Friday, 31 July 2020

12 Inquest


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 Yexley[2] 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.

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Liberal Pundits, Liberal Pundits Fuck Off!



Its election season again, and just like Christmas the signs show up earlier and earlier. One tradition in particular really drives me up the wall. Its the classic "Lie about the rise of Hitler to guilt everyone into voting for a candidate whose only positive is they're not as obnoxious as the other guy" tradition. 2016 was full of this, so much so that it drove me in desperation to write a blog trying to get through to these people. Re-reading it I stand by what I said, there was no electoral path in 1933, but there was a few things left out or barely touched on that are very important.

When the Presidential elections for 2016 were closed and Trump won I had hoped for a silver lining. The fact that the Democrats had gain 3 million more votes than the Republicans but still lost convincingly would; I hoped, finally get through to many of these obnoxious pundits on forums, social media and the talkshow circuit the fact that governance and power is more than just a ritualistic popularity contest every other year. And it given how many liberal commentators were demanding such things as making the electoral college dependent on districts or even abolishing it entirely, it looked like maybe a transition was starting to take place.

Of course none of the schemes for electoral reform went very far but I hoped they were a start. And a minority appear to have moved at least a bit further, but as time went on even these half measures seem to have been forgotten. Its an election year and we've come full circle. 

Once again I'm seeing more and more talking points, image macros and smug video snippets lecturing a largely imaginary constituency of political radicals to swallow their pride and support the lesser evil (tm). Only now I've noticed a shift, a lot of the Hitler crying has moved back a year, a lot of it is now using the 1932 parliamentary election results. Take for example this handy infographic.

This seems better, since it was at least an election that took place before Hitler was Chancellor and had control of multiple state police forces and the 50,000 SA auxiliary (pictured with a beat cop up top). But the flaws and out right lies remain the same. 

The funny thing here is that even if it was possible for the SPD and KPD to let bygones be bygones and forget about all the dead party members and mass imprisonments and botched uprisings etc, it wouldn't change anything. In 1933 the combined vote of the SPD and KPD fell short of a third meaning the Enabling Act would still pass since all the other parties with representation agreed to support Hitler. And of course the KPD were already being tracked down and arrested and so did several of the SPD deputies, so even they did manage to get a big enough slice of the Reichstag they would not be able to block the Act.

But let's look at the election results anyway.


National Socialist German Workers' Party 13,745,680 37.27 230 +123
Social Democratic Party of Germany 7,959,712 21.58 133 –10
Communist Party of Germany 5,282,636 14.32 89 +12
German Centre Party 4,589,430 12.44 75 +7
German National People's Party 2,178,024 5.91 37 –4
Bavarian People's Party 1,192,684 3.23 22 +3
German People's Party 436,002 1.18 7 –23
German State Party 371,800 1.01 4 –16
These are the best showing parties in July 1932, there were dozens more contesting that failed to get even one percent of the vote.

So the theoretical combined"Left" slate falls short 21.58+14.32= 35.90% which is still just below the 37.27% the Nazi's got. I'm actually a little surprised that they didn't use the November 1932 election results since there the Nazi party vote was slightly lower than the combined vote shares of the KPD and SPD.

But sad thing here, and why I feel confident calling this talking point a dirty trick by scummy liberals is that it doesn't matter how many votes the SPD or the KPD or some kind of hybrid SPD/KPD slate would get, Hitler did not get to power through a parliamentary majority or winning a presidential election, he was handed power by a coalition of German conservative politicians, Industrialists, Army Officers, and Aristocrats. 

Back in 2016 I spent a lot of time emphasising that Hitler was already Chancellor and his party had control of several important state functions before the elections were held in 1933. It is very important to keep in mind, but its also important to understand that by May 1932 Germany was already effectively run by a coalition of right wing militarists who were drifting further to the right, desperate for mass support to prop up their increasingly isolated regime and increasingly anti democratic and increasingly dictatorial.

After the coalition government under Chancellor Bruning, who was nicknamed the Hunger Chancellor because of the extreme austerity measures his government pushed through by emergency decrees in response to the economic chaos of the Wall Street Crash, a minority government dominated by the President Hindenburg and Von Papen continued to govern Germany by emergency decree though with even less democratic camouflage. They could do this because the Weimar constitution allowed them to do so. This is important, not only because the austerity measures increased popularity for the Nazi party, but the Bruning and Papen minority administrations frequent use of emergency powers, and interventions in the economy paved the way for an authoritarian governing mechanism which Hitler took full advantage off. When minority administrations propped up by Hindenburg's personal popularity proved unfeasible they turned to Hitler for support.

There's an important open letter that was written during this time called the Letter of the Industrialists, now the letter was published after Papen had gotten Hindenburg to agree to making Hitler an offer of a coalition, but its still an important document as it shows us who was willing to publicly invite Hitler into power. Here's a sample.

Gleichlautende Schreiben an den Reichspräsidenten schickten: Senator Dr. Beindorff, Ewald Hecker (Präsident der Industrie- und Handelskammer, Hannover), Dr. Kurt von Eichborn (Bankier), E. Helfferich (Reeder), Eberhard Graf von Kalckreuth (Großgrundbesitzer), Graf von Keyserlingk (Großgrundbesitzer), Carl Vincent Krogmann (Bürgermeister Hamburg), Dr. E. Lübbert, Erwin Merck, Joachim von Oppen-Dannenwalde (Großgrundbesitzer), Friedrich Reinhart (Bankier), August Rosterg (Generaldirektor der Winterhall A.G., Kassel), Kurt Gustav Ernst von Rohr-Manze, Engelbert Beckmann, Dr. Hjalmar Schacht (einflußreicher Bänker mit Beziehung zur Wall Street, später Reichsfinanzminister, Kurt Freiherr von Schröder (Mitinhaber der Firma J.H. Stein, Köln), Fritz Thyssen, Rudolf Ventzki, Senator F.H. Witthoefft, Kurt Woermann. Das Schreiben unterstützten inhaltlich auch Dr. Albert Vögler (Vereinigte Stahlwerke), Kommerzienrat Dr. Paul Reusch (Gutehoffnungshütte) und Dr. Fritz Springorum (Hoesch).
Its a list of Conservative politicians and industrialists. They were the support behind Papen and Hindenburg, and by both the offer and public shows like the letter prove were the ones willing to give Hitler power over Germany.

How many votes then would the KPD or an KPD backed SPD have to win before  August Rosterg (Generaldirektor der Winterhall A.G., Kassel), et al would publicly plead with Hindenburg to give Thalmann the Chancellorship? 

Ah, but what if, for argument sake a combined left platform took a majority of the seats in the Reichstag? Well that couldn't of happened, as we've seen their vote shares at their best were about just over a third of the vote. And we know from the vote on the Enabling Act that all the over parties including the liberal and catholic parties would side with Hitler over the two left parties, so a broader coalition is out of the question. But if miracles happened and they did get over 50% of the vote, I don't see how it would be feasible for them to form a government. Since there is no way Hindenburg and his coalition would cede power to them. 

On the contrary the naked hostility towards the German "Reds" was a major factor of given Hitler the Chancellorship in the first place. As we saw in January 1933, the "Moderate" Conservatives and capitalists were willing to give the Nazi's substantial control over the police and tolerate their private armies, Goring had already effectively outlawed the left in Prussia and was working on extending it nationwide, even the SPD the party that had collaborated the most to protect Germany from a Communist Revolt were viable targets for arrest as far as Papen and co were concerned. 

See that's the other thing about Weimar Germany, the popular image of an idealistic democracy beset by right wing extremists (the Nazis) and left wing extremeists (the Communists) with moderates (everyone else) crumbling under the constant pressure, is complete nonsense. Nearly every political party had a fighting organisation, and many were linked to paramilitary death squads in 1918. The DNVP which was the party many of the Conservative politicians around Papen and Hindenburg belonged to or had links and sympathies, which is often depicted as a fairly typical European Conservative party in reality had for years advocated the destruction of the Weimar republic and the restoration of the authoritarian monarchy and rebuilding of the German military and Empire. It also had a paramilitary group known as the Steel Helmets, and they were open admirers of Mussolini and the first group in Germany to adopt the label Fascist. After Hitler had come to power and made it clear that it would be him and not the Conservatives who would be the dominant force the Steel Helmets merged with the SA.

