During the 1939-45 warI was an anti-war socialist: a Trotskyist (1) to be exact. We considered the war to be an imperialist war on both sides.
The German capitalists had financed and supported the Nazis in order to defeat and destroy the powerful German working class movement. They supported Hitler’s revanchist war, hoping to win back the colonies and the spheres of influence they had lost in the 1914-18 war. The British and French ruling classes were defending their empires and markets.
The talk of defending democracy was whitewash, while millions of colonial subjects in India, Africa, Indochina and the other British and French colonies were denied elementary democratic rights.
We believed that the working classes of the rival powers should refuse to fight and die for their masters; they should oppose the war on each side and fight side by side for a united and socialist Europe that would make future wars impossible.
The duty of anti-war socialists was to work for such an outcome, but that did not mean we should adopt a pacifist attitude by abstaining from the war. Nor should we register as conscientious objectors or refuse to put on uniform. The war would only end when the workers in the factories refused to produce munitions and the workers in uniform refused to fight each other and, in Lenin’s words, “Turn their guns against the enemy at home.”
This was how the 1914-18 war had ended. The Russian workers rebelled and the Russian soldiers refused to fire on them, mutinied and deserted the trenches. In Germany, the revolution that overthrew the Kaiser and ended the war was sparked off by the mutiny of the German sailors. The French and British armies were also shaken by mutinies.
We expected the new war to end the same way, with or without our involvement. The hardships and increasingly pointless slaughter would surely drive the workers and soldiers to revolt. Our task was to give these spontaneous movements a political consciousness and socialist direction.
We could not do this by shouting advice from the side lines. We had to be with the workers and soldiers, sharing the hardships and dangers. That is why we did not opt to be conscientious objectors, deserters or shirkers ensconced in safe jobs away from the frontline. That is why I, like many of my comrades, found myself in the army; first in the Pioneer Corps and, later, in an infantry regiment.
This book is an account of my experiences and of my attempts to spread our socialist and internationalist ideas among my fellow soldiers.
Looking back at the age of eighty-seven and with the benefit of hindsight, I now think the policies we Trotskyists advocated during the war were sectarian, dogmatic, ultra-left and wrong in many aspects. I am nevertheless proud that I was part of that movement: we did, during the slaughter, uphold the ideals of international working class solidarity; we did oppose chauvinism and national hatreds; we did fight for a better post-war world.
Though we were opposed to Fascism, we refused to endorse the imperialist war aims of the Allied ruling classes, despite the official adulation of the wise war leader Stalin. Almost alone, we also warned of the dangers Stalinism posed to the socialist movement.
The socialist and labour movement in Britain and other countries did, in the aftermath of the war, win many reforms, embodied in the Welfare State. These did improve the quality of life for the working class but left the basic power structures of capitalism intact.
The price we pay for this are the present horrors of imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The present generation of Pioneers (the Pioneer Regiments of the new Logistics Corps) are fighting and dying in order to preserve American imperialist control of the oil resources in the Middle East.
This book is also a partial history of the Pioneer Corps into which I was drafted. The doings and experiences of this Corps have been much neglected in the many official and semi-official military histories. This is despite it having been the largest Corps in the British Army; one in six of all British soldiers served in it during the war.
Pioneers were involved in every major campaign: France, Belgium, Dunkirk 1939-40, North Africa, Crete and Greece, Sicily, Italy, the D-Day Normandy landings and the advance into North West Europe and Germany that ended the war in 1944-45. They provided vital support to the front line troops and were often under enemy fire. A monument in the Alrewas War Memorial Arboretum mentions that they suffered over 26,000 casualties.
It was also the British Army’s ‘foreign legion’. It recruited thousands of German, Austrian, Czech and other refugees from Europe who had found asylum in Britain from Nazi persecution. Many of them were Jewish intellectuals and professionals: doctors, lawyers, artists, writers…
The Corps also recruited non-Jewish political refugees. They were predominantly left wing: communists, social democrats, trade union activists and other anti-Nazis. It included former soldiers of the Spanish Republican army who had escaped from Franco’s forces into France at the end of the Spanish civil war.
Numerous companies of the Corps were raised in the colonial territories of the then British Empire. There were Indian, Mauritian and African companies, the latter comprising Basuto, Swazi and Bechuana companies. Companies consisting of Arabs and Jews were also raised in Palestine, though later they were split into separate units.
And yet the Pioneers are hardly ever mentioned in the numerous books, films and TV programs dealing with World War II. For a long time I knew of only one book about their war-time experiences: Major Rhodes-Wood’s A War History of the Pioneer Corps 1939-45, published by Gale and Polden (1960) which has long been out of print. [It is, however, available as a CD from the Royal Pioneer Corps Association.]
Recently, another book has been published, dealing exclusively with experiences of the German, Austrian and other Jewish refugees who fought in the Corps. This is Helen Fry’s Jews in North Devon: The Escape from Nazi Germany and the Establishment of the Pioneer Corps, published by Halsgrove (2005).
This general lack of mention of the Pioneer Corps has led me to try to repair this neglect by including chapters rel
two books mentioned. The chapter on the Alien companies relies heavily on Helen Fry’s book.
Some of my personal experiences have also been related in my autobiography Reluctant Revolutionary, published by Socialist Platform Ltd (1994). In short, this is a bit of a mongrel of a book!
In writing it I have had the help and advice of many people and I express my thanks to them. Firstly to my son, David, whose practical help in managing my computer has been invaluable; as well as his general support. Secondly to my wife, Olive, for her tolerance and understanding. My friend Alan Izod invested a lot of his time and patience in reading the early drafts and making them more readable. His useful amendments have been even further improved by my grand-daughter Katie. Thanks also to many friends for their encouragement
Thanks also to historian Ray Challinor for sharing information. Reading his The Struggle for Hearts and Minds encouraged me to add my pennyworth to accounts of World War II from a socialist point of view.
- Trotskyism originated as an opposition current to Stalinism in Russia and within the Russian Communist Party. It also developed as an opposition within the Communist International and its affiliated national parties. Its leading figure was Leon Trotsky, colleague of Lenin during the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and founder and head of the Red Army.
The Trotskyists argued that the Soviet Union, which had originally been based on democratically elected Soviets, had degenerated under Stalin into a totalitarian dictatorship ruled by a communist party which had itself degenerated into a privileged caste. The Communist (Third) International had ceased to be an instrument for working class revolution and become an agency of the Moscow bureaucracy; using the working class as pawns of Soviet foreign policy.
The Trotskyists sought, at first to transform the communist parties and international back into revolutionary organisations. When this failed and they were expelled they founded the Fourth international in 1938 to continue the traditions and struggles of the Communist International before its degeneration. Trotsky was assassinated by Stalin’s agent in 1940 but the movement bearing his name continued.