19 Mutiny and The Underground

“Last night’s action was bordering on mutiny!”

RAF Electrician   The conditions in Gibraltar were really bloody horrible.  A few days after arriving they said “We want a volunteer for Station Electrician.”  I was a trained aircraft electrician but I didn’t fancy working on aircraft, so I thought: OK, I’ll do that.  One of the finest things I ever did – in a way it was.  Later on it rebounded on me.  I had a workshop of my own and instead of going on parade like the rest of them, I didn’t have to.  And there was a lot of opportunity for skiving.  Oh yes.  As station electrician I could skive.

As station electrician I could skive

As station electrician I could skive

For instance, the officers used to have their refrigerator break down and I would tell them “I can get it done if you let me go to the RASC and rewind the motor.”  They were only too pleased to let me go because they wanted their bloody refrigerator, so I used to drag the job out.  I used to go to the pictures in the afternoon – all sorts of things like that.  The other thing I did which was different to most of the others was I learnt to speak Spanish, and I began to talk to the dockers.  Mind you,  there wasn’t much you could do on Gibraltar.  There was just one cinema with hard forms.  You could go there once a week and queue and wait your turn.  It wasn’t a camp cinema.

The only thing in Gib was a main street with umpteen pubs.  Booze was dirt cheap and you could get as pissed as a newt.  Lots of them became alcoholics because of that.  To make matters worse, all the civilians – the women, children and old people – had been evacuated.  The Gibraltarians.  They had been evacuated to England.  There was no women.  They used to import Spanish labour for the shops.  They used to come in from across the border.  They didn’t work in the camps, of course.

Blokes used to try and get off with these Spanish girls, but they didn’t have the time really.  The Spanish girls used to come at 7 o’ clock in the morning, and they’d go home at 7 o’ clock at night.  Also their customs were different.  Strictly speaking, a girl who went and walked along with a bloke was considered a prostitute.  The Spanish blokes didn’t want to know her, in the same way that many English blokes wouldn’t want to know an English girl who’d been out with a Yank.  So it was very difficult to walk with, never mind go out with a Spanish girl.  There was no bloody where to go out!

So the result was: three square miles, bloody hot, in the night time, we were sleeping on petrol cans, in the day there was the levanter – a sort of steam on top of the Rock, which at night  used to come down and you got absolutely bloody soaked.  It was like being in a vapour bath.  When you woke up in the morning and the sun came out you were sweating, so you couldn’t get dry.  You got terrible dysentery, and with the flies and whatnot, it was bleeding horrible.  The result was that the M.O. wouldn’t guarantee the health of anybody who stayed more than eighteen months.  So the tour of duty was eighteen months.  Afterwards you got sent home.  All the previous draft on Gib had been sent home after eighteen months.  It was so bad there that blokes used to throw themselves off the Rock.

It started off in the Seaplane camp.  They got hold of all the Naafi furniture and they burnt the bleeding lot

As time went on they didn’t do much about the blokes’ quarters, but they gradually put concrete over the race course.  They turned it into a proper runway to take more heavier things.  As they’re laying the tannoy cables they’re concreting them in.  Being the Station Electrician it meant there was only two people who knew where these tannoy cables were – me and the Electrical Officer.

Something was in the air.  They started to import Spitfires, boxed in crates.  Blokes were assembling them, working right through.  They worked two, three days at a stretch, with hardly any sleep.  Working like the clappers.  Again I was lucky.  As Station Electrician I could skive.  Eventually it broke: The African Campaign – Montgomery’s victory.  Terrific cheers.  Everyone all pleased.  At last a breakthrough.  Everybody’s looking forward to going home – some of them only had a couple of months to go.  Then all of a sudden a notice is posted on the DROs (1)   “As a result of the African victory the tour of duty in Gibraltar has been increased to eighteen months in Gibraltar, followed by eighteen months in Africa.”  The blokes just could not believe it.  As I say, some of them were just about to go home.

