Duncan Hallas

A soldier’s story

An interview by Clare Fermont & Chris Nineham


Socialist Review 186, May 1995.
Copyright © 1995 Socialist Review.
Downloaded from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Duncan Hallas has been a lifelong Trotskyist who spent the war as an engineer’s apprentice in Manchester and then was conscripted into the army. Clare Fermont and Chris Nineham talked to him about his experiences.

What were you doing when war broke out?

I hadn’t yet reached my 14th birthday. Everyone assumed war was coming, partly because of the scare in 1938. So when it broke out there was no surprise. It was generally accepted as inevitable, but there wasn’t any enthusiasm.

I started working in January 1940. Almost everyone could get a job (they had introduced conscription for men, and then for women with some qualifications). At the shop I worked in – the turbine machine shop of Metrovicks – all the electrical work was done by women, whereas all the machine work was done by men. Lots of them were new or had not worked for a long time. At its peak it had 30,000 workers.

What was the impact of war at home?

There was a chap who lived two doors down from us. He hadn’t worked for years. A new factory was built and he got a job. There were lots of people like this. Even before conscription, people were getting jobs. My mother had been a winder in a weaving shed. She’d had time off for the kids and she’d always been taken back – until about 1936. Then she got a poxy little job in a factory, working in the kitchen. Then she discovered they were taking people on in aviation in Stockport, so she became a riveter. Most women in Lancashire had worked in the textile trade and were miserably paid. Now she was coming home with a wage packet and she wouldn’t tell my dad how much was in it.

This type of experience affected millions of people. Consequently, the war didn’t seem all that terrible. All the things the Tories complained about, like rationing, were great. If you were used to buying a lot of fresh meat, then it was a bit of an outrage. But eight ounces of meat a week per head was more than we’d ever had.

Most of the accounts about the horrors of rationing are written by middle class people with middle class assumptions.

It’s all recorded: for example, childhood nutrition rose quite sharply. Also you didn’t worry about getting a job or losing your job.

When were you conscripted and what was the mood like in the army?

In autumn 1943. All the army wanted at that time was infantry for the invasion of Europe, so I was sent to the infantry. After we’d finished the 14 week training period they sent us to a holding battalion. We stayed there until we were sent as replacements to Normandy, in July 1944. We were wet behind the ears and we had four weeks of quite heavy fighting around Caen. Casualties were fairly heavy. Then the German army was in retreat. After that my battalion never saw any serious fighting. Most of the people I came across who had been in the army for any length of time were anti-army. They were also generally hostile to the system as they saw it. And this spilled into general politics. They didn’t like the government and they didn’t like Churchill.

Before the 1945 election the army ordered that meetings be held to explain to the soldiers what the election was all about. In our platoon a new second lieutenant with an Oxford accent came down to talk to us. Nobody wanted to listen. Actually, many of us couldn’t vote – you had to be 21.

The army vote was overwhelmingly Labour. But that underestimates the level of radicalisation. Firstly, a lot of soldiers who were between the ages of 18 and 21 couldn’t vote. Secondly, lots of the older ones weren’t on the register because the registers dated from 1935 and many people had never got on them.

Basically the radicalisation was anti – anti-Hitler, anti-government, anti-Churchill. It was “against the system”, but there was no clear articulation of what that could be. One thing was certain. Unemployment was in everybody’s mind. Unemployment had been very bad before the war – it actually hadn’t been in the late 1930s, but that’s what was in people’s minds, and the Labour Party promised full employment.

What were army politics like?

In the army there is an extreme form of class society. There’s an officer corps, the great majority of them destined to be officers because of their class and educational background. They live separately and they are paid much more. You never see senior officers. The army structure depends on a layer of relative privilege. A private soldier in those days got three shillings a day – nominally, as he never actually saw it because of stoppages. A full sergeant received 12 shillings and sixpence. That’s a big difference. Basically, the whole thing was held together by a corps of NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers).

What happened when the war ended and what was the mood like?

Most people expected to get out of the army pretty soon. In fact, the new Labour government was determined to hold on to the British Empire. So I was in Germany until late 1945, and then we were sent to the Middle East.

Late in 1945 they sent us from the ruins of Germany in boarded up trains with all the glass smashed out, to Vienna, to Trieste and then, the bulk of the division, to Egypt to defend the British Empire. Our battalion was hived off and sent to Tripoli. After a few months we too went to Egypt.

The election was over, we had a Labour government and there was a general expectation that we’d be sent home fairly quickly.

