Britain's Underground Army



Harry Parkes was approaching his 18th birthday in 1944. Like most young men he was expecting to be called up for service in one of the armed forces. Instead he received a letter informing him that he would be spending his national service years down a coal mine.

Coal powered everything at this time. And if the nation didn't have coal, it couldn't fight the war. Experienced miners had joined the army and by 1943 the UK was facing coal shortages.

Like almost 48,000 young men, Harry Parkes had been chosen at random - drawn from a hat they were told - in a scheme devised by the wartime coalition government's Minister for Labour, Ernest Bevin. They were Bevin Boys.

Most wanted to join the armed forces and felt they weren't valued as Bevin Boys. They wore no uniform and suffered taunts, wrongly assumed to be avoiding serving in the armed forces. It was a crushing disappointment. But it was also life-changing. They very often found themselves exposed to a way of life and a class of people they would never have had contact with otherwise.

The last Bevin Boys were demobbed in 1948. After their service they received no recognition, no medals and were excluded from wartime commemorations. It's only relatively recently - and after much campaigning - that Bevin Boys have been allowed to take part in Remembrance Day services.

In this programme Harry Parkes tells the story of his time as a Bevin Boy and the effect it had on his life, and introduces two other surviving Bevin Boys, who reflect on the different experiences and the ways that being a member of this underground army changed them for ever.

Featuring: Peter French, Harry Parkes and Geoff Rose.

Producer: Martin Williams

Music: Eclogue for piano and strings by Gerald Finzi

Northern Sinfonia / Howard Griffiths.