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Across the Navy junior officers and men organised as ‘Revolutionary Commissions’ were challenging the exiled Navy chiefs, calling on them to join the fight with ELAS. Fleet Rear Admiral Alexandres surprised his own command by issuing an order that endorsed the rebels and became a general call to rebellion. Alexandres announced ‘the unanimous wish of everyone in our Navy, from the Commander and the ship commanders to the last sailor, that our Government here cooperate effectively with’ the ‘resistance organizations fighting against the conqueror …with the objective of joining forces for the continuation of our fight to free our Home Land.’ Ships of the exiled Greek Navy were harboured at Alexandria and on 4 April 1944 five crews mutinied. The destroyers Ierax and the Criti, the corvettes Sachtouris and Apostolis, the floating repair shop Hyphaistos, and in Port Said the submarine Papanicolis and the battleship Averof, all joined the mutiny. The mutiny spread to Malta, where three submarines, the submarine escort the Corinthia and the destroyers Spetses and Navarinon joined. Venizelos of the government in exile was told by Admiral Cunningham that he would lose his seat at the coming negotiations over Greece’s future if he did not act, so he appointed Rear-Admiral Petros Voulgaris ‘with the mission to crush the mutiny’.68 Two brigades of the exile Greek army, the First and the Fourth – veterans of the battle of El Alamein – joined the mutiny.
We will keep our weapons: they are for the purpose of freeing our country. They were crowned in glory in Albania and Macedonia, in Crete and at El Alamein, and we will not relinquish them.69 The Greek Fourth Brigade was surrounded by British tanks at Kassassin and disarmed.
Another group were seized at Heliopolis. Some 280 Greek soldiers were held in an internment camp. On the 11 April 4,500 men of the First Brigade were surrounded by the
Ghurkhas of the British-Indian Army. On the 14 April Churchill cabled to his Generals:
‘before resorting to arms, the absence of food must certainly be allowed to take its effect in the camp and in the port.’ The men were interned ‘under the sky’ – a euphemism for without food or water. On 23 April a joint British and Greek Government in Exile assault on the ships at Alexandria and Port Said left 12 dead and 30 wounded.70 The Greek community in Egypt held big demonstrations against the British internment policy in Cairo and Alexandria. The British responded by rounding up Greek trade union leaders, and disarming another Greek unit stationed in Cairo. The Greek mutineers were supported by Henri Curiel’s Egyptian National Liberation Movement, by British Sergeant Sam Bardwell and an American sergeant Al Kuchler. Curiel and Bardwell helped to supply the starving Greek prisoners – at one point setting up a water pipe into the camps. The Greeks’ sympathisers in Cairo helped to shelter escapees – of which there were many. The Manchester Guardian drew attention to what it saw as the danger that the ‘Forces Parliament’ would ‘have a most mischievous effect’ if it led to the war effort being ‘weakened by mutinies’.71 Tens of thousands of Greek soldiers and sailors were held in British concentration camps in Libya and Abyssinia until after the war had ended.
Mutiny in the Eighth Army
One group of British troops of the Eighth Army, mostly of the Argyll Highlanders and Durham Light Infantry numbering around 1,500 were gathered in 155 Reinforcement and Transit Camp, outside Tripoli. Told that they were to be returned to their units, they were sent instead to Salerno, to fight with the Fifth Army in the invasion of Italy. Carried over in boats they were told that the landing was in difficulty and they were needed – when in fact the Salerno landing had, after some trouble, been successful. Not really needed, the men were left in another camp in Salerno, until they were told that they would be sent up the line to join the Fifth Army, and not returned to their units.
The men refused. They did not want to be separated from their comrades, the men they had fought with across North Africa. They were accused of Mutiny. Still they ignored the orders to move. After some days, they were warned again that they would face mutiny charges. This time, most of the men were persuaded to take orders. One hundred and ninety two of them refused. They were held behind barbed wire, before being taken back over the Mediterranean to face a secret Court Martial in the Tunisian town of Constantine. The three Sergeants amongst them were sentenced to death, the rest to seven years penal servitude.
