We’ve all heard the stories of boys, under the age of 18, lying about their age to join the Army. Mostly during the First World War. Although it certainly did happen, I cannot help but feel that there were not as many underage soldiers as popular wisdom might lead us to believe. It was definitely much rarer in the Second World War than it was in the first.
I have found, however, one case in the Second World War. Not only did Private Robert Johns, from Stamshaw, die at the age of 16, he had also joined the Parachute Regiment. He was killed on 23 July 1944 serving with the 13th Battalion in Normandy, and is buried in Ranville Cemetery in France. The 6th Airborne Division landed in Normandy just after midnight on D-Day and fought long and tough battles to secure the eastern flank of the Normandy bridgehead, only coming out of the line in August 1944.
How easy was it to join up underage? A lot depended on the recruiting personnel in question. If they suspected that someone was underage but were sympathetic, they could almost certainly turn a blind eye. Otherwise, in an age when everybody had to have a national registration card, it would have been almost impossible to pretend to be older than you were. John’s would have gone through numerous checks, as he would have joined a line infantry regiment before transferring to the Paras. He may even have joined the Army when he was younger than 16. Much like trying to get served in a pub, it probably helped if you looked 18 too. But to volunteer to fight, when you didn’t have to, shows both courage and selflessness.
Although you had to be 18 to join the British Army, Boys under 18 could in fact join the Royal Navy as Boy sailors, or the Royal Marines as Boy Buglers. Many did, and sadly died, particularly on the Battleships HMS Royal Oak and HMS Hood.