Members of the Steel Helmets wearing Nazi armbands in 1934

I could go on forever, but the point is, there was no way for even a mildly left wing electoral movement to succeed in Weimar Germany. For all its pretensions for democracy and openness power never rested with the people and the ballot box in Weimar Germany. In the early 30s the coalition of political conservatives, militarists, and capitalists found themselves in a crisis, they couldn't stand alone and they turned to the only option left to them, Hitler and the Nazis. At the time and especially with hindsight this shouldn't be a surprise, the Nazis were nothing more than more hard-line versions of the previous Conservative adminstrations.

Again the real lesson of the rise of Hitler is that democracy and elections are not a safeguard against fascism and reactionary movements. Ironically this is the one part that does indeed parallel with 2016, many people who had objected and opposed the American system and the Democratic party, many of them had reasons to oppose and despise Hillary Clinton personally, were so alarmed and worried at the prospect of Donald Trump's open courtship of white nationalism, and naked reactionary and xenophobic attitudes, that they swallowed their pride and principles and voted for the Democrats. I even know of a few who were so alarmed and felt so vulnerable that they even did some campaigning. And it worked 3 million more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton to be President than did for Donald Trump to be President.

And yet as we know it didn't matter, because just like Weimar Germany power does lie with the electorate. The system said he qualified for power, and when he had although some of the heads of the institutions that govern the USA couldn't stand him and his views, they either resigned in protest or just sniped at him from the side lines. At least in Weimar Germany Schleicher tried to split the Nazi party and turn it on itself, what has the official "resistance" achieved these past four years that matches that?

Sunday, 26 July 2020

11 The Admiralty’s Revenge


11 The Admiralty’s Revenge


We now entered a phase at Invergordon which did not exist in any earlier mutiny and will probably never exist again. The men did nothing, in the full meaning of the word. In fact on one of the big ships they pulled out the piano from the recreation room on to the forecastle and ran impromptu concerts. But apart from that there was nothing to do. We had done what we considered needed to be done, and now it was up to the Admiralty and the government. With the typing and circulation of the manifesto – copies were distributed round the Fleet by motorboat – the strike was at its apex; but unlike most movements it was not faced with a decline. Had we threatened an intensification of our efforts if the cuts were not rescinded, there might have been a danger of weakening. But in the circumstances a straightforward rejection could only mean our continuing as we were, refusing to serve. We had bypassed our officers and appealed directly to the Admiralty; our answer was to come from them, and soon. We were losing nothing by the continuation of the strike whilst the Admiralty was on the way to losing a navy.


As it happened, the end of the strike was delayed a whole twenty-four hours by the Admiralty’s strange behaviour. Knowing that the Admiralty had every modern means of communication and transport at their disposal, we expected our manifesto to reach them within hours of it reaching Admiral Tomkinson at Invergordon. It was our officers who had asked us what we wanted, and we had responded immediately, so we could not be accused of presumption in expecting a quick answer. Moreover, it was not only we who were waiting but the whole country. The day dragged on and no answer was forthcoming. Evidently some of the denizens of Whitehall were not prepared to sacrifice anything, as for instance their tea-breaks to expediate matters.


While the Admiralty were engaging in pure adventures – not least in blowing up Invergordon into a national revolution to frighten the King – Admiral Tomkinson, the man on the spot, who did not depend on conflicting reports from rival security services for his information, was successfully playing the affair down and controlling hot-headed young officers. Already an army of pressmen had converged on Invergordon from London and the central towns of Scotland. Even in those days cameras were efficient and easily portable, yet no photographs of Invergordon exist. This is to Admiral Tomkinson’s credit. As soon as the newspapermen arrived he took them aboard the flagship and gave them to understand that sensationalism was not required. So effective were his powers of persuasion, (and they have to be good to get a newspaperman to ease up on such a question) that nowhere are there pictures of sailors massed on the forecastles of ships at Invergordon. And yet there were quite a number of local boat owner prepared to take newsmen out in the Firth, and likewise there were newsmen willing to fork out a tidy sum for the trip.


If Invergordon was the ideal place for springing the cuts on an isolated Fleet, then it was doubly ideal for settling the dispute without publicity. The canteen and fields around were government property where no local civilians ever came. When Admiral Tomkinson reported the first rumblings of dissatisfaction to the Board, they should have travelled to the scene of the action, as their predecessors did to settle the Spithead mutiny of 1797. In 1797 travel was difficult. In 1931 it was not, and although air travel was not yet widely used, with so much at stake the Admiralty could at least have taken a plane to Scotland. All the measures eventually taken, the cancellation of the exercises, the setting up of a commission, the investigation of the men’s financial situation, the restoration of part of the cuts, could have been done in the isolation of the Firth of Cromarty and no outsider any the wiser. Had these measures been taken then and there, the Admiralty would have scored a greater political victory than any Board in history. Of course, they would have eaten humble pie over the cuts, but this they did in any event, and publicly. Here it would have been magnificent humble pie, and afterwards the mere mention of the words `Board of Admiralty` would have called for a gesture of reverence from the lower deck.


Only when it was beginning to get dark at Invergordon on Wednesday, 16 September 1931, did the captain of Norfolk come forward and read a new Admiralty Fleet Order to us:


The Board of Admiralty is fully alive to the fact that amongst certain classes of ratings special hardship will result from the reduction of pay ordered by HM Government. It is therefore directed that ships of the Atlantic Fleet are to proceed to their home ports forthwith to enable personal investigation by C.-in-C.s and representatives of Admiralty with a view to necessary alleviation being made. Any further refusals of individuals to carry out orders will be dealt with under the Naval 
Discipline Act. This signal is to be promulgated to the Fleet forthwith.


Whether it was light or dark at that moment, one thing was clear to us: we had won the day. The threat at the end was just normal form for My Lords of the Admiralty, every one of  whose Articles of War ends with a promise of punishment. Without that formality I doubt if they wrote a letter home to their loved ones: it was the thickening ingredient of their blood. But why should we continue disobedience? We had gained our point, a review of the cuts. The tacit promise in the order that actions, up to the time of its promulgation, would not be punished was later made explicit in the House of Commons. But still a vengeance-seeking Board had to invoke the Naval Discipline Act to justify their claims of agitators, secret societies and other conspiratorial groups, which were so clandestine that the conspirators themselves did not know they existed. At the moment of the reading of the order, however, I doubt if any man paid the slightest attention to those threatening words. The strike was over.


Discipline had not even been bruised and had taken us through to victory. It was still the main binding force of a powerful navy which we were prouder than ever to be a part of . With pride too, the `few`, the `handful` that the Board blamed for Invergordon could count their achievement. They knocked Britain off the gold standard. They caused the cancelling of excercises for some ships of the Fleet. They brought about the recall of ships to home ports from the unfinished cruise, an event which had last happened with the declaration of war in 1914.


That, up to the time of receiving the new Admiralty Fleet Order, was the list of favourable results of the activities of the `few`.


Within a few seconds of Captain Prickett’s announcement the forecastle on Norfolk was empty. It needed no pleading, no threats or trickery; the men’s aim had been achieved, the strike was off. A short time later the Norfolk was steaming down the Firth on her way to sea. As we passed close to one of the big ships a crowd of men lined up on the forecastle gave vent to an ear-splitting cheer and Captain Prickett on the bridge of Norfolk exclaimed, `My God! Have they started again?` It was not, however, a cheer of defiance but a cheer of victory.


