CHAPTER 17 - THE GREEN HOWARDS CAMPAIGN FOR LABOUR
By 1945 the infantry units which had suffered the most casualties required reinforcements. Thousands of the fitter men from other units were being transferred to the infantry and I was one of these. In January 1945 I was transferred, with a batch of gunners, signalmen, sappers and transport drivers, to the Royal East Kents (the Buffs) for infantry training. We did this in Northern Ireland, on the shores of Loch Erne, near Enniskillen. The battle courses were tough but interesting. We were taught infantry tactics, how to assault different enemy positions such as pill boxes. We were taught night fighting, how to negotiate barbed wire, ford rivers and negotiate other obstacles while the NCO instructors fired live ammunition at our feet. New weapons were coming into use, such as the PIAT anti-tank gun which was fired from the shoulder, and had a terrific kick. One weapon I was thankful we were not trained on, was the flame-thrower. I would have been incapable of bringing myself to turn a fellow man into a human torch. The very thought of it made me ill.
The training was tough but the drill sergeants and instructors soon found out they were not dealing with raw recruits. They were dealing with men who had been in the army several years and seen active service. While we were willing - and indeed eager - to learn the battle skills needed to survive as front-line infantrymen, we were not willing to put up with barrack square drilling, `bull’ and perceived injustices. The blokes amongst whom I found myself were far more `bolshie’ than the lads in my old Pioneer company and were willing to fight back against authority. Shortly before our batch arrived, the sergeants’ mess had been set alight by men who had returned from Enniskillen, fortified by drink. They had taken exception to one of their number being put on a charge for drunken behaviour by an equally drunken sergeant.
After completing my battle training with the Buffs, I was posted to the Holding (Reserve) Battalion of the Green Howards (a Yorkshire regiment) which was then billeted in Bridlington.
A few weeks later, on 8 May 1945, the German forces surrendered and the war in Europe was declared officially ended at one minute past midnight. The next day was celebrated as VE (Victory in Europe) day. Amid the general rejoicing and euphoria I felt completely isolated, as I did also later on VJ day, when the end of the war with Japan was celebrated.
In Reluctant Revolutionary I have attempted to describe how I felt.
‘Throughout the war the soldiers’ favourite songs had all been about peace and homecoming:
When the lights go on again, all over the world,
And the ships sail home again, all over the world,
Then there’ll be time for things like wedding rings.
People will sing again — all over the world.’
‘We’ll gather lilacs in the spring again,
And walk together down an English lane…
And in the evening in the firelight’s glow,
I’ll hold you in my arms and never let you go…
When you come home again.’
We had sung these songs, full of yearning for peace and home, in Sicily and Italy and on the boats taking us across the Channel to the Normandy beaches. They were sung by the men sweating in the jungles of Burma, in the desert and in the prisoner of war camps.
With the war ending, my companions were looking forward to these dreams coming true. I felt, and I am sure most other Trotskyists felt, isolated and sad for several reasons. The victories being celebrated were not our victories, but the victory of one set of imperialist robbers over another. We knew the rosy future to which our companions were drinking was going to prove an illusion. On a personal basis, I could see no peaceful future for Olive and me. Maybe, with luck, we might be able to snatch a few weeks `gathering lilacs in the spring’, `walking down English lanes’, and `sitting by the firelight’s glow’, before the demands of the revolutionary struggle pulled us back into the maelstrom. Many of my celebrating fellow servicemen would soon waken out of their dreams, to a cold dawn of unemployment and exploitation. Many would arrive home, not to welcoming arms at the door of honeysuckle-covered cottages but to broken marriages; the consequence of long separations and wartime stresses, and to grimy slums in industrial areas among smoking factory chimneys. Just for the moment they could dream and celebrate and drink to `Victory and Peace’ — but not we Trotskyists. We had no victory to celebrate, only the continuation of the struggle. Though Nazi Germany had been defeated, capitalism had not. For us `the lights were not going on again’ - yet. Our war had still to be fought and won.
