On September 15, 1931, mutiny broke out amongst the ratings aboard ships of the Royal Navy Atlantic Fleet – their main battle fleet (in WW1 times, this was known as the “Grand Fleet”). One can scarcely believe sailors on storied warships such as HMS Hood, HMS Nelson, HMS Valiant, HMS Rodney, and others refused orders to put to sea and yet, they did. The event caused panic at the highest levels of the British government and a bitter division in Parliament.
Many speculate only the personal intervention of King George V kept the situation from deteriorating completely. The cause of the mutiny – a dramatic cut in the wages of lower deck ratings, that is, those sailors below the rank of Petty Officer. The lower deck comprised a majority of a ship’s crew.
From a confidential report to Their Lordships of the Admiralty by Rear Admiral Tomkinson, who served as acting C-in-C Atlantic Fleet during the mutiny, since the Admiral in permanent command had taken ill and been sent to hospital ashore:
…At 08.47 VALIANT… reported that there were only sufficient hands to keep steam for slow speed, and that she could not proceed at present.
The serving of the rum ration was accompanied by much ceremony and the rum was served from a cask with brass letters reading “The King God Bless Him” (changed when there was a Queen). This was done so the men would understand the rum ration was a gift from the Crown. Furthermore, the men had their own tin cups for the rum and rarely drank it all down at once. Those who didn’t drink either traded their rum ration for cigarettes and other items or didn’t take it and had the cost added to their pay. Royal Navy officers I have interviewed have told me that the rum ration caused endless problems because it was so strong that many of the men became inebriated and committed breaches of discipline.
Nonetheless, a combination of heavy rum aboard and beer ashore, combined with their unexpected cuts in pay, did not create a harmonious situation. HMS Valiant was already an unhappy ship with a brand new crew and an uninspiring and distant Captain and equally uninspiring Commander with both men lacking what the US military terms “command presence.”
On Royal Navy battleships, battlecruisers, and aircraft carriers, the office of Commander wasn’t necessarily his rank, the office was a combination of First Lieutenant and second-in-command. In the US Navy this person is known as the Executive Officer. The Commander was in charge of the day to day of the ship and was the most senior officer seen by the crew.
HMS Valiant had “paid off” in 1929, that is, she returned from her commission and all the officers and crew then left the ship. Commissions would last as long as three years and during that time, on a foreign station and not based in the Great Britain, no one aboard saw their families or loved ones, except for officers who had enough money to rent a home for their family in the port they were assigned to.
[Source:The New York Times. Images courtesy of The Invergordon Archive, The Naval Historical Center, and The Center for International Maritime Security.]