Wilson forced boys to stay in Army

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The Independent Online

Thousands of boys were forced to serve in the armed forces against their will under Harold Wilson's government in the Sixties.

Documents reveal the Labour prime minister made recruits as young as 15 sign draconian contracts described as "morally indefensible" by a Home Office minister. Mr Wilson feared relaxing the rules would undermine Britain's defence capabilities during a recruitment crisis, show files released by the Public Record Office.

Teenagers were refused permission to leave the Army until they were at least 24 or even 30, despite a 1969 government opinion poll which showed one-quarter of young servicemen were desperate to quit at 18. Mr Wilson withheld this information from his Cabinet.

In the 1960s, the armed forces were signing up 12,000 boys a year aged 15 to 17. They said they needed to tie them down because of the expense of training and the difficulty of replacing them. Many youngsters were apprenticed into the Royal Engineers or as technicians in the RAF and Royal Navy. The Latey report contrasted the freedom of young civilian men with those in the military and said recruits should be allowed a three-month escape period after their 18th birthday. The government rejected this.

In February 1968, the Commons were told boy entrants were vital because they stayed longer and reached higher ranks. Defence minister Gerry Reynolds said: "They are regarded by all three services as an indispensable source of high-quality recruits who will furnish a large proportion of the most skilled tradesmen, senior NCOs and warrant officers and a proportion of officers."

Lord Stonham, a Home Office minister, wrote to Mr Wilson: "When we discussed this in January (1969) in the Home Affairs Committee we felt we faced the choice between a morally indefensible system of engagements and the danger of undermining defence policy.

"We are all very unhappy at retaining what we regard as an indefensible arrangement, but given that recruitment is well below requirements we felt driven to conclude that we could not implement the Latey recommendations."