During the three days’ trip to home ports we were without news. The only radio receiving set was in the wardroom, and the moment when the commander of Norfolk had invited a few of us to listen to it had passed, never to return. For us the show was over and we were once again the `ready boys, steady boys` of the British Navy. But the admiralty, fuming in defeat, was plotting its revenge.

There is an old sea story showing how something perfectly ordinary can be made to appear extraordinary. The story goes that a captain warned his boozy mate that if he again appeared on the bridge inebriated, he, the captain, would enter it in the log. Despite the warning the mate turned up next day in a drunken state and he captain duly entered it: `Today the mate came on the bridge drunk`. When, however, the captain came to relieve the mate, he found this entry in the log: `Today the captain came on the bridge sober`.


A similar technique has been used to suggest that on its return from Invergordon the Atlantic Fleet got a frosty welcome from the British people. Writers on Invergordon have alleged that, in defiance of tradition we were not cheered as we entered harbour. Of course we were not cheered, and there was no such tradition. The three towns had seen the ships moving in and out of harbour so often that they were not excited by the fact. To have cheered every time they returned would have meant a permanent cheering party. Whatever scheming and intriguing was taking place at the Admiralty, as they prepared to break their promise that no one should be penalised for Invergordon, we on the ships felt nothing out of the ordinary going on around us. True, the local paper at Devonport had a banner headline to greet our arrival: `Home In Disgrace, Sailors’ Wives Turn Husbands Away From The Door`, but this was just a ridiculous example of yellow press journalism. If we had agreed to allow further disruption of any kind, it would have been possible to organise such a demonstration of sailors and their wives at the editor of that paper would have crept around the back streets of small European towns for the remainder of his life. No one was more disturbed by the cuts tan sailors’ wives or, as they were officially designated on more than one occasion, `sailors` women`.


By this time the investigating commission set up by the Admiralty had arrived at Devonport and was now sitting in the barracks interviewing seamen and collecting their complaints. This was merely a time-waster, during which hundreds and thousands of lower deck men repeated practically the same story. Had the commission discovered a handful of ratings whom the cut would have hit specially hard, the Admiralty would not have made exceptional rates for them. The lower deck had made its one demand, one big one: we do not intend to serve for such pay. There was nothing more to establish, for if the proposed cut had been reasonable and bearable, there would have been no mutiny and no need for commissions. The Admiralty, however, had taken a 180 degree switch, and from doing nothing whatever had now launched into action every kind of investigator, commission and informer to contribute to the cauldron of fables, half truths and direct lies which, when boiled, would make the whitewash for the guilty parties. My Lords of the Board of Admiralty.


I had an early sign of things to come. On our passage south I had written a letter to Captain Prickett about the consequences for the Navy if the cuts, as originally proposed, were carried out. My letter was somewhat on the lines of the manifesto, but more elaborate. I was invited, as were other seamen, to talk to the captain in his cabin and explain my own position. Also present at the interview was the paymaster commander who, I take it, was to back up the captain with figures showing how wealthy I was.


I was a single man, I smoked but did not drink. According to my papers I enjoyed a fairly good reputation amongst the officers. At that time I was engaged to be married to a girl who was the only child of parents much better placed financially than were the parents of the average sailor’s wife. I had a promising career in the Navy and was fully intending to continue my service to pension and rise as far as a man of proletarian origin could. It is possible that the war might have helped me even further – or put me at the bottom of the sea. In fact by my action at Invergordon I simply threw all this away.


Right away Captain Prickett began talking about my individual case, pointing out that I had no financial commitments to be threatened by the cuts. From the Sunday evening when I made the first speech in the canteen, I was concerned only with the lower deck and the impoverishment of the best fighting service in the world and how best to stop it. But this was beyond the captain’s comprehension. Someone brought up in a society where the children are daily asked what they are going to be, daily warned that they cannot hope for a good job without going to college, as if a diploma were a pair of trousers, indispensable, finds it difficult to accept a non-selfinterested action. For people who are launched into the rat-race when they begin to walk and who learn the underhand tricks of infighting for position and rewards, the idea of being a crusader, if only briefly and small-time, is as alien as a Catholic priest propagating voodooism.


So Captain Prickett stuck to his line of argument, occasionally appealing for confirmation of his points to the paymaster commander. Very soon I saw that it would develop into the poor man begging the local philanthropist to intervene on his behalf with the heartless landlord. Actually it was because of Prickett’s behaviour at this meeting that I eventually refused to go before the Admiralty commission who pursued the same lime in their `investigations`. That it was a policy deliberately pursued I am convinced, because I caught Prickett taking a surreptitious glance at my letter, which was hidden under other papers on the table. When he saw that I had noticed the move he immediately covered it up again. It was not a benefactor’s interest that Prickett had in me. He was, I think, looking for `ringleaders`. (It is curious that a college student at the head of a movement is a `leader`, but a worker similarly placed is inevitably a `ring-leader`.)


The authorities knew quite well that it was the Admiralty which had inspired the strike and kept it alive, but they persisted in looking for something deep underground, a politically motivated person or, better still, a group. To begin with all jobs were shifted around. I for instance had had, before the strike, a so-called `quiet number`, which kept me away from daily surveillance by my divisional officer. That I hated this job, a trained seaman gunner who wanted to go to school again to advance my qualification was of no consequence either to the people who gave me the job. I had been taught a little about everything that shoots, from a 2.2 rifle to a fifteen-inch turret gun. I had actually come out top of the class, but with a job such as I was doing, I would soon forget which end of a gun did the shooting. In the meantime I could polish the metal legs of the mess table till my officer smiled and said `Well done`.


Almost immediately after the ship set sail for Devonport, however, I was shifted to an ordinary upper deck job and it was then I discovered that I was the object of surreptitious observation. Quite often our commander found an excuse to make some remark or other to me, but he spent more time looking deep into my eyes, no doubt searching for something he had not noticed in all the year and a half we had served on the same ship. Our commander was one of the most popular officers on the ship and we affectionately called him `Jigs`, after a strip cartoon character of the time. From behind he looked exactly like the real `Jigs`, even to the crease across the seat of his trousers. The nicknames that men give to their officers is more informative than many people think. If an officer is given a number of nicknames, and more and more are conjured up, it is a sure sign that he is far from popular. If on the other hand he gets one which sticks to him, one can be certain that he is respected. Commander Dunne was always `Jigs`.


He gave me quite a number of crystal-gazing stares, which did not worry me, while my own divisional officer kept clear of me. The unfortunate man had no doubt received a reprimand for not being able to detect my latent mutinous tendencies. When men were being sought to appear before the Admiralty Commission, my divisional officer approached a seaman standing a few yards from me, and asked him to ask me if I wanted to appear. Evidently the reprimand had been no light one. Evidently, too, the search for an underground organisation among the men was being paralleled by a campaign to find scapegoats among the junior officers, whose daily contact with us had failed to discover potential rebels.


If evidence were needed that no outside influence inspired the mutiny at Invergordon, that evidence was supplied by the Communist Party of Great Britain. When the news of the mutiny hit the world, many people and organisations reacted to it in their various ways. One of these was the British Communist Party, which had long harboured a desire for contacts in the Royal Navy but had up till then failed to realise its desires. This absolutely unexpected event offered, in their estimation, a splendid chance not only to get contacts but to achieve even more. Immediately after the ships arrived in home ports, the Communist Party sent two men to Portsmouth, obviously for the purpose of inciting the Fleet to further rebellious activity. It was an action which demonstrated the Communists’ complete ignorance of the lower deck, for the two men chosen were as unsuitable a pair as it would be possible to find. One was a miner and the other a woodworker, the sort of men described by sailors as not knowing the fat end of a ship from the thin end.


Their adventure was doomed to failure before it started, for, as anyone with even a butterfly-wing contact with leftist politics should have known, the moment the rumblings of resentment were faintly audible, all the organs of security were on the alert. Not so the CPGB. The miner and the woodworker set off for Portsmouth so deep in the grip of their important mission that they failed to hear the clanking of the handcuffs in the pockets of the policemen following them, and having plunged into the adventure head first, they hit bottom head first, as might have been expected.


