"For the first time since the Parliamentary Army of 1646, troops in the field, and in the rear, were openly talking about politics, what the war was about, and what they wanted to come out of it...." - Anon.1
There were nine or ten Communists on the Drigh Road camp, and we met as a group. Contrary to what some people might imagine, this was not a cell of saboteurs or spies, but a group of young socialists wanting to do all they could to help in the fight against fascism and to contribute to the building of a prosperous, socialist Britain.
We liked to think that we practised what we preached, and many of us found inspiration in the example of the International Brigade. When the Spanish civil war broke out in 1936 it was because Franco and his supporters refused to accept the will of the people and sought to overthrow the democratically elected Spanish government. While Hitler and Mussolini were quick to provide help for Franco, the British and French governments refused any assistance to the republican side.
It was in this situation that the call was made for an International Brigade, people from many different countries who would face the might of Franco’s professional army and his foreign allies, not for money but for a cause - the cause of anti-fascism. Encouraged by the Communist Party, about two thousand young Britons joined the brigade, a large proportion of them from the ranks of the party itself. So while the British government was involved in appeasing Hitler, young Communists were dying on the battlefields of Spain.
In 1942 and 1943, when the Communist Party was calling for the opening of a Second Front, they meant an allied invasion of Western Europe, so that the Germans, already facing the Red Army on a thousand mile long front in the east, would have to fight in the west as well. In the spirit of the International Brigade many Communists in the armed forces offered to take part in the invasion. As a trainee wireless mechanic in the RAF in London, I wrote to my commanding officer, volunteering for commando training in order to take my part in the Second Front. His reply was polite and not unfriendly, but he insisted that, in view of the time and money spent on my training, I could best contribute to the war effort by using my technical skills in the RAF.
In India, where most of us were not directly involved in the fighting, we felt that we could contribute to the war effort in three main ways - by being good at our jobs and working conscientiously, by setting a good example in responding to discipline, and in lifting and maintaining morale.
When I was in Agra, the Communist group there was also working to improve relations between British and American airforce personnel. We had contact with a number of American comrades, and they invited us to have lunch at their base one day and meet as many as possible of their colleagues. I like to think that we made a good impression and helped to eliminate some of the strange ideas that some had of British people.
The most abiding impression of the visit, however, was of the abundance of the food available. We could scarcely believe it. There were several different meats on offer, for example, and a man could help himself to whatever he wanted! And there was a similar choice of drinks - hot tea, iced tea, hot coffee, iced coffee, mineral waters. It was better than Lyons’ Corner House!
After that we decided that it would not help to improve British-American relations to return the compliment and invite the Americans to share the unappetising stuff served in our mess. So we invited half a dozen of them to a meeting on our station to give a short talk and answer questions. The meeting was well attended and the Americans met with a good response.
To strengthen morale we reminded colleagues of the nature of fascism and the need to win the war, and we combined this with a vision of what life would be like in post-war Britain if we had the right kind of government. In presenting our ideas at Drigh Road, we made good use of the station discussion group, for which the Education Section was responsible, and which met each Monday evening. There were three of us on the committee, and we were very influential, because we were the ones with ideas about what should be discussed and often about who could give the lecture or lead the discussion. I recall Arthur Attwood giving a talk on trade unions, and I introduced a discussion on the British press.
On one occasion, we invited the Senior Medical Officer to speak on the subject of "So You Don’t Want a Baby". In the days when there was no formal sex education in school and suitable books were not readily available, this was a useful as well as a popular subject. We had such a successful evening that we followed it a few weeks later with, "So You Do Want a Baby" and had an equally large attendance.
Many of our discussions were on post-war Britain, and this fitted well with official policy, which was to encourage discussion - though preferably with an officer having tight control - of issues like housing, health policies, the 1944 Education Act and the Beveridge Report on social security. Once Germany had been defeated and the Labour ministers had withdrawn from Churchill’s coalition government, our thoughts turned to the coming general election.
When Britain’s voters went to the polls on 5 July, 1945, it was for the first general election since 1935. There had been by-elections, of course, but for more than five years there had been a party truce, so even in by-elections there was no Tory-Labour confrontation. Candidates from the sitting parties were either elected unopposed or faced competition from independents, minor parties or the new Commonwealth Party.
Since 1940 the country had been led by a national government headed by Winston Churchill, and his popularity was a major factor in leading media commentators to anticipate a Tory victory in the general election.
