Thursday, March 19, 2009

British Mutiny at Salerno, 1943

“Mutiny” was not an issue in the Red Army. A soldier could be shot for far less than that with little notice being taken. Over amongst the rest of the allies, things were a bit different. We learned of Patton being removed from action for slapping a soldier who claimed to be “shell shock.” One deserter from the American Army was executed and it was such a big deal in America that someone wrote a book about it and later Hollywood made a move staring Martin Sheen as the deserter, Private Slovak. On the French side, it all depended, but some Frenchmen who had been shanghaied (I suppose) into the Nazi Army were making their way back to Alsace when they chanced to run into the troops of General Leclerc. Leclerc had them all shot as traitors.

But the British had a more interesting situation. On page 233 of No Simple Victory, Davies writes, “In October 1943, 192 men of the British Eighth Army sat down in a field near the beach at Salerno, and steadfastly refused to budge, even when the army regulations were formally read out to them. They were Tynesiders and Highlanders of the 50th and 51st Divisions; veterans of the Desert War; and their spokesmen maintained that certain officers had lied to them. At a transit camp at Tripoli in North Africa, they had been told that they were rejoining their units in Sicily. Instead, when already at sea, they had been informed that they were being sent as reinforcements to the Salerno beachhead. None of them were allowed to speak in their own defence at the court martial which took place at Constantine in Algeria. Three sergeants were sentenced to death. All the others were sentenced to seven or ten years’ penal servitude. A month later, following an official inquiry, the sentences were suspended. The men were sent back to their units. And the major responsible for the inquiry reported ‘a series of officers’ blunders’.”

I also found . This is an article from History magazine. It fleshes out the event a bit. These men had proved themselves in North Africa and Montgomery and other high officials were appalled that this “mutiny” was allowed to take place.

The History Magazine article ends with three paragraphs pertaining to one of the mutineers, Corporal Fraser:

CORPORAL Hugh Fraser was just 22 when he was convicted of mutiny. He served with the 5th Cameron Highlanders throughout Montgomery's drive across north Africa, but was evacuated during the Sicily campaign with a recurrence of desert sores. After a spell in hospital, he was transferred to 155 Transit Camp and was waiting to be reported when the order came for reinforcements to be sent to Salerno. Of the 22 men of the Highlanders who refused to join unfamiliar units at the beachhead, Fraser was the senior rank.

He remembers: '1 said to the private soldiers, "You make up your own minds. I know what I'm doing, but if you want to go, go." Each man was capable of making up his own mind. They were all good men, they had all seen some action, and they knew what they wanted to do. There might have been one or two who wanted to avoid fighting, but the majority were refusing to obey orders for the same reason I was: because they had been lied to about returning to their units' Fraser was given ten years' penal servitude, but after six weeks his sentence was suspended and he was posted to the 1st York and Lancasters in Italy. Seriously wounded at Anzio, he spent the rest of the war at GHQ in Naples.

In civilian life he opted to stay on the right side of the law. 'I had an interview with the chief constable in Aberdeen,' he recalls, 'and felt obliged to tell him about my conviction for mutiny. He just smiled and said: "Don't do it again."' Fraser spent 29 years with the Aberdeen police and retired with the rank of inspector. He has no regrets about his stand. 'Given the same circumstances, I would do the same again. It was purely and simply a matter of principle, and I've always had strong principles. The conviction didn't affect me; I just got on with my life.'

But the conviction did affect Corporal Fraser, and he did not just get “on with” his life. He brought the matter to the House of Commons in 2000: Despite “having achieved much as an inspector of police in Aberdeen, could not shake off a black stain on his character.”

However, the presentation of Corporal Fraser’s plea did not result in a removal of his “black stain.” The report concludes, . . . as General Montgomery suggested, those could not override lawful orders based on operational necessities and did not give them the right to mutiny. General Montgomery was in no doubt: he could not condone their action in refusing, when called upon, to provide operationally necessary reinforcements for the battlefield. The inescapable fact remains that the men mutinied on active service in the battlefield. By any account, that is a serious offence. To grant a pardon for that offence would be a disservice to the many men, including other 8th Army veterans, who obeyed orders, whether they liked them or not, and fought on. It would be a particular slight to those who gave their lives as a result.


This event is worth considering, not just as a reflection on the British, but upon the entire “West.” I think we can set aside the French action, because France, the France that replaced Vichy, was initially very hard on its collaborators; so I am inclined to see LeClerc’s actions more as punishing collaborators than as military discipline.

But for the British, the end result was that the mutineers were not punished. They were not treated very well by the military for the rest of their service; which indicates that many if not most in the rest of the British military were not in sympathy with them. Also, after they were released from service, their records continued to show that they were convicted of mutiny. Their convictions were never overturned, just the punishments.

And Corporal Fraser’s comment that he would do the same thing over again because it was a “matter of principle,” is very interesting. He doesn’t elaborate on what that principle was in anything I read, but surely it has to do with the Humanistic idea that the “self” takes high precedence, perhaps ultimate precedence in all matters. In a totalitarian regime, the “self” is not allowed to be weighed against the good of the “people” (as the Soviets would say it), the good of the Fatherland (as the Nazis would say it) or the good of the Ummah (as the Islamists would say it), but in the West we have “human rights.” And if in our own view our human rights are infringed, we may decide to stick with them rather than what the law or even the Code of Military Justice has to say we must do. That is what Corporal Fraser and his fellow mutineers chose to do. Their personal sense of justice had been infringed, so they refused the lawful orders of their commanders. I say “lawful” because that has apparently born out. Even Montgomery, though he thought the situation had been bungled, he confirmed that these men had been issued “lawful” orders. There was nothing unlawful about these orders.

Let us move for the moment over to the idea of “unlawful orders.” The Nuremberg trials have opened forever this issue of how an individual soldier ought to respond to “unlawful” orders. Up until this trial, it was legitimate for a soldier to obey all orders without question. If he was following orders and the orders were for him to do something that was criminal, and he did it, he would not be blamed. Only the officer issuing the order would be blamed. Since that was the criteria in effect during the Second World War in the Nazi army, it is no surprise that so many being accused of criminal acts stated that “they were only following orders.” By judging at Nuremberg that this wasn’t a sufficient defense, we have forever put the onus back on the individual soldier to judge the orders he is issued. If he is told that the enemy is in a certain village and no civilians are present and he follows those orders and ends up killing civilians, he may very well be tried and convicted of a crime. No doubt his case would be examined carefully. As long as he thought there were enemies in the village, he was duty bound to follow orders, but there must have been a point at which he realized that these were civilians and not enemies . . . or was there?

By conducting the Nuremberg trials we have caused an ongoing mess for ourselves. They were indeed “Victor’s trials” as Goering argued. We should have executed all the Nazis we did, and probably more than we did, but not for the reasons we did. We had no universal code of military justice in place at the time. The Nazis were doing what they believed was right. Let us kill them as enemies. I’m all for that, but not because they committed crimes. What they did was “lawful” according to their system. By what system of logic can we find them guilty of violating a system (our own system) which they neither believed in, believed they should obey, or were perhaps even aware of?

Of course the Nuremberg trials had not taken place when Corporal Fraser and his fellow mutineers decided their individual systems of justice ought to supersede their Military Code of Justice, but we can observe that Corporal Fraser could only have survived in a Liberal Democracy. He would have been shot on the beach by the Red Army or the Nazi Army. But in the West, not just in Britain, but in all the West, a very large percentage of people aren’t at all sure he was wrong.

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