Under the impression that Portsmouth was the place to go to, although Devonport was the centre of the mutiny, and still retaining the `drunken sailor` image in their heads, they began a political pub crawl. Even when a co-operative sailor met them in the very first pub they called at, they were not in the least suspicious. Why should they be? Had not the sailors mutinied? Were they not ready to heave their officers overboard, as the sailors of the Russian Fleet had done in 1917? All that was wanted now was firm political leadership, and these two men, who had recently come from the International Lenin School in Moscow, were here to offer it. So they made their offer. But, as it happened, the sailor they were talking to, who listened to their political lecture and drank their beer, was none other than Stephen Bousefield, the telegraphist `interviewed` by the captain of Warspite, under whose instructions he was now working. The seditious leaflets were handed over and straight away relayed to the intelligence service men, who, possessing all the evidence they needed, brought these two Communists to Winchester Assizes. There the same Bousefield appeared as the principal witness for the prosecution. The Communists were tried, convicted and sentenced.


From this story we can establish that informers were signed up from the first signs of trouble at Invergordon; that on the basis of their unreliable information responsible officers of naval intelligence made wild conjectures about events that had no place in the affair at all; and, most convincingly, that the Communist Party had no connection with Invergordon. Their belated attempts to make contact, at a time when the men considered victory theirs and meant to serve once more in the loyal manner they had always served, could lead only to the criminal courts.


Blinded by nightmares of revolution, dreamed up in their need for vengeance, the Admiralty had set all the security services of Britain on a massive search for hidden agitators, secret societies and all sorts of non-existent seditious groups that could never have found a square inch of fertile ground in the Royal Navy. Each security group engaged informers, agents provocateurs and casual snoops who invented what they failed to find. Even the man who ran the first meeting in the canteen on that Sunday evening, 13 September, was given at least three identities, and this despite the fact that the men on Norfolk knew who he was.


Whitehall demanded evidence of an underground plot and people, from the rank of captain down to the `white rats` on the lower deck, let their imaginations run amok to provide it, even to the extent of reporting that meetings, secret and otherwise, had taken place among sailors before the Atlantic Fleet arrived at Invergordon. It can only be concluded that the different reports, including those made by responsible officers, were the products of afterthoughts, once the incident had aroused suspicions of a plot. It is said that fear has large eyes, and it is possible that surreptitious glances between sailors engaged in some act against the regulations were remembered later and blown up to be read as sinister signals. It sounds childish, but it is only human: anyone can misinterpret the past in the light of the present, and I suppose this is what some of the officers did.


However, reading the reports assiduously collected by naval investigations overt and covert, by the dockyard police, public house scroungers and secret service informers, it is plain that the material is mostly half truths, distortion and just common or garden lies. Some of the shipboard informers seem to have been indulging in a grand leg-pull. I do not know who was responsible for organising the reports of preparations for further disruptive activity after our return to home ports. To call them the `Crazy Gang` would be to insult a popular comedy team, but clearly someone had grasped the chance to collect a goodly sum of taxpayers’ money whilst the panic lasted. Somehow I missed out on the shareout. Twice in those days I was in a pub and nobody offered me a drink. In one a group of working men called me over to their table and pointed to a chap in a soft hat standing at the other end of the bar. `Be careful, Jack,` they said, `that man’s a coppers’ nark`.


There were no plans for further disruptive action. We had gained our objective and saw no need to create some permanent illegal lower deck grouping. But the plot-searchers went on and fantastic stories continued to circulate about a planned enlargement of the strike. One incredible tale was that known elements, and I take it I was among them, were `agitating` on the lower deck for more serious, anti-government action.


The ridiculous fable of the `march on London`, or as it might be called the `Mangel-wurzel Banyan Party`, made its reappearance, and was solemnly carried to King George V. But the Admiralty was pulling nobody’s leg. When Sir Austen Chamberlain, First Lord of the Admiralty, informed the King on Monday, 22 September, that a dangerous situation still existed in the Fleet, he was not just following normal procedure. He knew very well that King George V had been a full naval captain, for when the Duke of Clarence was alive, his chances of becoming a king had been slim, and he had gone the way of second sons, into the Navy, where he was far from being a popular captain. For instance he had a reputation for severity. Punishment for misdemeanours of a serious character could only be administered by the admiral of a particular unit. The captain conducted the trial of the man, then sent his recommendation to the admiral. This procedure was better known to the lower deck as a warrant, and it was common knowledge throughout the Navy that the late King George V, when captain of a warship, had more of these warrants than any other captain in the Fleet.


By facing a man of the character of King George V, who bore no love to the lower deck, with the bogey of revolution from within the Navy, the Admiralty could not fail to produce the results it wanted. Given the public assurance of no victimisation, the Admiralty could not charge anyone with what happened at Invergordon; it therefore became necessary to invent something that happened after it, if they were to have their revenge.


Whilst these things were taking place elsewhere, for us routine went on in the same old way, except that our ship’s company did a stint on the rifle range, where I walked away with a first-class marksman’s badge, amongst my scores being five bulls from five rounds at five hundred yards: no mean feat. Moreover, and more heartening than the winning of any badge, was the fact that, at the very time when the powers that be were scheming, in their underhand way, to work up evidence against me, the lower deck of Norfolk unanimously elected me as their representative on the Canteen Committee. I never took my place but my election remained, a resounding reply to the band-of-agitators theory, and a proof that the lower deck as a whole appreciated my efforts on its behalf.

Almost three weeks had we been in home ports, with the commission working every day, when the surprise signal came. We knew the Fleet could not spend much more time in port, but the order to move was still unexpected. All ships were to put to sea and rendezvous at Scapa Flow. Two hours after this announcement and an hour before the ships were due to sail, the most outstanding men in the mutiny were collected together. From Norfolk Leading Seaman Richard Carr, Able Seaman James Shields, Able Seaman O’Toole, Able Seaman Frederick Copeman and myself were rounded up, along with one or two regular discipline breakers, thrown in to give the group a colouring favourable to the Admiralty. Here again the opportunity given by the official movement of ships had been seized, for, while we were to go to the barracks, our comrades in the affair were being despatched to sea, where for some three days on the way to Scapa Flow they would be ignorant of our fates. It was the move of people still scared by the Invergordon event. Although all available facts had firmly been established the complete lack of outside influence on the movement; although our behaviour after the strike was exemplary, they were still obsessed with the idea that action against us, whatever it was to be, should be carried out secretly, to avoid possible trouble. We were despatched to the barracks and left there until the General Election of 28 October 1931, which would bring a new Cabinet and new ministers, and therefore he who had made the promise of no victimisation would not be the one who broke it. The lessons of Invergordon had simply passed over their heads, not only of the politicians but also of those who were supposed to be our leaders.


When we arrived in the barracks we were joined by ratings from the many ships in the port, thirty-six men altogether, though Bond was not among them: the originator of the mangel-wurzel march on London was left in the Fleet to develop his talents. As was always the case when men entered the barracks after a period at sea, we first went through the `clothing class`, where our kit was inspected and we were `robbed` of a few pounds from our meagre savings. After a week of that we were attached to the `Introductory Course`. This was a well-known course intended mainly for supplementary ratings, cooks, supply assistants and such people who, whilst at sea, had forgotten how to turn right or left and which end a rifle fired from. The moment the course started, under the command of two specially-instructed petty officers, we knew we were in for a bad time. Till dinner break we ran around the barrack square, our rifles held high above our heads.


This action was the decision of Commodore Laurence of the Royal Naval Barracks. By virtue of our being so unexpectedly removed from our ships, we had been recognised as the leaders of a mutiny in the most powerful fleet in the world, yet Commodore Laurence DSO was here attempting to subdue us with petty sadism on the level of Dickens’s Squeers. If his aim was to make us refuse this disguised punishment and thereby leave ourselves open to a very serious charge, he failed. At the end of the first day I suggested that every man should individually write a complaint of unlawful treatment to the admiral of the port.


