MUTINY IN THE RAF – the Air Force Strikes of 1946

With a Foreword by JOHN SAVILLE

The Socialist History Society
Occasional Papers Series: No 8
original printed version ISBN 0 9523810 6 0

Foreword by JOHN SAVILLE


The history of discontent, unrest, strikes and mutinies in the British armed forces in World War Two has never been adequately documented. Mutiny is, of course, the accepted legal term for almost every refusal to obey orders. The story in this text offers a contemporary detail which is unusual. There is very little in the Public Record Office of events at Drigh Road RAF station, some few miles from the city of Karachi, which form the subject of the story which follows, and it is doubtful if much has been withheld. One can never be certain, since the British establishment has a remarkable and disreputable record of secrecy about events in which the government or any of its institutions have been involved, but it is unlikely. There have been more dramatic events of which the mutiny at Salerno is an obvious example, but the documentation of the “incidents” at Drigh Road offer an unusual and important insight into the psychological attitudes, and the daily practices they allowed, of the top levels of the military command.

The major issue which brought about the demonstrations at Drigh Road was demobilisation, and this had inevitably been of growing importance from the day the war ended. There were, however, special reasons for anxiety among the RAF, for almost from the beginning of peace there were rumours that the pace of demobilisation for the RAF was likely to be slower than for the other services. John Strachey was the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Air in the new Labour government and on 17 October, 1945 – just over two months since the war ended – he wrote a long minute to his senior colleagues in the Ministry. There had been a debate in the House of Commons the week before on the slower rate of demobilisation for the RAF which had been planned from January to June, 1946, and Strachey acknowledged the widespread concern. His minute continued:

“My line in defence has been the obvious one that: first, a relatively large R.A.F. and small army is by far the most economical way of meeting our world commitments; and second, that we face a huge transportation and trooping task, largely for the sake of the other two forces …. But the hard fact remains that we are proposing to release only 140,000 men in the first six months of next year: that means only three groups in six months: and that is a far slower rate of release, either than we ourselves are achieving this year, or than the other two services will be achieving next year.” This paragraph was underlined for emphasis in the original, and his next paragraph opened with the words: “Frankly, I don’t think we can hold such a position” (PRO AIR 8/790/2157)

I am writing this foreword because although I was not in the RAF I was present at all the political discussions within the communist group in Karachi, and I was active in the defence and release campaign in the UK. I had been called up in the spring of 1940, into the Artillery, and although I was a university graduate I refused an officers’ training course on three occasions. In 1943 I became an Instructor in Gunnery, an elite group within the Artillery, and when not in the field there was always a good deal of independence for its members. I already knew a good many Karachi people as well as the local communists, and it was in the “bungalow” (a very large house) of a well-to-do Muslim friend of mine that the communist group sometimes met.

At our meeting which followed the Saturday morning refusal of duties at Drigh Road we had first to decide whether the communist group should become involved, and becoming “involved” meant providing the leadership. The Drigh Road group were agreed that that there was no choice since otherwise there would have been something like mindless chaos. Two questions then followed. There had been some calls from the men for a more prolonged strike, but like Arthur Attwood I myself was strongly opposed. To maintain a strike in an industrial situation at home is not always easy, but to expect the kind of solidarity required from a large mass of mostly apolitical airmen subject to military pressures all around them was unrealistic. I should add here that I was probably more conscious of the bastardry the top levels of the Services were capable of than some of my comrades. I knew the outlines of the stories of Salerno and the Cairo Parliament and I certainly knew more of military regulations. Arthur, with his industrial background, was fully aware of the problems involved, and we moved on to consider what demands could be worked out both to satisfy the wholly legitimate anxieties and complaints of the rank and file airmen, and to offer a genuine basis for discussion with the RAF authorities. What I have to add is that I had great confidence in Attwood, David Duncan and their comrades. Arthur throughout exhibited a steadfastness and common sense that evoked a remarkable response from the airmen of his station; and he had Duncan, Ernie Margetts and others in the group to talk matters over. Arthur had great abilities of leadership but this was a situation in which collective discussion and responsibility was of central importance.

As the story which follows makes plain, within less than a fortnight it really looked as though the demonstrations and the negotiations which followed had succeeded. At this point, either late in January or early February 1946, I myself left Karachi on the first stage of the journey to England, demobilisation and civilian life. It was over two months before I had any contact again with my friends from Drigh Road. Within three days of arriving in England, I received the telegram referred to in the text below: “Arthur arrested. Please help. Dunc”.


I was due to enter a new job when my demobilisation leave finished. This was in the economic research section of the Ministry of Works in Whitehall and my time during the day was therefore bound to be limited. On receipt of the telegram I went to King Street and saw Michael Carritt who a few years earlier had resigned from the Indian Civil Service. He had ended his career in Calcutta when Sir John Anderson was Governor, and his reminiscences are told in a riveting book, A Mole in the Crown, which he had to publish himself in 1985. Michael advised me to write to D N Pritt, the independent socialist MP for Hammersmith North, setting out all the details as far as I knew them in preparation for a meeting. This I did and then went to see Pritt.

He was a man of great personal charm, with a wonderful sense of humour and witty story-telling of high degree. He had been elected Labour MP for Hammersmith in 1935, expelled from the Labour Party in 1940 for supporting the Soviet invasion of Finland, and during the election year of 1945 had tried very hard to persuade the Labour Party to accept him back and to stand as the official Labour candidate. In these attempts he was widely supported round his constituency and within Westminster. But without success. When the results of the July general election came through, Pritt had 61 per cent of the total vote, an estimated 83 per cent of the Labour vote and the official Labour candidate lost his deposit: the only Labour candidate to achieve this in the whole country. To me at our first meeting Pritt was very helpful. We obviously needed the facts of the whole story, and these Duncan supplied. Duncan was our invaluable source of information from India since so many of the letters that Arthur was writing in these early days were being withheld. Pritt was always full of useful advice whenever I went to see him. He was never hurried although his workload was very heavy and he was always encouraging. He arranged for himself and others to ask questions in the Commons; he organised a deputation to see Strachey; and he wrote personally to Arthur and to Violet, Arthur’s wife. Pritt’s own account of the case, which he rightly thought important for establishing certain basic principles, will be found in part two of his autobiography, Brasshats and Bureaucrats, published in 1966. Without Pritt it is doubtful if we would have won.

Pritt was the greatest civil liberties lawyer of his generation, not only in Britain but also, and perhaps especially, for British colonies (for he could plead before the Privy Council). It was Pritt who did a superb job for Greek seamen during the Second World War, and it was Pritt who went out to Kenya in the fifties to defend Jomo Kenyatta. For those interested in the subtle paradoxes of twentieth century politics, Pritt, a man of compassion and a passionate opponent of injustice, when the facts were brought before him, was a hard-line supporter of the Soviet Union throughout his life. He died in 1972.

We were greatly helped, and much encouraged, by the extent of the trade union support we received, especially in the London area. Among those to whom King Street, the Party headquarters, directed me was Les Cannon who had been elected to the National Executive Committee of the Electrical Trades Union in 1945, at the time the youngest member. Cannon was later to become, in the closing years of the fifties, an implacable anti-communist in the group which took over the leadership and from whom Arthur Attwood himself was to be one of the subjects of their consistent hostility; but in the immediate post-war years and in the context of the campaign to win freedom for Arthur, Cannon was helpful. As were so many others, and the great Memorial Hall meeting which undoubtedly brought our campaign into the national news, included a major trade union contribution in its organisation and on its platform.

What must always be remembered is that there were dozens of mainly ex-RAF who contributed their share in writing letters to the press, to their MPs and who sent money from their own finances or from local collections. The victory in the Attwood case – which was to have its very positive effects on other cases – was the result of the efforts of many, whose contribution, large and small, made a national campaign. We needed above all the courage and steadfastness of Arthur Attwood himself, without which the work of Pritt and so many others would have been in vain. We needed also the constant flow of information from David Duncan from India. He himself was always vulnerable to the attentions of the security police and the modesty of his own account in the text which follows must not allow us to forget the important part which he played in this story. It was, as in all such cases, a two-way relationship: between the victim in prison and the large numbers outside. The campaign was an exhibition of the decency and the persistence of so many determined people for whom Attwood was the symbol of the constant struggle for democracy. And let us not forget, in all situations of the same kind, that the wives and families of the abused are under constant and continuous stress and travail. To Violet Attwood, whose quiet courage and determination throughout these very difficult days of 1946 was a notable addition to all our efforts, we offer the recognition of her indomitable spirit and the warmest of our respects.



At seven-thirty on Thursday, 17 January 1946, eight or nine hundred men had gathered on the football field at Drigh Road, a large RAF maintenance unit near Karachi. It was dark. The sun had set more than an hour before, and no moon was visible. It was so dark that one could not recognise an immediate neighbour unless he struck a match to light a cigarette.

A few minutes later a voice called out from somewhere in the middle of the crowd, “You all know why we’re here…”

The men did indeed know. They were there because they had grievances. They were angry and they wanted action.

The decisions they took had consequences that reached far beyond Karachi.

1 Mutiny in Karachi

“In the middle of January, 1946, the British authorities, who had always feared the possibility of revolt in their Indian units, were shocked by a mutiny amongst the British” – Michael Edwardes1


Men in the forces are trained to obey. Parades, kit inspections, saluting, polishing boots and buttons may have other justifications, but all are used to accustom men to instant obedience to the orders of their superiors. How, then, could twelve hundred RAF personnel at Drigh Road in January, 1946, come to defy their commanding officer and take part in what was technically a mutiny?

In general, the morale of British forces during the Second World War seems to have been surprisingly good. That was certainly the case at all the RAF stations where I served during my time in India. There were plenty of grumbles, of course, and every reason for them – the heat, the flies, the disease, the abominable food, the lack of leisure facilities, the long hours of work, poor living conditions and, of course, the doubts about when wives, girlfriends and families would be seen again.

Men put up with all these things mainly because, almost without exception, they knew that this was a war that had to be won. They would have expressed this in different ways – fighting for their country, standing up for democracy, opposing aggression or, for me and many like me, fighting fascism. We all wanted the war to be over, but only after victory.

A few months after the end of the war the atmosphere had changed. Except for a few regular airmen, our paybooks showed that we had joined for “DPE” – the Duration of the Present Emergency. And to us the emergency was over. The war had been won. It was time to get back to Britain and then into civilian life.

Most men accepted that millions of servicemen could not be demobilised overnight, to flood the labour market and leave millions unemployed. But did many of us have to wait for years, which was what the current rate of demobilisation implied?

And if we could not be demobilised for a while, why could we not go home and serve our time in Britain? The official answer was that there were not enough ships, but none of us believed that. Some men pointed out that plenty of ships seemed to be available to take supplies to Indonesia to help the Dutch regain their hold on that country. Some drew attention to the great liners being made available to the “GI brides” – British women who had married American servicemen – to cross the Atlantic to the USA. Others asked whether it really mattered how many ships there were. There were hundreds of our aircraft at the disposal of the RAF, so why could we not be flown home? There seemed to be no official answers, and more and more men were convinced that we were being held in India as a matter of policy.

To make matters worse, there was a widespread belief that soldiers and sailors were being released more quickly than the men of the RAF. This was an impression gained from what was learned from friends in the other services, and we know now that that impression was totally justified. It was official policy to reduce the army and the navy more quickly. As John Strachey, Under Secretary for Air in the Labour government, explained in a confidential minute in October, 1945: “A relatively large R.A.F. and a small army is by far the most economical way of meeting our world commitments”.2 So most of us had to stay in India.


Peacetime had not improved our living conditions. Most of us slept in large barrack blocks, with a table and a couple of chairs in the middle, and a bed and locker for each of the thirty or so men. Each bed had a wooden frame, ropes instead of springs, and posts on which mosquito nets could be hung. For a couple of hundred men, even this accommodation would have been a significant improvement. They still lived in tents, many ragged with age.

My friend, LAC Arthur Attwood, was one of those to whom home was a tent. “Each of the bell-tents,” he noted, “perched on concrete plinths in rows, was the living quarters for up to six airmen, the sole furniture being a wooden locker and a bed criss-crossed with coarse twine … The legs were usually stuck into cigarette tins filled with water, the idea being to defeat the ants. There was also a greased ball round the tent pole, placed to prevent the little insects dropping from the roof canvas on to the charpoys (beds). Both methods were useless.

“The geckos were more welcome squatters. During the evening, by the light of the hurricane lamps, they suspended themselves upside down on the roof canvas, camouflaged as dirty white tent canvas, and stayed rigid, with long tongues suddenly snaking out to claim a fly or mosquito.”

Most of the men still worked long hours, some even longer than during the last few months of the war. And the food got even worse. The main course was usually a mush, ingredients unknown, and at one stage an important element of the main meal was the contents of a cardboard box – emergency rations obtained cheaply from the United States because they were no longer regarded by the Americans as good enough for their troops in the field.

“A few hundred yards from the tent,” Arthur wrote, “across the sand, was the cookhouse. It was in a hangar, with the swill bins nearby. The men would usually emerge from the mess, with knife, fork and plate, cross to the bins to deposit leftovers or, when they couldn’t stomach it, the whole messy plateful. There was always a line of big black, bedraggled birds on the hangar roof. Shitehawks! They would drop like a stone on the unwary or go straight for the swill bins.”

A little further on sat the fruit-wallah, selling oranges, bananas and roasted peanuts. Sweets and chocolate could not survive in the heat, so any after-dinner treat had to come from the fruit-wallah’s basket. Alongside stood a dish of coloured water – “pinky-pahni” to most of us. This was a solution of potassium permanganate, and we were expected to dip the fruit in the liquid to reduce the risk of infection.

There was no privacy, even in the toilets. The latrine most convenient for me was shielded by a fence, but inside there was only a huge, inverted wooden box. This had oval-shaped holes cut into the top along each side. Going in there each morning before work, one would see a line of men sitting along each side of the box, all with shorts or trousers round their ankles. Some would get in and out as quickly as possible, while others would loiter, having a chat with neighbours or perhaps reading a newspaper.

The climate, of course, added greatly to the discomfort. Long hours of work in the heat; the ubiquitous flies, mosquitoes and other insects; the diseases, of which dysentery and malaria were the most common. Few men who had been in India more than a few weeks had not had at least one spell in hospital.

One of the most common complaints, prickly heat, resulted from excessive perspiration. One could see a row of men in the mess, sitting at the table, and as they drank their tea after the meal, a damp patch on the back of each shirt would get larger and larger, as if the tea being taken by mouth was coming straight out through the back. This constant perspiration often caused prickly heat – the blocking of the sweat glands, with tiny red pimples forming, especially on the back and chest. These were so itchy that it was almost impossible not to scratch, yet scratching made things worse. Sometimes the pimples became yellow blisters, which could be very messy and sore.

For many men the biggest enemy was boredom. Most of the programmes at the camp cinema had little appeal, and the cinemas in the town of Karachi showed only Indian films. There were no billiard halls, no pubs, no professional football matches, no dance halls. So men were deprived, not only of family life, but also of the kind of organised entertainment that would have been available at home.

There was a small library in the education department, but the mostly old books had little appeal. Some men were sent newspapers from home and these were passed round among friends and were read eagerly. There was also a discussion group, but this was always a minority interest and in any case met only once a week. Occasional football matches took place between different sections of the camp, but there was little else in the way of sport.

So in the evenings men had something to eat in the canteen (there was no NAAFI) or they chain-smoked while playing cards in the billet. For anyone not interested in cards, life could be very dull indeed. For the most part they just dreamed of going home. Going home! That was all that men wanted, now that the war was over.

Getting home meant more than just escaping from India and the RAF. Men’s futures were at stake. Only a minority of the men had safeguarded jobs to return to. Most would have to go job-hunting, and they were impatient to get on with this. Others who had stayed at school until they were 18 and then joined the RAF, were now concerned about college and university places. Would these all be filled by the time they got home?

Many men were also anxious about their families. One or two had had “Dear John” letters, and this led a few others to feel uneasy. Most men had other concerns – the children’s schooling, everyone’s health, financial problems, even the impact of rationing (now in some ways worse than during the war). Men wanted to get home, to see girlfriends, wives and families again and to find reassurance. Early release – or at least a return to Britain – was of real importance.


The war was over, had been over for five months. To the men, that meant it was time to go home. To the top brass of the Air Force, that meant it was time for peacetime discipline. Early in January came the crucial blow. Station Orders announced that on Saturday, 19th January, the whole station would parade in best blue uniform, and the parade would be followed by a kit inspection.

It was difficult to know whether it was the best blue parade or the kit inspection which had most impact. A kit inspection! That meant setting out all our equipment on the bed, with the blankets folded in a particular way, and the remainder of the kit arranged in regulation pattern, so that an NCO or an officer could see at a glance whether any item was missing. And, of course, everything had to be spotlessly clean and, wherever possible, polished. But we had thrown away the absurd Victorian helmets we had been issued with; most of us had long since eaten our emergency rations and lost or thrown away lots of other useless gear. And who could remember how it all had to be laid out? Yet disciplinary proceedings could be expected to follow if anyone’s kit was found to be deficient.

As for parading in best blue! Our dress usually consisted of an open-necked khaki shirt and equally lightweight shorts or trousers, with socks and sandals. It was too warm, even in January, for anything more. Being in best blue was something different. It meant wearing a tie, putting on a heavy woollen uniform of tunic and trousers – clothing designed for warmth in the British winter. And in preparation, buttons and footwear would have to be polished and trousers pressed.

As men waited on the parade ground for the Commanding Officer’s inspection, a number of them would faint from waiting in the heat. Any man not turned out to the officer’s satisfaction would be “put on a charge”.

All this was infuriating in itself, but behind it lay something else. We could no longer pretend to be civilians waiting to go home. Suddenly we were involved in the bureaucracy and bullshit of the peacetime forces. The men could not accept that.


The story began to circulate that a meeting of the men would be held on the football field on the Thursday evening at seven thirty, by which time it would be dark. No one seemed to know who had called the meeting, but it soon became clear that most of the men intended to be there.

I turned up on the football field in good time and found there were hundreds there already. My guess was that well over half of the men attended, perhaps eight or nine hundred, but it was impossible to tell. It was dark, so dark that it was difficult even to recognise the man at one’s shoulder. Men were engaged in the usual chat and banter, waiting and wondering whether anything was going to happen. And then it did. Someone in the centre of the crowd called out – I remember the exact words – “You all know why we’re here.” Everyone looked to where they thought the voice was coming from, and it continued, “Don’t look round. And don’t say anybody’s name”. The man then added something about Saturday morning.

For a few seconds there was absolute silence, and then a great hubbub began. It was clear that whoever had called the meeting had no procedure in mind, no plan to propose, and apparently no intention of playing any further part in the proceedings. Men were obviously very angry about both the parade and the kit inspection, but the meeting was becoming chaotic as several men shouted against one another, some protesting about grievances, others suggesting different remedies.

