Some 287,000 young Australian men were called up in 2 separate schemes for compulsory training in the Navy, Army and Air Force between 1951 and 1972. Of them, 212 died on active service in Borneo and Vietnam. National Service was part of Australia’s defence-readiness policy for over 20 years.
National Service was a product of the global and regional conflicts facing Australia after World War II. These included:
- the Berlin blockade by the Soviet Union in 1948
- the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948
- Communist insurgencies in Malaya and Vietnam
- Communist North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in 1950
- the Suez Canal crisis of 1956
- the Confrontation with Indonesia in Borneo in 1963
- the Vietnam War.
These tensions were overlaid with the added threat of nuclear war.
Policy-makers at the time widely believed in the 'domino theory'. This simplistic Cold War theory held that establishing a communist government in one nation would quickly lead to communist rule in neighbouring states. The analogy being the fall of one domino tile would lead to the collapse of a complete row.
In the context of Australia's close proximity to South-East Asia, 3 events appeared to threaten Australia directly:
- the start of the Viet Minh uprising against the French in Vietnam in 1946
- the start of the Malayan Emergency in 1948
- the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.
Many Australians believed that this could extend communist rule to Australia's doorstep.
Recruiting for the regular Armed Services was insufficient to meet this perceived threat. So the Menzies' Government, with bi-partisan support, re-introduced conscription.
How earlier conscription operated
The Australian Government had introduced conscription before this time, but it ended when World War II ended in 1945.
The first National Service scheme began in January 1911 and ran throughout World War I.
Boys were trained at school as either:
- junior cadets aged 12 to 14
- senior cadets aged 14 to 18.
Young men aged 18 to 26 registered with their local Militia, officially called the Citizen Military Forces (CMF). They were trained locally at various times throughout the year.
Some 636,000 men were called up to serve in the CMF during the first 4 years of the Universal Service Scheme.
No men were conscripted into the First Australian Imperial Force (AIF) for service overseas. Amid widespread debate, Australians voted against 2 referendums to introduce conscription during the war.
This first scheme was suspended in 1929.
National service was revived shortly after World War II began. It was a move supported by many veterans of World War I, including the Federal Congress of the Returned Soldiers' League.
The Menzies Government announced on 15 November 1939 that compulsory military training would start on 1 January 1940.
The Defence Act - Regulations - Statutory Rules 1939 No. 160 stipulated that unmarried Australian men who turned 21 in the year ending 30 June were called up for 3 months of military training in the CMF.
By mid-1942, some 290,000 men were enlisted in the CMF.
At first, any conscripts who were called up served in Australia and were not deployed overseas.
However, on 26 January 1943, the Curtin Government passed a bill to use Australian conscripts during the war in the South West Pacific Zone. This area included Australia and the Australian Territories of Papua and New Guinea, as well as the Philippines, Borneo, the Dutch East Indies (excluding Sumatra), East Timor and the western part of the Solomon Islands.
Conscripts had no say in where they served, whether in Australia or overseas.
The Defence (Citizen Military Forces) Act 1943 stipulated that conscription would end 6 months after hostilities stopped. So this second scheme was closed down in 1946.
Changes to later schemes
In the 1951 to 1959 scheme, national servicemen could nominate a preference to serve in Australia or overseas. However, in practice, most were allocated to units near their homes.
The Navy and Air Force gave preference to family members of former personnel or members of cadet units. Overseas service was automatic in the Navy and Air Force.
A major change for the Army was that national servicemen could, at call-up, nominate whether to volunteer for service anywhere overseas if war occurred.
The signing of the Korean armistice in 1953 meant no new perceived direct threats developed during the 1950s. With the role of national servicemen transitioning to reservists, the scheme was closed down in 1959.
The 1965 to 1972 scheme for Borneo and the Vietnam War involved 2 years of full-time service integrated into expanded regular Army units, with overseas deployment where required.
The 1951 to 1959 scheme
In the National Service scheme between 1951 and 1959, all males aged 18 were called up for training in the Navy, Army or Air Force. A total of 227,000 Australians served in 52 intakes.
