Duncan Hallas

Swimming Against the Tide

Duncan Hallas on his Experiences in Egypt

(February 2001)

Duncan Hallas was interviewed by Ian Birchall in February 2001.
Published in Revolutionary History, Vol.8 No.2, 2002, pp. 208–12.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

IB: Can you tell us about the mutiny you were involved in at the end of the Second World War?

DH: The mutiny you speak of broke out in 1946 because the war was over. Our call-up papers had stated that we were called up for “the duration of the present emergency”, which we took to mean the war. And now the bastards were prolonging the “present emergency” for I don’t know how long.

So there was quite a big mutiny; all the air force units in Egypt and Palestine and most – though not quite all – of the army simply went on strike, and going on strike is rather exhilarating when you’re subject to military discipline.

The big brass – a Major-General no less – came down to address us and tell us his heart was with us: “Everything possible is being done, but you’re not helping matters, so please go back to work.” In fact we didn’t go back for a considerable time, but eventually we went back It was a very exhilarating experience; hordes and hordes of troops were involved. For some reason, the air force were always to the fore, probably because intra-country communications were better. But it didn’t occur to anyone to fire a shot. We had weapons and ammunition, but it didn’t occur to us to fire it at the respected general. There were limits.

IB: And you were in prison?

DH: Yes. Of course, once they had got you back, all the promises were forgotten. The British were still occupying the Delta, and we were held 10 to a cell in the Citadel in Cairo, an ancient building, medieval at least. How long I was held there I don’t know. I was fed, though. Then at some stage – this had to do, I think, with international negotiations of some sort, or negotiations between the nominal Egyptian government and the British government – the British agreed to withdraw from the Delta into the Canal Zone.

So we went, the next thing I can remember, to near the Great Bitter Lake, in the Canal Zone. It was a long time, or so it seems. I wouldn’t like to say how long – the trouble with things like this is your sense of duration of time is shaky. It seems to me in retrospect a hell of a long time.

It wasn’t so bad. I was a sergeant by this time, God help me. That means you do a lot of duties, relatively speaking, compared to a private, because of their regulations. The guard, which is 24 hours a day – it changes three times – must be in charge of a warrant officer or sergeant. The warrant officers made themselves bloody scarce.

It was a pleasant enough place, and it was enlivened by being able to swim in the Great Bitter Lake. The water was warm, at that latitude; not hot, but pleasantly warm. Guard duties were enlivened because the Bedouin came to steal cloth; all sorts of tents. They were amazing. Sometimes they would get away with it. Usually they would get caught and run away, but they must have been very poor and driven by necessity. But their ingenuity was admirable.

IB: Why were you imprisoned? How many people were imprisoned? Had you been a ringleader?

DH: Senior NCOs and warrant officers. It was done by category. All the sergeants were arrested. I wasn’t so prominent as to merit individual attention. But the army thinks – or thought – in terms of categories. They needed the sergeants to keep order.

IB: Was there a political leadership?

DH: If so I didn’t know it. There was apparently an Egyptian Trotskyist organisation in the Delta, but I never came in contact with it. There would have been a language difficulty, but above all an identification difficulty. They didn’t go around wearing a badge saying: “Please contact me, I am a Trotskyist.”

IB: How about within the British army? Presumably there were Communist Party people around.

DH: Oh yes, there were Communist Party people around.

IB: What was their attitude?

DH: Like the rest of us, they wanted to get out of the army. Beyond that, nothing very much. I used to get the Socialist Appeal – the paper of the Workers International League – I got it after some considerable delay. It took weeks, but doubtless it went through various censorships up here and down there.

IB: So presumably somebody, the army censorship department at least, knew you were a Trotskyist?

DH: Oh yes, but they didn’t worry. They had limited choices. They had to promote someone, from private to corporal to sergeant, to keep control of the thing. The apparatus of control depended on maintaining a military hierarchy. For lack of anything better they promoted me, and scores of people like me. You see the basic truth is that apart from people who intended to become professional soldiers – there were some officer cadets – nobody at that time wanted to be in the army. In 1946, we’d had enough of it, so for want of suitable people they had to deal with unsuitable people, or less suitable people.

IB: Were you the only Trotskyist in the British army in Egypt?

DH: There must have been others. I was the only one I knew. There were hundreds of thousands in the army in Egypt at tat time. Egypt cum Palestine cum Jordan; the whole area was under British military control – ostensibly under League of Nations mandate – so there must have been lots of people, but one thing being under military discipline does do is restrict your ability to move around. You can desert, of course, but desertion is a serious crime, and you can go to prison for that. Instead you can interpret the orders that are given to you, and it pays to act a bit daft.

IB: How was the mutiny organised? Were there committees set up? Was there some sort of structure?