At this point Arthur Attwood made himself heard. He intervened because, of all the hundreds there, he was the only one who had both the nous to know what to do and the guts to do it. His voice boomed out above all the others. I cannot remember his exact words, but he said, in effect, “We won’t get anywhere like this, lads. We need a chairman to see that there’s one speaker at a time. Does anyone object if I do the job?” There were murmurs of approval and no opposition, so Arthur took charge of the meeting. He saw to it that only one man spoke at a time; he gave to the meeting the gist of anything said by a speaker in too quiet a voice; and he made sure that everyone was aware of the issue before a vote was taken.

Various suggestions were put forward, ranging from a full-scale strike, starting the next day, to a deputation to the CO, but consensus was reached in a surprisingly short time, and the whole meeting was over in not much more than half an hour.

Unanimously, we resolved that on the Saturday morning:

  • we would not prepare any kit for inspection
  • we would go to the parade ground at the scheduled time, but wearing khaki drill, not best blue, and we would refuse to parade;

  • anyone who had the opportunity to talk to the commanding officer would make it clear that we had strong grievances which we wanted to put to higher authority.


As I lay in bed on the Friday evening I wondered what would happen next morning. I was confident that all the men would keep to the agreement reached at the mass meeting; but our strike would be seen by the authorities as mutiny. Some weeks earlier there had been a strike of RAF personnel at Jodhpur, and we had heard that the CO had called in the Indian army. Would we also have to face the bayonets of British or Indian troops? Or would we be left on the parade ground in the hope that demoralisation would set in and the men would begin to disperse? Or could it all end in an amicable discussion? It was impossible to tell. Anyway, the decision was more likely to be made in Delhi at air headquarters than in Karachi.

In the event, all the men appeared on the fringes of the parade ground at the scheduled time, and all were in khaki. There was not a blue uniform in sight, and it must have been obvious to the station warrant officer and to the commissioned officers – though they were not immediately visible – that there would be no CO’s parade that day.

There was an air of tension now that had not been there at the Thursday meeting. This was the moment of truth. None of us – unless anyone had arrived recently from Jodhpur – had ever been in this kind of situation before. So we waited, not afraid – there were too many others in the same boat for that – but concerned. There was a lot at stake.

It was some time before the CO appeared. No doubt the telephone line to Delhi had been humming. The men were spread around the edge of the parade ground, but the CO approached the nearest group, and several of the men spoke to him vehemently but not threateningly. Some emphasised a particular grievance, while others demanded a meeting with higher authority and a promise of no victimisation.

More men had now congregated round the group with the CO. He seemed to be harassed, but in conciliatory mood. Go back to your duties now, he said, and he would see that a senior officer from air headquarters came to hear our grievances as soon as possible, and I thought his words also implied that there would be no punishments. In fact, most of us had no duties to go back to, since the morning was to have been devoted to the parade and kit inspection, but we dispersed quite happily. Our first demand had been met, and no further discussion was needed. The crunch would come when we met the man from air headquarters.

2 Political Campaigning

“For the first time since the Parliamentary Army of 1646, troops in the field, and in the rear, were openly talking about politics, what the war was about, and what they wanted to come out of it….” – Anon.1


There were nine or ten Communists on the Drigh Road camp, and we met as a group. Contrary to what some people might imagine, this was not a cell of saboteurs or spies, but a group of young socialists wanting to do all they could to help in the fight against fascism and to contribute to the building of a prosperous, socialist Britain.

We liked to think that we practised what we preached, and many of us found inspiration in the example of the International Brigade. When the Spanish civil war broke out in 1936 it was because Franco and his supporters refused to accept the will of the people and sought to overthrow the democratically elected Spanish government. While Hitler and Mussolini were quick to provide help for Franco, the British and French governments refused any assistance to the republican side.

It was in this situation that the call was made for an International Brigade, people from many different countries who would face the might of Franco’s professional army and his foreign allies, not for money but for a cause – the cause of anti-fascism. Encouraged by the Communist Party, about two thousand young Britons joined the brigade, a large proportion of them from the ranks of the party itself. So while the British government was involved in appeasing Hitler, young Communists were dying on the battlefields of Spain.

In 1942 and 1943, when the Communist Party was calling for the opening of a Second Front, they meant an allied invasion of Western Europe, so that the Germans, already facing the Red Army on a thousand mile long front in the east, would have to fight in the west as well. In the spirit of the International Brigade many Communists in the armed forces offered to take part in the invasion. As a trainee wireless mechanic in the RAF in London, I wrote to my commanding officer, volunteering for commando training in order to take my part in the Second Front. His reply was polite and not unfriendly, but he insisted that, in view of the time and money spent on my training, I could best contribute to the war effort by using my technical skills in the RAF.

In India, where most of us were not directly involved in the fighting, we felt that we could contribute to the war effort in three main ways – by being good at our jobs and working conscientiously, by setting a good example in responding to discipline, and in lifting and maintaining morale.

When I was in Agra, the Communist group there was also working to improve relations between British and American airforce personnel. We had contact with a number of American comrades, and they invited us to have lunch at their base one day and meet as many as possible of their colleagues. I like to think that we made a good impression and helped to eliminate some of the strange ideas that some had of British people.

The most abiding impression of the visit, however, was of the abundance of the food available. We could scarcely believe it. There were several different meats on offer, for example, and a man could help himself to whatever he wanted! And there was a similar choice of drinks – hot tea, iced tea, hot coffee, iced coffee, mineral waters. It was better than Lyons’ Corner House!

After that we decided that it would not help to improve British-American relations to return the compliment and invite the Americans to share the unappetising stuff served in our mess. So we invited half a dozen of them to a meeting on our station to give a short talk and answer questions. The meeting was well attended and the Americans met with a good response.

To strengthen morale we reminded colleagues of the nature of fascism and the need to win the war, and we combined this with a vision of what life would be like in post-war Britain if we had the right kind of government. In presenting our ideas at Drigh Road, we made good use of the station discussion group, for which the Education Section was responsible, and which met each Monday evening. There were three of us on the committee, and we were very influential, because we were the ones with ideas about what should be discussed and often about who could give the lecture or lead the discussion. I recall Arthur Attwood giving a talk on trade unions, and I introduced a discussion on the British press.

On one occasion, we invited the Senior Medical Officer to speak on the subject of “So You Don’t Want a Baby”. In the days when there was no formal sex education in school and suitable books were not readily available, this was a useful as well as a popular subject. We had such a successful evening that we followed it a few weeks later with, “So You Do Want a Baby” and had an equally large attendance.

Many of our discussions were on post-war Britain, and this fitted well with official policy, which was to encourage discussion – though preferably with an officer having tight control – of issues like housing, health policies, the 1944 Education Act and the Beveridge Report on social security. Once Germany had been defeated and the Labour ministers had withdrawn from Churchill’s coalition government, our thoughts turned to the coming general election.


When Britain’s voters went to the polls on 5 July, 1945, it was for the first general election since 1935. There had been by-elections, of course, but for more than five years there had been a party truce, so even in by-elections there was no Tory-Labour confrontation. Candidates from the sitting parties were either elected unopposed or faced competition from independents, minor parties or the new Commonwealth Party.

Since 1940 the country had been led by a national government headed by Winston Churchill, and his popularity was a major factor in leading media commentators to anticipate a Tory victory in the general election.

But general opinion in the country had been moving leftwards. As people coped with the problems of wartime, whether facing the blitz or standing together in queues, many developed a new sense of community and began to feel that there should be a common cause in peacetime as well as in war. Government intervention had brought full employment, fairer shares (through rationing) and improved health for many of the people. Should not a peacetime government do the same? These views were encouraged by a new respect for the Soviet Union, based on sympathy for the millions of Russian casualties and admiration for the success of the Red Army in our common fight against Nazi Germany.

People also remembered the pre-war days and the Tory record. In their political history, Post-War Britain, Sked and Cook note that, “Churchill had lost the election because the voters refused to forget. They refused to forget the years after the First World War when Lloyd George’s promises went unredeemed; they refused to forget the depression years, the unemployment and the General Strike; and they refused to forget the failure of Chamberlain’s appeasement policies which Churchill himself had taught them led to the Second World War. In short, the voters refused to forget the failure of the inter-war period when political life in Britain had been dominated almost exclusively by the Tory Party”2. So, when the people voted, they gave a massive majority to the Labour Party, whose manifesto proclaimed that it was “a Socialist Party, and proud of it”.3

The men in the services were affected in much the same ways, and there is considerable evidence that they were more left-wing than the civilian population. Servicemen were old enough to remember the thirties, young enough to receive new ideas. Their interest in the progress of the fighting on the many fronts encouraged an interest in current affairs. The rigid class distinctions between officers and other ranks, which none could fail to observe, fostered a radical outlook.

Moreover, discussion within the ranks, especially about Britain after the war, had been officially encouraged, as a means of maintaining morale. In 1941 the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA) was set up to provide material for discussion on social and political issues, and it produced a series of booklets. Some politicians have perhaps exaggerated the influence that ABCA had in promoting Labour views, but in many units it did have considerable impact. Just as important, it developed a discussion culture throughout the services, and in hundreds of units debates took place, formal and informal, official and unofficial, on issues of the day, and especially on the character of post-war Britain. It was this atmosphere which enabled servicemen to set up mock parliaments, of which the most famous was the one in Cairo.

ABCA booklets were made available to the RAF. At Drigh Road this material tended to lie unused in the Education Section library, except perhaps when someone was seeking information for a talk to the discussion group. However, from the spring of 1945, if I remember rightly, it became policy to hold a weekly discussion class in each section, and two of the Communist group – Ernie Margetts and I – were among those recruited as discussion leaders.

The discussion group, which catered for the whole station, continued to function successfully, and when the general election was announced, the committee proposed that we hold a mock election, and the CO agreed. This would not be just a single meeting with a vote taken after short speeches by the candidates. We had permission for a week’s campaigning before the vote.

In the Communist group we were aware that only a small minority of the men would have general election votes in constituencies with Communist candidates, whereas virtually all would have the opportunity to vote Labour. So we decided to concentrate on attacking the record of the Tories in both home and foreign affairs and showing how much ordinary people would benefit from Labour’s policies; we would deal only briefly with the differences between Labour and Communist. I was nominated as the Communist candidate, but spent the critical week in hospital with malaria, and my place was taken by Jack Roth.

The Communist group, much better organised than the ad hoc groupings set up to work for the other parties, ran much the best campaign and did particularly well at open-air meetings. The day before the vote, the Communist candidate announced his withdrawal – as we had privately agreed in advance that he should – and called on the electors to vote Labour. We were delighted when the Labour candidate achieved a massive majority, and we had no doubt that in the general election itself the great mass of our colleagues would vote Labour.

All the members of the group made a weekly contribution to the funds. We once sent a substantial sum to Labour Monthly, a Communist-edited journal in Britain, but the bulk of our money went to support the local comrades of the Communist Party of India, with whom we were in regular contact.

Three members of the group – Arthur Attwood, Ernie Margetts and myself – played a prominent part in the January events and the follow-up. Arthur was 31. He left school at fourteen, became an electrician, and spent 12 years in the building industry. He was an active member of the Electrical Trades Union and a member of one of its regional committees. He could soon grasp the gist of an argument, was a good debater and, in challenging what he saw as injustice, could make speeches with powerful impact. D N Pritt, the Independent Labour MP, later described him as “a level-headed trade unionist of strong character and common sense”. His leadership qualities had been demonstrated at the Thursday meeting.

Ernie Margetts was an armourer, though before the war he had been training for management. He was 26. I enjoyed his company, partly because he had such wide interests and such enthusiasm. After the war he did some teaching for the station’s education section. When I attended one of his classes on the cinema, I was so impressed that I used both his material and his approach for a class of my own. I was sure that he would make an outstanding teacher, and it was no surprise to learn some years later that he had, in fact, entered that profession.

I was 21. After leaving school at 15 I had worked for nearly three years as a junior reporter on the local evening paper before volunteering for the RAF. Having failed the eyesight test for aircrew, I was sent off for training as a wireless mechanic. After the war I attended a short course on teaching and in January was awaiting my promotion to sergeant and a full-time post in the education section. I was secretary of the group. There was seldom any correspondence and there were no minutes to write, but there were meetings to be called and agendas to be prepared, and the title of secretary also implied some degree of leadership.

The group had played no part in calling the Thursday meeting. In his book, The Days of the Good Soldiers, Richard Kisch maintains that the Communist group at Drigh Road had met on the Thursday afternoon in “a bungalow on the outskirts of Karachi” and that Arthur was nominated to speak.4 There was no such meeting at that point. It was fortunate for all concerned that Arthur took charge, but he was not nominated by the group. Nor did he “speak” in the sense of advocating a policy. Like all good chairmen, he was seeking consensus – and got it. On the Friday I spoke to each of the members individually, and we agreed that at the Saturday morning demonstration we would avoid standing together but would spread ourselves round among the men. This was to ensure that each part of the crowd would have at least one of us to speak, shout slogans or give any other lead that was needed. That was the only collective decision the Communist group took at that point.

Although the group held its own meetings at Drigh Road, we also attended a regular, weekly meeting in Karachi on Saturday evenings. A group of us would go into the town in the afternoon and have our only good meal of the week in a cafe before going on to the Communist meeting. To these meetings came comrades from two other RAF bases, Mauripur and Korangi Creek, and there were also two soldiers – Ian Taylor, a Scot from the Royal Corps of Signals, and John Saville, who was a sergeant-major in the Royal Artillery.

John, who was 27, was our guru. Before going into the army he had graduated with first class honours from the London School of Economics. He was confident and articulate, had an immense fund of general knowledge, had read much of the work of Marx, Engels and Lenin, seemed to know all the details of the history of the Communist Party and was acquainted with a number of the party leaders and officials. We all had great respect and admiration for John and on difficult issues tended to look to him for guidance. He would later switch to an academic career and become Professor of Economic and Social History at the University of Hull, surely the first sergeant major to become a university professor.

On the day of the Drigh Road demonstration there was the usual Communist meeting in Karachi, and of course we reported on the events on our station, which became the evening’s discussion. I remember John Saville saying to us, “Either you’ve got to have nothing to do with this, or you’ve got to get in there and take over the leadership”.

We felt that we should take the lead, and it was agreed that the way forward was for us to find the men who had called the Thursday meeting and invite them to join us in a committee to plan the next steps. The most urgent task would be to prepare a series of demands to put to air headquarters, and we had some preliminary discussion on what those might be. I remember arguing strongly for sending a petition to the Prime Minister. It was a good meeting, and I woke up on Sunday morning feeling confident that I knew exactly what needed to be done.


The men had many grievances, but the most important demand was for a faster rate of demobilisation, and that was something we could not get from Karachi or Delhi. Only the government could decide that, so we needed a political campaign aimed at the House of Commons and the Labour government.

A petition to the Prime Minister would need to be sanctioned by authority, but every serviceman had the right to communicate with his MP. That did not require anyone’s permission – though some men would need convincing – so we had decided, on the journey back to Drigh Road on Saturday night, to launch a campaign to get hundreds of letters sent to MPs. Many men were uncertain about what to write, and some did not even know what address to use. So we needed suitable letters, and I spent Sunday morning writing various versions. Several colleagues helped by copying my drafts or making their own variations.

Other members of the group, commissioned to locate the men who had called the Thursday meeting, soon found the two responsible. The motivator was a lad known to all his acquaintances as “Geordie”, though in fact he came from Middlesbrough on Teesside, not from Tyneside. The other lad I did not know. But the two agreed to meet us that afternoon. There were, I think, just six of us at this meeting of what was, in effect, the leadership committee – the two we had found, Arthur, Ernie and myself, and one other member of our group.

We had put the word round that there would be another mass meeting on the football field that evening, and the committee meeting needed to produce a programme to put to the men. But there was another matter to be dealt with first. Someone else had called a meeting on the Saturday evening, at which there had been talk of a full strike on the Monday, but the attendance had been poor, and we quickly dismissed the idea of an immediate strike. We had achieved our first goal, and further use of the strike weapon was something to be held in reserve, in case our demands were not met or there was any attempt at victimisation.

Taking into account our discussions in Karachi, I then put to the committee a minimum six-point programme to meet both the basic issue of demobilisation and the issues which had triggered our demonstration.

These points were:


  • Air headquarters to put our complaints over repatriation and demobilisation direct to the Air Ministry;
  • Permission to be given for the circulation of a petition addressed to the Prime Minister;
  • An official announcement to be made, making it clear that men always had the right to correspond with their MPs;
  • The parliamentary delegation then visiting India to be asked to send one or more of their members to Drigh Road to meet the men;
  • No kit inspections;
  • No Saturday parades.

The meeting quickly agreed to these points, making only one small amendment – that our committee be flown to meet the parliamentary delegates, if that was what the MPs preferred. But there was general agreement that we needed to add demands about living conditions. Food, of course, was the first priority, hours of work the second. Some sections of the station required their men to assemble at a particular point each morning and then march to the workplace. We decided that that was ridiculous and had to be stopped. So we added three points, to make a nine-point programme:


  • An investigation into the quality of the food served in the mess;
  • A reduction in the excessive hours worked by most of the men (I am sure that we were much more specific here, but I cannot recall the detail);
  • Cancellation of daily parades to work.

Our Sunday evening meeting was very different from Thursday’s. We had a chairman, a main speaker, a motion to put to the men, even a platform for the speakers. Arthur again took the chair. He quickly dismissed the idea of a strike, argued that the urgent need was to agree on what to say to the officer who came from air headquarters, and then introduced me (though not by name!) to present the committee’s programme.

It was a strange experience. As I looked down from the platform I could just make out vaguely at the back some tops of heads against the sky, and near the front some blobs that were faces. I was convinced that there were even more at this meeting than at Thursday’s. It might have been a stressful experience, but I was so confident that our programme was right that I felt no nervousness, and I explained in some detail our nine points. The men listened in silence, but the volume of applause at the end was a sufficient indication of their approval. Arthur put it to them in a formal way. Were we agreed about the nine points? There was a great shout of “Yes”. His question, “Is there any dissent?” was met by absolute silence. We could go forward united.


At lunchtime next day the Station Warrant Officer came into the airmen’s mess to announce that Air Commodore Freebody had arrived from Delhi and would meet a delegation of twenty men at two o’clock. He then began to organise the delegation. Arthur and I were not there, but Ernie Margetts was. He and others protested, arguing that the men were quite capable of managing their own election of delegates. Arthur arrived at that point, soon grasped the situation and led the men off for an election meeting. Predictably, Arthur, Ernie and I were among the first to be elected.

The delegates then met and made only one decision – that we should repeat the pattern of the previous night’s meeting, with Arthur in the chair and myself as spokesman. With our nine-point programme we were ready for the Air Commodore.

Air Commodores are very superior people. An aircraftman could go for years without seeing one, and they seldom noticed “erks” (rank and file airmen) except to return an occasional salute. But Air Commodore Freebody turned out to be just the man for this particular job. He was on a mission of conciliation, and he did not bat an eyelid as Arthur told him that he, Leading Aircraftman Attwood, would chair the meeting and that LAC Duncan would be the spokesman.

I spoke to our points, one by one. After each point, the officer asked questions or made comments, and other members of the delegation then joined in to give support. It was quite an amicable meeting, and the Air Commodore eventually agreed to eight of our nine points. He could not agree that there should be no CO’s parades, but even here he made an important concession in accepting that best blue would not be required.