On the third day we were marched into the drill shed, all other groups and classes were sent out, all the doors but one closed. Then through the one open door appeared Commodore Laurence and probably every officer in the barracks. They lined up in an arrow head, the commodore making the point. He was a big man with a powerful frame. He stood there with his legs astraddle, clasping his gloves behind his back as if they were a hunting crop. In fact that is just what he looked like, an overseer of the last century confronting his colonial slaves.


`I hear,` he began, `that you have written a complaint against me.` (In fact we had not mentioned any name in our letters of protest.) `I have information that you are continuing your disruptive work and I, as commodore of this barracks, will take what steps I consider necessary in order to prevent your doing so`. He tried a little provocation, challenging anybody who had anything to say to step out, strangely adding `I am not afraid of you`.


Why a commodore DSO should be afraid of a group of ratings is difficult to imagine, but in those words we could measure the extent of his lack of understanding of the lower deck. We did not accept his offer to speak. Maybe it was genuine, but we could no longer trust him after such behaviour. With the words `Carry on` to the petty officers, he turned round and walked out, followed by his suite. Whether he was afraid of us or not, the sadistic drill ceased forthwith, and one by one we were invited to the division office to discuss our request with the lieutenant of the division.

I never knew the name of my interviewer but I knew what his instructions were as soon as ever he spoke. He pointed to my complaint and asked `who wrote this for you?` Of course a dull, half-literate able seaman could not write such a letter, there must be some `outside influence`, and here was a clue to this mysterious somebody lurking in the offing and urging sailors of His Britannic Majesty to seditious action. When I answered `I did`, perhaps I said it with such calm conviction that he really believed it. Anyway he switched to another tack and began talking about politics. All this, he assured me, was `high politics`, which neither he nor I knew anything about. He just blinked when I quietly said `it’s a pity, sir`.


Undoubtedly he knew I was to be discharged, but that I was being held until the end of the secret service investigation; for had it produced the desired results I would have been court martialled.

The fact that I was due to be discharged came to me by another source which the authorities had not taken into account. I was ordered to have a routine revaccination and because, with my first vaccination on entering the Navy, I had suffered very much, almost losing my arm after six weeks in hospital, I simply refused to have it. The surgeon-captain of the barracks interviewed me and said he would have to consult someone about my case and would I come back next day? I did so and he just looked at me and said `it doesn’t matter, you may go`. Then I knew I was to `go out`.

Nothing, of course, came of our requests, except that Commodore Laurence backed down and we joined up with all the other ratings in the barracks and waited. That we were due to `go outside` was not only known to us but, in a certain way, desired. It was a very risky enterprise, given the large number of skilled workers unemployed, but there was one consideration which made discharge imperative from our point of view. If any of us had remained in the service, the future would have  been very bleak indeed. Should I, for instance, have been drafted, after two or three years, to a ship where some totally unsympathetic officer of the old school type was commander or captain, the inevitable result would have been a serious charge brought against me, and my consignment to the naval jail.


No one had the slightest desire to make a sojourn, however short, in the establishment just across the Tamar that bore a noble name, White City, and a terrible reputation: the place where ex-masters-at-arms with a penchant for brutality did their worst to men whose crime was sometimes no more heinous than a breach of pettifogging discipline. Carting a heap of bricks back and forth in the yard without a break whilst the warden yelled abuse, was just one of the reputed delights of the White City. The really choice item was the daily loader drill in gasmasks, with the warders goading their prisoners to break every record they had thought up. No prison reform society ever visited that hell on earth and the inmates did not make complaints about the texture of their pyjamas, as convicts, according to the press, do today. Evidently nowadays the more dreadful the crime, the more certain the complaints. I am sure that the next grievance will be lack of escape facilities provided through the good officers of the Society For The Care And Comfort Of Bloody Murderers, Gangsters and Dope Pushers.


Then, on 3 November, I was working in a barrack room, pushing a cloth over metal bag-racks for the lack of something better to do, when I saw Leading Seaman Richard Carr in the act of packing his bag under the supervision of a regulating petty officer. Without waiting for my inquiry he said `I am going out` and before I could gather further information, I head a voice calling my name. another regulating petty officer took me straight to the commander’s office. Behind the desk where he usually dealt with defaulters stood the commander of the barracks, holding an impressive looking document in his hands. Without any ceremony he began to read the Admiralty letter ordering my discharge to shore, and, as if by an afterthought, kindly informed me that I was entitled to unemployment benefit. In the next hour or two twenty-four of the thirty-six men removed from the ships were rushed round from office to office, finally to be passed through the main gates to the world at large.


By six o’clock I had signed all the documents, drawn my final pay (including thirteen shillings towards the purchase of a civilian suit), and received my naval papers. They read rather strangely: `Third of November 1931, Conduct: Very Good. Ability: Superior`. That was the last of my six-monthly recommendations, the highest possible for a lower deck man. Immediately underneath was: `Third of November 1931: Discharged to Shore, Services No Longer Required`. I still wonder which of these two entries, made at the same place on the same date, really reflects my character.

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

10 Mutiny

10 Mutiny

Invergordon has been called the `quiet` mutiny. A far more appropriate word is `determined`. There could have been no more determined men in the world than the mutineers of the Atlantic Fleet on those two days in 1931. There was none of that strange atmosphere which usually engulfs a fleet when a small mutiny breaks out on a single ship, when the ship in question seems to have been put in quarantine and a pall of mystery settles over it. From the beginning we knew we were going to win and we had no fears that, having lost out, the Board of Admiralty would let loose its hang-em-at-the-yard-arm revenge complex. Our strike was based on the solidarity of all involved.

Having decided, on Norfolk, to delay action till 8 am, we turned out in the normal manner and went through the almost ritual job of washing decks. In the poor light of the Highland morning it was not easy to see the other vessels of the Fleet but we could clearly hear loud cheering coming from more than one of the big ships. It was our duty to keep our promise and join in after breakfast. It may be said that it was our duty to continue loyal service, but who were we expected to be loyal to? The people who had a duty not to break a promise and did?

Events on Norfolk followed the expected pattern. Naturally Captain Prickett had been informed that our late action was only a little strategy to put the onus of starting on the big ships, but our intelligence agents had informed us of the move he meant to make to cut the ground from under us. He planned to call a meeting of the ship’s company just before eight o’clock and, once the men were mustered, to talk to us about the futility of our action, promise his help in raising the question of our grievances and then, by saying something such as `Now, men, let’s go to work`, end it all peacefully.

I put it to the men that the pay cuts were ordered by a body much higher than Captain Prickett and that even if he were acting in good faith there was nothing he could do. If he got us to go to work, we had lost. At 7.30 am, together with Able Seaman Shields, I made the round of the mess decks where were housed the people we considered the most important: the seaman’s mess deck and finally the very vital Marines’ mess deck, the Marines being the only men among us who were sworn in when joining the service. There was no need for long speeches. In fact for the stokers but four words were needed: `Are you with us?` There was an immediate response in the affirmative and having obtained the same answer from both seamen and torpedo men, it was left for me to go down to the Marines.

I must confess that as I made my way to their mess deck I had certain apprehensions. After all, only men who have taken the oath of allegiance know how deep an impression it makes. However the reception I received was no less enthusiastic than on the other mess decks. Perhaps people will ask how it was that an able seaman with no exceptional popularity on the ship or any great achievements could have swayed serious-minded men so easily. The answer is that it was not Able Seam Wincott’s powers of oratory or his persuasive manner, but the inhuman behaviour of the Board of Admiralty which drove these people to desperate measures. Able Seaman Wincott was nothing more than a vehicle conveying from one branch of the ship to another the combined wish to begin concerted action.

