8 The Guilty Admirals

After the Invergordon mutiny was over numerous fables were invented to explain it away. Interested people anxious to save their own miserable skins dug up red or green or yellow agitators who had plotted beforehand and pushed loyal sailors into mutiny. Stories increased and multiplied about secret signals, about the word `comrade` in signalled messages, about clandestine meetings under cover of the Antediluvian Order of the Buffaloes on the Atlantic Fleet’s passage north to Invergordon. Far from first learning of the cuts on that fateful Sunday morning, the men (it was said) had been well prepared beforehand by the rumours that were flying about and had even gone the length of suggesting mutiny at a meeting in the Invergordon canteen on Saturday, 12 September – the night before the Admiralty order was posted.

All these stories are so much rubbish, figments of a diseased brain; and the writers who accept them as genuine are no saner than the inventors. On the way up to Invergordon the lower deck was unaware of the coming cut in pay. We had no reason to plot, to meet in secret or to send secret signals. It is doubtfall if there were one Communist in the Fleet. (Today, on the other hand, when the so called `militant groups` are pampered by both press and government, it is possible there are some on every ship.) As for the imaginary meeting on 12 September, when, it is alleged, mutiny was first proposed, there is only one question to ask about it: would the men of the Fleet decide on a step which, according to the Articles of War, might lead to a death sentence, on the basis of a rumour? The answer is no, emphatically no, the Navy does not breed such fools as that.

I heard no rumours whatever, and believe them to have been fathered after the event by the Invergordon historians. But if any did exist, they can have carried no weight nor in any way destroyed the men’s belief that previous contracts would be honoured. What there is no gainsaying is the fact that the official Admiralty order did not appear on the ships’ noticeboards until the morning of Sunday, 13 September, and that it was this official announcement that broke the men’s faith.

It was less the cuts in themselves than the size of the cuts that undermined our trust. We all knew the economy was in a bad way, and had a reduction of five, or even six, per cent been announced, nobody would have uttered a word. It was the impoverishing twenty-five per cent which shocked us into spontaneous action. We first heard of this sum at breakfast time on Sunday morning, and by that same afternoon there had been a meeting in the canteen and a resolution to strike. You can’t get much more spontaneous than that.

Britain was then faced with a financial crisis. Whether it was caused by mismanagement, an act of God or anything else is of no consequence at the moment. In order to overcome its difficulties, the government resorted to the usual measures – an attack upon the finances of the little man. All, as far as governments are concerned, in order; nut the amazing thing was that the Board of Admiralty, which ostensibly had the welfare of the little men of the lower deck at heart, entered into the conspiracy.

I have already explained that there were two pay scales in the Navy; one, fixed in 1919, which gave the able seaman a basic wage of four shillings a day, and another, for men joining from October 1925 onwards, which allowed three shillings a day. When this rate was fixed, the 1919 men were promised that their pay would not be lowered to match that of the new ratings, and the believed this promise. In 1931 the majority on the lower deck were still on the 1919 rate. The government’s proposal, accepted with unbridled eagerness by the Admiralty and announced in the order we first saw on that Sunday morning, was to reduce everyone to the 1925 level. It was to come into effect a couple of weeks later.

After the mutiny the members of the Board of Admiralty claimed to have protested against breaking the pledge to maintain naval pay rates. People said it was not the Board but the Cabinet who demanded the cuts. True, the Cabinet ordered cuts for the whole country; but the work of preparing them for the Navy was the work of the Admiralty. It was an Admiralty staff of accountancy experts who made the calculations and eventually compiled that sixteen-page announcement with all its financial details. And, like Rome, it was not a day’s job.

The most astonishing aspect of the proceedings was the indecent haste with which My Lords hurried to carry out the Cabinet’s wishes in respect of the sum to be saved at the Navy’s expense. Without any consideration of the outcome, they plunged into working out this measure as if their own lives depended upon it. They arbitrarily placed in the balance the very existences of the ninety thousand trained men and ten thousand well educated officers, many of them important specialists, for whose fate they were entirely responsible.

No one will suggest that they did not know the Navy was the vital lynch-pin holding together what was then the British Empire.

The measures the Board should have taken were very simple. For a brief period their duty was to abandon their position as chairborne admirals and become seaborne. Instead of issuing arbitrary announcements about loyalty, sacrifices and other noble sentiments, they should have gone to the Fleet and explained to all ranks the situation the country was in and discovered how the government proposals would affect them. They could have gone through the comedy of calling an extraordinary session of the Welfare Committee which would at least have given the impression that they were interested in the fate of their men.

But their training, their upbringing in the naval college was an insurmountable barrier preventing a Lord of the Admiralty from going to the men, however dire the country’s circumstances. One glance at any of the orders in reply to requests from the Welfare Committee would show the spirit which guided them in their relations with the men, their reluctance to bend even slightly their majestic heads to listen for once to the lower deck. So they remained on their exalted perch, seeing nothing lower than the top of Nelson’s Column and setting their standards of relations between the lower deck and the wardroom by those that existed in the wooden walls that great man commanded. True, the yard-arm line and the cat-o’-nine-tails had gone. But the scum mentality remained. For this reason the appeal to loyalty fell somewhat flat on the ears of the only men that were really loyal, and never so sincere about it as at Invergordon.

With all their power and with the certain backing of the Navy, the Board did not lift a finger to stop the cuts. What is more, they schemed to launch them as an almost perfect fait accompli.

