The history of discontent, unrest, strikes and mutinies in the British armed forces in World War Two has never been adequately documented. Mutiny is, of course, the accepted legal term for almost every refusal to obey orders. The story in this text offers a contemporary detail which is unusual. There is very little in the Public Record Office of events at Drigh Road RAF station, some few miles from the city of Karachi, which form the subject of the story which follows, and it is doubtful if much has been withheld. One can never be certain, since the British establishment has a remarkable and disreputable record of secrecy about events in which the government or any of its institutions have been involved, but it is unlikely. There have been more dramatic events of which the mutiny at Salerno is an obvious example, but the documentation of the "incidents" at Drigh Road offer an unusual and important insight into the psychological attitudes, and the daily practices they allowed, of the top levels of the military command.
The major issue which brought about the demonstrations at Drigh Road was demobilisation, and this had inevitably been of growing importance from the day the war ended. There were, however, special reasons for anxiety among the RAF, for almost from the beginning of peace there were rumours that the pace of demobilisation for the RAF was likely to be slower than for the other services. John Strachey was the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Air in the new Labour government and on 17 October, 1945 - just over two months since the war ended - he wrote a long minute to his senior colleagues in the Ministry. There had been a debate in the House of Commons the week before on the slower rate of demobilisation for the RAF which had been planned from January to June, 1946, and Strachey acknowledged the widespread concern. His minute continued:
"My line in defence has been the obvious one that: first, a relatively large R.A.F. and small army is by far the most economical way of meeting our world commitments; and second, that we face a huge transportation and trooping task, largely for the sake of the other two forces .... But the hard fact remains that we are proposing to release only 140,000 men in the first six months of next year: that means only three groups in six months: and that is a far slower rate of release, either than we ourselves are achieving this year, or than the other two services will be achieving next year." This paragraph was underlined for emphasis in the original, and his next paragraph opened with the words: "Frankly, I don’t think we can hold such a position" (PRO AIR 8/790/2157)
I am writing this foreword because although I was not in the RAF I was present at all the political discussions within the communist group in Karachi, and I was active in the defence and release campaign in the UK. I had been called up in the spring of 1940, into the Artillery, and although I was a university graduate I refused an officers’ training course on three occasions. In 1943 I became an Instructor in Gunnery, an elite group within the Artillery, and when not in the field there was always a good deal of independence for its members. I already knew a good many Karachi people as well as the local communists, and it was in the "bungalow" (a very large house) of a well-to-do Muslim friend of mine that the communist group sometimes met.
At our meeting which followed the Saturday morning refusal of duties at Drigh Road we had first to decide whether the communist group should become involved, and becoming "involved" meant providing the leadership. The Drigh Road group were agreed that that there was no choice since otherwise there would have been something like mindless chaos. Two questions then followed. There had been some calls from the men for a more prolonged strike, but like Arthur Attwood I myself was strongly opposed. To maintain a strike in an industrial situation at home is not always easy, but to expect the kind of solidarity required from a large mass of mostly apolitical airmen subject to military pressures all around them was unrealistic. I should add here that I was probably more conscious of the bastardry the top levels of the Services were capable of than some of my comrades. I knew the outlines of the stories of Salerno and the Cairo Parliament and I certainly knew more of military regulations. Arthur, with his industrial background, was fully aware of the problems involved, and we moved on to consider what demands could be worked out both to satisfy the wholly legitimate anxieties and complaints of the rank and file airmen, and to offer a genuine basis for discussion with the RAF authorities. What I have to add is that I had great confidence in Attwood, David Duncan and their comrades. Arthur throughout exhibited a steadfastness and common sense that evoked a remarkable response from the airmen of his station; and he had Duncan, Ernie Margetts and others in the group to talk matters over. Arthur had great abilities of leadership but this was a situation in which collective discussion and responsibility was of central importance.
As the story which follows makes plain, within less than a fortnight it really looked as though the demonstrations and the negotiations which followed had succeeded. At this point, either late in January or early February 1946, I myself left Karachi on the first stage of the journey to England, demobilisation and civilian life. It was over two months before I had any contact again with my friends from Drigh Road. Within three days of arriving in England, I received the telegram referred to in the text below: "Arthur arrested. Please help. Dunc".
