CHAPTER 18 - MUTINY
The war with Japan was still on. When I was included in a draft of reinforcements for the Green Howards battalion fighting in the Far East, Pierre Frank, who had just been released from internment in the Isle of Man, advised me to desert. He argued that I should do so in order to avoid being isolated from the movement. I disagreed. I thought it was nonsense to talk of my being isolated. How could I be `isolated’ if I went with my regiment? True, I might be isolated from other members of the Fourth International, but I would be among my fellow soldiers. As a deserter I would be forced to live illegally and my usefulness to the movement would be limited. In the event, the party decided I should not desert, but go with my draft to the Far East.
Pierre’s advice turned out to have been unnecessary. When the draft was assembled it transpired that a mistake had been made. Ten men too many had been selected. I was one of the lucky ones, picked out at random, who were taken off the draft!
It was ironic, in view of Pierre Frank’s concern at my `isolation’ in the Far East, that this area should soon be the scene of large-scale mutinies in the British Forces.
The war with Japan ended in August 1945. The slow pace of demobilisation was creating discontent among the forces overseas. Barely a month after the end of the war, petitions were circulating in RAF and army camps and naval barracks in the Middle East. The petitions were not only about the slowness of demobilisation, but also protests at the reintroduction of pre-war standards of discipline and `spit and polish’. There were complaints about the food and conditions generally. Queues formed up to sign the petitions and visiting MPs were mobbed by angry servicemen demanding they take up their grievances in parliament.
In November 1945 the civilian police was called in to quell a mutiny at the RAF at Jodhpur. (1)
The Labour government was committing British troops to support the French and Dutch in their attempts to suppress the struggles for independence in their colonies in Indochina and the East Indies. British troops were being used in India against the nationalist movement. The connection between these attempts to maintain colonial rule and the slowness of demobilisation was not lost on the British servicemen and merchant seamen. They had been willing to serve to fight Hitler and fascism, but they had no interest in maintaining French and Dutch – or even British – colonial rule in Asia.
In November 1945 the crews of the “Stirling Castle” and the “Moreton Bay” refused to sail with Dutch conscripts aboard, bound for the fighting in Sumatra. The crews were supported by the National Union of Seamen and by unions in Australia. Several of them were arrested and charged with desertion.
David Kirkwood, the Scottish Labour MP received a letter from an RASC unit in Italy expressing their concern at the use of British troops in Indonesia. ‘We are gravely concerned about the independence of the Indonesian people’, stated the letter, ‘as well as for the lives of British Tommies being ordered to suppress this war [for independence], the very ideals for which so many of our fellows have given their lives.’ The letter demanded the end of hostilities and immediate negotiations. (2)
In January 1946 a wave of mutinies erupted in the RAF all over the Middle East and the Far East. Starting at Karachi on 19th January, it spread rapidly to RAF camps and bases at Manipur and Poona in India and to Negombo and Colombo in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Refusals to parade and work occurred at Lydda and Almaza on 24th January and at Qastina, Cairo West and Acqir on the 25th. All Middle East camps. Between the 26th and the 30th the movement had spread to Dum Dum (Calcutta), Palan, Vizapatan, Cawnpore and Allahabad, all in India; to Velank, Selatar and Kallang on Singapore Island and to Mingaladon in Burma.’ (3)
At Dum Dum (Calcutta) Indian airmen joined in and elected their own committee.
The reason the RAF was more affected than the army was probably that conditions in the big RAF bases resembled industrial conditions more than those in the army. The airmen were engaged on maintenance and repairs of aircraft and engines and were skilled tradesmen. Many of them had been industrial workers in civilian life and often in a trade union. They were not strangers to the idea of collective action and it is significant that they referred to their actions as `strikes’ rather than `mutinies’. (This was probably also a defensive ploy — men had been shot for mutiny.)
The spark that ignited the conflagration at the Drigh Road Base near Karachi was an order by the CO to parade in the standard blue uniform instead of the usual tropical khaki drill. This was in a temperature of over 100oF. The day after this order was posted chalked slogans mysteriously appeared all over the base calling a meeting after dark that evening. At the meeting, attended by most of the 2000 airmen it was decided to defy the order and parade as usual in khaki drills and to elect a deputation to put their grievances to the CO.
There had been an active Communist Party group at the base for some time. It was chaired by John Saville, a gunnery sergeant-major and was not limited to the RAF. There were other soldiers including two Americans.
The action was spontaneous and took the active Communist Party group on the base by surprise. Richard Kisch has given a detailed account, mainly from a Communist Party point of view, of the mutinies in his book The l)ays of the Good Soldiers. He writes of the mutiny at the Drigh Road base as follows.
`That afternoon there was a special meeting of Communists in a bungalow on the outskirts of Karachi. The house belonged to Hatim Alavi, a well-known businessman. His son, Hansa, was a local Communist. The Communist group at Drigh Road urgently needed to discuss the turn of events. The chalking seemed also to have taken them by surprise. They did not claim responsibility for the call for a camp meeting in the dark on the depot playing field. Was an attempt being made to pre-empt the group by outflanking them from the left?… They had to decide what attitude to take as the entire depot was seething over the CO’s order… A big turn out was likely…
`Some time earlier the idea of putting up a formal Communist Party candidate in a mock election held at Drigh Road had been turned down in favour of a Communist-Labour unity ticket. Aircraftsman Arthur Attwood, “a level-headed well-respected member of the electricians’ union, of strong character and common sense” according to Pritt, had been nominated originally as the Communist Party candidate, but had withdrawn. This time the decision was reversed… It was agreed that the Communists at Drigh Road would fully associate themselves with the protest. Arthur Attwood was nominated to speak.’ (4)
At the meeting Attwood and the Communist Party members argued against proposals for a strike, and succeeded in getting the men to limit their protest to refusing to parade in blue and electing a deputation. Nevertheless, Attwood was subsequently arrested and court-martialled.
