National Service – look back at what is was Leave a comment


During the Second World War, as you might expect, the UK imposed a regime of universal conscription.

From the outbreak of war in 1939, unless you were medically unfit or in a reserved occupation – one that was considered vital for the continuing function of the economy and the war effort – every male between the ages of 18 to 41 had to join one of the services.

There was universal conscription during the Second World War
There was universal conscription during the Second World War

In December 1941, that was expanded to include men up to the age of 51, and all unmarried women and all childless widows between the ages of 20 and 30, though the women were excused combat roles.

But when the war ended in 1945, conscription didn’t end with it.

Britain found itself still with huge overseas interests to defend, not just the empire, but now also it had to garrison occupied Germany and Japan. Instantly there was the threat of aggression from an expansionist USSR and although the term Cold War had yet to be invented, as early as March 1946, Churchill was speaking of an Iron Curtain descending across Europe.

In addition there were actual physical communist insurrections in Greece and Burma – and in Vietnam of course, though thankfully we side-stepped that one.

From 1941, even women had to join up. These are Royal Marine Wrens at Walmer
From 1941, even women had to join up. These are Royal Marine Wrens at Walmer

When India was granted independence in 1947, Britain lost access to the huge Indian Army that had helped us garrison the world, leaving a big hole in our resources.

So from 1949, a new form of conscription was introduced, re-named National Service.

The initial period of service was 18 months, with the men then placed on a reserve list and liable to be recalled at any time for the next four years.

Even this was not enough when the full-scale Korean War broke out in 1950, and the National Service period was then extended to two years.

Women were excused duty, but National Service applied to all men aged 18 to 30.

Winston Churchill: "An iron curtain has descended across the Continent." Picture: National Trust
Winston Churchill: “An iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” Picture: National Trust

Exceptions were made for the disabled, clergymen and civil servants working overseas.

Although technically black and Asian men were liable to be called up, they were in practice excluded, as were men from Northern Ireland, where it was felt the recruits’ loyalty might be in doubt.

Students and apprentices could defer their call-up until their studies had been complete.

Conscientious objectors could also be excluded if they could convince a tribunal of the validity of their beliefs.

New recruits were given six weeks’ basic military training and were then deployed to a base to learn a specific trade.

A draft of new National Service recruits arrives at barracks
A draft of new National Service recruits arrives at barracks

Afterwards, many were posted overseas.

In an era before jet travel and package holidays, this was for many the first time they had ever been abroad.

More than two million men were conscripted between 1949 and 1963.

The process began to wind down from around 1957 and the last draft of men was in November 1960.

The Cold War had not yet reached its height, but there was a realisation that the next war would be a highly technical one, where professional soldiers would be needed rather than postmen or shop assistants in uniform.

One can imagine this was the last time the Corporal allowed the recruit to have his hands in his pockets
One can imagine this was the last time the Corporal allowed the recruit to have his hands in his pockets

Richard Vaughan, a lieutenant with the Royal Army Pay Corps, was officially the last National Servicemen to be discharged from the Army in May 1963.

He had originally been granted a deferment so that he could complete his accountancy exams, but was drafted at age 22 in the last batch of 162 recruits on November 17, 1960.

Vaughan found himself based in Germany where the building of the Berlin Wall kept him in post for six months longer than expected.

Was National Service a good thing? Prince Harry thinks so and has called for it to be introduced.

And there are many, like Prince Harry, who believe it taught young men discipline and responsibility and gave them a sense of purpose.

Richard Vaughan at his passing out parade in 1961 (second from left, front row). Picture: RAPC
Richard Vaughan at his passing out parade in 1961 (second from left, front row). Picture: RAPC

Ex-National Servicemen themselves hold a variety of views.

Some enjoyed the comradeship they found with fellow squaddies, often forming life-long friendships. Others hated the square-bashing and the bullying of the drill sergeants.

Some revelled in the foreign travel, a chance to live in a foreign country that they would never otherwise have had. Others resented being parted from wives or girlfriends and sometimes their children.

Many benefited from the trade taught them in the services and made a career from it back in civilian life.

Others already on a career path, resented the two years taken away from the promotions ladder.

