1. Mutiny in Karachi

"In the middle of January, 1946, the British authorities, who had always feared the possibility of revolt in their Indian units, were shocked by a mutiny amongst the British" - Michael Edwardes1

I
Men in the forces are trained to obey. Parades, kit inspections, saluting, polishing boots and buttons may have other justifications, but all are used to accustom men to instant obedience to the orders of their superiors. How, then, could twelve hundred RAF personnel at Drigh Road in January, 1946, come to defy their commanding officer and take part in what was technically a mutiny?

In general, the morale of British forces during the Second World War seems to have been surprisingly good. That was certainly the case at all the RAF stations where I served during my time in India. There were plenty of grumbles, of course, and every reason for them - the heat, the flies, the disease, the abominable food, the lack of leisure facilities, the long hours of work, poor living conditions and, of course, the doubts about when wives, girlfriends and families would be seen again.

Men put up with all these things mainly because, almost without exception, they knew that this was a war that had to be won. They would have expressed this in different ways - fighting for their country, standing up for democracy, opposing aggression or, for me and many like me, fighting fascism. We all wanted the war to be over, but only after victory.

A few months after the end of the war the atmosphere had changed. Except for a few regular airmen, our paybooks showed that we had joined for "DPE" - the Duration of the Present Emergency. And to us the emergency was over. The war had been won. It was time to get back to Britain and then into civilian life.

Most men accepted that millions of servicemen could not be demobilised overnight, to flood the labour market and leave millions unemployed. But did many of us have to wait for years, which was what the current rate of demobilisation implied?

And if we could not be demobilised for a while, why could we not go home and serve our time in Britain? The official answer was that there were not enough ships, but none of us believed that. Some men pointed out that plenty of ships seemed to be available to take supplies to Indonesia to help the Dutch regain their hold on that country. Some drew attention to the great liners being made available to the "GI brides" - British women who had married American servicemen - to cross the Atlantic to the USA. Others asked whether it really mattered how many ships there were. There were hundreds of our aircraft at the disposal of the RAF, so why could we not be flown home? There seemed to be no official answers, and more and more men were convinced that we were being held in India as a matter of policy.

To make matters worse, there was a widespread belief that soldiers and sailors were being released more quickly than the men of the RAF. This was an impression gained from what was learned from friends in the other services, and we know now that that impression was totally justified. It was official policy to reduce the army and the navy more quickly. As John Strachey, Under Secretary for Air in the Labour government, explained in a confidential minute in October, 1945: "A relatively large R.A.F. and a small army is by far the most economical way of meeting our world commitments"2. So most of us had to stay in India.

II
Peacetime had not improved our living conditions. Most of us slept in large barrack blocks, with a table and a couple of chairs in the middle, and a bed and locker for each of the thirty or so men. Each bed had a wooden frame, ropes instead of springs, and posts on which mosquito nets could be hung. For a couple of hundred men, even this accommodation would have been a significant improvement. They still lived in tents, many ragged with age.

My friend, LAC Arthur Attwood, was one of those to whom home was a tent. "Each of the bell-tents," he noted, "perched on concrete plinths in rows, was the living quarters for up to six airmen, the sole furniture being a wooden locker and a bed criss-crossed with coarse twine ... The legs were usually stuck into cigarette tins filled with water, the idea being to defeat the ants. There was also a greased ball round the tent pole, placed to prevent the little insects dropping from the roof canvas on to the charpoys (beds). Both methods were useless.

"The geckos were more welcome squatters. During the evening, by the light of the hurricane lamps, they suspended themselves upside down on the roof canvas, camouflaged as dirty white tent canvas, and stayed rigid, with long tongues suddenly snaking out to claim a fly or mosquito."

Most of the men still worked long hours, some even longer than during the last few months of the war. And the food got even worse. The main course was usually a mush, ingredients unknown, and at one stage an important element of the main meal was the contents of a cardboard box - emergency rations obtained cheaply from the United States because they were no longer regarded by the Americans as good enough for their troops in the field.

"A few hundred yards from the tent," Arthur wrote, "across the sand, was the cookhouse. It was in a hangar, with the swill bins nearby. The men would usually emerge from the mess, with knife, fork and plate, cross to the bins to deposit leftovers or, when they couldn’t stomach it, the whole messy plateful. There was always a line of big black, bedraggled birds on the hangar roof. Shitehawks! They would drop like a stone on the unwary or go straight for the swill bins."

