At the end of the Second World War over five million men and women were serving in the British military. The vast majority of these, naturally enough, wanted to return to their civilian lives as quickly as possible. The government had to come up with a scheme that was fair and allowed an orderly reduction in the strength of the armed forces. Men’s release date was based on a combination of their age and length of service, as well as preferential release given to those who could help rebuild the country. To inform service personnel a little booklet was produced and distributed:The opening pages explain the purpose of the booklet in informing and reassuring those in the forces about the process:The book itself attempts to cover as many different positions service personnel might find themselves in after demobilisation:From the list of contents we can see that the government was very keen to get men back into training and employment, rather than having them unemployed. Not only could the state not afford to help support large numbers of unemployed ex-servicemen, but there would have been a political backlash if people felt they were just being tossed aside as soon as the military had finished with them. Luckily post-war Britain needed skilled workers to help rebuild and restore its economy. A large table in the centre of the booklet set out the order in which men would be released from the forces:Despite all the attempts to create a quick process, inevitably some felt they had been in too long and just wanted to leave and this led to some outbreaks of ill discipline. Generally speaking though most people were able to leave fairly quickly and in the eighteen months following VE Day 4.3 million men and women left the forces. Peter Horrocks had a remarkably smooth transition back into civilian life:
I think mine must have been one of the quickest of anyone in the services. During those post VJ days there was little to do except keep ourselves and our men reasonably occupied. I took a weekend off to go and stay with friends in Cambridge and, while I was there, the official announcement was made outlining the government’s plans for demobilisation, notably (under what was termed a class B release) that anyone who had a university place could be released within weeks in order to resume or start their studies. I immediately went round to Christ’s College and informed the Senior Tutor that I was alive, where I was stationed and that I would like to take advantage of that arrangement for release. Term was about to start and, as our unit was at the time under direct War Office control, I went straight there on my return to London, and asked for the procedure to be put in hand immediately.
It was, surprisingly quickly. Very soon papers came through authorising my release. I went to the demob. centre that morning, collected the free-issue civilian clothing, packed all my personal possessions and that same afternoon caught a train to my parents’ home near Sheffield. There I hastily re-packed, collected such books as I thought appropriate (mainly Latin and Greek texts), and rang the college and told them that I was on my way. To Cambridge next day by train and, on arrival, I was shown to my room and given my lecture programme etc. Term was under way and my first lecture was in the morning – and I was there, just 48 hours after receiving my release papers!
It was not just men who went through the demobilisation process, Edna Stafford was in the W.A.A.F:
It was a glorious summer’s day on 2nd June 1946 and soon I was sitting in the train bound for Calais, whilst Bill had to go via Hamburg and across the Channel to Harwich. Watching the countryside pass by, my mind recalled the two years I had spent overseas – of all the incidents that had happened to me, experiences etc. sights I had seen, places I had visited, and I knew that I had memories which would never fade. Another girl was also being de-mobbed at the same time, and as we had had rooms next to each other in the German billet, we managed to keep together until we finally parted on Birmingham Station.
We did not reach Calais until about 1 o’clock the following day and even though the weather was fine, giving one high hope of sailing that afternoon, we were unable to do so, which meant that we were to spend that night in the Nissen huts in the camp. The night proved to be very windy. We were due to sail on the first boat in the morning, which meant that we had to get up at 5 a.m. but because of the gales in the night which meant little sleep was had, most of us were up and about rather earlier than 5 a.m. After breakfast we clambered into lorries and were driven down to the quayside, where after waiting for about half an hour, we eventually boarded the boat at about 8 o’clock. The weather was dull, but the trip across was pleasant, and we finally arrived in Dover about an hour or so later. Each of us was carrying a kit bag and in my case, a very large case. I was given help with it but it was a struggle. After passing through customs, we managed to find a couple of seats on the train to London, and some people managed to sleep for a while. There were only six of us in the W.A.A.F. who were home for demobilisation, the rest being A.T.S. girls, so that when we arrived at Victoria Station, there was an R.A.F. lorry waiting to take us to Euston Station.
We were then given information concerning our train to the Release Centre at Birmingham.
As most of us had cases and kit bags, we only took the necessary items to Birmingham with us, leaving the remainder at Euston Station for collection on return. Having had nothing to eat since 6 a.m. we were quite hungry on our arrival at the Demobilisation Centre, so we were not impressed when we were told to wait until we could be attended to. After a while we decided that we were not going to wait any longer and on making enquiries and explaining that we had been travelling since early morning, we were shown where the dining area was. After being given instructions as to procedure for the following day, we all decided to have an early night and after a final drink, we made our way back to the hut. The following day we passed through the “Mincing Machine” – the name given to the various departments and procedure one is forced to endure during the process of being released from His Majesty’s Forces. We collected our papers and documents, Release Book, Clothing Book, N.A.A.F.I. rations etc. and we made our way to the hut to collect the rest of our luggage, after which we were picked up by one of the Air Force coach drivers and driven to Birmingham Station. My friend was still with me and after a few minutes her train drew in. Wishing each other well, we parted.
A few minutes later I was sitting in a London bound train and my thoughts leapt ahead to the time when my Mother would open the door to me welcome me home, for the last time as a W.A.A.F. My journey from London to my home town of Cheam was a struggle as of course I had collected my large case from London, which was very heavy. However, walking along the road with my kit bag on one shoulder, and the case in the other hand, a very kind man came along and took the case as he was going up the same road. Arriving at the gate, I left the case and knocked on the door and waited, and so came the end of a wonderful experience of almost 4 years in the Service. Needless to say there was lots to talk about apart from the unpacking.