or were some of us held back, until the new technical arrangements were ready? If any other ex National Servicemen have had similar thoughts, I should be interested to hear details.
Bridport History Society does not meet in August under normal circumstances.
Cecil Amor, Hon President, Bridport History Society.