Instructors for the scheme were drawn from all 3 Services. Most instructors had combat experience from either World War II, Korea, Borneo or South Vietnam. In some instances, equivalent training was recognised as National Service. There were also several voluntary national servicemen.
The National Service Act 1951 stipulated that Australian males turning 18 on or after 1 November 1950 would do:
- 176 days of standard recruit training in the Navy, Army or Air Force
- 5 years of follow-up military service in their respective Reserves.
Australians resident in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea could fulfil their obligation in Australia or by 6 years of service in the Papua-New Guinea Volunteer Rifles.
The first call-up notices were issued on 12 April 1951. The first national servicemen under this scheme were allocated to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), arriving in July 1951.
Only people who enlisted and fought in Malaya, Korea, Borneo and Vietnam had active service.
National servicemen were on naval ships that visited Korean waters during hostilities. They also were at the atomic bomb tests in 1952 at Monte Bello Islands, Western Australia, and in 1956 at Maralinga, South Australia. National servicemen in the RAAF worked on aircraft that had flown through atomic clouds.
National servicemen were placed on alert as part of a wider standby for active service during the Suez Canal crisis in 1956, but the crisis passed.
On 24 November 1959, the Australian Government decided to discontinue National Service. All national servicemen were declared to have honourably discharged their obligation on 30 June 1960.
Royal Australian Navy
Intake groups in the Navy were named after Australian pioneers or explorers at:
- HMAS Penguin in Sydney, New South Wales (NSW)
- HMAS Cerberus at Flinders Naval Depot on Westernport Bay, Victoria
- HMAS Lonsdale in Melbourne, Victoria
- HMAS Leeuwin near Perth, Western Australia.
Sea service was done onboard ships of the Fleet.
The Navy required its national servicemen for:
- 124 days of continuous training as a recruit
- 13 days of training each year for 4 years in the Naval Reserve.
A total of 6,862 national servicemen did their training in this way.
In 1955, the Navy reduced training to 154 days and discontinued National Service in 1957.
The Army was allocated 198,000 men, the largest proportion of conscripts. Trainees were assigned to one of 10 battalions:
- Queensland– 11 National Serv ice Training Battalion at Wacol
- NSW – 12 National Service Training Battalion at Singleton and Holsworthy, 13 National Service Training Battalion at Ingleburn and 19 National Service Training Battalion at Old Holsworthy and Holsworthy
- Victoria – 14, 15 and 20 National Service Training Battalions at Puckapunyal and Watsonia
- South Australia – 16 National Service Training Battalion at Woodside
- Tasmania – 18 National Service Training Battalion at Brighton
- Western Australia – 17 National Service Training Battalion at Swanbourne.
The 11th Battalion, with 1,500 trainees at its peak, was the largest and served in Queensland and the Territory of Papua and New Guinea.
Trainees from the northern rivers of NSW, from Tweed Heads to Newcastle, and the New England Tableland were sent north to Wacol or south to Singleton and Sydney as required. Some national servicemen from Canberra, Queanbeyan, Yass, Goulburn and other areas of southern NSW trained at Puckapunyal. Northern Territory and Broken Hill national servicemen trained at Woodside in South Australia.
The Army required its national servicemen for:
- 98 days of continuous basic training
- 78 days of training in the CMF over 3 years.
Army Nashos without a training unit near their home, if required, returned to the nearest base to complete their CMF training obligation.
In 1957, the Army reduced initial training to 77 days and part-time service in the CMF to 63 days over 2 years. It also reduced the call-up through a birthday ballot from the second intake of 1957. The last intake of the first scheme was in August 1959.
Royal Australian Air Force
About 23,500 national servicemen undertook their training in National Service Training Units as part of the RAAF. Trainees were allocated to Flights (the equivalent of an army platoon) at the major air bases and depots throughout Australia, including:
- Australian Capital Territory (ACT) – Fairbairn in Canberra
- NSW – Schofield, Richmond, Rathmines, Williamtown, Bankstown, Forest Hill and Uranquinty near Wagga Wagga
- Queensland – Garbutt in Townsville; Toowoomba and Oakey on the Darling Downs; and Amberley and Archerfield in Brisbane
- South Australia – Mallala near Adelaide
- Victoria – Point Cook, Laverton, Frognall, Tottenham, Ballarat and East Sale
- Western Australia – Pearce and Merredin near Perth.
