Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Per Ardua ad Astra

Prompted by an item from socialist historians about anniversaries coming up this year, a letter in the Morning Star today reminded us that this is also the 60th anniversary of the demobilisation movement that swept through Royal Air Force stations in south Asia ("Indian armed forces strrike another date to remember", Morning Star letters, Tuesday January 17).

The men involved, many of them conscripted workers, some students whose studies had been interrupted, had served loyally in the war. Now they were fed up of poor conditions and 'bull', and anxious to get home to jobs, families, studies and careers. Back home the workers and returning services personnel had jubilantly elected Labour to office. But while families faced rationing and housing shortages, the Labour government was intent on maintaining imperial garrisons and bases, to confront the upsurge of independence struggles, and the Soviet Union too.

Whether we call it strikes, or mutinies, the forces unrest was indeed an important event in the history both of the British working class and by its effects, of the anti-colonial struggle in Asia. It is not one on which much has been written, though there was a Secret History programme on TV a few years ago, and there is a little book by David Duncan, published by the Socialist History Society, and now available online at:


Here's some extracts, about events at Drigh Road, Karachi, in January 1946:

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.

"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".
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.

In his letter to the Star , John Merrett Bloom writes:
"In the secnd half of January, 1946, following an earlier four-day strike by some 2,000 airmen at Jodhpur, the mutiny spread to several dozen bases at Karachi, Kanpur and elsewhere, prior to moving to Singapore and Sri Lanka. All in all, some 50,000 military personnel were involved.

I've not yet seen much about the Jodhpur strike that set the ball rolling. It was reported that the authorities used Indian troops against the RAF men. But this must have been risky. As Bloom tells us:

"Hundreds of Indian troops came out in solidarity, inspiring a general strike across Mumbai in mid-February."

There was a mutiny in the Indian navy in February 1946, during which the sailors trained the four-inch guns of the warship Hindustan on the Bombay Yacht Club, before being shelled themselves by British artillery. I'd imagine events like that played some part in Britain's decision to quit India, along with the better-known civil disobediance. But perhaps we'll take a look at that next month - and it would be good to hear from people who know more about it.

"Ringleaders" like Arthur Attwood and Norris Cymbalist were thrown in the cells and faced courts martials for their part in the RAF mutiny, but a movement of solidarity in Britain agitated for their release. Arthur Attwood was a member of the Electrical Trades Union(ETU), and they were joined by the Amalgamated Engineering Union(AEU) in this campaign.

In 1993 I attended an Electrical and Plumbing Industrial Union (EPIU) conference in Manchester. A fit-looking old boy with a healthy outdoor look on his face joined our table for lunch, and someone introduced him:"You know Arthur? He's been doing a sponsored long-distance walk". (Now, let me see, it says in the book he was 31 when he was at Karachi, so... ) I forget whether his walk was coast-to-coast or the Pennine Way, for the Morning Star or the New Worker, I'm not too keen on the first, and heartily dislike the latter, but still, I was pleased to meet Arthur Attwood, and to see he made the distance.

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