Altogether there were three documents connected with announcing the cuts: a telegram dated 3 September, to commanders-in-chief, announcing that reductions were coming; the famous letter C.W. [Commissions and Warrants Department] 8284/31, dated 10 September, giving the details; and the Admiralty Fleet order itself. The first two of these were sent to the wrong ship – to Nelson, flagship of the Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Sir Michael Hodges, then ill in hospital, instead of to the Hood, aboard which was the acting C-in-C, Rear-Admiral Tomkinson. And the third of these documents arrived late.

Such mishandling of documents might be believed an accident, but I doubt it. I once had personal experience of a mislaid signal. In 1924, when I was serving as a boy first class in the Devonport Submarine Flotilla, I was lent during the leave period to the Dockyard Signal Tower as a messenger. The first message I had to deliver was to a newly built and commissioned submarine of the L class. I came down the forehatch into the boat and saw a number of people busy with different tasks. One man, a burly type in his shirt-sleeves, seemed to be doing a lot of ordering, so I guessed he was the coxswain, a chief petty officer. I handed him the signal, and there and then he read it aloud. It was from the admiral of the port announcing that the submarine should proceed to the pool in Plymouth Sound the next day, when he would come aboard to inspect it. I heard the man read the signal quite clearly. He then dismissed me and I went back to the tower.

Next day the admiral, plus suite and barge, went out to the pool and the cupboard was bare, there was no submarine. I learned this when I was dragged along day after day to give evidence about how I had delivered the signal and to whom. From the way the investigation, by all kinds of gold braid, went on and on I began to think I might take my pension answering questions about this minor mix-up. Having experienced all the to-do over a signal of trivial importance, how could I believe that when a signal of infinitely greater importance went astray it was a matter of no concern to the senders.

Admiral Hodge’s illness was no part of the scheme. It was genuine. But there may have been those, or maybe only one person, in the Admiralty who saw in this an excuse for the signal to go astray. Despite the arbitrary measures then being legislated, we still had a Parliament and other organs that might, if only to make political capital, have raised the question before the public if the signal was delayed without some pretext. If there is anything which scares naval brass, it is interference in their affairs by MPs and people like them. Very often I have heard a naval officer say `… and then you’ll write to your MP`, in the manner of someone who hopes you won’t.

So, like a dog without a collar, the signal went astray, and the Atlantic Fleet, under the command of a junior admiral, Rear-Admiral Tomkinson, left, on 8 September, for Invergordon, unaware of the shattering news awaiting it.

One possible reason for a deliberate withholding of the signal was that the Admiralty’s accountants had worked out the allocation of the cuts at a most inopportune moment, when the ships – and therefore the sailors, some thirty thousand in all – were all in the home ports, Chatham, Portsmouth and Devonport: three large industrial towns. In 1931 each of these towns had its contingent of unemployed, part of the two-and-a-half million throughout the country who were getting more and more militant every day, and who also were to be affected by the government’s economies. The Admiralty may well have seen, perhaps with help from government officials, that there was a new danger here. Never before had the Services been made to feel the pinch of economy together with the workers and unemployed. Disclosure of the order would inevitably lead to trouble on the lower deck, in which the unemployed and many workers would join, no doubt with the moral support of their wives. In brief, steps had to be taken to prevent what many had been afraid of since the General Strike: the possibility of servicemen combining with workers to repel an attack on the living standards of both.

So, the fortuitous illness of an admiral and the naval movements schedule worked out long before the crisis ensured that the ships of the Fleet were isolated in the Firth of Cromarty. At this point the Admiralty quietly made their announcement, keeping it in the family, so to say.

But the Board tangled themselves up in their own web and incidentally put their fellow officers in the Fleet in an impossible position. Kept ignorant of the Board’s aims, the officers found themselves in a quandary which none of them had ever faced before. That is why meetings could be held without interference. Let us look at the situation without trying to find excuses for anybody. The first meeting takes place on Sunday, 13 September. There is one speaker, but he suggests following the miners’ example and taking strike action and also makes and appeal for what could be called a preliminary committee. This is reported to the right quarters yet nothing is done. The next day a second meeting is to be held where strike action is not merely proposed but an actual decision to strike is taken. By this time twenty-four hours have passed. Still nothing is done. Moreover, there is an interval of twelve hours between the decision to strike and the strike itself. And in all that time nothing is done.

So we see that the unexpected springing of the cuts, brought about by the Admiralty keeping the news to themselves for such a length of time, tied the officers hand and foot. By the time the officers realised the seriousness of the situation, only bloody suppression could have stopped strike action, and the Commanders of the Fleet were not anxious to impose that. They thought more of their men than the Admiralty did, as the words of Admiral Tomkinson bear out: `The ordinary sailor was worth a hundred times more to his country and his service than was warranted by the shoddy treatment and broken promises meted out to him by the Admiralty.`

But the Board’s biggest blunder was to underestimate the men’s reaction. They did of course send a `Warning Signal` on 3 September to prepare senior officers, even if it never reached the senior officers of the Atlantic Fleet. But what was it warning against? This question inevitably arises, especially in view of the fact that the word `warning` had been in use in the Navy for years in connection with approaching storms, and had therefore acquired a specific significance. One obvious answer is that the Board, the very people who vouched for the lower deck’s willingness to go to the sacrifice without a bleat, were the people who least believed in their avowal.

Trouble, then, was expected. But what was not taken into account in the strategy for springing the surprise announcement on the lower deck was the extent of the shock. The men were shocked in a way that had never been known before or perhaps after. Not even declaration of war had the power to shock them as much as this announcement succeeded in doing.

Realising the Board’s slave-like eagerness to bend the knee to the politicians to whom they owed their own position, and their seeming complete indifference to the fate of the ninety thousand ratings and their families, the men were inspired to do what the high-placed gentlemen of the Admiralty were afraid to do: show the politicians a solid front.