Military Discipline and Working Class Resistance in World War II
This article is the first of a three part study of the Second World War which aims to illuminate the black holes left by official propaganda. It looks at the way in which the authorities sought to maintain military discipline. The second part – yet to be written – will deal with the revolts and other acts of defiance the top brass faced. The third and final section will examine why the prognostications of the revolutionary left – "preparing for power" – proved to be groundless.
The author’s research so far is contained in his book The Struggle for Hearts and Minds: Essays on the Second World War. He would be grateful to hear from anyone who can increase his knowledge, particularly in connection with military revolts.
In the First World War the high command retained the ultimate penalty. At least 254 men faced firing squads, presumably on the Voltairean principle that is would encourage the others. Yet, the opposite seems sometimes to have been true. Till his dying day, Victor Sylvester, the dance band leader, remained haunted by memories of being detailed to take part in an execution.1 When news filtered through to the Western Front that the British military authorities had begun to execute those who participated in the Dublin Easter Uprising, the fighting spirit of Irish troops immediately plummeted. It provided one of the reasons for halting the executions after only 15 of the 1,000 or so who had committed treason – taking up arms against the British crown – had paid the ultimate penalty.
Though no document outlining the new policy can be cited, in the Second World War the high command decided not to resort to executions. Instead it sought to locate potential trouble-spots, dealing with the difficulties as soon as they arose. Far better immediately give first aid to a scratch than let it develop into gangrene.
Against troublemakers, a number of weapons were used. Those whose politics would almost certainly make them centres of discord could be prevented from joining. Those who had been accepted, like Aircraftsman Frank Ward, could simply be told their "services are no longer required". He concealed neither the fact that he belonged to the Revolutionary Communist Party nor that he put forward his views whenever the opportunity arose.2
But dangers were inherent in this tactic. Many men disliked the armed forces; it could become the vogue to shout revolutionary slogans merely to secure demobilisation. Moreover, expulsion may not solve the problem, merely shunt it elsewhere. The case of Frank Maitland illustrates this point.
When he came before a Conscientious Objectors’ Tribunal at Glasgow in the summer of 1939, he proclaimed himself to be a revolutionary socialist, opposed to all capitalist-imperialist wars. Not unduly impressed, the Tribunal did not regard this as a justifiable reason for placing him on the register of COs. So he was forced into the armed forces. In the RAF, Frank, a person with very considerable talent, quickly rose to the rank of corporal, while still writing his revolutionary articles and pamphlets. The crunch came with a work he wrote to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the formation of the Red Army. Maitland praised its founder, Leon Trotsky, who had made it a powerful force for spreading socialism; he castigated Stalin for transforming it into an instrument of oppression.3 Hauled before his commanding officer, once he had admitted authorship of the pamphlet he was ordered off the camp without even being permitted to collect his personal belongings.4 However, Frank Maitland saw this not as a setback but as an opportunity. It made him free to stomp the country, employing his magnetic oratorical skills to address mass meetings, denouncing Churchill and all his works. Definitely, this outcome was not a success from the authorities’ standpoint.
The aim of the military chiefs remained to preserve discipline at the minimum cost, that is to say, with the least possible disruption. Better have infractions of discipline punished by fines or confining a man to barracks. To send him to the "glasshouse", a military detention centre, represented a double defeat for the authorities: not only did it mean he was no longer performing his military duties but also another man had to be detailed to supervise his imprisonment. On top of this, there was the expenditure of resources, both men and materials, on building and maintenance of the glasshouses, all regarded by the top brass as an unproductive use of scarce military resources.
