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National Service? Aahh, the drill of it all!

The secret of a clean toilet is keeping the door locked. Tim Minogue rifles the Army files of some famous recruits
When John Peel, the future BBC disc jockey, came to the end of his brief and undistinguished military career, his demob report was unequivocal. "At no time during his National Service," it read, "has this man shown any sign of adapting to the military way of life."

His finest hour came when a general, inspecting the toilets it was Peel's duty to clean, praised him for keeping the most spotless lavatory in any barracks on the Royal Artillery camp at Ty Croes, Anglesey. Gunner Ravenscroft (Peel's real name) did not let on that this had only been achieved by padlocking the door and refusing entry for months to even the most desperate of soldiers.

John Peel was one of more than 2 million men who underwent National Service between 1947 and 1963, the vast majority serving as privates in the Army. In a BBC1 documentary marking the 50th anniversary of its introduction, Army of Innocents, to be shown on Wednesday, former conscripts recall their experiences - typically of boredom, pointless square-bashing and cleaning of kit, punctuated by abuse from bullying sergeants.

The broadcaster Michael Aspel was the victim of one of this breed. "To be told you were a bundle of shit tied up in the middle was an accolade," he said.

The late humorist, Willie Rushton, gave his last interview to Army of Innocents. Remembering his 10 weeks of often brutal basic training he said: "It began to get nasty quite early. I think to give you the feel of it they began to shout at you quite soon." To avoid trouble, bewildered conscripts joked, it was best to follow the code: if it moves, salute it, if it doesn't, paint it.

Others, however, were flung into the front line in one or other of the 57 "actions" which Britain was involved in between 1947 and 1963, from the Korean War and the Suez invasion to anti-insurgent campaigns in Cyprus, Malaya and Kenya. A total of 395 National Servicemen were killed in action, including the best friend of Albert Tyas, a conscript in the Royal Ulster Rifles, who died in his arms on a Korean hillside. "I will never forget it," said Tyas. "You just can't replace him. None of us understood what was happening in the world. We were all too young. We had no idea what active service meant."

If the bullets or - more likely - the boredom didn't get you, the other big danger was venereal disease. Young servicemen often had their first sexual experiences with prostitutes in far-flung corners of what remained of the British Empire - as portrayed in The Virgin Soldiers, by former National Serviceman Leslie Thomas, who based his novel on his time in Singapore in the Royal Army Pay Corps from 1949 to 1951.

Michael Aspel remembers girls selling themselves in impoverished post- war Germany for a pair of stockings or a jar of coffee. He left the Army a virgin, however - at 19 he was refused entry to German brothels because he looked too innocent.

While the cry "Bring back National Service!" is something of a stock- in-trade of right-wingers, the National Service Act was actually introduced by the Labour Secretary of State for War, Manny Shinwell, in March 1947.

The Cold War and the succession of crises in colonies pushing for independence meant that Britain, exhausted by World War Two, suddenly needed some 250,000 new recruits into the armed forces every year. There was no question of making war veterans stay on, for there had already been unrest over the slow pace of demobilisation, including mutinies in Egypt and Malaya. Despite a rebellion by 70 Labour MPs, the Act was passed with Conservative support.

Every man between 18 and 26 was liable for National Service for one year, increased to 18 months in 1948 and to two years in 1950 because of the Korean War. In 1953 the British Army was 440,000-strong, the highest ever in peacetime, of whom about half were National Service conscripts.

Perhaps surprisingly John Peel enjoyed a lot of his National Service, including the endless drill. "There was a certain amount of satisfaction to be derived from being a cog in such a machine," he said. "It's the same sort of thrill you get from something like synchronised swimming or ballroom dancing. I occasionally reproduce some of my finer moves for my children. You never lose it; it's like riding a bicycle." Peel, now 58, also became an expert at cleaning Army boots, which had to be polished "to a ludicrous degree", by a method involving coating them with boot polish, smoothing out bumps with a heated spoon and then spitting and polishing. "There was a lot of that kind of nonsense, but I was used to it because I'd gone through that sort of thing in the cadet force at Shrewsbury," said Peel. "Being the only public schoolboy was a great disadvantage, because I used to have a ludicrous accent. I used to talk like a minor member of the Royal Family. I have one recording of it which is kept under lock and key."

Peel did not make the grade in officer selection. "I was probably the first public schoolboy to fail to get a commission! The NCOs really made life difficult for me so the rest of the lads kind of rallied round. We formed a kind of mutual defence league.

"The best aspect of it, the one thing that I think would be useful for people today, was that it did compel you actually to think about other people's needs. You all had to work together - even if it was just in things like petty theft and evasion, which were the two things I really learned during National Service."

Peel, who spent most of his National Service in Anglesey, was not prey to the kind of sexual temptations available to Leslie Thomas and Michael Aspel. "I was rather frightened of sex. There were women, I'm told, on the island of Anglesey, but I never came into contact with them. Some of my more robust Clydebank mates went off in search of them and claimed successes, but I don't know if they were telling the truth or not.

"People used to say that the tea was laced with something which reduced your sex drive. People also used to claim before camp dances, because we were working on radar sets, that if you stood in front of the aerial it would sterilise you for the period of the camp dance. I can remember people clambering up on the roof to stand in front of the aerial, so who knows, they may be sterile to this day. At the dances, in fact, there would be about 20 women and 400 common soldiery, so all you did was get outrageously drunk."

Peel said that in the 1950s young people were so unused to having any choice in their lives that few questioned the need to do National Service. "Life just seemed pre-destined. I put up with stuff both at school and in the Army which if I'd tried to inflict something similar on our children they'd tell me to get stuffed, and quite rightly so."