12 Inquest

Two of this century’s outstanding figures have left us definitions of history, the written version of history, that is. The intellectual Anatole France gave an appropriately intellectual definition: `History is not a science, it is a deception`1. The second celebrity is Henry Ford I, no intellectual but a straight forward, hard-headed business baron, whose definition was in keeping with his character: `History is bunk`.

To these definitions I, who am neither distinguished nor famous, perhaps a little notorious, would like to add my contribution: `And historians are the bunkers of historical bunk`. Bible students say that in the course of time the original text has been so chopped around, distorted and altered that the authors would not recognise a single comma today. At least the process took four thousand years to accomplish. But the story of the Invergordon mutiny in 1931 has been so rehashed by writers and official document compilers that, after only forty-odd years, I find it difficult to recognise the incident I participated in.

In the latest, `most authentic` account by David Divine, Defence Correspondent of the Sunday Times, so little space is devoted to the activities of the lower deck that a reader might wonder whether the strike was actually run by sailors or by a group of panic-stricken senior officers, few of whom knew what to do or when to do it. As on of the lower deck men who were there, I declare, without fear of contradiction, that the sequence of events described by me is exact and true, and any different version only hearsay, imagination and exaggeration.

Someone who got near the truth in summing up Invergordon was Yexley2 when he said `That what may be called a strike in the civil world would, in their case, be mutiny, hardly occurred to them. Many people think of mutiny as bloodshed, the anxiety of the men blinded them to its true meaning`. But Yexley did not go far enough. Put briefly, the men of the lower deck were like a father, unable to swim, who sees his only child fall into a deep lake; at first he hesitates, then discards all fear and dives to the rescue, knowing as his head strikes the water that it is a tremendous risk but that he must take the one chance in a million or forever be responsible for his child’s death.

We took that million to one chance and won, not because we were led by experience agitators but because the people responsible for protecting us failed in their duty, not only to us but to the country. Despite their gold braid, their honours and their orders, they cowered before incompetent politicians and crucified the finest body of men in the world. They hurried to make sacrifices for the good of the country, but they did not realise that with their large pay, privileges and extras, it was not themselves they were sacrificing. They sacrificed, in fact, both the lower deck, whom they did not even trouble to inform of their gallant gesture, and the prestige of the Royal Navy. What they had really done became clear the moment the men refused duty. Instead of acknowledging their blame and resigning, however, the Board of Admiralty took the measures described in the last chapter against the strike leaders of the lower deck, and then set to work to find a scapegoat with enough gold braid to look impressive, but not so much as to make it impossible to hang the can on him. Admiral Tomkinson was the chosen victim.

The disgracing of Admiral Tomkinson was not achieved until February 1932. It took time to mature. Whilst I was going through the process of being kicked out of the Navy with the best of character, Whitehall was conducting its own `secret` inquest, with a view to finding the necessary scapegoat and covering the Board of Admiralty with the thickest coat of whitewash ever prepared by that experienced whitewashing firm. Alas, the sins already paraded before the public were too blatant to be concealed by the slapdash artists they employed. Moreover, the Board’s obstinate belief in its own righteousness and its complete misunderstanding of Invergordon led it into further blunders. For instance, they appointed Admiral Kelly, Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet and instructed him to conduct an official inquiry into the whole affair. Now Admiral Kelly was not only efficient, but was unswayed by bias of rank, and he approached his task with an open mind. He found his answers where nobody else had looked for them. He went to the lower deck and, after an almost microscopic study of every event, small or significant, he drew the one and only possible conclusion: the Board of Admiralty were guilty of mishandling the affair from the moment the cuts were first suggest to the closing chapter.

Understandably the Admiralty were not anxious to publish the full text of Admiral Kelly’s report (a gap which no later writer has filled), so they set about drawing up a `table of guilt`, demonstrating, rather in the manner of a detective story diagram, which of the various participants should carry what degree of blame. Unlike the detective story diagram, there was no arrow pointing to where the body lay, but chief responsibility was shared out among the First National Government, the high command of the Atlantic Fleet, the officers and men `of a few ships of the Atlantic Fleet`, the imaginary agitators and the mutineers; whilst a very minor degree of responsibility attached to the secret service for failing to find any agitators and to the Admiralty themselves. It was a magnificent gesture on their part to admit a little guilt – like the unmarried mother who was still a virgin because her baby was such a teeny weeny one.

Was this `table` a part of the screen behind which the Board was preparing to disgrace Admiral Tomkinson? Several months elapsed before the public of Britain and Admiral Tomkinson himself suddenly discovered that he was responsible for Invergordon; or, to be precise, responsible for not taking the measures which the mutiny at Invergordon called for. It can only be assumed that, long after the mutiny was over, the Board decided that force should have been used to suppress it. Evidently the Admiralty had so convinced itself that `only a few` were involved that they could see no problem in Admiral Tomkinson’s finding enough `loyal` men to carry out a punitive mission. The Mediterranean Fleet did not strike, the three main depots did not strike, the men of the destroyers did not strike and neither did the men of the submarine force, so `loyalty` was general and mutiny the aberration of a few.

A more purblind summing up of the situation could not be found in the whole of British history. The lower deck throughout the Navy was behind the men of the Atlantic Fleet. There are only one or two minor incidents to support this, but I believe they confirm it beyond doubt. I have already recounted how the men of Norfolk unanimously voted me on to the Canteen Committee after the strike and without any canvassing on my part. In addition to this overwhelming vote for me, to a position I never had the chance to occupy, there was a second demonstration of support. After I had left the Navy the men on the Canteen Committee moved that I, and the other discharged men, should be sent a grant from canteen funds. This act needs no commentary: it was more heartfelt and sincere than all the Board’s declarations of pseudo-loyalty. To the commander who was presiding, it was a bombshell, and he quickly vetoed the suggestion, although in practice, he had no say over the allocation of funds to which officers did not contribute. A small postal order to supplement my salary as the fifteen-thousandth member of St Pancras Labour Exchange queue would have been most helpful at that time, but it was a still greater uplift to feel that solid support which only the lower deck is capable of. The voices of individual sailors spoke of support for the strike everywhere. One man who had no reason to be kindly disposed towards me said: `It doesn’t matter what personal injury he did to me. I only know he did this for us`.

Being put on the spot, Admiral Tomkinson knew that a strike so all-embracing and solidly supported could not have been answered with the measures the Admiralty was later to prescribe; but that, on the contrary, such action would have led to a catastrophe in which Britain would have suffered damage more serious and lasting than Invergordon ever did. As it were, Invergordon led to widespread reforms in the structure of the Royal Navy, particularly in the relationships between officers and men. I was assured of this by a present-day, serving, naval officer whom I met at a reception in Moscow, and who respected me as one of the body of men who had brought about those reforms. He told me that after Invergordon the Navy was so radically changed in every way, that it was the only British armed force ready to meet the threat of Hitler when it came. Judging by Dunkirk, the gentleman was right; and he could not have paid the lower deck a greater compliment.

So, as I come to the end of the Invergordon story as I saw it and know it, a few conclusions may be drawn: That the mutiny was a purely naval affair, started by naval men alone, conducted by naval men and ended by naval men, without the least interference of any shape or shade from outside; That the men were forced to take an action which was in every way against their creed of loyalty to the service and against their political beliefs, if any; That this was their only alternative to allowing the cuts to become operational and thereby reducing the Navy to the level of a fleet of Greek raisin boats and their families to poverty; That the Admiralty had, without the least protest, thrown to the wolves ninety thousand men, the bulk of whom had signed their lives to the service at a very tender age and for whose care and welfare they were responsible; That when the Admiralty met resistance they resorted to devious methods to save their own careers and their future awards and honours; That in addition they prepared the downfall of a brother officer whose efforts on behalf of the service were worthy of the highest praise.

What motivated the Admiralty to betray the men they were called upon to lead, to start a smear campaign against them, and finally to break their promise of no victimisation? However these facts are examined, there seems but one explanation: class prejudice. They were high-ranking officers, with distinguished careers in war and peace and in some cases noteworthy personal achievements to their credit. Yet, at the least sign of any differences with the lower deck, they became obsessed by an uncontrollable urge to persecute and punish, with the vicious spleen of a Judge Jeffreys. Scarcely one measure of any kind, carried out by the Admiralty and concerning the lower deck, was not based on class prejudice, from their refusal of the simplest requests of the Welfare Committee to the major event of Invergordon.

As one historian puts it: `There are good and bad Boards, and this Board was very bad`.

  • 1. These may not be his exact words, but if not I must beg tolerance as I have translated them from a Russian translation of the French. His point is clear.
  • 2. Pen-name of a former able seaman, James Wood, who edited in turn The Bluejacket and The Fleet in the inter-war years.