Friday, September 20, 2013

Salerno, September 1943

“The largest ever mutiny of British troops at war”
 On 20 September 1943 in a military equivalent of reading the Riot Act, 190-odd British soldiers (3 sergeants, 5 corporals, 11 lance corporals, 162 privates) in a field at Salerno in southern Italy were reminded of Section 7 of the Army Act, relating to Mutiny and Sedition: “The term ‘mutiny’ implies collective insubordination or a combination of two or more persons to resist or to induce others to resist lawful military authority.” In spite of their disbelief and shock at the threat of death or prolonged imprisonment if charged and convicted under the Act, they did not move when the order to pick up their kit, hit the road and proceed in the designated direction was given for the third time.

They considered that they had been deliberately misled, and that the order was a mistake, contravening previous instructions, with which it would be wrong to comply. In fact in the course of failed attempts to persuade them, it had already been admitted that a “cock-up” had “obviously” occurred. As an army psychiatrist put it in January 1945 after interviewing scores of the men in prison: “The absence of interest in them as individuals and the cavalier way their divisional loyalties seemed to be treated... produced a feeling of righteous indignation... “ (pp.41-42 in David – see below)

The remaining hard core of a draft brought to the transit camp from North Africa, they were nearly all veterans of the 50th Tyne-Tees and 51st Highland Divisions, several wounded or ill from the desert campaign – El Alamein, Monty and all that – who had been led to believe that they were being sent to rejoin their units, as would normally have been expected. Instead, through a series of confused signals, compounded by incompetence and bad faith, they were shipped in as reinforcements for an emergency which was over by the time they landed. Believing that the authorities would see sense, admit the error, and send them on to their own units, they found themselves back in North Africa, under arrest on a charge that could carry the death penalty or years of penal servitude.

The story of the price they paid for their principled stand, for months and in many cases years afterwards, is told in detail in Saul David’s 1995 book Mutiny at Salerno, which includes transcripts of the court martial proceedings among its exhaustive examination of the evidence. After imprisonment in a POW camp and a 5-day secret trial, the sentences were: the 3 sergeants to be shot, the corporals given 10 years, and privates 7 years (except one who had tried too late to recant his refusal and got 5 years). Even the assistant prosecutor saw these penalties, widely considered out of all proportion to the offence, as “harsh”. Furthermore, as he later pointed out, if their object was to stand as an awful warning to others, this completely failed due to it all being so secret.

After petitions were organised the death sentences were commuted, an agonising fortnight later, to 12 years, but it was only a chance visit to North Africa by the adjutant general and his insistence on seeing the papers, that “turned the whole case on its head”. Discovering among other things that the men had arrived in Salerno when the crisis was already over, he arranged for the suspension of all sentences .Not that the mutineers’ troubles were over. Their subsequent treatment by the army led to mass desertions by about 40% of those convicted, and consequent re-imprisonment.

From a radical historian’s point of view this is not perhaps an ‘ideal’ mutiny, far as it obviously was from being a rejection of war and militarism. Participants, by and large, were used to being perceived as, and prided themselves on being “good soldiers” – in military terms, not like Schweik. They did not take up arms, threaten officers or question the hierarchy. Their motivation was not disillusionment with army life or reluctance to go on fighting; not seeing through dominant ideology but rather having too much faith in it, taking it too literally. It was only when they found that their trust in the authorities to do the decent thing by them was fatally misplaced - the valued esprit de corps was not the supreme good and did not work like magic when it came to the crunch - that bitterness drove so many to get out at all costs and reclaim their lives as far as possible.

Still they deserve to be heard. In spite of several campaigns, and successive bouts of media interest (notably in the early 1980s and after the publication of David’s book), the episode with its aftermath remains one of the many stories largely hidden from mainstream history, especially the types which perpetuate the several myths of the Second World War. 

It was a spontaneous reaction from men who felt they had been messed about enough … no ringleaders and no conspiracy …      [Court martial] simply could not accept that such a large body of men could have acted spontaneously…

-  from Sir Ludovic Kennedy, Foreword to Saul David, Mutiny at Salerno.
“I didn’t think what we had done was mutiny... All we did was stand still.”
“We had never been treated in this way before and we weren’t going to put up with it.”
“Each man in that lot was capable of making up his own mind.”  

Saul David, Mutiny at Salerno: An Injustice Exposed. London, Brassey’s, 1995. A thorough exposé of the “trail of official incompetence, deceit, injustice and insensitivity” (p.viii) making a convincing case for the mutineers.

Article from The Times 3 December 1999, "When we did not fight on the beaches". Reproduced by a grandson of one of those involved, at

3BM Television, A Very British Mutiny - shown in December 1999 on BBC2, according to Theaker, above; availability not known. (BBC Radio and TV programmes on the subject were broadcast in 1981 and 1982, and there was an article in The Listener.)

Parliamentary debate 22 Mar 2000 : Column 242WH. Anne Begg, MP for Aberdeen South, providing an extended summary of the events and the case for the mutineers on behalf of a constituent. The fobbing-off response shows how unrepentant official intransigence continued  in the teeth of the evidence.

 (Featuring the constituent referred to by Begg, above, and also quoted extensively by David.)

And a non-source:

Max Arthur, ed. Forgotten Voices of the Second World War. London, Ebury Press, 2004; 486pp.  Look up Salerno, pp. 236-245 and you find some ‘personal accounts of American troops’ about the fighting, useful only in confirming that it preceded the arrival of the mutineers’ draft, not a word on the mutiny (or on any other – the term does not feature in the index) . Evidently from the viewpoint of orthodox history, some voices are best forgotten.

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