The pay cuts recommended by the Commission on National Expenditure affected all service. As it applied to the Royal Navy, the pay cuts would be by @10% for all officers and men. All would be forced to be paid by the 1925 (or newer) pay scales- including the men who had joined prior to that year. The problem with this scheme was that although the reductions were uniform in percentage, they were by no means proportionate. That is, a 10% decrease for a well-paid officer would be no more than a "drop in the bucket." To the lower ranks, who were not well paid to begin with, the decrease would be devastating- especially for the married matelots supporting families.
The news broke in September 1931 just as warships of the Atlantic Fleet gathered at Invergordon (known as "InverG" to matelots), Scotland, for fleet manoeuvres. Unfortunately, a number of newspapers released the story before most of the men had been properly briefed on it. To make matters worse, some papers did not have all the facts straight, and published wildly exaggerated or confusing reports (i.e., some papers announced the pay cuts would be as high as 25%!). Needless to say, many matelots were not at all happy.
It was to this climate that Rear-Admiral Wilfred Tomkinson arrived. Tomkinson, who had been Hood's first captain, was temporarily in charge of the fleet while the commander-in-chief, Admiral Sir Michael Hodges, was taken ill and hospitalised. Rather than go into any more detail, perhaps it would be best to "hear" the rest of the story directly from RADM (later Vice-Admiral) Tomkinson himself:
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"H.M.S. Hood at Portsmouth
19th September 1931
Be pleased to lay before the Board the following report of proceedings of ships of the Atlantic Fleet under my command during the period 11th to 16th September 1931.
2. The Commander-in-Chief having been discharged to Haslar Hospital, temporary command of the Atlantic Fleet had been assumed on 8th September by the Rear Admiral Commanding, Battle Cruiser Squadron, in H.M.S. Hood, as "Senior Officer", Atlantic Fleet.
3. The Fleet consisting of:-
Hood (Captain JFC Patterson, OBE), flying the flag of Rear Admiral Commanding, Battle Cruiser Squadron - Senior Officer, Atlantic Fleet.
Rodney (Captain RMB Bellairs, CB, CMG)
Warspite (Captain St. AN Wake) flying the flag of Rear Admiral, Second Battle Squadron.
Valiant (Captain CA Scott)
Malaya (Captain JSC Salmond)
Repulse (Captain EO Cochrane)
Dorsetshire (Captain AJ Power) flying the flag of Rear Admiral Commanding, Second Cruiser Squadron.
Norfolk (Captain CB Prickett)
York (Captain WN Custance)
Adventure (Captain ADH Dibben, OBE)
Arrived at Invergordon at 1500 on Friday the 11th September.
4. On arrival at Invergordon newspapers were received giving the Government's decision with regard to reduction of pay in the Services. In the case of officers the nature of the reductions appeared in detail, but with regard to the men it was stated only that the 1925 rates would be applied to all personnel. On Saturday 12th September Admiralty Fleet Order No. 2339/31 was received in the ships.
5. At about 1930 on Sunday 13th September I was informed that WARSPITE, the ship having the guard, had received a signal from the Officer of the Patrol ashore at Invergordon, "Trouble in the Canteen; request larger patrol", and that the Commander of WARSPITE and an additional patrol had been landed. It appeared that the disturbance commenced in the Canteen, the cause being due to a few men who were making speeches about their reduction in pay. Order was restored, the Canteen bar was closed at 2000, and the men left in an orderly manner to return to their ships; and although further speeches were made when the libertymen arrived at the pier, and singing was continued through the town, all libertymen returned to their ships by 2115.
6. After receiving a report from the Commander of WARSPITE, and an account of the incident from my Chief of Staff who had landed at my direction to observe the situation, it appeared to me that no importance need be attached to the incident from a general disciplinary point of view, And I reported to the Admiralty accordingly in my telegram Nr. 799.
7. H.M.S. Nelson (Captain FB Watson, DSO) arrived at Invergordon on the evening of 13th September.
8. On arrival of Nelson I first became aware of the issue of Admiralty letter C.W. 8234 of 10th September, addressed to all Flag and Commanding Officers, stating the principles on which the reduction in pay had been based and explaining the views of Their Lordships. Assuming that this letter had been received by all ships, I made a signal at 1002 on Monday 14th September, directing that paragraphs 1 and 4 were to be explained by Commanding Officers to their officers and ships' companies without delay. It then transpired that the letter had only been received by Flag Officers and RODNEY and ADVENTURE. Copies were made and distributed, but it was not possible in some ships to comply with my order until late on Monday or the following day.
9. The non receipt of this letter had been reported to the Secretary of the Admiralty in Atlantic Fleet submission No. 1516/AF841 of 14th September.