Detention camps probably varied considerably in their interpretation of regulations. Some were comparatively lenient on their inmates. This approach contained an inherent danger: an individual might re-offend, since the punishment, for those sentenced again, was so mild. Undoubtedly, there were some servicemen who just deserted, lived off their wits or from stealing, and on recapture had another short period in a glasshouse. A BBC television programme on the Second World War, screened in 1994, interviewed a man known as Spud Murphy who fell into this category: already with a criminal record, he repeatedly deserted the army as he did not fear imprisonment to which, during his criminal life, he had grown habituated. The overstretched police force and the failure of many householders to lock their homes, especially when scurrying off to the shelters during an air raid, meant he had easy pickings, an easy life.5
A lot of other detention centres, however, seem to have had much tougher regimes, administering an earlier version of the short, sharp shock. Prisoners claim they were subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment. Behind the formal rules, a lot of camp commanders did not grieve if their staff behaved violently – indeed, they sometimes expected it. In an article entitled "Britain’s Concentration Camps", G.W. Young recounted personal experiences of the ordeal he underwent while under detention. Thrown against a brick wall, he asked his assailant why he had done that. To his surprise the answer came: "I’m a married man with kids. Do you think I like doing this sort of thing? We do what we are told."6
Deaths in detention were far from unknown. While most newspapers might not prominently report these tragedies, rumours quickly spread about military brutality and violence. In December 1941 Sydney Silverman, the MP whose private members’ bill ultimately was responsible for the abolition of capital punishment in 1965, raised in the Commons the question of the treatment of Private James Grogan, of Liverpool. Detained for being absent without leave, he was arrested and the military policemen endeavoured to handcuff him. In the ensuing struggle Grogan died, and Silverman remained unconvinced by the official explanation.7
The following month a quite serious disturbance happened at Dingle Vale glasshouse on Merseyside. For quite a time there had been tension. One reason was the practice, also applied in some other glasshouses, of discrimination against war resisters during an air raid. Other prisoners would be taken to the relative safety of the shelters; war resisters would remain locked in their cells. In the ensuing fracas a number of war resisters were injured and five faced the charge of mutiny. Prompted by a battery of parliamentary questions, an official inquiry was set up into the troubles, but Captain Margesson, the Minister of War, refused to divulge its findings to the Commons. This answer failed to satisfy John McGovern MP, who called upon the minister to prosecute the governor for his brutal and violent treatment of detainees. After this demand had been rejected, McGovern decided to conduct his own personal investigation.
The first that Colonel Greenwood, the governor of the detention centre, heard of McGovern’s arrival at Dingle Vale was when it was reported to him that a Member of Parliament had made an unauthorised entry to the establishment and was wandering around asking questions. When Colonel Greenwood went forth to confront the unwelcome intruder, he was in for an unpleasant surprise. Far from being the weak, effeminate pacifist he probably expected, John McGovern had all the aggression and venom of an untrained rotweiler dog.
Growing up and learning his politics on Clydeside’s meanest streets, he had become accustomed to making his socialist points forcibly, sometimes using a blunt instrument as an educational aid, which he applied to the craniums of his more backward pupils. Over the years, McGovern had been involved in many physical battles. On one memorable occasion, it took the sergeant-at-arms and seven assistants to eject him from the Commons. In the battle some of the chamber’s venerable woodwork was shattered. The "grave disorder", as the Speaker described it, led to the suspension of the Right Honourable Member for Shettleston as well as the sitting of the Commons itself.8
So, not surprisingly, McGovern was far from being overawed by a mere prison governor, particularly as he had already sustained war injuries. An angry and unequal confrontation did not last long: the governor soon saw the force of McGovern’s arguments. Colonel Greenwood agreed to assemble all nine war resisters in the camp. Then McGovern spoke with them privately. He made notes of their grievances, which he promised to raise in Parliament. They were told to contact him at the Commons if any further problems arose.
