6. The campaign in Britain

Submitted by Spassmaschine on August 26, 2009

"How could I indifferently stand by, and behold some of the very best of my fellow-creatures cruelly treated by some of the very worst?" - Richard Parker1

John Saville got back to London shortly before Easter. Three days after his arrival he received a telegram. It was brief. "Arthur arrested. Please help. Dunk." And help he did. John was instrumental in establishing the Attwood Defence Committee, which initiated and co-ordinated many activities; and behind the scenes he continued to play a leading part in the campaign for Arthur’s release. Ernie Margetts was also back home and was very active on Arthur’s behalf.

At the meeting of the London Area Committee of the Electrical Trades Union on 25 May, 1946, the secretary reported that "two members of the RAF who had been in Karachi with our Brother Attwood" (John Day and Ernie Margetts) had requested an interview to make a statement. The Secretary summarised what had clearly been quite a long report about the Drigh Road affair and the Attwood court-martial. He also read a letter from Bro Attwood.

After considerable discussion, during which members drew attention to other cases of ill-treatment in the services, it was agreed:

  • that a deputation from the Area Committee should meet the minister to protest against the treatment of Bro Attwood, and that Bro Cook, MP, should introduce the deputation;
  • "that we request the Executive Council to protest to the Cabinet against the general victimisation of industrially and politically active members in the Forces and demand that legislation should be promoted for the democratisation of the whole of the Services; and also that machinery should be set up so that servicemen could air their grievances in a constitutional way";
  • that a protest meeting be organised immediately;
  • that a request be made to the Executive Council for permission to set up a Defence Fund in support of Bro Attwood.2

The powerful Amalgamated Engineering Union also became involved. Much of the credit for that must go to LAC John Day. Day was one of the Drigh Road delegation which met the Air Commodore. He was not a Communist and I did not know him well. He was now home, with several weeks’ leave, and he devoted virtually the whole of his leave to working for the defence committee.

He wrote his own account of the Drigh Road story and attached a copy of my document on the SIB’s methods. This was circulated to many organisations, including branches of the AEU, to whose Hendon branch Day belonged. He also set out to get the Attwood case publicised in the national press.

In the minutes of the North London District Committee of the AEU, 29 May, 1946, it is recorded that Day "stated that since he had been home he had gone from newspaper to newspaper, but there appeared to be a barrier, which he thought was almost impossible to break through. Nevertheless, he had been successful with Reynold’s News, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Worker, and it appeared that it was now up to the trade union movement to fight the case to the bitter end. The ETU had already initiated a campaign on behalf of Bro Attwood, and he appealed to the AEU to join in the struggle.

"Our brother was thanked for his statement and congratulated for his splendid, unselfish efforts in sacrificing his whole leave in the fight for freedom of conscience and ordinary elementary rights and justice within the ranks of the armed forces."

The Committee then resolved:

  • that the AEU executive committee be asked to place the Attwood case on the TUC agenda and "before our Members of Parliament";
  • that the executive committee of the London Trades Council be asked to grant an interview with Day in order to "pursue the question of LAC Attwood with the appropriate Government department, with a view to his unconditional release";
  • to demand that the Government take the necessary steps to establish an independent committee of inquiry into the Attwood affair;
  • to send a resolution to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Air; and
  • to pledge the committee’s support to the ETU "in any action which they may consider to be essential".3

Many other trade union branches and committees expressed support. So did the London Trades Council. And the annual conference of the Tobacco Workers’ Union carried unanimously a resolution protesting emphatically at the treatment of LAC Attwood. Calling the affair "a blot on the record of the Labour Government", they called for an independent committee of inquiry "in order that British justice may be vindicated".4

The National Council for Civil Liberties also took up the Attwood case. D N Pritt was very actively on our side from the beginning. A number of other MPs, among whom Tom Driberg was prominent, were also helpful. One of them was Lieut James Callaghan, RNVR, but when asked by a TV researcher in 1996 if he would like to comment, Lord Callaghan declined.

