Naafi marks centenary of service to British Forces

“Where our armed forces go Naafi is never far behind. They provide a wonderful service. They build morale. They are there when it matters.” – Michael Heseltine

NAAFI, the ubiquitous  British military retail operation which has seen action in almost every theatre of war is 100-years-old today.

To mark the occasion, the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes is selling a selection of promotional memorabilia including branded mugs, badges and their own special edition, single malt whiskey in numbered bottles.

Naafi tea, famed throughout the British Forces world.

Naafi began with the origins of regimental canteens through the First World War, but in 1920 the then War Secretary Winston Churchill wanted an institute to serve all armed forces at home and abroad during peacetime – the upshot being the creation of Naafi.

‘The regimental canteens were a vast operation, but provided primarily for the Army,’ says Nathan Morley, author of Canteen Army: The Naafi Story a biography of Naafi which takes lively journey to tell the story of how the organisation worked alongside the Forces at home and abroad.

‘More than anything, Churchill wanted to create a viable enterprise. His changes meant Naafi premises were provided by the Admiralty, War Office, and Air Ministry, and it was the task of Naafi to find necessary stock, furnishings, and staff and to make the best of the accommodation provided,’ Morley explains.

Throughout his life, Churchill liked to keep an eye on the stores.

Along the way, the organisation flourished through World War Two, Suez, Korea, the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan- and even now Naafi still serves the forces, albeit in a vastly slimmed down form.

To mark the occasion, the institute is selling a selection of promotional memorabilia including branded mugs, badges and their own special edition, single malt whiskey in numbered bottles.

In his book, Morley charts the impact that Naafi has had on every aspect of military lives and British culture describing how the institute was never willing to be just a spectator, and maintained the highest standards under shellfire, rocket attacks, air-raids and in the galleys of Navy ships on the high seas.

There are vivid descriptions of what life was like working this vast retail operation, which operated thousands of canteens, pubs, cafes, shops and hotels from the deserts of North Africa to the freezing wastelands of Iceland.

‘The men and women of the institute, while sharing the dangers of their comrades in uniform, provided the small luxuries that made life in a war zone more bearable’.


In Canteen Army, he cites Ida Owens recalling being posted to Southampton Water serving troops destined to launch the D-Day landings: ‘We slept under canvas, although for three days and three nights we hardly slept at all, snatching an hour’s sleep when we could,’ she lamented. ‘Up and down the lines of soldiers we went, dispensing hot drinks, snacks and cigarettes and baking the famous rock buns in the field kitchen. The soldiers were in good spirits, but mostly very tensed up, they seemed so very young.’

On the road to victory. British troops take refreshment at a Naafi canteen in liberated France. 1944

Another Naafi girl, Nora Neale, never forget finally watching the soldiers march-off: ‘Highland divisions went to the sound of the bagpipes, quite moving really, as we wondered how many would survive.’

Morley says troops set off with tiny cardboard boxes known as ‘Naafi pack’ kits. ‘These were stuffed with cigarettes, chocolates, toothpaste, razor blades, soap, meat extract cubes, pencils, note paper, milk powder, and chewing gum,’ he says.

The late Mary Thurlow often served officers, pilots and rear gunners, many returning from fighting in the skies above southern England during the Battle of Britain. ‘They used to come into the Naafi in the evening. I could see when I went to pick up cups their exhaustion – sheer exhaustion…you’d see them flop in the armchairs and sleep.’

‘The arrival of the first dependents in Germany in August, 1946, caught Naafi frantically preparing to open ‘Family Shops’ , which became their bread-and-butter trade on garrisons and RAF camps for the next 70-years,’ Morley adds.

Just five years after the War, Naafi staff made the journey out to Korea where they soon found that supplying a large army no easy task, especially when faced with appalling weather, logistical nightmares and a lack of adequate sanitation.

Soon after landing, Naafi canteens were chugging down rutted Korean roads, amid a conflict that would eventually draw in 100,000 British service personnel.

Naafi /EFI corporal, C. Spragg, wrote home: ‘A great drawback here is the water, which we must not use either for drinking or washing unless it has been treated . . . we have gone dirty for two days. . . . At our last stop we managed to cook a bit of breakfast over two small tins filled with petrol. When we stop people seem to come from nowhere and there are thousands of children begging, but we dare not give them anything or the entire population would soon be around us.’

During the Second World War, Naafi was also responsible for ENSA, the much-ribbed entertainment branch, which chalked up countless wartime shows around the world, featuring stars like Gracie Fields, Arthur Askey and George Formby.

Star-turns like George Formby, who packed-up his ukulele to play at BEF camps for an entire month during the winter of 1940, brought a bit of home to the troops. ENSA also arranged ‘all in wrestling’ evenings, an ‘all-star concert party,’ and countless ropey stage productions ranging from Shakespeare to Dickens.

Those days are gone. Naafi however remains alive and kicking and those who have served with the British forces know what a remarkable job it does in both war and peacetime.

So, for now at least, it is reassuring to know that when British Forces need rest and refreshment at home, abroad or at sea, Naafi remains at hand, upholding its motto, ‘Servitor Servientium’ meaning –  The Servant of Those who Serve.

This is the extraordinary story of Naafi – The Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes – a quietly fantastic retail operation that has seen action in almost every theatre of war over the last century.

From the Dunkirk to the battle of the Falklands, Canteen Army brings to life the far-reaching history of this much-loved institution.