In September 1943, 191 soldiers of Montgomery’s 8th Army downed guns and refused to take part in the battle for Salerno in southern Italy. It was the biggest wartime mutiny in British military history.
The mutineers were all members of the Tyne Tees (50th)and Highland (51st) Divisions. Prior to the mutiny all bar one of them had unblemished service records. They had fought together through much of the desert campaign against Rommel in north Africa, and had formed strong regimental bonds. General Montgomery encouraged this ‘esprit de corps‘. Loyalty to your unit was the cement that bound his formidable army together.
The men of this story were amongst those who became separated from their units when the victorious 8th Army moved on to Sicily. Some were wounded in battle, others struck down by dysentery and malaria. They were shipped back to Africa for treatment, and then transferred to Camp 155 – the 8th Army transit camp near Tripoli where they waited to return to their units. When the call came, they all wanted to go. Even men who were unfit for battle volunteered for the draft, anxious to rejoin the comrades they had fought with in the desert.
Only when crossing the Mediterranean did they learn they were not, as they had been told at the transit camp, returning to their units. Instead, they were bound for Salerno where allied forces, led by the U.S. 5th Army, were battling to establish a foothold in mainland Italy. On landing, the reinforcements were taken to a field near the beach where they were kept for three days.
It was an administrative error that had led the men to be sent to Salerno, and by the time they got there the emergency was over: they were not needed. But the army could not be seen to back down. The men were warned of the potential punishment for disobedience – mutiny carried the death sentence – but still 191 men refused to move. They were arrested and shipped back to North Africa for court-martial.
The defence team was given just six days to prepare its case, and the trial itself lasted less than a week. The trial papers, originally ordered to be kept secret for 75 years, have only recently been released.
All 191 men were found guilty. Three sergeants were sentenced to death; the rest of the men to between seven and 12 years penal servitude. It was only through the chance intervention of the Adjutant General, Sir Ronald Adam – who later referred to the affair as ‘one of the worst things we have ever done’ – that all the men’s sentences were suspended.
The mutineers were then sent back to the very units they had refused to join at Salerno. They eventually returned home to find their war pensions had been reduced and their campaign medals forfeited. They have faced accusations of cowardice and dishonour ever since.
Changing view of mutiny
Today these events are regarded quite differently from how they were seen even 60 years ago – and it’s worth considering how attitudes have changed in the past few hundred years.
Mutiny can be described as an organised act of disobedience or defiance by two or more members of the armed services. Mutiny may range from a combined refusal to obey orders, to active revolt or to actually crossing the combat lines to fight for the enemy.
Such rebellion can be committed by whole armies, or on a private vessel either at sea or in port. Mutinies often occur in the armed forces of nations on the point of suffering defeat, as with the mutiny of the German navy at Kiel in 1918, and the Austrian navy at Cattaro. A mutiny can also be the signal to start a wider revolution, as were the Russian mutinies in 1905 and 1917 at Kronshtadt.
The navies and armies of the world have always regarded mutiny as one of the most serious of crimes, punishable in wartime by death. Governments also tend to regard it with displeasure, and the British government’s Incitement to Mutiny Act of 1797, and Incitement to Disaffection Act of 1934, were both designed to prevent civilians from inciting members of the armed services to mutiny (the Incitement to Mutiny Act was only repealed in 2000).
Mutineers have sometimes succeeded in their aims. The two major naval mutinies in Britain in 1797, one at Spithead and one at Nore and Sheerness, were as a result of abuses endured by sailors in the British navy – including bad food, brutal discipline and irregular pay. Following the uprisings, the sailors were given a wage increase and the king pardoned the mutineers.
Another unusual case was in March 1914, when British general Hubert Gough and his officers, stationed at Curragh, Ireland, took part in a ‘mutiny’, requesting that they should not be asked to take part in forcing Protestant Ulster to participate in Home Rule. They were subsequently allowed to return to duty, and after World War One the solution of partition was adopted.
The death penalty in Britain for treason was abolished, and replaced by life imprisonment, by Section 36 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. This came into force on 30 September 1998.