MI5 documents recently released under the Freedom of Information Act show how the naval mutineers attracted the attention of the security services.
The secret service file on one of the leaders, Fred Copeman, contains 99 pages. It is packed with reports, transcripts of speeches, copies of intercepted letters and notes from local police tracking his movements.
Special attention was given to meetings in port towns where Royal Navy ships were docked.
Among the documents is a description of how Copeman and another strike leader, Len Wincott, organised the mutiny:
“Wincott sent a message round the fleet by private signal … He also sent a message by ships’ boats to the effect that he was gong to hold a meeting in the canteen.”
The spies reported that Copeman and Wincott organised each section “to run the ship”, with instructions to the crew that “orders from officers had to come from the [strike section] leaders who would give permission (or not) for the order to be carried out”.
The ships of the Atlantic fleet were the most advanced of their day. HMS Hood, whose crew joined the strike, was the fastest and deadliest in the fleet, while the Norfolk and the Dorsetshire were the most modern.
The idea that naval ratings had taken control of some of the most powerful warships in the British navy filled the ruling class with horror.
Copeman joined the navy in 1922, aged 16. He admitted that he became an agitator one year into his service. His radical politics were soon noticed by his superiors.
One note in the file, written by his commander, describes Copeman as “one of these fiery people, who will shout about everything”. The officer draws special attention to the fact that Copeman was once heard “singing the Red Flag in the streets of Devonport”.
The navy described Copeman as “a bully and general bad character, but a good seaman when he tries, which is not very often. [Copeman was] always on the scene when a gathering took place.”
And the gatherings came thick and fast. When they heard that their wages were to be cut, Copeman urged sailors to return to their ships and spread the strike. “It seems to me that it’s time we expressed our opinions in a more organised way, and I propose that you return to your ships,” he told the assembled sailors.
“It will be foolish for us to do anything here without the other half of the men knowing what it is all about. Sleeping in the canteen is daft, and to try to march down to Glasgow is even madder.
“We are sailors, not soldiers, and our strength is in the fleet itself. Whatever we do, everybody must be in it. There must be no question of splitting one section from another. The marines must enter this fight with us at the beginning.”
Officers noted that Copeman was “ashore Monday, tried to persuade the marines ... is still agitating”.
The marines were the last defence of naval authorities against an unruly crew. After discussions with the sailors’ leaders, they joined the strike.
After two days the Invergordon mutineers forced the government into a humiliating climbdown. But despite their victory, over 200 sailors were dismissed, and hundreds of others purged from across the navy.
The victimised sailors took their campaign to the ports across Britain. Wincott toured Scotland, while Copeman travelled across England.
Among the papers are transcripts of Copeman’s speeches as he toured the country. At a public meeting in Bristol - called to coincide with the visit of the king - Copeman gives a history of unrest among sailors, and urges citizens “to do as these men did”. This call for general revolt is underlined with a thick blue pen by the spy chief.
The state had every reason to fear these “general bad characters”.
One report notes, “The general population are of the opinion that the men in the navy are all loyal, but they are under the delusion for, at present time, naval men are far from being loyal and there is much more disloyalty in the navy now than there ever was. The king is not much liked in the navy, he never was, as he has always been too much of a snob.”
One spy gave a summary of the mood among sailors during a tour by the monarch:
“The king is visiting the fleet at the moment for the simple reason that he has been advised by the National government that there is a feeling of unrest among the men, and it has been deemed prudent for him to show himself among the ratings, so he has taken their advice.
“The [news]papers have published pictures of him going the rounds, and these show what a loyal body of men he is amongst, but pictures are not published showing officers calling for three cheers for the king - which they give themselves - whilst the men respond with ‘raspberries’.”
The file, logged as KV 2/2322, is now available in the national archive after 75 years in the shadows. It covers only one year in Copeman’s life.
After he was victimised out of the navy, Copeman joined the Communist Party and began agitating among unemployed workers (the subject of another declassified file).
In 1936 he volunteered to fight in Spain, where he became commander of the British contingent of the International Brigade. Wounded in 1937, he returned to England.
In 1938 he visited the Soviet Union. His experience of the realities of Joseph Stalin’s Russia shattered his faith in the Communist Party.
On return to Britain he resigned from the party to become a Labour councillor in Lewisham. But his anger at inequality remained.
In his 1948 autobiography, Reason in Revolt, he wrote,
“I have always had a rather extreme attitude to this question of sharing the riches of the world, and have found it hard to accept a principle which lets some live lavishly while others starve.”
The files on Frederick Copeman (KV 2/2322-2324) are available at the National Archive. Go to www.nationalarchives.gov.uk