It started off in the Seaplane camp.  They got hold of all the Naafi furniture (before they did they took out the sparking plug of the fire-engine) and burnt the bleeding lot.  They were saying “We’re not tolerating this.  We didn’t work our bollocks off for this.”  It was a     spontaneous reaction.   Then the lads in our camp, the Land base, they discussed it.  “What shall we do?”  “Let’s not go to work tomorrow.  Let’s have a strike.”  Most of them thought they were a bit daft at the Seaplane camp, ‘cos they were really sticking their necks out.

The officers were dead quiet.  Not a word.  This was in all camps – including the radio camp on top of the Rock as well.  They were all discussing it.  “What shall we do?  We’re certainly not going to stand for this.  This is not on.”  Nobody went to work next day.  Well, very, very few.  Eventually the officers realised it was getting out of hand.  It really was.  So they put up on the DROs “We recognise that the decision to extend the tour of duty was very unpopular, and therefore we have decided to form an Answer Back committee.  Officers will be present in the canteen and any airman who cares to come along can ask questions.  All formalities will be waived.  You can ask whatever questions you like.  There will be no disciplinary action taken.”

You’ve never seen anything like it!  A dozen WRENS and two hundred blokes, excuse me dancing all the time!

We went along to this meeting.  The CO got up.  “Look”, he said “I feel just as bad about this as you do.  I’ve made representations to the Air Ministry to tell them how bad people feel about this.  I’m waiting for a reply.  Meanwhile, whilst we’re waiting, there’s no reason why things couldn’t be made a bit easier.  If any of you have any questions or any suggestions…”  We kept on for a little while about the eighteen months tour of duty.  Is it fair, ectetera.  The CO said “I can’t reply to this one.  I’ve made my protest to the Air Ministry.  I’m waiting for a reply.  Now anything else?”

Up to that time we had been sleeping in the most uncomfortable conditions.  There was one or two huts by then.  “Why can’t we have decent conditions to live in?”  “We’ll see to that.”  “We think it disgusting that in weather like this not to have sheets or pyjamas.  Can we have some issued?”  “Yes, you can have that issued.”  And we complained also about the canteen.

Not very long before all this happened an incident occurred where the officers had had a dance.  There was no women on the Rock so they got the Wrens from the Naval base.  There were a few there, but you hardly ever saw them.  Before the officers had their dance they got the lads – who didn’t know what was going on – to put sackcloth screening all around the officers’ mess and they made it out of bounds.  The dance occurred and the Wrens came in.  And the penny dropped – “Oh boy!  What a shower of bastards!”  They were really resentful.

At the Answer Back committee one of the chaps says “I think, sir, we ought to have a dance.”  “Dance?”  “Yes!”  “Who are you going to dance with?”  “You had the Wrens here, didn’t you.  We’ll have them here, to dance with us.”  “But there’s so many of you and we’ve only got a few Wrens!”  “Alright, we’ll have excuse-me dances, all the way along.”   They postponed their decision until the next Answer Back committee, but we had our dance!  You’ve never seen anything like it!  A dozen Wrens and two hundred blokes excuse-me dancing all the time!  Mind you, I don’t know what the fuss was all about.  They were real bloody crabs.  They were a snooty, middle-class lot.

As a result of our action they compromised and cut the tour of duty down to two years.  They also built a Rest Camp on the Rock.  It was very nice to go there – in fact, it was bloody marvellous.  By the way, they held the NCO’s responsible for any further acts of mutiny.  Although a terrible amount of damage was done no one was charged, as far as I know.

Another result of the mutiny was that some of the lads were allowed to go to Tangiers, after they’d done eighteen months on the Rock.  But when it came to me – No!  The Electrical Officer had gone back to England and I’m the only bleeding one who knows where the tannoy cables are!  Every time there was a fault, I had to repair it, so they said I couldn’t go.  You couldn’t put it down on paper, when it’s under concrete.  It was something you knew instinctively.  You knew where it was.  You’d been inspecting it time and again.  I knew where it was because I made nearly all the joints in the bleeding thing!