Trainees from South Australia and Tasmania also went to Laverton.
The Air Force required its trainees for a continuous 176 days. Like the Navy, the Air Force also reduced training to 154 days in 1955 and discontinued National Service in 1957.
The 1964 to 1972 scheme
Two events in the early 1960s made the Menzies Government reconsider military conscription:
- Australia's first contingent of military personnel arrived in South Vietnam in August 1962.
- The Indonesia Confrontation started with the Brunei revolt in December 1962.
Regular recruiting for the Army seemed insufficient again, so the Australian Government introduced the National Service Act 1964.
In this scheme, men aged 20 were selected by a birthday ballot for the Army.
A year before the ballot, men who were eligible for conscription could choose to fulfil their National Service obligation by serving 6 years in the CMF. Some 35,000 chose this option until it was abolished about a year after introducing the scheme. A loophole allowed men to resign from the CMF without further service.
Between 30 June 1965 and 7 December 1972, over 63,000 men were called up for a period of full-time service and integrated into regular Army units. The initial service period of 2 years was reduced to 18 months in 1971.
All those conscripted into service had to undertake 12 weeks of initial training in one of 3 training battalions:
- 1 Recruit Training Battalion (RTB) at Kapooka, NSW
- 2 RTB was located at Puckapunyal, Victoria
- 3 RTB was at Singleton, NSW.
Most national servicemen were allotted to the Infantry, enabling the Army to increase the Royal Australian Regiment (RAR) to 9 Battalions.
A total of 1,639 completed officer training at Scheyville, NSW, and were commissioned as second lieutenants.
Between 1962 and 1966, the Australian Government committed the 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) and then the 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (4RAR) plus support units to Borneo during the Indonesian Confrontation.
From 1966, 150 national servicemen served in Borneo, and 2 of them died. The men were assigned to either:
- 21 Construction Squadron, Royal Australian Engineers
- 22 Construction Squadron, Royal Australian Engineers.
Deployed to Borneo in April 1966, 4RAR was the first battalion to employ national servicemen on operations. The unit had been doing training and familiarisation exercises at Terendak, Malaya, since September 1965.
Sapper John Blacket was the first national serviceman to serve in a war zone with 21 Construction Squadron in Borneo.
Some 15,300 men were conscripted into the Australian Army during the Vietnam War. Over 200 national servicemen died, and at least 1,200 were wounded on active duty.
Each Australian infantry battalion was deployed to Vietnam, and each included national servicemen, most of whom deployed with the units with which they had trained.
The McMahon Government withdrew Australian units from South Vietnam in 1971.
The Navy and Air Force did not use the National Service Scheme for Vietnam.
National servicemen also served in support units in Australia, Malaysia and the Territory of Papua and New Guinea.
Some 600 national servicemen who were qualified school teachers were promoted to sergeant and posted to Papua and New Guinea for 12 months. They taught soldiers of the Pacific Islands Regiment at Port Moresby, Goldie River, Lae and Wewak.
National servicemen in Papua and New Guinea also served in Signals, Ordnance, RAEME, Small Ships, Surveying and other units.
End of the scheme
In 1972, the Whitlam Government, using the expedient of ‘exceptional hardship’, discharged national servicemen from the Army and passed the National Service Termination Act 1973.
Much later, the Defence Legislation Amendment Act 1992 repealed the National Service Act 1951, but the Keating Government retained conscription in a time of war with prior parliamentary approval.
1939 'RETURNED SOLDIERS AND COMPULSORY TRAINING', Daily Examiner (Grafton, NSW : 1915 - 1954), 16 November, p. 4. , viewed 23 May 2023, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article191659164
Parliament of Australia (1939), Defence Act - Regulations - Statutory Rules 1939 No. 160, Senate of Australia, Parliament No. 15, Tabled in House of Reps 7 Dec 1939, Tabled in Senate 07 Dec 1939, accessed 23 May 2023, https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id%3A%22publications%2Ftabledpapers%2FHSTP01636_1937-40%22
- national service