9 Strike Meeting

From the time I returned on board on Sunday evening, 13 September, to the time I went ashore again at 4 pm on Monday the 14th, I was never once questioned by any officer of Norfolk. In fact there was absolutely no mention of any meeting in the canteen.

That Monday I was in the duty watch which meant no shore leave, but in the morning I put in a request to be allowed to go ashore `out of watch with substitute`, that is, another seaman agreed to carry out my watch duties and let me go ashore in his place. This was a common practice and in home ports it was sometimes extremely difficult to find a substitute, but at Invergordon where there was nothing to see or do such a request was rare. Yet no officer stopped to ponder this, a fact which was particularly remarkable as it was well-known that a meeting had been held the night before. The fact that my request was granted blind can only be attributed to a mixture of sheer negligence and smug complacency.

So it was that, having, by my request, advertised my going to all and sundry, I walked off the ship without interference and went straight to the canteen, where a meeting was well underway. This time I was accompanied by Leading Seaman Richard Carr, a man much respected on the lower deck and who, in other circumstances, would undoubtedly have ended his career as a chief petty officer. The canteen was packed. There was no chairman, and anyone who wanted to speak did so where he sat. As I entered, a little hollow-cheeked man with fiery ginger hair was calling upon the men to leave the ships and march on London. This was Able Seaman Bond, a well-known big mouth whose political creed as `against the government whatever it may be`. At that moment he was telling the men that they could eat turnips and mangel-wurzels in the fields on the journey south. He was not shouted down, but laughed down, and that in one of the most serious meetings in British naval history this century.

This crazy speech came to be blown up into a major incident of the Invergordon mutiny and was to keep the secret service busy for some time after it. No documentary evidence was ever produced to show that such a suggestion was made by anyone who played a part in the leadership of the mutiny, yet, even now, when naval documents concerning Invergordon are by law available to the public, a writer1 repeats this schoolboy plot as the real thing.

How fortunate that I can tell the true story! Our underground organisation planned to make a landing on two beaches, having first captured a bumboat and a wherry from Jock McHine (singer). One beach was code-named `Omaha, Omaha, I’m coming where you are`, but the other involved a furious discussion between the two-man central committee and finally knives were drawn and thirteen people were killed. At night we took them to Loch Ness and left them there as food for the monster. That left us with two code names for the other landing beach, a few yards from Wigan pier. One was the first line from that old sea shanty `Locked in the stable with a sheep`. Stoke Smithsky was appointed political commissar and was given the job of thinking up some rousing political slogans like `Flatfoots of the world ignite!` He also worked out a scheme for seizing the enigine of the Flying Kilt, fixing it with radial no-inner-tube car tyres and using it as a state vehicle for highly placed leaders to ride direct to the Palace. To the devil with the mass of flatfoots! They could walk, they voted for it. The captain of the drifter Greasy Water was made chief of supplies, and by a little pull here, a swindle or two there, plus a couple of thick ears for recalcitrant farmers, managed to collect three fields of turnips and five of mangel-wurzels. The turnips were kept for the leaders, the mangel-wurzels for the plebeians. Angus McWhiskyswigger, the local pink, offered us the use of an 1888 penny-farthing, but we told him we would prefer a tenner to buy the leaders beer on the way. If the plebeians should complain they had no beer we should say `Let them eat cake`. Everything worked out, to the second: the one snag was that there was only one marcher, Able Seaman Bond.

Crazy? Mayvbe, but no more crazy than the fact that a ridiculous suggestion should have been built up to become a story in which there is not one word of truth, but which to this day is preserved in state archives for latter-day historians to refer to. AB Bond did not open his mouth again, except maybe on his own ship after the strike began, and the march on London was never mentioned thereafter except by the secret service.

The super-militant Bond had just been laughed down when the door was assailed with furious knocking and rattling and a voice demanded that we open up. Without delay it was opened and a young lieutenant walked in, accompanied by the three ratings of his patrol. This, as we later discovered, was Lieutenant Elkins.

He had a peculiar manner that did not entirely measure up to the calm, collected behaviour one expects from a naval officer addressing a crowd of men. There was no reason for the crowd to be dangerous in any way threatening for everyone was aware that their complaint was not about any officer in the Fleet, not even the Admiral himself. Had the lieutenant ordered them to disperse, they would have done so, because the decision to strike in the morning had already been taken; we were to refuse duty until the authors of the pay cuts in the Navy had withdrawn them. But Elkins did not show himself flexible enough to adapt to the situation.

In a voice which suggested a man who finds himself, at the dead of night, in the most ill-reputed part of a city and talks out loud to give himself courage, Elkins almost screamed: `Stop this meeting! If any man speaks I shall arrest him immediately!` Nobody was impressed. He who gives way to fear always blunders, and Elkins had blundered in his approach to these very sober, very determined men.

As Elkins pushed his way from the door to the centre of the canteen, he became separated from the men of his patrol. He was standing alone in the middle of the building, half way between the bar end and the entrance door. He could move neither left nor right, neither backward nor forward. One of his men was nearer to the rear door and one to the entrance, each surrounded by groups of determined sailors. Where the third was I am unable to say, but he was certainly not near Elkins. I was about fifteen feet from Elkins, facing him. He was very noticeable because he was the only man present in officer’s uniform. Then the glass flew. The picture is before me as I write, as clear as if it were on a cinema screen.

