Tired, hungry but happy on national service

21:25, Aug 05 2009
Peter Shirtcliffe
FOND MEMORIES: Peter Shirtcliffe, 78, who went on to become Telecom's chairman, is among those who will attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the National War Memorial in Wellington to mark the referendum.

Peter Shirtcliffe nearly missed out on compulsory military training when it was introduced in 1950 - he was a fraction too old for the cutoff when 18-year-olds were first called up.

But three years later, a "one-time extra intake" sparked by the Korean War saw him being called up at the age of 21.

World War II was fresh in everyone's minds and another seemed a real threat, he says. He was "delighted" to be called up. "This was good fun. In fact, before I got called up in the compulsory intake, I had tried to join the scheme voluntarily."

Mr Shirtcliffe, 78, who went on to become Telecom's chairman, is among those who will attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the National War Memorial in Wellington this morning to mark the 60th anniversary of the Compulsory Military Training Referendum.

While most of the thousands of men called up in the 1950s were posted to the army, Mr Shirtcliffe was keen on joining the navy, which had a much smaller intake.

"I was attracted to the sea and I thought it was a bit of fun."


After a successful interview, he was sent to Motuihe Island in the Hauraki Gulf for 14 weeks' training.

He and the other recruits most of them three years younger adjusted quickly to the initial shock of a routine that started at 5.30am and ended at 9pm, he says.

"We were ravenous all the time because of the activity levels."

They slept in hammocks in 25-man dormitories. "There was no privacy but you learned to live with it and got a lot of fun out of it."

After the fulltime training ended, he returned to Wellington and was posted to the Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve (HMNZS Olphert) in Hinemoa St attending parades at least weekly for the next two years and ongoing training.

He enjoyed his compulsory service so much he continued his involvement on a voluntary basis for another 12 years.

"We had a 72-foot motor launch to play with."

He gained many skills from his military training, including the ability to mix with a wide variety of people, to analyse situations and adapt quickly. And: "I'm eternally grateful to the taxpayer for teaching me how to navigate."

He retains a "strong view" that today's young people should be required to undergo some form of compulsory training once they leave school though not necessarily military-related.

"Some sort of updated version of what we did I think would be an extremely useful mechanism for orientating people in later life to what community service is all about."


* The Compulsory Military Training referendum, held on August 3, 1949, was sparked by the onset of the Cold War.

* Both the Labour government (under prime minister Peter Fraser) and the National opposition (led by Sid Holland) favoured the concept of the poll and supported the "yes" vote.

* The voting paper had two statements: "I vote FOR compulsory military training" and "I vote AGAINST compulsory military training". Voters were asked to strike out the line they did not like.

* Nearly 730,000 people voted in the referendum and 77 per cent voted for training.

* Sid Holland's new National government implemented the scheme, starting with 18-year-olds in May 1950. There were several intakes a year, with young men undergoing an initial three months' fulltime training course. They then served in various units of the armed forces on a part-time basis for three years.

* More than 60,000 men underwent training through the scheme before the Labour government abolished it in early 1958.

* A smaller scheme, called national service, was introduced in 1962. Men were called up based on the birthday ballot. It ended in 1972.

The Dominion Post