'I'm an 89-year-old who did national service: It changed my life'

Yahoo News – Insights speaks directly to the people with an inside track on the big issues. Here, Doug Hockaday explains why he grew to love his time in national service in 1953.

Doug Hockaday
Doug Hockaday, 89, wasn't keen on national service at first, but was sad to leave his 'best mates' after his time was up.
  • Doug Hockaday, 89, is a grandfather-of-nine from Northwood, north-west London, who worked as a radar operator after being called for national service in 1953.

  • National service was abolished in 1960, but Rishi Sunak has pledged to bring it back if the Conservative Party wins the 4 July general election, with 18-year-olds given the choice of a military placement or civil roles.

In the beginning it was an interference in your life. National service was a two-year stint. They needed loads of manpower, because they always had to be ready for occupation forces. We were likely to go to war – serious war.

There were loads of folks in my generation who found various reasons why they shouldn’t go, and got doctors certificates for this that or the other - and my opinion was that they were the losers.

I didn’t want to go initially, but after the first year I loved it.

At first you look forward to being demobbed, and then the day it comes you’re in tears because of all the mates you had.

They really were mates – overall they were the best mates I ever had.

National service gives you a different understanding of other people. You got a totally different outlook from what you went in with, and you came to rely on the people you thought you’d never rely on.

You got a different understanding of the whole concept of dependency – because you were all in the same boat, no matter what your background was, you were there because the government said you were, and you had to put up with it.

It changed my life because I learned to look at people differently and realise that they were a lot better than some of the people who would have been my heroes as I was growing up.

Doug Hockaday
Doug Hockaday says his experience changes his perspective on life for the better.

We were very well disciplined (when we were sober), and remember, we were blokes taken more-or-less off the streets and set to do a task.

It was an eye opener; I don’t think it did me any harm at all. I did say that if any of my children wanted to go in, I would never ever try to persuade them not to.

There were people who were totally not your cup of tea, but when you got to know them, they were completely different.

Some of them were on active service. Some actually went out to Singapore and the Far East, and there were some people who stayed on in the military.

I was posted mainly in England, but I had a three-week detachment in Germany. I spent most of the time, believe it or not, underground, because I was a radar operator.

The radar I worked on was the most modern in the world at that time. I still remember loads of what I was taught.

It’s a very highly technical job now – the armed forces – and they don’t need the numbers because they’re not invading anywhere anymore, and if they did, if there was a war, there wouldn’t be much time for anybody to get away from it.

Even back in my day there was resentment about the amateurism of some conscripts' thinking. There used to be a saying by the real army, not the national service army, that one volunteer is worth a dozen conscriptions. But that wasn’t necessarily true, depending on what you were going to be trained to do.

One of the reasons national servicemen got to be radar operators is because it was a short course before you were operational, and then you learnt the rest of it on the job.

If they do reintroduce national service, I think all they’re going to provide is back-up services – that’s what the conscripts will do, I think. I don’t think a year is enough – they’ll just learn the basics.

Really and truly, it would take two years to learn the disciplines. You’ve got a lot of bolshy people out and about who wouldn’t be willing to accept that.

Doug Hockaday
Grandfather-of-nine Doug Hockaday is not sure how well Rishi Sunak's scheme will work if it isn't enforced.

There was a system when I did my service: If you didn’t want to go into the forces you could register as a conscientious objector. But there would be no reason why you couldn’t drive an ambulance or be a nurse or whatever.

In time of war, everyone has to be equal, but you can be equal in different ways. You had to do it – even if it was digging graves on the battlefield.

If people avoid national service, they definitely should be punished. It’s the equivalent of treason in my eyes. If they refuse to defend the country – that is equivalent to treason.

You can’t be picking and choosing over subjects like that.

If people aren't prosecuted for avoiding national service, it won't work. You'll have people losing seniority in their employment because someone else has chosen not to enlist and could get a head-start at work.

In these circumstances, there has to be equality.

Doug Hockaday
Hockaday believes one year – the length of the proposed national service scheme – isn't enough to learn the skills and disciplines of military life.

People do things differently now, and most people I don’t think can imagine what war is like. But you have it happening at the moment in Ukraine – which Poland could get dragged into.

We’re so tied up in treaties that we’d have to make an effort. We’re not in the "post war era" now.

This new plan won’t make a lot of difference until a war actually comes – and then that’ll be all thrown out the window and they’ll have the top men in the forces, doing the planning, and your politicians will just be working out how to pay the wages.

The most important part of any infrastructure is the chain of command. There are capable men available – but they’re not politicians, they’re militarists.

To a certain extent, I think the government must believe in this policy, but I think a lot of the people currently governing would be useless in times of war.

I don’t know at the moment of one politician who would be happy leading us if there was a war. But, then, there's the old saying: “Cometh the moment, cometh the man”.

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