Salerno - A Mutiny?
The story of the Salerno mutiny is one in which brave men of good character were taught that to be morally in the right is not enough. Nearly 200 men, the vast majority of whom had fought bravely across North Africa, whose strong sense of justice caused them to disobey just one order, were convicted of mutiny and harshly sentenced as though they had taken up arms against their own army. Some of these men had been decorated, at least one was the possessor of the Military Medal. My interest in this small piece of history is simple, my grandfather was one of those involved.
My grandfather was Will Skirrow, now sadly passed away. The last time I saw him was in hospital not long before he died. He was lucid one moment and then was looking at a friend who was dying or dead beside him. It is only in the last few years that I have come to realise how lucky a generation I belong to and how hard it must have been for those fighting, both at the time and subsequently having to deal with memories that I can not imagine having. I now appreciate why the "old soldier" type are the way they are.
If there is anyone out there with any information about the mutiny and the men involved I would love to hear from them. This is particularly true of those with connections with the Seaforth Highlanders. Please get in touch via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
The following article is from The Times of 3 December 1999.
Time to forgive our greatest wartime mutiny, says Saul David
"When we did not fight on the beaches "
Just over 56 years ago, at the Salerno beachhead in southern Italy, 191
veterans of Montgomery's illustrious 8th Army stood silently on parade as
Captain Albert Lee gave the order for the third and final time: "Pick up
your kits, fall in on the road and march off to 46th Division area!" Nobody
The men - recognisable by their bronzed limbs and sun-bleached khaki as
Desert Rats - were disarmed, arrested and shipped back to North Africa to
face court-martial. It was the largest wartime mutiny in British military
history. Only now, thanks to the release of the court-martial papers, can
the story be told.
A fortnight earlier, the Allies had landed troops at Salerno, south of
Naples. Within days, however, German counterattacks were threatening to
drive them back into the sea. The American commander cabled for
reinforcements. They should have come from Algeria, but an administrative
error resulted in the order being sent to the 8th Army transit camp in
Libya. The men selected included 1,000 new recruits awaiting their first
posting and 500 veterans of the desert fighting.
With the surrender of the Axis forces in North Africa in May 1943, the 8th
Army became the pride of Britain. Just one more action, Montgomery told
them, and they would be going home.
But, for the men of this story, it was here that the trouble began, for it
was here that they parted company with the 8th Army. Some had been wounded,
others had succumbed to malaria and dysentery. After their recuperation
they had been sent to the 8th Army transit camp to await postings back to
When the order came to join the emergency draft, the veterans were happy to
oblige. Some were told by camp staff that they were going back to their
units: others assumed it.
As they crossed the Mediterranean they learnt they were bound for Salerno.
Not only were they the wrong reinforcements, they had been misled as to
their destination. When Montgomery later learnt of this he was furious. "If
I had known what was to be done," he wrote, "I would have said 'no'."
At Salerno the new recruits were escorted to the front line, while the 8th
Army veterans were left in a field near the beach. Even a speech on the
third day by the senior British general at Salerno - admitting that they
had been victims of a cock-up, but insisting that they were needed to repel
the Germans - failed to convince more than 200 to march to the front: these
men soon discovered that the "emergency" had been over for days.
But the Army could not be seen to back down. At a parade the following day,
Captain Lee warned the men that the penalty for mutiny was death, before
giving them that final order.
Their secret court-martial took place at a school gymnasium in the Algerian
hilltop city of Constantine. While the prosecution had over a month to
prepare their case, the defence team was given six days and was forced to
rely on the ultimately futile tactic of arguing that the prosecution had no
case to answer.
The men were found guilty of mutiny as charged. The three senior ranks, all
sergeants, were sentenced to death, while the others faced seven to ten
years of penal servitude.
By chance, the Adjutant-General, Sir Ronald Adam, was visiting North Africa
at the time. He ordered their immediate release. But the men were then sent
back to Italy, often to the very units they had refused to join two months
About 80 deserted, some after being victimised in their new units: a number
were repeatedly sent on dangerous night patrols, others were kept in the
front line when their unit was relieved. All the deserters were rounded up
and returned to prison, where they saw out the war in solitary confinement.
They were released in 1945, but had to serve an additional 18 months in the
army. Returning home, they discovered that their war pensions had been
reduced and that they were denied their campaign medals. One man had to
return his gallantry medal.
Certainly the mutineers disobeyed an order to fight, but without a series
of errors by officers, those young men would never have had to face such a
dilemma. It is surely now time to grant the survivors a pardon and to
return their campaign and gallantry medals.
Saul David is the author of Mutiny at Salerno, and the historical
consultant to 3BM Television's A Very British Mutiny, shown in December
1999 on BBC2.
Back to homepage