Eight-and-a-half wins out of nine was more than most of us had dared to hope for, and we left in jubilant mood. Another meeting was needed to report back to the men, and this was held in the mess. What happened to me at that point I cannot recall, but I was not at this meeting. Arthur and Ernie did the reporting back.

After this the atmosphere in the camp was transformed. We had won. Meals improved; overtime was reduced; there was no kit inspection or best blue parade to worry about; easy chairs had appeared; the worst of the tents were replaced by new ones; and we had the satisfaction of knowing that we had struck a blow for earlier demobilisation. There was a sense of camaraderie and solidarity. Arthur and I were the heroes of the hour. Men we did not know greeted us in the most friendly fashion. Quite a number came to us to seek advice on a surprising range of problems, domestic as well as service.

We still had much to do in following up the delegation. We had the letters to MPs and the petition to see to as well as keeping an eye on the administration. In fact, air headquarters and the CO kept their side of the bargain. They did arrange for Harold Davies, the Labour MP, who was in India at the time, to come to the camp and speak to a meeting of the men. The men were very civil, and there was no abuse or unpleasantness, but he must have been impressed by their obvious determination to have a faster rate of demobilisation.

Nor did the CO make any attempt to interfere with our political campaign. He did call a meeting of the whole camp and told us how serious had been our action. He made it clear that any repetition would be dealt with severely, but he repeated his earlier undertaking that there would be no punishments on this occasion.

I began to wonder about that when Arthur and I were the only two non-commissioned personnel to be called to give evidence at a court of inquiry into the affair; but we were asked only to explain what grievances had driven the men to take such extreme action, and we faced no leading questions about our own activities.

Meanwhile, we were busy with the campaign aimed at Westminster. Some of the men were happy to write to their MPs at great length, but for others it was hard work. Many had to be convinced that a few spelling errors did not matter, others that they could copy one of our draft letters if they found it difficult to put the issues in their own words, and some that there would be no victimisation. But we had a great deal of success, and I have seen an estimate that five hundred men sent letters.

I would not have thought the number to be quite that large, but it must have been approaching four hundred. There is no way of knowing exactly. But even a figure of three hundred would have been an outstanding achievement – more than some national campaigns can manage.

The other big job was the petition to the Prime Minister. I had already drafted this. The problem had been to find a form of words that had real political importance and yet would be acceptable to all the men. When I re-read it in a book some time ago, I had difficulty in recognising it. I had thought it much crisper and shorter. At the time, however, I was very proud of it, and it certainly captured the imagination of many of the men.


The petition read,

“We, the undersigned airmen of Drigh Road, India, are gravely dissatisfied with the slow rate at which demobilisation and repatriation are proceeding. Although the war ended five months ago, there are still thousands of us without any indication as to when we shall see our families and friends again.

“Why is this? We have not been convinced by official reasons. Why cannot demobilisation and repatriation be speeded up?

“Is it because faster demobilisation would flood the labour market at home? We expect full employment from the Labour government we are proud to have helped elect.

“Is it because British policy in India and Indonesia requires large armed forces? If so, we demand a reversal of this policy.

“Is it because the government wishes to talk tough to other powers? We deplore such an attitude in the United Nations.

“Is it because of obstruction from any quarter? We expect the government to overcome such obstacles. You can be sure of our full support.

“We have done the job we joined up to do and now we want to get back home, both for personal reasons and because we think that it is by work at home that we can best help Britain.”

A number of men were very keen to help with the petition, but they wanted the job to be done in style. So instead of circulating scores of foolscap sheets for signature, someone produced a large roll so that the whole station could sign on the one paper. An airman with some skill in calligraphy copied the words of the petition so that it looked like a manuscript from some medieval monastery. And one of the workshops produced a box that would accommodate the roll and allow it be wound on for the next set of signatures.

This box was carried enthusiastically from barrack block to barrack block and from tent to tent, with everyone expected to sign. And they did. We had to go to some blocks a second and third time to catch those missing at first, and still there were individuals to be chased up. But eventually we reckoned that we had some twelve hundred signatures – everyone on the camp below the rank of sergeant, with one solitary exception, a corporal who refused to sign because of some obscure principle. We sent the Prime Minister advance notice by telegram and then posted the roll.

The petition was the lead story in the Daily Worker. “RAF Strikers Petition Mr Attlee” ran the banner headline across the top of the front page. The other papers ignored the petition at first, though a number mentioned it when the matter was raised in Parliament.

On 13 February Mr E Fletcher asked the Under Secretary of State for Air if he was aware of the dissatisfaction felt at the RAF station at Drigh Road and to what extent men were being held back from demobilisation in anticipation of trouble during the forthcoming elections in India. John Strachey dismissed the second point – “these men are certainly not being held back from demobilisation” – but agreed that “representations in the form of a petition to the Prime Minister” had been received and the “petition is now under consideration”.5

3 A Wave of Mutinies

“Only in 1946 did a series of mutinies have the effect of galvanising the British government. The first of these incidents, involving RAF servicemen enraged by delays in demobilisation and repatriation, was, in a sense, the most shocking. But units of the Indian Air Force were the next to mutiny, and much worse was to follow”. – Denis Judd1


The circumstances which led the men of Drigh Road to take action were matched elsewhere, and news travelled fast from one station to another – by teleprinter, telephone and radio. So the Drigh Road affair acted as a trigger to release mass activity at one RAF station after another.

From the Middle East to Singapore the rank and file of the service took action. In a speech to the House of Commons on 29 January, Prime Minister Attlee said that “incidents” had occurred at twelve RAF stations, but the Air Ministry later put the figure at 22 stations. The number of units, as distinct from stations, was much higher. According to a “Secret History” programme broadcast on Channel 4 in 1996, there were strikes at more than 60 units, with more than fifty thousand men involved. These “incidents”, some lasting only a few hours, others up to four days, all took place within eleven days of the initial protest at Drigh Road. It was the “biggest single act of mass defiance in the history of the British armed forces”.2

The strikes had two things in common. The main demand of those taking part – whatever local grievances they also drew attention to – was for faster demobilisation. And nowhere was there any suggestion of violence against the officers. These were not riots. However spontaneous, they were disciplined demonstrations by men determined to emphasise to the British government their justified desire for an early return home.

Mauripur, not many miles from Drigh Road, was the first station to respond to the news of our action. Meeting on the day of our visit from the Air Commodore, the Mauripur men put the slow rate of demobilisation at the head of their list of grievances and decided on a stay-in strike, though they kept the essential medical and canteen services running.

The men were addressed the following day by the Inspector-General of the RAF, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Barratt, who was on a welfare inspection tour. He answered many questions about demobilisation and repatriation, but the men were not satisfied and demanded that parliamentary representatives should visit them, so that they could impress upon the MPs the strength of their feelings about demobilisation. The Inspector-General then appealed to the men to return to work forthwith, but they refused and continued the strike for four days.3

The action in Ceylon began on 23rd January with the men of No. 32 Staging Post at Negombo, who refused to service aircraft after hearing of the “sit down” strike at Mauripur. The men complained about poor administration and lack of facilities for sport and entertainment, but their main grievance was the slow rate of demobilisation. The action spread to the rest of the Negombo station, including the Communications and Meteorological flights, and then to other Ceylon stations – Koggala, Ratmalana and Colombo. The BBC is said to have been the villain here. “It was apparent,” said a SEAC (South East Asia Command) report later, “that broadcasts made by the B.B.C. on January 24th and 25th were largely responsible for bringing out units where feelings were still in the balance. These broadcasts, for some reason, largely destroyed the good work which had been done by Commanding Officers and Unit Commanders in dealing with their men”.4

Cawnpore, with some five thousand personnel, was the largest RAF station in India. There were the usual complaints about food and living conditions, in addition to the major issue of demobilisation, and a special grievance at this station was what the men thought was the abuse of Class B release. In whatever country they were serving, most men were released under a scheme (Class A) which allocated airmen to groups according to their age and length of service. Each man knew to which group he belonged (Group 20, say, or Group 35) and knew that the groups would be released in turn. Certain men, however, could obtain earlier release (Class B) if they had particular skills needed in post-war reconstruction, especially in the building industry. One can imagine the resentment when it was being said at Cawnpore that in the previous few weeks a ballet dancer, a bell-ringer and a theological student, as well as a bricklayer’s labourer and a plumber’s mate, were all “getting out” under this “help in reconstruction” scheme.5

Before the Cawnpore men had decided on strike action, the station was visited by Air Marshal Sir Roderick Carr, head of the RAF in India. LAC Mick Noble, who became the official spokesman for the strike committee, wrote later, “We placed our grievances before him but received no satisfaction. He made it clear that he had …(come) …from Delhi to prevent us from taking strike action. A strike committee had been formed late Friday night …and the men were later informed about the unanimous decision to strike and fully endorsed the action. The strike … lasted over a period of four days.

“The strike committee conducted the administration of the unit and men paid no heed to the officers’ appeals for them to return to work. All the orders which came from the committee were fully endorsed and carried out by the men. Men working in the essential services were instructed to continue. Prohibition (i.e., no alcoholic drinks) was introduced for the period of the strike.”

“A daily bulletin,” continued LAC Noble, “was published, which outlined the discussions and the decisions taken at the strike committee meetings. The men were kept continually informed by numerous meetings. Each decision of the strike committee was taken to the men for support during the entire period of the strike.”6

LAC Harry Darby, one of those involved at Cawnpore, later wrote, “I think we were out for four or five days altogether, with the officers wandering round the billets talking to us all in little groups and asking questions, etc.” And he added, virtuously, “Four of us in my billet played bridge day and night for the whole of the time we were out, and not a penny was gambled on any game.”7

At Seletar, Singapore, more than four thousand men were involved in the strike. It began with a meeting in the canteen, which was filled to capacity, on the evening of 26 January. After the lights had been put out, a chairman – who was addressed throughout the meeting as “Mr Speaker” – stood on a table and checked that all Seletar units were represented. There was also at least one representative from Kallang, the smaller Singapore base.8

Next morning the men were addressed by the CO, Group Captain Francis, but they were dissatisfied with his response and demanded a meeting with Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, the Air Officer Commanding, South East Asia Command, who was based nearby. He arrived in the afternoon, spoke to the men and, after answering questions on release and repatriation, promised to report to London the strength of their feelings. “Moreover,” said the official report, “he gave facts and figures to prove that the R.A.F. had not been treated unfairly by comparison with the Army or even the Navy”.9 But the men did not believe his “facts and figures” and began to walk out in disgust before he had concluded the meeting.

During the strike the Seletar men passed a number of resolutions, agreeing among other things that there must be no violence and no picketing, and that Air Sea Rescue would carry out normal duties.10 A statement of grievances was adopted, including complaints about the wretched food and the lack of facilities for recreation, but making it clear that demobilisation was the key issue. The emphasis here was a little different, with the statement saying, “We have nothing against the Labour government. This is not a political strike. Our quarrel is with the higher-ups responsible for the delays and discrimination in repatriation and demobilisation”.

Essential services were maintained throughout the strike, but Kisch notes that “aircraft arriving at the landing strip were unable to take off again as refuelling facilities were not available. In the camp discipline was preserved, officers were treated respectfully, saluting was punctilious”.11 Delegates were sent from Seletar to Kallang, the smaller Singapore base, to call on the men there to join the strike. Sir Keith Park also rushed to the base, hoping to head off any action there.

The men of Kallang met at 6.30 p.m. on the Sunday (27 January) to consider their response to what Sir Keith had said to their representatives that afternoon. There seems to have been a large majority in favour of a strike and a decision to take immediate action would probably have been taken but for the intervention of Aircraftman Norris Cymbalist. Cymbalist told the men that before they could go on strike there were some things they had to be certain of. They had to be sure that they could keep essential services running, in order to avoid hardship and loss of life; they had to command the support of the whole unit; they had to be clear what they wanted from the strike; and they had to be sure there was no other way of obtaining redress for their grievances.

The men listened to the AC in respectful silence, agreed at once to adopt his suggestion of a committee and promptly elected Cymbalist himself to be its chairman. This committee set about organising a further meeting of the men at 10.30 that night to decide whether to have a 48-hour strike. There was nothing secret about this. Cymbalist and others called at the sergeants’ mess to invite them to attend, and they went out of their way to inform several of the officers that the meeting was taking place.

The tension that had been developing during the evening was heightened further when it was learned that six men, including some members of the committee, had been arrested for incitement. It did not help that several officers, including some who were not stationed at Kallang, were present at the meeting. It was a noisy gathering. The earlier calls for a strike were repeated. Men demanded the release of their arrested colleagues. There was a great deal of shouting, often several people calling out at once. Some of the officers had a great deal to say and, amid all the hubbub, one of them was involved in an altercation with Cymbalist and ordered the arrest of the AC.

There was strong feeling about the arrest of Cymbalist and the other six; the atmosphere remained tense; and after midnight the CO, Group Captain C Ryley, agreed to meet some of the men. There is no record of who said what at this meeting, but, in effect, a deal was struck, though I am sure that the CO would reject the word “deal”. However it came about, the men agreed not to strike and the CO agreed to release the seven prisoners, though this was “without prejudice to re-arrest and disciplinary action”.

At 08.45 next morning, the Group Captain reported, 100 per cent of the men “returned to duty”, which suggests that some of them might have taken their own strike action the day before. But there was no mass abstention from duties, and the CO wrote to Park, “I think the men have behaved extremely well in face of highly skilled Communist propaganda. You might care, if you have a moment, to send them a ‘bouquet’ which I can publish in S.R.O.s [Station Routine Orders]. I feel they have deserved this.”12

At Dum Dum, the aerodrome near Calcutta, twelve hundred men went on strike. The Times reported, “They have no complaints against the authorities at the camp, with whom they are on the best of terms. The commanding officer had a friendly discussion with them when notice of strike was given. Yesterday a delegation of the strikers had a talk with Air Commodore Battle, Group Captain Slee, who commands the station, and with Major Wyatt, of the Parliamentary delegation visiting India, who had communicated with the Air Ministry.”13

Mr C Miller, of Wigan, wrote recently, “I was one of the strikers at the Dum Dum airstrip at Calcutta and one of the main ‘beefs’ which we had … was the fact that the large liners such as the ‘Queen Mary’ were being used to ship GI brides back to the United States. Yet the Air Ministry persisted in telling us that they couldn’t bring us back because of shortage of shipping!!! They even had the nerve to add that the water outside Bombay Harbour was not deep enough for large liners, and men would have to be conveyed out to them by tender! Needless to say, we said we did not mind one bit being thus tendered out!”


Mr Miller kept a diary during the strike, and he noted:

January 25th: Strike meeting in hangar. “Groupy” (Group Captain Slee) present, tries to answer demob, etc., but frankly admits sympathy with our cause. “Would strike himself if he was an airman”. We hear quite a good statement (a “taffy”). Resolution to strike carried amidst enthusiastic roars. Starts from midnight tonight. Exceptions to striking are cooks, markers and station wagon drivers!

January 26th: On strike! Meeting called for 12 p.m. Grievances put to Woodrow Wyatt, member of delegation touring India …He attempts to answer them, but has to admit to several of our points. “Groupy” and an Air Commodore also present. He reads out two signals from higher up, which more or less are on the consequences of striking. This doesn’t improve matters. Now comes a split within our own ranks. I line up with the minority in favour of giving government seven days deadline during which we resume work, failing which we resume strike. Majority favour continuing strike until a reasonable reply is received from Air Ministry.

January 27th: Another meeting. Written vote taken on issue, “deadline” or “strike”… Meanwhile, signals from Ministry show that “Groupy” is in it up to the neck and will have to take disciplinary action if strike is not broken!

10 a.m. Further meeting. “Taffy” will no longer lead the “strikers” on such a small majority. Groupy opens the meeting by an appeal for a return to work, having received more signals stating that action will have to be taken, etc. He then leaves… Eventually, majority favour a “deadline” of 14 days. Groupy is recalled and thanks us in a heartfelt manner. Work resumes from 6 p.m.

“There were subsequent reactions,” Mr Miller wrote, “but fortunately we had an understanding that there would be no victimisation. This understanding proved to be invaluable in some cases.”14

The men at Allahabad answered a call to meet in the camp canteen at night. The lights were put out and someone stood on a table and, speaking with a pencil in his mouth to disguise his voice, proposed that they should begin a strike the next day. Next morning, marshalled by their corporals, the men marched to the parade ground and then to the camp cinema. There they elected Bernard Shilling to present their case to the senior officers.15

Ex-LAC Des Streatfield, of South-West London, remembers events at the Racecourse Camp at Delhi. There was a meeting in the cinema “when we were addressed by Air Marshal Sir Rodney Carr … Our camp station warrant officer came on to the stage, made it known that mutiny was a shooting offence but for the time being we would still be fed and housed. He then came out with this request: would we all please stand up when the air marshal took the stage!”16

Burma was also involved. Men of the No. 194 (Transport) Squadron, stationed in Rangoon, came out on the 29th. They complained about living conditions and the quality of the food as well as the rate of demobilisation, but what triggered the strike was an order for a daily working parade. Having made their protest, they returned to work the next day, but Air Marshal Sir Hugh Saunders, in charge at Air Headquarters, Burma, felt that the situation was still tense and was anxious to avoid further provocation.17

The Times also reported briefly on strikes at Almaza and Lydda in the Middle East, and at Poona and Vizagapatam in India. In general, however, considering the scale and importance of the strikes, they were not well reported in the British press. Much of what did appear was based on official handouts, with nothing from the strikers themselves and no serious assessment of the grievances. There was more comment than fact, and there were also, of course, some more fanciful stories. The Daily Mail’s Special Correspondent in Cairo, for example, reported that the source of the RAF strikes was a “well-laid plot”. RAF security and intelligence officers, he claimed, thought that the strikes “were organised over a period of weeks either by airmen-agitators, who contacted each other in code, using the RAF wireless system, or by airmen travelling between stations”.18

That raises some interesting questions. Who could have installed airmen-agitators in the signals sections of more than 60 units? Or which high-ranking officer could have sent, within a few days, airmen travelling from Egypt to India, from Ceylon to Singapore, with orders to the local agitators at all those units, “Have a mutiny on your station tomorrow”. The mind boggles.


These strikes were largely successful in meeting their objectives. On most of the affected camps the food improved, as did various aspects of the living conditions. Most importantly, there was also a speeding up in the rate of demobilisation, and within the next few months an extra 100,000 RAF men were released. Early in February a statement on RAF demobilisation covered five months instead of the usual three. Between February and June, groups 27 to 35 would be released.19 And on 1 March came the announcement of a further speed-up. Group 35 would now be demobilised by the end of May

John Strachey, the Under Secretary of State for Air, was worried that the speeding up would be seen as giving way to the strikers. On 1 March he was writing that the first announcement had been “looked on by some people as a concession to the men” and “I fear that this announcement of a further speed-up will be looked on in the same way”. But there was worry, both in Britain and overseas, about the possibility of further outbreaks, so there had to be positive news for the men.