Saying goodbye to loved ones for two years was hard on everyone
Saying goodbye to loved ones for two years was hard on everyone

National Servicemen were paid 28 shillings (£1.40) a week in 1948, rising to 38 shillings (£1.90) by 1960 – but that was low compared with the national average wage – which was £15, 10s in 1960 (£15.50), although of course food, clothing and accommodation were thrown in.

Then of course there was the danger.

National Servicemen saw action in all the conflicts between the end of the Second World War and 1960 – these included the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya and the Suez Crisis.

In total, 395 National Servicemen lost their lives.

One National Serviceman born in London did his National Service basic training at the Invicta Barracks in Maidstone.

British paratroops take Egypt's El Gamil airfield during the Suez crisis of 1956
British paratroops take Egypt’s El Gamil airfield during the Suez crisis of 1956

Dennis Wright, 82, now lives in Shropshire.

He had finished grammar school and was disappointed to just miss out on a place to study chemical engineering at Leeds University. Had he secured it, his call-up would have been deferred. Instead he worked in a cemetery until his papers arrived.

It was 1958 and he was 19.

He said: “I was at Maidstone for 13 weeks, doing square-bashing, shooting rifles, throwing grenades, learning how to prepare for a chemical attack and practising camouflage techniques.

“There was a lot of physical activity which I enjoyed because I was good at sports. We went for a great many cross-country runs along the riverside and I usually came home in the first three or four.”

Everyone remembers the square bashing
Everyone remembers the square bashing

“The only thing I didn’t enjoy was cook-house duty – washing up after a couple of hundred men was no fun.

“I was in Aliwal Platoon. There were 16 of us to a hut.

“We had one weekend leave, but otherwise weren’t allowed out of barracks until near the end of the training. Then there was one night we all went to the pub, The Flowerpot, and the corporals who had been bossing us around came too.

“I had three good friends there, who were all from Maidstone, Dave Norris, John Reader and Phillip Wilson, and I also remember L Cpl Beaner, though for different reasons!”

A curious thing was that at his passing-out parade, the regimental played the traditional Scottish march A Hundred Pipers.

Lord Rockingham's XI performing Hoots Mon in 1958
Lord Rockingham’s XI performing Hoots Mon in 1958

He said: “It so happened that Lord Rockingham’s XI had turned it into a rock-n-roll tune that year, which they re-christened Hoots Mon and it was No 1 in the charts at the time!”

After basic training, Mr Wright opted for a posting with the Royal Army Educational Corps. A further three months of training followed and he was made an Acting Sergeant so that he would have authority over the men he would teach.

He was then posted first to Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire and then to the Army Education Centre in Millbank London, where he taught the Army Certificate of Education 1st, 2nd and 3rd Class, to soldiers whose education until that point had been lacking.

He said: “I taught maths, English, map-reading and general studies. It was pretty basic stuff that probably most grammar school pupils would have mastered by the third year. Some individual soldiers I schooled to a higher level if they were particularly interested.”

He said: “It was an interesting time. I remember teaching Royal Fusiliers at the Kneller Hall Royal Military School of Music and Beefeaters at the Tower of London!”

Former National Serviceman Dennis Wright
Former National Serviceman Dennis Wright

On being demobbed, Mr Wright tried first to pick up his science career, joining the the British Coal Utilisation Research Institute at Leatherhead, but after two years decided on a different path.
He joined the Maples furniture store in Tottenhem Court Road, London, as a trainee training officer, was promoted to staff manager and then took a job as personnel and industrial relations manager with Lotus, the big shoe manufacturer based at Stafford.

Along the way he picked up a degree and a masters degree in industrial relations from the Open University and ended up teaching the subject at Staffordshire University, a position that also took him on secondment to Beijing in China and to Malaysia.

He said: “I do look back fondly on my years of National Service.

“National Service filled me full of confidence and made me much more secure. Not that I was uncertain, but it did that for you – it was a bit like school in the way it socialises you.”

Prince Harry has declared himself in favour of the restoration of National Service
Prince Harry has declared himself in favour of the restoration of National Service

Mr Wright, now a grandfather of five, said: “National Service developed me physically and intellectually and enabled me to get a career.”

He added: “The great thing about it was we were from all different walks of life. You got to know people you never would have done normally, but because you were all in it together, there was a great sense of comradeship.”

