7 Sunday, 13 September 1931

Every mutiny ever experienced by the British Navy has one element in common with all the others, and that is the two versions of it that a really determined chronicler would find to exist. One is the official version, which is generally accepted by the historians on the grounds that it is supported by records. The other is the unofficial version, not recorded in any archive but conveyed down the trail of history by word of mouth and usually discarded by historians as `hearsay` - a convenient word for the disposal of unwanted truths.

The Invergordon mutiny is no exception. It differs however from the usual run of Royal Naval mutinies in that many of the principal participants are still alive, and therefore in a position to vouch for or deny any claim made about it. The extraordinary thing is that the authors of the books and articles about this world-shattering incident have never bothered to interview the lower deck men most concerned with the affair, and when the supposed utterance of one of these people has been quoted it is always prefaced with those words of mistrust `he claims`. For some reason official records are never treated with such scepticism, although official records may well have things to hide.

The real significance of the Invergordon story is simple enough to be put in two short sentences. The day the Atlantic Fleet assembled at Invergordon (Friday, 11 September 1931), mutiny was as far from any man’s mind as the idea of flying to the moon on a bat’s back. But within two days the whole Fleet was ready to mutiny – or to stop work. It makes no difference what one calls it, it amounted to the same thing. In those two sentences lies the whole truth about Invergordon as I mean to tell it, but before plunging into this intriguing narrative, it is necessary to recall some features of previous mutinies affecting the Royal Navy.

Every writer of the Invergordon story has, each in his own way, gone hunting for analogies, lifting minor incidents from some mutiny or other of the past that bears a similarity to the events of 1931, trying to forge an historical sequence which Invergordon never possessed. There may be method in this madness. Going back several hundred years to previous mutinies is only a writer’s trick to spin out a hundred-page story of five hundred pages, and thereby assure a reasonable pay off. But the comparison with earlier mutinies is in fact necessary because it shows that in all the long history of the Navy there was no precedent to Invergordon.

To begin with, its outstanding feature was its spontaneity. Previous mutinies, whether affecting a single unit or a fleet, passed through an incubation period. It took time for the irritations, grumblings and mutterings to ripen into a fester ready to burst. There was no incubation period for Invergordon. It was launched fully matured by the posting of an Admiralty Fleet Order on the ships’ noticeboards on the morning of Sunday, 13 September.

Secondly it was not a response to ill-treatment. Those who have read all that I have written in the first part of this book will have noticed no complaints of ill-treatment, bad food, or any of the factors which led to earlier revolts. They will also have noticed that I, as an individual, had certain ambitions which only complete acceptance of naval rules and regulations, petty or important, could realise. In all my criticism of Navy procedure, of training, of individual officers, there has been no call for change by insubordination or violent means.

In fact the men of the British Navy were completely satisfied with their lot. Except for the American navy, no navy in the world served under such favourable conditions as we did. Not only had floggings been abolished long before, but no officer dared raise his hand to a lower deck man or, perhaps more surprisingly, dared use strong language to him. In normal circumstances an officer prefaced an order with the words `will you`. In my travels I have met members of other armed forces who consider me a victim of my own imagination when I say that British naval officers were forbidden to beat the men. Especially incredulous was a former officer of the old Rumanian army, who simply stated that no armed force could exist without this method of summary punishment. But brutality in the Royal Navy was unknown. The food was good, the days of maggoty biscuits and meat, of scurvy from lack of vegetables, were a horror story of years before. Nobody can deny that the pay was comfortable and came regularly, and a single man, if he was economical, could make a little saving for the future. In home waters leave was granted three times a year two weeks at a time. Some armed forces I have known give no leave during the whole period of service.

Given the conditions we enjoyed, there was, on the face of it, no reason to expect a refusal of duty. The Navy was, at least for the majority of the men, a career which they could make something out of or not according to their abilities and desires. They had no major complaints about anything. Even the presence of a number of post-1925 recruits on the new pay scales had not troubled them, as, up to then, these lowly-paid ratings had not been recognised as a possible danger.