There was a system of points for demobilisation which most people thought was fair. That is, the longer you had served, the quicker you got out. There were allowances for wives, children, etc. This process meant that people thought they’d be out in 12 months. We honestly thought we’d be out by 1946.

But they were sending troops all over the place to defend the empire – to Vietnam and Indonesia to take over from the French and Dutch, and the British still dominated the Middle East. There were British garrisons in Syria, Iraq and much of Iran.

The impact of this was to concentrate the dissatisfaction around the simple demand, “We want out”.

In the spring of 1946 there was a series of mutinies. The only one I can talk about directly is the one in Egypt. But there were also mutinies in India, Malaya – all over the place.

We were in a place near Ismaliya in the canal zone of Egypt. We heard that they’d mutinied in Ismaliya. It wasn’t highly sophisticated politically, but was around the demand that, ‘We want out!’ So initially we refused to do guard parade and other duties. Within a short time the authorities were in real trouble. The RAF and other forces had gone, and the officers were isolated. The officers worked through NCOs. It was like the film Carry on Sergeant – when the officer doesn’t know what to do, he says “Carry on Sergeant”! When the NCOs won’t do what they’re supposed to, they’re buggered. Most of the NCOs, including the majority of senior NCOs in our battalion, refused to carry out orders. Therefore the whole thing collapsed.

The mutiny lasted about three and a half weeks. They were very interesting weeks indeed! The authorities had no force. The only units they could rely on were the military police. But they were facing a whole infantry division who were trained to fight. So they couldn’t do anything. So they resorted to persuasion. They gave orders, of course, and threats of punishment.

But they mainly resorted to persuasion. A brigadier came down to see us. We’d never seen one in the flesh. He came down in his red tabs and he had a loudhailer and he asked us to come and talk to him. We all crowded round, not in formation, and he gave us all the soft stuff, “I know how you feel, I know you all want to go home, I want to go home, and that’s what we’re trying to do. But we’ve got to have organisation, we’ve got to have discipline.”

He wasn’t well received. In fact, he was heckled. But actually his message got home. It ended in a rather messy way. Some people accepted orders, some said they wouldn’t. It crumbled at different times in different units. Then they decided to put the screws on.

The government in Britain was in difficulties. The wives and families wanted their men back. Consequently, discipline had to be maintained. So they had a show trial. The hundreds of NCOs who had been arrested were simply kept in detention. They selected 23, most of them warrant officers like sergeant majors, and they put them on trial and got convictions.

They had a problem with the rest of us, including full sergeants like me. NCOs had to be protected against the excesses of junior officers.

Of course, we never again saw an infantry battalion. I was sent to GHQ in Cairo. They just wanted you out of the way. There were hundreds of people in this position – NCOs who they had to get rid of. They didn’t want them because there were new conscripts coming in all the time, and they wanted to cut us off from them. So I had a fairly easy life from that time on. Needless to say, I was never promoted.

The mutinies did succeed in accelerating the rate of demobilisation quite considerably.

Did socialists have any role in organising the mutinies?

In a formal sense, no. In a practical sense, yes. I was a platoon sergeant. When two platoons of the support company came out, we said let’s go out and demonstrate, which we did. They were used to obeying orders, but I couldn’t have stopped them. That must have been true of hundreds and thousands of people. That was why they couldn’t crush the mutiny. They didn’t have any reliable NCOs except in the military police, who everybody regarded as bastards.

Did you come across many other socialists in the army?

You came across the odd bloke who was consciously Labour. A few soldiers were revolutionary. The problem for the revolutionaries was that in the army intermediate demands are difficult because of the disciplinary structure. Basically you try to mess things up. We talked about imperialism and capitalism. We always met informally and some literature circulated.

The army is a totalitarian society. By definition, everyone below the level of the commissioned ranks is almost entirely working class – in those days, mostly manual working class. Everyone was against Hitler but attitudes towards Germany as a whole differed. After the experience of Normandy, most people weren’t particularly hostile to the Germans because, after the horrible fighting around Caen, it was clear that they were in the same situation as us.

There was another contradiction of army life. All our outgoing mail was censored. But they didn’t censor the incoming mail. I used to get the Socialist Appeal. So a few left wing publications circulated, although not many. For example, one parcel arrived with Rationalist Press publications, which were circulated and regarded as highly subversive – even though they weren’t. They knocked the church and church services, which everyone had to attend and were hated.

When did the forces’ parliaments happen?

