5. Courts-martial

"Capitalist democracy in Britain has always been perfectly compatible with the harassment of activists and the prosecution and punishment of Communist and other such political nonconformists"- Ralph Miliband1

I
When Arthur left Drigh Road for Worli, the transit camp at Bombay, he was well aware that there could be trouble ahead. From the day that he was offered release he had been suspicious. He was an electrician with a good deal of experience in building, so it was not necessarily sinister that he was offered class B release, the scheme which provided earlier release for men with skills needed for postwar reconstruction. On the other hand, it could be just a ploy to get him away from his power base at Drigh Road. He talked it over with me. Should he go? We agreed that it would be pointless to refuse, because the authorities had other ways of removing him and, if he accepted, there was at least a chance that he would get back to Britain.

At first, things seemed to go quite smoothly. He arrived safely in Worli and bought presents for the family - undies for his wife, Violet, and toys for the children. Like the other men waiting for embarkation he was paid in British currency and, like the others, he paraded every two or three days to hear whether he would be among the next batch to embark. But three ships left without Arthur’s name being called.

When he made inquiries, he was told, "The matter is secret and we are not at liberty to disclose any more" and then, "You can forget about the boat". On 5 April he wrote to D N Pritt, but he was arrested on the tenth before his letter reached the MP. Immediately after his arrest he was transferred to Kalyan Detention Centre, a military establishment 50 miles from Bombay.

At Kalyan, Arthur was kept in solitary confinement with no light, day or night, except that coming from a high level barred window. The furniture was primitive, and his only companions were the rats. "These conditions," he wrote later, "were not conducive to preparing a defence; nor were they intended to be. Other prisoners on that section were under the same restrictions. To get a visit to the latrine/wash-house, you shouted for a guard, who escorted you there and locked the door, and then escorted you back".

Arthur was facing a charge of incitement to mutiny, for which the punishment could be death. Yet he was not allowed to receive any mail; his address book had been taken from him; he suspected that his outgoing mail was not being posted; he had no way of seeking witnesses in his defence, and no way of arranging any legal aid. He had no access to any books on law (or any other books, for that matter) and no indication of the evidence that would be produced against him.

Then, just 48 hours before his court martial was due to begin, Arthur was offered the services of a defending officer, a young Indian pilot officer - the lowest commissioned rank in the RAF - who seemed more fearful of the situation than was Arthur himself. This young man had some reason to be worried. He had had no training in law, knew nothing of the Drigh Road situation and had no opportunity of arranging any serious defence.

The prosecution had invested hundreds of man hours in building up their case, but an inexperienced defending officer - eight hundred miles away from Karachi, where any defence witnesses would have to be found - had two days in which to prepare a defence. And in court he would have to question and challenge - and perhaps even attack - officers who were a long way above him in rank and who might well be able to decide on his future promotion - or lack of it. The outlook for Arthur was grim.

He knew what was in store if he was sentenced to the "glasshouse". From his cell doorway he had watched naval prisoners being made to run round the big squares carrying kitbags in temperatures of 100ºF or more and often goaded and beaten until they dropped from exhaustion. And Arthur faced the possibility of ten years or more of such treatment. The position seemed hopeless.

Then came the first breakthrough. On 17 April D N Pritt asked two questions of the Under Secretary of State for Air. One was about the methods used by the SIB at Drigh Road, which no doubt prompted the SIB visit to me the following week. The second was about Arthur’s position. It was hardly coincidence that on the following day, the 18th, Arthur was at last allowed to receive my letter of the ninth, giving him the name and address of Mulla and Mulla, the solicitors I had arranged to defend him.

He promptly wrote three letters, one to Mulla and Mulla, the others to MPs Pritt and Driberg. But his mail was still being obstructed, and the letter to the solicitors - a matter of real urgency, since his adjourned court martial was due to start on the 24th - did not reach them until the 27th. Fortunately, the authorities, aware that they were being watched from Westminster, ordered a further adjournment of the trial, and Arthur was transferred back to Worli on the 26th.

