CHAPTER 8 – POLITICS IN THE ARMY
Sometime in 1942 I was transferred again to a new company, 243 Company. During this period I was in contact with Hilda Lane and Bill Duncan, who were members of the Revolutionary Socialist League, and I stayed with them a couple of times when I was on leave. Through them and Betty Hamilton, I received the American Socialist Workers’ Party's Socialist Appeal and the Militant, which I passed on to one or two fellow soldiers together with other pamphlets
In July 1942 I attended the National Conference of the Revolutionary Socialist League. As I was unable to obtain a weekend pass, I had to risk being absent from my unit from the Saturday morning till the Sunday evening. I was duly put on a charge for being absent without leave. This was a minor offence, and I would normally have been confined to barracks for seven days and/or given extra fatigues and guard duties. Unfortunately, I got myself involved in an argument with my Company Commander, Major Ball. When I came up before him he decided to read me a lecture:
“What do you think would happen to the war effort if everyone just sloped off like you for the week end, eh Ratner?”
The wisest thing for a soldier to do when lectured by his CO is just stand to attention, say nothing and let it go in one ear and out of the other. But Major Ball's ranting annoyed me and I could not stop myself from replying in a most pedantic manner
“But it doesn't follow that because I go absent every body else will.”
Unwisely I added:
“Since at the moment this company isn't contributing very much to the war effort, it wouldn't make much difference anyway.”
At this his face reddened, and he warned me that if I wasn't careful I'd be on a second charge for insolence.
“You know what sentence I can give you?”
“Yes, sir, more or less.”
“It’ll be the more and not the less! Twenty-eight days field punishment.”
Normally “field-punishment” is severe punishment. In the 1914-18 war it included being tied to the wheel of artillery guns while they were being fired. I didn’t hear of this happening in WWII. Instead the offender would be ordered to double up and down the parade ground with a very heavy load on his back (usually a back pack filled with sand) until he collapsed. I was spared this extreme punishment. The form my punishment should take was left to the discretion of the Company Sergeant Major. Either because my offence had not been so grave or out of compassion (some Sergeant Majors were human!) I was put on permanent cookhouse fatigues for the 28 days and confined in the guard room when not working.
As I have already stated the level of political interest among my fellow soldiers was low. Political discussions were rare unless I initiated them. The war was accepted as something one could do nothing about, therefore there was no point in worrying about or discussing it. The need to fight Hitler was not questioned. Few liked being in the army so there were not many volunteers among us. If you were called up there was nothing you could do about it. You had to make the most of it, keep your head down, avoid trouble and hope you could get through the war in one piece. What discontent was expressed was about daily immediate matters, unnecessary bullshit and discipline, the food, the incompetence of officers and so on. There was a definite feeling of `them' and `us'. Any opportunity to buck the system, to dodge guard duties and drills, circumvent discipline, wangle extra leave and so on was seized upon.. By the end of the war the armed forces had become more politically aware and voted overwhelmingly Labour in the 1945 election. The Cairo Forces Parliament and the mutinies of 1946 in India and the Far East were evidence of this growing politicisation. But this was still in the future. In 1942-43 carrying out socialist propaganda in the Pioneer Corps was a thankless task.
I don't want to paint a completely negative picture. There were occasional political discussions. I remember one occasion when we were building an underground HQ near Portsmouth. A gang of us were digging some trenches for cables. During one of the breaks an argument started between me and another bloke (I think it was about Russia), and several others joined in. The discussion continued when we resumed work and it ranged over a wide field. What was the war about? Did the German people support Hitler? What was going to happen after the war, was there going to be mass unemployment? . Echoes of this must have reached the officers, for the next day the corporal in charge ordered me to start digging a hole on my own, some hundred yards away from everyone else. When I had finished, I rejoined the gang. As soon as I restarted the discussion I was ordered away again to do another job on my own. This time it was soaking wooden pit props in a bath of creosote. Because of the fumes which one inhaled while bending over the creosote and the damage to the skin through constant contact, no one was supposed to do this job for more than a day or perhaps half a day. I was kept on creosoting on my own for several days, and was only taken off it after reporting sick with skin burns.
