Stan Henderson was called up to the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment on June 20th 1940. Travelling with him to Bedford was Wally Buller. Both were members of the Watford Communist Party and active trade unionists; Buller at the Sun Engraving print works, Henderson at British Oxygen, from which he had recently been sacked for recruiting to the Transport and General Workers’ Union.
During the journey they decided how, as communists, they would conduct themselves in the army. They agreed to aim to be “the two smartest recruits ever to have walked through the gates of Bedford Barracks. Our boots and brass would be the shiniest, our weapons the cleanest and our foot and arms drill the smartest that we could achieve. If we were to fall foul of the British Army it would not be for anything so trivial as being unshaven on parade. On that foundation we would talk politics.”
The result of their decision was that Henderson was quickly made a Platoon Leader and Buller a Section Leader. Henderson was always selected as ‘Stick Orderly’, a job which freed him from guard duty, because he was the smartest man on parade. Before long he was told that he was to be selected for officer training. For a time he rejected the idea, especially as it was made clear to him that it would help his promotion if he dropped political activity while in the army.
However, while stationed at North Walsham in Norfolk, he met Private Joe Hinks, who had been a battalion commander in Spain. Hinks convinced him that he should show that the qualities necessary for leadership were not confined to public school boys. But when Henderson went for the Interview he was rejected because, like so many others, his answers showed that he was not from the ‘right drawer’ for the class-dominated British Army. Although there was later talk of officer training in India he spent most of his army service as a corporal.
All through their training and service Henderson and Buller organised political discussion groups and passed round Communist Party publications when these were available. At the meetings they argued that the war could have been prevented by an anti-fascist coalition of Britain, France and the Soviet Union, that one wing of the Tory Party had always been sympathetic to Fascism and that the policies of ‘appeasement’ in Europe and ‘non-intervention’ in the Spanish Civil War had made war inevitable. The meetings grew in size as they met more communists and other socialists, and as interest grew among their fellow soldiers.
There were times, too, when ‘trade union’ action was necessary. When there was dissatisfaction with the low level of army pay they organised a campaign of letters to MPs. An increase was awarded but was held back by the Quartermaster, until he was faced with a deputation backed by a large crowd of ‘other ranks’. Such action was, of course, in defiance of King’s Rules and Regulations but the organisers were not charged.
Stan Henderson and Wally Buller did not go through the war together. Buller went to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineer
s, served in the Middle East and ended the war as a Quartermaster Sergeant. Henderson, with the fifth battalion of the Beds and Herts, sailed for India. There, he faced new problems. He had been involved with the India League and knew Krishna Menon, then a Councillor in St Pancras in London, later
Nehru’s Foreign Minister. The discussions on the troopships made use of his knowledge, and when troops were given the usual briefing on India, intended to show the necessity of British rule and the inborn inferiority of the Indians, he argued in private with the Colonel who had given the talk.
When the battalion arrived in India Henderson had to stand up against the racist attitudes of some of his fellow soldiers who threw coins from the train, saying "Fight for those you black bastards", and stop a Provost Sergeant who was physically bullying a ‘fruit wallah’, by threatening to hit the Sergeant and put him on a charge for bringing the army into disrepute.
After three weeks to acclimatise the men, the battalion sailed for Singapore as part of the force sent, in one of the greatest blunders of the war, to be captured three weeks later by the Japanese. The division which could have helped to hold the Japanese back from the Indian frontier was used by them to build the notorious ‘death railway’.
Amongst the many harrowing experiences Henderson had the exhilaration of addressing 70 men at the Chung Kai camp in May 1943 must be the most remarkable.
At this time Henderson’s wife and children were living in a bug-ridden slum house in Watford. He vowed that, after the war, he would seek to end such conditions. The promise was redeemed when, in 1946, he was one of the organisers of the London squatters’ campaign, which took over unused hotels and blocks of flats for homeless families, so pushing the Labour Government to speed up its housing programme. Henderson and four others faced trial at the Old Bailey, charged with conspiracy and, under a forgotten law of Richard II, with entry. Found guilty, they were bound over for two years.
Source: Introduction by Jim Fyrth to the partial publication of Henderson’s manuscript full experiences of three and a half years as a prisoner of war, contained in “Comrades on the Kwai”, which may be seen on George Barnsby’s blog: