"Many believe that subtlety is wanting in military genius" - Tacitus.
When a strike took place, the unit or station commander usually referred to group or command headquarters, and the most senior officers in turn approached London on a number of issues. Responses usually came in the form of suggestions or advice, not orders, and the advice was not always followed.
When he was concerned about the situation at Mauripur, Air Marshal Sir Roderick Carr contacted London and received a reply from Air Chief Marshal Slessor, the Air Member for Personnel. Slessor signalled that Carr would have the full support of the Secretary of State if he would:
There is no record of what Carr had to say to the Mauripur commander, but no one appears to have acted on this advice, and there was no prosecution of any of the Mauripur strikers.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, Air Officer Commanding, South East Asia Command, had his headquarters in Singapore. Alarmed when the men at the Seletar base, on his own doorstep, took strike action and rejected his appeal to return to work, he sent a full report to the Secretary of State, the Chief of Air Staff and the Air Member for Personnel. His message ended with the question, "What assistance may I call on the Army to give in the event of the men refusing persistently to return to work when ordered by their officers?"
Slessor replied, "You can, of course, call on the Army to give you any assistance you, in consultation with (General) Dempsey, may consider practicable and necessary. Obviously, it is most undesirable to call on Army at all unless absolutely essential. You know you have the support of the Air Ministry in taking firm action where necessary. But no one but responsible commanders on the spot can decide in detail what action is necessary or practicable."2
So decision-making was left to unit or station commanders, and in general they behaved very sensibly. They recognised the strikers’ determination; they appreciated that the men were orderly and that officers were not molested; they were thankful that essential services continued to function. In this situation it was of major importance to avoid provocation, so none of the commanders called in the military or the police, and for the most part - at least in India - they made no attempts at arrest and most did not even give any direct order to the men to return to work. Many gave an undertaking that there would be no punishments. The men were thus able to return to work without bitterness, confident that they had made their point about demobilisation. Many station commanders would surely have liked to leave the matter there. However, at a higher level consideration was being given to punishment.
Who should be punished, and in what way? One possibility was to stop the men’s pay for the time they had refused to work, but a message from Slessor, addressed to both Park and Carr, put a stop to that. He had consulted the Judge Advocate General, he told them, and "You cannot impose a stoppage without arraigning airman and finding him guilty of absence from duty. The only way of dealing with these incidents is to identify ringleaders and deal with them immediately by court-martial. No doubt this is difficult, but is it impossible?"3
Shortly afterwards, however, the question of punishments was effectively taken away from SEAC with the announcement that a Court of Inquiry, headed by the Inspector-General, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Barratt, would make a tour of the disaffected areas and investigate the "recent incidents of disaffection". The court would "determine the responsibilities both for the actual outbreaks of indiscipline and for the circumstances which gave rise to them" and "make necessary recommendations". The court selected half a dozen stations from different parts of the command, visited each of them and heard a large number of witnesses. It was as a result of this court’s findings that the series of SIB investigations took place.
Most station commanders waited patiently for the findings of the Court of Inquiry, but Group Captain Francis, Commanding Officer at Seletar, seems to have decided to have his say first. Air Chief Marshal Park complained to the Inspector-General that when giving evidence into the causes of the mutiny, Francis "produced masses of written evidence intended to throw the entire blame ... on to group headquarters", when the evidence to the court showed clearly that the officers had not been keeping in touch with their NCOs and airmen since the station was re-occupied in September, 1945.4
A preliminary Court of Inquiry also atributed specific blame to Group Captain Francis, but the main Court of Inquiry, headed by the Inspector General, formed a more favourable impression of the CO and reported that he had "in fact conscientiously and consistently discharged his duties to the best of his ability and within his administrative capacity under the very difficult conditions which confronted him during the months which preceded the outbreak."5
Another commander who came in for criticism was Wing Commander Penman, in charge of the Rangoon squadron which stopped work on 29 January. His boss, Air Marshal Sir Hugh Saunders, in command in Burma, conceded that Penman had a "fine operational record" and there was no doubt, he said in a report to Park, that in issuing orders for a daily working parade "he was trying conscientiously to implement instructions as he interpreted them". But had he "been fully in touch with his men he would have realised that the institution of full working parades on the lines he adopted would lead to trouble and he would have modified his arrangements accordingly".
This was especially the case when the CO was "aware of the presence on the Squadron of men who were known to have taken part in a ‘Forces Parliament’ in Rangoon, at which high level service matters had been discussed and minutes of the meeting circulated to Members of Parliament. There was little doubt that these men were responsible for the incident at No. 194 Squadron," reported the Air Marshal, then adding, "though this could not be proved"! In summary, Penman was "a young and keen officer but insufficiently experienced to handle the admittedly very difficult situation with which he was faced, namely a dissatisfied squadron containing a cell of agitators and living under poor conditions".
Was Penman being made a scapegoat? Did the fault lie with the man who had tried conscientiously to implement the decision to hold daily working parades or with the man who made the decision in the first place? One has to have some sympathy for Wing Commander Penman.
Saunders would have liked to remove Penman from his post and to "transfer the bad elements", but either of these changes was likely to precipitate further incidents. Since the squadron was scheduled to disband in the future, he recommended to Park that the disbandment programme be accelerated. Park agreed and by 15 February there was no longer a No. 194 Squadron.6
At Drigh Road the attitude seems to have been there was no one to blame because virtually nothing had happened! The Station Operations Book records:
"19th January: A small number of airmen showed discontent with service conditions and the slowness of demobilisation by means of a slight demonstration. Not more than 250 men were involved, who, after being addressed by the Commanding Officer, returned to their normal duties.
"20th January: Misled by the example of the R.A.F., R.I.A.F. personnel refused their dinner on 20/1/46 and their breakfast on 21/1/46. The reasons for this demonstration were the same as those which led to the action of the British airmen, discontent with conditions, impatience over demobilisation.
"21st January: Air Commodore Freebody paid a flying visit from Delhi and addressed the men. Conditions had now returned to normal..."7
This report is a real masterpiece of understatement. Every one of the more than twelve hundred men below the rank of sergeant had defied the Commanding Officer’s order to parade. Not a single man on the station had carried out his order to prepare kit for inspection. They had rejected his whole morning’s programme and shown every likelihood of repeating the action if he failed to meet their demands. But this was put down as "a slight demonstration" involving "not more than 250 men"!
It might also be noted that Air Commodore Freebody did not "address the men". He negotiated with a delegation of twenty and incidentally agreed terms which were humiliating for the Commanding Officer, since they took away his best blue parades and daily working parades, banned his kit inspections and reduced the hours of work that he had been requiring. Surprising consequences for a "slight demonstration"!
Senior officers in SEAC were agreed that the strikes had been brought about by "agitators", variously described as "a small number of labour or political agitators", "a small but well-organised minority", "experienced political agitators" or even "professional agitators". But no one of intelligence could believe that this alone could explain what had happened. Agitators needed grievances to exploit. The main grievance was seen to be the slowness of demobilisation, and both Park and Carr pressed for a government statement on the subject of release. In a report to London, Carr said "I deplore the action of the airmen but owing to the widespread nature of the incidents I cannot suggest any alternative to a general government statement. While I entirely agree with you in principle, that the Government should not be called upon to issue a general statement as a concession to indiscipline, I feel that, in this instance, it may have serious consequences". Carr indicated that, unless the government made a comprehensive statement, even if it did not meet the airmen’s requirements, he anticipated that the men would strike again and stay out. Units which had returned to work had done so on the assumption that their dissatisfaction with the demobilisation policy had been presented to the government, and a comprehensive statement from the government was expected.8 In response, Attlee did make a statement in the Commons on 29 January, but he had little of consequence to say, his theme being simply, "We must honour our commitments".9
Other grievances of the men were considered in a report on Morale and Discipline, drawn up by SEAC headquarters soon after the strike wave had subsided. It did not cover India, but conditions there were much the same as in the rest of the Command. The report began by considering the many complaints about demobilisation and repatriation, noting, incidentally, that personnel in Malaysia "had been critical of British intervention in Indonesia". One of the more local grievances concerned the men’s tropical kit. "The bad fit and the clumsy appearance of the United Kingdom issue of tropical kit were felt acutely ... as airmen, desiring to appear smart, were often reduced to buying for themselves shorts, trousers and bush shirts of a better pattern. This, it was considered, was a most unfair burden on their pay". And "generally, the reversion to peacetime service procedure, such as regular parades, was disliked on the grounds that it was considered unreasonable to impose peacetime customs and regulations before the peacetime benefits were restored".
