4. The special investigation branch

Submitted by Spassmaschine on August 26, 2009

"As some day it may happen that a victim must be found
I’ve got a little list - I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground
And who never would be missed - who never would be missed"

- Ko-Ko, Lord High Executioner of Titipu1

The RAF strikes came as a great shock to the establishment. Nothing of the kind had happened before in the Royal Air Force.

The first concern of most of those in authority, in both Britain and India, was to be conciliatory and get the men back to normal duties. But some senior officers were hard-liners from the beginning and, once order had been restored and the men had settled down again, there was a growing sentiment in favour of punishing the ringleaders.

The government seemed to resist this at first. On 25 February John Strachey made a special broadcast to the RAF in overseas commands. Both the RAF authorities and the government, he said, had taken an ultra-tolerant attitude to the recent so-called strikes, and they had been criticised in some quarters for being so tolerant. They could not be so tolerant if it happened again.2

That seemed to suggest that all was forgiven. And on 27 February, when Wing Commander Hulbert, MP, asked the Under Secretary to give an assurance that "these Communist agitators who have brought disgrace to the Royal Air Force will be severely dealt with", he got a dusty answer. "I do not accept for one moment the implications of his remarks," said Strachey.3

A month later, however, on 27 March, Strachey was telling the House that the Inspector-General, who had been presiding over a Court of Inquiry into the strikes, had returned to this country, and the proceedings of the court were "at present being considered". In fact, whether Strachey was aware of it or not, the consideration had already taken place; it had been decided that the so-called ring-leaders would be court-martialled. The Special Investigation Branch had been at work at Drigh Road for more than a week when the Under Secretary’s statement was made.4 II
When the SIB unit arrived at Drigh Road, they spent a day or two listening to camp gossip and meeting the officers, including the padre. They were particularly interested in the discussion group and in compiling a list of known Communists. And the names they kept hearing were Attwood and Duncan.

They then set up an office and began the interviews that would provide the evidence to sustain charges against the strike leaders. The charge they wanted was "incitement to mutiny" so they concentrated on the Thursday meeting. Whereas I had not spoken then, everyone on the camp knew that Arthur had been chairman, so he soon became the target of the SIB inquiries. He was not, however, the easy target they might have expected. Man after man denied being able to recognise him in the dark.

Arthur himself made only a brief appearance before the SIB. He was due for release and was set to leave Drigh Road just a few days after the investigators arrived. He was summoned for interview but refused to answer questions about the strike, pointing out that any offences then had been forgiven by the commanding officer. He was not detained and was allowed to proceed to Worli, the camp near Bombay from which RAF personnel embarked for the journey back to Britain. His ordeal would come later.

After Arthur’s departure man after man had to face the SIB. Most reported back to me, so I soon became an expert on SIB techniques. From the first the investigators concerned themselves with politics. They had a list of supposed Communists; their investigation in the General Engineering Section was opened by a request that all trade unionists attend for interview. They told LAC Cook they were conducting the investigation on the instructions of the Foreign Office; and they suggested to Corporal Margetts that the men who led the demonstration were likely to be on the other side in the next war.

They seemed obsessed with the discussion group, although that was concerned only with political and social affairs and was forbidden to consider service matters. They had a list of all the group’s discussion topics over the last year, including the mock election, for which they had the names of all the party candidates and their agents and supporting speakers. The group, its leading personalities and their political views were discussed in interviews with many of the men.

The most serious aspect of the investigation, however, was how some men felt threatened and intimidated. Once a man had been persuaded or trapped into admitting that he had attended the Thursday meeting - perhaps because he had been told that other men had given evidence against him - then he was under threat. They would sometimes begin:

"If you know that a mutiny is going to take place and you do nothing about it, you are guilty of incitement to mutiny. Do you know that King’s Regulations provide for the death penalty for that? It’s the ringleaders we want, but if we can’t get them, we’ll get you. So why don’t you come clean and tell us who spoke at the meeting?"

On occasion the investigators rubbed it in with a tale about men in Iceland who were nearly shot. "It probably wouldn’t be the death penalty now that the war is over, but you’d be looking at at least ten years". When LAC Cook refused to be intimidated, he was told to pack his "small kit" because he was being taken to Karachi. And all this with men, most of whom were due to go home, who were isolated from their mates during long interviews and who had no way of obtaining legal advice.

