8. A job well done

"Men who join up want to know that they are going to be treated as citizens with individual rights, and not as press-ganged riff-raff of the 17th Century." - Major Woodrow Wyatt, MP1

I
It was not only in the RAF that discontent among the rank and file led to strike action in the early postwar period. Army men were involved in similar incidents, the most famous being the action of the 6th Airborne Division in Malaya. The battalion had taken part in the D-Day landings and fought in the Ardennes winter campaign, before being shipped first to Java and then to Muar Camp, near Kuala Lumpur in Malaya. Conditions had been grim enough in Java, where there was only one tent for the whole battalion, but Muar was far worse. As the London Evening News reported, "There were practically no washing facilities. Tropical downpours soaked the men as they lay beneath canvas all night. Water in the tents was ankle-high, mud lay everywhere. In this dirty welter, troops were ordered to parade every morning, washed, shaved, boots and brass shining, shorts creased, belts and gaiters scrupulously white." According to a letter sent home by one of the soldiers, there was only one tap for two hundred men; and tables in the mess had been commandeered by the sergeants, so the men had to sit on the floor with the ants and beetles to eat their meals.

Even the Minister for War admitted that the camp lacked proper facilities for washing, feeding, cooking and recreation. Conditions were unendurable, and on 14 May the men refused to parade. There was no violence. From start to finish, it was a passive demonstration. But 243 men were charged with mutiny.2

When they were sentenced to two years’ hard labour and discharge with ignominy, there was an outcry in Britain. Within days of the court’s decision, half a million signatures had been collected to petitions of protest and no less than 16 questions tabled in the House of Commons. Brighton Town Council even sent its mayor and town clerk as a deputation to the Secretary of State for War. "The people," said the Evening News, "will not allow 243 men to sweat two years in a tropical gaol for breaking orders under conditions to which no farmer would subject his swine". When the new Secretary of State, Capt F W Bellinger, defended the military authorities, nearly two hundred MPs immediately signed a petition expressing "shocked surprise" and calling for annulment of the heavy sentences.3

All the men were soon released. Officially, this was on technical grounds - the judge advocate had discovered a number of irregularities "of a substantial nature"4 - but such irregularities were common enough with courts martial, and there can be little doubt that it was the pressure of public opinion that brought about the quashing of the sentences.

In November an announcement that demobilisation was to be slowed down provoked a strike at the Tel-el-Kebir garrison. This was a permanent army camp in Egypt, housing about 30,000 British troops, mostly RAOC and REME. In a tense period of five days almost all of the men were involved in one way or another.

The incident was investigated by methods similar to those used at Drigh Road, and ten men were charged with conspiracy. But fortune was on their side. The Attwood Defence Committee was contacted, and D N Pritt defended the men (without payment), with the result that four of them were found not guilty by the court and the remaining six had their convictions quashed on appeal.

Many of the other army incidents were concerned with troopships. "In the last twelve months," noted the Evening News, "servicemen have refused to sail on four troopships - the Empress of Scotland, Corfu, Orion (twice) and Johann de Witt. In every case the reasons have been overcrowded and unsanitary conditions and/or bad food". The next ship to be involved was the Eastern Prince at Glasgow, five hundred SEAC soldiers refusing to embark, though most of them agreed eventually to join the ship.

Lieut H Braithwaite, defending nine corporals charged in connection with the Empress of Scotland affair, told the court, "The evidence has shown that the accommodation was bad, the feeding arrangements were deplorable - men having to wait ten hours for a meal - and the blankets were infected with lice. It was these conditions that led to three walk-offs from the ship in two days".5

Soldiers and airmen faced the same problems. Those who had served for a number of years were impatient for demobilisation, though in the early months this was more marked in the RAF, whose release rate was so much slower. Now that the war was over, men were reluctant to serve overseas. And all bitterly resented the re-introduction of peacetime discipline, bureaucracy and "bull" while they were still living in the rough conditions and eating the poor food that they associated with wartime. It was surely not necessary.

