"Only in 1946 did a series of mutinies have the effect of galvanising the British government. The first of these incidents, involving RAF servicemen enraged by delays in demobilisation and repatriation, was, in a sense, the most shocking. But units of the Indian Air Force were the next to mutiny, and much worse was to follow". - Denis Judd1
The circumstances which led the men of Drigh Road to take action were matched elsewhere, and news travelled fast from one station to another - by teleprinter, telephone and radio. So the Drigh Road affair acted as a trigger to release mass activity at one RAF station after another.
From the Middle East to Singapore the rank and file of the service took action. In a speech to the House of Commons on 29 January, Prime Minister Attlee said that "incidents" had occurred at twelve RAF stations, but the Air Ministry later put the figure at 22 stations. The number of units, as distinct from stations, was much higher. According to a "Secret History" programme broadcast on Channel 4 in 1996, there were strikes at more than 60 units, with more than fifty thousand men involved. These "incidents", some lasting only a few hours, others up to four days, all took place within eleven days of the initial protest at Drigh Road. It was the "biggest single act of mass defiance in the history of the British armed forces".2
The strikes had two things in common. The main demand of those taking part - whatever local grievances they also drew attention to - was for faster demobilisation. And nowhere was there any suggestion of violence against the officers. These were not riots. However spontaneous, they were disciplined demonstrations by men determined to emphasise to the British government their justified desire for an early return home.
Mauripur, not many miles from Drigh Road, was the first station to respond to the news of our action. Meeting on the day of our visit from the Air Commodore, the Mauripur men put the slow rate of demobilisation at the head of their list of grievances and decided on a stay-in strike, though they kept the essential medical and canteen services running.
The men were addressed the following day by the Inspector-General of the RAF, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Barratt, who was on a welfare inspection tour. He answered many questions about demobilisation and repatriation, but the men were not satisfied and demanded that parliamentary representatives should visit them, so that they could impress upon the MPs the strength of their feelings about demobilisation. The Inspector-General then appealed to the men to return to work forthwith, but they refused and continued the strike for four days.3
The action in Ceylon began on 23rd January with the men of No. 32 Staging Post at Negombo, who refused to service aircraft after hearing of the "sit down" strike at Mauripur. The men complained about poor administration and lack of facilities for sport and entertainment, but their main grievance was the slow rate of demobilisation. The action spread to the rest of the Negombo station, including the Communications and Meteorological flights, and then to other Ceylon stations - Koggala, Ratmalana and Colombo. The BBC is said to have been the villain here. "It was apparent," said a SEAC (South East Asia Command) report later, "that broadcasts made by the B.B.C. on January 24th and 25th were largely responsible for bringing out units where feelings were still in the balance. These broadcasts, for some reason, largely destroyed the good work which had been done by Commanding Officers and Unit Commanders in dealing with their men".4
Cawnpore, with some five thousand personnel, was the largest RAF station in India. There were the usual complaints about food and living conditions, in addition to the major issue of demobilisation, and a special grievance at this station was what the men thought was the abuse of Class B release. In whatever country they were serving, most men were released under a scheme (Class A) which allocated airmen to groups according to their age and length of service. Each man knew to which group he belonged (Group 20, say, or Group 35) and knew that the groups would be released in turn. Certain men, however, could obtain earlier release (Class B) if they had particular skills needed in post-war reconstruction, especially in the building industry. One can imagine the resentment when it was being said at Cawnpore that in the previous few weeks a ballet dancer, a bell-ringer and a theological student, as well as a bricklayer’s labourer and a plumber’s mate, were all "getting out" under this "help in reconstruction" scheme.5
Before the Cawnpore men had decided on strike action, the station was visited by Air Marshal Sir Roderick Carr, head of the RAF in India. LAC Mick Noble, who became the official spokesman for the strike committee, wrote later, "We placed our grievances before him but received no satisfaction. He made it clear that he had ...(come) ...from Delhi to prevent us from taking strike action. A strike committee had been formed late Friday night ...and the men were later informed about the unanimous decision to strike and fully endorsed the action. The strike ... lasted over a period of four days.
"The strike committee conducted the administration of the unit and men paid no heed to the officers’ appeals for them to return to work. All the orders which came from the committee were fully endorsed and carried out by the men. Men working in the essential services were instructed to continue. Prohibition (i.e., no alcoholic drinks) was introduced for the period of the strike."