10. At 0800 on Monday, 14th September, WARSPITE and MALAYA left harbour for practices in accordance with the Weekly Programme, and during the course of the day the following ships arrived:-
CENTURION (Captain RAA Plowden, DSO)
SHIKARI (Commander RFB Swinley)
SNAPDRAGON (Commander AWJ Finlayson)
TETRARCH (Lieutenant-Commander MS Thomas)
11. The fleet was berthed as follows:
Invergordon - in two lines:-
12. On the evening of Monday, 14th September, I entertained at dinner on board HOOD the Rear Admiral Commanding, Second Cruiser Squadron, the Chief of Staff, Atlantic Fleet, the Captain of the Fleet, and the majority of the Captains of the ships present.
13. Shortly before dinner it had been reported to me that disturbances had again broken out in the Canteen and that additional patrols, under the command of a Lieutenant Commander from HOOD had been landed from HOOD and VALIANT. Further reports were received that the disturbances were of a disorderly nature, that meetings were being held in both the Canteen and in the open air, and that there was much speech-making, cheering and singing. I was also informed that two civilians had been observed among the men. The Officer of the Patrol (a report from whom has already been sent to their Lordships in the care of the Chief of Staff) addressed the men in the Canteen, and was given a hearing, but without effect.
14.The libertymen returned to their leave, but in a very disorderly and noisy manner, and having returned on board, in several ships remained on the forecastles, speechmaking, cheering and singing until a late hour.
15. The Captains dining with me dispersed to their ships' having been directed to report immediately on the state of affairs on the ship under their command; and at 2315 I reported the circumstances briefly to the Admiralty by telegram (message NR 800), adding that the cause of complaint seemed to be the drastic reductions in pay of ratings below petty officer who were on the pre-1925 scale of pay.
16. On receiving the reports of the Captains it became evident that, although the situation in the cruisers appeared to be satisfactory and there was no trouble in REPULSE, there was a considerable number of men in RODNEY, HOOD, VALIANT and NELSON who intended to prevent their ship sailing the next morning in accordance with the practice programme.
The general attitude of the men appeared that they were prepared to take their own ship to sea but that if they did so they would be deserting their companions in other ships.
Reports showed that the trouble was confined to the ratings below leading rate, and that there was no feeling of any sort against the officers. The position with regard to the Royal Marines was uncertain.
17. I discussed the matter on board HOOD with Rear Admiral Astley-Ruston, Rear Admiral Colvin (Chief of Staff), Captain Evand (Captain of the Fleet), and interviewed the Officers of the Patrol and the Commanders of HOOD and NELSON, and having considered the desirability of issuing an order cancelling the next day's programme in order that the complaints might be fully investigated in each ship and reported to me without delay, I eventually decided that it would be preferable at this stage to adhere to the arrangements already made and to carry out the programme if possible. It appeared probable that certain ships would proceed, and it was anticipated that if they did others would follow.
I then informed the Fleet by signal at 0059 on 15th September that I was aware that cases of hardship would result in consequence of the new rates of pay, and I directed Commanding officers to investigate and report typical cases to me so that I could represent the matter at once to the Admiralty. I also informed the Admiralty by telegram (NR 801) that I thought that it would be difficult to get ships to sea next morning, and of the signal I had made to the Fleet.
18. In accordance with the programme for Tuesday, 15th September, REPULSE was due to leave harbour at 06.30, VALIANT at 08.00, and subsequently NELSON, HOOD and RODNEY. The cruisers were to remain in harbour.
At 06.30 REPULSE sailed in accordance with the programme.
At 07.31 VALIANT reported that a large proportion of the ship's company had refused to fall in, but that she had unmoored with a limited number of men and proposed to sail when ready. At 08.47, however, she reported that there were only sufficient hands to keep steam for slow speed, and that she could not proceed at present.
At this time large numbers of men were massed on the forecastles of HOOD, RODNEY and DORSETSHIRE, and there was a considerable amount of cheering. I was informed that the men on the forecastle of HOOD had refused to allow any work to be done to commence unmooring, and it became evident that neither HOOD nor RODNEY could go to sea.
I therefore directed by signal at 09.31 that ships were not to proceed for exercises until further orders, that WARSPITE, MALAYA and REPULSE were to return to harbour and that the reports previously called for were to be hastened.
Leave to officers and men was stopped until further orders.
It was subsequently reported that the men in NELSON had refused to weigh anchor.
19. I decided to send Rear Admiral Colvin to the Admiralty immediately with all reports which had been received, and informed the Admiralty by telegram (Nr.802) of the situation.
20. Information from the ships which was received
during the course of the forenoon indicated that although in most ships the men were carrying out their ordinary harbour routine, the state of affairs in RODNEY and VALIANT was not so satisfactory In these two ships the men on the upper deck stood to attention when Colours were hoisted at 08.00; they showed no disrespect; and they cleared up and cleaned the mess decks; but they remained absent from their places of duty, although all essential service were maintained.
