‘National service: I went from youth to adulthood in eight weeks’

Mar 05, 2020
Brian Lee with other members of his party in their Passing Out parade. Source: Brian Lee

In 1953 I was 18 years old. In May of that year I joined the Royal Air Force for my two years of national service. It was a pretty exciting time for a young bloke who had never left home. I had to look after myself instead of relying on Mum to help me with all the important things, like food and laundry, even bed making!

My life was really pretty sheltered until then. I’d been living at home and going out with mates most evenings, an almost rent free existence, with most things looked after for me!

I looked on the idea of joining the RAF as something of an adventure, a trip into real manhood at last, with other blokes, protecting England from any foe. I might even become a pilot during my two years’ service and tear about the sky in one of those lovely Meteor jets. How little did I know!

On that momentous day — May 28, 1953 — I travelled by train from Temple Meads Station in Bristol to a RAF base called Padgate in the north of England, midway between Manchester and Liverpool. There I, and several other blokes who were on the train, were met by a corporal. He got us all on board a bus and drove us to the RAF Station at which we were to be inducted.

As we approached the gates I noticed a couple of planes, parked on the verge just outside, and as we passed them the corporal glanced over his shoulder and shouted, above the engine noise, “Get a good look at those kites boys — they’re the closest you’ll get to a plane in the next two years!” He laughed merrily at his own humour, a joke he most likely recited every week, to each incoming group of recruits.

He was obviously unaware of my intention to become a fighter pilot in the next few months. As it turned out, he was telling the truth! I never did get to be a pilot and I never got close to any aircraft again, during my whole service. In fact, rather than flying, I did the exact opposite. Most of my service, apart from initial training, was spent underground, operating a radar set. But that all came later.

At Padgate we were inducted, kitted out with uniform and given our various jabs. It all took about five days and during that time we were left much to our own devices. We played cards, listened to the radio, drank beer in the NAAFI (the Navy, Army and Air Forces Institute, a sort of café for servicemen), and generally had a good time. We thought being in the services was a great life!

Then, on the fifth day we were put on another bus and, accompanied by two corporals who sat at the front and took no notice of us, we headed for Wilmslowe, just south of Manchester, where we were to do our initial training, or ‘square bashing’, as it is known by servicemen throughout the world. Half an hour later we arrived and the bus pulled up in front of a row of low, single storey buildings, typical service accommodation. All was quiet for a few moments, as we all peered eagerly out at what was to be our new ‘home’ for the next eight weeks, talking quietly as we absorbed what we could see.

Then, the two corporals who had travelled with us went completely insane! They both leapt up, shouting obscenities, waving their arms about and rushing up and down the length of the bus, screaming at us to “get fell in outside”!

We were all in total shock, some actually in tears, as we scrambled off the vehicle, all trying to figure out what “get fell in outside” meant. It took most of us nearly a week to get over it and start enjoying the very healthy life provided by ‘square-bashing’. By the end of the eight weeks of very hard work, including parade-ground drill, route marches, gymnastics, and rifle shooting, I and the rest of my companions were as fit as we had ever been (before or since, I’m sure).

It was a really worthwhile experience that taught us many things apart from getting fit, things like respect for others, discipline and camaraderie. That short, eight-week period turned a load of gangling, selfish youths into a team of real men, newly-useful to society, just what it was designed to do!

Some of today’s youth might be well-served to experience the same, and they’d feel better because of it!

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Did you have to endure compulsory national service? Do you feel national service would benefit the youth of today?

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