Suddenly I saw a hand lift, in a sideways swing, to the left rear of Elkins, about twenty feet away. The owner of the hand was not visible: he had evidently crouched down in the crowd. A glass jug cast by this hand flew over towards Elkins, hit a stanchion just behind him, and shattered, scattering behind him to the right and left. The splinters did not touch him, but he crouched down, screwing his head into his shoulders, then suddenly turned and made a dash for the entrance door, all the people in his way parting for him to pass through. Elkins was later to claim in his journal of the mutiny that he was rugby scrummed out of the canteen.

The moment Elkins had fled to the entrance door, the men began to pour out of the rear door. It was not panic but common sense which prompted them. If Elkins returned with a bigger patrol there was no sense in being trapped in the canteen.

On the football ground of the local team, a place known as the Black Field, there was a small shed, evidently used as a dressing room, and from the top of this shed the speakers continued to make speeches. Actually there was little need to continue the meeting, for by this time strike action to begin at six o’clock the next morning, had been decided on, and the word was being bandied about all over Invergordon. The speeches were not long political diatribes, for none of the men had any experience of speaking. There was, however, a very important feature of this meeting. Although every speaker spoke mainly of his own particular position and the suffering the cuts would bring his family, every branch of the lower deck was represented. It was clear that nothing could prevent a refusal of duty at 6 am the next day.

By this time Elkins had made his way to the Black Field and taken up a position some thirty yards behind the crowd and a little to one side, by some bushes. He says in his journal that he went to the field by a roundabout way, a veiled hint that he might otherwise have been manhandled. In fact nobody approached him and certainly nobody attempted to harm or insult him, or even, apart from a casual glance or two, noticed him at all. With such a tremendous problem before them, the men simply had no desire to become involved with small fry like Elkins. He was there and he could stay if he wanted, he did not make the weather for us.

Meanwhile he was busy watching faces, particularly those of the speakers, and listening to the speeches, taking special pains to describe their inflammatory character. The speakers Elkins heard were all urging the men to do something drastic and one challenged them to `have a go`. I was there and I stood with Leading Seaman Carr just underneath the speakers’ temporary platform. No man threatened or agitated. Each one of them talked about what they would have to face if the cuts, were allowed to take place. Did not the eavesdropping Elkins hear one young man tell how his wife, after paying all commitments from his allotment, had one penny left for food? One penny for three people for two weeks, and that before the cuts?

After the meeting on the Black Field, we went back to the canteen, where another remarkable scene met our eyes. A lieutenant-commander stood, smilingly calm, on the counter of the bar, addressing the men in a quiet voice. Behind him stood Elkins. This officer, Lieutenant-Commander Beresford of Hood, was dressed in duty rig, with black leather leggings and a sword hanging from his sword belt. He looked very official but far from officious. Here was an officer who had much wider view of the situation, who understood the men’s position but who, at the same time, recognised his duty to urge them to depend on their officers for help.

Lieutenant-Commander Beresford was the officer of that evening, if there was one. The calm and confident manner with which he faced the crowd and talked to them was amazing. There was not the least attempt at rowdyism and everybody listened attentively. Being a living example, he appealed for calm and quiet and got them. Whether he is alive or not I do not know, but if he is he will probably remember the sailor who said to him `Sir, tell the barman to fill up my glass and we’ll listen to you all night`. He smiled and continued his address.

But his task was extremely difficult. The officers were also subject to cuts, and if, for those lucky enough to have a private income, it meant little difference to their material position, the majority were going to feel the pinch. Despite their patriotism and, above all, their devotion to the service they were a part of, they could not help realising that the men’s action had been forced upon them and they were in no way attempting to use violent means to destroy the British way of life, but that once their grievance was settled, they would go back to the duty they had temporarily been compelled to desert against their will.

Lieutenant-Commander Beresford ended the meeting and dispersed the crowd. He had made every effort to convince the men that the Fleet Command was trying its best to help them. But mistrust of the Admiralty had gone too deep and, short of a bloody conflict, nothing could stop the events of the morrow taking their course.

Although I did not speak at either of the meetings on the 14th, in the canteen or on the Black Field, I did not remain entirely inactive. As speaker after speaker talked of their own hapless situation, I walked among the men repeating one single phrase as if it was some slogan: `Don’t forget, six o’clock tomorrow morning`. Very soon it was being shouted aboard for all in the Firth to hear, and when the boats went off to the ships with retuning liberty-men, it was shouted from boat to boat and from boat to ship.

It was no doubt this shouting that created the impression that the number of drunks had increased several-fold. In reality the men were never so sober in their lives, so sober, or so serious, for they were about to take a step which, according to the Articles of War, could lead to a death sentence for some of them.

On our return to the Norfolk we held another meeting in the recreation room. Why we were allowed to hold it is a mystery to this day. On my recommendation the men of Norfolk decided to postpone strike action until eight, because it would be more effective if the big ships took the lead and more heartening for the smaller ships like ours. How long it took for this decision to reach the wardroom I do not know, but at most it was half an hour. But there were no counter-measures.

  • 1. David Divine, Mutiny at Invergordon, London, 1970