A third factor which distinguishes Invergordon from the past is the roles played by the Admiralty and the officers of the Fleet. In earlier conflicts the mutineers violently opposed their immediate officers who, to protect themselves from assault, were quick to use all the means of suppression at their disposal, whereas the Admiralty, not blamed by the men for the injustices inflicted on them, were the uninvolved body to whom appeal could be made for the righting of wrongs and the restoration of peace. At the time of the Spithead mutiny in 1797 the Admiralty enhanced their reputation as an impartial negotiating body by travelling down to Portsmouth on the slow, uncomfortable stagecoach. And even if their trip brought the sailors’ leaders to the end of a line on the yardarm1, they did improve certain conditions against which the men had revolted.

Right up to the eve of Invergordon the Admiralty was an unknown quantity to us, out of sight and out of mind, a body of honoured gentlemen but nevertheless a figurehead whose interreference was not required in the problems of the lower deck, better settled on the basis of the comparatively good harmony between officers and men. When the shock came on Sunday, 13 September, there was absolutely no animosity towards any officer in the Fleet, not even to those whose attitude had earned them an unsavoury reputation. It was the Board of Admiralty who were unmasked as the dyed-in-the-wool villains of the piece. It was their callous disregard of the sufferings they were imposing on men tied to them by a one-sided contract, and on the men’s families, that triggered off the reaction no one had dreamed of. For the first time a mutiny was seen by the lower deck as a direct challenge to the Admiralty.

In essence the Invergordon mutiny was nothing more nor less than a pay dispute. It was caused by the Admiralty’s announcement that sailors’ wages were to be cut by a quarter. It lasted from 6 am on Tuesday, 15 September, till 6 pm on Wednesday, 16 September. It involved some thousands of men, not, as a recent Sunday supplement declared, `a handful of ratings and petty officers`. And it succeeded in having the cuts reviewed and finally more than halved.

Not long before the pipe-down on the night of the Saturday, 12 September, a group of four seamen, among whom I was one, were standing on the upper deck of the Norfolk, anchored, along with most of the Atlantic Fleet, in Cromarty Firth, on the eastern coast of the Scottish Highlands. As we were chatting there, Commander Dunne, our executive officer, came up to us and invited us to come aft to listen to a statement on the radio which we might be interested in hearing. At that time radio sets were allowed only in the wardroom and invitations to the wardroom for any purpose were unknown. If ever we entered its door it was only to dash in to deliver a message and dash out twice as quickly. Not that we hankered to be let in – there were those amongst the officers who might have fancied emulating a certain stupid peer celebrated for kicking a Labour leader down the stairs of White’s. in our view the less we fraternised the better. So we all declined Commander Dunne’s offer. He did not press the point, nor did he advance another few steps forward where the rest of the men were gathered and make his invitation general. Instead he left us and we four went on to the mess deck where we turned in without another word being said about the invitation or why it should have been given. Nothing was further from our minds than mutiny.

As I went to breakfast next morning, Sunday the 13th, I saw a group of men gathered round the noticeboard. There for all to see was the Admiralty Fleet Order announcing that from 1 October 1931 our pay was to be cut by twenty-five per cent.

There were no threats, no scenes of any kind. Everything and everybody was perfectly quiet. The men’s reaction was one of complete shock. So near to impossible seemed the enormity of the reduction and so unexpected was it that everybody could only keep repeating the one word `Why`?

I read the order a second time. Clearly it was to let us know what was in store for us that Commander Dunne had issued his unprecedented invitation. But it struck me that this complicated document of sixteen printed pages, covering not only current wages but also future pensions, and detailed to the last farthing, could not have been prepared, printed and delivered to the ships at Invergordon between the government’s announcement of proposed Service cuts the previous evening and this moment, when we stood in front of the noticeboard. It was obvious to me, and I suppose to others, that an order which should have been made public days or even weeks before had been deliberately delayed and we, who were to bear the brunt of its proposals, had been deliberately kept completely in the dark.

When the men’s first emotion of worry for their families gave way to sober consideration, it became clear that the callous disregard for them, their standard of living and the security of their wives and children originated in the Board of Admiralty. Furthermore, studying the order, the men began to realise that they were victims of a cheap trick. Not only was the pay of today to be cut, but also the pensions of tomorrow. `In what way`, they wondered, `does the present-day financial crisis affect the pensions we shall receive in ten or fifteen years’ time?` What they did not know then was that the other tricks had been played upon them by this same Board. Including, almost unbelievably, a two-day delay in the sending of this Admiralty Fleet Order, the most important order since the declaration of the First World War.