Labour ministers, however, considered it very necessary, because of the view taken by the establishment about Britain’s role in the postwar world. There was, John Saville observed, "a fervent commitment to the ‘great power’ thesis. Again and again, from the leading politicians on both sides of the House of Commons, from the Chiefs of Staff and their advisers, and from within Whitehall, there was a steady, unwavering understanding that Britain remained a first class power alongside the United States and the Soviet Union. The illusion was powerful and pervasive, and while it was misguided and untrue, it is understandable in terms of the contribution Britain had made to the war against Fascism. To those who had come through the war it was inconceivable that Britain should not continue as a leading power in the counsels of the post-war world. What is interesting is that not one person of any political standing within the UK was prepared to state publicly that the war had changed fundamentally the balance of forces within world politics, and that henceforth Britain could only expect to play the part of a major second class power."6

Britain needed large armed forces, not only to control and defend its vast empire, but also to help in the occupation of ex-enemy territories and to play the international policeman, propping up reactionary regimes from Greece to Indonesia.

When the Prime Minister made his promised statement to the House of Commons on the RAF incidents, he defended the rate of demobilisation on the grounds that "We must carry out our commitments". Early in March he came back to the theme. "Our commitments were still very heavy. They arose directly out of the war. We must fulfil them if what was won in the war was not to be lost. And he mentioned responsibilities in the British Zone of Germany, Berlin, Austria, Japan, Venezia Giulia, Syria and the Lebanon, Greece, Palestine, Java and India."7 These were indeed heavy commitments, and in November Attlee announced that demobilisation would have to be slowed down. It was this announcement that triggered the strikes in Tel-el-Kebir.

For soldiers and airmen alike, the situation was exacerbated by class divisions in the services. On board troopships the men, whether in the RAF or the army, were usually housed below in stuffy, overcrowded conditions, often forced to sleep in uncomfortable hammocks because there was no room for beds or bunks; they ate food that was at best monotonous, at worst disgusting. With few facilities for exercise or entertainment, they faced weeks of boredom. But they knew that the officers - and nurses, if there were any on board - were living in cabins with comfortable beds and took their meals and wine in agreeable conditions in the dining room, with waiters in attendance.

Commenting on the "walk offs" from troopships, an Evening News editorial said, "Making every allowance for the action of hot-heads and the reluctance of many men to return overseas now that the war is over, it is obvious that something is seriously wrong.

"Is there a clue in the official explanation given by the War Office in two of these cases - that conditions were ‘up to authorised schedule’? Is it the ‘authorised schedule’ which is out of harmony with an age which no longer regards soldiers on transport as something to be buried in the hold of the ship? Is there reasonable equality of conditions between officers and men?"

The lack of "reasonable equality" on the troopship was maintained on both RAF and army camps, especially abroad. Conditions for the men at Drigh Road were fairly typical of stations in India, though it was worse where water was in short supply, where it was much hotter, or where there was serious overcrowding. The strike at Jodhpur took place early in October, and demobilisation was already an issue there, but it was mainly about local conditions that the men were protesting. Flight-Lieutenant D Mourton, however, told Channel Four viewers that for him and his fellow-officers at Jodhpur, things were very different. They lived, he said, in the Maharajah’s old palace, which had a swimming pool, tennis courts and squash courts. For every two officers there was a servant who set out their evening clothes, prepared their baths and brought them early morning cups of tea. "Life," he added, "was very luxurious".8

So Britain played the part of a first-class world power, but did so with second class resources and a second class budget. And those who suffered for it were the rank-and-file of the armed services. It is not surprising that tens of thousands of them took part in protests in the twelve months after the end of the war.

II
Were the protests at those RAF stations "strikes" or "mutinies"?

It has been suggested that the Drigh Road affair was neither strike not mutiny, merely a "demonstration"; but, as a collective act of defiance, it was similar in character to the others. It was different only in being brief, and that was because the Drigh Road men put forward what were attainable demands - that is to say, demands that could be met by the RAF in India, without reference to London and the political process - and they were extremely successful, first at local and then at command level.

None of the strikers thought they were taking part in a mutiny. To them that term implied taking to arms or at least using violence against their officers, and that was never their intention. They were simply "on strike". On the other hand, the commanding officer at Drigh Road told the men - though only after the "incident" - that there was no such thing as a strike in the Air Force and that their action had amounted to mutiny.