The strikes had other far-reaching effects. Accusations appeared in the British press that the strikers were weakening Foreign Secretary Bevin’s hand at the United Nations; and there were important consequences for India. First, men of the Indian Air Force, who had grievances of their own, followed the example of their British colleagues. There were strikes at a large number of stations, including Cawnpore, Bombay, Allahabad and Jodhpur. At Drigh Road the Indian airmen had a short hunger strike. Again, the men were orderly and there was no violence.

The Royal Indian Navy followed. Three thousand ratings mutinied in Bombay, the principal naval base, and many of them carried the flags of the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League when they demonstrated in the city.

When some of the ratings ashore were involved in skirmishes with soldiers, the mutineers on board the ships in the harbour trained their guns on the city and threatened a bombardment. Lieut-General R M M Lockhart, GOC, Southern Command, assumed command of all navy, army and RAF forces, with instructions to restore order as quickly as possible. The RAF was ordered to prepare to sink the ships in the hands of the mutineers. The men surrendered, however, mainly in response to appeals from leaders of the Indian National Congress. There followed four days of riots in the city, and there were hundreds of casualties. Further naval mutinies occurred at Calcutta, Madras and Karachi. There was considerable loss of life at Karachi, where the army commander ordered the use of artillery against the mutineers.20

The Viceroy of India, General Wavell, held the RAF men guilty. Referring to the naval mutinies, he wrote, “I am afraid that the example of the Royal Air Force, who got away with what was really mutiny, has some responsibility for the present situation”.

I once jokingly told a meeting of Indian students that the real heroes of the struggle for independence were the men of Drigh Road. We had, I claimed, triggered off a wave of strikes in the RAF, the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy, and the critical moment for independence came when the naval mutineers turned their guns on Bombay. The claim in that form was absurd, of course, yet it did contain perhaps a tiny grain of truth.

Many historians have presented the transfer of power in India as part of a grand British scheme to grant independence to the nations of the Empire. It was not like that. At the beginning of 1946 the future of India was still uncertain. Informed British opinion, shared by Prime Minister Attlee, was that, in the new post-war situation, Britain would not be able to hold on to India against the wishes of its people. So major concessions would have to be made. But would these concessions go as far as real independence? Could they be carried through against the opposition of those, like Winston Churchill and Ernest Bevin, who were blind to the new realities? And would the changes come at once, or would they be delayed for years on the grounds that the Indian leaders could not agree with one another on the shape of the new constitution?

The strikes of early 1946 made it clear that the British government had no choice. If the Indian forces were discontented, with many sympathetic to nationalism; if British forces recruited to fight Nazi Germany could not be relied upon to support the government’s peacetime objectives, how could British control be maintained?

Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton summed it up in his diary: “If you are in a place where you are not wanted and where you have not got the force to squash those who don’t want you, the only thing to do is to come out”. By the summer of 1947 the British were out.

4 The Special Investigation Branch

“As some day it may happen that a victim must be found
I’ve got a little list – I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground
And who never would be missed – who never would be missed”

– Ko-Ko, Lord High Executioner of Titipu1


The RAF strikes came as a great shock to the establishment. Nothing of the kind had happened before in the Royal Air Force.

The first concern of most of those in authority, in both Britain and India, was to be conciliatory and get the men back to normal duties. But some senior officers were hard-liners from the beginning and, once order had been restored and the men had settled down again, there was a growing sentiment in favour of punishing the ringleaders.

The government seemed to resist this at first. On 25 February John Strachey made a special broadcast to the RAF in overseas commands. Both the RAF authorities and the government, he said, had taken an ultra-tolerant attitude to the recent so-called strikes, and they had been criticised in some quarters for being so tolerant. They could not be so tolerant if it happened again.2

That seemed to suggest that all was forgiven. And on 27 February, when Wing Commander Hulbert, MP, asked the Under Secretary to give an assurance that “these Communist agitators who have brought disgrace to the Royal Air Force will be severely dealt with”, he got a dusty answer. “I do not accept for one moment the implications of his remarks,” said Strachey.3

A month later, however, on 27 March, Strachey was telling the House that the Inspector-General, who had been presiding over a Court of Inquiry into the strikes, had returned to this country, and the proceedings of the court were “at present being considered”. In fact, whether Strachey was aware of it or not, the consideration had already taken place; it had been decided that the so-called ring-leaders would be court-martialled. The Special Investigation Branch had been at work at Drigh Road for more than a week when the Under Secretary’s statement was made.4


When the SIB unit arrived at Drigh Road, they spent a day or two listening to camp gossip and meeting the officers, including the padre. They were particularly interested in the discussion group and in compiling a list of known Communists. And the names they kept hearing were Attwood and Duncan.

They then set up an office and began the interviews that would provide the evidence to sustain charges against the strike leaders. The charge they wanted was “incitement to mutiny” so they concentrated on the Thursday meeting. Whereas I had not spoken then, everyone on the camp knew that Arthur had been chairman, so he soon became the target of the SIB inquiries. He was not, however, the easy target they might have expected. Man after man denied being able to recognise him in the dark.

Arthur himself made only a brief appearance before the SIB. He was due for release and was set to leave Drigh Road just a few days after the investigators arrived. He was summoned for interview but refused to answer questions about the strike, pointing out that any offences then had been forgiven by the commanding officer. He was not detained and was allowed to proceed to Worli, the camp near Bombay from which RAF personnel embarked for the journey back to Britain. His ordeal would come later.

After Arthur’s departure man after man had to face the SIB. Most reported back to me, so I soon became an expert on SIB techniques. From the first the investigators concerned themselves with politics. They had a list of supposed Communists; their investigation in the General Engineering Section was opened by a request that all trade unionists attend for interview. They told LAC Cook they were conducting the investigation on the instructions of the Foreign Office; and they suggested to Corporal Margetts that the men who led the demonstration were likely to be on the other side in the next war.

They seemed obsessed with the discussion group, although that was concerned only with political and social affairs and was forbidden to consider service matters. They had a list of all the group’s discussion topics over the last year, including the mock election, for which they had the names of all the party candidates and their agents and supporting speakers. The group, its leading personalities and their political views were discussed in interviews with many of the men.

The most serious aspect of the investigation, however, was how some men felt threatened and intimidated. Once a man had been persuaded or trapped into admitting that he had attended the Thursday meeting – perhaps because he had been told that other men had given evidence against him – then he was under threat. They would sometimes begin:

“If you know that a mutiny is going to take place and you do nothing about it, you are guilty of incitement to mutiny. Do you know that King’s Regulations provide for the death penalty for that? It’s the ringleaders we want, but if we can’t get them, we’ll get you. So why don’t you come clean and tell us who spoke at the meeting?”

On occasion the investigators rubbed it in with a tale about men in Iceland who were nearly shot. “It probably wouldn’t be the death penalty now that the war is over, but you’d be looking at at least ten years”. When LAC Cook refused to be intimidated, he was told to pack his “small kit” because he was being taken to Karachi. And all this with men, most of whom were due to go home, who were isolated from their mates during long interviews and who had no way of obtaining legal advice.

Ernie Margetts responded by pointing out that, if he could be sent to prison for years, so could hundreds of others. “Ah, yes,” was the reply, “but you’re in our hands and they’re not”.

Ernie was told to talk over his position with someone, and he chose to do so with me. I advised him to ignore the threats, but when he did so he was clapped in the guardroom. What must his thoughts have been when he heard the door locked behind him? He was due for release soon. He had good career prospects, a lovely young wife and a nice house waiting for him. For some weeks he had thought of little else but getting back to them. Now he was threatened with a long term of imprisonment.

The investigators had rubbed it in. Did his wife have an independent income? How would she manage for ten years without his allowance? Ernie wrote to D N Pritt, MP, a few days later:

“On Saturday last, March 23rd, 1946, I was sent to a small place which had P5 on the door. There, for a period lasting well over two hours, I was intensely interrogated about the disturbances which occurred in this unit way back in January. The interrogators were a warrant officer and a sergeant of, I believe, the Special Investigation Branch.

“They told me that they had evidence I had, with most of the other men, attended a mass meeting at which grievances had been discussed and that, again with other men, I had gone on parade in khaki instead of blue, and that they were aware I had been a member of the deputation called for by the AOC, and that after that meeting I had, with most of the others, gone to the stage at the station theatre and cookhouse, and taken up the microphone and announced that the chairman of the delegation would read out the AOC’s decisions.

“Insisting that, as a member of the Station Discussion Circle, I ought to be able to recognise the voices, they stated they might be able to help me in regard to these incidents, if I would give them the names of the speakers at the meetings in the dark.

“The methods used in questioning were those of intimidation and terror. I was asked how my wife would be provided with money if I went inside. King’s Regulations were constantly thrust at me; there were threats of a possible death penalty, shooting, etc. Finally, I was told I would be given a few days to think back and try to recall the names of speakers. It was suggested that as an EVT (Educational and Vocational Training) instructor I might spy on my classes to find out who had taken part.

“I returned for more questioning on Wednesday, March 27th. I was then asked to sign a statement about the microphone incident giving the name of the speaker. I readily admitted these facts were true but, because of the many promises of no recrimination or victimisation, I refused to add my signature to it. I was told to get my small kit and report to the guardroom, and I was to be taken down to HQ in town and kept away from my friends.

“I was held in the guardroom for five hours until the SIB warrant officer and a sergeant came to take me to town. I then decided to sign the statement. I did not wish to sign it. I consider that I have done so under pressure. I was not cautioned in the statement but was told it would not, and could not, be used against me.”5

Ernie knew that the document he signed would be of no value to the prosecution case against Arthur. He had refused to sign as a matter of principle. The SIB, on the other hand, were determined to win some kind of victory after Ernie had refused to give them the names of speakers, and at the same time they were issuing a warning to future interviewees.

In many of these interviews there was an atmosphere of real fear. Some men were pale and worried long after leaving the interview room. One LAC was so terrified that his friends complained to the Station Welfare Office, and he was recalled and offered an apology.

In these circumstances it is not surprising that five men broke down and agreed to testify against Arthur. What was really impressive was the number – it must have been over a hundred – who remained loyal and refused to be intimidated. Loyalty was the key factor. Even the man who represented the Conservatives in the mock election, expected by the SIB to be a valuable ally, came straight from the interview room to tell me what was going on. Like a hundred others, he refused to name the chairman of the Thursday meeting.


Within a day or two of Arthur’s leaving, it was clear that he was in danger. As soon as I got a note from him with his Worli address, I wrote to him but got no reply. Could he have embarked for the UK already?

There was little prospect that he could escape prosecution, but I had a faint hope that he would get back to Britain and face court-martial there. Soon, however, I got the news that I had feared. One of the men who had been on leave in Bombay had gone to Worli to see a friend and found that Arthur was still there, though the men who had arrived with him had all left.

My immediate response was to go into Karachi to see a solicitor recommended by an Indian friend. Could he arrange for someone to defend Arthur? Someone good, a prominent barrister, I suggested. The fees would no doubt be heavy, but I would undertake to pay them. He was encouraging. Yes, he would ask a firm of Bombay solicitors if they would be interested. And next day he told me that they might be able to engage the Public Prosecutor for Bombay to lead the defence. I should contact them immediately.

But what was happening to Arthur? I could not find out. I asked a number of men going to Worli to find out if they could. I inquired about him at the station office and was told that the CO knew no more than I did. I had written again but got no answer.

As soon as I had the address of the Bombay solicitors I sent Arthur a telegram. Next day, 9 April, I wrote once more. “Name as your counsel,” I said, “Mr Nadirshah of Mulla and Mulla… I’ve sent him a telegram and written to him explaining the position … All expenses to be paid by me … According to circumstances, consider calling some of the boys, including myself, as witnesses. So far I’ve not been able to arrange to come to Bombay on leave, but I’m trying … Reply to me if it’s humanly possible (telegram?). Fight like a bastard. Even ask the solicitor if it would be possible to get D N Pritt out here to defend you. Ernie will see about your wife, and as soon as I know what the position is, I’ll write to her myself”. It was signed, “Dunk”.6

Pritt, a King’s Counsel as well as an MP, had a long record of championing the rights of servicemen. Both Arthur and I had written to him, and it was to him that Ernie Margetts addressed his complaints about the SIB. It would have been a real boost for Arthur to have such a barrister.

The witnesses for Arthur’s court-martial were flown from Karachi on 8 April, but the SIB did not leave. Having “got” Attwood, they now wanted Duncan and for several days they grilled witnesses. Had I been at the Thursday meeting? Did I speak at the Sunday meeting? What views had I expressed in the discussion group? Had they heard me speak in the mock election? At least two of the men were asked if Sergeant Duncan was clever enough to have planned the whole thing from beginning to end!

So I felt it necessary to make a further visit to the solicitor in Karachi, to ask if this time he could arrange for my own defence. But I was not arrested, and I saw nothing of the SIB until 25 April, when a young flight lieutenant called at the education office to see me. He had “heard” that I had been complaining about his unit. Would I like to repeat the complaints to him?

I gave him some indication of the complaints I had, but suggested that it would be so much better if I could put them in writing. I was busy, I said, and there were some points I needed to check, so could I hand in my document the next day?

He agreed, but in fact I typed three copies of my paper that afternoon. It had occurred to me that this could be an opportunity for publicity. So far only the Daily Worker had been prepared to publish stories about SIB behaviour on the strength of a letter from an individual airman. Things might be different, I thought, if other papers could see what was, in effect, an official RAF document, with relevant names and details. So I had one copy for Pritt and another for Tom Driberg, MP, in the post before the SIB knew that the document had been prepared. I knew the material would be passed on to friends for use in the campaign for Arthur’s release.

In the introduction I wrote, “I have, of course, no all-embracing knowledge of this affair. The points mentioned below were brought to my notice because of the prominence given to my own name during the investigation”. The paper was divided into two sections, “The SIB Dabbles in Politics” and “The SIB Threatens and Intimidates”. I listed 14 items in the first section and 12 in the second, indicating in each case the name of the interviewee and the source of my information.

And I ended, “I have not included the many points which concern men I know by sight but not by name, but … I could check a number of them by name within a few hours … and I have no doubt that… many more would be revealed by a little investigation of my own, despite the reign of terror”.7

I was quite pleased with that document, and it did get some publicity in the New Statesman and in at least one of the Sunday papers. It was also used effectively in other ways in the campaign going on at home. But there was no response, not even an acknowledgement, from the Special Investigation Branch. And when Driberg, in possession of the document, asked in the House of Commons about “third degree” methods, Strachey told him that the NCOs “categorically denied that they used other than accepted police procedure in questioning witnesses, and no substantiation can be obtained of statements to the contrary”.8


Saturday, 27 April – the day after I submitted my complaints to the SIB – was the day of the cup final at home. Derby County, with those two outstanding inside forwards, Raich Carter and Peter Doherty, were playing Charlton at Wembley, and this was the topic which dominated the conversation in the sergeants’ mess. It would have occupied my thoughts, too, had I not just received a telegram that lifted my spirits and set me thinking on other matters. The telegram had just six words over the name of Nadirshah Mulla: “Contacted Attwood. Accepted work. Doing needful”.

At last! Arthur was going to be defended properly. But that meant that we needed money. I could hardly expect Mulla and Mulla to proceed without at least a substantial deposit. I had no money, of course. We would have to rely on hundreds of small contributions. I waited until the evening of pay day and then commandeered a table in the canteen. I propped up a large card announcing “Attwood Defence Fund” and used a basin as a collecting box. Two colleagues soon came to help.

The response filled me with pride. Many of the men who had taken part in the events of January were no longer at Drigh Road. Some had been posted elsewhere; others had been repatriated; but those who remained had not forgotten. They needed no explanations – they knew Arthur was facing a court martial – and they needed no prompting. Those in the canteen came over to contribute; others came from outside specially to make their donations. They wanted to shake hands, to wish us success, and to ask us to pass on best wishes to Arthur.

I shall always remember the atmosphere that evening – the warmth, the passion, the desire to win a last victory over authority by having Arthur freed. I found it hard not to cry. Surely we could not lose now! We had a similar session the next evening and made a total of more than four thousand rupees – about £300 – a substantial sum in those days.

I would not have needed to worry about the money had it been true what one of Arthur’s guards had heard. “I’m not sure how true it was,” the guard wrote to Arthur later, “but it was widely said that every member of SEAAF (South East Asia Air Force) contributed a ‘chip’ or one rupee to pay for the Indian lawyers who defended you”. If only!

However fanciful this story, it suggests a widespread interest in the Attwood case and a recognition of the support for Arthur among the RAF rank-and-file. Arthur wrote to me afterwards, “In a flight of fancy I saw you, provided with a pilot and a helicopter, with some £10,000 in the offing, co-ordinating its collection and with plans to publicly name any, such as Sir Keith Park,9 who showed a reluctance to contribute.”

The court martial had already started, and I wanted to get the money to Bombay as soon as possible. I was sure that the news of the collection would have reached those in authority. This was confirmed some weeks later, when I came across a file on the Defence Fund at Air Headquarters in Delhi.10 I was concerned that the money might be confiscated or that I would be prevented from going to Bombay, so we agreed that Ian Taylor would take care of the money. He was due to go to Bombay in connection with his release and, as a soldier, was unlikely to be suspected.

I then had the problem of getting to Bombay myself. I had no certain knowledge that obstacles would be put in my way, but I was taking no chances, so I gave a false destination for my leave. As a further precaution I spent my last night in my old billet instead of in the sergeants’ quarters, and I left early in the morning. There were two routes by rail from Karachi to Bombay. The shorter one, if I remember rightly, took two days off the journey but servicemen were strongly advised not to use it, partly because of the intense heat on a section of the route, partly because there had been two or three recent incidents on the line involving bandits. But I was in a hurry and travelled as a civilian on the shorter route.

I reached Bombay on, I think, 8 May. Ian and Ernie were already there, awaiting embarkation. They had both been to see Arthur’s solicitors but joined me for a further visit. We were able to help with background detail about the strike and about some of the witnesses. We also emphasised that the CO had told the whole station that there would be no punishments, but the solicitors were aware of this and told us that the defence was already working towards a plea that the offence had been condoned.

A day or two later I had tea at their home with the barrister, Mr Vimadalal, and his wife. I told him that John Saville would take care of all the legal fees. Saville, I explained, was a top civil servant who was a personal friend of Attwood and myself and had been in Karachi at the time of the strike. I had not consulted John about this, but I had such confidence in him that I never doubted either his willingness to accept the responsibility or his ability to raise the necessary hundreds of pounds, through the campaign he was conducting in London on Arthur’s behalf. The barrister was confident that Arthur would soon be released, so all seemed well.

5 Courts-Martial

“Capitalist democracy in Britain has always been perfectly compatible with the harassment of activists and the prosecution and punishment of Communist and other such political nonconformists”– Ralph Miliband1


When Arthur left Drigh Road for Worli, the transit camp at Bombay, he was well aware that there could be trouble ahead. From the day that he was offered release he had been suspicious. He was an electrician with a good deal of experience in building, so it was not necessarily sinister that he was offered class B release, the scheme which provided earlier release for men with skills needed for postwar reconstruction. On the other hand, it could be just a ploy to get him away from his power base at Drigh Road. He talked it over with me. Should he go? We agreed that it would be pointless to refuse, because the authorities had other ways of removing him and, if he accepted, there was at least a chance that he would get back to Britain.

