With the threat of war looming in 1939, the British Government was keen to ensure that the country was in a state of readiness.
Utilising emergency powers, it introduced a series of voluntary and mandatory schemes aimed at ensuring that there were sufficient resources available for:
- the armed forces
- civil defence
- vital industries
- essential services.
These schemes provide a background to Cecil’s story and are therefore summarised below.
Voluntary National Service
In January 1939, a forty-eight page “National Service” pamphlet was issued which was described as “a guide to the ways in which the people of this country may give service”.
Its aim was to encourage men and women to volunteer for some form of service in the armed forces or in civilian services such as:
- nursing and first aid
- air raid precautions
- women’s auxiliary
- fire service
The “National Service” pamphlet (Issued in January 1939)
A message in the pamphlet from the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain read “The desire of all of us is to live at peace with our neighbours, but to secure peace we must be strong. The country needs your service and you are anxious to play your part. This guide will point the way. I ask you to read it carefully and decide how you can best help”
Schedule of Reserved Occupations
In conjunction with the National Service pamphlet, the Government published a provisional “Schedule of Reserved Occupations” which identified occupations where age restrictions would be applied to anyone that volunteered. The full listing was published in newspapers throughout the country.
The aim was to limit the number of volunteers so that appropriate resources could be retained in key industries and services.
The Schedule contained a list of occupations, along with age criteria relating to when a person could or could not volunteer for service.
Some occupations had no age limit specified, meaning that a person could not volunteer for service whatever their age, others had an age limit, such as 18, 25 or 30, which meant that they could not volunteer if they were on, or over, that age.
An extract from the provisional 1939 Schedule of Reserved Occupations
The Military Training Act
With the ever-increasing threat of war, the UK government recognised that there were insufficient numbers of service personnel to protect the country, despite its attempts to increase the numbers through its call for voluntary national service.
On 26th May 1939, the Government introduced the Military Training Act 1939 which stated that all males aged 20 and 21 years old (and those who subsequently reached the age of 20) were liable to be called up for four years military service.
These men were required to undertake six months full-time military training within a year of registration, after which they would be returned to civil life “on reserve” for the remainder of their four years.
The Ministry of Labour and National Service immediately set up a mandatory registration procedure for men in this age range and on Saturday 3rd June 1939, all men with dates of birth between 4th June 1918 and 3rd June 1919 were instructed to attend a registration session at their local office of the Ministry of Labour and National Service (Employment Exchange).
Once registered, a Registration Certificate was issued and the man returned to civil life to await instructions.
On 3rd September 1939, the government introduced the National Service (Armed Forces) Act. This superceded the Military Training Act (1939) and stated that male subjects, between the ages of 18 and 41 years, were liable to be called up for service in the armed forces of the Crown.
Posters and notices were issued in the press and on the BBC stating that men with specified dates of birth had to register at their local Ministry of Labour and National Service office (Employment Exchange) on a given date.
The first registration session, which was held on 21st October 1939, required all men born between 2nd October 1917 and 1st October 1919 to register (excluding those that had previously registered under the Military Training Act) .
This process was repeated on an irregular basis throughout the war.
National Registration Bill
As war approached, preparations were made to compile a national register and to issue identity cards.
A National Registration Bill was introduced and royal assent was given on the 5th September 1939, just two days after the declaration of war. A few days later it was announced that National Registration Day would be Friday, September 29th 1939.
Registration forms were issued to every household:
On the 29th, householders were required to complete the form with the following information for everyone present in the house on that day:
- Occupation, profession, trade or employment.
- Condition as to marriage.
- Membership of Naval, Military or Air Force Reserves or Auxiliary Forces or of Civil Defence Services or Reserves.
On the following Sunday and Monday enumerators visited every householder, checked the form and issued a completed identity card for each of the residents (including the children). Approximately 46 million cards were issued.
….. our story starts a few months later, on 27th April 1940, when Cecil Arthur Butler, who was born on 10th August 1913, was required to register for National Service .