"A daily bulletin," continued LAC Noble, "was published, which outlined the discussions and the decisions taken at the strike committee meetings. The men were kept continually informed by numerous meetings. Each decision of the strike committee was taken to the men for support during the entire period of the strike."6
LAC Harry Darby, one of those involved at Cawnpore, later wrote, "I think we were out for four or five days altogether, with the officers wandering round the billets talking to us all in little groups and asking questions, etc." And he added, virtuously, "Four of us in my billet played bridge day and night for the whole of the time we were out, and not a penny was gambled on any game."7
At Seletar, Singapore, more than four thousand men were involved in the strike. It began with a meeting in the canteen, which was filled to capacity, on the evening of 26 January. After the lights had been put out, a chairman - who was addressed throughout the meeting as "Mr Speaker" - stood on a table and checked that all Seletar units were represented. There was also at least one representative from Kallang, the smaller Singapore base.8
Next morning the men were addressed by the CO, Group Captain Francis, but they were dissatisfied with his response and demanded a meeting with Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, the Air Officer Commanding, South East Asia Command, who was based nearby. He arrived in the afternoon, spoke to the men and, after answering questions on release and repatriation, promised to report to London the strength of their feelings. "Moreover," said the official report, "he gave facts and figures to prove that the R.A.F. had not been treated unfairly by comparison with the Army or even the Navy".9 But the men did not believe his "facts and figures" and began to walk out in disgust before he had concluded the meeting.
During the strike the Seletar men passed a number of resolutions, agreeing among other things that there must be no violence and no picketing, and that Air Sea Rescue would carry out normal duties.10 A statement of grievances was adopted, including complaints about the wretched food and the lack of facilities for recreation, but making it clear that demobilisation was the key issue. The emphasis here was a little different, with the statement saying, "We have nothing against the Labour government. This is not a political strike. Our quarrel is with the higher-ups responsible for the delays and discrimination in repatriation and demobilisation".
Essential services were maintained throughout the strike, but Kisch notes that "aircraft arriving at the landing strip were unable to take off again as refuelling facilities were not available. In the camp discipline was preserved, officers were treated respectfully, saluting was punctilious".11 Delegates were sent from Seletar to Kallang, the smaller Singapore base, to call on the men there to join the strike. Sir Keith Park also rushed to the base, hoping to head off any action there.
The men of Kallang met at 6.30 p.m. on the Sunday (27 January) to consider their response to what Sir Keith had said to their representatives that afternoon. There seems to have been a large majority in favour of a strike and a decision to take immediate action would probably have been taken but for the intervention of Aircraftman Norris Cymbalist. Cymbalist told the men that before they could go on strike there were some things they had to be certain of. They had to be sure that they could keep essential services running, in order to avoid hardship and loss of life; they had to command the support of the whole unit; they had to be clear what they wanted from the strike; and they had to be sure there was no other way of obtaining redress for their grievances.
The men listened to the AC in respectful silence, agreed at once to adopt his suggestion of a committee and promptly elected Cymbalist himself to be its chairman. This committee set about organising a further meeting of the men at 10.30 that night to decide whether to have a 48-hour strike. There was nothing secret about this. Cymbalist and others called at the sergeants’ mess to invite them to attend, and they went out of their way to inform several of the officers that the meeting was taking place.
The tension that had been developing during the evening was heightened further when it was learned that six men, including some members of the committee, had been arrested for incitement. It did not help that several officers, including some who were not stationed at Kallang, were present at the meeting. It was a noisy gathering. The earlier calls for a strike were repeated. Men demanded the release of their arrested colleagues. There was a great deal of shouting, often several people calling out at once. Some of the officers had a great deal to say and, amid all the hubbub, one of them was involved in an altercation with Cymbalist and ordered the arrest of the AC.
There was strong feeling about the arrest of Cymbalist and the other six; the atmosphere remained tense; and after midnight the CO, Group Captain C Ryley, agreed to meet some of the men. There is no record of who said what at this meeting, but, in effect, a deal was struck, though I am sure that the CO would reject the word "deal". However it came about, the men agreed not to strike and the CO agreed to release the seven prisoners, though this was "without prejudice to re-arrest and disciplinary action".