In writing to Pritt, Arthur followed up my suggestion of asking him to act as his defence counsel. "Your arrival on the scene would be a terrific material and moral fillip to myself and the lads," he wrote. But his letter was again held back and did not reach Pritt until 3 May - two weeks after it had been written - and the trial had already begun.2

When Arthur arrived back in Worli, he asked that his Indian lawyers be allowed to visit him to prepare his defence. The CO attempted to dissuade him. Indian lawyers, the CO said, were seldom familiar with military law and "always put up the backs of the court". He would be better off having one of the nominated defence officers. But Arthur wisely rejected this advice. There was no reason to believe that any of the nominated officers had any legal training or any interest in his affairs.

The trial opened on 2 May in a building in Bombay. Arthur had to be brought from Worli under armed escort each day. Years later, Dennis Foster wrote to Arthur, "On arriving in Worli I was told to report to the provost-marshal, when a number of us were detailed to guard you... to march you to the court martial building morning and night and to and from the mess hall. I will never forget that we got a very rough reception as we marched along with all the troops booing and jeering us ... Through no fault of our own we were not the flavour of the month".3

Arthur was not allowed visitors. When Ernie Margetts first contacted the solicitors, however, he was told that they could arrange for him to see Arthur, who would have to come to the office for consultation. He would be brought under escort, but the guards could not be allowed to listen to the prisoner’s conversation with his legal advisers and would therefore have to leave the room. If Ernie came into the office by the rear entrance, he could get into the consulting room without the knowledge of the guards.

When Ernie made his visit, he arrived too early and had to hide behind a large cupboard when the guards brought Arthur in. The solicitor recommended that the guards go to a cafe across the road for a cup of tea, and they were happy to agree. Whether at the solicitor’s suggestion or their own, they left their rifles behind, neatly stacked in a corner of the room.4 So Attwood, the dangerous rebel who had to have an escort of six armed men to make the short journey from Worli to Bombay, was now left in a room with fellow-conspirator Margetts and six RAF rifles! Whether or not the guns were loaded, Air Headquarters might not have approved.

II
The court was made up of Group Captain P M Astley, the presiding officer, two wing commanders and two flight lieutenants. As was the usual practice with courts martial, none of these officers was a lawyer, but there was a judge advocate to give the court advice on legal matters, in this case, Squadron Leader A G Rubenstein.

After Arthur had pleaded not guilty to incitement to mutiny, the prosecution began their case with five witnesses to the Thursday meeting in the dark. One was Sergeant McLean, who had been duty sergeant on the night of 17 January but had failed to report the planned demonstration to his superior officer. Did the SIB make use of that fact and threaten him with a charge if he failed to help the prosecution?

The defence, however, maintained that McLean’s evidence should be discounted, because of its discrepancies. The whole prosecution case depended on what was said at the Thursday meeting, which lasted 30 to 40 minutes. How much of that meeting had McLean heard? In the words of the defence: "Although on his own showing he came in only when the chairman was repeating the resolution and putting it to the vote, he apparently heard all that had happened before that stage was ever reached". This was a crucial inconsistency, and not the only one.

LAC Kingman was also criticised by the defence, in this case for "willingness to embroider and exaggerate and give importance to himself". In cross-examination he cheerfully contradicted what he had said in his examination-in-chief and at one point told the court, "I am trying to put this in my own words to make it easy for you".

The other three witnesses - LACs Pittock, Cook, and Stead - told more credible stories, but often contradicted one another.

Question: Whereabouts in the crowd was the chairman of the meeting?

Kingman: centre of the crowd.

Pittock: on the edge of the crowd, on the far side.

Stead: near the centre.

Cook: the far edge of the crowd.

Question: When was the chairman’s voice first heard at the meeting?

Stead: He "started the meeting. He was the first speaker".

Pittock: "after about ten minutes".

Cook: after "twenty minutes to half an hour".

There were many more contradictions, but for a time these ceased to matter, because the witnesses were agreed on a very different issue.

The defence counsel was Sorab R D Vimadalal, and he was assisted by Mr N Mulla and Mr S Vakil. Starting from cold, knowing only what they had gathered from my letters, this team had only three days in which to find out about developments at Drigh Road, talk with Arthur, study the relevant military law, consider whether any witnesses could be called for the defence, and then prepare their case.

