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Leicester Special Collections

National Service & Civil Defence

In 1945, at the end of the Second World War, Britain was a highly militarised nation. It wasn't unusual to see military vehicles, or people in uniform, in towns and cities across the country. Shortly after the end of the war, with the start of the Cold War and a growing crisis in Malaya, a National Service Act (1948) was introduced that meant every fit and able man between the age of 17-21 (except for those in 'reserved occupations' such as coal mining, farming) had to serve in the armed forces for 18 months - increased to two years during the Korean War - and also be available for four years afterwards (this was later reduced to six months).[1]

As the Cold War progressed the need for civil defence grew and wartime civil defence measures were reinstated from 1949 with the creation of the Civil Defence Corps (CDC). These measures were mainly aimed at combating the effects of a nuclear attack and thousands of people across the country were involved with plans and exercises aimed at maintaining civil organisation after such an assault.[2]

The first atomic bomb was exploded in 1945. Britain tested its first atomic bomb in 1952 and its first hydrogen bomb in 1957. In 1958 the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) started. In 1962 the Cuban Missile Crisis seemed to bring the world to the brink of a nuclear war.

National Service

While some young men did their National Service at 17, others waited until they had finished an apprenticeship at a company before joining up. For many, this was the first opportunity to leave their home town, travel, and mix with men from different social and geographical backgrounds. Some men enjoyed the experience while others remember it as a waste of time. For those who ended up in a war zone, it could be both exciting and scary. Indeed, National Servicemen served in armed conflicts in Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Korea and Egypt, so this could be an extremely dangerous experience.

Geoff Walker was newly married when he was called up and barely saw his new wife for 18 months. Here he recalls his time in Hong Kong.

Geoff Fenn with a Radio Telephone Direction Finding truck

Geoff Fenn learnt Radio Telephone Direction Finding (RTDF) while in the military.

Many men who were interviewed for this project enjoyed the camaraderie of the armed forces. Several would have stayed on in the military if they had been able to, but family pressure often meant that they were unable to. Some skilled men, such as engineers, were able to pursue their profession while in the forces, while others learnt new skills, such as operating radios or radar. Even for those who didn't enjoy the experience, it is generally agreed that serving in the armed forces made you grow up quickly (and 18 months or two years is a long time at this formative period of life). For many men there was a mandatory attendance at annual camps after the main period of service.

Men who were interviewed for this project talked about travelling to Hong Kong, Japan, Sudan, Cyprus, Germany, Malaya, as well as numerous camps in the UK. At the end of 1960 the last men were called up and the last National Servicemen were discharged in 1963.

Geoff Fenn reflects on the pros and cons of National Service.

Link to 'Memories of Korea' video. Local men, most of whom were National Servicemen, recall the Korean War - https://youtu.be/5KMmuTVeLEI

Link to You Tube playlist about National Service and Civil Defence - https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL3Rnsga7PXcvuX83PevCxY372VxWYPMzQ

The Power of the H-Bomb

This is from a brochure designed to explain to the public what civil defence could do in the event of a nuclear explosion.

Civil Defence

At the end of the Second World War civil defence measures were no longer necessary as the immediate threat of bombing was over. However, the Cold War and the inventions of the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb created a new threat. In 1949 the government created the Civil Defence Corps (CDC) and by the end of 1950 it had recruited over 1,300 men and women in Leicestershire and over 300 in Leicester. In addition to this, the wartime Home Guard was re-formed in 1952 (disbanded in 1957). The Leicester CDC had its own magazine, 'The Siren', and there were numerous social events as well as civil defence training.

Various exercises were held locally to test procedures and organisation. 'Exercise Redwing' in May 1954 was followed by another exercise in June and then the largest of all, 'Exercise Integrate', was held in October when six counties combined for an exercise based in Leicester that involved several thousand people and 100 vehicles. Operation 'Tin Hat' took place in Hinckley in 1956 and assumed radiation from a nearby nuclear blast was passing through the town. However, the only practical use of the CDC was when Leicestershire members helped with the severe east coast floods of 1953. The Leicester Mercury reported that nearly 200 people - mainly from the British Legion and the Civil Defence Corps - went to Sutton-on-Sea to help shovel sand out of flooded houses.[3]

June Dawson's husband David was interested in joining the Civil Defence. Booklets featuring pictures such as that above were used to explain what Civil Defence was to potential recruits such as David. As June recalls, a missing chimney brush reappeared just at the wrong moment:

June Dawson talks about a Civil Defence meeting that went wrong.

Fall out shelters and secret command posts were established in both the city and the county (a secret no longer, the City of Leicester's is at City Hall on Charles Street), but eventually, the threat of nuclear attack became less likely and the CDC was disbanded in 1968.

Further reading - 'Postwar Leicester' by Ben Beazley (2006), chapter 7.
Further reading - 'Coldwar Leicestershire' by Neil Adcock covers the 1980s onwards.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Service_Act_1948 (Accessed 11/12/2017)

[2] Beazley, B., Postwar Leicester, Sutton Publishing (2006) pp 90-91.

[3] The main source for this information is 'Postwar Leicester' by Ben Beazley, chapter 7, and various press clippings in the Civil Defence Corps scrapbooks at the Record Office.

National Service & Civil Defence