Throughout the day bodies of men in all ships except CENTURION and, when they arrived WARSPITE, MALAYA REPULSE and EXETER, remained on the forecastle, where meetings were held, speeches made, and there was much noise of cheering and singing.
21. At 13.40 I informed the Admiralty of what appeared to be the chief cause of complaint, and urged that an early decision should be communicated, stating that until this was received I did not consider that discipline could be restored and that it might still further deteriorate (telegram NR 805). Rear Admiral Colvin left Invergordon at 14.00 for London.
22. At 17.25 I was informed by telegram by the Commodore (D) at Rosyth that he had nothing of importance to report, and that the submarines had proceeded to sea for exercises.
At 17.30 EXETER (Captain IW Gibson, OBE, MVO) arrived and took up a berth to the westward of YORK.
At 18.00 I informed the Admiralty by telegram (NR 804) of the situation.
23. At 20.00, Admiralty telegram NR 913 was received directing me to impress on ships' companies that the existing rates of pay would remain in force until 1st October and that Their Lordships confidently expected that the men would uphold the traditions of the Service by loyally carrying out their duties. This was followed shortly afterwards by Their Lordships' directions contained in telegrams NR 914 and NR 916 that the practice programme should be resumed as soon as my investigations had been completed. The former telegram also contained a detailed estimate of the pay of an Able Seaman showing that the reduction did not, as had been represented by me, amount to 20%, but only to 10%. These telegrams caused me some concern, as they appeared to indicate that my previous telegrams had failed to convey to Their Lordships a true picture of the situation. I therefore replied, at 0053 on 16th September, emphasising the views expressed in my previous telegram (NR 805_, and stating that to continue to exercise programme at this stage would be out of the question.
24. At 0042 on Wednesday 16th September I informed the Fleet by signal that the Chief of Staff would arrive at the Admiralty that morning with my representations with regard to pay; that no decision could be expected for a day or two, and that no indication could be given of its nature; and that in the meanwhile I confidently expected the men to carry out their normal duties. This signal having been made, I made a further signal to the Fleet at 0842, in compliance with Admiralty telegram NR 913, to the effect that I had been informed by the Admiralty that the Board would give their earnest and immediate consideration to the representations that I had made; that Their Lordships had pointed out that existing rates of pay remained in force until 1st October, and that they expected the men to carry out their duties.
25. Reports which reached me on the morning of Wednesday showed that the position had not improved and was in fact deteriorating. No work was being done now in RODNEY, NORFOLK, ADVENTURE and VALIANT; Rear Admiral Astley-Rushton feared that DORSETSHIRE, infected by the men on the forecastle of HOOD, would cease work; and the Captain of HOOD had similar fears with regard to his own ship's company, who in their turn had been continually subjected to subversive encouragement and abuse from the men on the forecastle of RODNEY.
26. I had now received the remainder of the reports of investigations by the Commanding Officers and I decided to send these in charge of the Fleet Accountant Officer to the Admiralty immediately, at the same time informing Their Lordships by telegram (NR 806) of representative extracts from these reports. I also replied to the arguments in Admiralty telegram NR 914 (vide paragraph 23).
27. At 1148 having discussed the whole situation with Rear Admirals Astley-Rushton and French, I reported, by "Most Immediate" telegram NR 808, that I was of the opinion that the situation would get entirely out of control unless an immediate concession was made, and I suggested that the percentage cut in pay (without allowances) for ratings below Petty Officer should be proportionate to that of higher ratings. And that marriage allowance should be made applicable to those ratings under 25 who had married on the old scale of pay. I also recommended that a representative of the Board should visit me to discuss matters on the spot. Shortly after the dispatch of this telegram, I was informed by the Admiralty (telegram NR 917) that the matter was now being considered by the Cabinet, and this I communicated at once to the Fleet.
28. I was now informed that the men had decided to cease work in HOOD, and it seemed certain that matters would rapidly get worse. Threats of interference with running machinery had been made, and breaking out of the ships and inter-ship visiting seemed likely to be the next steps. I informed the Admiralty accordingly at 1406 (telegram NR 809).
29. At about 1500 on Wednesday 16th September Admiralty message 1445 was received, informing me of Their Lordships directions that the ships were to proceed to their home ports forthwith. This was immediately promulgated to the Fleet, orders being subsequently issued for squadrons to proceed independently commencing at 2100, ships being detached as necessary to home ports. I also granted leave to married officers and men whose wives were at Invergordon in order that they might settle up their affairs.
30. During the whole period between receipt of the Admiralty order and the departure of the Fleet it was uncertain whether or not ships would sail, and I informed the Admiralty accordingly by telegram (NR 811). After about 2000 it appeared probable that all would do so.