At 08.45 next morning, the Group Captain reported, 100 per cent of the men "returned to duty", which suggests that some of them might have taken their own strike action the day before. But there was no mass abstention from duties, and the CO wrote to Park, "I think the men have behaved extremely well in face of highly skilled Communist propaganda. You might care, if you have a moment, to send them a ‘bouquet’ which I can publish in S.R.O.s [Station Routine Orders]. I feel they have deserved this."12
At Dum Dum, the aerodrome near Calcutta, twelve hundred men went on strike. The Times reported, "They have no complaints against the authorities at the camp, with whom they are on the best of terms. The commanding officer had a friendly discussion with them when notice of strike was given. Yesterday a delegation of the strikers had a talk with Air Commodore Battle, Group Captain Slee, who commands the station, and with Major Wyatt, of the Parliamentary delegation visiting India, who had communicated with the Air Ministry."13
Mr C Miller, of Wigan, wrote recently, "I was one of the strikers at the Dum Dum airstrip at Calcutta and one of the main ‘beefs’ which we had ... was the fact that the large liners such as the ‘Queen Mary’ were being used to ship GI brides back to the United States. Yet the Air Ministry persisted in telling us that they couldn’t bring us back because of shortage of shipping!!! They even had the nerve to add that the water outside Bombay Harbour was not deep enough for large liners, and men would have to be conveyed out to them by tender! Needless to say, we said we did not mind one bit being thus tendered out!"
Mr Miller kept a diary during the strike, and he noted:
January 25th: Strike meeting in hangar. "Groupy" (Group Captain Slee) present, tries to answer demob, etc., but frankly admits sympathy with our cause. "Would strike himself if he was an airman". We hear quite a good statement (a "taffy"). Resolution to strike carried amidst enthusiastic roars. Starts from midnight tonight. Exceptions to striking are cooks, markers and station wagon drivers!
January 26th: On strike! Meeting called for 12 p.m. Grievances put to Woodrow Wyatt, member of delegation touring India ...He attempts to answer them, but has to admit to several of our points. "Groupy" and an Air Commodore also present. He reads out two signals from higher up, which more or less are on the consequences of striking. This doesn’t improve matters. Now comes a split within our own ranks. I line up with the minority in favour of giving government seven days deadline during which we resume work, failing which we resume strike. Majority favour continuing strike until a reasonable reply is received from Air Ministry.
January 27th: Another meeting. Written vote taken on issue, "deadline" or "strike"... Meanwhile, signals from Ministry show that "Groupy" is in it up to the neck and will have to take disciplinary action if strike is not broken!
10 a.m. Further meeting. "Taffy" will no longer lead the "strikers" on such a small majority. Groupy opens the meeting by an appeal for a return to work, having received more signals stating that action will have to be taken, etc. He then leaves... Eventually, majority favour a "deadline" of 14 days. Groupy is recalled and thanks us in a heartfelt manner. Work resumes from 6 p.m.
"There were subsequent reactions," Mr Miller wrote, "but fortunately we had an understanding that there would be no victimisation. This understanding proved to be invaluable in some cases."14
The men at Allahabad answered a call to meet in the camp canteen at night. The lights were put out and someone stood on a table and, speaking with a pencil in his mouth to disguise his voice, proposed that they should begin a strike the next day. Next morning, marshalled by their corporals, the men marched to the parade ground and then to the camp cinema. There they elected Bernard Shilling to present their case to the senior officers.15
Ex-LAC Des Streatfield, of South-West London, remembers events at the Racecourse Camp at Delhi. There was a meeting in the cinema "when we were addressed by Air Marshal Sir Rodney Carr ... Our camp station warrant officer came on to the stage, made it known that mutiny was a shooting offence but for the time being we would still be fed and housed. He then came out with this request: would we all please stand up when the air marshal took the stage!"16
Burma was also involved. Men of the No. 194 (Transport) Squadron, stationed in Rangoon, came out on the 29th. They complained about living conditions and the quality of the food as well as the rate of demobilisation, but what triggered the strike was an order for a daily working parade. Having made their protest, they returned to work the next day, but Air Marshal Sir Hugh Saunders, in charge at Air Headquarters, Burma, felt that the situation was still tense and was anxious to avoid further provocation.17
The Times also reported briefly on strikes at Almaza and Lydda in the Middle East, and at Poona and Vizagapatam in India. In general, however, considering the scale and importance of the strikes, they were not well reported in the British press. Much of what did appear was based on official handouts, with nothing from the strikers themselves and no serious assessment of the grievances. There was more comment than fact, and there were also, of course, some more fanciful stories. The Daily Mail’s Special Correspondent in Cairo, for example, reported that the source of the RAF strikes was a "well-laid plot". RAF security and intelligence officers, he claimed, thought that the strikes "were organised over a period of weeks either by airmen-agitators, who contacted each other in code, using the RAF wireless system, or by airmen travelling between stations".18
That raises some interesting questions. Who could have installed airmen-agitators in the signals sections of more than 60 units? Or which high-ranking officer could have sent, within a few days, airmen travelling from Egypt to India, from Ceylon to Singapore, with orders to the local agitators at all those units, "Have a mutiny on your station tomorrow". The mind boggles.
