“…Shall suffer Death…” Mutiny in the Royal Navy part 1

New York Times Wednesday September 16th, 1931 

Headliner - Copy (2)

 

 

 

[pullquote]To Admiralty MOST IMMEDIATE…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.[/pullquote]

 

 

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HMS Valiant at anchor in the Cromarty Firth, Invergordon.

(photo courtesy of Invergordon Archive)

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Where Mutiny is accompanied by Violence, every Person subject to this Act who shall join therein shall suffer Death

 

 

These ominous words from Article 10 of the Naval Discipline Act of 1866 which remained  in effect until 1957. Hence, those serving in the fleet who participated in the Invergordon Mutiny theoretically put themselves in a position to suffer death. Being aware of this, the mutineers simply said they were on strike and were not in a state of mutiny. The Admiralty was careful not to use the word mutiny either. Thus a second type of mutiny came into being in an informal way which was known as “refusal of service.”

On September 15, 1931, mutiny broke out amongst the ratings aboard ships of the Royal Navy Atlantic Fleet – their main battle fleet (in World War One, 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.

Several historians of the 1931 mutiny speculate that only the personal intervention of King George V kept the situation from deteriorating completely. The Admiralty debated bringing in Royal Marines with artillery from around the UK and opening fire on their own ships. (That this was discussed was kept secret at the time and the pages on this discussion are missing from the minute book of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty).

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.

Sailors of the Royal Navy had last mutinied in 1797 at the fleet anchorages of Spithead and Nore. Because Great Britain was then at war with France, the Spithead and Nore mutinies caused the King and the Cabinet intense concern. The main grievance  was pay, the same as it would be for the Invergordon mutiny.

In the case of the Royal Navy in 1797, the amount of pay given to sailors had not changed since 1658 or 139 years. Prices of everyday items had remained stable for decades in England but as the era of the French wars began in the later 1700s, prices began to rise due to inflation. And kept rising. The men throughout the fleet suffered a dramatic loss in buying power. Because the sailors communicated during the mutiny by whistling, such action was subsequently banned in the Royal Navy.

 

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Royal Navy battleship HMS Valiant, the first ship of the Atlantic Fleet at the Invergordon anchorage whose crew refused to obey orders to put to sea for maneuvers. On September 15, 1931, the sailors who had the upcoming watch, refused to leave their hammocks. HMS Valiant was a Queen Elizabeth Class battleship commissioned February 19, 1916. Main battery: eight 15 inch guns. She was scrapped in 1948.

(Photographed in late 1939, following modernization. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

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:

[pullquote]…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.[/pullquote]
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HMS Valiant, photographed following her 1929-30 refit. She is carrying a Fairey III-F floatplane on her fantail catapult. This catapult was only carried during 1930-33.

 

Published by

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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