That was earlier. It was a CP operation that the army suppressed. The parliament was terminated in late 1942, early 1943. It basically involved garrison troops in Egypt. They held off duty meetings, under the influence of the CP. The meetings, by the way, were pro-war. They were radical, in army terms at least. They didn’t arrest anyone, but they did suppress it by early 1943. The meetings didn’t make any demands; they talked about politics. That is subversive.

Can you explain the surprise landslide Labour victory in 1945?

The huge swing was caused by the experience of the war itself, full employment, conscription of labour, and the fact that the system of rationing and allocation and the quasi-planned economy ensured that nobody went hungry. This was not true in the 1930s. Labour promised they would carry on those type of policies and the Tories weren’t believed.

The thing people talked most about was jobs. Then they wanted a health service which the Labour Party promised. In particular, they wanted women to be brought in under the scheme. They weren’t allowed to pay the health stamp even if they wanted to. But people’s aspirations in the first instance were general – we don’t want to go back to the 1930s – and that meant first of all jobs.

They passed a law which said that employers must rehire anyone who had served in the armed forces. That was probably the biggest factor behind the big swing to Labour.

There was also a big squatter movement after the war, which was promoted by the Communist Party, although it would have occurred without them. People took over hotels and so on, on the basis that our homes have been blown to pieces, and look at Buckingham Palace.

And the demand for the NHS came from the organised labour movement. The Labour Party was actually serious about it and it was enormously popular when it came in. The Labour Party was committed to maintaining the empire, but it was also committed to a number of reforms. The general radicalisation of the war is what converted a minority of workers voting Labour into an overwhelming majority. There was a tremendous demand for change. Between 1945 and 1951 Labour did not lose a single by-election.

Why was there a sharp rise in class struggle in Britain in 1943 and 1944?

Basically, family earnings grew greatly with the onset of war. Women suddenly got much better jobs with better pay. The new industries, light engineering and so on, paid vastly better. So family incomes rose substantially.

Then there was a systematic attempt to clamp down on wages which by 1943 was beginning to become effective. The strikes weren’t simply about wages. They were commonly short lived and commonly forced the employers to concede, even though wages were regulated by law. They reached their height in 1944. These were big movements. They weren’t anti-war, they were about the specific grievances.

There was an explosion. They conceded in part, as indeed they had to. They did against the Kent miners, for example, but they couldn’t do it on a massive scale – particularly in engineering and shipbuilding, which was at the centre of things.

The only strike I took part in was much earlier than that, in the spring of 1941. There was a rash of disputes starting in Glasgow, involving apprentices who were exceedingly poorly paid. I started at 14 shillings and sixpence a week. By the age of 16 I had reached the grand total of 20 shillings a week.

There were a series of grievances about relative privileges. What precipitated the dispute in Manchester was the fact that the employers decided to abolish the Shrove Tuesday half day holiday, which had existed since before the industrial revolution. That was the last straw.

So we raw youth were instructed in the art of picketing and had the first scab bicycled into a ditch. Of course, we loved it. The dispute lasted about a week. The management caved in, not because we could beat them – our parents would have forced us back – but because of the owners’ general assessment of the situation in the factories. They didn’t want the dispute to spread, because a lot of disputes were simmering.

My radicalisation came after the 1941 dispute. I joined the Young Communist League. I was never in the CP, but I stayed in the YCL until 1942. I wasn’t happy when Japan entered the war, as it was so manifestly an imperialist war. The CP by this time had a pro-war line.

In the spring of 1943 I first bought a Trotskyist paper, the Socialist Appeal. Then we met this woman and we argued about politics. Then she brought across from Liverpool a cadre, Jimmy Dean, and he persuaded us we ought to join. By the time I went in the army there were about five of us. When I came out of the army and looked them up, we had a branch of about 12 or 15.

What attitude did the Trotskyist groups have towards the war?

The Trotskyists in the Workers International League said it’s an imperialist war, but we’re not pacifists we’re against Hitler. Therefore, we can’t refuse military service – you go with your class. We argued for no confidence in the ruling class’s so called anti-fascism. The other 40 or so Trotskyists (the official Trotskyists) said this was basically a defensive position of supporting imperialism.

The WIL said protect the working class – we need proper air raid precautions and deep shelters – in general, carry on the class struggle. They denounced profits and took up working class demands. We didn’t preach abstractly against the war. We preached against imperialism, saying it’s an imperialist war. We said we want to get rid of Hitler, but those rich bastards don’t – they supported Franco. I still think this was the correct position. You wanted to influence people to do certain things.


Last updated on 1.10.2002