In the next couple of months the affairs at this glasshouse unravelled. Four noncommissioned officers were prosecuted, though only one was found guilty. As for the five prisoners charged with mutiny, the case against them was dropped.9
But, despite the exposure of the Dingle Vale scandal, brutality and death persisted in these military hellholes. Many commanding officers used the "ice box" as a form of punishment. Prisoners, denied adequate bedclothes or heating, were thrown into a small cell. Then freezing air was blown in throughout the night to heighten their agony. But sometimes they did not merely suffer – they died. In the 1940s the existence of hypothermia remained unknown to medical science. Yet one might have thought that military bird-brains would become aware, as the deaths accumulated, of the lethal effects of the ice box. It is probably indicative of the scant concern the army brasshats had for those supposedly in their care that the problem was never discerned.
But the lives of the war resisters seem to have been regarded as of little consequence. For example, when three out of four men consigned to the ice box at a Somerset detention centre were found dead the following morning, it was deemed merely a minor matter. Just like the death a few weeks later from German bombing of Albert Brown: he had been deliberately left in his cell at Walton prison, Liverpool.10 In May 1941 Desmond Bray, who refused to don an army uniform, also died in Walton jail in the same manner.11 In December 1942 Victor Walker, a 25-year-old ILPer who had been sentenced to a year’s hard labour, died because he was denied proper medical treatment. The military authorities refused to heed either the prisoner’s son or his family’s pleas as his condition deteriorated. Publicly, John McGovern denounced the authorities’ callous inaction, branding it as tantamount to murder.12
Consequently, in order to allay public disquiet, the government decided to hold an inquiry into conditions at detention centres. With Judge Oliver presiding, the three-man commission selected at random 91 of the 500 inmates who wanted to give evidence. Of these, 85 made complaints about their treatment while in detention. Forty-one alleged they had been victims of violent and inhuman abuse. The inquiry found almost all of these complaints were groundless. It praised the dedication of the staff, suggesting, for good measure, that flogging be reintroduced to further enhance standards. The Oliver report contained one misgiving – it related to the safety of the prison staff. What this meant – looked at from the rather different perspective of a former inmate – was "that these bullies dare not venture out for fear of hostile demonstrations from local inhabitants and soldiers stationed in the district, as they apparently fear that their victims will one day turn and administer their well-invited punishment".13
The writer of these lines confessed that he had told the Oliver inquiry about his own mistreatment: "I gave evidence but was not believed." The person who gave such malicious, worthless testimony was Jasper Ridley, later to become one of the country’s most distinguished historians and barristers. He described the Oliver report as "an insult to British soldiers and workmen. The evidence of British soldiers is rejected as lies or hysterical exaggeration; the indignation of British workers at ‘Gestapo-like’ treatment of their comrades is said to be unjustified".14
Reconsidering these events after more than 50 years, Jasper Ridley remains unrepentant, still harbouring the same hostility against the army authorities. In a letter, written to me on 23 July 1995, he stated: "When we first arrived in the detention barracks, the sergeant in charge told us that his aim was ’to make your life a perfect Hell so that you will take good care you never come back here’; and every soldier, and every soldier’s wife and family, knew that this was the case. I have recently seen films on TV of the prisons recently opened for hardened offenders in the USA, which some people think should be introduced here, and they remind me exactly of the military detention barracks at Langport in 1941."
Jasper Ridley continued: "Did you know that when Hitler opened concentration camps in Nazi Germany in 1933 (I am referring to the concentration camps like Dachau, not the extermination camps like Auschwitz, which were opened during the Second World War), he modelled them on the pre-Weimar army? The detention camps of the British army were run along the same lines."
No-holds-barred discipline did not always succeed. The desertion rate might rise. It could also have a destabilising effect in the army ranks as well as sometimes in the wider community. A case that occurred at roughly the same time as the Oliver report appeared illustrates this fact.
