Socialist Worker

Mutiny at Invergordon

Seventy five years ago a mutiny by sailors against cuts imposed by a right wing Labour prime minister rocked the British establishment. Matt Perry looks at the events

Issue No. 2020

The Dorsetshire

The Dorsetshire


In September 1931, the crews of the largest warships of the Atlantic fleet of the Royal Navy ignored their orders. The unrest was quickly hushed up by the government and the story is relatively unknown.

Severe pay cuts for the armed services caused the mutiny. The second Labour government was in a deep crisis without a parliamentary majority. It faced a world economic slump.

The City of London was pulling the plug on the government and a financial crisis was spreading from continental Europe, threatening the pound.

On 31 July, the government-appointed committee on national expenditure deliberately exaggerated the situation.

It demanded £120 million of savings - £96 million to come from cuts. The right wing press howled for the burden of public spending to be lifted from business.

They wanted the poor to pay for the crisis and to maintain the prestige of British capitalism, which was linked to maintaining the currency on the international Gold Standard system.

In order to restore the confidence of big business, the Labour government was advised to push through vicious cuts in the dole and pay for the armed services. It was told that failure to keep the pound on the Gold Standard would lead to revolution in central Europe.

To their credit, a minority in the Labour cabinet refused this. They were especially opposed to the cuts that hit the unemployed, many of who were already on the edge of malnutrition.

Because it was split, the cabinet resigned. But the prime minister Ramsay MacDonald and the chancellor Philip Snowden were determined to push through the cuts. They formed a “national government” with the Conservatives and Liberals, after being invited to do so by the king.

MacDonald called a snap general election and posed as the saviour of the country. The press conducted a vile campaign of propaganda against the Labour Party, claiming that it would raid people’s post office savings.

The sense of crisis, the confusion over MacDonald’s defection and the media campaign reduced the parliamentary Labour Party to a rump of 46 MPs.

The deep class divisions running below the surface of British society were intensified in the Royal Navy. Recruitment was particularly heavy in areas that had suffered from mass unemployment in the 1920s, including shipbuilding and mining areas such as the north east of England and South Wales.

The commissioned officers on the other hand came to the profession through the public schools and Dartmouth Naval College. Aboard ship they had separate quarters, better food and servants to look after them.

Marines held discipline on the ship and they were the last line of defence for the officers. Divide and rule, coercion, appeals to patriotism and the lure of promotion were used to keep the crews from organising themselves.

Sailors were not allowed to speak openly of their grievances. They therefore feared that they would be denounced and their chances of small but vital improvements in pay would be lost.

They could only form welfare committees to organise the benevolent societies in case of retirement, injury or death.

Breadline

Because of a decade of cuts and high rents in naval towns, many sailors were on the breadline, especially those with large families. One round of cuts even proscribed them from using toilet roll excessively.

The new national government spent some time finalising the details of the cuts in naval pay. Sailors were not consulted. When the character of the cuts became public they were such a shock that even many officers thought them to be outrageous.

The daily wage of an able seaman who had joined the service before 1925 was to fall from four shillings to three shillings and that of an ordinary seaman from two shillings nine pence to two shillings. Some of the lowest paid in the navy were losing 25 percent of their pay.

The sailors heard the news of the proposals through rumours and the press. Many could not believe it.

Most of the Royal Navy Atlantic fleet, some 16 warships, had been taking part in manoeuvres in the North Sea. They had gathered in Cromarty Firth, the inlet of sea north of Inverness.

It included the Hood, the Royal Navy’s largest warship. The nearest town, where the sailors took their shore leave, was Invergordon.

On Sunday 13 September, those who went ashore confirmed the rumours that had been circulating. An impromptu mass meeting took place at a canteen that the men frequented in Invergordon.

The agitation was such that discussions were transformed when some men leapt onto the tables to address wider audiences. The same thing happened for those taking their shore leave on the Monday.

Confusion as to what to do reigned. Some suggested requisitioning a train and taking their grievances to London. Another suggestion was going to Lossiemouth and burning down Ramsay MacDonald’s home.

