National Service Memories: A Report on My Father's Voyage From Liverpool to Port Said, 1951
My late father, Alan Young, was born and raised in a town on the northeast coast of England in 1933. In August 1951, he was called upon by the Air Ministry to serve twenty months national service in the Suez Canal Zone in Egypt. He was eighteen years old, and he considered his enlistment a great opportunity to see faraway places.
As a keen photographer, he built up a comprehensive visual record of his national service, with dozens of snapshots of the places he visited and the people he met during that period of his life. While sorting through his papers after he died, however, I came across a written account of my father’s journey to Egypt, and it paints a picture almost as vivid as the photographs.
When he returned to Blighty after his stint in Egypt, my father enrolled on an English correspondence course with the British Tutorial Institute. One of the assignments he was given was to write an essay entitled An Account of a Journey I Have Made. His voyage from Liverpool to Port Said stood above all other journeys he had made at that point, and so this is what he chose to write about. The following is an account of that voyage, with some direct quotes from his essay.
The Voyage Begins
The big adventure began in darkness, when the 21,000 ton troopship Empress of Australia nosed silently up the Mersey and into the open sea. The German-built ship had a rich history, having seen disaster and distinction since being seized by the British as a war prize in 1919. She helped rescue victims of the great Kanto earthquake of 1923 in Japan, but happier times came when she was used as the royal yacht for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth’s royal tour of Canada in 1939. She was scrapped less than a year after my father’s voyage.
The experience of travelling by ship was new to most of the enlistees on board, and fervent chatter about what might lie ahead kept many of them awake until the early hours.
When daylight came, a wave of excitement ran through the ranks of the younger passengers. Land had been sighted, and cries of “Spain” and “Gibraltar” rang out. Enlistees scrambled from their bunks and ran onto the deck, where they lined the rail to take in their first glimpse of foreign soil. Their bubble was soon burst when a crew member, who had more experience in these matters, pointed out that what they were looking at was actually the tip of Cornwall. This was disappointing news, but with England now definitely behind them, the enlistees knew that any land sighted from now on would be foreign.
Having crossed the Bay of Biscay, which my father described as remarkably calm, the ship hugged the Iberian Peninsula, enabling those with cameras to take photographs of Cape Finisterre and Cape St Vincent. These sightings of land served as an exciting prelude to the ship’s first port of call: Gibraltar. I will let my father describe in his own words the scene that greeted the ship.
Eventually we reached Gibraltar, awe-inspiring and proud, the sentinel of the Mediterranean. We were greeted by dozens of boats offering wares that could be bought with the English shilling. This indeed was romantic – the panorama of gaily coloured wares; tablecloths and head squares, the shouting and haggling of the traders, the clear blue of the bay, and against it all, in silent majesty, The Rock.
Although Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory, the fact that it is some twelve hundred miles from the British mainland made it appear as mysterious as Buenos Aires to the young enlistees. The ship made only a brief stop here.
After a few days’ sailing, the Empress approached Malta, where a new flotilla of trading boats awaited her. My father reports that some crew members showed considerable contempt for these traders, but this was not a feeling shared by those making their maiden voyage. He said:
We were agog with interest and deaf to the ridicule that was being heaped upon the traders. There was consternation in our ranks when the crew of the ship turned a powerful hose onto the merchant boats in order to disperse them. It seemed harsh to us, but we took it as just another part of the wonderful journey we were on. Malta itself was beautiful, and I envied the troops who disembarked there.
After the splendour of Malta, Cyprus turned out to be a great anticlimax to the enlistees; not because of any negative aspect of that beautiful island, but because the ship had to anchor about a mile offshore because it was too big to enter the tiny harbour at Famagusta. This time, only a few trading boats approached, and my father recorded the scene.
One merchant, fat and smiling, held up two enormous bunches of grapes, and business began again. I took some photographs of the island, but we were anchored too far out and the prints showed lots of sea and very little Cyprus.
Would National Service Work Today?
Do you think the reintroduction of National Service in the UK would be a good thing?
What IS National Service?
Conscription in Britain was introduced during both world wars, but peacetime call ups, such as that undertaken by my father, continued after the end of World War II, when the National Service Act, 1948 was passed. This Act required all healthy males between the ages of 17 and 21 to serve eighteen months in the Armed Forces.
Although conscription had its detractors, many of those who enlisted looked back on their National Service as the best time of their lives, giving them the opportunity to see faraway places and make new friends. Despite this positive view, National Service was discontinued at the end of 1960, and the last enlistees completed their stints in May 1963.
There have been rumblings in Parliament recently about reintroducing National Service.
Two hours after dropping anchor, the ship set off on the last leg of its voyage to Port Said where, after disembarkation, the new recruits proceeded to their final destination of RAF Abu Sueir, some ten miles west of Ismailia. My father’s essay hints that he and his fellow enlistees had rather negative preconceptions of Port Said, but he looked forward to being back on land and starting his national service in earnest. These preconceptions appear to have had some truth in them, as his essay closes with these words:
After the wonderful sights I had seen on the trip, Port Said came as a spirit dampener. However, one doesn’t condemn a good book because of the last chapter.
My father died in February 1997. Obviously, I treasure the many photographs he left, including those taken while on national service, but I feel especially fortunate that he also left what is effectively a running commentary to accompany the photographs of that exciting voyage from Liverpool to Port Said.