I was due to enter a new job when my demobilisation leave finished. This was in the economic research section of the Ministry of Works in Whitehall and my time during the day was therefore bound to be limited. On receipt of the telegram I went to King Street and saw Michael Carritt who a few years earlier had resigned from the Indian Civil Service. He had ended his career in Calcutta when Sir John Anderson was Governor, and his reminiscences are told in a riveting book, A Mole in the Crown, which he had to publish himself in 1985. Michael advised me to write to D N Pritt, the independent socialist MP for Hammersmith North, setting out all the details as far as I knew them in preparation for a meeting. This I did and then went to see Pritt.
He was a man of great personal charm, with a wonderful sense of humour and witty story-telling of high degree. He had been elected Labour MP for Hammersmith in 1935, expelled from the Labour Party in 1940 for supporting the Soviet invasion of Finland, and during the election year of 1945 had tried very hard to persuade the Labour Party to accept him back and to stand as the official Labour candidate. In these attempts he was widely supported round his constituency and within Westminster. But without success. When the results of the July general election came through, Pritt had 61 per cent of the total vote, an estimated 83 per cent of the Labour vote and the official Labour candidate lost his deposit: the only Labour candidate to achieve this in the whole country. To me at our first meeting Pritt was very helpful. We obviously needed the facts of the whole story, and these Duncan supplied. Duncan was our invaluable source of information from India since so many of the letters that Arthur was writing in these early days were being withheld. Pritt was always full of useful advice whenever I went to see him. He was never hurried although his workload was very heavy and he was always encouraging. He arranged for himself and others to ask questions in the Commons; he organised a deputation to see Strachey; and he wrote personally to Arthur and to Violet, Arthur’s wife. Pritt’s own account of the case, which he rightly thought important for establishing certain basic principles, will be found in part two of his autobiography, Brasshats and Bureaucrats, published in 1966. Without Pritt it is doubtful if we would have won.
Pritt was the greatest civil liberties lawyer of his generation, not only in Britain but also, and perhaps especially, for British colonies (for he could plead before the Privy Council). It was Pritt who did a superb job for Greek seamen during the Second World War, and it was Pritt who went out to Kenya in the fifties to defend Jomo Kenyatta. For those interested in the subtle paradoxes of twentieth century politics, Pritt, a man of compassion and a passionate opponent of injustice, when the facts were brought before him, was a hard-line supporter of the Soviet Union throughout his life. He died in 1972.
We were greatly helped, and much encouraged, by the extent of the trade union support we received, especially in the London area. Among those to whom King Street, the Party headquarters, directed me was Les Cannon who had been elected to the National Executive Committee of the Electrical Trades Union in 1945, at the time the youngest member. Cannon was later to become, in the closing years of the fifties, an implacable anti-communist in the group which took over the leadership and from whom Arthur Attwood himself was to be one of the subjects of their consistent hostility; but in the immediate post-war years and in the context of the campaign to win freedom for Arthur, Cannon was helpful. As were so many others, and the great Memorial Hall meeting which undoubtedly brought our campaign into the national news, included a major trade union contribution in its organisation and on its platform.
What must always be remembered is that there were dozens of mainly ex-RAF who contributed their share in writing letters to the press, to their MPs and who sent money from their own finances or from local collections. The victory in the Attwood case - which was to have its very positive effects on other cases - was the result of the efforts of many, whose contribution, large and small, made a national campaign. We needed above all the courage and steadfastness of Arthur Attwood himself, without which the work of Pritt and so many others would have been in vain. We needed also the constant flow of information from David Duncan from India. He himself was always vulnerable to the attentions of the security police and the modesty of his own account in the text which follows must not allow us to forget the important part which he played in this story. It was, as in all such cases, a two-way relationship: between the victim in prison and the large numbers outside. The campaign was an exhibition of the decency and the persistence of so many determined people for whom Attwood was the symbol of the constant struggle for democracy. And let us not forget, in all situations of the same kind, that the wives and families of the abused are under constant and continuous stress and travail. To Violet Attwood, whose quiet courage and determination throughout these very difficult days of 1946 was a notable addition to all our efforts, we offer the recognition of her indomitable spirit and the warmest of our respects.
John Saville, July 1998