Whatever the men’s first interpretations of the order and the forces behind it, it is certain that they were ready for action, and drastic action at that. On that Sunday morning the whole Atlantic Fleet was ready for action, without instigation from any quarter. The men were ripe, and the fact that ripening had been swift and full was the fault of the Board of Admiralty. All that was needed was someone to give the first push, and fate decreed that I should be this person. Had I not made the first move, somebody else would have done so.

There was one channel through which it was possible to spread the idea of a meeting, that evening, in the Royal Naval canteen, ashore at Invergordon. I took the opportunity. Every Sunday, in accordance with the first of the Articles of War, which are available for all to read, a church service must be held on every ship. Now the predominant sect in the Navy is Church of England, so every ship of cruiser size and up is provided with a Church of England chaplain who holds services on a Sunday, in a jury-rigged chapel, usually on the upper deck. Capstan bars, buckets and mess-stools are, by naval ingenuity, fashioned into pews – which is why the Navy’s version of a well-known hymn reads: `The Church’s one foundation is capstan bars and stools`. So much for the Church of England. Because the Catholics are in the minority, they have fewer privileges, and in my day it was arranged that the one Catholic priest in the Fleet should hold a service on board a different ship in turn each Sunday, at which all the Catholics from the other ships would gather. A better means of spreading the word about a meeting in the canteen could not have presented itself, for, to this Catholic service, went men from every ship at Invergordon.

I asked the Catholics not only to announce a meeting, but also to find out the reactions of the other ships to the Admiralty Fleet order. It was their answers to this question that made me decide to go ashore: had the reaction been apathetic I would not have bothered.

Invergordon was not a place to tempt a sailor from his ship. Some writers have either never been there or have let their imaginations run riot, for they describe this quiet little Scottish town of one street and a Town Crier as a sort of kilted Las Vegas where boozy blue-jackets caroused with canny Caledonian cuties in the casinos of Cromarty. In fact it was a most difficult place to be bad in, and in general leave was only till 8 pm. But that Sunday the rush of liberty men ashore after dinner was something never before seen, even for a Fleet cup final. Yet nobody in authority paid attention to the numbers, in themselves a warning of things to come: evidently the wardroom, together with the admiral’s cabin, still believed that these dull-witted, beer-guzzling sailors were incapable of serious disturbances, let alone concerted action.

Shortly after two o’clock on that fateful Sunday afternoon I entered the canteen. There had been none of the usual preparations for a meeting and I could not be sure that my suggestion, conveyed at second hand through the Catholics, would have reasonable results. But whatever the response I felt I must go and try my hand at speech-making. The canteen was a First World War wooden structure consisting of a long, low hall with regular stanchions holding up the roof. The main entrance looked out on three or four football grounds. At the far left of the back wall stood a waist-high counter, cutting off one corner of the hall. That was the bar. To the right of the bar was a door leading out to the toilets. When I came in all the tables were occupied except one, standing to the right of the rear door.

The atmosphere was extraordinarily quiet and subdued. Of course every man had a jug of beer in front of him, but the beer was not flowing in rivers, as has been claimed: on four shillings a day, now to be cut to three, one could not buy much beer. I approached one or two tables and asked the men sitting at them what they thought of the pay cuts. There was no shouting, none of the outbursts of bad language which some writers think is the plebeians’ only reaction to anger, disappointment and betrayal. All the men seemed in the grip of astonishment and disbelief that such a thing could be done to them.

I carried my cap with the tell-tale ribbon hidden and was wearing a jumper without my chevrons, a good conduct badge on the left arm and a seaman gunner’s badge on the right arm. I had no wish to expose my identity before it was necessary. From these precautions a legend was born, for afterwards the men tried to guess my rating and word was passed about that the speaker at the meeting was a wireless telegraphist. I suppose the reason was that wireless telegraphists (or radio operators, as any other navy would call them) received more schooling than ordinary seamen and were therefore considered more intelligent.