But general opinion in the country had been moving leftwards. As people coped with the problems of wartime, whether facing the blitz or standing together in queues, many developed a new sense of community and began to feel that there should be a common cause in peacetime as well as in war. Government intervention had brought full employment, fairer shares (through rationing) and improved health for many of the people. Should not a peacetime government do the same? These views were encouraged by a new respect for the Soviet Union, based on sympathy for the millions of Russian casualties and admiration for the success of the Red Army in our common fight against Nazi Germany.
People also remembered the pre-war days and the Tory record. In their political history, Post-War Britain, Sked and Cook note that, "Churchill had lost the election because the voters refused to forget. They refused to forget the years after the First World War when Lloyd George’s promises went unredeemed; they refused to forget the depression years, the unemployment and the General Strike; and they refused to forget the failure of Chamberlain’s appeasement policies which Churchill himself had taught them led to the Second World War. In short, the voters refused to forget the failure of the inter-war period when political life in Britain had been dominated almost exclusively by the Tory Party"2. So, when the people voted, they gave a massive majority to the Labour Party, whose manifesto proclaimed that it was "a Socialist Party, and proud of it".3
The men in the services were affected in much the same ways, and there is considerable evidence that they were more left-wing than the civilian population. Servicemen were old enough to remember the thirties, young enough to receive new ideas. Their interest in the progress of the fighting on the many fronts encouraged an interest in current affairs. The rigid class distinctions between officers and other ranks, which none could fail to observe, fostered a radical outlook.
Moreover, discussion within the ranks, especially about Britain after the war, had been officially encouraged, as a means of maintaining morale. In 1941 the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA) was set up to provide material for discussion on social and political issues, and it produced a series of booklets. Some politicians have perhaps exaggerated the influence that ABCA had in promoting Labour views, but in many units it did have considerable impact. Just as important, it developed a discussion culture throughout the services, and in hundreds of units debates took place, formal and informal, official and unofficial, on issues of the day, and especially on the character of post-war Britain. It was this atmosphere which enabled servicemen to set up mock parliaments, of which the most famous was the one in Cairo.
ABCA booklets were made available to the RAF. At Drigh Road this material tended to lie unused in the Education Section library, except perhaps when someone was seeking information for a talk to the discussion group. However, from the spring of 1945, if I remember rightly, it became policy to hold a weekly discussion class in each section, and two of the Communist group - Ernie Margetts and I - were among those recruited as discussion leaders.
The discussion group, which catered for the whole station, continued to function successfully, and when the general election was announced, the committee proposed that we hold a mock election, and the CO agreed. This would not be just a single meeting with a vote taken after short speeches by the candidates. We had permission for a week’s campaigning before the vote.
In the Communist group we were aware that only a small minority of the men would have general election votes in constituencies with Communist candidates, whereas virtually all would have the opportunity to vote Labour. So we decided to concentrate on attacking the record of the Tories in both home and foreign affairs and showing how much ordinary people would benefit from Labour’s policies; we would deal only briefly with the differences between Labour and Communist. I was nominated as the Communist candidate, but spent the critical week in hospital with malaria, and my place was taken by Jack Roth.
The Communist group, much better organised than the ad hoc groupings set up to work for the other parties, ran much the best campaign and did particularly well at open-air meetings. The day before the vote, the Communist candidate announced his withdrawal - as we had privately agreed in advance that he should - and called on the electors to vote Labour. We were delighted when the Labour candidate achieved a massive majority, and we had no doubt that in the general election itself the great mass of our colleagues would vote Labour.
All the members of the group made a weekly contribution to the funds. We once sent a substantial sum to Labour Monthly, a Communist-edited journal in Britain, but the bulk of our money went to support the local comrades of the Communist Party of India, with whom we were in regular contact.
Three members of the group - Arthur Attwood, Ernie Margetts and myself - played a prominent part in the January events and the follow-up. Arthur was 31. He left school at fourteen, became an electrician, and spent 12 years in the building industry. He was an active member of the Electrical Trades Union and a member of one of its regional committees. He could soon grasp the gist of an argument, was a good debater and, in challenging what he saw as injustice, could make speeches with powerful impact. D N Pritt, the Independent Labour MP, later described him as "a level-headed trade unionist of strong character and common sense". His leadership qualities had been demonstrated at the Thursday meeting.