At first, things seemed to go quite smoothly. He arrived safely in Worli and bought presents for the family – undies for his wife, Violet, and toys for the children. Like the other men waiting for embarkation he was paid in British currency and, like the others, he paraded every two or three days to hear whether he would be among the next batch to embark. But three ships left without Arthur’s name being called.

When he made inquiries, he was told, “The matter is secret and we are not at liberty to disclose any more” and then, “You can forget about the boat”. On 5 April he wrote to D N Pritt, but he was arrested on the tenth before his letter reached the MP. Immediately after his arrest he was transferred to Kalyan Detention Centre, a military establishment 50 miles from Bombay.

At Kalyan, Arthur was kept in solitary confinement with no light, day or night, except that coming from a high level barred window. The furniture was primitive, and his only companions were the rats. “These conditions,” he wrote later, “were not conducive to preparing a defence; nor were they intended to be. Other prisoners on that section were under the same restrictions. To get a visit to the latrine/wash-house, you shouted for a guard, who escorted you there and locked the door, and then escorted you back”.

Arthur was facing a charge of incitement to mutiny, for which the punishment could be death. Yet he was not allowed to receive any mail; his address book had been taken from him; he suspected that his outgoing mail was not being posted; he had no way of seeking witnesses in his defence, and no way of arranging any legal aid. He had no access to any books on law (or any other books, for that matter) and no indication of the evidence that would be produced against him.

Then, just 48 hours before his court martial was due to begin, Arthur was offered the services of a defending officer, a young Indian pilot officer – the lowest commissioned rank in the RAF – who seemed more fearful of the situation than was Arthur himself. This young man had some reason to be worried. He had had no training in law, knew nothing of the Drigh Road situation and had no opportunity of arranging any serious defence.

The prosecution had invested hundreds of man hours in building up their case, but an inexperienced defending officer – eight hundred miles away from Karachi, where any defence witnesses would have to be found – had two days in which to prepare a defence. And in court he would have to question and challenge – and perhaps even attack – officers who were a long way above him in rank and who might well be able to decide on his future promotion – or lack of it. The outlook for Arthur was grim.

He knew what was in store if he was sentenced to the “glasshouse”. From his cell doorway he had watched naval prisoners being made to run round the big squares carrying kitbags in temperatures of 100ºF or more and often goaded and beaten until they dropped from exhaustion. And Arthur faced the possibility of ten years or more of such treatment. The position seemed hopeless.

Then came the first breakthrough. On 17 April D N Pritt asked two questions of the Under Secretary of State for Air. One was about the methods used by the SIB at Drigh Road, which no doubt prompted the SIB visit to me the following week. The second was about Arthur’s position. It was hardly coincidence that on the following day, the 18th, Arthur was at last allowed to receive my letter of the ninth, giving him the name and address of Mulla and Mulla, the solicitors I had arranged to defend him.

He promptly wrote three letters, one to Mulla and Mulla, the others to MPs Pritt and Driberg. But his mail was still being obstructed, and the letter to the solicitors – a matter of real urgency, since his adjourned court martial was due to start on the 24th – did not reach them until the 27th. Fortunately, the authorities, aware that they were being watched from Westminster, ordered a further adjournment of the trial, and Arthur was transferred back to Worli on the 26th.

In writing to Pritt, Arthur followed up my suggestion of asking him to act as his defence counsel. “Your arrival on the scene would be a terrific material and moral fillip to myself and the lads,” he wrote. But his letter was again held back and did not reach Pritt until 3 May – two weeks after it had been written – and the trial had already begun.2

When Arthur arrived back in Worli, he asked that his Indian lawyers be allowed to visit him to prepare his defence. The CO attempted to dissuade him. Indian lawyers, the CO said, were seldom familiar with military law and “always put up the backs of the court”. He would be better off having one of the nominated defence officers. But Arthur wisely rejected this advice. There was no reason to believe that any of the nominated officers had any legal training or any interest in his affairs.

The trial opened on 2 May in a building in Bombay. Arthur had to be brought from Worli under armed escort each day. Years later, Dennis Foster wrote to Arthur, “On arriving in Worli I was told to report to the provost-marshal, when a number of us were detailed to guard you… to march you to the court martial building morning and night and to and from the mess hall. I will never forget that we got a very rough reception as we marched along with all the troops booing and jeering us … Through no fault of our own we were not the flavour of the month”.3

Arthur was not allowed visitors. When Ernie Margetts first contacted the solicitors, however, he was told that they could arrange for him to see Arthur, who would have to come to the office for consultation. He would be brought under escort, but the guards could not be allowed to listen to the prisoner’s conversation with his legal advisers and would therefore have to leave the room. If Ernie came into the office by the rear entrance, he could get into the consulting room without the knowledge of the guards.

When Ernie made his visit, he arrived too early and had to hide behind a large cupboard when the guards brought Arthur in. The solicitor recommended that the guards go to a cafe across the road for a cup of tea, and they were happy to agree. Whether at the solicitor’s suggestion or their own, they left their rifles behind, neatly stacked in a corner of the room.4 So Attwood, the dangerous rebel who had to have an escort of six armed men to make the short journey from Worli to Bombay, was now left in a room with fellow-conspirator Margetts and six RAF rifles! Whether or not the guns were loaded, Air Headquarters might not have approved.


The court was made up of Group Captain P M Astley, the presiding officer, two wing commanders and two flight lieutenants. As was the usual practice with courts martial, none of these officers was a lawyer, but there was a judge advocate to give the court advice on legal matters, in this case, Squadron Leader A G Rubenstein.

After Arthur had pleaded not guilty to incitement to mutiny, the prosecution began their case with five witnesses to the Thursday meeting in the dark. One was Sergeant McLean, who had been duty sergeant on the night of 17 January but had failed to report the planned demonstration to his superior officer. Did the SIB make use of that fact and threaten him with a charge if he failed to help the prosecution?

The defence, however, maintained that McLean’s evidence should be discounted, because of its discrepancies. The whole prosecution case depended on what was said at the Thursday meeting, which lasted 30 to 40 minutes. How much of that meeting had McLean heard? In the words of the defence: “Although on his own showing he came in only when the chairman was repeating the resolution and putting it to the vote, he apparently heard all that had happened before that stage was ever reached”. This was a crucial inconsistency, and not the only one.

LAC Kingman was also criticised by the defence, in this case for “willingness to embroider and exaggerate and give importance to himself”. In cross-examination he cheerfully contradicted what he had said in his examination-in-chief and at one point told the court, “I am trying to put this in my own words to make it easy for you”.

The other three witnesses – LACs Pittock, Cook, and Stead – told more credible stories, but often contradicted one another.

Question: Whereabouts in the crowd was the chairman of the meeting?


Kingman: centre of the crowd.

Pittock: on the edge of the crowd, on the far side.

Stead: near the centre.

Cook: the far edge of the crowd.

Question: When was the chairman’s voice first heard at the meeting?

Stead: He “started the meeting. He was the first speaker”.

Pittock: “after about ten minutes”.

Cook: after “twenty minutes to half an hour”.

There were many more contradictions, but for a time these ceased to matter, because the witnesses were agreed on a very different issue.

The defence counsel was Sorab R D Vimadalal, and he was assisted by Mr N Mulla and Mr S Vakil. Starting from cold, knowing only what they had gathered from my letters, this team had only three days in which to find out about developments at Drigh Road, talk with Arthur, study the relevant military law, consider whether any witnesses could be called for the defence, and then prepare their case.

Their advice to Arthur was, of course, to plead not guilty. While cross-examining the witnesses, however, Vimadalal realised how strong was the evidence that the CO at Drigh Road had condoned any offence by indicating to the men that there would be no punishments in connection with the demonstration. He therefore sought and received the court’s permission to change Arthur’s plea to one of condonation.

The witnesses agreed that in addressing an assembly of the whole station the CO used words which meant that he proposed to take no action on this occasion, but the men must understand that there was no such thing as a strike in the RAF, only mutiny, and that any such action in future would be severely punished.

Three additional witnesses gave evidence on the subject of condonation. Flight Lieutenant Packham and Warrant Officer Sowden were reluctant to admit that the CO’s words amounted to condonation, but both agreed with the other witnesses about the gist of what had been said. And Flight Lieut Simpson, the station adjutant, was quite clear about the effects of the CO’s words. They gave the impression it “had all blown over”, that things were “finished with” and “the whole matter had been forgiven by the CO”. “I formed the impression,” he added, “that nothing would happen. I had it until the SIB arrived”.

In the event, the court found the plea of condonation had been proved, ordered Arthur’s release and referred their verdict to the confirming authority, Air Commodore E F Waring, Air Officer Commanding, 225 Group, Bangalore. It was marvellous news, and we were overjoyed. Ian Taylor was by now on his way back to Edinburgh, but Ernie, Arthur and I just had time for a celebratory meal in Bombay before Ernie embarked for Britain, I returned to Drigh Road and poor Arthur, suffering from dysentery, went into hospital.

A day or two after my return I had a letter from D N Pritt. “I have been greatly assisted,” he wrote, “in all I have been doing with the Air Ministry and with Attwood’s friends over here by the excellent material with which you have kept me supplied, and am delighted to learn from the Press this morning that our combined efforts seem to have had a very successful result. Meanwhile, I have put down further questions about the delay in Attwood’s correspondence and have put the whole matter very fully to Strachey, mainly on the basis of your very good statement of evidence – without, of course, giving any of the names – and hope and trust that that particularly vicious form of activity will now have been firmly squashed. Strachey in conversation seemed extremely annoyed about it and I imagine he has taken pretty strong action; but that doesn’t mean that all the people engaged in it will at once cease their activities and you and your good friends will have to continue to be vigilant and keep in touch with us…

“I also heard of the splendid way in which his colleagues rallied to help Attwood financially at very short notice over his defence and it makes one very proud to be in touch with such people. Give my regards to Attwood and tell him that though I have not written much to him I have been in touch with his wife and friends all the time.”5


Our joy was to be short-lived. The British establishment has many weapons and is not easily defeated. Air Commodore Waring simply refused to confirm the court’s verdict, and this refusal must have suggested to members of the court that what was expected of them was a verdict of guilty. In addition, the Air Commodore – quite improperly in the view of the defence – had a personal conversation with the President of the Court, and the President had to explain that, though he was not in possession of a re-assembly order, “I have been given verbal instructions by Air Commodore Waring to re-assemble the court as soon as possible”.

When the court re-convened, defence counsel Vimadalal, outraged at the refusal to confirm, made an immediate protest. The court’s decision had been a verdict based on fact. Confirmation could not be granted or rejected on the will of the authority but had to be in accordance with the canons of law and consideration of proof. The conclusion that condonation had taken place was “irresistible”. The presiding officer was clearly uneasy, and he made two astonishing decisions. The protest made by defence counsel could not be included in the official record, he said, because it meant “holding a pistol at the tribunal so that whatever decision it ultimately arrived at would in all probability be quashed higher up in view of the protest”. And he also – quite illegally, it seems – instructed the Reuters representative and other reporters not to report the counsel’s protest.

Vimadalal, however, insisted that what was said in open court must be recorded, and a compromise was eventually reached. A note would be made in the record that the defence counsel appeared under protest and reserved the right to appeal against the order rejecting condonation, while the detailed protest would be sent to the higher authority under the signature of the President “as a separate annexture only”.

Both Arthur and his lawyers noticed what seemed to them to be a vastly different atmosphere and attitude in the re-convened court. Previously, the court had appeared fair, impartial and open, with members listening carefully to what was said. Now, however, they seemed disinterested, and on several occasions the judge advocate even had to ask a member to pay attention to what was being said. This immediately suggested to the defence that the court already knew what verdict they were going to reach.

Most of the relevant evidence had already been heard before the condonation verdict, but the court still had much to hear, including Arthur’s statement, the final addresses from the two sides, and the summing-up by the judge advocate.

Attwood was not accused of being the chairman of a meeting or of taking part in a mutiny. The charge was that he incited others to mutiny. The prosecution therefore had to show that he was the chairman of the Thursday meeting and that the chairman had incited others. Both – not just one – had to be established beyond reasonable doubt.

Had the chairman incited others? Questioned by the defence and by the court, not a single witness could recall the chairman urging the men to disobey the CO’s orders. There was even doubt whether the chairman had even expressed himself in favour of the resolution. In the words of Vimadalal, “Apart from one stray sentence from LAC Kingman’s evidence, and this vague impression in the mind of Cook, there was not even a suggestion in the evidence regarding the chairman’s attitude”; and there was not only no evidence of urging, but the witnesses “categorically said” that there had been no urging from the chairman.

Was Attwood the chairman of the meeting? Five witnesses said that he was, but how did they know?

Defence counsel advised the court that eminent jurists were agreed that recognising a person by voice alone was a risky proceeding unless there was corroboration. He argued that the evidence of identification at most amounted to no more than a guess or suspicion that the voice of the chairman at the Thursday meeting was somewhat similar to Attwood’s.

Pittock and Stead even admitted that they had never heard Attwood’s voice before the Thursday meeting and claimed to identify it when they heard him speaking on later occasions. Vimadalal pointed out to the court, however, that the voice that anyone might use in conversation or with a microphone would be vastly different from the kind of voice that would have to be used in trying to control a meeting of hundreds of angry men, when the owner of the voice could not be seen and did not have the advantage of a rostrum or platform.

It seemed to be agreed that about forty men had spoken at the meeting, with six to ten of them saying more than a sentence or two. Had the witnesses recognised any other voices? None of the five had. So there must have been something very distinctive about Attwood’s voice. What could it be?

LAC Pittock “did not notice anything distinctive” and could not give the voice an accent. The other four agreed that the chairman had a deep voice, spoke deliberately and had a slight London accent. But Vimadalal suggested that a very large number of the men on the camp would have what could be described as a London accent, and many of them must have a deep voice. How did they know that this one was Attwood’s?

Could it be that they had been prompted and coached by the SIB? The fact that they used such similar terms to describe the chairman’s voice was in itself suspicious.

Pittock said, “Before I went to the SIB I did not know the name Attwood and the SIB gave me the name Attwood.”


Question: Did the suggestion that it was LAC Attwood who spoke on this occasion first come from the SIB?

Pittock: Yes.

Question: How did the SIB try to convince you that Attwood was the chairman of the meeting?

Pittock: He kept mentioning the name Attwood throughout the interrogation.

Question: Did you get the impression that the SIB were deliberately trying to impress upon you that Attwood was the chairman?

Pittock: Yes.

Question: Did the SIB warrant officer give the particulars of Attwood’s voice?

Pittock: Well, I could not describe his voice, and the SIB warrant officer said, “Would it be a deep voice?” and I said, “Yes”.

LAC Cook was also prompted by the SIB.


Question: Did the suggestion, that it was the accused who was the chairman, first come from the SIB?

Cook: It came from the SIB officer.

Under cross-examination all five lost some of their certainty that the voice was Attwood’s. Kingman, McLean and Cook all recognised the possibility of different persons having similar voices. Pittock and Stead, the two who had not heard Attwood’s voice before the Thursday meeting were also uncertain.


Question: Is it your case that from those two or three occasions when you heard the voice of the accused in daylight, you made a guess that it may have been the same as that of the chairman?

Stead: Yes.

Pittock: I heard a voice something the same as the one I heard at the meeting on the football pitch.

Question: When you were being examined by the prosecutor about the three different occasions on which you heard the voice, your answer was, “I thought it sounded the same”. Are you able to be more definite about that or not?

Pittock: No, sir.

So Attwood’s voice was “something the same”, it was “similar”; at a guess it may have been the same. Not very convincing.

Finally, the defence reminded the court of an important principle of British justice – that the evidence of an accomplice requires substantial independent corroboration and that the evidence of one accomplice cannot corroborate that of another. Yet the entire evidence against Attwood was in the nature of accomplice evidence.

Not surprisingly, the court’s legal expert, the judge advocate, gave a summing-up that seemed to favour the defendant. But there was no “not guilty” verdict. Arthur would have to stay in prison, though as yet he did not know for how long. The only other airman to be found guilty in connection with the events of January had been Norris Cymbalist, and he had been sentenced to ten years’ penal servitude. Arthur had no reason to expect less.

Soon after the verdict he was again in hospital, suffering from nervous exhaustion. No one could be surprised. It had been a rollercoaster ordeal, with despair giving way to hope, defeat to victory, and victory to defeat. Few men could have withstood the strain as well as he had. Now he had to wait for an announcement from the confirming authority to find out what his sentence would be.

Meanwhile, the angry defence team set out to prepare an appeal. They produced a 26-page document that was a devastating indictment of the confirming authority for rejecting condonation and of the court for bringing in a verdict which could not be justified by the evidence.6

Arthur’s fate, however, would not depend mainly on legal procedures in India. It was political action in London that would be decisive.


RAF officers all over India adopted a conciliatory attitude throughout the January actions. But the RAF in India, though still part of SEAC (South East Asia Command), had a large measure of autonomy under Air Marshal Sir Roderick Carr. The two Singapore bases, Seletar and Kallang, however, were virtually next door to SEAC headquarters, where Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park was Air Officer Commanding. Park was a hard-liner. “It’s mutiny, whatever they call it,” he barked,7 and he secretly instructed unit commanders to deal “most severely” with ringleaders.8

South East Asia Command anticipated later policy when a statement about Seletar said that “the vast majority of the airmen are loyal and hard-working, but a few strike promoters have shown that they are determined to stage sit down strikes as a means of bringing pressure to bear on the home government”. It was an officer at Command headquarters who, in the course of briefing the Times correspondent, made a claim heard nowhere else. “The Commander-in-Chief,” said the paper, “had attended a full parade of airmen to hear their grievances and answer questions. After this parade a proportion of the men returned to duty and some of them were subjected to violence after lights out by a few rowdies, who went so far as to beat up some of the loyal airmen”. I have not found any sign of a public withdrawal of this statement, but Park was informing the Air Ministry a few days later that “the Base Commander Seletar is unable to obtain any evidence to support alleged threat of violence or beating up of airmen in barracks”. The report of such beating up, Park thought, was probably put about by loyal airmen who had been “morally intimidated by a small number of experienced agitators”!9

As we have seen in connection with the Drigh Road affair, it was not easy to obtain evidence to sustain a charge of incitement to mutiny when strikers took their decisions in the dark, and an immediate long investigation would have risked provoking a further outbreak. So at Seletar the matter was left until the SIB arrived. By then, though, it was too late.

In making their report on Seletar, the SIB complained about the long delay between the strike and the start of the investigation. Because of the time lapse, they said, most of the key witnesses had left the station; the men had had time to enjoy the improvements brought by the strike and were therefore reluctant to name the leaders; and the men had an excuse for claiming that they could not remember important matters. Although the investigators conducted a number of interviews, they concluded that it was not worthwhile to take statements “as in the majority of cases, no concrete evidence or information could be offered which would have assisted in the assessment of the blame, and the persons responsible for the strike”.

