Looking back – The RAF strikes in 1949 by John Heys G3BDQ

Set-up – Aided – and Controlled by Radio
By John Heys, G3BDQ,  (RAF No.  1516677).

The War against Germany and Japan had ended and I found myself in India, at first in the Central Provinces jungle then more permanently at Mauripur in the desert just outside Karachi, a city that is now in Pakistan. All the RAF personnel excepting the signed on ‘Regular’ airmen received a Demobilisation Number. Mine was quite high, somewhere in the 40s ~ and the demob rate was alarmingly slow. On many RAF Stations including those in Egypt and the Middle East and extending out to Malaysia living conditions were rather primitive and even at Mauripur a brand new air base we were under canvas and the domestic hygiene arrangements were far from ideal or comfortable. It is not surprising that there was a growing discontent throughout the RAF East of Suez.

The original instigator, and his cohorts, of the strikes was not known by the men serving on the striking Stations and Staging Posts but it must have been quite a small but important group well connected with the RAF radio stations who had realised that radio communications were the key to the action’s success.

Well before the events of January 1946 I was lucky enough to have a guided tour of the big Mauripur transmitting station and marvelled at the huge Marconi transmitters. They had type numbers with the letters SWB followed by a number which indicated the power levels possible. My wireless mechanic guides referred to these transmitters as ‘SWOBS’. The output powers went up to several kilowatts and there were a couple of American BC610 rigs with push-pull 813 valves that could put out 500 watts- QRP in that place! There were rhombic antennas aligned on other RAF stations worldwide making communication with other stations East of Europe easy. The operators (all CW) and the receivers were located a considerable distance away from the transmitter building and were connected to it by landline. Mauripur sat upon the sand of the Sind Desert and to maintain good earthing the buried ground mat was regularly flooded with seawater brought up by tankers.

Without the network of RAF radio stations the strike could not have been
organised or carried out. Fortunately for the instigators it seems that there was a close-knit sense of common purpose between the Wireless mechs. on the many different Stations. The radio ‘take over’ also greatly hampered communications between Station Commanders and RAF HQ at Air Ministry in London.

After Christmas and the New Year the disquiet throughout South East Asia Command grew as more and more airmen felt that they had become a ‘Forgotten Force’. I don’t know when the Strike actions began but they rapidly mushroomed through January. Soon there was a complete cessation of almost all groundcrew
work, excepting of course essential services such as the provision of meals and Sick Bay services, across India, Ceylon, Malaysia and the Middle East. All flying had to be cancelled for without the all-important ‘Daily Inspection’ documents no pilot would consider taking off. The British Press had little or nothing to say about the events in the far East for no doubt the well used Class ‘D’ notices were given to Editors. There was some reporting of events by the newspapers in the far East but not so much as might have been expected.

At Mauripur and no doubt other RAF Stations meetings were held after nightfall in the Mess Hall in complete darkness. Speakers gave reports of the progress of the strikes but of course could not be identified. I am fortunate in having copies of a few of the foreign press reports of the actions in their respective countries that detailed what
was happening in their areas.

Here are ‘snippets’ from some news columns. At Seletar air base on the North Eastern end of Singapore Island 4,000 airmen had ceased work “as a protest against what they considered unreasonably, delays in repatriatiot.
The smaller Kallang airfield near Singapore had 400 strikers. There were 1,200 men on strike at Dum-Dum some twelve miles from Calcutta. At Karachi airport 400 members of the Royal Indian Airforce struck in sympathy with the RAF men stationed there, and at Drigh Road RAF station also close to Karachi a Strike was in progress. In total up to 50,000 men on 60 British Airbases across India and S.E. Asia became involved in the strike.

The ‘Thirty Year Rule’ applying in late 1976 allowed some earlier secret Government Papers to be revealed early in 1977. Here are some of the revelations published in the British Press at that time. In January 1946 a ‘Top Secret’ Memorandum to the Cabinet by the then Air Secretary Lord Stansgate (Tony Benn’s father) reported that large numbers of airmen had stopped work at Mauripur near Karachi in what was then British India. Lord Stansgate said that the chief grievance was delay in Demobilisation and that he had sent instructions (no doubt by telephone) to Commanding Officers to give the men more information on demob plans after they had returned to work. He said that any acceleration in demob that is announced should not be made to appear as a concession to indiscipline.”

During the strikes the men went to their usual places of work but did not perform normal duties. The RAF Police were a numerical minority amid hundreds of strikers and of course represented the Authority  which was at fault. The Police could only stand by and watch events. After just a few days the Government (the recently appointed Labour Government) gave the Station -Commanders overseas permission to give assurances that the men’s complaints including lack of proper accommodation, poor canteen arrangements etc. could be rectified and that complaints of slow release from the Service had been referred to London. The Strike ringleaders stated that if after ten days .the men’s demands were unfulfilled or obscurely promised the men would strike again

until their demands had been met. The Prime Minister Mr. Attlee stressed that the age and length of service principle should determine the speed of demobilisation when he met with Lord Stansgate and Wing Commander John Strachey (Air Minister). He made a statement to this effect in the Commons.

Soon after the end of the Strike at Mauripur we had the RAF Police (Red Caps) searching everyone’s kit for seditious and Communist literature. The unfortunate few who had such items were whisked away for questioning, and it was rumoured some were sent to the notorious Detention Camp at Dum-Dum. Several very pale-skinned airmen of all ranks were flown in to Mauripur and no doubt other ‘strike camps’. They had new uncreased uniforms and had been sent out to elicit information as to the strike leaders. These ‘spies’ were easy to spot and so far as I remember were wasting their time. Without any written or verbal instructions the camp kept ‘Stumm’ and said they knew ‘nothing about anything’.

The Strikes certainly did a bit of good. Instead of a long wait of perhaps years for my return to ‘Civvy Street’ I found myself on a Dakota heading for Bombay in May, just a few months after the strike, and where at the World Transit Camp I waited in comparative luxury for ‘The Boat’ to arrive. I boarded the Georgic and was finally released from the RAF  Warton in Lancashire where we actually had Tablecloths, bed sheets and other almost forgotten things, on July 2nd 1946.

Epilogue.

Mr. Arthur Attwood died at the age of 95 in May 2008.He had been a qualified Electrician (RAF Trade not known but no doubt Wireless Mech or Op.)He had been identified as the ‘Brains’ behind the Strikes and had been imprisoned. He had been a life-long Trade Unionist and after release worked as an electrician for film studios and later for various newspapers in London. He became the ‘Chapel Father’ of the Print Union on Fleet Street and was greatly respected. How many of VS readers knew about these events I wonder? This must have been the first Strike or Mutiny to have been entirely dependent upon radio for its inception and conduction.

By John Heys G3BDQ re-published from the Vital Spark newsletter Jan 2009.

Return to the index of Vital Spark articles.

g3bdq-looking-back-raf-1

Sunday Observer Newspaper Cuttings 9-1-1977 & 16-1-1977

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John Heys on the left with a fellow airman.

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