I could speak Spanish and I got to know one or two people who claimed they were working for the Spanish Underground

One bloke in the town, he used to work in a typewriter shop and was talking about “Viva La Republica” and all the rest of it, but he wasn’t very political.  But there was a girl who worked in a tobacco shop I used to go in.  She was very political and very interested in working against Franco.  One day,  when she got to know me sufficiently well, she gave me a text.  “There’s an underground movement in Spain and we’d like to have this duplicated.  Do you know anyone who can duplicate this?”  “Let me have a look at it.”

I thought it the most bloody innocuous stuff you could imagine.  It was asking that women who were prisoners of Franco should be allowed to have milk, and that prisoners in general should be allowed to have books.  I said to her “I don’t think very much of that.”  “You’ve got to start with small things.  You’ve got to get the sympathy of the population.  We feel it would be a useful exercise.”  “You know better than me, but I still don’t see anything brilliant about it.”  “You don’t live under a Fascist Dictatorship, so you don’t bloody well know.”

So I took the text and went to the feller in the typewriter shop who was always talking about the “Republica.”  “Tell me, what do you think of this?”  He read it.  “Marvellous!  Where’d you get it from?”  “Never mind where I got it from – can you get some duplicated?”  “Certainly.  What’s it for?”  “To be taken into Spain.”  “Certainly, with the greatest of pleasure.  Come back on Tuesday, I’ll have them all ready for you.”

I went back on the Tuesday and the chap says “Here you are, here’s your duplicated leaflet.”  And standing there is a soldier.  “Hey”, I said “perhaps he can understand Spanish.”   “Yes, he can.  I’ll introduce you to him.  So and so, Corporal, member of the Security Police!”  I thought: bloody hell.  He shakes hands with me.  “Pleased to meet you.  That’s a very good leaflet you have there.”  I says “Yeah, as a matter of fact I wanted to send a few to send to my friends, who’d be interested in what’s going on in Spain.  I couldn’t tell him I wanted half a dozen, so I told him to print a few more.”   “Don’t give us a cock and bull story like that.  I know they’re going into Spain.  Who’s taking them in?”  “Nobody’s taking them in.”  “Don’t you kid me.  Don’t get me wrong – this is a good leaflet.  It’s useful.”  “How do you mean?  Useful?”  “Well, we know for an absolute fact that Franco is sending wolfram (a stuff for making steel) to Germany. (2)  If we have leaflets like this we can get to know people in the Underground and if we tell Franco who they are, we can have some bargaining power with him.  You want to see the war won, don’t you?”  I took my bloody time.  “As far as I’m concerned”, I said “if I could help you, I would.”  “Perhaps we’ll take them in?”  “You can do what you like with them.” In fact he allowed me to keep them.  I went back to the camp, got rid of the bloody things and decided not to go back to the girl.  A friend of mine, a Scots laddie, went and tipped her off.

A couple of weeks later, in the middle of the night, they suddenly woke me up.  “You’re being posted”

“What?”  “You’re being posted.  Get your things.  Pack your kit.  We’re going in two hours.”  “Where?”   “Sorry, can’t tell you.”  I packed my kit and thought: What the bloody hell.  I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to anyone.  They took me out, onto a boat, right out into the Med and then they transferred me to another boat.  When I got on that boat there was a lot of RAF blokes – and they’re all yellow!  They told me they had come from Takoradi in the Gold Coast (3),  and they’d been taking Mepacrine tablets against malaria, which had made them yellow.  They also told me we were on our way home.  I thought: marvellous!

One of the band came along and said “We’re on jankers.”

On the boat were all services – navy, army and airforce.  The conditions were rotten, really rotten.  Every night an announcement used to come on the tannoy that went something like this: “The time is now twenty-one hundred hours.  All other ranks will go below decks.  Officers and first class passengers may remain on deck until twenty-two hundred hours.  Please extinguish your cigarettes.”  That was standard apparently on all troop ships, and of course it really got up blokes’ noses.