Their advice to Arthur was, of course, to plead not guilty. While cross-examining the witnesses, however, Vimadalal realised how strong was the evidence that the CO at Drigh Road had condoned any offence by indicating to the men that there would be no punishments in connection with the demonstration. He therefore sought and received the court’s permission to change Arthur’s plea to one of condonation.

The witnesses agreed that in addressing an assembly of the whole station the CO used words which meant that he proposed to take no action on this occasion, but the men must understand that there was no such thing as a strike in the RAF, only mutiny, and that any such action in future would be severely punished.

Three additional witnesses gave evidence on the subject of condonation. Flight Lieutenant Packham and Warrant Officer Sowden were reluctant to admit that the CO’s words amounted to condonation, but both agreed with the other witnesses about the gist of what had been said. And Flight Lieut Simpson, the station adjutant, was quite clear about the effects of the CO’s words. They gave the impression it "had all blown over", that things were "finished with" and "the whole matter had been forgiven by the CO". "I formed the impression," he added, "that nothing would happen. I had it until the SIB arrived".

In the event, the court found the plea of condonation had been proved, ordered Arthur’s release and referred their verdict to the confirming authority, Air Commodore E F Waring, Air Officer Commanding, 225 Group, Bangalore. It was marvellous news, and we were overjoyed. Ian Taylor was by now on his way back to Edinburgh, but Ernie, Arthur and I just had time for a celebratory meal in Bombay before Ernie embarked for Britain, I returned to Drigh Road and poor Arthur, suffering from dysentery, went into hospital.

A day or two after my return I had a letter from D N Pritt. "I have been greatly assisted," he wrote, "in all I have been doing with the Air Ministry and with Attwood’s friends over here by the excellent material with which you have kept me supplied, and am delighted to learn from the Press this morning that our combined efforts seem to have had a very successful result. Meanwhile, I have put down further questions about the delay in Attwood’s correspondence and have put the whole matter very fully to Strachey, mainly on the basis of your very good statement of evidence - without, of course, giving any of the names - and hope and trust that that particularly vicious form of activity will now have been firmly squashed. Strachey in conversation seemed extremely annoyed about it and I imagine he has taken pretty strong action; but that doesn’t mean that all the people engaged in it will at once cease their activities and you and your good friends will have to continue to be vigilant and keep in touch with us...

"I also heard of the splendid way in which his colleagues rallied to help Attwood financially at very short notice over his defence and it makes one very proud to be in touch with such people. Give my regards to Attwood and tell him that though I have not written much to him I have been in touch with his wife and friends all the time."5

III
Our joy was to be short-lived. The British establishment has many weapons and is not easily defeated. Air Commodore Waring simply refused to confirm the court’s verdict, and this refusal must have suggested to members of the court that what was expected of them was a verdict of guilty. In addition, the Air Commodore - quite improperly in the view of the defence - had a personal conversation with the President of the Court, and the President had to explain that, though he was not in possession of a re-assembly order, "I have been given verbal instructions by Air Commodore Waring to re-assemble the court as soon as possible".

When the court re-convened, defence counsel Vimadalal, outraged at the refusal to confirm, made an immediate protest. The court’s decision had been a verdict based on fact. Confirmation could not be granted or rejected on the will of the authority but had to be in accordance with the canons of law and consideration of proof. The conclusion that condonation had taken place was "irresistible". The presiding officer was clearly uneasy, and he made two astonishing decisions. The protest made by defence counsel could not be included in the official record, he said, because it meant "holding a pistol at the tribunal so that whatever decision it ultimately arrived at would in all probability be quashed higher up in view of the protest". And he also - quite illegally, it seems - instructed the Reuters representative and other reporters not to report the counsel’s protest.

Vimadalal, however, insisted that what was said in open court must be recorded, and a compromise was eventually reached. A note would be made in the record that the defence counsel appeared under protest and reserved the right to appeal against the order rejecting condonation, while the detailed protest would be sent to the higher authority under the signature of the President "as a separate annexture only".