Anger was also directed against Austin Chamberlain, the First Lord of the Admiralty, who had agreed to the cuts. Despite the whirl of emotion, the sailors resolved on passive resistance or strike action as the only way that they could get their message across.

When sailors returned to their ships, they were in high spirits with many of them drunk. On some ships they conducted meetings on the deck.

On the cold Monday morning, the captains read out the official communiqué about the cuts. On the York, the captain misguidedly suggested that the married men could ease the financial pain if their wives took in washing to earn money.

One man shouted from the back, “You fat bastard! How would you like your old woman to crash out the dirties?”

On the Nelson, after the announcement of the cuts and that the ship would be going on exercises the next morning, one of the torpedo men shouted, “No it won’t, sir.”

On Tuesday 15 September, when several of the crews received their orders, they simply failed to carry them out. For many this was an important distinction.

They were not refusing orders or mutinying, which was after all subject to the most severe punishment. There were clear limits to the lengths that the men were willing to go but their action spread rapidly and pulled the vast majority behind it.

This was not a case that could be put down to isolated indiscipline, easily suppressed by the marines. It was a powerful expression of collective grievances.

Even many of the marines joined the strike. On the Hood and the Nelson, they followed ordinary duties but refused to put to sea. On the Valiant and the Rodney, they only ­carried out essential duties, such as safety procedures, but without recognising the authority of their officers.

Crowds assembled on the forecastle with cheering, speeches and singing. The logic of the speeches was compelling - if we stick together they’ll have to give in eventually.

On the Rodney, a group of sailors found a piano and manoeuvred it onto the deck for a singsong. They played “The Red Flag” repeatedly.

Rear Admiral Tomkinson was forced to cancel the exercises. He sent a flurry of telegrams to the Sea Lords of the Admiralty as the situation grew more serious. On Wednesday morning the strike grew in strength.

Tomkinson believed that if force was used against the sailors matters would escalate. At 11.48 on Wednesday morning, his telegram to his superiors indicated that immediate concessions were necessary otherwise things would get entirely out of hand.

Now he was hearing of threats of sabotage. Tomkinson proposed concessions to those on the older rates of pay and to extend the marriage allowance to those under 25 years of age.

The cabinet accepted these measures and the mutiny was diffused. The fleet sailed on Wednesday evening.

The action of the sailors had dented the prestige of the MacDonald government, which was forced to make concessions to the sailors. It was also forced to abandon the Gold Standard shortly after the mutiny.

Public sector workers and the unemployed took up the fight against the cuts. After a series of demonstrations, hunger marches and even riots of the unemployed, the cuts in the dole were eventually rescinded in the budget of 1934.

The concessions over pay were a significant victory for the rank and file in the navy. But the generals and government sought their revenge.

Jailed

Dozens of ringleaders of the mutiny were jailed and more were dispersed or purged from the service.

The Communist Daily Worker newspaper, which had given unconditional support to the mutiny, was raided and its printer, business manager and editorial board were arrested under the Incitement to Mutiny Act of 1797.

In order to wipe the memory of the mutiny clean, there was no official inquiry, no court martials and the name of the fleet was changed to the Home Fleet.

Our rulers would rather mutinies were forgotten. Yet mutinies have been a crucial part of opposition to war. The mutinies of the Russian army and navy were a key element in the Russian Revolution of 1917 that meant that Russia withdrew from the First World War.

The armistice at the end of the First World War was signed days after a naval mutiny at Kiel spread throughout the German fleet and into the army.

Mutinies, most notably that of the French navy in the Black Sea, stalled foreign imperialist intervention against the Soviet regime after the First World War.

More recently, the refusal of US troops in fight in Vietnam paralysed the US military machine and was one of the reasons why president Richard Nixon had to abandon that bloody conflict.

Although more limited than these examples, the Invergordon mutiny shook the confidence of a government. It revealed the class character of the navy and the contempt in which the government held its lower ranks.

That is why discontent among military families today sends a shiver down Tony Blair’s spine.

The Jarrow Crusade: Protest And Legend by Matt Perry is available for £14.95 from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com


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