31. All ships sailed from Invergordon as ordered, RODNEY the last ship clearing Cromarty Firth just after midnight.
32. It will be quite clear to Their Lordships from this report that for two days the ships at Invergordon of the Atlantic Fleet were in a state of open mutiny.
33. The condition of affairs and the general tension that existed are not easy to describe.
I have called for reports from Flag and Commanding Officers who were present; these will be forwarded as soon as possible and from them Their Lordships may learn with more exactness and in greater detail the actual course of events.
34. In the meanwhile, however, from my own personal observation and information available, I have formed the following general impressions:-
(a) There was an undoubted organisation in the actual outbreak and I am of the opinion that preparation must have been made over a considerable period. It seems likely to have originated in RODNEY and VALIANT, and concerted action was effected at the meetings at the Canteen on the evenings of Sunday and Monday.
(b) At these meetings a plan to prevent the ships sailing was communicated to men of other ships, who were effectively that if they did not take part they would be "letting down" their companions. This persuasion in some cases appeared to amount to intimidation.
(c) I am of the opinion, however, that on the morning of Tuesday the issue hung in the balance, and that had VALIANT or NELSON put to sea the other ships would have followed.
(d) The spread of the outbreak was greatly facilitated by the proximity of certain ships to each other, which enabled men massed on the forecastles to shout across, and signal to neighbouring ships, threats and exhortations not to be "yellow" or "blacklegs". HOOD for example was influenced considerably in this way by RODNEY.
(e) The extent to which individual ships were affected differed, but RODNEY and VALIANT of the capital ships were clearly the worst There appears to have been very little trouble in WARSPITE, MALAYA, REPULSE, EXETER, YORK, CENTURION, SHIKARI, TETRACH and SNAPDRAGON.
(f) During the whole period the general attitude of the men towards their officers was respectful and correct, though this naturally varied slightly in different ships, but for how long this would have continued it is impossible to say.
(g) The attitude of the Petty Officers from the outset appears to have been a passive one. They carried out their own work, but made little attempt to get the lower ratings to work, and on Wednesday it was reported to me that some Petty Officers were showing signs of joining up with the disaffected men. This was to be expected as time went on, since their sympathy was with the men in their grievance, if not with their method of indicating it.
35. Every step was taken by the officers to explain to the men the necessity of the reductions, to point out the recklessness of their action, and to persuade them that their complaints would be sympathetically considered. Considering the grounds which existed for complaint this was no easy task.
36. Throughout, the Officers acted as would be expected.
37. The use of force was in my opinion quite out of the question and would have led to a much worse state of affairs.
38. With regard to the causes of the outbreak, there is no doubt that first and foremost was the disproportionate reduction of the lower ratings who entered before 1925. Contributory factors were the unexpectedness of such a reduction, the suddenness with which it was announced. The short interval before it takes effect, and the belief held by a large number that the reductions were contrary to previous affirmations by the Government that ratings on the pre-1925 scale would continue to receive it during the whole period of their continuous service.
There was no other grievance.
In my opinion the cause of complaint was well founded; the reductions do undoubtedly affect most severely the younger and lower paid ratings, and are disproportionate. The effect of a reduction from 4/- a day to 3/- a day is far greater than that of a reduction from say 8/- a day to 7/- a day.
39. I deplore the fact that this disgraceful episode should have occurred during my temporary command of the Fleet but I was fortunate in having the support and invaluable advice of Rear Admiral E.A. Astley-Rushton, CB, CMG, Commanding the Second Cruiser Squadron, and of Rear Admiral W.F French, CMG, Rear Admiral, Second Battle Squadron, the other two Flag Officers whose flags were flying at Invergordon, and I should like to take this opportunity of recording my appreciation of their assistance.
I am, Sir,
Your obedient servant,
(signed) W Tomkinson
The Secretary of the Admiralty."
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Invergordon in Retrospect
After conducting an investigation into the "polite mutiny," the Admiralty jailed some culprits and discharged from service a great many more. They ultimately cast the blame on Tomkinson, citing that he failed to take firm action when the incident first erupted. By taking firm action, the Admiralty believed he could have prevented the entire episode from occurring.
This was obviously not a very fair conclusion on the Admiraltys part. Tomkinson did do the right thing: the men (with the exception of politically motivated individuals such as communists) did have a very legitimate/serious grievance. Further more, they had, for the most part, remained respectful of the officers and senior crewmen. They still maintained the vital areas and manned critical stations. There had also been no serious acts of violence. Lastly, it was peacetime and there was no threat of conflict. In short, the conditions did not exist that would have mandated the use of potentially deadly force.
Perhaps Tomkinson's only crime was that he had too much of a heart and that he truly cared for the crewmen- they were afterall, the backbone of the fleet.