“We won’t get anywhere like this lads. We need a chairman to see there’s one speaker at a time. Does anyone object if I do the job?”
No one did. And from that moment on Leading Aircraftman and Balham Cycling Club champion Arthur Attwood, would be forever associated with the 1946 Royal Air Force mutiny – a series of strikes over conditions and slow demobilisation that would sweep through 60 RAF stations in India and Ceylon and involve 50,000 men.
Attwood’s words brought a hush to 900 RAF personnel gathered on a football field at Drigh Road RAF station, Karachi, India. The men were there because they were unhappy with the latest orders.
They were to parade in best blue uniform, followed by kit inspection. This meant wearing a tie, putting on a heavy woollen uniform of tunic and trousers – clothing designed for warmth in the British winter. In preparation, buttons and footwear would have to be polished and trousers pressed. All particularly irksome with the war now over.
Poor conditions were also a contributing factor for the gathering. As well as insect infested bell tents for living quarters, working hours were long and the food abysmal. As Arthur states in David Duncan’s book The RAF Mutiny, “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.”
There was no privacy, even in the toilets as Arthur recounts, “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.”
The climate was adding greatly to the discomfort. One of the most common complaints was prickly heat, a result of excessive perspiration.
For many men the biggest enemy was boredom with no billiard halls, pubs, professional football matches, or dance halls to entertain them.
They were also very anxious about getting back home. From almost the beginning of peace there were rumours that the pace of demobilization for the RAF was likely to be slower than the other services. They were worried about jobs with only a minority of the men having safeguarded jobs to return to. Many men were 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, financial problems, and the impact of rationing.
Protests are planned
Arthur took charge of the meeting utilising skills honed as an active trade unionist and communist. David Duncan describes those skills in his book, ‘He could soon grasp the gist of an argument, was a good debater and, in challenging what he saw was injustice could make speeches with powerful impact.’
Born in Wandsworth in 1913, son of a postman and the former housemaid of WG Grace he trained as an electrician at night school. He was also – and the reason he’s in these pages – a member of Balham Cycling Club, winning several road and track races and time trials. He married Violet White in 1936 and was drafted into the RAF and posted to India in the latter part of WWII.
Various suggestions were put forward but unanimously; the men resolved that on the Saturday morning:
- they would not prepare any kit for inspection
- they would go to the parade ground at the scheduled time, but wearing khaki drill, not best blue, and they would refuse to parade;
- anyone who had the opportunity to talk to the commanding officer (CO) would make it clear that they had strong grievances, which they wanted to put to higher authority.
An air of tension hung over Saturday morning. The men appeared on the parade ground at the scheduled time all in khaki. The CO – in conciliatory mood – spoke to the men and agreed to the request for someone from Air Headquarters to meet with them. They were also told to return to their duties, which in affect meant no kit inspection or parade. The CO made it clear there would be no punishments from this incident. The first demands had all been met.
The next day Arthur chaired a group that prepared a 9-point-plan for the visit of Air Commodore Freebody. In an amicable meeting the only demand not met was that of no more parades but even then they wouldn’t be in best blues. Meanwhile men set about writing letters to MPs and organising a petition to Prime Minister Atlee that would eventually get 1,200 signatures.
Over time meals improved, overtime was reduced, there were no kit inspections or best blue parades, easy chairs had appeared, tents replaced, and demobilization was noticeably quicker.
The tactics initiated from Drigh Road were repeated in a rolling campaign that enveloped RAF bases in India and Ceylon.
Incitement to Mutiny
The RAF strikes came as a great shock to the establishment and there was a growing sentiment in favour of punishing the ringleaders and weeding out ‘communist agitators’.
The Special Investigation Branch (SIB) unit arrived at Drigh Road and the names that kept on coming up included Attwood’s. Arthur made only a brief appearance before the SIB, refusing to answer any questions on the grounds that the CO had forgiven any offences. At first he wasn’t detained and he proceeded to Worli, Bombay, the first step in a return to Britain and demobilsation, except he didn’t make it back to Britain and was instead summoned for a court martial.
Attwood was facing a charge of incitement to mutiny for which he pleaded not guilty. If he was found guilty the punishment could be death. The trial opened on 2nd May in Bombay. As witnesses were cross-examined Attwood’s defence counsel realised how strong the evidence was that the CO at Drigh Road had condoned any offences. He therefore sought and received the court’s permission to change Arthur’s plea to one of condonation.
The court found condonation proved and ordered Arthur’s release. Arthur suffering from dysentery went straight into hospital.
The joy was short lived. The court was reconvened with the focus on Arthur’s role as chairman of the group on that Thursday evening. A not guilty verdict and condonation were rejected. Arthur stayed in prison but returned to hospital, this time with nervous exhaustion.
Campaign in Britain and India
The appeal team put together defence but it was political action in London that would be decisive. A huge campaign in both Britain and India was instrumental in getting the government to back down.
The Electrical Trades Union and Amalgamated Engineering Union became involved, as did other Unions. The National Council of Civil Liberties also took up Attwood’s case. The MP DN Pritt tabled telling questions in the house.
On 14th June a meeting was held in the Memorial Hall, Farringdon Road, London. Petitions, deputations, resolutions, questions in the House, informal pressure by MPs and the public meeting were very embarrassing for the Government.
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 25th June.
On 3rd July 1946 the Government announced that all charges of incitement to mutiny in connection with the January events had been dropped. He was never found not guilty, received no apology and no compensation.
Back home and in better health Arthur voiced demands for a complete overhaul of court martial procedures and the rights of defendants. A Courts-Martial Appeal Tribunal, an appeal body staffed by High Court Judges was established and still operates today.
After being reunited with his family, Arthur returned to work as an electrician, including spells at a number of film studios and later on newspapers in London. Throughout he continued his involvement with the unions. He also served on the Communist Party’s Surrey District Committee for a number of years before joining the New Communist Party in 1979.
He died in 2008 aged 95.
Sources and further info
This article leans heavily on the very readable ‘Mutiny in the RAF’ by David Duncan and a 1996 Channel 4 documentary Secret History both produced with Arthur’s assistance. They are recommended for a more detailed account of what happened.