Invergordon Mutiny of the Royal Navy – Part 12

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HMS Rodney in Malta, 1943. During the Invergordon Mutiny, HMS Rodney hardly proved a bulwark against mischief. Most of the crew refused to follow orders.

HMS Rodney was the second of only two Nelson class battleships. Both ships were commissioned in the late 1920s. Speed was sacrificed for heavy armour and massive naval guns. These are the only battleships ever built by the Royal Navy to carry sixteen inch guns. To comply with the restrictions of the Washington Naval Limitation Treaty of 1922, the ships were built to an unusual design.

Loading a sixteen inch armour piercing shell aboard HMS Rodney during World War Two.

All three turrets of the main battery were placed forward of the bridge, which made the stern look as if it had been chopped off. The strange look of the two Nelson class battleships is hard to capture in a photo since the third turret from the bow is lower than the other two which meant it could not fire straight ahead.

The following photographs of a model of HMS Nelson made by Rémy Vitchenian will give you a very good idea of how very unusual these ships looked.

Model of HMS Nelson by Rémy Vitchenian.

These ships were ugly but effective. Nonetheless, without a well-trained crew a ship was nothing but a hunk of steel. The well trained crews of RN ships were men sorely tried by pay cuts. Of the sailors with families, most had the Royal Navy send their wives six days pay of every seven days. Even so, in some cases this amount barely sufficed for rent and food. Since the pay cuts were to go into effect less then three weeks after the Fleet received the order, this hardly gave any of the ratings time to make different arrangements for their families, nor could they telephone them since telephones were a luxury far out of reach of the average person in England even had there been phone lines available in out of the way ports such as Invergordon, which there were not.

In one of the most famous photographs taken in 20th Century in England, class differences in Great Britain are illustrated in a striking way. This famous photograph was taken in 1937 outside of the Lord’s cricket grounds in London. The well dressed boys are students at the elite Harrow school and their team has just played the cricket team from the even more elite, Eton. The photograph of the five boys came to illustrate the class divide in Great Britain and was published throughout the world.

Great Britain at the time was a society deeply divided against itself. On one side, an angry working class who had suffered so much in World War One and received so little; while the insidious class system of Great Britain continued to limit their opportunities for work and a good education. Income inequality was vast, the wealth-divide of the time being a constant source of friction.

In a famous photograph by Bert Hardy, who documented the poverty of the English working class, a group of boys from the deprived Gorbals district of Glasgow play among the gravestones of the Corporation Burial Ground in 1948.

Unions had grown stronger and conducted bitter disputes and strikes against employers who refused to grant any wage or hour concessions. These same employers had lost their edge in foreign markets by not re-investing in their businesses or utilizing new technologies being used by manufacturers in the US and the European Continent.

In the early 1900s, to protect manufacturers and other businesses, successive British governments both implemented, repealed and implemented again the Imperial Preference tariff system. This was designed to encourage trade within the Empire and to make goods manufactured outside of the Empire more expensive. Consumers were urged to buy “all Empire”. This system did not work very well especially due to intense pressure by the United States for it to be revoked. We finally got our way toward the end of World War Two.

This photograph shows the poor in Covent Garden, London in April 1929, a few months before the Wall Street crash.

The Royal Navy had ossified after World War One and whatever progress had been made toward making the navy less class conscious and more a meritocracy, had fallen by the wayside. Of even a more destructive nature, was the continued negative attitude by many traditional and upper class sea going officers toward officers who specialized in the highly technical fields of radio, radar, electricity, advanced engine turbine technology, asdic, et al. These officers were not quite considered to be gentlemen. A note on asdic – asdic, as the Royal Navy termed sonar, is not an acronym for “Anti-Submarine Detection Investigation Committee” as often mentioned in World War Two histories. No footnotes ever trace back to original documents. No records referencing this committee exist in British Admiralty archives. In the dozens and dozens of memoirs by Royal Navy officers and ratings I have read, not one of the authors ever capitalizes “asdic” although it is often seen in caps in US histories as ASDIC.

A Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve officer (referred to as “the wavy navy” because of the stripes on their uniforms) and operator process data from a Type 123A asdic.

During the Invergordon Mutiny, foolish officers, of which there were many in the Royal Navy, said things laughably stupid things to their men. According to The Invergordon Mutiny by Alan Ereira, the Captain of HMS Valient summoned his crew to the quarterdeck, told them his pay was being cut as well and if they could not manage their money, they should send their wives out to work.

The sailors shouted him off the deck. The Captain obviously did not realize that unemployment in Great Britain was already high. There were very few jobs to be had even if that were an option for a woman with small children.

British working class men circa 1930s. These were the fortunate. They had work. Beginning in the 1920s, unemployment was high in Great Britain, pay was low and the economy suffered greatly from underinvestment. Worse was the mishandling of the large national debt accrued in World War One and the insistence on “hard money” and returning to the gold standard.

Heavy cruiser HMS York. The main battery was comprised of three turrets with two 8 inch guns in each turret. Only two cruisers of the York class were built with second being HMS Exeter.

Captain Custance of the cruiser HMS York assembled his men and said substantially the same thing but the men found his words deeply insulting. After reading the relevant portions of the Admiralty letter informing the men of the pay cut, the Captain said, “I’m sorry about this but if you find you can’t manage your wife can be asked to take in washing to augment your pay.”

“You fat bastard,” one of the hundreds of sailors yelled, “how would you like your old woman to crash out the dirties?”

British sailors on shore-leave in a street on May 8, 1944. The civilian population of Gibraltar was evacuated to Britain, Jamaica, and Madeira in order for Gibraltar to be fortified against the possibility of attack.

[Source: The Guardian and The Invergordon Mutiny by Alan Ereira. Images courtesy of the Australian War Memorial Website, Kbismarck Naval History Forums, Fine Waterline Website, Fine Waterline Website, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, the British Library, Legion Magazine, Roy Bainton’s Blog, the Imperial War Museum Website, and the World War Two Archives Website.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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