Ernie Margetts was an armourer, though before the war he had been training for management. He was 26. I enjoyed his company, partly because he had such wide interests and such enthusiasm. After the war he did some teaching for the station’s education section. When I attended one of his classes on the cinema, I was so impressed that I used both his material and his approach for a class of my own. I was sure that he would make an outstanding teacher, and it was no surprise to learn some years later that he had, in fact, entered that profession.
I was 21. After leaving school at 15 I had worked for nearly three years as a junior reporter on the local evening paper before volunteering for the RAF. Having failed the eyesight test for aircrew, I was sent off for training as a wireless mechanic. After the war I attended a short course on teaching and in January was awaiting my promotion to sergeant and a full-time post in the education section. I was secretary of the group. There was seldom any correspondence and there were no minutes to write, but there were meetings to be called and agendas to be prepared, and the title of secretary also implied some degree of leadership.
The group had played no part in calling the Thursday meeting. In his book, The Days of the Good Soldiers, Richard Kisch maintains that the Communist group at Drigh Road had met on the Thursday afternoon in "a bungalow on the outskirts of Karachi" and that Arthur was nominated to speak.4 There was no such meeting at that point. It was fortunate for all concerned that Arthur took charge, but he was not nominated by the group. Nor did he "speak" in the sense of advocating a policy. Like all good chairmen, he was seeking consensus - and got it. On the Friday I spoke to each of the members individually, and we agreed that at the Saturday morning demonstration we would avoid standing together but would spread ourselves round among the men. This was to ensure that each part of the crowd would have at least one of us to speak, shout slogans or give any other lead that was needed. That was the only collective decision the Communist group took at that point.
Although the group held its own meetings at Drigh Road, we also attended a regular, weekly meeting in Karachi on Saturday evenings. A group of us would go into the town in the afternoon and have our only good meal of the week in a cafe before going on to the Communist meeting. To these meetings came comrades from two other RAF bases, Mauripur and Korangi Creek, and there were also two soldiers - Ian Taylor, a Scot from the Royal Corps of Signals, and John Saville, who was a sergeant-major in the Royal Artillery.
John, who was 27, was our guru. Before going into the army he had graduated with first class honours from the London School of Economics. He was confident and articulate, had an immense fund of general knowledge, had read much of the work of Marx, Engels and Lenin, seemed to know all the details of the history of the Communist Party and was acquainted with a number of the party leaders and officials. We all had great respect and admiration for John and on difficult issues tended to look to him for guidance. He would later switch to an academic career and become Professor of Economic and Social History at the University of Hull, surely the first sergeant major to become a university professor.
On the day of the Drigh Road demonstration there was the usual Communist meeting in Karachi, and of course we reported on the events on our station, which became the evening’s discussion. I remember John Saville saying to us, "Either you’ve got to have nothing to do with this, or you’ve got to get in there and take over the leadership".
We felt that we should take the lead, and it was agreed that the way forward was for us to find the men who had called the Thursday meeting and invite them to join us in a committee to plan the next steps. The most urgent task would be to prepare a series of demands to put to air headquarters, and we had some preliminary discussion on what those might be. I remember arguing strongly for sending a petition to the Prime Minister. It was a good meeting, and I woke up on Sunday morning feeling confident that I knew exactly what needed to be done.
The men had many grievances, but the most important demand was for a faster rate of demobilisation, and that was something we could not get from Karachi or Delhi. Only the government could decide that, so we needed a political campaign aimed at the House of Commons and the Labour government.
A petition to the Prime Minister would need to be sanctioned by authority, but every serviceman had the right to communicate with his MP. That did not require anyone’s permission - though some men would need convincing - so we had decided, on the journey back to Drigh Road on Saturday night, to launch a campaign to get hundreds of letters sent to MPs. Many men were uncertain about what to write, and some did not even know what address to use. So we needed suitable letters, and I spent Sunday morning writing various versions. Several colleagues helped by copying my drafts or making their own variations.
Other members of the group, commissioned to locate the men who had called the Thursday meeting, soon found the two responsible. The motivator was a lad known to all his acquaintances as "Geordie", though in fact he came from Middlesbrough on Teesside, not from Tyneside. The other lad I did not know. But the two agreed to meet us that afternoon. There were, I think, just six of us at this meeting of what was, in effect, the leadership committee - the two we had found, Arthur, Ernie and myself, and one other member of our group.
