NOSTALGIA: Memories of National Service

The Fire Station at RAF Tangmere in 1965. The crews saw plenty of action in the 1960s with several major crashes on the airfield. Photo: TMAM/Terry Mayes.
The Fire Station at RAF Tangmere in 1965. The crews saw plenty of action in the 1960s with several major crashes on the airfield. Photo: TMAM/Terry Mayes.

TIME spent in the National Service has given many people enough memories to last them a lifetime.

Following a few letters run recently in the Observer regarding this particular time in British history, numerous people from the area have got in touch to share their experiences and thoughts.

Many young people were conscripted to serve their country around the middle of the 20th century, whether they wanted to or not.

While some presumably benefited a great deal from the experience, there can be no doubt it was a great upheaval for young people growing up.

Denis Hoyle, from Aldwick, wrote to say it was 1956 when ‘it was my turn to serve Queen and country’.

Following in the footsteps of his older brothers, one of whom had been a medical orderly at RAF Tangmere in 1950, he joined the RAF.

He said because of the RAF getting more regular members: “The choice of trade for a national serviceman was very limited. In my case it was between cook and typist, and not fancying the heat of the kitchen I became a typist.”

During his time serving, he travelled around the country – including places near Bedford, Warrington and Hereford – before travelling to his final destination of Wahn, near Cologne in Germany.

The RAF fighter station was also the headquarters of the group controlling half the RAF airfields in West Germany.

He recalled arriving and settling into a new routine. He said it was a ‘busy place’, and remembered duties such as taking turns as the duty clerk, and passing a typing test of 80 words per minute, following which he was promoted senior aircraftman.

He also wrote of a visit to Amsterdam in Easter 1957.

His time in the service was completed in early 1958, and reflecting now on these significant two years of his life, he wrote: “Many national servicemen would say that after it was finally over, they were glad that they did it for the experiences that it had given them, but whilst we all gained something from it, I would say that had I been given a choice, I would not have taken part as it did interrupt your personal life to a very great extent.”

John Elphick, who now lives in Middleton, but at the time was from Eltham, in South London, also undertook national service from 1956 to 1958.

He wrote of his memorable time in Cyprus, an unforgettable experience.

“We had been in Cyprus for just a few hours and were waiting in a transit camp for transport to Famagusta and our new home for the next 18 months,” he said.

Shortly after his arrival, he was asked to volunteer for a special escort mission into town.

“Despite my protests they insisted that I was the man for the job and that I would be back in time to join the others for the transport to Famagusta.

“One of the NCOs handed me a sten gun and full magazine, with the comforting words: ‘Grab this, it might be handy, son’.

“The roads were quite narrow and busy but by the way the driver handled the lorry, he had done this trip before.

“Although only ten to 15 minutes, the journey seemed to take an eternity but we finally pulled up outside a large building with an up and over door.

“A couple of local lads appeared, one carrying a large metal hook.

“The door slowly opened and a roller table became evident. The locals and driver’s mate positioned the table facing the back of the truck, and down the roller came a huge block of ice.

“The hook man pulled the ice onto the truck.

“The driver’s mate jumped back in the cab and shouted to me: ‘Just keep your foot on it, mate, stop it sliding off – it’s for the sergeant’s mess’.”

ONE former serviceman has an internet group for those who played a role in this piece of 20th century British history to share their memories.

Edward Clamp, of Selsey, said: “I joined the Royal Navy as a regular at HMS Raleigh, Cornwall, in 1958, with what I believe may have been the last Royal Navy national servicemen.

“One of my projects has been the initiation a local internet group for ex-servicemen, be they national service or regulars. We already have a number of ex-national servicemen in the group.”

He added those who live around the Chichester area and beyond are more than welcome to join the Chichester Combined Armed Forces group.