Despite this lack of evidence, the SIB were convinced that they knew who were the ringleaders, and they named two LACs, both of whom were said to have left-wing political views. One was described by his commanding officer as a “dyed in the wool Communist”, while the other was said to have “extreme Socialist views, bordering, according to some sources, on Communism”.

So it was suggested that “both Airmen be kept under strict observation during the future, as it is considered that, after the successful conclusion of the strike at Seletar, they will not hesitate to attempt a repetition of the strike, should the opportunity or need arise”.10 If it could not even be established that these two led the Seletar strike, one has to ask on what basis the SIB could conclude that “they will not hesitate to attempt a repetition”. Nevertheless, it was recommended that the two be kept “under strict observation”.

At least there were no prosecutions at Seletar. It was different at Kallang. There was more animosity from some of the officers there, and the key meeting of the men took place with officers present. It was therefore relatively easy to put together a case against Norris Cymbalist without any drawn-out investigation. He had been arrested during the 10.30 meeting but then released in response to pressure from the men. Later, when he was expecting to be sent back to Britain, he was re-arrested in secret and within a week or two was facing a court-martial. This began on 21 February.

Cymbalist faced a charge of using “insubordinate language to a superior officer” as well as the charge of incitement to mutiny. On the insubordination issue there was no dispute about the words that the defendant had used at the meeting held at 10.30 p.m. Prosecution and defence agreed that, when addressing the men, he had referred to some of the officers as, “These gentlemen, these honourable gentlemen – at least the Air Force call them gentlemen”. It seems a trivial issue to put before a court-martial when he was facing a possible death sentence for incitement. Yet the Defending Officer thought that it was these words which were the cause of Cymbalist’s arrest, and the prosecution pressed on with the charge.

The defence case was that the obscene language used by some of the officers meant that they were involved in a relationship with Cymbalist that was man-to-man rather than officer-to-airman, and Cymbalist’s comment had to be seen in that context. In view of the words that were used in some angry exchanges, this would seem to have been a sound defence, but it was rejected by the court.

On the incitement issue, Cymbalist faced what were three separate accusations:


that he “at Singapore on 27th January, 1946, endeavoured to persuade a crowd of airmen … to join in a mutiny and to go on strike

(1) until six airmen who had been arrested by lawful air force authority had been released from custody;

(2) and to secure the release of the arrested airmen by force, and

(3) to support the airmen at R.A.F. Station, Seletar, who had already mutinied.”

The defence had a good case in arguing that any offence had been condoned by the CO, Group Captain Ryley. When the Brigadier who was the Advocate General for Allied Land Forces, South East Asia, reported on the proceedings to Sir Keith Park, the confirming authority, he wrote, “Ryley agreed to address the men in the presence of the accused and there can be no doubt that the impression derived by his audience was that the matter was at an end so far as they were concerned”. But the court rejected the condonation plea on the grounds that Ryley had not been in possession of all the relevant facts.

The prosecution represented Cymbalist as an agitator and ringleader, but a number of airmen and an officer gave evidence that, on the contrary, he was a spokesman, fairly expressing the views of the men. All three parts of the incitement charge depended on what was said at the 10.30 meeting but the uproar and confusion at that event meant that witnesses told very different stories. Sometimes they agreed that certain words had been used but not about which person had used them.

On the first part of the charge, much depended on a vote by show of hands which gave a large majority in favour. But what was the vote about? In his summing-up the judge advocate said, “The prosecution say it was for the purpose of telling those in favour of striking until the airmen were released. You will remember what the defence say about it. They say that upon someone in the crowd shouting out, ‘You are letting us down’, [an officer] turned to the accused and said, ‘You see, even the airmen don’t want you’. Whereupon the accused called for a show of hands to prove that the airmen still wished him to continue to act as their spokesman. There are the two sides. It is for you to find … which in fact took place”.

The prosecution evidence on the second and third parts of the incitement charge – the possible use of force to free the prisoners, and a strike in support of Seletar – was even more dubious, and the defending officer was scathing in his comments.

“It was painfully obvious,” he said of one officer, “that he had learnt his piece off by heart, and in cross-examination all that could be got out of him was ‘I don’t know’, ‘I can’t remember’ Of what possible value is a witness like that?”

Another witness claimed to remember a number of points – two of crucial importance – that got no mention in his earlier summary of evidence. “Bearing in mind the other four points which he did not mention at the summary … it is obvious that, since then, someone else has said something to him on the matter. He could not possibly have forgotten them all, if they were true.”

About another witness, who had “wandered in and out of the crowd”, the defending officer said sarcastically, “Each time he listened he said he heard the accused say something relevant to the charge, but he was conveniently absent when anything else was said.”

Members of the court were under pressure. Had not Air Chief Marshal Park himself ordered that courts-martial must show “no leniency”?11 Even so, the court could not accept the evidence produced by the prosecution on the second and third parts of the incitement charge, and reference to Seletar and to the use of force were deleted from their final verdict. It made little difference to Cymbalist, though. He was still found guilty of incitement on the first part (in allegedly calling for a strike in defence of the arrested six); he was still found guilty of insubordinate language to a superior officer, though the judge advocate had stressed that improper language was not necessarily insubordinate. The savage sentence was ten years’ penal servitude and discharge with ignominy from His Majesty’s Service.12

Sir Keith Park was no doubt happy to confirm both the verdict and the sentence, but many others thought the sentence outrageous. John Strachey, the Under Secretary of State for Air, was appalled, and in advance of the Air Council’s review of the case he sent a memo to Air Chief Marshal Slessor, the Council’s Member for Personnel. “Ten years,” he wrote, “is a disproportionate and indefensible sentence to impose in consideration of all the circumstances … Such a sentence ought never to have been imposed …”

Strachey said he was convinced of the injustice of the sentence, because of:


1. the Judge Advocate General’s “forcibly expressed view” that “we carefully consider revision of the heavy sentence”;

2. “the undeniable fact of the at least partial condonation of the CO on the spot”;

3. but the main consideration, he said, was that “I am deeply impressed with the fact that the only criminal actions which it was proved Cymbalist committed were in no material respect different from actions which must have been committed by a comparatively large number of men at the various stations affected”.

Strachey was especially worried about the possibility of ten years being seen as a standard for the other impending courts-martial. He was not against severity, he told Slessor, but one year’s penal servitude was a severe sentence. Slessor or other members of the Air Council must have been considering a reduction of Cymbalist’s sentence to seven years, but Strachey argued that the sentence would have to be “reduced to something more like two repeat two than seven repeat seven years”.13

But the Air Council, sharing a single copy of the court-martial proceedings – and a defective copy at that14 – would only halve the sentence. Cymbalist, they decided on 22 May, 1946, would have to do five years’ penal servitude, whatever Strachey might think.


Most station and unit commanders did not want to have a visit from the SIB. Such investigations could be expected to introduce a climate of resentment and mistrust, especially if the men had been promised “no victimisation”. As Air Chief Marshall Park told the Court of Inquiry, “There is a reluctance on the part of many commanding officers to call in the S.I.B. They say quite openly that they do not want S.I.B. people on their station. This is an entirely erroneous and unfair attitude”. So Park wanted the Air Ministry to intervene – “an instruction from a higher level would be helpful”.15

In fact, the decision to seek out and punish ringleaders was taken at top level, following the Court of Inquiry. The Special Investigation Branch made investigations at a number of units, but seemed to give special attention to Drigh Road and Cawnpore. Drigh Road, of course, was suspect as the station which had made the first move, and while the strike there had lasted only one morning, the follow-up activities indicated a leadership that was politically aware. And at Cawnpore, the largest RAF station in India, the strike leadership had been well-organised and extremely thorough.

There was no shortage of candidates for prosecution. In India, Air Marshal Carr reported to the Air Ministry, “There are now at least eight certain cases and 45 probable cases against R.A.F. airmen” and arrangements were being made for “concentration and mass arrests”.16 In Malaya five men were “retained in view of their possible trial on charges under the Air Force Act”.17 Yet in the end there were no proceedings against the great majority of suspects. Out of 50,000 strikers only six eventually faced charges arising from the “incidents”.

A major factor in the choice of victims seems to have been their political affiliations. Four of them – Attwood, Cymbalist, and two Cawnpore men, Stone and Noble – who were charged with the most serious offence of incitement to mutiny, were all Communists.18

The SIB explained the lack of arrests in India on the grounds that there had been “condonation of all offences in connection with the mutinies at all units investigated”. They were quite explicit that “there was condonation at Mauripur, Dum Dum, Poona and Vozagapatam and therefore no disciplinary action could be taken at those four places”.19 Yet condonation – a well-established fact at both Drigh Road and Cawnpore – was not allowed to interfere with proceedings against Attwood, Stone and Noble. The decisions to proceed in their cases – which seem to have been taken by a higher authority than the SIB – suggest that the intention was to show that the strikes were not a spontaneous protest of many thousands of men but a Communist conspiracy.

Corporal Jimmy Stone had been chairman of the strike committee at Cawnpore. Like Attwood, he had been allowed to go to Bombay for repatriation but was kept there for weeks. LAC Mick Noble, who had been publicity officer for the strike committee, had applied for repatriation on compassionate grounds. Instructed to proceed to Bombay, he was arrested there and charged on 6 May with incitement to mutiny.

Stone was brought in the next day, having been arrested when actually boarding the ship he had expected to take him home. He and Noble were both imprisoned at Worli and found that Attwood was in a nearby cell. Officially the three were not allowed to converse, but they found ways of doing so and sustained one another by passing on news from home, especially news about the campaign for their release. The fate of Stone and Noble was clearly bound up with that of Attwood. If he was sentenced, there could be little hope for them.

6 The Campaign in Britain

“How could I indifferently stand by, and behold some of the very best of my fellow-creatures cruelly treated by some of the very worst?” – Richard Parker1


John Saville got back to London shortly before Easter. Three days after his arrival he received a telegram. It was brief. “Arthur arrested. Please help. Dunk.” And help he did. John was instrumental in establishing the Attwood Defence Committee, which initiated and co-ordinated many activities; and behind the scenes he continued to play a leading part in the campaign for Arthur’s release. Ernie Margetts was also back home and was very active on Arthur’s behalf.

At the meeting of the London Area Committee of the Electrical Trades Union on 25 May, 1946, the secretary reported that “two members of the RAF who had been in Karachi with our Brother Attwood” (John Day and Ernie Margetts) had requested an interview to make a statement. The Secretary summarised what had clearly been quite a long report about the Drigh Road affair and the Attwood court-martial. He also read a letter from Bro Attwood.

After considerable discussion, during which members drew attention to other cases of ill-treatment in the services, it was agreed:


  • that a deputation from the Area Committee should meet the minister to protest against the treatment of Bro Attwood, and that Bro Cook, MP, should introduce the deputation;
  • “that we request the Executive Council to protest to the Cabinet against the general victimisation of industrially and politically active members in the Forces and demand that legislation should be promoted for the democratisation of the whole of the Services; and also that machinery should be set up so that servicemen could air their grievances in a constitutional way”;
  • that a protest meeting be organised immediately;
  • that a request be made to the Executive Council for permission to set up a Defence Fund in support of Bro Attwood.2

The powerful Amalgamated Engineering Union also became involved. Much of the credit for that must go to LAC John Day. Day was one of the Drigh Road delegation which met the Air Commodore. He was not a Communist and I did not know him well. He was now home, with several weeks’ leave, and he devoted virtually the whole of his leave to working for the defence committee.

He wrote his own account of the Drigh Road story and attached a copy of my document on the SIB’s methods. This was circulated to many organisations, including branches of the AEU, to whose Hendon branch Day belonged. He also set out to get the Attwood case publicised in the national press.

In the minutes of the North London District Committee of the AEU, 29 May, 1946, it is recorded that Day “stated that since he had been home he had gone from newspaper to newspaper, but there appeared to be a barrier, which he thought was almost impossible to break through. Nevertheless, he had been successful with Reynold’s News, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Worker, and it appeared that it was now up to the trade union movement to fight the case to the bitter end. The ETU had already initiated a campaign on behalf of Bro Attwood, and he appealed to the AEU to join in the struggle.

“Our brother was thanked for his statement and congratulated for his splendid, unselfish efforts in sacrificing his whole leave in the fight for freedom of conscience and ordinary elementary rights and justice within the ranks of the armed forces.”

The Committee then resolved:


  • that the AEU executive committee be asked to place the Attwood case on the TUC agenda and “before our Members of Parliament”;
  • that the executive committee of the London Trades Council be asked to grant an interview with Day in order to “pursue the question of LAC Attwood with the appropriate Government department, with a view to his unconditional release”;
  • to demand that the Government take the necessary steps to establish an independent committee of inquiry into the Attwood affair;
  • to send a resolution to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Air; and
  • to pledge the committee’s support to the ETU “in any action which they may consider to be essential”.3

Many other trade union branches and committees expressed support. So did the London Trades Council. And the annual conference of the Tobacco Workers’ Union carried unanimously a resolution protesting emphatically at the treatment of LAC Attwood. Calling the affair “a blot on the record of the Labour Government”, they called for an independent committee of inquiry “in order that British justice may be vindicated”.4

The National Council for Civil Liberties also took up the Attwood case. D N Pritt was very actively on our side from the beginning. A number of other MPs, among whom Tom Driberg was prominent, were also helpful. One of them was Lieut James Callaghan, RNVR, but when asked by a TV researcher in 1996 if he would like to comment, Lord Callaghan declined.

Pritt, receiving information directly from Arthur and myself, tabled telling questions in the House. Other MPs, fed with material by the defence committee and sometimes by their constituents in Karachi, also asked questions or applied informal pressure. Individuals wrote letters to MPs and cabinet ministers. Trade union branches and other organisations passed resolutions and sent copies to the press, to their headquarters and to MPs. Deputations went to see their MPs or ministers from the Air Ministry. Nor was activity confined to London. Committees in Liverpool and Clydeside engaged in similar work.

As the campaign developed, news came through about Stone and Noble, and the defence committee began to work on behalf of those two as well as Attwood. At Worli the three prisoners began to receive messages of goodwill and support. A telegram from the London shop stewards of the Furnishing Trade Workers reached them, but a telegram to Arthur from the ETU was returned to sender – address unknown!

Some of the organisations involved in the campaign also gave support to the prisoners’ families. Arthur’s wife, Violet, still has a letter from Bill Jones, secretary of the Dalston Bus Branch of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. The branch, he told her, “directed me to assure you that you may depend upon their full support” and “as an expression of their unity with yourself and your husband they ask you to accept the enclosed £6 to help in the case”.

On 14 June a mass meeting was held in the Memorial Hall in Farringdon Road, London, convened by the London Area Committee of the ETU and supported by the Area Committee of the AEU. Among the speakers were Tom Cook, the ETU-sponsored MP, H Levitt from the NCCL, and Jack Reid, Area President of the AEU. Also on the platform were two of the Drigh Road strikers, Ernie Margetts and John Day, the latter in his RAF uniform. The meeting was chaired by Bro J A Lane, Area President of the ETU.

Though no attendance figure is available, this seems to have been a big and enthusiastic meeting. According to the ETU minutes, “the enthusiasm was remarkable”, and a resolution was carried unanimously, demanding the immediate release of Attwood, Stone and Noble. It went on: “this meeting decides to elect a Defence Committee and to open a fund to provide the best possible legal defence for those on or awaiting trial. We demand that legislation should be promoted for the democratisation of the whole of the services, and that machinery should be set up so that servicemen could air their grievances in the constitutional way”.5

This new, more representative defence committee would effectively replace the body formed initially to campaign for Arthur Attwood. A meeting of the new committee was called for the following week, but before it could take place there was wonderful news.

The mounting campaign – the petitions, the deputations, the resolutions, the questions in the House, the informal pressure from MPs and now the public meeting – was very embarrassing for the Labour government. It is not known how much direct pressure came from ministers, but Air Headquarters at Bangalore, having refused to confirm the first Attwood verdict of not guilty, now failed to confirm the guilty verdict, and Arthur was released on 25 June. The outstanding balance on his legal expenses was met from public funds; but he was never found not guilty; and he received no apology and no compensation for what he had suffered.

Stone and Noble were released shortly afterwards, and on 3 July Geoffrey de Freitas, who had replaced John Strachey as Under Secretary of State for Air, announced that all charges of incitement to mutiny in connection with the January incidents had been dropped.

Just before he left India, Arthur received a letter from Joe Lane, President of the Area ETU Committee, who had worked very hard in the campaign. “We consider,” he wrote, “that it is one of the greatest feats of … the union and its effects have been very, very far-reaching. …we congratulate you and your colleagues on the magnificent stand you have made in demanding the right of putting into effect the principles that are so dear to us as trade unionists. We have done little, but I think that the stand made by yourself and colleagues is reverberating throughout the world and has had its effect on the Government, and it will no doubt help us very considerably to establish throughout the whole of the Services those rights and privileges for which you and your colleagues have suffered so much”. An element of exaggeration there, perhaps, but it was a famous victory.


Norris Cymbalist was still in gaol, however, and it seemed that very little could be done for him through the legal machinery. When his lawyers asked for a copy of the court martial proceedings, they were refused on the grounds that there was only one copy in the country! When Pritt asked why their request was turned down, the answer was that “it would not have been possible to have the papers copied before now without delaying the Air Council’s present review of the proceedings”!6 Cymbalist’s father was also unable to obtain a copy of the court’s proceedings because “the only copy is the one held by the Air Council”. One wonders therefore how many members of that august body had actually read the document before they made their decision.

Cymbalist’s solicitors wanted to appear before the council to put their case as part of the review, but were told that they had no right to do so. Pritt asked why the Ministry could not create a precedent and arrange for the solicitors to be heard. In his reply Strachey indicated that the Air Council was not a judicial body, and thus admitted that a man could be sentenced to ten years’ penal servitude and yet have no right of appeal to any court of justice.7

In the event the Air Council did reduce the sentence from ten years to five, but even this was difficult to defend at the best of times and virtually impossible when the other strikers had been set free. So the pressure mounted for Cymbalist’s release. The defence committee could now concentrate on his case, and when Attwood, Stone and Noble got home, all three joined in the campaign.

Many airmen, angered by Cymbalist’s treatment, found ways of expressing their feelings. Airmen and women at the RAF station at Bishopbriggs in Scotland signed a petition protesting about the treatment of Cymbalist and then sent a telegram to the Prime Minister.

A number of airmen in India sent a petition to Lord Stansgate, the Minister for Air, calling for Cymbalist’s release. “As everyone knows,” they said, “the RAF incidents of last January were primarily due to dissatisfaction with the demobilisation and repatriation programme, further aggravated by poor welfare conditions. It is ridiculous to pin responsibility for such widespread yet orderly demonstrations on a handful of men, and now that other prisoners have been released, we call on the authorities to free the remaining victim and thus end a most regrettable piece of repression in the only possible way. Release Norris Cymbalist now!”

There were similar protests from other service personnel, including forty soldiers from a REME unit in Germany, who wrote to Tom Driberg, MP, demanding Cymbalist’s release.

