Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Review by J. J. (Joe Jacobs), Solidarity: for Workers’ Power, vol. 7, no. 12, November 1974, pp.19-20, posted here to mark the 80th anniversary this September of the Invergordon Mutiny* – a small-scale, short-lived episode but extensive in its effects, and one with significance for libertarians. A few notes have been added for clarification or updating.

* (More on this story later).

Invergordon Mutineer by Len Wincott (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974).

I got to know Len Wincott soon after the mutiny, and saw him off when he went to the Soviet Union in 1934. I was pleased to be among those who met him again during his recent visit to Britain to promote his book.

From the very beginning of his visit Len made it clear to all concerned that he was not here to talk about his experiences in Russia over the last 40 years. A circular handed out by his publishers stated:
‘During the Second World War he served in the Red Army, but later was arrested as a “British spy” and spent 11 years in a labour camp in the Northern Urals. In 1957 he was released and cleared of all charges when the gates of the labour camps opened after Khrushchev’s denouncement of Stalin’.
Len Wincott, now aged 67, lives in Moscow with his fourth wife Lena whom he married in 1965. He decided to return to the Soviet Union because (as he explained to the assembled newsmen at a press
For more on the Daily Herald reports, see later post*
conference) he had no intention of trying to start a new life at his age, in his very bad state of health, when his wife had all her friends and relations in Russia where they were quite comfortable, with access to good medical and other facilities. This meant he could not talk about those things which the press would have dearly loved to report. If he wanted to go back it meant they would be deprived of their stories and, incidentally, so would we. That he was unable to tell us about the Soviet Union says a great deal about the state of affairs existing in Russia today. His silence made a very loud noise!

Len Wincott’s book is a forthright statement of the facts of the mutiny. It contradicts much of what has been written about it by ‘official’ historians an others. It begins with a description of his childhood. He was one of a family of eight with a drunken, brutal father and a long-suffering mother, and was brought up in the dire circumstances of working class life in Leicester. He joined the Navy when he was 16. As he puts it: ‘No one will suppose that a 16-year-old boy was moved by the ideas of heroism to read a pamphlet on how to join the Royal Navy. In my case the urge was certainly the ominous spectre of unemployment.’

Len’s background is an adequate recipe for what went into his actions during the mutiny. The gulf which separated the men from the officers, those who gave the orders and those who were expected to carry them out, was so great that the mutiny had to take the course it did. The officers never had a clue about how the men felt – and they cared even less. Maybe there were one or two exceptions.


Invergordon in 1932
The publisher's blurb says: ‘the book tells the story of the famous naval mutiny at Invergordon when the men of the lower ranks spontaneously – and successfully – rebelled against the Admiralty’s decision to make drastic cuts in their basic pay. It was an event unprecedented in naval history with far-reaching consequences for both the navy and the country in general’.

I personally well remember the Invergordon Mutiny. Two leading members of the Communist Party were trapped by government agents in a compromising situation. [1] The Party was quite willing to present them as victims of the government’s actions, without making it clear it [the CP] had nothing to do with the mutiny. It suited the government to produce these ‘reds under the beds’ in order to hide the true character of the mutiny which was started, managed and carried through by the ratings of the Atlantic Fleet. The mutiny was self-managed and reached a degree of success which no amount of ‘leadership’ from the Communist Party could have provided.

As Tony Carew said in a letter to Tribune (August 23, 1974): ‘Far from being a model strike such as the Communist Party might approve, it was a relatively spontaneous and loosely organised affair, in which a predominantly conservative body of men showed their ability to take effective action without being led by the hand. And it was nonetheless radical for that’. [2]

Some retired naval officers and others have tried to knock Len’s account of the Mutiny. Whatever differences may arise in various accounts of this historical event, it cannot be denied that it was a great example of ordinary people taking matters into their own hands. There is no evidence that the rank and file sailors ever had any contact with any outside person or body (such as a trade union or political party) during the course of the mutiny. All decisions were made by the men on all 8 ships* independently, after the initial mass meeting on shore where it had been decided to ‘strike’.

If you want to know the form and content of a self-managed struggle, in which the rank and file never surrendered the decision-making to any outside, self-appointed leaders, then read this book. [3] It’s a practical lesson on many levels – even if, like me, you don’t share all the author’s views. But remember that many of Len’s views are coloured by the fact that he suffered a great deal more from some of those he came to regard as his ‘friends’ than he ever did from his known enemies.
J. J.
Solidarity: for Workers’ Power, vol. 7, no. 12, November 1974, pp.19-20

From: Alan Ereira, The Invergordon Mutiny: Narrative History of the Last Great Mutiny in the Royal Navy and How it Forced Britain off the Gold Standard in 1931 (1981)


1. W G Shepherd and George Allison were charged under the Incitement to Mutiny Act and sentenced to 18 months and 3 years penal servitude respectively in November 1931 for trying to spread communism among sailors (after the mutiny). Security files confirm that they were set up with the help of an informer. (The ‘compromising situation’ was a political one).

2. For a fuller account of this position, see Anthony Carew, The Lower Deck of the RN, 1900-1939: the Invergordon Mutiny in perspective, Manchester University Press, 1981: Chapter 8, The Road to Invergordon. Carew interprets the mutiny in terms of industrial relations.

3. This advice is repeated in Joe Jacobs, Out of the Ghetto, London, 1978, pp.123-4, where he adds ‘little details which Len told’ him:

He described some of his feelings while the Atlantic Fleet was without effective control by the officers. How they organised communications between ships. How they spent time speculating on the possible consequences of their actions. How different people reacted to this situation. How discipline was maintained at a very high level, on a completely voluntary basis. The elected representatives were respected and committee decisions carried out with efficiency.
‘The result of the mutiny’, Joe continues, ‘is a living testament to the ability of the ordinary seamen, rank and file, in organising their own affairs under conditions of extreme stress.’ Other parts of the review are integrated into the chronological narrative of his book, with some additional recollections of Wincott as a fellow CP activist in Stepney for a time before going to the USSR.

* There were more than 8 ships in the Atlantic Fleet, up to 15 including different classes of warship, but not all were involved in the mutiny to the same extent, 2 or 3 possibly not at all.
Estimates put the number of men involved in the mutiny at 12,000.

From the cover of Anthony Carew, The Lower Deck... as at Note 2 above.


  1. See also:
    Barry Duncan, Invergordon ’31: How Men of the RN Struck! and Won. Southampton, Duncan, 1976. 53pp. Original price £1 (out of print). A very readable, informative account by a writer who knew the Navy, understood the politics, and had met some of those involved. “The cover signal spells STRIKE.“

  2. and:
    Invergordon 1931. Shipshape and Mutiny Fashion: How they Fought the Pay Cuts by Liz Willis (2011). £0.70p (on AK Distribution 2013 list). Financial crisis, national (coalition) government imposing a programme of drastic cuts in wages, supposedly forced on them by the state of the world economy, and insisting on the need for public-sector workers to accept a lowering of living standards, extending even to the armed forces, in the national interest… The year was 1931, and one of the first and most effective shows of resistance came in an unexpected quarter.