For the majority of their existence Britain's Armed Forces have been recruited by volunteers. However during the world wars of the twentieth century Britain was forced to adopt conscription on the lines of her European neighbours and vast numbers of men were mobilized in the First and Second World Wars. Indeed the Second World War saw the whole population mobilized to an extent previously unknown.
At the end of the Second World War Britain faced a dilemma as the wish to demobilize the servicemen recruited to fight and return them to their peace-time occupations conflicted with the need to discharge Britain's world-wide obligations.
Following much debate the Labour Government passed the National Service Act 1947. This established a liability for service on all men aged between eighteen and twenty-six to serve for one year with a further six years service in the active reserve and one year with the non-active reserve. Intended only to be in force for a few years the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 saw the period of active service raised to two years, though reserve service was reduced accordingly. Thus for the first time in British history compulsory military service became a feature of every young man's life throughout the 1950s. It also became a staple of radio and television comedy with programmes like "The Navy Lark" and "The Army Game".
During this period a total of 2,301,000 men were called up of which over half served with the British Army. The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force preferred to take qualified tradesmen and as the weapons and communications systems they used became more sophisticated both these services took less conscripts.
National Servicemen took part in all the campaigns in which British forces were involved and some 395 were killed while on active service.
In April 1957 the then Defence Minister, Duncan Sandys, announced that conscription would be progressively reduced until December 1960 when there would be no more call-up save for a few men whose service had been deferred. For many recruits during this period in the late 1950s National Service seemed an irrelevance and something to be endured. Though the Berlin Crisis of 1961 delayed the the ending of National Service by some six months the final recruit, Second Lieutenant Richard Vaughan, was demobilized from the Royal Army Pay Corps on 16th. May and finally discharged from service in July 1963.
The National Service Experience
For all recruits the routine of National Service was the same. First registration at the local office of the Ministry of Labour and National Service followed two weeks later by a notice to attend a medical to ensure fitness for military service. This prdeal was followed by an interview with a Military Interviewing Officer to match the interviewee to the service most suitable for his skills and experience. In practice most recruits went to the Army as the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force preferred to take skilled tradesmen and tended to lower their annual intake of recruits over time. Six weeks later the conscript would receive an enlistment notice telling them to report for training. This would include a rail warrant and in the early years of National Service an advance of 4/- (20p.) pay.
Army life for the National Serviceman began on "Enlistment Thursday" when thousands of young men would take the trains to various reception centres, including Fort Brookwood and H.M.S. Victory in Hampshire. Following a period of initial training they would then be posted to their unit. Those who expressed a wish to join the Hampshire Regiment and who had a family connection would generally find their request was granted. Arrival at the regimental depot would be a shock as the recruits were told to send their civilian clothes home, given an ill-fitting uniform and then had their hair shaved by the regimental barber. There was more to come as they then went to the Medical Inspection Room and suffered injection after injection by the Medical Officer and his staff.
Once this shock was over the recruit would be sent to barracks where he would be subjected to a seemingly endless routine of training, barracks cleaning, bed making and bulling boots. During this time the recruit would slowly realise his barrack mates were becoming a team and a sense of comradeship began to grow as each individual realised they needed to work together to get through initial training.
The basic pay for a National Serviceman was £1-8s-0d per (£1.40) per week form which he would have to purchase boot polish, Brasso, Blanco and dusters from his wages. He would also find that 8/- would be kept back for "damages" until he left the depot and so he only receive £1 a week to spend. Even though prices were low by today's standards, a pint of beer cost 9d. (4p.), there still wasn't much money left to spend on leisure. The pay of recruits rose slowly as service progressed at the rate of 6d. per day for each year's service and for each trade test successfully completed and in his last six months of service the National Serviceman being paid at the same rate as the Regular recruit. By 1954 this meant a Private with one trade would be paid £3.6s.0d. per week (£3.30). However even by 1960 pay for a new recruit had only risen to £1-18s-0d per week, well below the average wage of the time which was £15-10s.-0d. per week.