In Britain the defence committee and its many supporters maintained pressure on MPs and ministers. There were protests from many different organisations, and the Air Ministry files still record an emergency resolution from the annual conference of the Clerical and Administrative Workers’ Union and resolutions from branches of the AEU and the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers.8 The National Council for Civil Liberties continued its active support, and in May, 1947, the defence committee merged with the NCCL’s Sub-Committee on Democratic Rights for the Armed Forces, and the campaign for Cymbalist’s release became part of the more general struggle to democratise the services.

The sub-committee’s objects were to deal with cases of victimisation in the services and to seek;


  • the fullest political and civil rights for members of the armed forces;
  • revision of the code of military law, especially as it relates to courts martial and summary punishments;
  • better education and welfare services, including vocational training for civil life;
  • the right of free voluntary association and discussion.9

The sub-committee convened a public meeting in the Palace Theatre, London, in November, 1947. Among the speakers were three ex-servicemen, including Lieut Callaghan, MP. The future Lord Callaghan was calling for an overhaul of the Territorial Army. The present structure of the TA, he complained, was of a most undemocratic nature, its direction and the granting of commissions being in the hands of retired Blimps.

Ex-Staff Sergeant Major Bardell spoke about his experiences as secretary to the famous Cairo Forces’ Parliament. He described how the authorities, alarmed at the left-wing views being expressed in the parliament, imposed new rules which made a parody of free discussion and finally posted the leading members of the “government” to the four corners of the earth.

Arthur Attwood, now back home and in better health, gave an account of the January strikes and of his subsequent treatment. Both he and D N Pritt voiced demands for a complete overhaul of court-martial procedure and the rights of defendants. The meeting then “came to an enthusiastic conclusion with the unanimous adoption of a resolution calling for the fullest political and civil rights and improved educational and welfare services for the armed forces”.10

A few days after this meeting Cymbalist was released, having served 22 months of his sentence. All four of the strike leaders were now free.

7 Views From Above

“Many believe that subtlety is wanting in military genius” – Tacitus.


When a strike took place, the unit or station commander usually referred to group or command headquarters, and the most senior officers in turn approached London on a number of issues. Responses usually came in the form of suggestions or advice, not orders, and the advice was not always followed.

When he was concerned about the situation at Mauripur, Air Marshal Sir Roderick Carr contacted London and received a reply from Air Chief Marshal Slessor, the Air Member for Personnel. Slessor signalled that Carr would have the full support of the Secretary of State if he would:


“(A) Inform the men that the fullest investigation is now taking place, but that discussion with them of the merits of the case will not be resumed until full normal work on the station has been resumed;

“(B) In this case action of ringleaders cannot repeat cannot be condoned and disciplinary action will be taken against them”.1

There is no record of what Carr had to say to the Mauripur commander, but no one appears to have acted on this advice, and there was no prosecution of any of the Mauripur strikers.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, Air Officer Commanding, South East Asia Command, had his headquarters in Singapore. Alarmed when the men at the Seletar base, on his own doorstep, took strike action and rejected his appeal to return to work, he sent a full report to the Secretary of State, the Chief of Air Staff and the Air Member for Personnel. His message ended with the question, “What assistance may I call on the Army to give in the event of the men refusing persistently to return to work when ordered by their officers?”

Slessor replied, “You can, of course, call on the Army to give you any assistance you, in consultation with (General) Dempsey, may consider practicable and necessary. Obviously, it is most undesirable to call on Army at all unless absolutely essential. You know you have the support of the Air Ministry in taking firm action where necessary. But no one but responsible commanders on the spot can decide in detail what action is necessary or practicable.”2

So decision-making was left to unit or station commanders, and in general they behaved very sensibly. They recognised the strikers’ determination; they appreciated that the men were orderly and that officers were not molested; they were thankful that essential services continued to function. In this situation it was of major importance to avoid provocation, so none of the commanders called in the military or the police, and for the most part – at least in India – they made no attempts at arrest and most did not even give any direct order to the men to return to work. Many gave an undertaking that there would be no punishments. The men were thus able to return to work without bitterness, confident that they had made their point about demobilisation. Many station commanders would surely have liked to leave the matter there. However, at a higher level consideration was being given to punishment.

Who should be punished, and in what way? One possibility was to stop the men’s pay for the time they had refused to work, but a message from Slessor, addressed to both Park and Carr, put a stop to that. He had consulted the Judge Advocate General, he told them, and “You cannot impose a stoppage without arraigning airman and finding him guilty of absence from duty. The only way of dealing with these incidents is to identify ringleaders and deal with them immediately by court-martial. No doubt this is difficult, but is it impossible?”3

Shortly afterwards, however, the question of punishments was effectively taken away from SEAC with the announcement that a Court of Inquiry, headed by the Inspector-General, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Barratt, would make a tour of the disaffected areas and investigate the “recent incidents of disaffection”. The court would “determine the responsibilities both for the actual outbreaks of indiscipline and for the circumstances which gave rise to them” and “make necessary recommendations”. The court selected half a dozen stations from different parts of the command, visited each of them and heard a large number of witnesses. It was as a result of this court’s findings that the series of SIB investigations took place.


Most station commanders waited patiently for the findings of the Court of Inquiry, but Group Captain Francis, Commanding Officer at Seletar, seems to have decided to have his say first. Air Chief Marshal Park complained to the Inspector-General that when giving evidence into the causes of the mutiny, Francis “produced masses of written evidence intended to throw the entire blame … on to group headquarters”, when the evidence to the court showed clearly that the officers had not been keeping in touch with their NCOs and airmen since the station was re-occupied in September, 1945.4

A preliminary Court of Inquiry also atributed specific blame to Group Captain Francis, but the main Court of Inquiry, headed by the Inspector General, formed a more favourable impression of the CO and reported that he had “in fact conscientiously and consistently discharged his duties to the best of his ability and within his administrative capacity under the very difficult conditions which confronted him during the months which preceded the outbreak.”5

Another commander who came in for criticism was Wing Commander Penman, in charge of the Rangoon squadron which stopped work on 29 January. His boss, Air Marshal Sir Hugh Saunders, in command in Burma, conceded that Penman had a “fine operational record” and there was no doubt, he said in a report to Park, that in issuing orders for a daily working parade “he was trying conscientiously to implement instructions as he interpreted them”. But had he “been fully in touch with his men he would have realised that the institution of full working parades on the lines he adopted would lead to trouble and he would have modified his arrangements accordingly”.

This was especially the case when the CO was “aware of the presence on the Squadron of men who were known to have taken part in a ‘Forces Parliament’ in Rangoon, at which high level service matters had been discussed and minutes of the meeting circulated to Members of Parliament. There was little doubt that these men were responsible for the incident at No. 194 Squadron,” reported the Air Marshal, then adding, “though this could not be proved”! In summary, Penman was “a young and keen officer but insufficiently experienced to handle the admittedly very difficult situation with which he was faced, namely a dissatisfied squadron containing a cell of agitators and living under poor conditions”.

Was Penman being made a scapegoat? Did the fault lie with the man who had tried conscientiously to implement the decision to hold daily working parades or with the man who made the decision in the first place? One has to have some sympathy for Wing Commander Penman.

Saunders would have liked to remove Penman from his post and to “transfer the bad elements”, but either of these changes was likely to precipitate further incidents. Since the squadron was scheduled to disband in the future, he recommended to Park that the disbandment programme be accelerated. Park agreed and by 15 February there was no longer a No. 194 Squadron.6

At Drigh Road the attitude seems to have been there was no one to blame because virtually nothing had happened! The Station Operations Book records:


“19th January: A small number of airmen showed discontent with service conditions and the slowness of demobilisation by means of a slight demonstration. Not more than 250 men were involved, who, after being addressed by the Commanding Officer, returned to their normal duties.

“20th January: Misled by the example of the R.A.F., R.I.A.F. personnel refused their dinner on 20/1/46 and their breakfast on 21/1/46. The reasons for this demonstration were the same as those which led to the action of the British airmen, discontent with conditions, impatience over demobilisation.

“21st January: Air Commodore Freebody paid a flying visit from Delhi and addressed the men. Conditions had now returned to normal…”7

This report is a real masterpiece of understatement. Every one of the more than twelve hundred men below the rank of sergeant had defied the Commanding Officer’s order to parade. Not a single man on the station had carried out his order to prepare kit for inspection. They had rejected his whole morning’s programme and shown every likelihood of repeating the action if he failed to meet their demands. But this was put down as “a slight demonstration” involving “not more than 250 men”!

It might also be noted that Air Commodore Freebody did not “address the men”. He negotiated with a delegation of twenty and incidentally agreed terms which were humiliating for the Commanding Officer, since they took away his best blue parades and daily working parades, banned his kit inspections and reduced the hours of work that he had been requiring. Surprising consequences for a “slight demonstration”!


Senior officers in SEAC were agreed that the strikes had been brought about by “agitators”, variously described as “a small number of labour or political agitators”, “a small but well-organised minority”, “experienced political agitators” or even “professional agitators”. But no one of intelligence could believe that this alone could explain what had happened. Agitators needed grievances to exploit. The main grievance was seen to be the slowness of demobilisation, and both Park and Carr pressed for a government statement on the subject of release. In a report to London, Carr said “I deplore the action of the airmen but owing to the widespread nature of the incidents I cannot suggest any alternative to a general government statement. While I entirely agree with you in principle, that the Government should not be called upon to issue a general statement as a concession to indiscipline, I feel that, in this instance, it may have serious consequences”. Carr indicated that, unless the government made a comprehensive statement, even if it did not meet the airmen’s requirements, he anticipated that the men would strike again and stay out. Units which had returned to work had done so on the assumption that their dissatisfaction with the demobilisation policy had been presented to the government, and a comprehensive statement from the government was expected.8 In response, Attlee did make a statement in the Commons on 29 January, but he had little of consequence to say, his theme being simply, “We must honour our commitments”.9

Other grievances of the men were considered in a report on Morale and Discipline, drawn up by SEAC headquarters soon after the strike wave had subsided. It did not cover India, but conditions there were much the same as in the rest of the Command. The report began by considering the many complaints about demobilisation and repatriation, noting, incidentally, that personnel in Malaysia “had been critical of British intervention in Indonesia”. One of the more local grievances concerned the men’s tropical kit. “The bad fit and the clumsy appearance of the United Kingdom issue of tropical kit were felt acutely … as airmen, desiring to appear smart, were often reduced to buying for themselves shorts, trousers and bush shirts of a better pattern. This, it was considered, was a most unfair burden on their pay”. And “generally, the reversion to peacetime service procedure, such as regular parades, was disliked on the grounds that it was considered unreasonable to impose peacetime customs and regulations before the peacetime benefits were restored”.

“Rations continued to be monotonous,” continued the report, though the men would no doubt have chosen a different word to describe their food. There was also a shortage of furniture, and men disliked the rope beds (“charpoys”) which were in common use. Interest in work, it was noted, “was at a low ebb”.10

Why had these and other local grievances not received attention? Sir Keith Park, as Air Officer in charge of the whole Command, might have been thought to have some responsibility, but he tended to blame unit commanders for not keeping in touch with the men. On 26 January he sent a signal to all commanding officers of RAF units in SEAC. “Investigation has already shown,” he said, “that some commanding officers have not been keeping in close touch with their airmen, especially in regard to explaining the working of the release scheme and investigating complaints about living conditions immediately.”

Commanding officers should prepare themselves to handle incidents “tactfully and firmly”. They should hear the men’s complaints and promise immediate investigation. Meanwhile, the men must be told to return to work. “Commanding officers must remain outwardly calm and good-tempered, but every effort is to be made to locate the ringleaders, who will be subject to disciplinary action.”

He was insistent that COs should address their men once a fortnight on demobilisation, living conditions and so on, and Air Officers Commanding must personally see that this instruction was being carried out, especially by commanding officers of small units. And, to be quite sure that it was being done, “I wish A.O.C.s to report to me fortnightly by signal that this instruction has been carried out by Commanding Officers”.

After the events at Seletar and Kallang, Park elaborated on these orders and strengthened his instructions on disciplinary action. “When a mass parade is inevitable,” he signalled, “the Commanding Officer should ensure that he has all officers and N.C.O.s briefed in preparation to stamp out any open disorder. The R.A.F. Regiment and Service Police should be used on these occasions”. If there was collective disobedience, every effort should be made to separate the disloyal minority from the loyal men. Ringleaders were to be “marked down for arrest when considered desirable” and then to be “dealt with most severely and not be shown any leniency by Unit Commanders or Courts-Martial”.11

In summary, then, the assessment from SEAC headquarters was that the men were impatient for release or repatriation; that, while waiting for their turn to go home, they resented both the poor living conditions and the introduction of peacetime discipline; that some commanding officers failed to maintain contact with their men; and that agitators exploited the resulting situation to bring about the strikes. Apart from quaint and exaggerated views about the degree of organisation and the powers of “agitators”, this analysis was sound enough – as far as it went. But it ignored some basic problems. The gulf between officers and men was so wide that many of the officers had little appreciation of the conditions in which their men had to live; the attitude of most officers meant that the channels for complaints were permanently clogged; there were no arrangements for collective complaints; and many of the grievances could only be remedied by expenditure for which the funding was not available.

Sir Roderick Carr made a more political approach in his post-strike signal to commanding officers of all RAF units in India (The signal did not go to Indian Air Force units). “The government plan for demobilisation must be a balanced one. Our industries at home require manpower, but this cannot be provided at the risk of endangering the safety of the world. There are still defence problems in India. The public press has recently made it clear that a political crisis is approaching, a crisis which may only be solved by little short of civil war. If you wish you may quote me as authority for this”.

The British government, he claimed, were now fully aware that conscripts in the RAF had little or no pride in their service. He did not believe that the “misguided” airmen who took part in the recent so-called strikes realised that what they did might endanger the safety of India. “Already their example has been followed by the R.I.A.F. Such actions can only encourage civil disturbances and may lead to grave consequences for everyone in India, including those airmen who are not due for repatriation in the near future”. In conclusion, Carr instructed his commanders, “Use your discretion in getting this information across to your personnel, but it is imperative at this time that everyone should be aware of the grave issues which are at stake and the responsibility which every airman carries, however junior he may be”.12

8 A Job Well Done

“Men who join up want to know that they are going to be treated as citizens with individual rights, and not as press-ganged riff-raff of the 17th Century.” – Major Woodrow Wyatt, MP1


It was not only in the RAF that discontent among the rank and file led to strike action in the early postwar period. Army men were involved in similar incidents, the most famous being the action of the 6th Airborne Division in Malaya. The battalion had taken part in the D-Day landings and fought in the Ardennes winter campaign, before being shipped first to Java and then to Muar Camp, near Kuala Lumpur in Malaya. Conditions had been grim enough in Java, where there was only one tent for the whole battalion, but Muar was far worse. As the London Evening News reported, “There were practically no washing facilities. Tropical downpours soaked the men as they lay beneath canvas all night. Water in the tents was ankle-high, mud lay everywhere. In this dirty welter, troops were ordered to parade every morning, washed, shaved, boots and brass shining, shorts creased, belts and gaiters scrupulously white.” According to a letter sent home by one of the soldiers, there was only one tap for two hundred men; and tables in the mess had been commandeered by the sergeants, so the men had to sit on the floor with the ants and beetles to eat their meals.

Even the Minister for War admitted that the camp lacked proper facilities for washing, feeding, cooking and recreation. Conditions were unendurable, and on 14 May the men refused to parade. There was no violence. From start to finish, it was a passive demonstration. But 243 men were charged with mutiny.2

When they were sentenced to two years’ hard labour and discharge with ignominy, there was an outcry in Britain. Within days of the court’s decision, half a million signatures had been collected to petitions of protest and no less than 16 questions tabled in the House of Commons. Brighton Town Council even sent its mayor and town clerk as a deputation to the Secretary of State for War. “The people,” said the Evening News, “will not allow 243 men to sweat two years in a tropical gaol for breaking orders under conditions to which no farmer would subject his swine”. When the new Secretary of State, Capt F W Bellinger, defended the military authorities, nearly two hundred MPs immediately signed a petition expressing “shocked surprise” and calling for annulment of the heavy sentences.3

All the men were soon released. Officially, this was on technical grounds – the judge advocate had discovered a number of irregularities “of a substantial nature”4 – but such irregularities were common enough with courts martial, and there can be little doubt that it was the pressure of public opinion that brought about the quashing of the sentences.

In November an announcement that demobilisation was to be slowed down provoked a strike at the Tel-el-Kebir garrison. This was a permanent army camp in Egypt, housing about 30,000 British troops, mostly RAOC and REME. In a tense period of five days almost all of the men were involved in one way or another.

The incident was investigated by methods similar to those used at Drigh Road, and ten men were charged with conspiracy. But fortune was on their side. The Attwood Defence Committee was contacted, and D N Pritt defended the men (without payment), with the result that four of them were found not guilty by the court and the remaining six had their convictions quashed on appeal.

Many of the other army incidents were concerned with troopships. “In the last twelve months,” noted the Evening News, “servicemen have refused to sail on four troopships – the Empress of Scotland, Corfu, Orion (twice) and Johann de Witt. In every case the reasons have been overcrowded and unsanitary conditions and/or bad food”. The next ship to be involved was the Eastern Prince at Glasgow, five hundred SEAC soldiers refusing to embark, though most of them agreed eventually to join the ship.

Lieut H Braithwaite, defending nine corporals charged in connection with the Empress of Scotland affair, told the court, “The evidence has shown that the accommodation was bad, the feeding arrangements were deplorable – men having to wait ten hours for a meal – and the blankets were infected with lice. It was these conditions that led to three walk-offs from the ship in two days”.5

Soldiers and airmen faced the same problems. Those who had served for a number of years were impatient for demobilisation, though in the early months this was more marked in the RAF, whose release rate was so much slower. Now that the war was over, men were reluctant to serve overseas. And all bitterly resented the re-introduction of peacetime discipline, bureaucracy and “bull” while they were still living in the rough conditions and eating the poor food that they associated with wartime. It was surely not necessary.

Labour ministers, however, considered it very necessary, because of the view taken by the establishment about Britain’s role in the postwar world. There was, John Saville observed, “a fervent commitment to the ‘great power’ thesis. Again and again, from the leading politicians on both sides of the House of Commons, from the Chiefs of Staff and their advisers, and from within Whitehall, there was a steady, unwavering understanding that Britain remained a first class power alongside the United States and the Soviet Union. The illusion was powerful and pervasive, and while it was misguided and untrue, it is understandable in terms of the contribution Britain had made to the war against Fascism. To those who had come through the war it was inconceivable that Britain should not continue as a leading power in the counsels of the post-war world. What is interesting is that not one person of any political standing within the UK was prepared to state publicly that the war had changed fundamentally the balance of forces within world politics, and that henceforth Britain could only expect to play the part of a major second class power.”6

Britain needed large armed forces, not only to control and defend its vast empire, but also to help in the occupation of ex-enemy territories and to play the international policeman, propping up reactionary regimes from Greece to Indonesia.

