Review of Mutiny at Salerno, 1943: An Injustice Exposed, by David Saul

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As a Yank, I am awed by three qualities in British character: an extraordinary sense of fairness, a strong sense of belonging, and a tenacious adherence to principle. In May 1940 these traits combined to save civilisation from destruction; in September 1943 they resulted in a massive miscarriage of military justice. At Salerno 193, or was it 191, or 186? – these numbers were matters legal questions actually turned on—soldiers who had been sent to reinforce the allied troops defending their beachhead against counterattacking Germans, refused orders to go into the line. They were certainly not cowards; they were veterans of some of the fiercest fighting against the Afrika Korps, having served in Montgomery’s 8th Army, the legendary Desert Rats. There is a saying that “hard cases make bad law”; the court martial records that David Saul unearthed demonstrate that this was indeed a very hard case, & it resulted in very very bad law. They were all convicted of mutiny. Tho’ in the end no death sentences were carried out, & everyone’s prison sentences had been commuted by war’s end, these men’s lives were blighted @ an early age & they never recovered the honour & respect (& decorations) that were their due.

Their sense of belonging & of fairness landed them into this mess. As a result of an administrative ‘cock-up’ they were sent, some ill & most ill-equipped, across the Med to arrive after they were needed. Mostly they were from Scotland or Northern England, & they believed they had been promised to rejoin their own units. Instead they were ordered to fight piecemeal alongside of strangers. They thought that unfair & they refused.

To an American, that was a fascinating aspect of this story. In the Second World War, & through Vietnam (where it worked poorly indeed), except in elite units like the rangers and the paratroops, the American army treated individual soldiers like so many cogs in a machine, inserting them as individuals wherever needed. In the British Army, most soldiers had a distinct sense of belonging to a particular regiment with its distinctive history, customs, insignia, sometimes even entire uniforms, fighting alongside men with whom they trained & commanded by officers and NCOs whom they knew. (As a result of budget cuts and government indifference, this tradition is today mostly gone.) To imagine an American equivalent—what would happen if 190 US Marines were suddenly ordered to fight as detached individuals in US Army units? (Wonder how often that ever happened?)

When General Montgomery found out, he was appalled & rightly, tho’ too late; the accused had already been minced in the gears of military ‘justice’. But it was another reminder for me of Montgomery’s genius as a military commander. Altho’ we Yanks prefer the command style of Monty’s arch-rival George Patton, each of them had perceived correctly the same flaw in their armies. As citizens of democracies, real soldiers were not what either general commanded. Rather their men were mostly uniformed civilians, & needed to be treated differently from professionals. (The Germans excelled @ creating professionals, but then they had the Hitler Youth to begin the process; the Russian solution was to bring up an NKVD machine gun team & load a belt into the Maxim gun.) Patton fired up his men like a high-school football coach @ half-time, enkindling their macho pride & aggressiveness. Monty tried to appeal to the staider British character, emphasizing consultation, planning, & respect for soldiers’ sense of dignity & self-esteem. Under Patton you’d believe you could do anything; under Monty you’d believe you’d never be asked to do anything stupid.

These men felt treated ‘indignantly’ & with disrespect – that they’d been lied to & used disrespectfully, & in a sense their inner civilian emerged; like trade union members told to do something not in their contract, they downed tools. I was certainly persuaded by this book they were not guilty of mutiny (certainly not by H.M.S. Bounty or 1917 Russian army standards). If the court martial had had any sense, they might have been convicted for failure to obey an order, but with extenuating circumstances, assigned a few fatigue duties, & then returned to their own units to get on with winning the war. Adherence to principle is not always a good thing.

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