Both Arthur and his lawyers noticed what seemed to them to be a vastly different atmosphere and attitude in the re-convened court. Previously, the court had appeared fair, impartial and open, with members listening carefully to what was said. Now, however, they seemed disinterested, and on several occasions the judge advocate even had to ask a member to pay attention to what was being said. This immediately suggested to the defence that the court already knew what verdict they were going to reach.

Most of the relevant evidence had already been heard before the condonation verdict, but the court still had much to hear, including Arthur’s statement, the final addresses from the two sides, and the summing-up by the judge advocate.

Attwood was not accused of being the chairman of a meeting or of taking part in a mutiny. The charge was that he incited others to mutiny. The prosecution therefore had to show that he was the chairman of the Thursday meeting and that the chairman had incited others. Both - not just one - had to be established beyond reasonable doubt.

Had the chairman incited others? Questioned by the defence and by the court, not a single witness could recall the chairman urging the men to disobey the CO’s orders. There was even doubt whether the chairman had even expressed himself in favour of the resolution. In the words of Vimadalal, "Apart from one stray sentence from LAC Kingman’s evidence, and this vague impression in the mind of Cook, there was not even a suggestion in the evidence regarding the chairman’s attitude"; and there was not only no evidence of urging, but the witnesses "categorically said" that there had been no urging from the chairman.

Was Attwood the chairman of the meeting? Five witnesses said that he was, but how did they know?

Defence counsel advised the court that eminent jurists were agreed that recognising a person by voice alone was a risky proceeding unless there was corroboration. He argued that the evidence of identification at most amounted to no more than a guess or suspicion that the voice of the chairman at the Thursday meeting was somewhat similar to Attwood’s.

Pittock and Stead even admitted that they had never heard Attwood’s voice before the Thursday meeting and claimed to identify it when they heard him speaking on later occasions. Vimadalal pointed out to the court, however, that the voice that anyone might use in conversation or with a microphone would be vastly different from the kind of voice that would have to be used in trying to control a meeting of hundreds of angry men, when the owner of the voice could not be seen and did not have the advantage of a rostrum or platform.

It seemed to be agreed that about forty men had spoken at the meeting, with six to ten of them saying more than a sentence or two. Had the witnesses recognised any other voices? None of the five had. So there must have been something very distinctive about Attwood’s voice. What could it be?

LAC Pittock "did not notice anything distinctive" and could not give the voice an accent. The other four agreed that the chairman had a deep voice, spoke deliberately and had a slight London accent. But Vimadalal suggested that a very large number of the men on the camp would have what could be described as a London accent, and many of them must have a deep voice. How did they know that this one was Attwood’s?

Could it be that they had been prompted and coached by the SIB? The fact that they used such similar terms to describe the chairman’s voice was in itself suspicious.

Pittock said, "Before I went to the SIB I did not know the name Attwood and the SIB gave me the name Attwood."

Question: Did the suggestion that it was LAC Attwood who spoke on this occasion first come from the SIB?

Pittock: Yes.

Question: How did the SIB try to convince you that Attwood was the chairman of the meeting?

Pittock: He kept mentioning the name Attwood throughout the interrogation.

Question: Did you get the impression that the SIB were deliberately trying to impress upon you that Attwood was the chairman?

Pittock: Yes.

Question: Did the SIB warrant officer give the particulars of Attwood’s voice?

Pittock: Well, I could not describe his voice, and the SIB warrant officer said, "Would it be a deep voice?" and I said, "Yes".

LAC Cook was also prompted by the SIB.

Question: Did the suggestion, that it was the accused who was the chairman, first come from the SIB?

Cook: It came from the SIB officer.

Under cross-examination all five lost some of their certainty that the voice was Attwood’s. Kingman, McLean and Cook all recognised the possibility of different persons having similar voices. Pittock and Stead, the two who had not heard Attwood’s voice before the Thursday meeting were also uncertain.

Question: Is it your case that from those two or three occasions when you heard the voice of the accused in daylight, you made a guess that it may have been the same as that of the chairman?

