It was a civilised uprising that had major repercussions for the British economy; a quiet mutiny with deafening consequences.
As the impact of the Great Depression struck Britain 90 years ago, the Westminster government decided it was time to implement drastic pay cuts across the board.
These austerity measures were explosive: teachers’ salaries were to be slashed by 20%, while the police were told they faced a 12.5% reduction in their earnings.
But it was the news that serving personnel were having their wages cut by 10% that sparked fury – particularly given the bungled way the message was communicated.
It was the catalyst for the Invergordon Mutiny, an industrial action by around 1,000 sailors in the British Atlantic Fleet in the Cromarty Firth on September 15 and 16 1931.
For two days, ships were in open revolt and the Admiralty was at loggerheads, in the midst of one of the few military strikes in British history.
The action taken by the crew members sparked panic on the London Stock Exchange and led to a grievous run on the pound, bringing Britain’s economic troubles to a head and forcing it off the Gold Standard less than a week later.
Sowing the seeds of discontent
When members of the Atlantic Fleet arrived at Invergordon on the afternoon of Friday September 11, they were brusquely informed about the cuts from newspaper reports that implied a 25% cut would be imposed on all ratings.
This was widely regarded as a hammer blow to the sailors, many of whom were struggling to survive on their basic wage, and couldn’t afford any decrease at all, let alone the possibility of a quarter of their money simply disappearing.
But the following day, orders were received from the Admiralty confirming the stringent pay cuts and the seeds had been sown for an unprecedented showdown.
On the evening of September 13, by which time sailors had already started agitating, Rear Admiral Wilfred Tomkinson, who was in temporary command of the fleet while Admiral Sir Michael Hodges was in hospital, obtained a letter from the Admiralty that outlined the reasons for the reduction in pay and the principles on which it had been based. He was in an invidious position; he could see the unrest developing for himself.
Some sang the Red Flag as ‘mutiny’ spread
In a bid to halt the threat of industrial action, Tomkinson ordered the commanders of all ships present in the area to read sections of the letter to their officers and crew.
However, as rumours of insurrection spread, several vessels had still not been sent copies and some were unable to pass the information on to their companies until the next day.
By that time, the mood for a mutiny – even though the men concerned realised the gravity of their actions – had amassed an unstoppable momentum.
What worried these men was, in the simplest possible terms, the prospect of any pay cut at all.”
Author David Divine
One group of servicemen met at a football field on land, where they voted to organise a strike and left singing The Red Flag, the British Labour Party’s official anthem.
And although they eventually returned to their ships, the mood was tempestuous and many gathered on deck and continued their protests.
Tomkinson informed the Admiralty of the demonstrations, stating that the cause seemed to be the disproportionate pay cut of 25% for some ratings.
Nobody knew how it would affect morale
On Tuesday September 15, the first day of the mutiny, the Admiralty preserved so tight a hold on the dissemination of news that scarcely any information was available and, in the City of London, there was no knowledge of what was happening 500 miles north.
David Divine, the author of the book Mutiny at Invergordon, reported on how slow the authorities were to comprehend the anger simmering above and below deck.
He said: “The official press release stressed nothing that the Admiralty did not want stressed, but said the senior officer of the Atlantic Fleet has reported that the promulgation of the rates of naval pay has led to unrest among a proportion of lower ratings.
“In consequence, he deemed it desirable to suspend the programme of exercises in the Fleet and to recall ships to harbour.
Most of the men simply wanted a fair wage
“However, in the space of four days, what started as an informal meeting in the canteen at Invergordon had forced Britain and the national government off the gold standard and the value of sterling abroad had crashed by four shillings in the pound.
“The British press was blamed for much of this, the foreign (European and American) press for more. But the heart of the crisis was distressingly simple – the shaking of the unshakeable, the breaking down of the unbreakable faith in the Royal Navy.”
