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By Robert Farley, The National Interest
Battleships were a huge investment of national treasure and national pride. Indeed, in some cases they arguably represented an over-investment. This can become awkward when those ships are lost, either by enemy action or by accident. But it becomes exceptionally awkward when the crews of those ships turn their guns in the wrong direction.
Here, we look at five examples of battleship crew mutinies in the twentieth century. Some of these mutinies were put down without consequence, others led to bloodshed, and still others helped spark revolution.
Commissioned in 1903, the thirteen-thousand-ton pre-dreadnought battleship Potemkin was designed to serve in the Black Sea Fleet of the Imperial Russian Navy. When war with Japan came in 1904, Turkish intransigence prevented the transfer of the Black Sea Fleet to the Far East. This was likely fortunate, as it would merely have given Adm. Togo Heihachiro the opportunity to sink a few more Russian ships. In any case, experienced officers and crew members did join the ill-fated task force on its way to the Pacific, denuding the Potemkin of experienced, capable personnel.
Defeat at the Battle of Tsushima led to unrest across Russia, and particularly in the Navy. Radicals began organizing within the Black Sea Fleet, hoping to launch a coordinate revolt. Enlisted personnel onboard Potemkin jumped the gun, however, when a dispute over poor food led to the firing of shots. On June 27, the crew seized the ship and killed several of the officers. The mutineers then took the ship to Odessa to support a general strike. The rest of the Black Sea Fleet sortied in an effort to corral the Potemkin, but unrest and uncertainty prevented any concerted action. Potemkin escaped to Romania, where the crew sought and received asylum. They scuttled the ship before abandoning it, but Russian authorities took possession of the vessel, refloated it, and reincorporated it into the fleet.
The mutiny probably had an effect on Russia’s decision to end the Russo-Japanese War, and undoubtedly served as a rallying point for Russian communists in the years prior to the Bolshevik Revolution. The revolt was immortalized by Sergei Eisenstein in the film Battleship Potemkin. As for the vessel itself, under the name Panteleimon, the ship would serve as part of a squadron that tangled with the Turkish battlecruiser Yavuz Sultan Selim for much of World War I.
Revolt of the Lash:
In mid-1910 the Brazilian navy took delivery of Minas Gerais and Sao Paulo, both built in the United Kingdom to an advanced design. Competitive with any battleship in the world at the time, the two dreadnoughts put a severe strain on Brazilian finances. Moreover, the Brazilian navy was not well-equipped in organizational and managerial terms to handle the warships. The officer corps was well-off and white, while the enlisted personnel were primarily poor, black or mulatto, and subject to corporal punishment. Consequently, the purchase was deeply controversial both at home and abroad.
Led by João Cândido Felisberto (who had visited the United Kingdom during the working up period of Minas Gerais and thus saw the disparity between British and Brazilian practice firsthand), the sailors aboard the two battleships and several other vessels mutinied on November 22, 1910. The rebels seized the ships and turned their guns upon Rio de Janiero, but mostly resisted openly firing upon the city. After a few days of negotiations the ships surrendered, and were quickly disarmed by authorities. Despite promises of an amnesty, João Cândido and several other sailors spent considerable time in prison. Twelve years late, Sao Paulo would again mutiny, sailing to Uruguay under rebel control before returning to Brazil.
The Kiel Mutiny was the largest successful naval mutiny of the twentieth century. In late 1918 the German government had contemplated sending the battleships and battlecruisers of the High Seas Fleet out to launch a last, desperate sortie against the British Grand Fleet as peace negotiations wound towards their conclusion. But the German sailors had a strong sense of the odds facing them, and little interest in dying as part of a negotiating tactic. Moreover, maintenance and morale had dropped in the last two years of the war. Even before the order to prepare for battle, sailors had begun to plan to seize their ships. By October 28, 1918, sabotage and open revolts had begun. Commanders managed to stifle some of the mutinies, but soon lost confidence in their control of the fleet. The operation was canceled on October 30, but many of the ships remained mutinous, and the revolt quickly spread to shore installations in Kiel.
The German government couldn’t hold the contagion in Kiel, and the revolt quickly spread. Kaiser Wilhelm II would abdicate on November 9, and the main problem for the German military became preventing a Bolshevik-style revolution. The German High Seas Fleet would conduct only two more actions; a voyage to Scapa Flow under the watchful guns of the Grand Fleet, and a mass-suicide in mid-1919.
Chilean Naval Mutiny
In large part out of an interest to compete with Brazil and Argentina, in 1911 Chile ordered two battleships from British yards. The first of these, Almirante Latorre, was nearing completion when World War I broke out. The Royal Navy purchased the ship, renamed her HMS Canada, and incorporated her into the Grand Fleet, where she served honorably for several years. In 1920 she was transferred permanently to Chile, where she became the flagship of the fleet.
The Great Depression hit Chlie hard, resulting in severe cuts to civil servant and military pay. On August 31, 1931 the sailors on board Almirante Latorre revolted, as did much of the rest of the Chilean navy. The demands of the sailors quickly expanded, eventually involving what would have effectively been a revolution in Chile. The government responded by attacking installations on shore and by bombing the mutineer squadron. Almirante Latorre took no damage and did not fire her guns in anger. The mutineers surrendered after six days, although an amnesty prevented any executions and resulted in only mild punishments.
As was the case with Chile, the United Kingdom suffered badly during the Great Depression. In September 1931, His Majesty’s Government decided to cut the pay of civil servants and military personnel. News and rumor of the cuts quickly spread through a Royal Navy squadron at Invergordon, causing discontent and unrest. Sailors began organizing on land on the evening of September 12, returning to their ships the next day and advocating resistance. Senior officers were aware of the unrest, but believed that it was best handled by maintaining normal practice.
A squadron including seven battleships and battlecruisers was supposed to undertake training maneuvers on the morning of September 15, but several of the ships could not put to sea because of crew unrest. These included HMS Hood, HMS Nelson, HMS Rodney, and HMS Valiant. The crews themselves remained respectful towards their officers, making clear that their unhappiness lay with the national government. The Royal Navy eventually handled the mutiny by dispersing the ships and promising to limit the paycuts. A few mutineers were imprisoned, and several hundred from across the RN were discharged. The Navy probably understated the radicalism of the mutiny; several of the leaders of the protest had pro-communist sympathies. In any case, news of the revolt let to a run on the pound and forced the UK off the gold standard.
Mutinies don’t just happen. They reflect underlying struggles within the societies and navies that they afflict. Of the mutinies discussed here, two happened during the Great Depression, two at the end of disastrous wars, and one in the midst of a crisis of modernity. Generally speaking, over time navies have gotten better about preventing mutinies. The Royal Canadian Navy successfully finessed a series of minor mutinies in 1949. Parts of the Argentine navy revolted in 1963 as part of a failed coup, but were promptly put down. The closest that the U.S. Navy has come recently may have been the crewmember petitions and protests on board USS Coral Sea and USS Constellation towards the end of the Vietnam War. Given the political magnitude of naval mutinies, it is unsurprising that officials have taken steps to prevent such revolts, and to suppress them as quickly as possible when they break out.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, is a Visiting Professor at the United States Army War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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