Square-bashing seen through rose-tinted glasses

Once again PJS Waller writes at length regarding his two years as a National Serviceman, (Your Views 17 September), which he seems to consider the experience somehow qualifies him as an authority on the value of conscription, 20th century military history and possible reasons for a supposed increase in the crime rate in North Yorkshire!

In his lengthy discourse regarding his service career as an RAF police dog handler in peacetime Lincolnshire, he seeks to cast doubt on my recollection of life during the National Service period of the 50s and early 60s, in a totally and unjustified disparaging way.

I am fully aware of the contribution made by National Servicemen in the conscription era, including the Korean War and numerous ‘small wars’, some of which I personally experienced, as my two active service medals will serve to testify.

However for every National Serviceman involved in active service, scores of others and the vast majority had to endure a soul-destroying two years doing nothing useful at places such as Catterick and Aldershot. The eight weeks of so-called ‘square bashing’ did nothing at all to instill discipline, other than there was a real threat of detention in a military prison if ‘orders’ were not obeyed.

By today’s standards the quality of training was abysmal. Many conscripts would receive the bare minimum of further training. If in the Army, they may have then been posted to the ‘front line’ in theatres such as Korea.

In the RAF, there was a real possibility of not receiving any further formal training at all, and instead being graded as a trade assistant, with only ‘on the job’ training in branches such as catering or nursing.

I served alongside so-called ward assistants at an RAF hospital, who often did a good job, but I doubt very few yearn for a return to such days.

It is conversely a slur on the regular forces at that time to state that they would not have coped without military conscription. In more recent times, a vastly reduced UK defence force has been in action simultaneously in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr Waller is entitled to his views, and what I consider to be apocryphal memories, but I invite readers to consider our comparative service experience, and decide whose recollection is the most likely to be the most accurate.

In the NS period I served the first six years of my 25 years’ military service and not just two years, serving on several bases in UK and overseas alongside National Service airmen and soldiers. At the age of 20, I was experiencing the first of three active service tours in the Middle East, and not patrolling bases in the UK.

As regards training, having successfully completed the Airborne soldiers ’P Company’ later in my service, I consider that I know just what really tough training consists of, and what is comparatively mainly pointless ‘bull’.

Since National Service was abolished, there has been no indication by any political party to reinstate it. Thankfully there is no need to consider this, as the younger generation, including my own son who has served for 21 years, continue to provide a very effective and exceptionally well-trained defence force. This state of affairs has been achieved without ‘32 man rooms’ and ‘kit being thrown out of windows’ by instructors!

Nostalgia is a wonderful thing, but I think it is very sad if a period of not doing anything very useful half a century ago was the best time of anybody’s life.

Finally, I will obtain a copy of the books referred to, which will add to my collection of military history, and which includes my own book, ‘The Rock and Roll Years of a Parachuting Medic’ which was published in 2007 by Woodfield Publishing.

Mick Thompson

Byward Drive

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