On the boat I came across a bloke who’d taught me to play the trumpet as a kid.  He’d been to the Gold Coast and was in this RAF band which was aboard.  Every evening the band used to go into a room and entertain the blokes.  One day one of the band came along and said “We’re on jankers.  The CO called us into the office and said we had to play for the officers and first class passengers, and that there wouldn’t be a concert for the lads tonight.  We told him we’re a RAF band, and don’t think it’s right.”  “Right’, he said “you’re all on jankers and they’ll be no concert at all tonight.”

The story got round – “Bleeding bastards!”  That night the blokes decided they were going to occupy this bloody room.  We were going to have our own party.  We crowded into this room and didn’t allow anyone else in,  and we started to put on a concert – singing songs like Eskimo Nell, telling dirty jokes and things like that.  The funniest thing was, I think the officers and the first class passengers must have had a better time than if the band had played, because they were all outside, looking through the windows, absolutely killing themselves with laughter – absolutely rolling up.  We had the most marvellous evening.

The CO’s walking backwards and forwards – “Last nights’ action was bordering on mutiny!”  And they pissed themselves laughing

And then, the stupid bastards, they went and did the announcement over the tannoy: “It is now twenty-one hundred hours…”  They couldn’t have been more tactless.  A howl went up and they all burst out on deck, all these yellow faces.  They’d been drinking, as well.  “The rotten sods!”  “We’ll throw the CO in the sea!”  And they started singing the Red Flag and the Internationale.  Then, through the tannoy “Will all ranks go below decks.”   “Fuck you, you rotten bastards, we’re not going below decks!” they shouted back.  It was murder!  It went on till about 1 o’ clock in the morning.  They let it fade out gradually.  Everyone drifted down.  Everybody felt really good.

Next morning all the NCOs were called in to see the CO.  One of them comes back – “Look lads”, he says “they’ve made us personally responsible for any other occurrence.  We’re all going to be on a charge.”  “We’ll stand by you, if they put you on a charge.  They won’t put you on no charge.”  The lads still wanted to carry on with it.  The NCOs were called in again.  The CO asked them to assemble all the lads below decks.  So everybody’s down below, all ranks, all services.  In fact the airforce and the navy were the most militant – the army wasn’t, funnily enough.  In walks the Adjutant.  He comes marching along.  All of a sudden there’s a snigger.  “Shut up!”  Really “SHUT UP!”   He’s pacing backwards and forwards like a bloody, bleeding rat.  Backwards and forwards.  Then suddenly the CO comes in.

There are more sniggers and the Adjutant is really screaming “SHUT UP!  SHUT UP!”  The CO’s walking backwards and forwards – “Last night’s action was bordering on mutiny!”  And they pissed themselves laughing!  The Adjutant’s going mad – “SHUT UP! SHUT UP!”   The CO says “I don’t understand what all the discontent is all about.  After all, you’ve all had good food.”  More guffaws of laughter.  “Isn’t the food good?  You’ve had fruit!”   The chaps were laughing.  The Adjutant’s going “SHUT UP!  SHUT UP!” and eventually quietens them down.

“Why – Haven’t you had any fruit?  Have you had any fruit?” he says to this chappie.  “Well, Sir, I’ve had one small apple.”   “And the food’s been good, hasn’t it?”   “No, sir.”  And the Adjutant says “Don’t answer back!”   “Well, all I’m saying to you is this, I can promise you any further action like this and the whole lot of you will be arrested as soon as we dock in England.”  The lads were dismissed.

The lads went on talking though, and there didn’t seem any sign that it was abating, so they stopped the boat there and then.   There where it was.  Just stopped.  Dead silence.  Nobody knew what was happening.  Nobody knew what to do.  They kept it like that for nearly a day.   Then they said “Start unloading the hold. Get your kits ready.  We’ll soon  be landing.”   We didn’t know where the hell we were.  The boat started to move and we discovered that we were off the coast of Ireland.  Eventually we came to somewhere near Morecambe and disembarked.  And that was the end of it.

1.  DROs:  Daily Routine Orders.

2. Wolfram, more commonly known as tungsten.  

3. Ghana.

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