Ernie Margetts responded by pointing out that, if he could be sent to prison for years, so could hundreds of others. "Ah, yes," was the reply, "but you’re in our hands and they’re not".

Ernie was told to talk over his position with someone, and he chose to do so with me. I advised him to ignore the threats, but when he did so he was clapped in the guardroom. What must his thoughts have been when he heard the door locked behind him? He was due for release soon. He had good career prospects, a lovely young wife and a nice house waiting for him. For some weeks he had thought of little else but getting back to them. Now he was threatened with a long term of imprisonment.

The investigators had rubbed it in. Did his wife have an independent income? How would she manage for ten years without his allowance? Ernie wrote to D N Pritt, MP, a few days later:

"On Saturday last, March 23rd, 1946, I was sent to a small place which had P5 on the door. There, for a period lasting well over two hours, I was intensely interrogated about the disturbances which occurred in this unit way back in January. The interrogators were a warrant officer and a sergeant of, I believe, the Special Investigation Branch.

"They told me that they had evidence I had, with most of the other men, attended a mass meeting at which grievances had been discussed and that, again with other men, I had gone on parade in khaki instead of blue, and that they were aware I had been a member of the deputation called for by the AOC, and that after that meeting I had, with most of the others, gone to the stage at the station theatre and cookhouse, and taken up the microphone and announced that the chairman of the delegation would read out the AOC’s decisions.

"Insisting that, as a member of the Station Discussion Circle, I ought to be able to recognise the voices, they stated they might be able to help me in regard to these incidents, if I would give them the names of the speakers at the meetings in the dark.

"The methods used in questioning were those of intimidation and terror. I was asked how my wife would be provided with money if I went inside. King’s Regulations were constantly thrust at me; there were threats of a possible death penalty, shooting, etc. Finally, I was told I would be given a few days to think back and try to recall the names of speakers. It was suggested that as an EVT (Educational and Vocational Training) instructor I might spy on my classes to find out who had taken part.

"I returned for more questioning on Wednesday, March 27th. I was then asked to sign a statement about the microphone incident giving the name of the speaker. I readily admitted these facts were true but, because of the many promises of no recrimination or victimisation, I refused to add my signature to it. I was told to get my small kit and report to the guardroom, and I was to be taken down to HQ in town and kept away from my friends.

"I was held in the guardroom for five hours until the SIB warrant officer and a sergeant came to take me to town. I then decided to sign the statement. I did not wish to sign it. I consider that I have done so under pressure. I was not cautioned in the statement but was told it would not, and could not, be used against me."5

Ernie knew that the document he signed would be of no value to the prosecution case against Arthur. He had refused to sign as a matter of principle. The SIB, on the other hand, were determined to win some kind of victory after Ernie had refused to give them the names of speakers, and at the same time they were issuing a warning to future interviewees.

In many of these interviews there was an atmosphere of real fear. Some men were pale and worried long after leaving the interview room. One LAC was so terrified that his friends complained to the Station Welfare Office, and he was recalled and offered an apology.

In these circumstances it is not surprising that five men broke down and agreed to testify against Arthur. What was really impressive was the number - it must have been over a hundred - who remained loyal and refused to be intimidated. Loyalty was the key factor. Even the man who represented the Conservatives in the mock election, expected by the SIB to be a valuable ally, came straight from the interview room to tell me what was going on. Like a hundred others, he refused to name the chairman of the Thursday meeting.

Within a day or two of Arthur’s leaving, it was clear that he was in danger. As soon as I got a note from him with his Worli address, I wrote to him but got no reply. Could he have embarked for the UK already?

There was little prospect that he could escape prosecution, but I had a faint hope that he would get back to Britain and face court-martial there. Soon, however, I got the news that I had feared. One of the men who had been on leave in Bombay had gone to Worli to see a friend and found that Arthur was still there, though the men who had arrived with him had all left.

My immediate response was to go into Karachi to see a solicitor recommended by an Indian friend. Could he arrange for someone to defend Arthur? Someone good, a prominent barrister, I suggested. The fees would no doubt be heavy, but I would undertake to pay them. He was encouraging. Yes, he would ask a firm of Bombay solicitors if they would be interested. And next day he told me that they might be able to engage the Public Prosecutor for Bombay to lead the defence. I should contact them immediately.