Stead: Yes.

Pittock: I heard a voice something the same as the one I heard at the meeting on the football pitch.

Question: When you were being examined by the prosecutor about the three different occasions on which you heard the voice, your answer was, "I thought it sounded the same". Are you able to be more definite about that or not?

Pittock: No, sir.

So Attwood’s voice was "something the same", it was "similar"; at a guess it may have been the same. Not very convincing.

Finally, the defence reminded the court of an important principle of British justice - that the evidence of an accomplice requires substantial independent corroboration and that the evidence of one accomplice cannot corroborate that of another. Yet the entire evidence against Attwood was in the nature of accomplice evidence.

Not surprisingly, the court’s legal expert, the judge advocate, gave a summing-up that seemed to favour the defendant. But there was no "not guilty" verdict. Arthur would have to stay in prison, though as yet he did not know for how long. The only other airman to be found guilty in connection with the events of January had been Norris Cymbalist, and he had been sentenced to ten years’ penal servitude. Arthur had no reason to expect less.

Soon after the verdict he was again in hospital, suffering from nervous exhaustion. No one could be surprised. It had been a rollercoaster ordeal, with despair giving way to hope, defeat to victory, and victory to defeat. Few men could have withstood the strain as well as he had. Now he had to wait for an announcement from the confirming authority to find out what his sentence would be.

Meanwhile, the angry defence team set out to prepare an appeal. They produced a 26-page document that was a devastating indictment of the confirming authority for rejecting condonation and of the court for bringing in a verdict which could not be justified by the evidence.6

Arthur’s fate, however, would not depend mainly on legal procedures in India. It was political action in London that would be decisive.

IV
RAF officers all over India adopted a conciliatory attitude throughout the January actions. But the RAF in India, though still part of SEAC (South East Asia Command), had a large measure of autonomy under Air Marshal Sir Roderick Carr. The two Singapore bases, Seletar and Kallang, however, were virtually next door to SEAC headquarters, where Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park was Air Officer Commanding. Park was a hard-liner. "It’s mutiny, whatever they call it," he barked,7 and he secretly instructed unit commanders to deal "most severely" with ringleaders.8

South East Asia Command anticipated later policy when a statement about Seletar said that "the vast majority of the airmen are loyal and hard-working, but a few strike promoters have shown that they are determined to stage sit down strikes as a means of bringing pressure to bear on the home government". It was an officer at Command headquarters who, in the course of briefing the Times correspondent, made a claim heard nowhere else. "The Commander-in-Chief," said the paper, "had attended a full parade of airmen to hear their grievances and answer questions. After this parade a proportion of the men returned to duty and some of them were subjected to violence after lights out by a few rowdies, who went so far as to beat up some of the loyal airmen". I have not found any sign of a public withdrawal of this statement, but Park was informing the Air Ministry a few days later that "the Base Commander Seletar is unable to obtain any evidence to support alleged threat of violence or beating up of airmen in barracks". The report of such beating up, Park thought, was probably put about by loyal airmen who had been "morally intimidated by a small number of experienced agitators"!9

As we have seen in connection with the Drigh Road affair, it was not easy to obtain evidence to sustain a charge of incitement to mutiny when strikers took their decisions in the dark, and an immediate long investigation would have risked provoking a further outbreak. So at Seletar the matter was left until the SIB arrived. By then, though, it was too late.

In making their report on Seletar, the SIB complained about the long delay between the strike and the start of the investigation. Because of the time lapse, they said, most of the key witnesses had left the station; the men had had time to enjoy the improvements brought by the strike and were therefore reluctant to name the leaders; and the men had an excuse for claiming that they could not remember important matters. Although the investigators conducted a number of interviews, they concluded that it was not worthwhile to take statements "as in the majority of cases, no concrete evidence or information could be offered which would have assisted in the assessment of the blame, and the persons responsible for the strike".

Despite this lack of evidence, the SIB were convinced that they knew who were the ringleaders, and they named two LACs, both of whom were said to have left-wing political views. One was described by his commanding officer as a "dyed in the wool Communist", while the other was said to have "extreme Socialist views, bordering, according to some sources, on Communism".