Yet, despite the panic in the corridors of powers, this was no grand leftist uprising or Soviet-style protest.
On the contrary, even as they clashed, there was something slightly surreal about the action with the men avoiding their officers, so as not to disobey direct orders, and the top brass turning the other cheek and trying to avoid forcing the issue.
Actions had consequences for both sides
As the mutiny stretched into its second day, it struck what one contemporary newspaper report described as “utter existential fear” into the British establishment.
The rumour even spread as far as Plymouth that the government had instructed the army to intervene and apprehend the sailors if they returned to terra firma.
Len Wincott, one of the leaders of the protests, claimed that The Black Watch had received orders to march against the men of the fleet if they landed, but had responded by telling their officers they would refuse to march against their comrades.
However, as Divine stated: “If this was true, it would have added army revolt to naval mutiny.
“It is inconceivable that any journalist, or any newspaper, in possession of a story of such staggering news value – and such immediate national urgency – could have refrained from publishing it.”
But nobody did. Even in these days, there was plenty of fake news doing the rounds.
Punishment was meted out to ‘mutineers’
On September 16, the beleaguered Tomkinson told the Admiralty he believed the mutiny would worsen unless an immediate concession was made.
He suggested junior ratings on the old wage scale should remain on that rate with a cut of ‘only’ 10%, and marriage allowances should be extended to sailors aged under 25.
He also asked members of the Admiralty board to visit Invergordon to discuss matters in person rather than relying on “old-fashioned” and “insensitive” messages from far afield.
Shortly afterwards, he was informed by the Admiralty that the matter was being considered by the cabinet, and communicated this to the fleet.
Meanwhile, the crew of Hood had ceased all but essential duties. Some sailors were threatening to damage machinery and leave ships without permission.
The sense of a dispute spiralling into something much worse had become a possibility.
In the afternoon, the Admiralty ordered the ships of the Fleet to return to their home ports immediately. And then the recriminations started in earnest.
Tomkinson was made a scapegoat
The cabinet accepted Tomkinson’s recommendation that ratings on the old rate of pay should remain on that wage scale, with a 10% cut in line with the rest of the service.
But it was made clear that further acts of insurrection would be severely punished, even as the main perpetrators of the mutiny were tracked down.
A number of the organisers of the strike were jailed, while 200 sailors were discharged from the service.
Another 200 were purged from elsewhere in the Navy, accused of attempting to incite similar incidents throughout the Atlantic Fleet.
The Admiralty held Tomkinson accountable for the mutiny, blaming him for failing to punish dissidents after the first protests.
He was traduced for being too lenient with the mutineers and placed on half pay, despite arguing that the sailors had the right to express concerns about their earnings.
But the mood hardened significantly in Whitehall after events in Invergordon.
Should the military have the right to strike?
The protests carried out by the men in the so-called mutiny prompted anguished debate about whether serving personnel should be allowed to strike.
But, as Divine wrote: “What worried these men was, in the simplest possible terms, the prospect of any pay cut at all.
“They lived at the very edge of the margin between reasonable existence and poverty. Economic calculations about the cost of living were beyond their comprehension.
“They knew the price of bread and eggs and new blankets. And they were quietly and very humanely worried about what would happen to their families and their homes.
“Yet the slow-match of grievance was lit on the Saturday morning, smouldered on the Sunday, blazed on the Monday and detonated the charge on Tuesday morning.
This was the end of military protests
There were some politically-motivated members involved in the 1931 protests.
Len Wincott, for instance, defected to the USSR in 1934 and survived the Siege of Leningrad during the Second World War, but was sent to the gulag in 1946 after being accused of being a British spy and imprisoned for more than a decade.
Another of the leaders, Fred Copeman, subsequently commanded the British Battalion of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War.
Ultimately, the majority of those who voiced their frustrations at Invergordon were more concerned about earning a living wage than battling the British establishment.
And, less than a decade later, they were fighting the blight of Nazism.