Fifty-two years ago this week, Colin Greetham made a train journey which would change his life.
The 21-year-old clambered on board the Portsmouth-bound train at Petersfield for the short journey to Havant where he changed for all points west.
He was not alone. As the train stopped at every station throughout the greater Portsmouth area other young men, with the same anxious look in their eyes, dragged themselves on board.
They had little concept of what was lying ahead. All they suspected was that the following two years would remain with them forever. They weren’t wrong.
Colin says: ‘I will always remember that train journey from Petersfield to Exeter on November 5, 1960.
‘On every station there were either single young men or groups of them with their bags. They were all looking lost and very lonely.
‘For some, there were young families on the platform waving them off with tears in their eyes.
‘It was very quiet on the train as everyone wondered what the army was going to be like and what was in store for them.’
For Colin, now 73 and still living at Petersfield, was one of the last men called up for national service with the Royal Hampshire Regiment. And 50 years ago this week – in November 1962 – they were demobbed. They were the last of that happy breed.
On that train he was joined by many other young men from Portsmouth, Havant, Hayling Island and the Isle of Wight. They were about to form lifelong friendships.
They were heading for Topsham barracks, just outside Exeter beside the east bank of the River Exe. It was the training camp for the Wessex Brigade. A little farther down the river today is Lympstone where would-be Royal Marine commandos are put through their basic training.
To men of Colin’s era his tales will stir memories, but for the two generations since national service ended, the mere thought of being called up for two years will seem unimaginable.
Colin, of Holt Down, adds: ‘When we arrived at Topsham we were assembled into groups in alphabetical order A-H – Anderson, Budd, Groves, Danby, Clarke, Goring, Greetham... Paul Danby was a real character who came from Hayling Island.
‘We were taken to huts that slept 20, then we were kitted out. If you were first for trousers you were last for jackets.
‘There were very few sizes to choose from and it wasn’t long before the average size had run out, so you can imagine what we looked like. However, they did make sure our boots fitted well.
‘Next came the dreaded trip to the barber. He put one hand on your head then it was up and down with the clippers ’til it touched his hand all around your head. Some of the Teddy Boys were almost in tears as their hair dropped to the floor.
‘The spirit in our room was great, we were all in the same boat and knew we had to help each other out or we would all end up suffering.’
Colin, a member of the Tigers’ 1st Battalion, became a driver before getting what must have seemed like a dream posting... to Jamaica in the run-up to that nation’s independence.
They ended up at Uppark Camp in the capital Kingston and Colin’s pay was 25 shillings a week (£1.25) plus an overseas allowance.
‘We hadn’t been in Jamaica long when it came up on the notice board that an English film company needed some extras. Five of the lads applied and when they came back after the first day’s shooting we asked them how it went. They said: ‘‘It was great. Food and drink all day and most of the girls were wearing bikinis and we got paid as well.” It was Dr No, the first James Bond film.’
Colin’s army life took a huge turn for the better when he managed to get into the camp’s cricket and football teams.
‘The football team played in the Jamaican first division and drew large crowds.’ But it could be a little rough. ‘When we played in the Kingston dock area we had to back the lorry up to the back door of the changing rooms for safety reasons. If we won, bottles or stones would be thrown in our direction.’
He says life changed dramatically when hurricane Hattie hit British Honduras where the Hampshires had a company based. The town of Belize was hit by 15ft waves which swept through it resulting in 100 deaths and widespread devastation.
‘Two-thirds of the Kingston camp flew to Belize to help the navy and air force in the rescue operation. We were amazed that the next day when the football team was told a pitch had been cleared so the servicemen and three local teams could play in a tournament to give the local people an interest. We played for the next
Colin and his mates returned to Kingston at weekends to enjoy idyllic trips to the beach.
Meanwhile, as Jamaica pushed for independence from the UK, tension mounted. Colin recalls: ‘A few riots had started in Kingston and we were responsible for security along with the local police.
‘Riot squads were formed to control the crowds and we practiced riot drill. Luckily we only had to go to the troubled areas a few times.’
Colin’s final football match before he returned home was against a Jamaican XI under floodlights at Sabina Park with nearly 9,000 watching. ‘In the Jamaican side was a K Barnes, the father of Liverpool and England footballer John Barnes. He was an officer in the new Jamaican Defence Force. We managed to win 1-0 much to the delight of all our British supporters.’
Colin and the rest of the regiment returned to Aldershot. The regulars were posted to Germany while the national servicemen were demobbed and a slice of British life came to an end.
He adds: ‘Most national servicemen really enjoyed their time, but it did depend on where you were posted.
‘You had hardly any problems. You just did as you were told; your bed was there; there was plenty of food and lots of friends all looking to have a good time. And you got to see the world on not much money.
‘It is amazing that after time you can only remember the good times you had and seem to forget the bad.’
Millions called up for active service
The years of national service covered almost two decades – from the Second World War to the birth of the Beatles.
In all, between 1945 and 1963, 2.5 million young men were compelled to do their time in National Service – with 6,000 being called up every fortnight.
Some went willingly, while others were reluctant but resigned. A few were downright bloody-minded, seeing little difference between their call up and the press gangs of Britain’s distant past.
At first public opinion was behind the idea of peacetime conscription, or national service. It was clear in the immediate post-war political landscape that Britain had considerable obligations, and only a limited number of men still in service.
There was Germany to be occupied with 100,000 troops; and Austria too. In the Middle East there was Palestine to be policed, Aden to be protected, the Suez Canal Zone to be held down – as well as Cyprus, Singapore, Hong Kong and a chain of lesser military bases.
However, in the milk bars and Lyon’s tea shops of those days, no amount of government propaganda could stop youngsters of both sexes grousing about the disruption to their lives caused by national service.
It would have an effect on education plans, young boys starting apprenticeships, and on girlfriends faced with the prospect of their partners disappearing with only occasional leave.
The only escape, so it seemed, was failing the medical...