Pritt, receiving information directly from Arthur and myself, tabled telling questions in the House. Other MPs, fed with material by the defence committee and sometimes by their constituents in Karachi, also asked questions or applied informal pressure. Individuals wrote letters to MPs and cabinet ministers. Trade union branches and other organisations passed resolutions and sent copies to the press, to their headquarters and to MPs. Deputations went to see their MPs or ministers from the Air Ministry. Nor was activity confined to London. Committees in Liverpool and Clydeside engaged in similar work.

As the campaign developed, news came through about Stone and Noble, and the defence committee began to work on behalf of those two as well as Attwood. At Worli the three prisoners began to receive messages of goodwill and support. A telegram from the London shop stewards of the Furnishing Trade Workers reached them, but a telegram to Arthur from the ETU was returned to sender - address unknown!

Some of the organisations involved in the campaign also gave support to the prisoners’ families. Arthur’s wife, Violet, still has a letter from Bill Jones, secretary of the Dalston Bus Branch of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. The branch, he told her, "directed me to assure you that you may depend upon their full support" and "as an expression of their unity with yourself and your husband they ask you to accept the enclosed £6 to help in the case".

On 14 June a mass meeting was held in the Memorial Hall in Farringdon Road, London, convened by the London Area Committee of the ETU and supported by the Area Committee of the AEU. Among the speakers were Tom Cook, the ETU-sponsored MP, H Levitt from the NCCL, and Jack Reid, Area President of the AEU. Also on the platform were two of the Drigh Road strikers, Ernie Margetts and John Day, the latter in his RAF uniform. The meeting was chaired by Bro J A Lane, Area President of the ETU.

Though no attendance figure is available, this seems to have been a big and enthusiastic meeting. According to the ETU minutes, "the enthusiasm was remarkable", and a resolution was carried unanimously, demanding the immediate release of Attwood, Stone and Noble. It went on: "this meeting decides to elect a Defence Committee and to open a fund to provide the best possible legal defence for those on or awaiting trial. We demand that legislation should be promoted for the democratisation of the whole of the services, and that machinery should be set up so that servicemen could air their grievances in the constitutional way".5

This new, more representative defence committee would effectively replace the body formed initially to campaign for Arthur Attwood. A meeting of the new committee was called for the following week, but before it could take place there was wonderful news.

The mounting campaign - the petitions, the deputations, the resolutions, the questions in the House, the informal pressure from MPs and now the public meeting - was very embarrassing for the Labour government. It is not known how much direct pressure came from ministers, but Air Headquarters at Bangalore, having refused to confirm the first Attwood verdict of not guilty, now failed to confirm the guilty verdict, and Arthur was released on 25 June. The outstanding balance on his legal expenses was met from public funds; but he was never found not guilty; and he received no apology and no compensation for what he had suffered.

Stone and Noble were released shortly afterwards, and on 3 July Geoffrey de Freitas, who had replaced John Strachey as Under Secretary of State for Air, announced that all charges of incitement to mutiny in connection with the January incidents had been dropped.

Just before he left India, Arthur received a letter from Joe Lane, President of the Area ETU Committee, who had worked very hard in the campaign. "We consider," he wrote, "that it is one of the greatest feats of ... the union and its effects have been very, very far-reaching. ...we congratulate you and your colleagues on the magnificent stand you have made in demanding the right of putting into effect the principles that are so dear to us as trade unionists. We have done little, but I think that the stand made by yourself and colleagues is reverberating throughout the world and has had its effect on the Government, and it will no doubt help us very considerably to establish throughout the whole of the Services those rights and privileges for which you and your colleagues have suffered so much". An element of exaggeration there, perhaps, but it was a famous victory.

Norris Cymbalist was still in gaol, however, and it seemed that very little could be done for him through the legal machinery. When his lawyers asked for a copy of the court martial proceedings, they were refused on the grounds that there was only one copy in the country! When Pritt asked why their request was turned down, the answer was that "it would not have been possible to have the papers copied before now without delaying the Air Council’s present review of the proceedings"!6 Cymbalist’s father was also unable to obtain a copy of the court’s proceedings because "the only copy is the one held by the Air Council". One wonders therefore how many members of that august body had actually read the document before they made their decision.