But what was happening to Arthur? I could not find out. I asked a number of men going to Worli to find out if they could. I inquired about him at the station office and was told that the CO knew no more than I did. I had written again but got no answer.

As soon as I had the address of the Bombay solicitors I sent Arthur a telegram. Next day, 9 April, I wrote once more. "Name as your counsel," I said, "Mr Nadirshah of Mulla and Mulla... I’ve sent him a telegram and written to him explaining the position ... All expenses to be paid by me ... According to circumstances, consider calling some of the boys, including myself, as witnesses. So far I’ve not been able to arrange to come to Bombay on leave, but I’m trying ... Reply to me if it’s humanly possible (telegram?). Fight like a bastard. Even ask the solicitor if it would be possible to get D N Pritt out here to defend you. Ernie will see about your wife, and as soon as I know what the position is, I’ll write to her myself". It was signed, "Dunk".6

Pritt, a King’s Counsel as well as an MP, had a long record of championing the rights of servicemen. Both Arthur and I had written to him, and it was to him that Ernie Margetts addressed his complaints about the SIB. It would have been a real boost for Arthur to have such a barrister.

The witnesses for Arthur’s court-martial were flown from Karachi on 8 April, but the SIB did not leave. Having "got" Attwood, they now wanted Duncan and for several days they grilled witnesses. Had I been at the Thursday meeting? Did I speak at the Sunday meeting? What views had I expressed in the discussion group? Had they heard me speak in the mock election? At least two of the men were asked if Sergeant Duncan was clever enough to have planned the whole thing from beginning to end!

So I felt it necessary to make a further visit to the solicitor in Karachi, to ask if this time he could arrange for my own defence. But I was not arrested, and I saw nothing of the SIB until 25 April, when a young flight lieutenant called at the education office to see me. He had "heard" that I had been complaining about his unit. Would I like to repeat the complaints to him?

I gave him some indication of the complaints I had, but suggested that it would be so much better if I could put them in writing. I was busy, I said, and there were some points I needed to check, so could I hand in my document the next day?

He agreed, but in fact I typed three copies of my paper that afternoon. It had occurred to me that this could be an opportunity for publicity. So far only the Daily Worker had been prepared to publish stories about SIB behaviour on the strength of a letter from an individual airman. Things might be different, I thought, if other papers could see what was, in effect, an official RAF document, with relevant names and details. So I had one copy for Pritt and another for Tom Driberg, MP, in the post before the SIB knew that the document had been prepared. I knew the material would be passed on to friends for use in the campaign for Arthur’s release.

In the introduction I wrote, "I have, of course, no all-embracing knowledge of this affair. The points mentioned below were brought to my notice because of the prominence given to my own name during the investigation". The paper was divided into two sections, "The SIB Dabbles in Politics" and "The SIB Threatens and Intimidates". I listed 14 items in the first section and 12 in the second, indicating in each case the name of the interviewee and the source of my information.

And I ended, "I have not included the many points which concern men I know by sight but not by name, but ... I could check a number of them by name within a few hours ... and I have no doubt that... many more would be revealed by a little investigation of my own, despite the reign of terror".7

I was quite pleased with that document, and it did get some publicity in the New Statesman and in at least one of the Sunday papers. It was also used effectively in other ways in the campaign going on at home. But there was no response, not even an acknowledgement, from the Special Investigation Branch. And when Driberg, in possession of the document, asked in the House of Commons about "third degree" methods, Strachey told him that the NCOs "categorically denied that they used other than accepted police procedure in questioning witnesses, and no substantiation can be obtained of statements to the contrary".8 IV
Saturday, 27 April - the day after I submitted my complaints to the SIB - was the day of the cup final at home. Derby County, with those two outstanding inside forwards, Raich Carter and Peter Doherty, were playing Charlton at Wembley, and this was the topic which dominated the conversation in the sergeants’ mess. It would have occupied my thoughts, too, had I not just received a telegram that lifted my spirits and set me thinking on other matters. The telegram had just six words over the name of Nadirshah Mulla: "Contacted Attwood. Accepted work. Doing needful".