We had put the word round that there would be another mass meeting on the football field that evening, and the committee meeting needed to produce a programme to put to the men. But there was another matter to be dealt with first. Someone else had called a meeting on the Saturday evening, at which there had been talk of a full strike on the Monday, but the attendance had been poor, and we quickly dismissed the idea of an immediate strike. We had achieved our first goal, and further use of the strike weapon was something to be held in reserve, in case our demands were not met or there was any attempt at victimisation.
Taking into account our discussions in Karachi, I then put to the committee a minimum six-point programme to meet both the basic issue of demobilisation and the issues which had triggered our demonstration.
These points were:
- l Air headquarters to put our complaints over repatriation and demobilisation direct to the Air Ministry;
- l Permission to be given for the circulation of a petition addressed to the Prime Minister;
- l An official announcement to be made, making it clear that men always had the right to correspond with their MPs;
- l The parliamentary delegation then visiting India to be asked to send one or more of their members to Drigh Road to meet the men;
- l No kit inspections;
- l No Saturday parades.
The meeting quickly agreed to these points, making only one small amendment - that our committee be flown to meet the parliamentary delegates, if that was what the MPs preferred. But there was general agreement that we needed to add demands about living conditions. Food, of course, was the first priority, hours of work the second. Some sections of the station required their men to assemble at a particular point each morning and then march to the workplace. We decided that that was ridiculous and had to be stopped. So we added three points, to make a nine-point programme:
- l An investigation into the quality of the food served in the mess;
- l A reduction in the excessive hours worked by most of the men (I am sure that we were much more specific here, but I cannot recall the detail);
- l Cancellation of daily parades to work.
Our Sunday evening meeting was very different from Thursday’s. We had a chairman, a main speaker, a motion to put to the men, even a platform for the speakers. Arthur again took the chair. He quickly dismissed the idea of a strike, argued that the urgent need was to agree on what to say to the officer who came from air headquarters, and then introduced me (though not by name!) to present the committee’s programme.
It was a strange experience. As I looked down from the platform I could just make out vaguely at the back some tops of heads against the sky, and near the front some blobs that were faces. I was convinced that there were even more at this meeting than at Thursday’s. It might have been a stressful experience, but I was so confident that our programme was right that I felt no nervousness, and I explained in some detail our nine points. The men listened in silence, but the volume of applause at the end was a sufficient indication of their approval. Arthur put it to them in a formal way. Were we agreed about the nine points? There was a great shout of "Yes". His question, "Is there any dissent?" was met by absolute silence. We could go forward united.
At lunchtime next day the Station Warrant Officer came into the airmen’s mess to announce that Air Commodore Freebody had arrived from Delhi and would meet a delegation of twenty men at two o’clock. He then began to organise the delegation. Arthur and I were not there, but Ernie Margetts was. He and others protested, arguing that the men were quite capable of managing their own election of delegates. Arthur arrived at that point, soon grasped the situation and led the men off for an election meeting. Predictably, Arthur, Ernie and I were among the first to be elected.
The delegates then met and made only one decision - that we should repeat the pattern of the previous night’s meeting, with Arthur in the chair and myself as spokesman. With our nine-point programme we were ready for the Air Commodore.
Air Commodores are very superior people. An aircraftman could go for years without seeing one, and they seldom noticed "erks" (rank and file airmen) except to return an occasional salute. But Air Commodore Freebody turned out to be just the man for this particular job. He was on a mission of conciliation, and he did not bat an eyelid as Arthur told him that he, Leading Aircraftman Attwood, would chair the meeting and that LAC Duncan would be the spokesman.
I spoke to our points, one by one. After each point, the officer asked questions or made comments, and other members of the delegation then joined in to give support. It was quite an amicable meeting, and the Air Commodore eventually agreed to eight of our nine points. He could not agree that there should be no CO’s parades, but even here he made an important concession in accepting that best blue would not be required.
Eight-and-a-half wins out of nine was more than most of us had dared to hope for, and we left in jubilant mood. Another meeting was needed to report back to the men, and this was held in the mess. What happened to me at that point I cannot recall, but I was not at this meeting. Arthur and Ernie did the reporting back.
After this the atmosphere in the camp was transformed. We had won. Meals improved; overtime was reduced; there was no kit inspection or best blue parade to worry about; easy chairs had appeared; the worst of the tents were replaced by new ones; and we had the satisfaction of knowing that we had struck a blow for earlier demobilisation. There was a sense of camaraderie and solidarity. Arthur and I were the heroes of the hour. Men we did not know greeted us in the most friendly fashion. Quite a number came to us to seek advice on a surprising range of problems, domestic as well as service.