I walked over to the one empty table and jumped on to it. It was as if somebody had pressed a button for silence. The buzz of conversation stopped immediately and all eyes turned towards the table where I stood. There was something in the hundreds of pairs of eyes like a glimmer of hope, as if this was what they had been waiting for. The stage-fright which is supposed to attack first-time speakers did not assail me at all, although two minutes before I got up I had been unaware of what I should say. All my apprehension that I might be shouted down, that years of subordination would deprive the men of the will to listen, was banished immediately. These men wanted a speaker who would express their own resentment at the cuts, and when they got one they were solid in their support.

My speech was short. I knew nothing of politics, I did not even know how to conduct a meeting. All I knew was that of all the industrial workers in conflict over wages in the those days, the miners were the most outstanding. We had seen them in action in the General Strike, and we must follow their example. `We must strike`. I said, `like the miners.` I also spoke of the poverty and degradation which face the men if the cuts went through, and of the vast amount of money the Navy spent on `exercises`, expensive games for officers in which we, the men had about the same role as a caddy on a golf course. But all this was by way of an introduction. What I emphasized was the need to strike.

There was no cheering or clapping, but the sea of faces I was looking into told me I had struck the right note. However, the test was still to come. I appealed for a representative from each ship to come forward and volunteer to spread the proposal for strike action throughout the Fleet. Perhaps this was the moment when the fate of the strike hung in the balance. A sailor who answered this appeal put himself in a very precarious position. But they came, a whole crowd of them. There was a rush to the table where I stood. I took a packet of twenty Ardath cigarettes out of my pocket and on it jotted down the names of the ships represented. Then I informed the volunteers that another meeting would be held in the canteen the next day when the final decision would be taken.

The whole meeting lasted no more than an hour, starting with my speech and ending with the volunteers coming forward eagerly, and it broke up without the least disturbance. There had been no rowdy scenes, no throwing of glass mugs, as was later to be alleged. I was so impressed by the response that I failed to realise that not only had I put myself in jeopardy by my speech, but that the volunteers too had marked themselves down for trouble. Among them were married men who were very desperate: their future carried a greater threat than any trouble from the authorities.

I left the canteen as quietly as I had entered it, and there on the street I met the warrant officer of the patrol, who was strolling along enjoying the soft September evening. I remembered a story I had heard about an ingenious sailor. Wanting to smuggle several pounds of duty free tobacco ashore, he approached the policeman at the dockyard gate, asked when he would next be on duty, and suggested he should allow the contraband through, for a rake off, of course. The policeman agreed, but the next evening an inspector was waiting with him. Without ceremony the sailor was ordered into a search room and stripped naked. To the constable’s chagrin, not even a smell of tobacco was found, and the inspector left in a huff, telling his subordinate he should remember faces better. The policeman turned angrily on the sailor, who sunnily replied, `Remember when I asked you to let the tobacco through? Well, I had it with me then.` I thought this Artful Dodger could tech me a trick or two. Politely I saluted the warrant officer and asked if we could hold a meeting in the canteen. He smiled with tolerance of an older person putting an inexperienced youth on the right path. `Oh no, son, no. No meetings are allowed.`

Leave was only till 8 pm and there was nothing further to keep us ashore, so we all returned aboard our various ships. Again there were no rowdy incidents or obstreperous drunks, as we are led to believe by certain writers, who could very easily have established the truth by referring to official records. Every ship kept a note of the number of men who went ashore and the number put in the ship’s cells for drunken behaviour. Now the men had their own ideas of the different types of short leave in the Navy. If there was accommodation ashore, leave was usually extended until 7 am next day, and this was very acceptable to the men because, if they did have a drink or two, there was time to sleep it off. Leave till 10 pm or, as at Invergordon, till 8, was known as `man-catcher` leave. As the men came on board, they were inspected by the officer of the day, and if he thought any man was under the influence of drink, he sent him to the cells to sleep it off and appear in commander’s defaulters in the morning. Naturally the men were well aware of this and avoided excessive drinking, and I am sure that the records of men put in the cells for drunkenness on 13 and 14 September would dispel the impression created by writers of the Invergordon story. Or maybe they are not interested in finding material which would disturb their picture of the British sailor.

