I was among the last of Britain’s National Servicemen – conscripted at the age of 22 on October 20, 1960. The final National Service intake was in the next month, November 1960.
I found my initial army training in the Royal Army Service Corps at a barracks in Aldershot quite easy because I had spent 15 months previously training part-time in the British Royal Marine Reserve while working full-time as a young sub-editor on The Journal daily newspaper in Newcastle upon Tyne.
I had been inspired to want to become a National Service Royal Marine as a boy by the visit to my parents’ home of the boyfriend – later husband – of one of my mother’s sisters, who had fought as a Royal Marine in the Middle East against the Japanese. He demonstrated his skills as a sergeant PE instructor by acrobatics on a chair in my parents’ flat in Heaton, Newcastle. I was impressed.
Later I learned that a friend had become a National Service Royal Marine, qualifying through spending time in the RM Reserve in Newcastle. So I signed up.
My fellow journalists were no doubt astonished, but I spent some of my free time learning to march and handle weapons at the Reservist HQ on the city’s Westgate Road, and the Journal editor twice allowed me time away to train at Royal Marine barracks in Deal and Portsmouth.
Ironically, after being conscripted – after deferment for journalist on-the-job training – I was informed that the Royal Marines had recently put a stop to recruitment of national servicemen. That was in fact fortunate for, retrospectively, I decided I was glad I hadn’t had the risk of involvement in armed combat with the Marines.
Agnostic – what’s that sergeant?
After arriving at the barracks, we national servicemen have to give personal details to a young lance corporal behind a bank-counter-type window.
“Religion?” he asks me.
Looks bemused. “I’ll just put Church of England, should I?”
“No. I’m agnostic.”
Still bemused, he speaks to someone out of sight to his right.
“What should I put here, sergeant? He says he’s agnostic.”
Sergeant: “All right, put down agnostic.”
Lance corporal to me: “How do you spell agnostic?”
Strangely, my agnosticism will be apparently significant sometime later when I go before a War Office Selection Board for selecting future officer cadets.
Subsequently, we sit at desks to fill in answers to questions to assess, I believe, basic intelligence and numeracy. The young man beside me, who has befriended me, asks me in whispers for assistance. Before that he had confided in me that he recently married and on the night before the wedding had sex with a former girlfriend.
We are put in charge of a not-so-young corporal with a moustache, rumoured to have been demoted from sergeant for some unknown reason. He takes us to the camp barbers for short back-and-sides haircuts. There, for some unknown reason, he picks on me, calling me Curly despite my straight hair, and grinningly cuts my hair himself. This, despite the fact that I’d recently had a close haircut by a civilian barber, expecting it to be required. He left all the others to the camp’s barbers.
In training us, the corporal basically played the tough, disciplinary role required of him, but I gained the impression that he softened it slightly in sympathy with what I suspect was to be the last batch of national servicemen at this camp.
At an interview with an officer, I was told that following basic training I would, if I wished (and I did) be transferred to take part in a potential officer cadets’course at a neighbouring barracks. I was the only one of our group to be selected, but my fellow conscripts, most of whom I grew to like, said “well done” when I told them.
After we collected and put on our uniforms, crumpled and not-yet pressed, we were taken to somewhere outside where a staff sergeant said he would take our photographs for a fee, to send home to our families. I stood aside and said I didn’t want to have a photograph of me in a crumpled uniform. Another conscript followed my example. The staff sergeant then tried threateningly to persuade us with potential future difficulties that would result from our refusal. The other young man succumbed to the threats, but I remained resolute. Our corporal stood aside during all this, saying nothing.
Soon after, I was told one evening as I lay in bed that the young second lieutenant with responsibility for us wanted to see me in his nearby bunk (room). I recall feeling slightly shaky as I went there. He asked me for my impressions of the photography incident and I said I thought the staff sergeant used gentle blackmail. The officer (national service I believe) thanked me and said he simply would not have some such things happening in his unit and would put a stop to it.
I have no idea why he chose me but assumed it was because I had been selected to go on the potential officer cadets’ course, and/or I had stood up to the threats. (As it was known I had been a journalist for four years, I wondered privately whether there was a fear I would disclose the incident to my former newspaper, which I had no intention of doing.) I also assumed it was our corporal who had told the officer of the incident.
Among our intake was a young man I will call Neville who arrived dressed very smartly: suit, shirt and tie, trousers with a crease, and polished shoes, giving him an air of middle class, intelligent sophistication. However, he proved to be a simple, not well-educated chap with a strong south coastal accent.
One night he began shovelling coke into the oven that kept the hut warm. “For heaven’s sake, don’t do that Neville!” I rapped out. “The hut is already already sweatingly hot!”
He continued shovelling. “Got to keep the lads warm, Mike,” he said.
A day or so after he told me and another roommate that he was married. But he and his wife had sex only about once a year because, as we’d know, anything more than that is too stressful for a woman. We tried to tell him he was incorrect, but, although he looked startled, I suspected he wasn’t accepting what we were saying.
Once we had learned the basics of drill, our corporal occasionally ordered me and a tough-looking young man I’ll call Fred to march our group around the camp – myself I assumed because I was destined for a potential officer cadets course, and Fred because he had said he was seriously considering signing on as a regular soldier in the hope of becoming an NCO.
As I led our group, some smirking NCOs of varying ranks at the side of the road mocked me with a high-pitched “left, right, left, right.” Our corporal waved disapprovingly at them but I immediately dropped my voice an octave.
I was liked among my roommates, but for some reason Fred was disliked.
Well into basic training we were allowed to have an evening drinking alcohol and on our inebriated return someone suggested marching towards Fred’s bunk at the other end of the hut. So a small group formed up and I drunkenly tagged on. Party shun, right turn, quick march, and halt and left turn before Fred sitting on his bunk.
He immediately picked up his belt, folded it as a weapon and snarled: “OK, Jamieson, are you getting it first?!”
I replied, “Oh, come on Fred. We aren’t planning to do you any harm. Just a bit of fun.” Reached towards him: “Howay man, give me your belt.” Then added: “Come on lads, let’s go back to our beds.” And we dispersed.
Sixty years later I still greatly regret having slipped, albeit drunkenly, into being a part of what was essentially bullying.