Mutiny of the Innocents

Was this the most disgraceful page in RAF history?


This is the story of a mutiny that should never have happened, a story of incredible misjudgment by a British Labour government, appalling treatment of men who should have been regarded as heroes, and failure on the part of their senior officers to do anything about it, except inflame the situation further.

Early in 1946. well after the end of the war against Japan, more than fifty thousand airmen serving in India and the Far East staged the biggest mutiny in the history of any air force. They had just cause for discontent. Many had survived two wars - in Europe and later in Asia. Most were conscripts or volunteers anxious to return home to families they hadn't seen for years. Despairing at the slowness of demobilisation, they suspected - correctly, it transpired - that they were being kept in Asia as a reserve army to prevent any nationalist uprisings.

There was more than one reason for their anger. Not only were they subjected to rigid discipline but housed in basha huts and tents with conveniences at best crude, and facilities few. Living conditions generally were grim and the food poor.

What made things so hard to endure was the neglect on the part of their superiors who had adopted what one historian has described as a champagne lifestyle, with bearers at their beck and call, mess parties and comfortable quarters.

What incensed the men even more was that they were expected to service civilian aircraft and attend parades in the intense heat of the Indian sub continent. Remember, the war had been over for several months, and they had signed on for the duration only. Appeals to the top, including Clement Attlee the new British Prime Minister, were to no avail. No-one seemed at all concerned about their fate.

There then followed a series of strikes at several RAF bases. It seemed at first that senior officers now understood the men's feelings, and promises were made which were later to be broken. Time passed and nothing was done. Such was the growing state of despair that the strikes spread.

Punishment Beneath the Sun

One Group Captain rounded up several "ringleaders" on his station and announced he would execute them by firing squad one by one until the strike was called off. Under such a threat it was stopped - immediately - and as a punishment hundreds of airmen were ordered to parade under a blazing sun wearing their winter blue uniforms. It was an agonising ordeal.

One man, an aircrew member, was later subjected to a charade of a court martial and sentenced to ten years' hard labour. The top brass wanted to make an example of someone. His name was Cymbalist. He was an outspoken Jew, with a passion for fair play and justice. The air force he had served with considerable courage, now treated him far worse than if he had been a common criminal.

In August, 1996, details of this extraordinary episode were revealed in a documentary on Channel 4 television. It was the first in a "Secret History" series and included interviews with some of the men and officers involved. It made stark viewing and one could only gasp at the sheer stupidity of officers who should have known better and politicians who put doubtful foreign policy before release of the men who had helped to win the war.

It is interesting to note what the British press made of the revelations. Lynn Truss, writing in the London Times, said:

"lan Potts's Secret History Mutiny in the RAF somehow stretched a full hour out of a minor episode in postwar India when servicemen rebelled and were court-martialled. It seems these men were cheesed off about not being sent home; they were expected to maintain colonial rule. while servicing BOAC aircraft. When they objected that they had been conscripted to fight a war (now over) they were threatened with the firing squad." End of review!

How facile! Doubtless "cheesed off" by having to endure an hour-long piece of triviality, the Times columnist dismissed it in a single paragraph. If she had been there at the time, realised the sufferings and agonies of minds and bodies, witnessed earlier bloodbaths, and seen the sacrifices made by RAF air crew, she might have reacted differently. It was something more than being "cheesed off", it was a great cry for help that was so wilfully ignored. Alas, too many of the present generation have not the slightest inkling of what happened during the war years and later.

I now turn to a review by another woman columnist, this time Christine Odone of the Daily Telegraph:

"Mutiny makes for brilliant drama, pitting duty against rights, patriotism against self-preservation, David against Goliath. Last night's documentary chronicled the revolt of 50,000 RAF servicemen stationed in South-East Asia at the end of the Second World War. With their repatriation continuously postponed, tension rose among the men in India, where temperatures hit 120 degrees in the shade, buffalo meat was served in the canteen and the officers ordered the men to service BOAC planes.

"By January 1946, when the disgruntled servicemen were told to wear their woollen uniform on their Saturday parade, you felt as outraged as they were, and your loyalties were no longer divided.

"We then heard that, far from rushing our boys back home pronto, Prime Minister Clement Attlee had devised a devious 'discreet solution': Nervous of brewing nationalist and communist movements in South-East Asia he had secretly decided to keep the RAF men there, free policemen of the Empire.

"The RAF Special Investigative Branch was dispatched to quell the unrest &emdash; or at least to put it all down to communist infiltration of the camps. The resulting interrogations, kangaroo court trials, and ruined lives were worthy of Senator Joseph McCarthy."

Thus wrote a journalist who fully realised the tragedy and brutality of it all. Brutality? When your leaders fail you, then turn on you, threaten you with execution and inflict both physical and mental punishment then that is the kind of brutality only practised by inferior beings, such as the Kempetai. These men had been fighting against tyranny in two separate theatres of war,and it made a mockery of their years of loyal, unstinting service.