Later the sentences were reduced and most of the men allowed to fight in Italy – though they were stripped of all the medals they earned in the North Africa war, isolated from other soldiers, and used as ‘cannon fodder’. Looking back, assistant prosecutor Lionel Daiches blamed the ‘Montgomery Cult’ – their loyalty to their commander, and to each other – for their
insubordination. Archie Newmarch wrote to his parents from Wormwood Scrubs Prison:
The British Army is built on pride, but where did it get me and the other 192 men:
seven years of the best. Wasn’t we proud of our units, our division, wasn’t we proud of the men we fought with and where we fought and what we fought for: liberty, freedom, peace? If that is what they call pride, liberty, peace, then God help England.72 British troops in North Africa would organise strikes, Soldiers Councils and mutinies again at the end of the war, eager to get away from military rule and back to their civilian lives. Albert Meltzer, Duncan Hallas, Mick O Callaghan and ‘Ginger’ Foran took part in the strikes in Cairo.
Mutiny on the Cocos Islands
On 8 May 1942 men of the Ceylon Garrison Artillery on Horsburgh Island, part of the Cocos group in the Indian Ocean tried to seize hold of the island and signal the Japanese High Command to agree a surrender. The men were under the command of the English Captain George Gardiner and his Eurasian lieutenant Stephens. The leader of the mutiny, Gratien Fernando, was influenced by the radical left wing Lanka Sama Samaja Party, though he was not a member. Gardiner and Stephens abused the Ceylon Light Infantrymen under their command. Bombardier Fernando took issue with the way that ‘the early British administration of Ceylon had changed the property laws so as to deny land title to Sinhalese and allow British settlers to flock into the country and grab land for planting’. His complaints were aimed at Lieutenant Stephens ‘had benefited greatly by this theft’.73 More than half the 56 men supported Fernando’s plan to seize the island. In the court martial that followed Gunner R S Hamilton explained Fernando’s motives: ‘he was anti-British’. Hamilton said that Fernando wanted all the staff of Cable and Wireless on nearby Direction Island killed ‘and then send a message to the Japs asking them to come and destroy this place’.74 The men that took part in the attack were surprised and overwhelmed. On 4 August 1942 Fernando, Gunner Benny de Silva and Gunner Carlo Gander were executed in Welikada Prison for their part in the Cocos Islands Mutiny. Eight others, including state’s witness Hamilton were sentenced to years of hard labour. Fernando’s last words were ‘Loyalty to a country under the heel of a white man is disloyalty’.75
The Port Chicago Mutiny
On the Sacramento River just before its entry into San Francisco Bay is Port Chicago, where the navy loaded ammunition onto boats headed for the Pacific. The loading was done by Navy men who were all black, while their officers were all white. Captain Nelson Goss said that the men ‘insisted they had volunteered for combat duty and did definitely resent being assigned what they called laborer’s work’. It was a common enough complaint, nearly all the 150 000 black seamen in the Navy did mess duty or were in labor battalions.
Cynicism about the war set in. ‘If the Japanese and the Americans got in trouble over in Okinawa or Iwo Jima or somewhere we knew about it, but we weren’t concerned’, one man said: ‘I had no brothers over there; I had no close friends over there.’ 76 Senior officers set their juniors in competition to fill the holds, but the men complained that it was not safe. No safety regulations were posted because Captain Kinne did not believe black men would understand them. The Coast Guard was supposed to watch munitions being loaded, but they objected to the rolling and dropping of bombs, so the Navy got rid of the Coast Guard. At 9.30 pm 17 July 1944 men were loading 1000 bombs into hold no 3 of the ship E. A. Bryan, and 650-pound incendiary bombs into hold no 1 – with some difficulty as they were wedged tight in the boxcar. At 10.19 pm an explosion with a blast equivalent to five tons of TNT – similar in impact to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima – exploded, tearing the base apart. Three hundred and twenty men were killed outright, and another 390 civilians and enlisted men were injured. Around two thirds were black. An enquiry failed to blame the Navy for avoiding safety precautions, or spurring the junior officers to race against each other’s teams, but instead concluded that ‘coloured enlisted personnel are neither temperamentally nor intellectually capable of handling high explosives’.77 On 31 July men from the fourth and eight divisions at Port Chicago were marched towards the loading bays, having been refused the customary 30 day survivors’ leave. One
I just said: No, I ain’t going back on that damn thing. Why don’t you get some whiteys to put them down there. I said, hell, I’m a gunneryman. They taught me how to fire guns;
I’m supposed to be on a ship. Now they’ve got me working as a stevedore. And I’m not getting stevedore’s pay.78 Ordered onto the pier, the men, led by Joe Small, refused, and 258 were imprisoned straight away tight in the hold of an airless barge while the officers worked out what to do.