A little further on sat the fruit-wallah, selling oranges, bananas and roasted peanuts. Sweets and chocolate could not survive in the heat, so any after-dinner treat had to come from the fruit-wallah’s basket. Alongside stood a dish of coloured water - "pinky-pahni" to most of us. This was a solution of potassium permanganate, and we were expected to dip the fruit in the liquid to reduce the risk of infection.

There was no privacy, even in the toilets. The latrine most convenient for me was shielded by a fence, but inside there was only a huge, inverted wooden box. This had oval-shaped holes cut into the top along each side. Going in there each morning before work, one would see a line of men sitting along each side of the box, all with shorts or trousers round their ankles. Some would get in and out as quickly as possible, while others would loiter, having a chat with neighbours or perhaps reading a newspaper.

The climate, of course, added greatly to the discomfort. Long hours of work in the heat; the ubiquitous flies, mosquitoes and other insects; the diseases, of which dysentery and malaria were the most common. Few men who had been in India more than a few weeks had not had at least one spell in hospital.

One of the most common complaints, prickly heat, resulted from excessive perspiration. One could see a row of men in the mess, sitting at the table, and as they drank their tea after the meal, a damp patch on the back of each shirt would get larger and larger, as if the tea being taken by mouth was coming straight out through the back. This constant perspiration often caused prickly heat - the blocking of the sweat glands, with tiny red pimples forming, especially on the back and chest. These were so itchy that it was almost impossible not to scratch, yet scratching made things worse. Sometimes the pimples became yellow blisters, which could be very messy and sore.

For many men the biggest enemy was boredom. Most of the programmes at the camp cinema had little appeal, and the cinemas in the town of Karachi showed only Indian films. There were no billiard halls, no pubs, no professional football matches, no dance halls. So men were deprived, not only of family life, but also of the kind of organised entertainment that would have been available at home.

There was a small library in the education department, but the mostly old books had little appeal. Some men were sent newspapers from home and these were passed round among friends and were read eagerly. There was also a discussion group, but this was always a minority interest and in any case met only once a week. Occasional football matches took place between different sections of the camp, but there was little else in the way of sport.

So in the evenings men had something to eat in the canteen (there was no NAAFI) or they chain-smoked while playing cards in the billet. For anyone not interested in cards, life could be very dull indeed. For the most part they just dreamed of going home. Going home! That was all that men wanted, now that the war was over.

Getting home meant more than just escaping from India and the RAF. Men’s futures were at stake. Only a minority of the men had safeguarded jobs to return to. Most would have to go job-hunting, and they were impatient to get on with this. Others who had stayed at school until they were 18 and then joined the RAF, were now concerned about college and university places. Would these all be filled by the time they got home?

Many men were also anxious about their families. One or two had had "Dear John" letters, and this led a few others to feel uneasy. Most men had other concerns - the children’s schooling, everyone’s health, financial problems, even the impact of rationing (now in some ways worse than during the war). Men wanted to get home, to see girlfriends, wives and families again and to find reassurance. Early release - or at least a return to Britain - was of real importance.

III
The war was over, had been over for five months. To the men, that meant it was time to go home. To the top brass of the Air Force, that meant it was time for peacetime discipline. Early in January came the crucial blow. Station Orders announced that on Saturday, 19th January, the whole station would parade in best blue uniform, and the parade would be followed by a kit inspection.

It was difficult to know whether it was the best blue parade or the kit inspection which had most impact. A kit inspection! That meant setting out all our equipment on the bed, with the blankets folded in a particular way, and the remainder of the kit arranged in regulation pattern, so that an NCO or an officer could see at a glance whether any item was missing. And, of course, everything had to be spotlessly clean and, wherever possible, polished. But we had thrown away the absurd Victorian helmets we had been issued with; most of us had long since eaten our emergency rations and lost or thrown away lots of other useless gear. And who could remember how it all had to be laid out? Yet disciplinary proceedings could be expected to follow if anyone’s kit was found to be deficient.

As for parading in best blue! Our dress usually consisted of an open-necked khaki shirt and equally lightweight shorts or trousers, with socks and sandals. It was too warm, even in January, for anything more. Being in best blue was something different. It meant wearing a tie, putting on a heavy woollen uniform of tunic and trousers - clothing designed for warmth in the British winter. And in preparation, buttons and footwear would have to be polished and trousers pressed.

As men waited on the parade ground for the Commanding Officer’s inspection, a number of them would faint from waiting in the heat. Any man not turned out to the officer’s satisfaction would be "put on a charge".