Robin Oakley, 82, from Pinnock Lane, Staplehurst, was called up on January 26, 1959, for two years’ National Service in the Royal Air Force.

He said: “At the time of my call-up I was living with my parents at Crockham Hill, near Edenbridge, and I had just completed a five-year apprenticeship with Durtnells, the oldest building firm in the country.

“Men who were on apprenticeships were deferred from service until their apprenticeships were finished, so I was among the last of the national servicemen.

Robin Oakley from Staplehurst
Robin Oakley from Staplehurst

Mr Oakley said: “I travelled to Bedford by train and along with dozens of other prospective airmen was met by an RAF bus which delivered us to RAF Cardington on the outskirts of Bedford.

“It was originally the base for the RAF’s pre-war venture into airships which were housed in a large hanger.

“We were kitted out in all the uniform which a recruit should have and given a kit bag to put it all in.

“With the rank of AC2 (Aircraftsman 2nd Class) at this point I became aware of my service number.

“My first reaction was to ask myself how I was going to remember the seven-digit number, but now, 62 years later, it is still engraved in my memory.”

National Servicemen training with a mortar
National Servicemen training with a mortar

Mr Oakley said: “After a week at Cardington it was back on the bus to Bedford Station to board a special train which would take us to RAF Wilmslow in Cheshire, south of Manchester.

“On arrival we threw our kit on to a lorry and were then marched to the RAF station to start six weeks of recruit training.

“I learned to march in step, how to care for my clothing, ‘bull’ my boots, fire a rifle and various other basic skills which every aircraftsman was expected to have.

“Above all, I was disciplined and learned not to question orders.

“We were housed in huts which accommodated about 20 men, each with a locker for personal kit and possessions and a wardrobe.”

A batch of newly recruited National Servicemen
A batch of newly recruited National Servicemen

Mr Oakley said: “At this point in my RAF career, I was told what trade I was to be trained in.

“All the best jobs went to those recruits who had signed on as regulars for a minimum of three years’ service.

“National Servicemen were usually placed in the jobs that nobody else wanted, e.g. cooks, drivers, telephonists, and the RAF regiment.

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“As I had been used to working with my hands as a plumber, they decided that I would be trained as a typist, and so at the end of basic training I was sent on to RAF Hereford to the Administrative Trades Training Centre for a two-month course in typing and to learn about the RAF’s method of doing paperwork, some of which was rather archaic.

“On completion of basic training, it was time to move on to a permanent posting at Royal Air Force Swanton Morley in Norfolk which was the home of the Central Servicing Development Establishment (CSDE).”

The Vulcan was Britain's delta-winged nuclear bomber of the period
The Vulcan was Britain’s delta-winged nuclear bomber of the period

Mr Oakley said: “This station was on an old airfield to the north of the market town of Dereham and CSDE’s role was to prepare servicing schedules for every new aircraft being developed and introduced into the RAF.

“This was in the time of the V-bombers, the Victor, Vulcan and Valiant, and the English Electric Lightning fighter, and in each case a small team of people were permanently on detachment to the various manufacturers’ factories.

“Although I worked in the station headquarters typing pool, mostly doing typing related to the administration of the station, I did go on a couple of short detachments to English Electric at Warton in Lancashire and to the Joint Services Staff College at Latimer in Buckinghamshire.

“The Warton detachment was brilliant because I was the only junior airman in a group of senior NCOs and technicians, with the role of typing progress reports for the team.

“The officer in charge arranged for me to go on a very interesting tour of the works to see the Lightning aircraft being built.”

Robin Oakley got so see the English Electric Lightning fighter being built
Robin Oakley got so see the English Electric Lightning fighter being built

“JSSC at Latimer was completely different, working for officers from all three services and other NATO forces, typing reports for syndicates planning for the defence of the country from aggressors such as Russia – again an interesting diversion from the humdrum typing at Swanton Morley.

“I must have impressed the Swanton Morley Senior Administrative Officer because I gained promotion to Acting Corporal, but without the extra money that the rank would normally pay as I was a National Serviceman and not a regular.

“I remained at Swanton Morley as Corporal in charge of the headquarters typing pool comprising 10 male typists until January 25, 1961 when I was demobilised, departing in a cloud of dust and small pebbles to Dereham Station for the journey home to Kent.