A petition signed by some 2000 airmen was sent to the Labour Prime Minister, Attlee:
`We the undersigned airmen are greatly dissatisfied with the slow rate at which demobilisation and repatriation are proceeding. Although the war ended five months ago, there are still thousands of us without any indication as to when we shall see our friends and families again. Why is this so? We have not been convinced by official reasons. Why cannot demobilisation and repatriation be speeded up? Is it because faster demobilisation would flood the labour market? We expect full employment from the Labour government we were proud to have helped elect. Is it because British policy in Indonesia and India requires large armed forces? If so, we demand a reversal of that policy. Is it because the government wants to talk tough to other powers? We deplore such an attitude at the United Nations. Is it because of obstruction from any quarter? We expect the government to overcome such obstacles. You can be sure of our full support…’
Aircraftsman Attwood was sentenced to 56 days in prison and the charges against some others were eventually dropped, but Aircraftsman Norris Cymbalist, another leader, was sentenced to 10 years, later reduced to five. In the event, he only served just over a year.
Although the movement mainly affected the RAF, there were also mutinies in the army. In April 700 soldiers walked off the troopship “Corfu”, that was taking them to the Far East, in protest at the conditions. In May, at a rest camp at Muar near Kluang in Malaya, men of the 13th Parachute Battalion of the Lancashire Regiment refused to parade. They were protesting about the harsh discipline and conditions. They had just come back from fighting for months against the Indonesian Liberation Army in Java. They had found it a nerve-shattering, soul-destroying experience. According to a soldier quoted by Kisch, British officers had been responding to guerrilla tactics with booby traps aimed at children stealing army stores. Two hundred and fifty-three men were court-martialled and eight of them sentenced to five years’ hard labour, the remainder to three years. Immediately after the court-martial, the sentences were remitted to two years overall and eventually quashed, after protests and petitions at home and pressure in Parliament.
I was in England while the mutinies were taking place and became marginally involved in the campaign against the sentences passed on the mutineers, particularly the ten year sentence given to Norris Cymbalist. In the spring of 1946 I had applied for a course at an Army Formation College. They were organising courses for men about to be demobbed. These courses were intended to prepare them for a return to civilian occupations. As far as I remember there were no practical courses in trades and crafts, they were mainly on subjects like accountancy and bookkeeping, maths and languages, etc. I applied for a course on economics, partly to get a knowledge of bourgeois economic theory so that I might understand Marxist criticism of it better and partly because I hoped the course would provide an opportunity for me to put over Marxist arguments and win some contacts. The courses lasted a month and the Army Formation College I attended was at Welbeck Abbey, near Worksop.
The lecturer in Economics was a Major and he put over conventional economic theory. In one session he outlined the marginal utility theory of value. In the ensuing discussion I criticised it and defended Marx’s labour theory of value. Subsequent lectures usually ended with a debate between the Major and myself on Marxist versus orthodox economics.
It was while on this course that I first learnt of the mutinies in the Far East and the court martial of Norris Cymbalist. I tried to get some agitation going and left copies of the Socialist Appeal lying around, but got little response. I decided to organise a petition and foolishly mentioned this to the Major, mistakenly thinking from some remarks and his relatively friendly reaction to my defence of Marxist economics that he would be sympathetic. Instead, he reported this conversation to the brigadier in command of the college and I was summoned to appear before him.
Organising a petition or any form of collective complaint was a military crime and a court-martial offence. To my great surprise the brigadier, far from being hostile, was unexpectedly understanding. He asked why I wanted to organise this petition. I replied that I thought the RAF men had a genuine grievance and should not be victimised. He said he understood my feelings and that my honesty and concern did me credit, but that the government was doing all it could to speed up demobilisation and I must realise that mutiny could not be tolerated. He said that it was lucky for me that I had confided my intentions to the Major and that the latter had alerted him. As I had not actually started circulating the petition he was prepared to overlook the whole matter if I gave him an undertaking to desist.
I replied that I appreciated his attitude, but could not give him that undertaking. I would have to think about it. I saluted, about turned and walked out.
After some thought I decided there was no point in going ahead with the petition. There was no strong feeling in the college. In fact very few of the men were even aware that there had been mutinies or court-martials in the Far East, as they had hardly been reported in the press. Most of the men knew their own demob was weeks away. They were unlikely to court trouble by putting their names to a petition. To go ahead after the Brigadier’s warning would have been quixotic and seeking martyrdom for its own sake. Far better to continue passing round Socialist Appeal and talking to those interested. This was no doubt what the party would have advised, had I been able to consult them.
I worried for long afterwards about my reaction to brigadier’s warning. I felt I had allowed myself to be psychologically disarmed. If he had been hostile and threatening I would have known how to react, but he had talked to me like an uncle and put on my honour to desist. Was my decision based purely on objective calculation as to the best course to pursue for the movement? Did I want to placate the brigadier because of the fear of being court-martialled? The incident, though minor, left me full of self-doubt. I had been incredibly naïve to confide in the Major.
1. Hansard 22 November 1945
2 Richard Kisch, The Days of the Good Soldiers, Journeyman Press, Pondon 1985, p.119
3 Hansard 27 November 1946
4 Ibid pp.129-130.. DN Pritt was a lawyer and MP, a Communist fellow traveller who had been expelled from the Labour Party