So it was suggested that "both Airmen be kept under strict observation during the future, as it is considered that, after the successful conclusion of the strike at Seletar, they will not hesitate to attempt a repetition of the strike, should the opportunity or need arise".10 If it could not even be established that these two led the Seletar strike, one has to ask on what basis the SIB could conclude that "they will not hesitate to attempt a repetition". Nevertheless, it was recommended that the two be kept "under strict observation".

At least there were no prosecutions at Seletar. It was different at Kallang. There was more animosity from some of the officers there, and the key meeting of the men took place with officers present. It was therefore relatively easy to put together a case against Norris Cymbalist without any drawn-out investigation. He had been arrested during the 10.30 meeting but then released in response to pressure from the men. Later, when he was expecting to be sent back to Britain, he was re-arrested in secret and within a week or two was facing a court-martial. This began on 21 February.

Cymbalist faced a charge of using "insubordinate language to a superior officer" as well as the charge of incitement to mutiny. On the insubordination issue there was no dispute about the words that the defendant had used at the meeting held at 10.30 p.m. Prosecution and defence agreed that, when addressing the men, he had referred to some of the officers as, "These gentlemen, these honourable gentlemen - at least the Air Force call them gentlemen". It seems a trivial issue to put before a court-martial when he was facing a possible death sentence for incitement. Yet the Defending Officer thought that it was these words which were the cause of Cymbalist’s arrest, and the prosecution pressed on with the charge.

The defence case was that the obscene language used by some of the officers meant that they were involved in a relationship with Cymbalist that was man-to-man rather than officer-to-airman, and Cymbalist’s comment had to be seen in that context. In view of the words that were used in some angry exchanges, this would seem to have been a sound defence, but it was rejected by the court.

On the incitement issue, Cymbalist faced what were three separate accusations:

that he "at Singapore on 27th January, 1946, endeavoured to persuade a crowd of airmen ... to join in a mutiny and to go on strike

  1. until six airmen who had been arrested by lawful air force authority had been released from custody;
  2. and to secure the release of the arrested airmen by force, and
  3. to support the airmen at R.A.F. Station, Seletar, who had already mutinied."

The defence had a good case in arguing that any offence had been condoned by the CO, Group Captain Ryley. When the Brigadier who was the Advocate General for Allied Land Forces, South East Asia, reported on the proceedings to Sir Keith Park, the confirming authority, he wrote, "Ryley agreed to address the men in the presence of the accused and there can be no doubt that the impression derived by his audience was that the matter was at an end so far as they were concerned". But the court rejected the condonation plea on the grounds that Ryley had not been in possession of all the relevant facts.

The prosecution represented Cymbalist as an agitator and ringleader, but a number of airmen and an officer gave evidence that, on the contrary, he was a spokesman, fairly expressing the views of the men. All three parts of the incitement charge depended on what was said at the 10.30 meeting but the uproar and confusion at that event meant that witnesses told very different stories. Sometimes they agreed that certain words had been used but not about which person had used them.

On the first part of the charge, much depended on a vote by show of hands which gave a large majority in favour. But what was the vote about? In his summing-up the judge advocate said, "The prosecution say it was for the purpose of telling those in favour of striking until the airmen were released. You will remember what the defence say about it. They say that upon someone in the crowd shouting out, ‘You are letting us down’, [an officer] turned to the accused and said, ‘You see, even the airmen don’t want you’. Whereupon the accused called for a show of hands to prove that the airmen still wished him to continue to act as their spokesman. There are the two sides. It is for you to find ... which in fact took place".

The prosecution evidence on the second and third parts of the incitement charge - the possible use of force to free the prisoners, and a strike in support of Seletar - was even more dubious, and the defending officer was scathing in his comments.

"It was painfully obvious," he said of one officer, "that he had learnt his piece off by heart, and in cross-examination all that could be got out of him was ‘I don’t know’, ‘I can’t remember’ Of what possible value is a witness like that?"

