Image showing newspaper report of the mutiny

The Invergordon Mutiny – thoughts on its past treatment

I would like to offer some observations on the treatment (or lack of it) of the naval mutiny at Invergordon in Chapter 5, Comintern Work in the Western Armed Forces in the 1930s (Revolutionary History, Volume 8, no. 2). This chapter uses Invergordon as a peg on which to introduce the Comintern programme, but its two short paragraphs that deal with the mutiny contain two important errors that are likely to mislead the unsuspecting. You state that the mutiny was ‘led by a Communist’, and you then quote the Balham Group in saying that the men of the Atlantic Fleet ‘took over the ships’. Neither point is true.

Len Wincott, who has often been described as ‘the leader’ at Invergordon, was not a Communist until some months after his discharge from the Navy following the mutiny. The Communist Party had no involvement in, or influence on, the events at Invergordon. And though it is true that Wincott was prominent among the men refusing duty on his ship HMS Norfolk, this was not one of the leading ships in the mutiny, and it only played a supporting rôle. It is equally misleading to say that the men ‘took over’ the ships, which implies a more far-reaching challenge to authority than was attempted or achieved. What they did on the four main battleships, Warspite, Rodney, Nelson and Malaya, was to refuse to put to sea for exercises. It meant refusing to weigh anchor or raise steam. Having stopped the ships from sailing, they had achieved their basic objective, and waited for the Admiralty to respond. Ratings on some ships then went back to work, content to perform harbour duties. On more troublesome ships where men worked fitfully, or not at all, they mostly tried to avoid being given a direct, individual command by an officer. But the majority behaved respectfully, and in no case did they attempt to take over the running of the ship. In some cases, the more astute captains finessed the impact of the strike by ordering a ‘make and mend’, in other words free time.

Understood in this way, the mutiny was less of a frontal challenge to the naval power structure than your brief passage might suggest. It was, in fact, a curious blend of defiance and respectfulness. This was reflected in what one rating told his divisional officer when the order to return to home ports was given and the mutiny began to crumble. He told the officer: ‘We’re not sailing unless the other ships sail. So could you please tell us whether they intend to sail.’ Invergordon ought to be of considerable interest to labour historians, but the sailors’ action happens to fit in better with a reformist than a revolutionary interpretation.

Tony discussing the 'mutiny' on BBC - video

"The 'mutiny' was better characterised as a down-tools protest"

We can settle the question of Wincott’s leadership in short order. His fame rests on the fact that, after leaving the Navy and being recruited into International Labour Defence, the Communist Party put his name to their pamphlet The Spirit of Invergordon, which began the Wincott myth. Claiming that he was ‘the leader’ of the mutiny, the party paraded him at meetings around the country as part of a recruiting drive. Their account claimed that Wincott had organised two meetings ashore in Invergordon where he had called for a strike, established a committee of representatives from the different ships, and wrote a manifesto that was served on the officers and became a rallying document for the mutineers. Subsequent accounts built on this, and soon there was a legend of Invergordon, including stories that the mutiny had been coordinated through a system of coded, illicit signals and that the radicalism of the ratings was reflected in their singing The Red Flag.

In his 1974 memoir, Invergordon Mutineer, Wincott himself dismissed many of these claims and any suggestion that the Communist Party was involved. But he still maintained a residual claim to overall leadership. Unfortunately, the facts do not bear this out. It is very hard to sustain the argument that boozy gatherings in the naval canteen on the two days preceding the mutiny amounted to much at all, let alone being serious deliberative meetings. The real decisions were being taken on board ship. It is also quite clear that the flowery, but otherwise rather vacuous, manifesto that was prepared on the Norfolk (whether by Wincott alone, as he claims, or in collaboration with a larger group, as people like Fred Copeman assert) was only drafted after the mutiny had started on the other ships, that it received little attention from Norfolk officers and was not seen or heard of elsewhere in the fleet until after the mutiny ended. It only got wide publicity when the Daily Herald carried the text the day following the end of the mutiny. And, significantly, the Daily Worker only got hold of it later still. Nor is the preparation of the manifesto to be understood as an act of defiance. A junior officer on the Norfolk suggested that the men put something down in writing, and loaned them his own typewriter for the purpose.

Photo of a rating at disciplinary hearing
Defaulter standing before the Master at Arms

The whole point about the leadership of the mutiny at Invergordon is that each ship was largely self-contained, and scope for central direction was virtually nil. But since the steps necessary to stop the ships sailing were quite obvious and simple, and since there was widespread agreement among men that this was the only way to dramatise their opposition to pay cuts, it did not require the elaborate paraphernalia of a representative committee issuing instructions through coded signals. It was a relatively spontaneous, loosely organised affair in which a predominantly conservative body of men showed their ability to take effective action with the specific objective of minimising, not stopping, proposed pay cuts. It was none the less radical for that.