A little while after my tour representatives of the Marines came to ask me for special protection: they feared they might be called out one by one and thereby isolated from the rest of the men. As shall be seen, we took our own counter-measures. Now we had nothing to do but wait for the captain’s next move.

Exactly at a quarter to eight Captain Prickett ordered `Clear lower deck` and gave the petty officers the word that no one was to be excused. Knowing this muster was due we had previously agreed to attend the call and listen to what the captain had to say, but if within three to five minutes he had not announced that the pay cuts were to be reviewed, we were all to leave the quarter-deck and make straight for the forecastle. As it happened, Captain Prickett sent us to the forecastle sooner than we had intended, for he began on a very unfortunate note. As a result of our action, he told us, several million pounds had already been knocked off British shares in the Argentine alone. Why he chose the Argentine I don’t know- perhaps he had interests there himself. It was somewhat out of place to try to impress sailors on four bob a day, about to drop to three, with the misfortunes of shareholders in the Argentine or Timbuktu or anywhere else. In the event there was not a murmur and no one was noticed jumping over the side in the absence of a skyscraper window. Instead, at the signal, there was a mass movement to the forecastle, and Captain Prickett was left talking to his officers and petty officers.

Keeping our promise to the Marines, we set them in the eyes of the ship and then stood between them and any possible attempt to cajole them back to work on the basis of their oath. At this point the cooks sent a representative to ask me what role they should play during the strike. They were quite ready to down soup ladles with us. I quickly pointed out that they were more valuable to us as cooks than as strikers, as we had no intention of leaving the ship and would need to eat. This little scene may seem rather insignificant when compared with the events taking place in the Fleet that day, but it refutes the calumny that I was conspiring to organise a march on London. In fact everything that followed refutes this unfounded stupidity, which Whitehall still lovingly preserves in its archives, to add to the pollution of Britain.

It was a false start, this attempt by Captain Prickett to win sympathy from men whose one concern was their immediate predicament whose meagre income was accounted in shillings and not in millions. Just those few opening words convinced us that no serving officer of the Fleet, no matter how he sympathised, could change the situation: our fate was in the hands of that small group of men known as the Board of Admiralty. Captain Prickett’s words also convinced us of the relentless truth of the axiom `The well-fed man cannot understand the hungry man`.

From the moment the men of Norfolk took up their position on the forecastle and announced their solidarity with the other striking ships by a loud cheer, they were on their own. From then on their decisions and behaviour, like the decisions and behaviour of the men on the other individual ships, was up to them. There were no leaders except those thrown up by the crisis. There were no secret contacts with other ships. There was no system of passing messages, as the creators of the Invergordon fables would have us believe. Throughout the mutiny events on different ships followed more or less the same pattern, but this cannot be construed as evidence of premeditation or secret signals. Circumstances of shipboard life had been standardised for years and it was these which dictated the men’s behaviour. For instance, a unanimous concern was the safety of the ships and the officers. This had always been important and no less now, perhaps even more so. Therefore officers of divisions and departments had full access to the men. There were no threats, no insults, no attempts to avoid contact with officers, although a popular officer was talked to more freely than one who had less popularity or none.

Now, whilst the men of Norfolk are gathered on the forecastle, carrying out the necessary chores and talking to the officers, it is a convenient moment to break the narrative and put he case for the lower deck.

In previous versions of the Invergordon story most writers have hurried to show what fabulous salaries sailors received. The Admiralty’s official view in 1931 was that our pay was overgenerous and should be brought down to the level of workers’ wages. Somehow that statement conflicted with our conception of these so-generous wages: we were of the opinion that if we were to be put on a level with workers in factories, our wages would have to go up, not down. On the side of the Admiralty, in their claim that we were overpaid, were, and are, many educated people. It is strange that even now, when our universities are turning out thousands and thousands of these so-called educated people, the belief that they know it all is still preserved.  You have your elaborately got up piece of paper called a diploma, you speak with the `correct` accent, and that is it, you’re in the circle. And of all these `proper` accents, the Navy had the most exaggerated, a subject of many jokes on the lower deck, with its mixture of every one of the hundreds of accents of Britain. The AB on duty on a certain ship once reported to the lieutenant who was OOD the arrival in port of another warship. Saluting, he said `The Alligator is entering harbour, sir`. From the summit of his higher education, the OOD looked scornfully at him and said `Alligator? What do you mean, my man? You should say “Elligaytah!”` `Yes, sir,` said the AB, `and the Krokodilee is just behind`.

That is just a diversion into lower deck humour, but it helps make the point that hundreds of these diploma-ed people are mere Professors of Gabology. Yet because they have their bit of paper, they are elected to committees on important affairs of state and given huge salaries and no time limit. At the time of Invergordon these committees were springing up like mushrooms, and their main aim was to show that all the lower paid were being pampered, as a result of which the country was running into financial difficulties. The so-called experts manipulated their figures and convincingly demonstrated that the poor could be more economical; the unemployed could eat grass, the sailor’s wife could sell some little luxury like a gramophone bought at great sacrifice. Then they went through the comedy of getting a democratic backing for their measures, showing them first to the bodies supposed to be representative of every section of the British people. Strangely enough the Trades Union Congress rejected all their suggestions except the ten per cent cut proposed for judges (paid £10,000 a year) and ministers. The TUC’s views did not cut much ice, yet it was in the TUC that the real specialist on the low paid worker was to be found, the late Mr Ernest Bevin, head of the largest union in the country and one of the many union leaders who had lugged heavy loads on board ships and actually lived a low paid life.

Turning to the Navy, the experts went to town to show the British public that if the British sailor did not ride around in a Roll-Royce, it was only because he spent too much on beer. The lower deck really had no reason to strike, they said. It was not losing twenty-five per cent of its income because it benefited from allowances on top of its basic pay. Figures can’t lie, they said, forgetting that we of the lower deck together with the unemployed had long ago learned that liars could figure. Now I will attempt to describe what our fabulous wages looked like when placed on the cap of a son of the sea, whilst inside the head that fitted under that cap a thousand questions were circling around on how he was going to keep his wife and children decently.

The flat rate for an able seaman who joined the Navy before October 1925 was four shillings a day, and on that sum alone could he rely entirely. All extras were subject to conditions and were about as stable as the weather in the Bay of Biscay. For instance, at the age of twenty-one he received his first good-conduct bandage, which entitled him to another three pence per day. However it was only necessary for him to fall foul of some minor naval regulation and away went this little extra. Not only that: by losing that badge he was faced with the possibility of losing in addition his fifteen years’ good conduct medal which carried with it a gratuity of fifty pounds. Small wonder that the men referred to this award as the Medal for Fifteen Years’ Undiscovered Crimes.

That it was not so difficult to lose a good conduct badge may be seen from the following incident. The same captain who took us on our wonderful trip to China deprived one man of his good conduct badge, a leading seaman of his rating, and five crewmen of their badges, and added seven days’ cells into the bargain, all because they were reported by the flagship to rowing raggedly. It happened at Gibraltar, where they were taking the whaler on some mission or other; as they passed the break in the mole a heavy sea struck and for a moment they lost stroke. When an `extra` can depend on the whim of an officer, who may or may not like you personally, it is certainly not to be relied on.

Much has been made of the extra known as the `clothing allowance`, and the impression has perhaps been created that it was given in addition to the clothing supplied by the service. The truth is a little different and shows that the government was actually doing business on this allowance. When a boy joined the Navy at the tender age of  15 ¾ he was completely kitted up within the first two days. No one will deny that the kit issued to new entrants was something to admire, complete in every detail down to tooth powder. On finishing his course and leaving for sea-service, he received in addition a sailor’s overcoat, tropical suits and a few minor articles. But from that day on he received nothing free of charge, not even a length of cotton to sew on a button with.

