Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
The generation that endured or enjoyed National Service has begun to leave us. So nostalgia combined with a need to record their testimony before they die makes this book’s timing very apposite. Shindler has set out the views of thirty or so Brits, covering the spectrum of the years in which conscription was in force. More to the point, he has assembled a rag tag which encompasses most of Britain’s broad social spectrum at the start of the Fifties.
One of the joys of the book is to see how the (unintended) consequence of NS was to give its largely unwilling soldiers, sailors and airmen exposure to people way beyond their social standing, let alone way beyond their home town or village. For as Shindler makes plain, this was still an era when many, at least in the working classes, had had very limited travel opportunities. The joy of some of his witnesses of going to some dusty oven in the Middle East is quite moving. In this way the book holds up a mirror through which to view twenty first century Britain and evaluate whether we have moved on.
Some of the more intelligent and perceptive of his witnesses make telling asides. Keith Bolderson, for example, judges that latterly too many young people have been sent to universities – “at the moment universities are serving the purpose that National Service was partly invented for.” When one reads the tasks that some of these poor servicemen were given, one cannot fail to conclude that part of the motivation of NS was to provide “work” for a generation, for which industry could not yet fully cope. Yet some of Shindler’s most embittered witnesses are those who had to leave relatively well-paid jobs (eg a Burtons junior manager) for the paltry wage of less than £2/week.
For those that were of university grade, NS seems not to have hindered their career or the benefits they gained from uni. It was those in manual and clerical jobs whose earning power was weakened, at least for a time.
One of the main military reasons for NS was that GB still had a lot of overseas interests to defend, and the dismantling of the Empire had to be carried out in an orderly (and therefore heavily manned) fashion. The other reason was that the Cold War had emerged from the embers of WW2, and the testimony of those in the book who were based in Germany shows that they sensed a real, material, yet undefined, danger from Britain’s former ally. The book therefore covers the mutation of the role of the BAOR from an army of occupation to one of defence.
Shindler bookends each of the three parts of the book with commentary putting the period into a social context. One of his conclusions is irrefutable, that most participants in NS shared a “deep ambivalence “ about it. A few enjoyed it, most hated it. Yet “most of them, frequently the same people, recognised that it gave them some sense of discipline and other qualities which they used in their lives and for which they remain grateful.”
Colin Shindler, Sphere, pb, 2013
ISBN 9780751 546200
Shindler’s list (I had to say it) of witnesses appear to have had their thoughts transcribed fairly directly from a tape recorder. This leads at times to less than pithy communication. That, and an absence of illustrations (a picture tells a thousand words and all that) aside, this is an enlightening and at times entertaining book.