"Rations continued to be monotonous," continued the report, though the men would no doubt have chosen a different word to describe their food. There was also a shortage of furniture, and men disliked the rope beds ("charpoys") which were in common use. Interest in work, it was noted, "was at a low ebb".10
Why had these and other local grievances not received attention? Sir Keith Park, as Air Officer in charge of the whole Command, might have been thought to have some responsibility, but he tended to blame unit commanders for not keeping in touch with the men. On 26 January he sent a signal to all commanding officers of RAF units in SEAC. "Investigation has already shown," he said, "that some commanding officers have not been keeping in close touch with their airmen, especially in regard to explaining the working of the release scheme and investigating complaints about living conditions immediately."
Commanding officers should prepare themselves to handle incidents "tactfully and firmly". They should hear the men’s complaints and promise immediate investigation. Meanwhile, the men must be told to return to work. "Commanding officers must remain outwardly calm and good-tempered, but every effort is to be made to locate the ringleaders, who will be subject to disciplinary action."
He was insistent that COs should address their men once a fortnight on demobilisation, living conditions and so on, and Air Officers Commanding must personally see that this instruction was being carried out, especially by commanding officers of small units. And, to be quite sure that it was being done, "I wish A.O.C.s to report to me fortnightly by signal that this instruction has been carried out by Commanding Officers".
After the events at Seletar and Kallang, Park elaborated on these orders and strengthened his instructions on disciplinary action. "When a mass parade is inevitable," he signalled, "the Commanding Officer should ensure that he has all officers and N.C.O.s briefed in preparation to stamp out any open disorder. The R.A.F. Regiment and Service Police should be used on these occasions". If there was collective disobedience, every effort should be made to separate the disloyal minority from the loyal men. Ringleaders were to be "marked down for arrest when considered desirable" and then to be "dealt with most severely and not be shown any leniency by Unit Commanders or Courts-Martial".11
In summary, then, the assessment from SEAC headquarters was that the men were impatient for release or repatriation; that, while waiting for their turn to go home, they resented both the poor living conditions and the introduction of peacetime discipline; that some commanding officers failed to maintain contact with their men; and that agitators exploited the resulting situation to bring about the strikes. Apart from quaint and exaggerated views about the degree of organisation and the powers of "agitators", this analysis was sound enough - as far as it went. But it ignored some basic problems. The gulf between officers and men was so wide that many of the officers had little appreciation of the conditions in which their men had to live; the attitude of most officers meant that the channels for complaints were permanently clogged; there were no arrangements for collective complaints; and many of the grievances could only be remedied by expenditure for which the funding was not available.
Sir Roderick Carr made a more political approach in his post-strike signal to commanding officers of all RAF units in India (The signal did not go to Indian Air Force units). "The government plan for demobilisation must be a balanced one. Our industries at home require manpower, but this cannot be provided at the risk of endangering the safety of the world. There are still defence problems in India. The public press has recently made it clear that a political crisis is approaching, a crisis which may only be solved by little short of civil war. If you wish you may quote me as authority for this".
The British government, he claimed, were now fully aware that conscripts in the RAF had little or no pride in their service. He did not believe that the "misguided" airmen who took part in the recent so-called strikes realised that what they did might endanger the safety of India. "Already their example has been followed by the R.I.A.F. Such actions can only encourage civil disturbances and may lead to grave consequences for everyone in India, including those airmen who are not due for repatriation in the near future". In conclusion, Carr instructed his commanders, "Use your discretion in getting this information across to your personnel, but it is imperative at this time that everyone should be aware of the grave issues which are at stake and the responsibility which every airman carries, however junior he may be".12