D N Pritt summarised the position. "There was no violence, and essential services were not stopped," he wrote, "but the men - largely industrial workers in peacetime - just stayed away from work as a means of drawing attention to their grievances. To professional army or RAF officers and to military lawyers, such action was mutiny. The difference between a strike by civilian workers, which is not in general a criminal offence at all, and a mutiny, which under military law is a capital offence, can be very small in terms of what the men actually do or refrain from doing. For that very reason it is an important part of the duty of officers to explain the law as to mutiny to the men serving under them; this is especially important when the men are industrial workers who have come into the forces to fight a war and have not lost their civilian outlook." And Pritt added, "In no case with which I had direct contact during or after the war did I ever find that any attempt had been made to fulfil this duty."9

Major Woodrow Wyatt, then a young Labour MP, argued that there was a need for some kind of machinery in the services to allow a collective grievance to be expressed. Though he was writing about mutiny in the army, his comments applied equally to the RAF when he said, "Mutiny to the layman means something dramatic; the refusal of a regiment to go into action; the rank and file shooting their officers; or at least a violent disturbance. But in the Army it is something different."

Major Wyatt went on to show how absurd was the law concerning mutiny. "If two soldiers, however passively, agree to disobey a lance-corporal, that is mutiny, for which the possible penalty is death. But if one soldier shoots his commanding officer in the leg, chops off the ear of his sergeant-major and breaks all the equipment in the barrack room, that is not mutiny; it is using violence to a superior officer, for which the maximum penalty is only imprisonment."10

III
The 50,000 men who took part in the "mutinies" of January 1946, did so because they had no other way of giving voice to their deeply felt grievances.

The RAF did have official ways of dealing with grievances, but for the most part they simply did not work. At Drigh Road the duty officer and a duty sergeant would occasionally appear in the mess at mealtime, and the sergeant would call for attention and ask, "Any complaints?" Every man in the mess had a complaint about the quality of the food in front of him, but no one responded to the sergeant’s question. Men believed that no good would come of complaining. The food was poor and would go on being poor; that was the RAF. Why risk being branded as a troublemaker when nothing would be achieved by it?

No doubt the men could have held a meeting and sent a deputation to the CO, but that was exactly the kind of move that would bring punishment for the leaders. Collective action was not merely discouraged; it could not be tolerated.

What would have been the response had a man gone to his section officer or even his CO to complain about the rate of demobilisation? The best that could be hoped for would be an explanation that this was not a service issue but a matter for the government; and the conclusion that this grievance therefore required political action would certainly not be drawn.

Airmen had very few rights, and the ones they did have were seldom drawn to their attention. If I knew my way about, it was only because I carried in my kit bag a little booklet on King’s Regulations published by the National Council for Civil Liberties. The use of some rights was positively discouraged, and few men ever thought of writing to their MPs for fear of reprisals. When an officer can influence your promotion or posting, can determine the nature of your duties and put you on a charge for some trivial misdemeanour, it makes good sense not to provoke him by pointing out your rights, even if you know what they are.

Political activity, such as the distribution of pamphlets, was seen as an offence, and the more left wing the material, the more serious the crime. It was, of course, common for a man who had received a newspaper from home to pass it on to his friends to read. There would be no problem if his paper was the Conservative Daily Mail, but if it was the Communist Daily Worker he would be in trouble. And when an airman was found selling copies of People’s Age, the paper of the Communist Party of India, to his friends, he was sentenced to 112 days’ detention.

IV
What crime had Arthur Attwood committed? By preventing a hitherto unruly meeting from degenerating into chaos, by seeking to find consensus, he had ensured that the men’s discontent found an orderly, disciplined expression that enabled agreement to be reached with the Commanding Officer within a very short time. Jim Stone and Mick Noble had been similarly positive. At neither Drigh Road nor Cawnpore had there been the slightest hint of violence, and no officer was threatened or abused. In the different circumstances of Kallang, Norris Cymbalist had been equally constructive in his role as spokesman for the men.