Harold Woods, a Sunderland shipyard welder, was subject to military regulations because he belonged to the Home Guard. One day, after working his regular shift from 7.30am to 5.00pm in the shipyards, he was required to do gun drill from 7.30 to 8.30pm and again from 9.00 to 9.30pm. Ordered to do a third drill, he refused to comply, claiming he felt he was going to collapse from exhaustion. His insubordination led to him being court-martialled for "using insubordinate language to a superior officer", and he was sentenced to 28 days’ detention. Shipyards along the river Wear greeted this news with anger. At mass meetings rank and file leaders pointed to Harold Woods’ frail health, the fact that he suffered from tuberculosis and had been operated upon four times. They also pointed out that it indicated the undemocratic character of the Home Guard. Notwithstanding criticism from the press, all the workers along the Wear downed tools, voting not to return to work until Harold Woods had been released. Speedily the authorities reviewed their conduct and permitted him to go home after serving only four days of the 28-day sentence.15
Imprisonment could also have wider political repercussions. In 1942 the Scottish National Party (SNP), after a rowdy, heated debate, decided to oppose the war. By a slender majority, it reached the conclusion that the conflict was being fought for the power and privileges of the English rich, not for the Scottish people. But the SNP’s resistance toughened when the party’s chairman, a kilted giant of a man named Douglas Young, was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. Historian Angus Calder suggests "he began to attain the status of a martyr".16
His imprisonment provided the Scots Nats with a focus around which to launch a national campaign. As well as calling for his release, the SNP drew attention to the authorities’ persecution of Nationalists. Once he was out of prison, an unrepentant Douglas Young told the press: "Tell your readers, if they want to know what it is like in prison, they had better stand up for Scottish liberties and they will soon find out." Despite the imprisonment of its members, both civilians and those in the armed forces, the SNP experienced a great accretion of support. In February 1944 Douglas Young stood at the Kirkcaldy by-election and, with his anti-war message of Scottish socialism, secured 41% of the vote. A year later, the SNP’s secretary, Dr Robert McIntyre, also a strong socialist, fought Motherwell. Though the constituency usually had a rock-solid Labour majority, and on this occasion the Labour Party enjoyed both Tory and Liberal backing, Labour still lost the seat. Far from cowing the Nationalists, official persecution helped to strengthen the SNP, hardening the members and increasing its popular support.17
1. The Guardian, 6 March 1988.
2. Socialist Appeal, Mid-August 1944.
3. Frank Maitland, The Red Army, Tate Memorial Publications, 1943.
4. Letter from Frank Maitland, now living in Hastings, 23 May 1987. His other pamphlets were The Revolution in India and The North African Tangle.
5. Steve Humphries and Pamela Gordon, Forbidden Britain, 1994, pp.41-50.
6. New Leader, 10 July 1943.
7. Ibid, 6 February 1941. Emrys Hughes’ biography, Sydney Silverman: Rebel in Parliament, 1969, details Silverman’s harsh treatment as a war resister from February 1917 onwards, but it fails to mention what a close personal friend of his, Bill Braddock, told me: he was threatened with being sent to the Western Front where disobeying military orders would render him liable to execution. Surely this throws a significant fresh angle on his opposition to capital punishment – he could himself easily have been a victim.
8. John McGovern, Neither Fear Nor Favour, 1960, pp.71-2.
9. New Leader, 1, 8, 22 March and 12, 24 April 1941. Also, "The Strange Occurrences at Dingle Vale", by A. Joseph Brayshaw, in Denis Hayes, The Challenge of Conscience, 1949, pp.91-100.
10. New Leader, 15 May 1941.
11. Ibid, 24 May 1941.
12. Ibid, 21 December 1942.
13. Socialist Appeal, December 1943.
15. Sunderland Echo, 4 and 6 November 1943.
16. Angus Calder, The Myth of the Blitz, 1991, pp.72-3. According to historian James D. Young, Dr McIntyre has one of the best collections of Trotskyist literature he has ever seen.
17. It may be that it was misgivings at losing the seat that prompted the Churchill coalition government never to declare a by-election in the Midlothian and Peebleshire constituency. Captain A.H.M. Ramsay, the elected MP, spent the war sitting in Brixton prison, not the House of Commons. So, in a war supposedly fought for democracy, the hapless electors of that constituency found themselves without a democratically elected representative.