“While I was in the RAF, I carried on studying building services and on demob I returned to live at Crockham Hill.

“I was fortunate to obtain a job as a plumbing design engineer with R.W. Gregory and Partners, Consulting Engineers, in London, starting work there the day after I left the service.”

National Servicemen on exercise
National Servicemen on exercise

“My first job with them was to design the plumbing for Hull Royal Infirmary, which has recently been featured on Channel 5’s A & E programme.

“I didn’t regret having to do National Service.

“By the time I left the RAF I could type at 60 words a minute, which was to prove very useful when later in life I started my own practice as a building services consultant and I couldn’t afford secretarial assistance.

“I made some good friends, one of whom I am still in touch with 61 years later.

“I was proud to be in the Royal Air Force and I still believe it is the best of the armed forces.”

National Servicemen on patrol in the Suez Canal Zone in Egypt
National Servicemen on patrol in the Suez Canal Zone in Egypt

Peter Newman, 88, has lived in Broadoak Avenue, Maidstone, since March 1966, but he was living in Greenfield in Middlesex when he received his call-up papers.

He said: “I was 18 when I was called up in 1951. You couldn’t vote until you were 21, but it was all right for 18-year-olds to fight for their country. (The voting age was not lowered to 18 until 1969.)

“All boys knew that they would receive a letter from the government shortly before their 18th birthday, ordering them to attend for a medical.

“Very few lads were classified as being unfit for service although tales abounded as to what answers and actions were necessary to see that unfit grade being applied.

“However, I never knew of anyone who had managed to pull the wool over the eyes of the medicos.”

Peter Newman is in the back row, second from the right
Peter Newman is in the back row, second from the right

Mr Newman said: “The only way of delaying your service was to attend university in which case it would be put off until you obtained your degree.

“Actually in my circle, no-one had the funds to pursue the degree route.

“The tuition may have been free then, but most families required their sons to start earning by the time they were 16.

“I left school a day or two before my 16th birthday.

“I started on my chosen career with Grindlays Bank in January 1949.”

Peter Newman was a keen cyclist in the 1950s
Peter Newman was a keen cyclist in the 1950s

“It was a strange time with older friends disappearing as they received their call-up papers.

“On my last day working for the bank prior to my call-up, my departmental boss, one Bernard Hill, a very kindly and knowledgeable elderly gentleman, wished me good luck and pressed a 10 shilling note into my hand.

“I had been ordered to attend a medical at Ealing swimming baths, which at that time were boarded over and out of use.

“I was confronted with people in uniform from the three services who were ‘guiding’ recruits to the check-in area.

“It dawned on me that I was being guided to the Army check-in, but I wanted to join the RAF!”

Training involved constant battle exercises
Training involved constant battle exercises

Mr Newman said: “By exercising some persistence I achieved my aim and was duly accepted by the RAF subject to passing the medical.

“A few weeks later I was ordered to report to RAF Padgate on March 6, 1951, no later than 4pm.

“Enclosed with the order was a railway warrant which gave me free travel to Padgate and a Postal Order for four shillings representing an advance of one day’s pay!

“The letter explained that I needed to take nothing with me other than clothes suitable for the journey and some sandwiches for lunch, as I would be collected from Padgate Station by the RAF and taken to their camp.

“At the time I was a member of a cycling club, and I was surprised but delighted to learn that my old school chum Mike Smith, whom I had known from infant and junior schools, and who was also a member of the club, had also received his instructions and we were both due to report at Padgate on the same day! What luck, we both had good company from day one.”

RAF Padgate in the 1950s
RAF Padgate in the 1950s

Mr Newman said: “We were soon allocated to our billets – long Nissen huts taking about 24 recruits in beds lined in rows.

“Mike and I were in the same billet. That night there were certainly tears from a few of the intake – some had never been away from their mother and were totally overwhelmed by the knowledge that this separation was going to last for two whole years.

“Although I was not too worldly wise, my mother had died four years earlier from lung cancer at the age of 45 and so to that extent I was already ‘battle hardened.’

“Kitting out the next day was a fascinating arrangement. As we shuffled forward we each received six shirts, 18 detached stiff collars, socks and pants galore, gloves, a beret, working blue and best blue uniforms, a greatcoat and an RAF black tie, boots and shoes. We were told that collars were to be changed every day with shirts changed every three days!