Another witness claimed to remember a number of points - two of crucial importance - that got no mention in his earlier summary of evidence. "Bearing in mind the other four points which he did not mention at the summary ... it is obvious that, since then, someone else has said something to him on the matter. He could not possibly have forgotten them all, if they were true."

About another witness, who had "wandered in and out of the crowd", the defending officer said sarcastically, "Each time he listened he said he heard the accused say something relevant to the charge, but he was conveniently absent when anything else was said."

Members of the court were under pressure. Had not Air Chief Marshal Park himself ordered that courts-martial must show "no leniency"?11 Even so, the court could not accept the evidence produced by the prosecution on the second and third parts of the incitement charge, and reference to Seletar and to the use of force were deleted from their final verdict. It made little difference to Cymbalist, though. He was still found guilty of incitement on the first part (in allegedly calling for a strike in defence of the arrested six); he was still found guilty of insubordinate language to a superior officer, though the judge advocate had stressed that improper language was not necessarily insubordinate. The savage sentence was ten years’ penal servitude and discharge with ignominy from His Majesty’s Service.12

Sir Keith Park was no doubt happy to confirm both the verdict and the sentence, but many others thought the sentence outrageous. John Strachey, the Under Secretary of State for Air, was appalled, and in advance of the Air Council’s review of the case he sent a memo to Air Chief Marshal Slessor, the Council’s Member for Personnel. "Ten years," he wrote, "is a disproportionate and indefensible sentence to impose in consideration of all the circumstances ... Such a sentence ought never to have been imposed ..."

Strachey said he was convinced of the injustice of the sentence, because of:

  1. the Judge Advocate General’s "forcibly expressed view" that "we carefully consider revision of the heavy sentence";
  2. "the undeniable fact of the at least partial condonation of the CO on the spot";
  3. but the main consideration, he said, was that "I am deeply impressed with the fact that the only criminal actions which it was proved Cymbalist committed were in no material respect different from actions which must have been committed by a comparatively large number of men at the various stations affected".

Strachey was especially worried about the possibility of ten years being seen as a standard for the other impending courts-martial. He was not against severity, he told Slessor, but one year’s penal servitude was a severe sentence. Slessor or other members of the Air Council must have been considering a reduction of Cymbalist’s sentence to seven years, but Strachey argued that the sentence would have to be "reduced to something more like two repeat two than seven repeat seven years".13

But the Air Council, sharing a single copy of the court-martial proceedings - and a defective copy at that14 - would only halve the sentence. Cymbalist, they decided on 22 May, 1946, would have to do five years’ penal servitude, whatever Strachey might think.

V
Most station and unit commanders did not want to have a visit from the SIB. Such investigations could be expected to introduce a climate of resentment and mistrust, especially if the men had been promised "no victimisation". As Air Chief Marshall Park told the Court of Inquiry, "There is a reluctance on the part of many commanding officers to call in the S.I.B. They say quite openly that they do not want S.I.B. people on their station. This is an entirely erroneous and unfair attitude". So Park wanted the Air Ministry to intervene - "an instruction from a higher level would be helpful".15

In fact, the decision to seek out and punish ringleaders was taken at top level, following the Court of Inquiry. The Special Investigation Branch made investigations at a number of units, but seemed to give special attention to Drigh Road and Cawnpore. Drigh Road, of course, was suspect as the station which had made the first move, and while the strike there had lasted only one morning, the follow-up activities indicated a leadership that was politically aware. And at Cawnpore, the largest RAF station in India, the strike leadership had been well-organised and extremely thorough.

There was no shortage of candidates for prosecution. In India, Air Marshal Carr reported to the Air Ministry, "There are now at least eight certain cases and 45 probable cases against R.A.F. airmen" and arrangements were being made for "concentration and mass arrests".16 In Malaya five men were "retained in view of their possible trial on charges under the Air Force Act".17 Yet in the end there were no proceedings against the great majority of suspects. Out of 50,000 strikers only six eventually faced charges arising from the "incidents".