Cymbalist’s solicitors wanted to appear before the council to put their case as part of the review, but were told that they had no right to do so. Pritt asked why the Ministry could not create a precedent and arrange for the solicitors to be heard. In his reply Strachey indicated that the Air Council was not a judicial body, and thus admitted that a man could be sentenced to ten years’ penal servitude and yet have no right of appeal to any court of justice.7

In the event the Air Council did reduce the sentence from ten years to five, but even this was difficult to defend at the best of times and virtually impossible when the other strikers had been set free. So the pressure mounted for Cymbalist’s release. The defence committee could now concentrate on his case, and when Attwood, Stone and Noble got home, all three joined in the campaign.

Many airmen, angered by Cymbalist’s treatment, found ways of expressing their feelings. Airmen and women at the RAF station at Bishopbriggs in Scotland signed a petition protesting about the treatment of Cymbalist and then sent a telegram to the Prime Minister.

A number of airmen in India sent a petition to Lord Stansgate, the Minister for Air, calling for Cymbalist’s release. "As everyone knows," they said, "the RAF incidents of last January were primarily due to dissatisfaction with the demobilisation and repatriation programme, further aggravated by poor welfare conditions. It is ridiculous to pin responsibility for such widespread yet orderly demonstrations on a handful of men, and now that other prisoners have been released, we call on the authorities to free the remaining victim and thus end a most regrettable piece of repression in the only possible way. Release Norris Cymbalist now!"

There were similar protests from other service personnel, including forty soldiers from a REME unit in Germany, who wrote to Tom Driberg, MP, demanding Cymbalist’s release.

In Britain the defence committee and its many supporters maintained pressure on MPs and ministers. There were protests from many different organisations, and the Air Ministry files still record an emergency resolution from the annual conference of the Clerical and Administrative Workers’ Union and resolutions from branches of the AEU and the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers.8 The National Council for Civil Liberties continued its active support, and in May, 1947, the defence committee merged with the NCCL’s Sub-Committee on Democratic Rights for the Armed Forces, and the campaign for Cymbalist’s release became part of the more general struggle to democratise the services.

The sub-committee’s objects were to deal with cases of victimisation in the services and to seek;

  • l the fullest political and civil rights for members of the armed forces;
  • l revision of the code of military law, especially as it relates to courts martial and summary punishments;
  • l better education and welfare services, including vocational training for civil life;
  • l the right of free voluntary association and discussion.9

The sub-committee convened a public meeting in the Palace Theatre, London, in November, 1947. Among the speakers were three ex-servicemen, including Lieut Callaghan, MP. The future Lord Callaghan was calling for an overhaul of the Territorial Army. The present structure of the TA, he complained, was of a most undemocratic nature, its direction and the granting of commissions being in the hands of retired Blimps.

Ex-Staff Sergeant Major Bardell spoke about his experiences as secretary to the famous Cairo Forces’ Parliament. He described how the authorities, alarmed at the left-wing views being expressed in the parliament, imposed new rules which made a parody of free discussion and finally posted the leading members of the "government" to the four corners of the earth.

Arthur Attwood, now back home and in better health, gave an account of the January strikes and of his subsequent treatment. Both he and D N Pritt voiced demands for a complete overhaul of court-martial procedure and the rights of defendants. The meeting then "came to an enthusiastic conclusion with the unanimous adoption of a resolution calling for the fullest political and civil rights and improved educational and welfare services for the armed forces".10

A few days after this meeting Cymbalist was released, having served 22 months of his sentence. All four of the strike leaders were now free.

  • 1Richard Parker, leader of the Nore mutiny, hanged from the yardarm of his ship, 1797.
  • 2Minutes of the ETU London Area Committee, 25 May 1946.
  • 3Minutes of AEU North London Area Committee, 29 May 1946.
  • 4Resolution moved by the general secretary. Conference papers are in the Attwood Collection.
  • 5Minutes of ETU London Area Committee, 29 June 1946.
  • 6Strachey’s written reply to a question by Pritt, Hansard, 9 May 1946.
  • 7Hansard, 5 May 1946.
  • 8PRO AIR 19/441
  • 9Minutes of NCCL Sub-Committee on Democratic Rights for the Armed Forces, 2 May and 15 May 1947.
  • 10The Young Communist League paper, Challenge.