Sometime in 1941 or 1942 the Army Bureau of Current Affairs - better known as ABCA - was set up by the Army Council. The purpose was to improve the morale and fighting spirit of the forces' rank and file by convincing them that the aims for which the war was being waged were worth fighting for. The more forward looking elements in the Army Council had persuaded the `Colonel Blimps' that a `citizen' army, aware of what it was fighting for, was more effective than an army of automatons. All commanding officers were instructed to organise weekly compulsory lectures for all ranks on citizenship, on the Allies' war aims, the evils of Fascism, and the benefits of democracy. They couldn’t have such lectures without allowing questions from the floor and it was difficult to prevent these from developing into discussions. Since any organised political discussion or activity by servicemen in uniform was illegal, these ABCA lectures were a godsend to political militants. It gave us a legal cover for putting forward socialist and other radical ideas. Each company or battalion commander was required to appoint an officer or NCO to organise the lectures. A complete ABCA organisation was created to publish pamphlets, charts and ‘discussion guides’ and to provide lecturers
Left wing intellectuals and university types, who were in uniform as officers and senior NCOs, gravitated towards ABCA and provided the bulk of the full-time lecturers and staffers, produced the pamphlets, etc.. Communist Party members and sympathisers and people with socialist and radical views took advantage of this opening. Richard Kisch, a Communist Party member wrote in his book The Days of the Good Soldiers:
`Committed anti-Fascists in the armed services suddenly found themselves in a position to make a more conscious contribution to the war effort than had previously existed. For the first time since the days of Cromwell's Roundheads and the Parliamentary Army of 1646, agitators, the nominated representatives of the lower ranks, were abroad in the 1940s. There were political discussions, debates, lectures galore. Model "parliaments" were being convened. Army education services were also reorganised and extended; the new Army Bureau of Current Affairs was expanding. It was publishing weekly commentaries on the war, and information sheets.' (1)
The people who became ABCA lecturers and staffers were mostly Labour supporters, Liberals and Stalinists. They supported the war and saw it as an anti-Fascist crusade rather than as an imperialist war, but within these limits they gave the ABCA activity a left wing slant. When Trotskyists like myself got up to speak we were assured of some latitude. The more traditional and conservative commanding officers looked on all these `bolshie' discussions with disfavour, and were always on the look out for excuses to clamp down on them. The leftish ABCA staff and people like me had to be careful not to give them any rope. To openly advocate class struggle and speak of the need for social revolution was still illegal, even during an ABCA lecture. So we had to speak in code and use euphemisms. For example, we did not use the words `capitalist class' but spoke instead of 'vested interests'. Instead of class struggle we spoke of `social conflicts' or `social tensions'. This sometimes made it difficult to speak in terms the non-political soldier could appreciate, but it enabled left wingers to find each other. I would hear someone say something which indicated left wing views and when the lecture was over I’d go over and have a word with him. If the company commander was neither interested in organising ABCA activities nor particularly hostile, one could volunteer to take the work off his hands and get appointed to arrange and give lectures. Unfortunately, being neither an officer nor an NCO, I was not able to do this. Nevertheless, I took advantage of the lectures to encourage political discussion. I also tried to organise small discussion groups. But this was difficult as they had to be semi-clandestine; and when we went overseas active service conditions made them difficult to organise on a regular basis.
Others were working along the same lines. Bornstein and Richardson relate in The War and the International:
`Most active for the WIL was John Williams, who as an ex-soldier, knew just how far to go without breaking the law. On one occasion an officer came down to lecture on the "Parliamentary System", only to be followed by Williams, arguing for a system of soviets instead. In the vote at the end Williams gained 70 votes and the officer none for the parliamentary system!
`A year later the authorities caught up with him, and he was sent down for six months for agitating for soldiers' rights. At his court martial he condemned it as typical officer-caste method against soldier militants who fought for elementary democratic rights... He ended up at the notorious Darland Detention Camp near Gillingham in Kent, where a year before a soldier had been clubbed to death by two military policemen." (2)
Members of the Revolutionary Socialist League were also active in this field. Charles van Gelderen, then serving in the Eighth army in Italy, reported:
`There were big debates taking place, and I remember one day speaking... [on] "What Do we Owe to the Germans?"... I said if Germany had given us only Marx and Engels we could never repay the debt. That was what we owed to the Germans. The biggest chauvinists were the Stalinists. One man there, who was a member of the London District Committee of the Communist Party, attacked me bitterly. He said "What was behind this? Why do we have to have this sort of talk?" He was trying to imply that I was a German agent planted in the midst of British soldiers. Then afterwards, we had a debate, just before the general election. Shindler and I put forward the case for a Labour government, and this fellow was opposed and argued that what we need is a National government — the Labour Party, the Communist Party, the Liberal Party, and "Progressive Tories" like Churchill and Eden. He said that "You'll never have a Labour government, the Labour Party by itself will not win against Churchill" — and he said this right up to the election." (3)
In large base areas a whole network of ABCA educational and cultural activities developed from which arose the famous Cairo Forces Parliament. It `elected' a `Labour government' and which passed bills to nationalise the banks and carry out other socialist measures, before it was dissolved by a worried Middle East Command.