The Great Divide

But there is more, much more to the Great Divide between men and officers so graphically outlined in this account. It was apparent in all services during the Second World War, but only in the Royal Air Force could it be studied at close quarters. Even during the darkest days of the war selection to the RAF was often based on social standing, schooling, and who you knew in the old boy network. Ability was not always given a high priority, and one saw this all too frequently in the gross incompetence of some officers.

The incongruity of the selection system became apparent when you were in the thick of it. A Liberator or Lancaster bomber might be piloted by a flight sergeant, with a flying officer as his second dicky, sergeant rear gunner, pilot officer wireless op., flight lieutenant navigator and sergeant front gunner. Such odd combinations did happen, especially during the slaughter of crews over Europe, when crews and squadrons had to be hurriedly reformed.

Once in the air, the flight sergeant was the captain and required instant and undivided attention on the part of each crew member. Once the mission was over, the officers became the superior beings and departed to their own mess with its stewards, bar, dining etiquette and all the concessions, comforts and freedoms of an officer's life. The sergeants, meantime, would walk to their own much more austere quarters, where they shared tiny rooms and ate the same food as the other airmen.

If you think I am about to advocate a case for a classless air force, I am not. There must always be a command structure, but it should consist of men of ability, distinction and knowledge, born leaders, people to look up to and respect. During the war some officers were not worthy of their commissions and should have been booted out, not sheltered.

There were attempts to cover up the events in India in 1946. Far from being the "minor episode" flippantly dismissed by the Times writer, it was a black page in RAF history and an example of inept, uncaring and devastatingly poor leadership for which no apology or excuse has ever been given.

John Behague, August 1996


Author's note. Posted to India towards the end of the war in Europe I experienced most of the discomforts listed earlier. The food was dreadful, and housing often little more than a leaky, bamboo basha or tent, but there was a war on and loyalty came first. Unfortunately, when the war against Japan ended, there was no improvement in living conditions. I was fortunate in earlier being transferred from India to an advanced air force base on Cocos, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, where all ranks had to muck in and share the same facilities. Morale and goodwill were high, even though repatriation was long in coming. There was some moaning, but no thought of mutiny.

After the war I returned to Asia. My social position had changed. I was now a newspaper editor and correspondent for several influential journals. No longer a penguin, I had been taught to fly. Air Vice Marshals sought my company and I wrote speeches for visiting government ministers. This was at the height of the war in Malaya when communist terrorists were threatening to take over the country. I was invited to help with the formation of the Malayan Auxiliary Air Force and was appointed Wing Commander Commandant of the Malayan Air Training Corps, with eight squadrons in Singapore.

My mentor was "Tog" Mellersh (AVM Sir Francis Mellersh), Air Officer Commanding Malaya, who helped me fight many battles against officialdom. I was given VIP status and flown in RAF aircraft on missions across the world. The last Spitfire to fly on operations against the terrorists was personally presented to me. And yet only a few years previously, I had occupied a very low position on the RAF totem pole. My selectors had not considered me worthy of anything more than a place at the bottom with the other low bred penguins, many of whom I found to be the salt of the earth. Perhaps, that was a lucky break!

In the fifties I enjoyed dining with the RAF elite on mess nights and joined in their fun and games. Many senior officers became my friends, but it did not change my views one iota. This of course was now the streamlined "peacetime" air force and most of the incompetents had long since left. I often wonder, however, what would happen if there were another war and men were urgently required to fill the gaps. Would ability now come before the old school tie and class? I have my doubts.

Postscript. It is October, 1996, and I have just had another visit by Les "Wilkie" Wilkinson, over from Canada to attend various air shows here. I have not seen him for two years but he is the same as ever, full of stories and good humour. He was a Liberator pilot with 356 Squadron on Cocos, but we did not meet until many years after the war. He went back to Cocos last year and was able to tell me what had happened to the islands over the years.

As a flight sergeant master pilot he flew with a flight sergeant second dicky, a flying officer wireless op., flight lieutenant navigator and flight sergeant gunners. Once airborne he was in charge. On the deck the flight lieutenant pulled his rank. Les told the story of when, after all their wartime experiences he and his crew arrived at a transit camp in England before being demobilised. Les said: "I was walking past the orderly room with sparks (his wireless op flying officer) and about to wish him goodbye when there was a loud cry from the direction of the orderly room - 'You! You! That man there! Come here!'" Les said he whipped round in astonishment. "Are you talking to me", he asked ? "Yes! You with the face! Come here! Immediately! Double up!" It was the camp warrant officer, and he threatened to place Les on a charge for being too familiar with a commissioned officer. When Les protested he was marched in front of the adjutant who proceeded to tear him off a tremendous strip. Later the flying officer received a similar dressing down and was told to remember his rank.

It was all bullshit, said Les, and the RAF was littered with it. We had a slogan "Bullshit Baffles Brains" and the only place you didn't see it was when you were airborne and rank and stupid rules and regulations were left behind.


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