Instead he got a clothing allowance of threepence a day (this threepence, like a tip for a liftboy, seemed a widespread practice in the Admiralty). It would appear that with careful treatment of his clothes, a man could be in hand threepence a day, only rarely making incursions into the accumulated sum to renew some article which had outlived its usefulness. However there were plenty of people, aided by a number of regulations, to put a check on a man trying to become rich from his clothing allowance. According to regulations, his immediate commanding officer was obliged to conduct a kit inspection every two weeks. True, many officers avoided this chore, but many did not. Any clothing which did not come up to the officer’s conception of naval uniform standards was condemned and new items provided, the cost being withheld from the man’s pay.

If there was no particular emphasis on these regulations on the ships, the system in the Royal Naval Barracks at Devonport made up for it. It was known as `clothing class`, but it had nothing to do with teaching sailors how to sew on buttons or patch a pair of pants. It should have been called `clothing inquisition`. The `class` was held in a large basement in one of the barracks and was in the charge of a WO [Warrant Officer] whose five underlings, all petty officers, were evidently chosen for their reputations as what sailors called `pure, unadulterated bastards`. Every man entering the barracks had first to acquire a card, something in the nature of an identity card minus photograph, which was known to the men as a `breathing licence`. Without it nothing could be done, and until it was stamped by the clothing class he could not breathe freely.

The man spread out his kit on the floor and one of the petty officers took on the job of inspection, both for condition and inventory, some of the articles had long since ceased to serve any useful purpose, but that did not matter: they had been issued and had to be accounted for. The favourite trick of the junior inquisitors was to take up a pair of trousers, search it inch by inch until they found the beginning of a hole, thrust their two index fingers through the cloth, crowing `What’s this? What’s this?` and pull their fingers apart until the garment was torn almost in two and, of course, beyond repair.

In view of the fact that the purchase of, say, a suit was a big drag on a man’s pay, an enterprising firm of naval tailors in Devonport organised a scheme whereby the men could make a regular allocation from their pay and take clothing as and when required. For the businessman it was an advantageous deal. Thousands signed the allocation agreement, with the result that every week the tailor put large sums of money into his bank, where it earned him a tidy sum in interest for no more effort on his part than the trouble of keeping his bankbook in a safe place. Now no one made an allocation of the mere sum of threepence a day – a weekly sum of twenty-one pence or in the financial language of those days, one shilling and ninepence. They always added to this sum from their own pockets, for the tailor would not accept less than ten shillings a month.

So the Navy got its pound of flesh from the clothing allowance. Only the experts can be gullible enough to think it was an addition.

I have already mentioned the monthly mess bill which a goodly part of the lower deck was still paying in those days, as the `general messing` system only slowly overtook the whole Navy. Another expense which the economists failed to take into account was the regular leave railway fare. If we take it that the majority of the men hailed from London or from the north, we can say that on average the men paid a good three pounds per year in railway fares. I know that when I once lost my return ticket from Leicester to Plymouth, the inspector took my name and particulars and three months later I was called into the ship’s office and signed away more than two pounds for that one-way trip. On another occasion, when I was still an ordinary seaman, I drew my pay to go on leave for two weeks and just managed to cover my railway fare. Yet all the efforts by lower deck representatives to introduce a contributory system whereby a weekly subscription would ensure free travel for seamen proceeding on leave were persistently blocked.

There was a marriage allowance, but it was limited to sailors of twenty-five or over and by no standards could it have been considered excessive: six shillings for the first child, then down to two shillings for the following one. Why the minimum age of twenty-five was imposed is incomprehensible, unless, of course, it was thought better for virile young men of twenty-three or twenty-four to spend their energies in brothels than in the marriage-bed, or better still, skulking around dark alleys or in cheap doss houses with the VD-ravaged `free` prostitutes of Britain.

But extras are extras to whomever they are paid. Some extras, somewhat more juicy than those granted to the men, were never mentioned by the analysts who thought the lower deck too well off. For instance, according to the first of the Articles of War, every captain or commander of a ship had to `cause worship of Almighty God` to be observed, or suffer punishment for not doing so. Should there be no chaplain aboard, the captain took prayers every morning after breakfast. It was a job which occupied at the most three minutes, but the captain pocketed an extra half-crown every time he did it – five-eights of an AB’s daily rate, not a mean extra. Furthermore captains were happy to arrange for chaplains to be absent, so that the half-crowns kept coming. I myself have taken part in filling a spare cabin with lumber so that the captain could plead he had no space for a chaplain.

How many more such extras for officers helped to swell the Navy bill I do not pretend to know, but entertainment money figured high on the list. Not for the men, however. When we visited Kiel, the crew of a German cruiser invited us to their own mess deck and did us really glorious. But after our convivial evening, we could only say `Thank you`. We had no chance of returning their hospitality.

After that digression which, based on personal knowledge, is far more authentic than the estimates of high-salaried so-called experts, let us get back to the forecastle of the Norfolk, where the men have gathered after Captain Prickett’s dismal failure to impress them with the story of the drop in British holdings in the Argentine.

One of the most extraordinary features of the Invergordon incident was the peaceful relationship between officers and men and, above all, the smoothness of the daily routine. An examination of the ship’s log of any of the ships involved will show a complete lack of abnormalities. Although different activities were continually underway on board the ships, officers interviewing groups of men and so forth, the harbour was deserted except for an occasional ship’s motorboat passing from one ship to another. As I have said, the strikers had no detailed plans and passed no secret messages, far less passwords or instructions. But if the crew of a passing motorboat from another striking ship showed crossed forearms, it conveyed to us that the men of that ship were still solid in their strike. This was not a planned signal. The crossed forearms were one of many unofficial signals that had entered Navy life years and years before and actually meant `Tie up` or `Finish`. In our particular circumstances at Invergordon it was automatically adopted to mean something more.

We were visited regularly by our officers all through the day and these regular approaches unwittingly gave us an inkling of what was going on higher up. At the beginning the officers were mainly concerned with getting us to go back to work on the understanding that they, the officers, including the highest in the Fleet, would take all steps within their power to help us. But they soon realised that our quarrel was not with them, that whilst we believed in their integrity, our belief in the Admiralty was smashed entirely. After a time their suggestions took on another tone. Instead of trying to get us back to work, they proposed we should use the time for training. This also had no results.

Then came an interruption in our peaceful day. We on Norfolk were expecting a visitor, an important visitor. Our intelligence service, which had the complete trust of the wardroom and was probably working on both fronts, informed us that the admiral of our squadron, the Second Cruiser Squadron, was coming aboard to talk to us. We did not know him and moreover we did not know his name, for he had never taken any measures to make our acquaintance. His proposed visit meant nothing more to us than that higher officers were being brought into play, emphasising thereby our growing strength. However, exactly forty years after seeing him for two minutes on Norfolk, I discovered his name was Rear-Admiral Astley-Rushton, when I read it on page 115 of Mutiny at Invergordon in 1971. Well, Rear-Admiral Astley-Rushton used his two minutes for an abusive attack on us, using such choice expressions as `Bleddy fools! Bleddy hooligans!` Here was a typical example of the officer who despised his men, accepted the `scum of the earth` theory and was prepared to sacrifice anything except his own interests. Some years later he was killed in a car dash to London after discovering that his name had been omitted from the list of officers decorated after the Royal Review at Spithead. That same dash was sadly lacking when it came to defending the men he was called to lead, but perhaps the manner of his death offers an explanation of the behaviour of the Admiralty. Was it for awards and decorations that the Admiralty schemed to bend the knee to the Cabinet and sacrifice the living standards of ninety thousand loyal men?

Just before he left his own ship to come aboard Norfolk the Rear-Admiral managed to get his men assembled on the blind side, and during his talk he pointed to the deserted deck and said `You see, my men have turned to![1]` The trick was so obvious that, together with his profanity, it convinced us he was an officer who would always treat sailors as half thugs, half retarded children.