At another large military base in Lybia, Arthur Leadbetter, a Trotskyist, was elected Prime Minister and Home Secretary of the Benghazi Forces' Parliament. He was soon posted back to Cairo on instructions from the War Office Security I-IQ, and the parliament was reduced to functioning as a `brains trust'. Communist Party members who had been active in the Cairo Forces' Parliament were also posted to remote areas.
One of the ways in which conscripts protected themselves from the worst aspects of army discipline and made life more tolerable was an informal network of mutual help and protection. If a soldier had mislaid or lost a piece of equipment needed for a kit inspection, someone would lend him his spare. If someone was missing from a guard or sentry duty, his mates would rally round and hide his absence. The selfish individual and the sneak-thief who stole his fellow soldiers' money or belongings existed, but they got short thrift when discovered, as did the creep who tried to ingratiate himself with the officers or the sergeant-major. After a while everyone acquired a special `mate'. The unspoken rule was that mates stuck together and protected each other through thick and thin. When a man went on leave, his mate would keep an eye on his kit and on the evening he was due back would make up his bed. If a soldier wanted to sneak off home without a pass, his mate would cover for him. There were many things one had to do in the army that required two pairs of hands or someone's co-operation. If you had no special `mate' things were twice as hard. Sometimes three or even four blokes would team up as a group.
This informal system of mutual help not only eased life in barracks or camps, but also protected the soldier in battle conditions. Commanding officers recognised this as a factor enhancing the morale and fighting efficiency of the units under their command. In situations of unrest and discontent, these same relationships made collective action, rebellion and mutiny easier. In those situations the authorities would split up the mutinous unit and separate the ringleaders. If the situation did not warrant their court martial, at least they were split up or isolated.
During the Italian campaign a serious mutiny was sparked off by the military authorities' disregard of the strong feelings of solidarity generated within fighting units. Usually, soldiers who had been wounded or fallen ill were returned to their own units after being discharged from hospital. On this occasion men from the 50th (Northumbrian) and 51st (Highland) Divisions who had been wounded in the Sicilian campaign and had been evacuated to hospitals and convalescent depots in Libya expected to be returned to their own Divisions and battalions which had meanwhile been taken back to Britain to prepare for the D-day landings. Instead they were embarked on three cruisers and put ashore at the Salerno beach-head and ordered to move inland as reinforcements for 46th Division. About 300 of the 1,200 men refused to do this. They were surrounded by military police and put in a POW cage that had been set up for German prisoners. There they were addressed by Lieutenant-General Sir Richard McCreery, commander of X Corps. He admitted a mistake had been made, promised it would be rectified, but still insisted the men move off to join 46th Division. 191 still refused to move. They were placed under arrest, court-martialled and found guilty. Three sergeants were sentenced to death, the corporals to ten years in prison and the privates to seven. The sentences were immediately suspended and the men were informed that they would be sent straight away to the battle-line. They were warned that any misdemeanour would mean that their sentences for mutiny would be activated.(4)
In 243 Company I palled up with Alf Rushworth and Frank Wright. Alf came from a Yorkshire mining village. He was a rebel by nature, and he had already served a sentence in the glasshouse (military prison) for some breach of discipline before coming to our company. I used to pass political papers and pamphlets on to him but he was a slow and reluctant reader. However, being a natural rebel, he was in sympathy with my views. Later, after Frank had been transferred to the R.EME. Alf and I stuck together throughout the Sicilian campaign. To my regret, I lost touch with him when, after our return to England, he fell ill and after a long spell in hospital was transferred to another unit. Frank had been an engineering apprentice at Rolls Royce in Derby. It was thanks to Frank that I met the woman who was to become my life-long companion and wife. Frank suggested that I come up and spend a few days in Derby when our leaves coincided. I did so in November 1942. This was when I first met Olive. She was a friend of the cousin with whom Frank lodged. On the first day of our leave, on a glorious autumn day, the four of us went for a ramble in Dovedale, a well-known beauty spot in Derbyshire. Olive and I immediately took to each other. Olive’s marriage had broken up when I met her. She and her young daughter, Dorothy, were living with her twin sister Joyce and her children, in a council house in Derby. Joyce’s husband, Tom, was in the Tank Corps and soon to be sent to Burma ,
When I was released from the army in 1946 Olive and I settled in Salford with our son david and Olive’s daughter Dorothy. There we both became active in the Labour movement.
The Days of the Good Soldiers, Communists in the Armed Forces WWII by Richard Kisch, The Journeyman Press, 1985 p.51
War and the International by Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson, Socialist Platform, 1986 p.88
Two Steps Back by Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson, Socialist Platform, p.132
4. Mutiny by Lawrence James, London, 1987, pp171-173