When the Prime Minister made his promised statement to the House of Commons on the RAF incidents, he defended the rate of demobilisation on the grounds that “We must carry out our commitments”. Early in March he came back to the theme. “Our commitments were still very heavy. They arose directly out of the war. We must fulfil them if what was won in the war was not to be lost. And he mentioned responsibilities in the British Zone of Germany, Berlin, Austria, Japan, Venezia Giulia, Syria and the Lebanon, Greece, Palestine, Java and India.”7 These were indeed heavy commitments, and in November Attlee announced that demobilisation would have to be slowed down. It was this announcement that triggered the strikes in Tel-el-Kebir.

For soldiers and airmen alike, the situation was exacerbated by class divisions in the services. On board troopships the men, whether in the RAF or the army, were usually housed below in stuffy, overcrowded conditions, often forced to sleep in uncomfortable hammocks because there was no room for beds or bunks; they ate food that was at best monotonous, at worst disgusting. With few facilities for exercise or entertainment, they faced weeks of boredom. But they knew that the officers – and nurses, if there were any on board – were living in cabins with comfortable beds and took their meals and wine in agreeable conditions in the dining room, with waiters in attendance.

Commenting on the “walk offs” from troopships, an Evening News editorial said, “Making every allowance for the action of hot-heads and the reluctance of many men to return overseas now that the war is over, it is obvious that something is seriously wrong.

“Is there a clue in the official explanation given by the War Office in two of these cases – that conditions were ‘up to authorised schedule’? Is it the ‘authorised schedule’ which is out of harmony with an age which no longer regards soldiers on transport as something to be buried in the hold of the ship? Is there reasonable equality of conditions between officers and men?”

The lack of “reasonable equality” on the troopship was maintained on both RAF and army camps, especially abroad. Conditions for the men at Drigh Road were fairly typical of stations in India, though it was worse where water was in short supply, where it was much hotter, or where there was serious overcrowding. The strike at Jodhpur took place early in October, and demobilisation was already an issue there, but it was mainly about local conditions that the men were protesting. Flight-Lieutenant D Mourton, however, told Channel Four viewers that for him and his fellow-officers at Jodhpur, things were very different. They lived, he said, in the Maharajah’s old palace, which had a swimming pool, tennis courts and squash courts. For every two officers there was a servant who set out their evening clothes, prepared their baths and brought them early morning cups of tea. “Life,” he added, “was very luxurious”.8

So Britain played the part of a first-class world power, but did so with second class resources and a second class budget. And those who suffered for it were the rank-and-file of the armed services. It is not surprising that tens of thousands of them took part in protests in the twelve months after the end of the war.


Were the protests at those RAF stations “strikes” or “mutinies”?

It has been suggested that the Drigh Road affair was neither strike not mutiny, merely a “demonstration”; but, as a collective act of defiance, it was similar in character to the others. It was different only in being brief, and that was because the Drigh Road men put forward what were attainable demands – that is to say, demands that could be met by the RAF in India, without reference to London and the political process – and they were extremely successful, first at local and then at command level.

None of the strikers thought they were taking part in a mutiny. To them that term implied taking to arms or at least using violence against their officers, and that was never their intention. They were simply “on strike”. On the other hand, the commanding officer at Drigh Road told the men – though only after the “incident” – that there was no such thing as a strike in the Air Force and that their action had amounted to mutiny.

D N Pritt summarised the position. “There was no violence, and essential services were not stopped,” he wrote, “but the men – largely industrial workers in peacetime – just stayed away from work as a means of drawing attention to their grievances. To professional army or RAF officers and to military lawyers, such action was mutiny. The difference between a strike by civilian workers, which is not in general a criminal offence at all, and a mutiny, which under military law is a capital offence, can be very small in terms of what the men actually do or refrain from doing. For that very reason it is an important part of the duty of officers to explain the law as to mutiny to the men serving under them; this is especially important when the men are industrial workers who have come into the forces to fight a war and have not lost their civilian outlook.” And Pritt added, “In no case with which I had direct contact during or after the war did I ever find that any attempt had been made to fulfil this duty.”9

Major Woodrow Wyatt, then a young Labour MP, argued that there was a need for some kind of machinery in the services to allow a collective grievance to be expressed. Though he was writing about mutiny in the army, his comments applied equally to the RAF when he said, “Mutiny to the layman means something dramatic; the refusal of a regiment to go into action; the rank and file shooting their officers; or at least a violent disturbance. But in the Army it is something different.”

Major Wyatt went on to show how absurd was the law concerning mutiny. “If two soldiers, however passively, agree to disobey a lance-corporal, that is mutiny, for which the possible penalty is death. But if one soldier shoots his commanding officer in the leg, chops off the ear of his sergeant-major and breaks all the equipment in the barrack room, that is not mutiny; it is using violence to a superior officer, for which the maximum penalty is only imprisonment.”10


The 50,000 men who took part in the “mutinies” of January 1946, did so because they had no other way of giving voice to their deeply felt grievances.

The RAF did have official ways of dealing with grievances, but for the most part they simply did not work. At Drigh Road the duty officer and a duty sergeant would occasionally appear in the mess at mealtime, and the sergeant would call for attention and ask, “Any complaints?” Every man in the mess had a complaint about the quality of the food in front of him, but no one responded to the sergeant’s question. Men believed that no good would come of complaining. The food was poor and would go on being poor; that was the RAF. Why risk being branded as a troublemaker when nothing would be achieved by it?

No doubt the men could have held a meeting and sent a deputation to the CO, but that was exactly the kind of move that would bring punishment for the leaders. Collective action was not merely discouraged; it could not be tolerated.

What would have been the response had a man gone to his section officer or even his CO to complain about the rate of demobilisation? The best that could be hoped for would be an explanation that this was not a service issue but a matter for the government; and the conclusion that this grievance therefore required political action would certainly not be drawn.

Airmen had very few rights, and the ones they did have were seldom drawn to their attention. If I knew my way about, it was only because I carried in my kit bag a little booklet on King’s Regulations published by the National Council for Civil Liberties. The use of some rights was positively discouraged, and few men ever thought of writing to their MPs for fear of reprisals. When an officer can influence your promotion or posting, can determine the nature of your duties and put you on a charge for some trivial misdemeanour, it makes good sense not to provoke him by pointing out your rights, even if you know what they are.

Political activity, such as the distribution of pamphlets, was seen as an offence, and the more left wing the material, the more serious the crime. It was, of course, common for a man who had received a newspaper from home to pass it on to his friends to read. There would be no problem if his paper was the Conservative Daily Mail, but if it was the Communist Daily Worker he would be in trouble. And when an airman was found selling copies of People’s Age, the paper of the Communist Party of India, to his friends, he was sentenced to 112 days’ detention.


What crime had Arthur Attwood committed? By preventing a hitherto unruly meeting from degenerating into chaos, by seeking to find consensus, he had ensured that the men’s discontent found an orderly, disciplined expression that enabled agreement to be reached with the Commanding Officer within a very short time. Jim Stone and Mick Noble had been similarly positive. At neither Drigh Road nor Cawnpore had there been the slightest hint of violence, and no officer was threatened or abused. In the different circumstances of Kallang, Norris Cymbalist had been equally constructive in his role as spokesman for the men.

Attwood, Stone, Noble and Cymbalist had all broken authority’s unwritten rules. They were Communists; they had led or encouraged or condoned collective action, however orderly; and they had encouraged the men to make use of their rights, particularly the right to communicate with their Members of Parliament. In the RAF these activities were not acceptable. In the spring of 1946, when the Cold War was getting under way, the establishment felt it necessary to demonstrate that the mass activity of January was the consequence of a Communist conspiracy. Cymbalist had already been charged and found guilty. Attwood, Stone and Noble would have to follow.


Once a man faced a serious charge, and especially one suggesting defiance of authority, he was unlikely to be treated fairly. In most cases there would be no question of his being seen as innocent until proved guilty. He was more likely, particularly if overseas, to be treated like a criminal and imprisoned, often in solitary confinement. At Kalyan he would find himself in a dimly-lit, rat-infested cell. He would not normally have the means, or even the necessary knowledge, to pay for lawyers; he would not be able to seek witnesses or information helpful to his case but would have to rely on a defending officer, who might not be competent and might not have the time or the opportunity or the resolve to prepare an adequate defence; and he would not usually realise that he was entitled to write to his Member of Parliament.

The whole legal structure was also weighted against him. The convening authority – a senior officer at the appropriate air headquarters – not only appointed the court and its president; he also chose the prosecutor and in many cases influenced the choice of defending officer. And if the court still reached a verdict which the confirming officer did not like, he could refuse to confirm, as in the Attwood case.

If a defendant wanted to appeal against the verdict he could submit an appeal in writing, but there was no court before which either he or his representative could appear to argue the case. The final appeal was to the Air Council, a group of senior officers without legal training, long out of touch with any rank and file airman and apparently prepared – at least in Cymbalist’s case – to share a single copy of the lengthy document on which they had to pass judgement.

One of the positive results of the campaign on behalf of Attwood and the other victims was the establishment of the Courts-Martial Appeal Tribunal, a genuine appeal body staffed by High Court judges.11 This important change owed much to the hard work and specialist knowledge of D N Pritt.

The rest of the system, however, remained in place, and as recently as October, 1997, the European Court of Human Rights found that a former NCO in the RAF, who had been charged with fraud in 1992, had been denied a fair hearing by “an independent and impartial tribunal established by law”. A system in which a convening officer appointed subordinate officers to prosecute and judge the case was in breach of the Convention on Human Rights.

The Ministry of Defence, however, claimed that matters had just been put right. A case before the Strasbourg court earlier that year, involving a Falklands veteran, had produced a similar verdict, as a result of which changes had been made which the Ministry claimed would ensure the “actual and apparent independence of the system”. There was now a “sensible and sophisticated framework for present and future military discipline”.12 Time will tell.


In view of the torments they suffered, one could hardly call Attwood, Stone and Noble “lucky”. Yet they were more fortunate than many airmen involved in disciplinary proceedings, including Norris Cymbalist. This was because, in the first place, their trial was delayed, and by the time the victims were arrested, friends and colleagues had got back to Britain. And, secondly, those friends were familiar with the political process and were in a position to alert and inform organisations and individuals interested in justice and in servicemen’s rights. Although others helped, the key factor in the campaign on behalf of the arrested airmen was the alliance of the trade unions with a group of Members of Parliament, among whom D N Pritt was outstanding. This campaign soon won freedom for the three and eventually also secured the release of Cymbalist.

After their release all four could look back with a great deal of satisfaction. They had played an important part in a movement which had secured a faster rate of demobilisation, had brought better conditions on the camps, and had served notice on the government that men recruited to fight fascism would not allow themselves to be used for imperialist or foreign adventures once the war was over. It was a job well done.


I owe a debt to Laurel Productions. Their television programme, “Mutiny in the RAF”, broadcast on Channel 4 in the “Secret History” series in 1996, enabled me to renew contact with old acquaintances and stimulated me to write this work. I have included some items of information from the programme, and these are acknowledged in the notes below (by the reference, “Laurel Programme”). In addition, I am grateful to Laurel for allowing me to consult the research material they gathered for their programme.

Arthur Attwood, the central figure in my story, has accumulated a considerable collection of documents – legal papers, letters, minutes, press cuttings and so on – relating to his own and similar cases. I have had access to all of this, and make frequent references below to the “Attwood Collection”. I also have to thank Arthur for the many hours he has spent in copying documents, in encouraging, suggesting and criticising, and in preparing the illustrations.

I am also grateful to John Saville for his encouragement and invaluable advice as well as his foreword; to Ernie Margetts for his suggestions and helpful criticism; to Chris Rubinstein for saving me from many pitfalls; to Francis King for his help and his patience; to ex-airmen C Miller, D Streatfield, H Darby and D Foster for permission to quote from their letters; and to my wife, Liz, for miscellaneous services in connection with the book.

I have made use of various Crown copyright documents in the custody of the Public Record Office, and references to these are acknowledged with the prefix PRO in the following notes.

Published Sources

There is no comprehensive account of the RAF strikes, though there is much useful material in the last three chapters of Richard Kisch, The Days of the Good Soldiers (Journeyman Press, 1985). Sadly, Richard – who fought in Spain with the International Brigade – died earlier this year (1998).

In his Brasshats and Bureaucrats (Lawrence and Wishart, 1966), D N Pritt deals with the Attwood and Cymbalist (and several similar) cases in which he was very much involved, and Arthur Attwood has written his own brief account of the Drigh Road affair for Strike, ed. R A Leeson (Allen and Unwin, 1973).

David Duncan

David Duncan was born and educated in Sunderland. He worked as a journalist for a time and then served in the RAF for five years before going to Manchester University to read Modern History with Economics and Politics. After teaching in primary schools in Manchester and South Shields and secondary schools in Sunderland and Middlesbrough, he became Vice-Principal at Stockton Sixth Form College. He retired in 1986. Soon after leaving the Communist Party he joined the Labour Party. He died in 2003.


1 Mutiny in Karachi

1. M Edwardes, The Last Years of British India, Cassell, 1963, p. 112.

2. PRO AIR 8/790/2157


2 Political Campaigning

1. See the blurb on the back cover of Kisch, The Days of the Good Soldiers. The date is a little too early. The Parliamentary Army’s famous Putney debates took place towards the end of 1647, and discussion among the rank and file no doubt continued for some time afterwards.

2. A Sked and C Cook, Post-War Britain, Second Edition, Penguin, 1984, pp. 17-18

3. Labour Party, Let Us Face the Future, 1945, p. 6.

4. Kisch, op. cit., p. 129.

5. Hansard, 13 February 1946.


3 A Wave of Mutinies

1. D Judd, Empire, Fontana, 1996, p. 335.

2. Laurel Programme

3. PRO AIR 20/9244

4. PRO AIR 23/1986

5. Kisch, op. cit., p.133, quoting LAC Noble.

6. Statement by LAC Noble, quoted in Kisch, op. cit., p. 135.

7. Letter in the Attwood Collection.

8. PRO AIR 20/9245

9. PRO AIR 23/1986

10. PRO AIR 20/9245

11. Kisch, op. cit., p. 142.

12. PRO AIR 23/2314

13. The Times, 28 January 1946

14. Letter in the Attwood Collection.

15. Laurel Programme

16. Letter in Attwood Collection.

17. PRO AIR 23/1986

18. Quoted in The Statesman, Delhi, 27 January 1946.

19. The Times, 12 February 1946.

20. Edwardes. op. cit., pp. 112-3.


4 The Special Investigation Branch

1. In W. S. Gilbert, The Mikado.

2. The Times, 25 February 1946.

3. Hansard, 27 February 1946.

4. Hansard, 27 March 1946.

5. Copy in Attwood Collection.

6. Letter in Attwood Collection.

7. Copy in Attwood Collection.

8. Hansard, 15 May 1946.

9. Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park was Air Officer Commanding, South East Asia Command.

10. I was later posted to Air Headquarters, Delhi, where a colleague showed me a file marked, “Attwood Defence Fund”.


5 Courts-Martial

1. R Miliband, Capitalist Democracy in Britain, OUP, 1984, p. 112.

2. The authorities, of course, insisted that there had been no improper interference with Attwood’s incoming mail. Indeed, he had been given specially favourable treatment! “I can assure the House,” said de Freitas, the new Under Secretary of State, “that no incoming correspondence was withheld from him. In fact, because of the serious nature of the charge and because he was away from his parent unit, special steps were taken to see that letters did not go astray, and the station adjutant at Worli, the transit camp, was instructed to collect all L.A.C. Attwood’s mail for special delivery to him”. Perhaps the adjutant could not read my writing! “There was delay in his outgoing mail,” admitted the Under Secretary, “which was due to the fact that the detention cell was under Army control and that the Army N.C.O. in charge did not know the R.A.F. regulations. He therefore referred the matter to his superiors and they referred it to the Air Force authorities, and the Air Force, of course, gave approval for him to send letters, but a regrettable delay of some days had occurred”. (Hansard, 19 June 1946). This is nonsense, of course; and does it imply that, had Attwood been a soldier, it would have quite in order to hold back his mail?

His mail, both incoming and outgoing, was not only delayed. It was also opened and copied. My letters to him, his to Pritt, even a brief note from Tom Driberg MP, were all copied and retained by the SIB, as was my telegram of 8 April, though it never reached Arthur. (PRO AIR 20/11516)

3. Letter in the Attwood Collection.

4. E Margetts in interview with the author.

5. Letter in the Attwood Collection.

6. Court-martial details are from legal papers in the Attwood Collection.

7. News Chronicle, quoted in Kisch, op. cit., p. 128.

8. PRO AIR 23/1986

9. The Times, 29 January 1946, and PRO AIR 23/2314

10. PRO AIR 20/9245

11. PRO AIR 23/1986

12. PRO AIR 18/30/5498

13. PRO AIR 19/441

14. For Cymbalist’s quite lengthy cross-examination, the official account of the proceedings omits the questions and provides only the answers. When various authorities were considering Cymbalist’s appeal, what did they make of answers like, “I am suggesting that I did not”, “I may have said that at the first meeting” and “I am not a clairvoyant, I cannot say” when there was no indication whatever of what the questions were?

15. PRO AIR 23/2315

16. PRO AIR 23/2313

17. Hansard, 18 June 1946.

18. The other two men were probably charged with less serious offences. One was sentenced to 90 days’ detention, the other may have been released at the same time as Stone and Noble. See Hansard for the statement by de Freitas on 5 June 1946.

19. PRO AIR 20/11516


6 The Campaign in Britain

1. Richard Parker, leader of the Nore mutiny, hanged from the yardarm of his ship, 1797.

2. Minutes of the ETU London Area Committee, 25 May 1946.

3. Minutes of AEU North London Area Committee, 29 May 1946.

4. Resolution moved by the general secretary. Conference papers are in the Attwood Collection.

5. Minutes of ETU London Area Committee, 29 June 1946.

6. Strachey’s written reply to a question by Pritt, Hansard, 9 May 1946.

7. Hansard, 5 May 1946.

8. PRO AIR 19/441

9. Minutes of NCCL Sub-Committee on Democratic Rights for the Armed Forces, 2 May and 15 May 1947.

10. The Young Communist League paper, Challenge.


7 Views from Above

1. PRO AIR 20/9244

2. PRO AIR 23/1986

3. PRO AIR 20/9244

4. PRO AIR 23/1986

5. PRO AIR 20/9245

6. PRO AIR 23/1986

7. PRO AIR 29/1077

8. PRO AIR 23/1986

9. The Times, 30 January 1946.

10. PRO AIR 23/1986

11. PRO AIR 23/1986

12. ibid.


8 A Job Well Done

1. R. J. Spector, Freedom for the Forces, National Council for Civil Liberties (1947?), p.14.

2. London Evening News.

3. Daily Worker, 11 October 1946.

4. Hansard, 12 October 1946.

5. London Evening News.

6. John Saville, The Labour Movement in Britain, Faber and Faber, 1988, pp. 98-9.

7. The Times, 6 March 1946.

8. Laurel programme interview.

9. D N Pritt, Brasshats and Bureaucrats, pp. 236-7.

10. Spector, op. cit., pp. 13-14.

11. D N Pritt, op. cit., p. 237.

12. Morning Star, 25 October 1997.