As he left the Norfolk, we returned to our position on the forecastle, deeply disappointed with his foolish diatribe. The fable-mongers soon got busy, however, and the story was circulated that we had pelted his barge with potatoes – a physical impossibility unless we had come armed with potatoes to hear him speak. But not one officer could honestly say that the men of the Norfolk refused him a peaceful hearing all the time of the standstill.

One of our most popular officers, who never in all his approaches was given an impolite word, was Lieutenant-Commander Rogers. He was the officer of my division and we, the men under him, had always been grateful for his attitude towards us, especially his very humane manner of talking to us. During the strike Lieutenant-Commander Rogers was the officer who was most talked to, and it was he who, after the failures to get us to work or to train, asked `What do you want?` This was something we had not specifically discussed: our whole argument was that the proposed twenty-five per cent reduction would be an impossible burden on the men and their families; but the answer was clear and ready. The circumstances leading to its formulation were the solidarity of the men, the inability of the officers both high and low to break the strike by any means short of force, and finally the absolute incompetence of the Board of Admiralty in the presence if an unusual crisis. It reads like Lenin’s three essentials for revolution, but I can assure the reader that none of us knew of a man called Lenin, so I hope my use of the name will not give reactionaries suspicious thoughts.

When Lieutenant-Commander Rogers asked what we wanted, I rushed down below, took a sheet of foolscap and a pencil and wrote in large block letters `Go away and we will give our answer in writing`. I quickly returned to the forecastle and while Rogers was speaking to some of the men, I passed the sheet of paper to him over their shoulders. I doubt if he saw who gave it as he was surrounded by sailors, but on reading it, he readily agreed and even went so far as to make a gesture to help us, instructing AB George Hill, the commander’s office worker, to bring out to the forecastle the off typewriter, paper and a table. Hill had been in Devonport Division’s one and only typing class – the one and only, because at that time the Commodore of the RN Barracks was a man who believed in ships of iron and men of iron too. When he heard typing classes had been organised, he went off the deep end, shouting something about sailors soon being in skirts, and cancelled the classes.

Hill sat at the typewriter and I began to dictate. What I said was neither previously discussed nor subsequently altered. It poured out of my mouth as it came into my head. This is what I said:

We the loyal subjects of HM the King do hereby present my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty our representations to implore them to amend the drastic cuts in pay that have been inflicted on the lowest paid men on the lower deck.
It is evident to all concerned that this cut is the forerunner of tragedy, misery and immorality amongst the families of the lower deck and unless we can be guaranteed a written agreement from the Admiralty confirmed by Parliament stating that our pay will be revised we are still to remain as one unit, refusing to serve under the new rate of pay.
The men are quite willing to accept a cut which they, the men consider in reason.

 

Never was any document, which was afterwards to become an historical one, so easy to write. It just came out of me like a baby’s rhyme, learned to perfection, although I did not stop to think it out first, or make corrections, before putting the finished version on paper. But how I came to put on that extraordinary last sentence is still a mystery to me, the author. It contained a perfect opportunity to break the strike as it excluded the `X` ratings, the post-1925 men, from the sailor’s demands. The `X` ratings might have been persuaded to return to work, and any significant number of men turning to at that moment would have inevitably led to our complete collapse. But to our good fortune nobody except a few of these ratings noticed this possibility, and everybody, on the contrary, took this last sentence as a confirmation of our claim to loyalty, our desire to meet the government half way. It seems to me sheer negligence that this point was passed up. Nowadays when I read in the papers or hear on the radio that `experts` are studying a note from a foreign power, I wonder just what vital point they are overlooking.

Despite the official version that `only a few` men prompted the mutiny, despite the fact that other fleets did not strike in 1931, I believed then and still do today that the lower deck of the Royal Navy was, without exception, behind this statement. Trying to play down the affair and discredit the men, the authorities manufactured evidence that the would-be-loyal majority had been terrorised into strike action. The fable was spread around that only my brutal threats had forced AB Hill to type for me. It is a really gruesome picture: the scowling Wincott, stripped to his hairy chest (actually it is like a football field, with eleven on either side), the skull and crossbones tattooed on it in fifteen different colours, a huge red hammer and sickle on his back and a penknife thrust in his waist-band. `Type,` he growls at the fearless Hill, `or I’ll ditch the typewriter!` `Ditch and be damned!` retorts Hill, his eyes flashing with courage. But Wincott in his beer-soaked voice orders his henchmen to rig up the plank and blindfold the typewriter. It is too much for the noble Hill. He cannot sacrifice his beloved typewriter and bowing his head in grief he begins to type.

How ludicrous it all appears, but no more ludicrous than that such a tale could be taken seriously. How George would have laughed to know that I threatened my best friend on that ship, at whose home I had been a regular visitor and for whom I had acted as best man at his wedding but a few weeks before. But all these fairy tales of threats and conspiracies and plans to march on London could not avert the successful result of our action. When we had sent in our manifesto, and were waiting for a reply. A certain officer on Norfolk told us `You have won, but some of you will go outside`.

But there was a whole day to go before those words became a fact, and in the meantime we waited for the official answer to our manifesto. There were no further attempts to cajole or threaten the men back to work. It was now thoroughly realised by everyone, from the top to the bottom of the Fleet, that this was not the mutiny of the adventure books, but a displays of unprecendented solidarity by men who had been callously treated by award-seeking high officials; by men who looked poverty in the face and stared it down; by men who were always ready for the call of duty and who, if an enemy had attempted to take advantage of Invergordon, would have met him with all the fighting spirit of the naval tradition.

One of those to have personal evidence of these qualities was the Norfolk’s  officer on duty that first day of the strike. When the order was given at 21000 hours to muster the fire party and night boat’s crew and close the B and C doors, safety measures taken on ships at night, the OOD was amazed to see, not the people called, lining up under the duty petty officer, but one man who stepped smartly up to him, saluted and reported, `Night boat’s crew and fire party mustered, sir. B and C doors closed.`

So astonished was he that he forgot to acknowledge the report, rushed down below to the wardroom which was full of officers and said, almost breathlessly, to the commander `Sir, they have mustered a night boat’s crew and fire party themselves! Yes, sir!` There was a momentary silence as his words sank in and then the commander is reputed to have said `Yes. There are more brains forward than we have ever given credit for.`

We had deliberately chosen a night boat’s crew and a fire party from volunteers who were not in the duty watch, and this for two reasons.  The officers would not be able to say `These men have turned to, why not do likewise?` And, secondly, no man could say that he had not taken part in the strike. The officers’ surprise at our taking safety precautions was significant, showing once again that the wardroom had failed to move with the times, and to appreciate the change in quality of the men they commanded.

So we caused a sensation when we put our ship to bed safe and sound and prepared for any emergency the elements may have had in their box of surprises. Perhaps we caused an equal sensation among the more reactionary-minded officers when we failed to take advantage of the rifles and bayonets always ready for action on the Marines’ mess deck. In his journal Lieutenant Elkins reported how he put a guard on the weapons on his ship, the Valiant, and further made the dramatic announcement that he primed his two blunderbusses. Later he shifts from blunderbusses to Lewis guns. But Lieutenant Elkins was preparing for an enemy of his imagination. The Marines left the rifles and bayonets safely locked up in their racks and joined the seamen on the forecastle.

Our strength lay in being obliged only to take counter measures to the wardroom’s every move. They had to put into action the measures decided on whilst we needed only to make a last-second counter-move to render their efforts futile. We had taken our one and only major step, we had stopped obeying orders, and after that we had merely to defend our position against feeble attacks while time worked to strengthen us.

Whilst the inventors of conspiracies set to work to find evidence for their fantasies, the most fantastic event of the mutiny was taking place: in ships with complements ranging from six hundred to over a thousand, officers and men went to their hammocks and beds within a few yards from each other and peacefully slept the whole night through while peaceful mutiny raged around them. At 6 am, when the boatswain piped `All hands`, they rose from their sleep and continued their mutiny.



[1] Resumed duties and returned to work [Reddebrek]

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