So as my fellow soldiers cheered and celebrated around me and drank to the prospect of peace and going home to wives and kids and families, I could only look forward to more years of constant struggle, sacrifices and hardships. This, I am sure, is how most committed revolutionaries felt amid the general euphoria. I had never felt as isolated and alone as I did then, amid the general rejoicing. To be sociable, I drank and laughed with the rest of them, but my heart was heavy. I forced myself to shrug off this despondent mood and plunged back into the daily routine. (1)
Victory in Europe was soon followed by the ending of the wartime coalition between the Tories, the Liberals and the Labour Party and a general election in July 1945. The mood in the forces was overwhelmingly pro-Labour. If there were any Tory supporters, they did not dare lift their heads. The pro-Labour servicemen did not merely register their votes; many of them actively and openly campaigned for the Labour Party. In our battalion, a group of N.C.O.s and other ranks attended all the local Tory candidate’s meetings around Bridlington in East Yorkshire. We did not just heckle in a rowdy way. We asked a whole set of questions . ‘Are you going to implement the Beveridge Plan? Are you going to guarantee us jobs when we are demobbed ? Are you going to set India free? Are you going to repeal the 1926 Trades Dispute Act? Are you going to…?’
We were very much helped by the fact that one of our group was the sergeant in charge of the battalion’s transport. After heckling at a meeting, we piled into a couple of army trucks and followed the Tory candidate’s car. When he got up to speak at his second meeting, he would be questioned by the same soldiers who had intervened at his first. We would follow him to his next meeting and so on. We repeated this night after night. Contrary to the Army Act and King’s Regulations, this was done using army vehicles and petrol and by men in uniform. Eventually, the Tory agent complained to our commanding officer about this but it was more than he. dare do to try and stop it. I made sure I received a regular supply of Socialist Appeal and other RCP literature which I sold or distributed almost openly.
On the day following polling day, I was attending a lecture in Leeds connected with some course. I forget what the subject was. The instructor-sergeant, instead of giving the lecture, chalked the election results on the blackboard as they came through on the wireless. Each Labour victory was greeted with cheers, and each Tory victory with boos and groans.
While we had been dashing around the Yorkshire countryside, in army transport, heckling Tory meetings, Olive and her twin sister Joyce had been busy in Derby. They went to all the women on their estate, mostly servicemen’s wives, to make sure that they voted. There was no need to specify for whom. All they had to say was, `Don’t forget to vote, ducks.’ When the polling stations opened, there were long queues of women anxious to cast their votes before going to work, or taking the kids to school.
They were not voting for the Socialist revolution, but for a National Health Service, better pensions and sick benefit, child allowances and full employment. We Trotskyists saw this pro-Labour flood as the expression of the worldwide revolutionary upsurge which Trotsky had predicted. In fact it remained essentially at the level of electoral support for a reformist Labour Party committed to a gradual and peaceful transition to Socialism by parliamentary legislation. We now know that the Labour government stopped well short of transforming Britain into a socialist commonwealth. But within these limits it carried out a quite ambitious programme. It nationalised coal, the railways, road transport and the steel industry. It implemented the Beveridge Plan and set up a free national health service. The mood of the population was such that the Tories and the ruling class did not dare do more than oppose these measures by parliamentary means. Any attempt to destabilise the Labour government, or do what Pinochet later did to the Chilean socialist government would have had incalculable consequences. The British ruling class was more intelligent. It bent with the wind and waited for the tide to turn. The turn came in 1979 when the Thatcher government rolled back some of the gains of the post-war years.
Although the war against Germany was over by May 1945 the war with Japan was still on and there was no general demobilisation. We soldiered on.
The Green Howards’ Holding Battalion was now quartered in the barracks of our sister regiment – the East Yorks – in Beverley, near Hull. I joined the local Labour Party and encouraged a few other members of the regiment to do the same even though it was illegal, under King’s Regulations, for soldiers in uniform to engage in political activity outside election times. We were able to get the Beverley Party to protest to the National Executive and the government about the use of British troops against the national independence movement in the Dutch East Indies.
I organised a regular discussion group in the barracks and was selling six copies of each issue of Socialist Appeal and quite a number of pamphlets. I was able to have many more political discussions with far more people than at any time before. I received a sympathetic hearing but I was only able to recruit one soldier into the Revolutionary Communist Party. It could well have been due to a wrong approach on my part, but I think it was mainly because of the tremendous gap between our revolutionary marxism and the general political outlook of the working class, including my fellow soldiers. They had every confidence in the newly elected Labour government.
1. Reluctant Revolutionary, Socialist Platform, 1994, p.99 et seq