“Other items dished out were mug, knife, fork and spoon and mess tin and a .303 rifle, which we were solemnly informed would be a court martial offence if we ever lost it.”

A National Servicemen collects his cutlery allocation
A National Servicemen collects his cutlery allocation

“Afterwards we had to wrap up our civilian clothes in brown paper and post them home. At that point we became truly airman second-class, or AC2s. All duties to be performed for the princely reward of four shillings a day all found!

“Curiously on payday, the RAF never handed out coins. So although a week’s pay was £1 8s, the first week you would receive a £1 note, with 8s shillings held over. The second week, you were owed another £1 8s plus the previous 8s, and were paid £1 10s – a £1 note and a 10 shilling note, with six shillings held over, and so on.

“So some weeks we felt well off and other times definitely hard up!

“On March 15, 1951, we were transferred by RAF lorry (or Garry as they were known) to Wilmslow to learn square-bashing.

“Quite quickly the pattern of our training became routine, other than the exciting parts such as our turn on the firing range with live ammunition, our attempts on the assault course and our first time when we were allowed off camp to return home for the Easter break.”

National Servicemen on exercise
National Servicemen on exercise

“As our passing-out parade approached, we were told to choose our trade going forward.

“I was short-sighted and wore glasses, so for me aircrew was a non-starter. I was too short to qualify for RAF Police. So I was told my posting would be as a Clerk Progress at RAF Credenhill in Herefordshire.

“I had no real idea what that was. But when I arrived at my new camp, everything was totally different!

“No more being shouted at. Instead we received instruction from trade-experienced Sergeants who were really nice people and it was all done in an almost fatherly manner.

“Our life was quite cushy in comparison with our square-bashing days and I could even get home every weekend and go out with my cycle club on Sunday mornings!”

Peter Newman packing lunch for another cycle trip
Peter Newman packing lunch for another cycle trip

“The whole course lasted three months so we must have been taught quite a lot but I have no clear memories as to the detailed course content.

“I did however come top of the class in the final examinations which earned me a 72-hour pass.

“At the end we were asked to focus on where ideally we would like to be posted.

“I opted for an overseas posting as until then I had only been once on a school trip to Paris and once on a 10-day holiday at Lake Lucerne.

“Instead, I was posted to Linton in Yorkshire, where I arrived on September 17, 1951. It turned out to be a Fighter Command Station for three squadrons of front-line fighters and was a hive of activity.”

Peter Newman on the right relaxing with pals, his chum Mike is two along from him
Peter Newman on the right relaxing with pals, his chum Mike is two along from him

“My living quarters were luxurious, in a two-story brick building with central heating and curtains. I had never encountered central heating before.

“We had a laundry service and the food was good.

“For the next 18 months I worked in the office by the motor transport servicing hanger with occasional turns at guard duty or fire patrol. Basically it was quite a cushy life with the five and a half day week at normal office hours.”

Mr Newman was demobbed on March 5, 1953, which coincidentally was the day that Joseph Stalin died. He immediately returned to work at Grindlays Bank.

He said: “I’m very grateful for my National Service. It was the making of me and introduced me to the real world.”

National Servicemen were always happy to complete basic training and pose for their passing out photo
National Servicemen were always happy to complete basic training and pose for their passing out photo

John Marsh, now 81, from Woodcocks in Headcorn was a National Serviceman from 1960 to 1962.

Born in Lincolnshire on the day the Second World War began, September 1, 1939, he moved with his family to Headcorn in 1953.

He said: “I was 20 when I was called up. I feared that my career might suffer with two years’ absence, but the opposite proved to be the case.

“Before I left, my father, Wilfred, who had served at Salonika with the Royal Garrison Artillery in the First World War gave me one piece of advice: ‘Never volunteer for anything!'”

Mr Marsh was assigned to the Royal Army Service Corps

National Serviceman John Marsh from Headcorn
National Serviceman John Marsh from Headcorn

After basic training at Aldershot and then a short transfer to Yeovil in Somerset, he was asked whether he would like to be posted at home or abroad. He said: “I was keen to travel so I said abroad, I thought maybe Kenya or the Far East.”