A major factor in the choice of victims seems to have been their political affiliations. Four of them - Attwood, Cymbalist, and two Cawnpore men, Stone and Noble - who were charged with the most serious offence of incitement to mutiny, were all Communists.18

The SIB explained the lack of arrests in India on the grounds that there had been "condonation of all offences in connection with the mutinies at all units investigated". They were quite explicit that "there was condonation at Mauripur, Dum Dum, Poona and Vozagapatam and therefore no disciplinary action could be taken at those four places".19 Yet condonation - a well-established fact at both Drigh Road and Cawnpore - was not allowed to interfere with proceedings against Attwood, Stone and Noble. The decisions to proceed in their cases - which seem to have been taken by a higher authority than the SIB - suggest that the intention was to show that the strikes were not a spontaneous protest of many thousands of men but a Communist conspiracy.

Corporal Jimmy Stone had been chairman of the strike committee at Cawnpore. Like Attwood, he had been allowed to go to Bombay for repatriation but was kept there for weeks. LAC Mick Noble, who had been publicity officer for the strike committee, had applied for repatriation on compassionate grounds. Instructed to proceed to Bombay, he was arrested there and charged on 6 May with incitement to mutiny.

Stone was brought in the next day, having been arrested when actually boarding the ship he had expected to take him home. He and Noble were both imprisoned at Worli and found that Attwood was in a nearby cell. Officially the three were not allowed to converse, but they found ways of doing so and sustained one another by passing on news from home, especially news about the campaign for their release. The fate of Stone and Noble was clearly bound up with that of Attwood. If he was sentenced, there could be little hope for them.

  • 1. R Miliband, Capitalist Democracy in Britain, OUP, 1984, p. 112.
  • 2. The authorities, of course, insisted that there had been no improper interference with Attwood’s incoming mail. Indeed, he had been given specially favourable treatment! "I can assure the House," said de Freitas, the new Under Secretary of State, "that no incoming correspondence was withheld from him. In fact, because of the serious nature of the charge and because he was away from his parent unit, special steps were taken to see that letters did not go astray, and the station adjutant at Worli, the transit camp, was instructed to collect all L.A.C. Attwood’s mail for special delivery to him". Perhaps the adjutant could not read my writing! "There was delay in his outgoing mail," admitted the Under Secretary, "which was due to the fact that the detention cell was under Army control and that the Army N.C.O. in charge did not know the R.A.F. regulations. He therefore referred the matter to his superiors and they referred it to the Air Force authorities, and the Air Force, of course, gave approval for him to send letters, but a regrettable delay of some days had occurred". (Hansard, 19 June 1946). This is nonsense, of course; and does it imply that, had Attwood been a soldier, it would have quite in order to hold back his mail?

    His mail, both incoming and outgoing, was not only delayed. It was also opened and copied. My letters to him, his to Pritt, even a brief note from Tom Driberg MP, were all copied and retained by the SIB, as was my telegram of 8 April, though it never reached Arthur. (PRO AIR 20/11516)

  • 3. Letter in the Attwood Collection.
  • 4. E Margetts in interview with the author.
  • 5. Letter in the Attwood Collection.
  • 6. Court-martial details are from legal papers in the Attwood Collection.
  • 7. News Chronicle, quoted in Kisch, op. cit., p. 128.
  • 8. PRO AIR 23/1986
  • 9. The Times, 29 January 1946, and PRO AIR 23/2314
  • 10. PRO AIR 20/9245
  • 11. PRO AIR 23/1986
  • 12. PRO AIR 18/30/5498
  • 13. PRO AIR 19/441
  • 14. For Cymbalist’s quite lengthy cross-examination, the official account of the proceedings omits the questions and provides only the answers. When various authorities were considering Cymbalist’s appeal, what did they make of answers like, "I am suggesting that I did not", "I may have said that at the first meeting" and "I am not a clairvoyant, I cannot say" when there was no indication whatever of what the questions were?
  • 15. PRO AIR 23/2315
  • 16. PRO AIR 23/2313
  • 17. Hansard, 18 June 1946.
  • 18. The other two men were probably charged with less serious offences. One was sentenced to 90 days’ detention, the other may have been released at the same time as Stone and Noble. See Hansard for the statement by de Freitas on 5 June 1946.
  • 19. PRO AIR 20/11516