The National Service (Armed Forces) Act 1939

The National Service (Armed Forces) Act 1939

With the imminence of war, the UK Government introduced the National Service (Armed Forces) Bill, which received Royal assent on 3rd September, five hours after the Prime Minister had declared a state of war with Germany.

The Act superseded the Military Training Act 1939 and stated that male subjects, between the ages of 18 and 41 years, were liable to be called up for service in the armed forces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.

Explanatory Notes were issued by the Ministry of Labour and National Service.

National Service (Armed Forces) Act explanatory notes

Registration Process

Posters and public notices in the press and on the BBC were issued instructing men, with specified dates of birth, to attend for registration at their local office of the Ministry of Labour and National Service (Employment Exchange) on a specified date.

The example notice above relates to the first registration which took place on 21st October 1939 for men with dates of birth between 2nd October 1917 and 1st October 1919. Men with dates of birth between 4th June 1918 and 3rd June 1919, who had previously registered under the Military Training Act on 3rd June 1939, were excluded.

Clerks from the Ministry of Labour and National Service recorded the personal details of each man attending, including age, address, occupation and current employer.  The Act entitled the men to:

  • express an interest in serving in the Royal Navy or Royal Air Force, rather than the Army, although they were warned that there was no guarantee that preferences would be met.
  • provisionally register as a conscientious objector

Once registered, the men were issued with a Certificate of Registration (Form NS2).

An example of a Certificate of Registration [NS2] (Post 1941)

Post –Registration activity

The information from the registration day was sent to an Allocation Local Office for processing.

Men meeting the age criteria laid out in the “Schedule of Reserved Occupations” and those whose employer had gained approval for their postponement of service were “reserved in their present occupation” and remained in civil life.

Men provisionally registered as conscientious objectors remained in civil life subject to them making an application to their local tribunal for a case hearing within 14 days. Failure to do so resulted in their name being removed from the register.

The remainder, who were deemed available for military service, remained in civil life, pending instructions.

Instructions to attend a medical

Men who were available for military service received an instruction (NS6) from their Allocation Local Office requiring them to submit themselves to medical examination by a medical board.

An example of an instruction to attend a medical [NS6] (1939)

Medical Boards

Medical Boards were attached to each Allocation Local Office, as were recruitment personnel from the various services. Men were assessed and graded in accordance with fitness.

  • Grade I
    • Those who, subject only to such minor disabilities as can be remedied or adequately compensated by artificial means, attain the full normal standard of health and strength, and are capable of enduring physical exertion suitable to their age.
  • Grade II
    • Those who, while suffering from disabilities disqualifying them from Grade I, do not suffer from progressive organic disease, have fair hearing and vision, are of moderate muscular development, and are able to undergo a considerable amount of physical exertion not involving severe strain.
      When a person is placed on this grade solely on account of either defects of visual acuity or deformities of the lower extremities, or both, the letter “(a)” followed by the words “vision” or “feet” in brackets is inserted after the grade.
  • Grade III
    • Those who present such marked physical disabilities or evidence of past disease that they are not fit for the amount of exertion required for Grade II
  • Grade IV
    • Those who suffer from progressive organic disease or are for other reasons permanently incapable of the kind or degree of exertion required by Grade III

Those in grades I, II and III were deemed suitable for the armed services (albeit in differing capacities), those in Grade IV were deemed unsuitable. The information was recorded on their Grade Card (NS55).

An example of a Medical Grade Card [NS55] (1944)

At this point, men could apply for postponement of their liability to serve in the armed forces  on the grounds of extreme hardship by applying for a postponement certificate (Form NS13) within two days of their medical; each case was assessed by a local hardship committee.

Having completed their assessment they were interviewed by a recruiting officer from their selected (or assigned) armed force.  The men, once again, remained in civil life, pending instructions.

Post-Medical activity

Details of the medical assessments and interviews were sent to a Divisional Office of the Ministry of Labour, which maintained a register of all men available for posting.

Those in medical grades I, II and III would be deemed fit for service (albeit in differing capacities) and added to the register. It is worth noting that the men’s trade skills formed part of the register to ensure that they were utilised in the most effective way in the armed forces.

Requests for personnel

Each service would submit a list of their manning requirements to the Ministry who would allocate a certain quota to each of the divisional offices.

The divisional offices, supported by the recruiting officers from each of the services, would match the men on their register with the requests from the three services.

Enlistment Notices (NS12) were issued to the relevant men advising them on when and where to present themselves for service.

An example of an Enlistment Notice [NS12] (1940)

Enlistment notices for the RAF, where they operated a 6 month deferment programme, had an additional paragraph in their enlistment notice which stated:

“The Air Ministry have notified this Department that you will not be immediately required to take up duty with the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and, although you are required to report for certain purposes as directed in this notice, you will not be retained for duty at this stage. You are warned therefore, not to give up your civilian employment or to make definite arrangements for leaving your civil life. You will be notified later by the Royal Air Force Authorities of the time and place at which you will be required to report for duty. In the meantime, you will be enlisted in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve from the above date and placed on deferred service”.

The ongoing process

The process of mandatory registration for National Service continued throughout the war, requiring men with specified dates of birth to register on a given date.

Registration dates were irregular; as an example, the 1941 schedule was 11th January, 18th January, 22nd February, 12th April, 17th May, 31st May,  21st June, 12th July, 6th September and 13th December .

Volunteers could also apply to join the armed services. They were required to visit their local Recruiting Centre, where they were assessed by an officer from the Ministry of Labour. If accepted, they would be remain in civil life, pending instructions to attend a Medical Board assessment, after which they would be processed in the same manner as mandatory enlistment.

Modifications to the process as the war progressed

As the war progressed, the Government introduced changes to the legislation, along with changes to the Schedule of Reserved Occupations, in order to balance the ever-changing needs of the armed forces, civil defence, vital industries and essential services.

By the end of the war, there were four National Service (Armed Forces) Acts, 1939, 1940, 1941 and 1942, together with Defence (National Service) Regulations 1944 and a series of amendments to these Acts / Regulations.

These changes included:

  • extending the term “liable to be called up for service in the armed forces” to cover service in civil defence and industry (such as coal mining)
  • extending call up to service in the armed forces (in various stages) to “male subjects” aged up to 51
  • extending call up to service in the Women’s Royal Naval Service, the Auxiliary Territorial Service and the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force to “women subjects” aged between 19 and 30
  • extending call up to service in civil defence and industry to all “male and women subjects”
  • extending the regulations to subjects residing in the Dominions

In all cases, various restrictions applied


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