Less than twenty-four hours had passed and already fantastic stories about the meeting were beginning to circulate. The captain of the Warspite, obviously a Naval Intelligence officer, had apparently been collecting information from that most unreliable of sources, the temporary informer, what the lower deck termed `white rats`. He quickly advanced me from a wireless telegraphist to a leading wireless telegraphist, an unforeseen promotion in a branch of the service of which I knew nothing. To find a mere telegraphist was indeed an affair of the needle and the haystack, but there were not more than about forty or fifty leading telegraphists in the whole Fleet, so to locate the right one should have been no problem. It would seem that the captain abandoned his search for a more fruitful fantasy.

According to his own account, he called in three men who had purportedly taken an active part in the meeting. They were Stoker Thomas Winstanley, Marine Charles Hall, and Telegraphist Stephen Bousefield, whose presence and activities at the meeting were supposed to have been witnessed by the Warspite’s patrol. Bousefield justified his presence in the canteen by claiming to have restrained men from throwing glass mugs. According to uninformed writers, enough glass mugs were thrown at Invergordon to put Pilkington’s in the bankruptcy court. In fact one single glass was thrown during the entire incident, as we shall learn in due course.

The progress of the first meeting was just as I have described it, and none of it was witnessed by the patrol, a fact amply supported by my aforementioned meeting with the warrant officer. The captain of the Warspite proposed to the three men, conveniently representing the three most prominent groups of the lower deck, that they should turn informer. Whether all three accepted I do not know, but I think it is certain that Telegraphist Bousefield did.

From this point on, intelligence was two-way between the wardroom and the lower deck. On board the Norfolk a friendly midshipman (whose name shall never be known) told me that there was somebody amongst us who was running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. But we had our sources of information too, and they enabled us to counter any manoeuvre of the officers throughout the strike. Officer’s servants and messengers were lower deck men like us, and at every meeting of officers a servant or messenger was nearby. Nobody taught them to creep round in cinema spy style – they were simply overlooked. It was the old story that the officer’s did not count them for anything and talked quite freely in their presence.

From my sources I learned that the meeting was reported to the admiral, Rear-Admiral Wilfred Tomkinson, and that he dismissed it as `Drunken sailors shooting off their mouths`. I do not vouch for the accuracy of this quotation, but such a remark would certainly be in keeping with the general attitude of the wardroom up to then.

What puzzled me was that we were allowed to go on without interference from higher authorities. They knew of our meeting yet they did nothing. From the beginning, when the order had been put up on the noticeboard, no officer, neither junior nor senior, had come to us or attempted to find out our reactions. They too were losing a percentage of their pay, but they took it like a crowd of Bertie Woosters, keeping the jolly old chin up, don’t you know, old chap. Let somebody else bother. Their bar was open, duty-free whisky flowed. All’s well for us in this world of crisis.

Writers on Invergordon have, of course, had a whitewash brush in each hand when dealing with the role of the officers just before and during the mutiny. They refer to a loss of contact. In fact contact never existed and could not, until the whole basis of relations between officers and men had radically changed; until the book on how to treat the men, compiled by some Victorian admiral and used as a text in Dartmouth College, had been publicly condemned and burnt. The truth was that the wardroom had failed to move with the times. Many of the officers had lived through the First World War, but the shattering blows it delivered to the Edwardian conception of class superiority in civilian life had failed to touch the wardroom, and the officer corps was so insulated that it could not understand the changing character of the lower deck or even that a change had taken place.

They failed to see that the ever-rising technical level of the Navy’s armament and equipment was drawing in the technically trained, industrial proletariat. In 1924 there were still men on the lower deck who believed that education was an heirloom passed on to those lucky ones who were born to it. They were mostly sailors who had completed their twelve long years before World War I and, when called up for service on the outbreak of war, had decided to continue serving for a pension. By 1931 they were gone, probably smoking their Navy Cut and telling stories about the days when ships were wooden – and men were iron-headed. But the new intake was beginning to understand that a correct accent was not much use in a crisis. They could see which of their officers merited respect for their specialist knowledge, and that the mainstay of the Navy was increasingly the specialist petty officer, the gunnery inspector, the gunnery instructor and the stoker PO. Fear of officers was lessening, respect was stationary and disdain was beginning to creep in.

  • 1. Hanged, in a manner that would prevent the neck breaking so the condemned would die of strangulation [Reddebrek]