At last! Arthur was going to be defended properly. But that meant that we needed money. I could hardly expect Mulla and Mulla to proceed without at least a substantial deposit. I had no money, of course. We would have to rely on hundreds of small contributions. I waited until the evening of pay day and then commandeered a table in the canteen. I propped up a large card announcing "Attwood Defence Fund" and used a basin as a collecting box. Two colleagues soon came to help.

The response filled me with pride. Many of the men who had taken part in the events of January were no longer at Drigh Road. Some had been posted elsewhere; others had been repatriated; but those who remained had not forgotten. They needed no explanations - they knew Arthur was facing a court martial - and they needed no prompting. Those in the canteen came over to contribute; others came from outside specially to make their donations. They wanted to shake hands, to wish us success, and to ask us to pass on best wishes to Arthur.

I shall always remember the atmosphere that evening - the warmth, the passion, the desire to win a last victory over authority by having Arthur freed. I found it hard not to cry. Surely we could not lose now! We had a similar session the next evening and made a total of more than four thousand rupees - about £300 - a substantial sum in those days.

I would not have needed to worry about the money had it been true what one of Arthur’s guards had heard. "I’m not sure how true it was," the guard wrote to Arthur later, "but it was widely said that every member of SEAAF (South East Asia Air Force) contributed a ‘chip’ or one rupee to pay for the Indian lawyers who defended you". If only!

However fanciful this story, it suggests a widespread interest in the Attwood case and a recognition of the support for Arthur among the RAF rank-and-file. Arthur wrote to me afterwards, "In a flight of fancy I saw you, provided with a pilot and a helicopter, with some £10,000 in the offing, co-ordinating its collection and with plans to publicly name any, such as Sir Keith Park,9 who showed a reluctance to contribute."

The court martial had already started, and I wanted to get the money to Bombay as soon as possible. I was sure that the news of the collection would have reached those in authority. This was confirmed some weeks later, when I came across a file on the Defence Fund at Air Headquarters in Delhi.10 I was concerned that the money might be confiscated or that I would be prevented from going to Bombay, so we agreed that Ian Taylor would take care of the money. He was due to go to Bombay in connection with his release and, as a soldier, was unlikely to be suspected.

I then had the problem of getting to Bombay myself. I had no certain knowledge that obstacles would be put in my way, but I was taking no chances, so I gave a false destination for my leave. As a further precaution I spent my last night in my old billet instead of in the sergeants’ quarters, and I left early in the morning. There were two routes by rail from Karachi to Bombay. The shorter one, if I remember rightly, took two days off the journey but servicemen were strongly advised not to use it, partly because of the intense heat on a section of the route, partly because there had been two or three recent incidents on the line involving bandits. But I was in a hurry and travelled as a civilian on the shorter route.

I reached Bombay on, I think, 8 May. Ian and Ernie were already there, awaiting embarkation. They had both been to see Arthur’s solicitors but joined me for a further visit. We were able to help with background detail about the strike and about some of the witnesses. We also emphasised that the CO had told the whole station that there would be no punishments, but the solicitors were aware of this and told us that the defence was already working towards a plea that the offence had been condoned.

A day or two later I had tea at their home with the barrister, Mr Vimadalal, and his wife. I told him that John Saville would take care of all the legal fees. Saville, I explained, was a top civil servant who was a personal friend of Attwood and myself and had been in Karachi at the time of the strike. I had not consulted John about this, but I had such confidence in him that I never doubted either his willingness to accept the responsibility or his ability to raise the necessary hundreds of pounds, through the campaign he was conducting in London on Arthur’s behalf. The barrister was confident that Arthur would soon be released, so all seemed well.

  • 1In W. S. Gilbert, The Mikado.
  • 2The Times, 25 February 1946.
  • 3Hansard, 27 February 1946.
  • 4Hansard, 27 March 1946.
  • 5Copy in Attwood Collection.
  • 6Letter in Attwood Collection.
  • 7Copy in Attwood Collection.
  • 8Hansard, 15 May 1946.
  • 9Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park was Air Officer Commanding, South East Asia Command.
  • 10I was later posted to Air Headquarters, Delhi, where a colleague showed me a file marked, "Attwood Defence Fund".