These strikes were largely successful in meeting their objectives. On most of the affected camps the food improved, as did various aspects of the living conditions. Most importantly, there was also a speeding up in the rate of demobilisation, and within the next few months an extra 100,000 RAF men were released. Early in February a statement on RAF demobilisation covered five months instead of the usual three. Between February and June, groups 27 to 35 would be released.19 And on 1 March came the announcement of a further speed-up. Group 35 would now be demobilised by the end of May
John Strachey, the Under Secretary of State for Air, was worried that the speeding up would be seen as giving way to the strikers. On 1 March he was writing that the first announcement had been "looked on by some people as a concession to the men" and "I fear that this announcement of a further speed-up will be looked on in the same way". But there was worry, both in Britain and overseas, about the possibility of further outbreaks, so there had to be positive news for the men.
The strikes had other far-reaching effects. Accusations appeared in the British press that the strikers were weakening Foreign Secretary Bevin’s hand at the United Nations; and there were important consequences for India. First, men of the Indian Air Force, who had grievances of their own, followed the example of their British colleagues. There were strikes at a large number of stations, including Cawnpore, Bombay, Allahabad and Jodhpur. At Drigh Road the Indian airmen had a short hunger strike. Again, the men were orderly and there was no violence.
The Royal Indian Navy followed. Three thousand ratings mutinied in Bombay, the principal naval base, and many of them carried the flags of the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League when they demonstrated in the city.
When some of the ratings ashore were involved in skirmishes with soldiers, the mutineers on board the ships in the harbour trained their guns on the city and threatened a bombardment. Lieut-General R M M Lockhart, GOC, Southern Command, assumed command of all navy, army and RAF forces, with instructions to restore order as quickly as possible. The RAF was ordered to prepare to sink the ships in the hands of the mutineers. The men surrendered, however, mainly in response to appeals from leaders of the Indian National Congress. There followed four days of riots in the city, and there were hundreds of casualties. Further naval mutinies occurred at Calcutta, Madras and Karachi. There was considerable loss of life at Karachi, where the army commander ordered the use of artillery against the mutineers.20
The Viceroy of India, General Wavell, held the RAF men guilty. Referring to the naval mutinies, he wrote, "I am afraid that the example of the Royal Air Force, who got away with what was really mutiny, has some responsibility for the present situation".
I once jokingly told a meeting of Indian students that the real heroes of the struggle for independence were the men of Drigh Road. We had, I claimed, triggered off a wave of strikes in the RAF, the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy, and the critical moment for independence came when the naval mutineers turned their guns on Bombay. The claim in that form was absurd, of course, yet it did contain perhaps a tiny grain of truth.
Many historians have presented the transfer of power in India as part of a grand British scheme to grant independence to the nations of the Empire. It was not like that. At the beginning of 1946 the future of India was still uncertain. Informed British opinion, shared by Prime Minister Attlee, was that, in the new post-war situation, Britain would not be able to hold on to India against the wishes of its people. So major concessions would have to be made. But would these concessions go as far as real independence? Could they be carried through against the opposition of those, like Winston Churchill and Ernest Bevin, who were blind to the new realities? And would the changes come at once, or would they be delayed for years on the grounds that the Indian leaders could not agree with one another on the shape of the new constitution?
The strikes of early 1946 made it clear that the British government had no choice. If the Indian forces were discontented, with many sympathetic to nationalism; if British forces recruited to fight Nazi Germany could not be relied upon to support the government’s peacetime objectives, how could British control be maintained?
Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton summed it up in his diary: "If you are in a place where you are not wanted and where you have not got the force to squash those who don’t want you, the only thing to do is to come out". By the summer of 1947 the British were out.
- 1. D Judd, Empire, Fontana, 1996, p. 335.
- 2. Laurel Programme
- 3. PRO AIR 20/9244
- 4. PRO AIR 23/1986
- 5. Kisch, op. cit., p.133, quoting LAC Noble.
- 6. Statement by LAC Noble, quoted in Kisch, op. cit., p. 135.
- 7. Letter in the Attwood Collection.
- 8. PRO AIR 20/9245
- 9. PRO AIR 23/1986
- 10. PRO AIR 20/9245
- 11. Kisch, op. cit., p. 142.
- 12. PRO AIR 23/2314
- 13. The Times, 28 January 1946
- 14. Letter in the Attwood Collection.
- 15. Laurel Programme
- 16. Letter in Attwood Collection.
- 17. PRO AIR 23/1986
- 18. Quoted in The Statesman, Delhi, 27 January 1946.
- 19. The Times, 12 February 1946.
- 20. Edwardes. op. cit., pp. 112-3.