ON APRIL 10, 1921 Newport seemed to be alive with military activity. Two trainloads of sailors arrived at Newport Station while, as the Argus reported, from the docks:

"The town was invaded by detachments of naval ratings who, after arrival, proceeded to their billeting quarters in full marching order, wearing steel helmets and with bayonets fixed. Tanks rumbled noisily through the streets during the morning, and the battle cruiser Malaya and the light cruiser Excellent put into Newport Docks.”

They were in Newport in response on the orders of Lloyd George’s government in the face of what amounted to the threat of a virtual general strike. Their stated task was to keep order and protect property.

The end of the Great War and contraction of war industries led to a serious slump in the coal industry. During the war the government had taken control of the coal industry but this came to an end on March 31, 1921. The private employers immediately enforced wage cuts, leading to an immediate nationwide coal strike.

But this was more than just a stoppage in the coal industry, serious enough although this would have been. The miners union had formed an alliance with the transport workers and railwaymen. This “Triple Alliance” of the country’s most powerful trade unions were pledged to support each other in disputes. If they all stopped work together it would be by far the biggest industrial dispute the country had ever witnessed.

The government had declared a state of emergency, called up Army and Navy Reservists, and sent extra police into the mining areas.

And so it was that the Navy arrived in some force in Newport.

As it turned out, the “general strike” never happened (at least not for another five years).

On April 15, a day which has gone done in trade union history as “Black Friday”, the Triple Alliance fell apart. The leaders of the railwaymen and transport workers decided not to call their members out on strike. The miners were left to fight on alone. Nevertheless, the coal strike would cripple South Wales and the government felt that disorder was possible. So the naval men remained in south Wales.

The 400 men who had arrived with HMS Excellent and HMS Malaya were naval regulars based in Portsmouth under the command of Captain Graham Edwards. Two days hours after arriving in Newport, 250 of them were moved up to Abertillery.

Those who had arrived by train remained in Newport. They were Reservists, mainly First World War veterans who had been recalled, in many cases resentfully, to the colours.

Few, if any, had experience of crowd control. Most had been stokers who had never even handled weapons.

What is more, 90 per cent were trade unionists and 200 of them were coal miners, some even from the local area. They might have been prepared to maintain order, but they were deeply suspicious that they would be used for strike breaking, and were none too keen on this prospect.

The commander of the reservists was Captain Edward Coverley Kennedy, a man with a long naval career behind him, having joined as a 15-year-old in 1894.

South Wales Argus: Edward Coverley Kennedy. Taken from ‘On My Way to the Club’ by Ludovik Kennedy (Collins 1989)

Edward Coverley Kennedy. Taken from On My Way to the Club by Ludovik Kennedy (Collins 1989)

Kennedy’s young son was Ludovic Kennedy. He grew up to be a writer, BBC TV journalist and presenter. In his autobiography he gives details of the events in Newport, drawing his information from his father’s diary.

Apparently, things started to go wrong from the very start.

The men had left Portsmouth in two special trains. Kennedy was in the first train and arrived in Newport at 4am to find that no arrangements had been made for billeting or feeding the men. With no food prepared, the men were sent into town to buy their own breakfast and lunch.

Eventually Kennedy and his officers eventually found billets for the men at “Stow Hill Municipal School” (Newport Intermediate School). Cooking facilities at the school were totally inadequate and there were only two toilets for 600 men. To make matters even worse, all the bedding had been left behind in Portsmouth, so the men spent several nights sleeping on bare floors. Within days, 200 of the men had gone down with diarrhoea.

South Wales Argus:

Stow Hill today

The officers at least had beds, being billeted in the King’s Head Hotel, although Kennedy was not impressed, describing it as “a dirty, smelly tavern”.

Since there was no disorder in the mining districts, the men had no useful work to do, so spent their mornings drilling and the afternoons playing football.

South Wales Argus: .Sailors playing football in Newport cattle market, April 1921 (Argus picture)

Sailors playing football in Newport cattle market, April 1921

After two weeks in the school, during which time they managed to make the conditions at least tolerable, and at least had the compensation of being but a short stroll from Newport town centre, they were told to move out so that the school children could return.

The men had been told to take clothing to Newport for three weeks and were expecting that their posting would end after that time. Moving billets after a fortnight aroused suspicions that they would be staying longer.

Their new billet turned out to be a long way out of town at the huge government cartridge box repair factory at the Alexandra Docks, a cavernous, draughty shell, with even fewer facilities than the school.

Having breakfasted at 7am the men marched four miles with all their kit before arriving at the factory at 11am. They could, at least, look forward to a hot meal, which had been promised for midday. It failed to arrive until 1pm and they were still eating at 1.15pm when the bugle call for parade was sounded.

