National service 1954-1956

by George Chittock

George Chittock

I was 18 when I received my National Service call-up papers. It instructed me to report for my medical. At the time I was working as an apprentice cooper, had a great group of friends and was surrounded by a close-knit, loving family.

Although I had known that it was only a matter of time before I was called up, when it came I was very apprehensive, being concerned about the expectations of army life and sad about leaving my family and friends. However, it gave way to excitement at the thought of going abroad, making new friends, and learning new skills.

After being found medically fit I was immediately required to report to the Royal Fusiliers barracks at the Tower of London, where their training unit was based. A four-month military training course followed, with about 80 other recruits, to prepare us for active service, anywhere in the world. We were then transferred to a transit camp in Kent to await our orders to be shipped to the battalion located in Khartoum, Sudan. This was subsequently changed and instead a group of us were transferred to the Queen’s Royal Regiment. They were serving in Malaya (now Malaysia) assisting the Malayan Police in combatting raids by insurgent groups. These groups were carrying out attacks on the local civilian population, including, farmers, rubber plantation workers, and others.

At the end of World War II several British colonies were seeking for independence. In the case of Malaya, the Communist-influenced Malayan National Liberation Army initiated armed guerrilla insurgencies. As a result, Britain, along with other Western allies, sent military personnel to Malaya to act as an anti-insurgency force. Hence our deployment to Malaya. On the 13th of December 1954 we set sail aboard HMTS Asturias, heading for Singapore. We arrived on the 1st of January 1955 after a wonderful 3-week journey, though military training continued throughout.

During this period, I gained a greater realisation of what it meant to be on active service, namely carrying a rifle and possibly being engaged in gun battles. That made it a little scary, but I was mindful that my personal safety and that of my comrades was paramount. Overnight we travelled by military train from Singapore to an area called Negri Sembilan in the west of Malaya. We were required to take anti-malarial medication daily, failing to do so being a disciplinary offence. Carrying our rifles was also compulsory.

At base we commenced the next part of our intensive training. This included four weeks of acclimatisation to the Malayan weather and jungle training, where the heat averaged 90-95F at midday. This was essential given the hostile environment in which we would be working. I was also detailed to begin training as a signaller, responsible for military communications, which meant carrying a military 68T radio wireless set on all operations.

During the remainder of my service in Malaya, approximately 18 months, I worked as part of a 200/300-man ambush unit. Our role was to protect the civilian population from insurgents who got into their kampongs (traditional villages), often to steal food. On other occasions, for about ten days each time, our duties involved patrolling specified areas deep in the jungle. In hot, humid, and wet conditions, while carrying our rifles, ammunition and ration packs of food, a path had to be cleared by chopping down trees and bushes as we walked. My load was heavier due to the 68T wireless set, to send ‘situation reports’ back to headquarters.

There were many highs and lows, especially when two members of our unit were killed, but we had to remain strong and focussed. These activities continued until I was demobbed in 1956. I returned home with mixed emotions, sorry to be leaving fellow soldiers behind, but very elated to be reunited with my family and friends.

Within a week of my return my mother organised a party. It was wonderful. I eventually settled back into civilian life. I worked as a labourer until I was employed as a wood worker; I continued doing this for the next 46 years, until I retired. Undoubtedly, the dedication, loyalty, and discipline I had learnt in the army influenced my work ethos.

As I reflect on my life in the military, I do wish I had been exposed to the gospel at that time. Some of my experiences were extremely challenging and traumatic; for example, being constantly under threat of enemy attacks and witnessing the death of fellow soldiers. The latter experience, in particular, led to great sorrow not only for the loss of a friend but because I believed his life had completely come to an end. Becoming a member of the Church in 1978, I came to know that this is not the case; I now view death from a different perspective. Had I known this when my friend died, I would have been comforted by the assurance that his death was not the end. Furthermore, having the gospel in my life would have helped me to deal with other experiences I had as a soldier.

Each year the Armistice Commemoration period means a lot to me, as I join in remembering those who have lost their lives in armed conflicts, especially those with whom I served. I have had an eventful life and would say that my time in the military was probably the most challenging. I would not change it for anything but having the gospel now has added a different dimension to my perspective on life and how God cares for us.

George Chittock is a member of Catford Ward, Wandsworth Stake, London