All this was infuriating in itself, but behind it lay something else. We could no longer pretend to be civilians waiting to go home. Suddenly we were involved in the bureaucracy and bullshit of the peacetime forces. The men could not accept that.

IV
The story began to circulate that a meeting of the men would be held on the football field on the Thursday evening at seven thirty, by which time it would be dark. No one seemed to know who had called the meeting, but it soon became clear that most of the men intended to be there.

I turned up on the football field in good time and found there were hundreds there already. My guess was that well over half of the men attended, perhaps eight or nine hundred, but it was impossible to tell. It was dark, so dark that it was difficult even to recognise the man at one’s shoulder. Men were engaged in the usual chat and banter, waiting and wondering whether anything was going to happen. And then it did. Someone in the centre of the crowd called out - I remember the exact words - "You all know why we’re here." Everyone looked to where they thought the voice was coming from, and it continued, "Don’t look round. And don’t say anybody’s name". The man then added something about Saturday morning.

For a few seconds there was absolute silence, and then a great hubbub began. It was clear that whoever had called the meeting had no procedure in mind, no plan to propose, and apparently no intention of playing any further part in the proceedings. Men were obviously very angry about both the parade and the kit inspection, but the meeting was becoming chaotic as several men shouted against one another, some protesting about grievances, others suggesting different remedies.

At this point Arthur Attwood made himself heard. He intervened because, of all the hundreds there, he was the only one who had both the nous to know what to do and the guts to do it. His voice boomed out above all the others. I cannot remember his exact words, but he said, in effect, "We won’t get anywhere like this, lads. We need a chairman to see that there’s one speaker at a time. Does anyone object if I do the job?" There were murmurs of approval and no opposition, so Arthur took charge of the meeting. He saw to it that only one man spoke at a time; he gave to the meeting the gist of anything said by a speaker in too quiet a voice; and he made sure that everyone was aware of the issue before a vote was taken.

Various suggestions were put forward, ranging from a full-scale strike, starting the next day, to a deputation to the CO, but consensus was reached in a surprisingly short time, and the whole meeting was over in not much more than half an hour.

Unanimously, we resolved that on the Saturday morning:

l we would not prepare any kit for inspection

l we would go to the parade ground at the scheduled time, but wearing khaki drill, not best blue, and we would refuse to parade;

l anyone who had the opportunity to talk to the commanding officer would make it clear that we had strong grievances which we wanted to put to higher authority.

As I lay in bed on the Friday evening I wondered what would happen next morning. I was confident that all the men would keep to the agreement reached at the mass meeting; but our strike would be seen by the authorities as mutiny. Some weeks earlier there had been a strike of RAF personnel at Jodhpur, and we had heard that the CO had called in the Indian army. Would we also have to face the bayonets of British or Indian troops? Or would we be left on the parade ground in the hope that demoralisation would set in and the men would begin to disperse? Or could it all end in an amicable discussion? It was impossible to tell. Anyway, the decision was more likely to be made in Delhi at air headquarters than in Karachi.

In the event, all the men appeared on the fringes of the parade ground at the scheduled time, and all were in khaki. There was not a blue uniform in sight, and it must have been obvious to the station warrant officer and to the commissioned officers - though they were not immediately visible - that there would be no CO’s parade that day.

There was an air of tension now that had not been there at the Thursday meeting. This was the moment of truth. None of us - unless anyone had arrived recently from Jodhpur - had ever been in this kind of situation before. So we waited, not afraid - there were too many others in the same boat for that – but concerned. There was a lot at stake.

It was some time before the CO appeared. No doubt the telephone line to Delhi had been humming. The men were spread around the edge of the parade ground, but the CO approached the nearest group, and several of the men spoke to him vehemently but not threateningly. Some emphasised a particular grievance, while others demanded a meeting with higher authority and a promise of no victimisation.

More men had now congregated round the group with the CO. He seemed to be harassed, but in conciliatory mood. Go back to your duties now, he said, and he would see that a senior officer from air headquarters came to hear our grievances as soon as possible, and I thought his words also implied that there would be no punishments. In fact, most of us had no duties to go back to, since the morning was to have been devoted to the parade and kit inspection, but we dispersed quite happily. Our first demand had been met, and no further discussion was needed. The crunch would come when we met the man from air headquarters.

  • 1. M Edwardes, The Last Years of British India, Cassell, 1963, p. 112.
  • 2. PRO AIR 8/790/2157