After three days the men were asked who wanted to obey orders. Fifty stood their ground and were charged with mutiny. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sent Thurgood Marshall to defend the men. On 24 October all fifty of the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to fifteen years in jail. The other 208 were given a bad conduct discharge and fined 3 month’s pay.
The NAACP’s campaign caused a lot of embarrassment, and even Eleanor Roosevelt pointed out the wrongness of the sentences. Desegregation of the Navy followed quickly on, and officers were given instructions, in the Guide to the Command of Negro Personnel (1945) not to call sailors ‘nigger’, ‘boy’, ‘darkie’ or ‘coon’. After the war, the sentences were reduced and the men released, though their records still carried the mutiny charge.
Discipline in the German army was strict, and backed up by the political officers of the SS. Still there were moments when German troops resisted the orders they were given. On 16 August 1943, German troops of the 1st Gebirgs (Mountain) Division took part in the massacre of villagers at the Greek village of Komeno. Though they obeyed order, afterwards many registered their opposition to the massacre: ‘most of the soldiers did not agree with this action… Many said openly that it was nothing but a disgrace to shoot unarmed civilians. … The argument was so heated that I might almost speak of a mutiny’.79 Wehrmacht officers reacted against atrocities committed by the special Einsatzgruppen against Jews in the east, and also against the slaughters carried out by Croatian and Romanian allies. These misgivings, though, were not so great that any counter action was taken.
There were though some German troops who did more to challenge the Nazis. German left-wingers organised underground groups in the Wehrmacht. A Communist cell working the army on the eastern front issued ‘Front Letter No 3’, that asked ‘Comrades, who is not up to his neck in shit here in the Eastern Front?’ The leaflet explained that ‘it is a criminal war unleashed by Hitler and it is leading Germany to hell’.80 The German Communist Party had a special section, Travail Allemand that agitated among soldiers based in France, printing the paper Soldat im Wesen (Soldier in the West). Groups were set up in the Navy Ministry, the Ste Germain-en-laye barracks to the west of Paris and in the Bordeaux submarine base.
The group had some success getting Wehrmacht soldiers to avoid being sent to the eastern front by deserting to join the French Resistance ‘Maquis’ groups. Artur London, a Czech, led the group till he was seized and taken to Mauthausen concentration camp (London survived the war, only to be jailed again as a ‘Trotskyite-Titoite-Zionist’ by the Stalinist regime in Czechoslovakia during the Slánský trial of 1952). Still Travail Allemand carried on under Otto Nibergall.81 Another group of leftists led by the German Trotskyist Martin Monat put out a bulletin called Arbeiter und Soldat (Worker and Soldier). They managed to organise a group of German soldiers and sailors in Brest – 27 of whom were arrested in October 1943. Ten were shot, along with their leader 22 year-old Robert Cruau.82 Robert Cruau As a Marxist, Wolfgang Abendroth, a member of the breakaway ‘Opposition’ Communist Party, was jailed in 1937. But during the war he was dragooned into the Punishment Battalion 999 with other political subversives and common criminals. Sent to fight in the Balkans, Abendroth made links with both the Tito guerrillas and then later the Greek ELASEAM resistance movement, which he eventually joined, fighting against Germany. In North Africa, Abendroth was put in a second concentration camp, this time with the Greek Resistance fighters who mutinied against the Allies.