DH: It was done by the NCOs – and a few warrant officers. They stuck their necks out. Some were sent to Britain and charged – you’d have to check the public records here. They were convicted of a felony, mutiny, something of that sort. As for the common sergeants – there were too many of us for them to bother. If they had got rid of the lot of us they would have had to promote a lot of other people.

IB: You weren’t actually demoted?

DH: Quite a lot of us were imprisoned, and in the end released without charge.

IB: So you were never actually court-martialled?

DH: No.

IB: On what basis did they imprison you? You were simply imprisoned without any form of trial or any form of procedure?

DH: They could do that; we were subject to military discipline.

IB: You didn’t have habeas corpus?

DH: No.

IB: Was there a time limit for how long they could keep you?

DH: There was practical time limit imposed on them by the need either to promote another wave, or make do with what they’ve got.

IB: But where would they have found a new wave?

DH: There were plenty of privates.

IB: But had they not also been mutinying?

DH: Yes, but they were only privates. You have to understand the contempt that exists in military circles for the lower ranks, I mean amongst the officer class. Since they don’t want to dirty their own hands by dealing with common privates and so on, they have to deal with them through warrant officers and NCOs. So they stuck people in jail, and then they were simply released; no apology of course. You see that’s one of the beauties of the system. From their point of view it’s not like being arrested for an offence like murder, where they’ve got to give you some sort of a show of a trial. They don’t have to bother. You can see why. The fundamental reason was this: the British were maintaining a huge army in relation to the size of the country, and they seriously thought they were going to hold on to the British Empire, and even expand bits of it. It seems incredible, but that was the case, and for that they needed instruments.

IB: Was the mutiny known in Britain, was it reported in the press?

DH: Yes.

IB: And was it taken up by anyone?

DH: Quite a few Labour MPs protested in the House of Commons – it got reported in the Socialist Appeal – on the sensible grounds that they asked: “What the hell were we doing there anyway? What were we getting out of it?”

IB: Did it lead to any change of policy? Did they bring people home afterwards?

DH: Yes. I was transformed from a prisoner to a sergeant in charge of ship’s police on the way home. You see, they decided to release a batch of us; several of us were under arrest at the time. But then you pass from one authority to another. Under the ship’s authority there has to be someone in charge of ship’s police – someone of suitable rank – and they picked me. This was absolutely ludicrous, but it brought me one advantage – one practical advantage – we sailed around the Mediterranean for a while picking people up and ten we finished up in Liverpool, and I had various books and papers, but being in charge of ship’s police I wasn’t searched. But if they’d picked someone different, he might have had a different collection, say of erotic literature.

The basic fact is that British imperialism was in decline, and they didn’t want to recognise the fact. On the other hand, they were under pressure from the United States, which in that period was all for national independence, that is – “Come under our influence and not that of the British.”

IB: That continued right up to Suez, which was the last kick.

DH: Suez was the last time they seriously conflicted with the Americans. I was out of the army by then.

IB: Who actually physically imprisoned you? If all the sergeants were supporting the mutiny, presumably somebody must have come in and arrested you, and carried you into the cells. Were there some reliable units?

DH: They had a few. I won’t say reliable, but more reliable. Typically they were ones that had come out from Britain very recently. They’d not got browned off. They didn’t have to drag us physically. We knew damn well the bastards were going to have to release us, or promote someone else who would be as bad.

IB: But you can’t put people in prison without having someone actually to do the job.

DH: That’s right. The arresting party consists of privates, but there must be a warrant officer or an NCO in charge. The privates had to do what they were told, or get nicked.

IB: So these were people from the loyal units?

DH: Basically a loyal unit meant one which had recently been called up and sent overseas. They weren’t exactly loyal but they were less browned off or less sophisticated – whichever way you want to look at it – than the people who’d been there for some time. Basically they were trying the impossible. As you say, what finally pissed on their chips was the Suez expedition. Then the United States seriously clamped down and so they had to back off.

IB: Any other details?

DH: We were properly fed when we were in prison. I can’t complain about being starved.

IB: Was that because they knew they were going to have to make a deal with you eventually?

DH: Possibly – or perhaps they were tied by their own regulations. I don’t know.

IB: Were you allowed to associate with the other prisoners?

DH: They couldn’t stop us, could they?

IB: They could keep you in solitary confinement.

DH: But for that they would require a vastly increased number of warrant officers and NCOs who were more reliable than the people they were guarding.

IB: I was wondering what the level of political discussion was among the people who had been imprisoned.

DH: Overwhelmingly it was “we want out”. There were political discussions and arguments, but the overwhelming sentiment was “we want out”.

It was a great relief when I finally got out and then back to Manchester, and joined the Manchester branch of the RCP, just as it was about to unite – theoretically. This was 1947 and the fusion conference had taken place – followed immediately, of course, by a three-way split.

It was a long time ago, and your recollections tend to run into one another. I remember the beautifully warm water swimming in the Great Bitter Lake. I went swimming nearly every day.

Last updated on 16.10.2011