The end of basic training was marked by a passing out parade which parents would usually attend following which the recruit would take some leave before being posted to the 1st. Battalion the Hampshire Regiment for specialist training in the use of mortars, medium machine guns and anti-tank weapons.
Shortly after arrival at the depot each new recruit would have an interview with the Personnel Selection Officer to assess their suitability for either Potential NCO or Potential Officer training. Those selected for Potential NCO training completed specialist training before going on an NCO cadre course. Once this was completed he would return to the 1st. Battalion for assessment before promotion was awarded.
The Potential Officer had a longer ordeal to overcome before successfully completing his training. The first stage was to successfully pass the Depot's Selection Board and convince them that he was Potential Officer material. Following this he would be called to a three day War Office Selection Board at Barton Stacey near Winchester and approximately half the candidates failed at this hurdle. If successful then the final stage was to complete the sixteen week course at Eaton Hall in Cheshire. The course itself was extremely gruelling and Officer Cadets lived in constant fear of failing and being returned to their units. Those who did fail the selection process would generally be given three choices, transfer to the Army Education Corps where they could reasonably expect to achieve the rank of sergeant, study Russian at the Jouint Services School of Languages in Bodmin followed by transfer to the Intelligence Corps or finally return to the regiment of their choice and complete their service. Most opted for this final course and many would be commissioned during the period they would subsequently spend in the Territorial Army.
Towards the Sound Barrier
By the start of the Second World War in 1939 aviation was undergoing great changes. With the threat of war came orders for new and faster aircraft and pilots who in 1935 were flying biplane fighters with top speeds of around 250 mph were by 1939 flying monoplanes capable of speeds up to 360 mph. Nor did development stop there. By 1940 plans for a successor to the Hawker Hurricane capable of speeds over 400 mph in level flight were well underway. The promise of even higher speeds was contained in Specification 9/40 which was to produce the Gloster Meteor, the Royal Air Force's first jet fighter. That even more was considered possible was clear with the award to Reading-based Miles Aircraft of Air Ministry specification E24/43 which called for a research aircraft capable of a speed of over 1,000 mph at an altitude of over 36,000 feet. The aircraft to be built to do this was known as the Miles M.52. Central to this project was research undertaken at RAE Farnborough to find out what happened as aircraft approached the speed of sound and in particular the effects of what is known as compressibility. For these tests staff at RAE Farnborough also had to develop the first Machmeter.
Compressibility was noticed by pilots in high speed dives from 1940 as fighter aircraft encountered problems of control and handling at speeds approaching 450 mph. Aircraft manufacturers began to undertake research into this phenomenon, and diving trials were held at Langley during 1942-43 in which Hawker test pilots were diving Typhoon fighters at over 500 mph. During one such test it is recorded that one pilot, Philip Lucas, reached a speed of 575 mph. in the prototype Tempest V.
Further diving tests were undertaken by pilots of the Aerodynamic Flight at RAE Farnborough from the late summer of 1943 to the end of 1944. The aeroplane selected was the Supermarine Spitfire Mark XI, a photo-reconnaissance version of the Spitfire IX. It was selected because of the clean nature of its air frame and its high limiting Mach number.
The experiments themselves were simple in nature but highly dangerous in that the pilot simply took the aircraft up to around 40,000 feet then canted the nose down into a 45 degree dive until the maximum Mach number was achieved. At such high speeds it was highly unlikely the pilots would be able to escape from the aircraft.
Very high speeds were reached, for example Squadron Leader Tobin reached a speed of around 650 mph. (Mach 0.9) while in April 1944 the same aircraft suffered engine failure during a dive. Piloted by Squadron Leader Martindale the Spitfire glided to Farnborough and landed safely despite losing its propeller and reduction gear. Squadron leader Martindale was seriously injured the following month when his Spitfire was damaged and he was forced to land.