If we set aside the notion that the mutiny was organised by a Communist leadership, it is possible to see it in a wider historical context that is, I suggest, more credible and, indeed, more interesting. A starting point is that the lower deck did not comprise a mass of dumb Jack Tars waiting to be led by the nose. From the turn of the century, through their death benefit societies (quasi trade unions) and their independent press (most notably the monthlies, The Bluejacket and The Fleet), they had developed a very effective campaigning movement for reform. In the first 20 years of the century, this was responsible for great improvements in lower-deck conditions which belatedly dragged the Navy into the twentieth century. On the way, there were a number of mutinies and many more collective acts of insubordination (documented in my book The Lower Deck of the Royal Navy 1900–39: The Invergordon Mutiny in Perspective). This campaigning reached a high point in 1919 when, amidst growing fears of a general breakdown in discipline, the long-standing grievance over pay was resolved, with an AB’s pay more than doubled to four shillings a day. It was a massive victory for the lower-deck movement.

Yet by 1923, with economic recession and demands for public sector cuts, this rate of pay was under threat. In the home ports, this became a major issue in the 1923 general election, and MPs for the naval constituencies threatened to raise hell if there was any tampering with the 1919 rates. In the face of this, Tory and Labour spokesmen gave guarantees that these rates were sacrosanct. In fact, they were subsequently abrogated in 1925 when lower rates were introduced for newly-recruited sailors. But for those already serving, the men who had fought for and won the increases in 1919, the promise was kept.

It was precisely this promise that the National Government had now broken when it cut the 1919 rates by 25 per cent. For anyone who knew the recent history of lower-deck pay, an eruption was now very much on the cards. For a month before the mutiny, the possibility of pay cuts had been the main topic of lower-deck conversation. A few weeks before the mutiny, a letter from a rating in the Mediterranean Fleet had appeared in The Fleet. It spoke of:

… a bigger problem … confronting the lower deck … than ever occurred in 1919 … We all realise that such a recommendation [a 25 per cent cut] … may not be adopted, but we all rather fear it might. We all sincerely hope that the many solemn promises that Parliament made us in 1925 will not be broken … this matter is exercising the minds and discussions of the lower deck to the almost total exclusion of anything else … Will we get the opportunity to resist … I for one doubt it … in the meantime we are all asking. What is going to happen – If?

The point was that there was a clear awareness of recent history, especially among the older ratings, who recognised that it was going to be ‘up to the Fleet’ as in 1919. In this situation, age counted. It was the older ratings (often married men) who would most feel the pinch. And these were the very men who knew from first hand how the 1919 rates had been achieved. In 1931, Len Wincott was 24, having only joined the Navy in the early 1920s. However, the average age of the men listed by the Admiralty as troublemakers at Invergordon was 28. Of the 120 men weeded out and sent in to barracks afterwards, 42 had seen service in the First World War, and nine had been on the lower deck since before 1914.

These ratings knew what to do, and some jumped the gun. The day before the mutiny proper, ratings on the Rodney were already refusing duty. At the same time, a hundred or so miles to the south at Rosyth, sailors took protest action. They were in no need of leadership, by Wincott or any other rating outside their own ship. As soon as ratings learned about the pay cuts (mostly from the press rather than from the Admiralty Fleet Orders that should have been announced to them), the mutiny was ‘on’. All that the men needed to know to finalise their plans were the details of the sailing times for the fleet: that was when the action would begin in earnest. A detailed examination of how the mutiny was conducted on the various ships is contained in my article The Invergordon Mutiny, 1931: Long-term Causes, Organisation and Leadership, International Review of Social History, Volume 23, no. 2, 1979.

As indicated above, it was only in the weeks and months following Invergordon that Wincott’s alleged leadership began to be promoted as the Communist Party laid claim to the mutiny. The party’s identification with it intensified when two prominent Communists, Shepherd and Allison, were arrested on trumped-up charges of inciting ratings to further mutiny and given stiff prison sentences. Comintern attempts to capitalise on this by means of Communist recruiting drives among sailors in the naval towns of Portsmouth, Chatham and Plymouth were now stepped up, but to no avail. As John Gibbons, the party’s organiser for Portsmouth and the South Coast between 1931 and 1935 subsequently admitted, in that period he never managed to recruit a single matelot (Gibbons to Carew, 16 August 1976).

One final observation: your list of references for further reading on Invergordon on page 166 includes some recent items of journalism containing no original research while, omitting several important sources that would-be researchers should know about. Fred Copeman’s Reason in Revolt, Blandford Press, 1948, is a first-hand account of the mutiny by one whose rôle was at least as significant as Wincott’s. Harry Pursey’s Invergordon, First Hand – Last Word?, Naval Review, April 1976, is a thorough record based on contemporary notes and supplemented by meticulous archival research by a ranker officer who was present at Invergordon. Stephen Roskill’s Naval Policy Between the Wars, Volume 2, 1976, contains a detailed and authoritative chapter on Invergordon by the Royal Navy’s official historian. Lt Cdr J.H. Owen’s Mutiny in the Royal Navy, 1932, was commissioned by the Admiralty and lodged there for ‘official use only’. And apart from the Henderson Papers at Churchill College, the most extensive official Invergordon collection, including the logs and ship reports of the various captains, is contained in the papers of Admiral Sir John Kelly at the National Maritime Museum. Revolutionary History, vol 8 no. 3