Attwood, Stone, Noble and Cymbalist had all broken authority’s unwritten rules. They were Communists; they had led or encouraged or condoned collective action, however orderly; and they had encouraged the men to make use of their rights, particularly the right to communicate with their Members of Parliament. In the RAF these activities were not acceptable. In the spring of 1946, when the Cold War was getting under way, the establishment felt it necessary to demonstrate that the mass activity of January was the consequence of a Communist conspiracy. Cymbalist had already been charged and found guilty. Attwood, Stone and Noble would have to follow.

V
Once a man faced a serious charge, and especially one suggesting defiance of authority, he was unlikely to be treated fairly. In most cases there would be no question of his being seen as innocent until proved guilty. He was more likely, particularly if overseas, to be treated like a criminal and imprisoned, often in solitary confinement. At Kalyan he would find himself in a dimly-lit, rat-infested cell. He would not normally have the means, or even the necessary knowledge, to pay for lawyers; he would not be able to seek witnesses or information helpful to his case but would have to rely on a defending officer, who might not be competent and might not have the time or the opportunity or the resolve to prepare an adequate defence; and he would not usually realise that he was entitled to write to his Member of Parliament.

The whole legal structure was also weighted against him. The convening authority - a senior officer at the appropriate air headquarters - not only appointed the court and its president; he also chose the prosecutor and in many cases influenced the choice of defending officer. And if the court still reached a verdict which the confirming officer did not like, he could refuse to confirm, as in the Attwood case.

If a defendant wanted to appeal against the verdict he could submit an appeal in writing, but there was no court before which either he or his representative could appear to argue the case. The final appeal was to the Air Council, a group of senior officers without legal training, long out of touch with any rank and file airman and apparently prepared - at least in Cymbalist’s case - to share a single copy of the lengthy document on which they had to pass judgement.

One of the positive results of the campaign on behalf of Attwood and the other victims was the establishment of the Courts-Martial Appeal Tribunal, a genuine appeal body staffed by High Court judges.11 This important change owed much to the hard work and specialist knowledge of D N Pritt.

The rest of the system, however, remained in place, and as recently as October, 1997, the European Court of Human Rights found that a former NCO in the RAF, who had been charged with fraud in 1992, had been denied a fair hearing by "an independent and impartial tribunal established by law". A system in which a convening officer appointed subordinate officers to prosecute and judge the case was in breach of the Convention on Human Rights.

The Ministry of Defence, however, claimed that matters had just been put right. A case before the Strasbourg court earlier that year, involving a Falklands veteran, had produced a similar verdict, as a result of which changes had been made which the Ministry claimed would ensure the "actual and apparent independence of the system". There was now a "sensible and sophisticated framework for present and future military discipline".12 Time will tell.

VI
In view of the torments they suffered, one could hardly call Attwood, Stone and Noble "lucky". Yet they were more fortunate than many airmen involved in disciplinary proceedings, including Norris Cymbalist. This was because, in the first place, their trial was delayed, and by the time the victims were arrested, friends and colleagues had got back to Britain. And, secondly, those friends were familiar with the political process and were in a position to alert and inform organisations and individuals interested in justice and in servicemen’s rights. Although others helped, the key factor in the campaign on behalf of the arrested airmen was the alliance of the trade unions with a group of Members of Parliament, among whom D N Pritt was outstanding. This campaign soon won freedom for the three and eventually also secured the release of Cymbalist.

After their release all four could look back with a great deal of satisfaction. They had played an important part in a movement which had secured a faster rate of demobilisation, had brought better conditions on the camps, and had served notice on the government that men recruited to fight fascism would not allow themselves to be used for imperialist or foreign adventures once the war was over. It was a job well done.

  • 1. R. J. Spector, Freedom for the Forces, National Council for Civil Liberties (1947?), p.14.
  • 2. London Evening News.
  • 3. Daily Worker, 11 October 1946.
  • 4. Hansard, 12 October 1946.
  • 5. London Evening News.
  • 6. John Saville, The Labour Movement in Britain, Faber and Faber, 1988, pp. 98-9.
  • 7. The Times, 6 March 1946.
  • 8. Laurel programme interview.
  • 9. D N Pritt, Brasshats and Bureaucrats, pp. 236-7.
  • 10. Spector, op. cit., pp. 13-14.
  • 11. D N Pritt, op. cit., p. 237.
  • 12. Morning Star, 25 October 1997.