At this point, tempers boiled over. Around 500 of the 600 men refused to move. When a second bugle call was ignored, officers moved in and shouted orders to fall in but were widely disobeyed.

The normal procedure in face of this breakdown of discipline would be for Kennedy to order the regulars, who were under separate command, to surround the factory and arrest the ringleaders.

However, judging that the immediate task was to de-escalate the situation, and well aware that the men had genuine grievances, he offered to meet two men chosen from each platoon.

At the meeting it became clear the main causes of the protest were indeed to do with accommodation, food, washing facilities and leave, but it is significant that when one man added that 90 per cent of them were trade unionists and “they would lay down their arms if called upon to use them against their fellow workmen” he was met with a “hum of ascent”.

The basic grievances remained and some men showed their unhappiness by acts of petty vandalism. The situation was reported to Captain Edwards. He decided it was pointless to keep the reservists in Newport as they could not be relied upon to obey orders. On the morning after the “mutiny” they were packed on trains and taken back to Portsmouth, where they were split between different ships.

It was Kennedy who bore the brunt of the Navy’s retribution. He was court martialled on a charge of “neglect to the prejudice of good order and naval discipline in that he did not take proper measures to suppress an outbreak of insubordination on 29 April”.

The prosecution concentrated on his failure to immediately call on the senior naval officer (Captain Graham Edwards) for assistance, and that by asking the platoons to nominate representatives, he had deprived the officers and petty officers of their rightful authority, “virtually transferring the control of the battalion to those representatives”. The court heard that “Thou shalt not kill” had been chalked on a board with the symbol of a Stoker underneath it. Messages had been left under ammunition boxes calling upon the incoming battalion to do the same as the outgoing one.

Kennedy argued that “the men’s conception of discipline was very different from that of active service ratings” and that there would have been no “outbreak” if the men had remained billeted at the school: “Propagandists and sedition mongers, of whom the town was full, succeeded in making the men believe they were being sent to the factory for punishment and that naval and military ratings had previously refused duty there. The men found that the place was surrounded by barbed wire, and this magnified their belief in the story that had been spread.

“An instantaneous decision was imperative .. In view of the fact that order was restored owing to my action … I submit that the charge against me falls to the ground.”

In spite of this, he was found guilty and sentenced to be reprimanded.

He received many letters of support from within the Navy and elsewhere, leading him to write “I do believe the whole Navy is behind me.”

He was given a desk job and finally left the Navy in 1923.

He then became agent for the Conservative Party in mid-Bedfordshire and later in south Buckinghamshire.

He spent 15 years in the job, which he disliked, and might well have continued for another few years until a quiet and comfortable retirement, had it not been for the Second World War.

The war represented “an opportunity to redeem himself” from the disgrace he had suffered in 1921.

South Wales Argus: Sailors marching through Newport in April 1921  (Argus picture

Sailors marching through Newport in April 1921

In 1939, at the age of 60, he came out of retirement and rejoined the Navy. He was given the command of HMS Rawlpindi, a former P&O steamer.

His son, who had visited him on board ship in London, recalled: “I have seldom seen a man so changed … The bitter memory of what had happened … had evaporated.”

The Rawlpindi was sent to patrol the waters off Iceland to enforce the blockade against Germany.

On afternoon of November 23 1939, it spotted a ship seven miles away. Assuming it to be a blockade runner, it sailed towards it, but soon realised it was a warship, the Scharnorst. After radioing his position, Kennedy ordered his ship to turn away and drop smoke floats in the hope of escaping until darkness fell and then slipping away. He was unsuccessful. The Scharnhorst rapidly closed on the Rawalpindi and twice called upon it to surrender.

As Kennedy’s son said: “The tradition of the Navy was to fight, however hopeless the odds.”

So fight Kennedy did, opening fire with its six-inch guns. It was a suicidal decision which led to many deaths. The Scharnhorst replied with its eleven-inch guns, soon finding the range and setting much of the Rawalpindi alight.

After a 15-minute fight, the order was given to abandon ship.

Forty-eight men survived, but 237 of the crew, including Kennedy, perished.

He was portrayed as a hero in the press and was mentioned in dispatches. Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain paid tribute to him in the House of Commons.

Whether Kennedy felt he needed to go down fighting to overturn the dishonour of his court martial it is hard to be sure, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that what happened in the Atlantic on that day in 1939 had its roots back in what happened in Newport in April 1921.

Peter Strong is Secretary of Gwent County History Association. Membership of the association is open to anybody with an interest in local history within the county of Gwent. Members receive a copy of the GCHA journal, Gwent Local History, twice a year. For more details see www.gwenthistory.org.uk