Instead he was posted to Germany. He said: “My face dropped; it was not what I wanted, but I cheered up a bit when told I would be a staff car driver.”

However, when he arrived in Berlin, just after his 21st birthday, he found himself actually driving trucks.

He said: “As it happens, I was interested in transport. I had left school at 16 and got a job as a trainee traffic clerk for Reeds paper-mill at Aylesford.”

Berlin then was a separate entity, neither part of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) formed by the Russians after the Second World War, not part of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) formed by the Allies.

Driver John Marsh of A Platoon, 62 Coy, RASC washing down his Mercedes diesel 4.5 tonne truck in Berlin after making a run delivering loose coal
Driver John Marsh of A Platoon, 62 Coy, RASC washing down his Mercedes diesel 4.5 tonne truck in Berlin after making a run delivering loose coal

Instead the former capital was administered jointly by the occupying powers of the USA, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union.

Mr Marsh remembers a lot of good times. He said: “We were kept very busy during the day, but there was time off too. We were lucky the Americans were there, because there were always concerts laid on for them which we could go to, especially jazz which I loved.

“There was also a bar just outside our barracks whose landlord’s name was Rolf and he always made us very welcome.

“The Germans in general were always very friendly – probably because they were so happy to see us there rather than the Russians.”

His duties often took him on 110-mile trips across the Eastern zone to West Germany.

John Marsh and comrades sip ice cold beer lying on the show in the Harz Mountains
John Marsh and comrades sip ice cold beer lying on the show in the Harz Mountains

In addition, there was variety. In February 1961, Mr Marsh was one of 10 selected to attend a skiing and winter warfare course in the Harz Mountains in West Germany.

And sometimes on the weekend, he had to swap his truck for a bus and take visiting officers and dignitaries on a tour – including the sights of East Berlin.

He said: “I showed them Spandau prison where Rudolf Hess and other Nazis were being held, Hitler’s bunker, Potsdamer Platz, the Brandenburg Gate, Stalin’s Statue – although this was pulled down while I was there on President Khrushchev’s instructions-and the Russian War Cemetery in Treptow Park.”

Initially there was relatively free movement between the sectors with many West Berliners working in East Berlin and vice versa. That all changed on Sunday, August 13, 1961, when the East first put up a barbed wire fence between the Russian and Allied sectors, and then started building the Berlin Wall.

These buildings in Bernauer Strasse stood in East Berlin but opened onto West Berlin. Here the windows have all been shuttered up leaving just a small slit for the East German police to peer through onto the West
These buildings in Bernauer Strasse stood in East Berlin but opened onto West Berlin. Here the windows have all been shuttered up leaving just a small slit for the East German police to peer through onto the West

He said: “For several months, it was pretty tense. There were roads where the Russian and American tanks faced each other.”

The period has made an immense impression on him, not out of fear for his own safety, but because of the distress he witnessed among the civilian population.

He said: “Bernauer Strasse became infamous. The buildings were in East, but they had windows and doors opening onto the West.

“Many caught in the East jumped from the windows to get to the West and some died. The Russians soon bricked up all the windows and doors.

“Then to see West Berliners placing ladders against the wall so they could climb up and try to shout to friends and relatives in the East … It was a pitiful sight.”

Civilians trying to talk over the Berlin Wall to friends or relatives in the East
Civilians trying to talk over the Berlin Wall to friends or relatives in the East

Surprisingly, after things settled down, Mr Marsh was able to resume his sight-seeing tours to the eastern sector, driving his bus through Checkpoint Charlie, later the focus of many spy movies.

After 21 months in Germany, Mr Marsh was demobbed and returned to the his old job with the Reeds transport division. Later he joined a Dutch company to set up their transport operation in Northamptonbefore returning to Reeds Transport.

When he was 51, the company was taken over by SCA and Mr Marsh was promoted to managing director of SCA Transport until his retirement at the age 60. He said: “So you see I’ve been working with trucks all my life!”

He said: “I don’t resent my National Service at all. They were some of the best years of my life and did me a power of good.”

The entrance to this church was sealed off by the Berlin Wall
The entrance to this church was sealed off by the Berlin Wall

The BerlinWall was eventually pulled down on November 9, 1989, and the two Germanies were reunified on October 3, 1990.

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