We still had much to do in following up the delegation. We had the letters to MPs and the petition to see to as well as keeping an eye on the administration. In fact, air headquarters and the CO kept their side of the bargain. They did arrange for Harold Davies, the Labour MP, who was in India at the time, to come to the camp and speak to a meeting of the men. The men were very civil, and there was no abuse or unpleasantness, but he must have been impressed by their obvious determination to have a faster rate of demobilisation.
Nor did the CO make any attempt to interfere with our political campaign. He did call a meeting of the whole camp and told us how serious had been our action. He made it clear that any repetition would be dealt with severely, but he repeated his earlier undertaking that there would be no punishments on this occasion.
I began to wonder about that when Arthur and I were the only two non-commissioned personnel to be called to give evidence at a court of inquiry into the affair; but we were asked only to explain what grievances had driven the men to take such extreme action, and we faced no leading questions about our own activities.
Meanwhile, we were busy with the campaign aimed at Westminster. Some of the men were happy to write to their MPs at great length, but for others it was hard work. Many had to be convinced that a few spelling errors did not matter, others that they could copy one of our draft letters if they found it difficult to put the issues in their own words, and some that there would be no victimisation. But we had a great deal of success, and I have seen an estimate that five hundred men sent letters.
I would not have thought the number to be quite that large, but it must have been approaching four hundred. There is no way of knowing exactly. But even a figure of three hundred would have been an outstanding achievement - more than some national campaigns can manage.
The other big job was the petition to the Prime Minister. I had already drafted this. The problem had been to find a form of words that had real political importance and yet would be acceptable to all the men. When I re-read it in a book some time ago, I had difficulty in recognising it. I had thought it much crisper and shorter. At the time, however, I was very proud of it, and it certainly captured the imagination of many of the men.
The petition read,
"We, the undersigned airmen of Drigh Road, India, are gravely 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 families and friends again.
"Why is this? 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 at home? We expect full employment from the Labour government we are proud to have helped elect.
"Is it because British policy in India and Indonesia requires large armed forces? If so, we demand a reversal of this policy.
"Is it because the government wishes to talk tough to other powers? We deplore such an attitude in 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.
"We have done the job we joined up to do and now we want to get back home, both for personal reasons and because we think that it is by work at home that we can best help Britain."
A number of men were very keen to help with the petition, but they wanted the job to be done in style. So instead of circulating scores of foolscap sheets for signature, someone produced a large roll so that the whole station could sign on the one paper. An airman with some skill in calligraphy copied the words of the petition so that it looked like a manuscript from some medieval monastery. And one of the workshops produced a box that would accommodate the roll and allow it be wound on for the next set of signatures.
This box was carried enthusiastically from barrack block to barrack block and from tent to tent, with everyone expected to sign. And they did. We had to go to some blocks a second and third time to catch those missing at first, and still there were individuals to be chased up. But eventually we reckoned that we had some twelve hundred signatures - everyone on the camp below the rank of sergeant, with one solitary exception, a corporal who refused to sign because of some obscure principle. We sent the Prime Minister advance notice by telegram and then posted the roll.
The petition was the lead story in the Daily Worker. "RAF Strikers Petition Mr Attlee" ran the banner headline across the top of the front page. The other papers ignored the petition at first, though a number mentioned it when the matter was raised in Parliament.
On 13 February Mr E Fletcher asked the Under Secretary of State for Air if he was aware of the dissatisfaction felt at the RAF station at Drigh Road and to what extent men were being held back from demobilisation in anticipation of trouble during the forthcoming elections in India. John Strachey dismissed the second point - "these men are certainly not being held back from demobilisation" - but agreed that "representations in the form of a petition to the Prime Minister" had been received and the "petition is now under consideration".5
- 1. See the blurb on the back cover of Kisch, The Days of the Good Soldiers. The date is a little too early. The Parliamentary Army’s famous Putney debates took place towards the end of 1647, and discussion among the rank and file no doubt continued for some time afterwards.
- 2. A Sked and C Cook, Post-War Britain, Second Edition, Penguin, 1984, pp. 17-18
- 3. Labour Party, Let Us Face the Future, 1945, p. 6.
- 4. Kisch, op. cit., p. 129.
- 5. Hansard, 13 February 1946.