NAAFI 100

The Navy, Army and Air Force Institute – more commonly known as the NAAFI – marked its centenary year in December. To mark the 100-year anniversary a former NAAFI employee decided to document its history by writing a book. Established just after the First World War, it was decided an organisation was needed to serve all Armed Forces personnel – and the NAAFI was formed.

Sue Lowe, the author of NAAFI By Land and Sea, explained why she researched and wrote the book. “No-one knew solidly where it [NAAFI] came from, how it was formed, all the little bits that really made NAAFI stand out and be something totally different than any other company,” she said. “So, I just flippantly said ‘I’ll write a book on that’ and that’s where it started.”

While some people might think just of shops supplying the Armed Forces communities, the NAAFI has always been far more than that, says Sue. “NAAFI is a company that serves the services, so they’re a place of comfort, they’re part of home, they’re a piece of home, really, where they supply everything that they [Armed Forces community] need.“Across the years it’s been everything from shops, canteens, restaurants, rest places, hostels, hotels, bowling alleys, discotheques, ships with their little shops as well, vending areas and, of course, the standout one, the NAAFI wagon,” she added.

The idea started out as a cooperative – the canteen and mess cooperative – and from there it developed into something else. NAAFI was established by the British Government in 1920 when the Expeditionary Force Canteens (EFC) and the Navy and Army Canteen Board (NACB) were combined to run the recreational establishments needed by the Armed Forces and to sell goods to servicemen and their families.

When asked what the most surprising thing she found when writing the book was, Sue said it was the sheer number of heroes in the NAAFI. The canteen managers and assistants worked in the shops, she said, but when ‘action stations’ was called they then worked alongside the military personnel, generally being sent to the sickbay.

“One of the stories that really wowed me was of a gentleman called John McNamara who was serving on HMS Amethyst,” said Sue. “He sailed up with them to Nanjing and when they were being fired at a piece of shrapnel went through the med-bay wall, killed everybody else except for himself because he’d stepped back. “So he was trying to save some of the other guys using first aid, and that was part of his job onboard ship.”

When writing the book Sue was keen to ensure the focus was on the stories of those who have worked for the NAAFI over the 100 years. “They’ve [the NAAFI] been able to expand and contract, through war and peace throughout the years, which has been amazing. I couldn’t have asked to work for a more fantastic company.” The book, which can be bought on eBay, contains more than 300 stories from people who have been part of the NAAFI from its creation until the present day.