When the Army Welcomed Gays


In the run-up to this week’s vote on whether to retain the exclusion of lesbians and gay men from the Armed Forces, Service Chiefs and the Ministry of Defence continue to argue that allowing homosexuals to enlist would “damage military morale and fighting efficiency”.

Yet during the Second World War, when morale and efficiency were most crucial, as Britain faced the threat of Nazi invasion, vast numbers of gay people were allowed to serve in combat units, some quite openly.

The previous rigorous rejection of homosexuals by the military was unenforced and the homophobic witch-hunts ceased.

Over five million men served in the British armed forces during World War II. Of these, it’s likely that at least 250,000 were gay or bisexual (based on projections from the 1990-91 National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles which found that six per cent of men report having had homosexual experiences).

While supporters of the gay ban may not accept these figures, both the British Legion and Defence Minister, Roger Freeman, have acknowledged that gay people did enlist during the last war, and that many served with distinction. If homosexuals could serve from 1939-45, why not today?

Dudley Cave, now aged 75, was one of these gay soldiers. Conscripted in 1941, aged 20 he joined the Royal Army Ordnance Corps as a driver.

On signing up, Private Cave never faced any questions or warnings concerning homosexuality when being interviewed by recruitment officers and completing his enlistment forms. “People were put in the army regardless of whether they were gay or not”, according to Cave’s recollections. “It didn’t seem to bother the military authorities. There was none of the current uproar about gays undermining discipline and effectiveness. With Britain seriously threatened by the Nazis, the forces weren’t fussy about who they accepted”.

Cave’s experience was typical of the sudden relaxed attitude towards lesbians and gays in the services. Faced with the danger of German invasion and the need to maximise combat strength, military chiefs unofficially waived their objections to homosexuals in uniform. Even soldiers caught having gay sex rarely suffered severe punishment. A few got off with a reprimand and warning from their commanding officer. Some were hastily transferred to a new unit. Others were assigned to hard labour for a few weeks to’knock the queerness out of them’ and turn them into’real men’.

Cave recalls that neither the top brass nor fellow soldiers showed any concern about gay enlistees. “There were none of the witch-hunts we have nowadays”, he says. “Homosexual soldiers were more or less accepted”.

“The visible gays were mostly drag performers in concert teams. Regarded with considerable affection, their camp humour helped lift the men’s spirits”.

Contrary to the current fears of the generals, during the war there was no evidence that homosexual soldiers undermined unit cohesion: “All the gays and straights worked together as a team. We had to because our lives might have depended on it”.

What the Ministry of Defence now describes as the “special circumstances” of military life, where personnel often work side-by-side in cramped conditions, presented no problems in Cave’s experience: “I can’t think of any friction that arose from us showering and sleeping next to one another”.

One is tempted to add, in response to recent military objections, that if straight soldiers are such wimps that they can’t cope with showering alongside their gay colleagues, they are probably not tough enough to cope with the pressure of a war situation.

Cave notes there was never any disciplinary action taken against gay men in his unit: “One was renowned for giving good blow jobs in the mangrove swamps. He was well liked. Even supposedly straight men made use of his services. You could say that he did a lot to maintain the unit’s morale. When a zealous sergeant attempted to charge him with being out of barracks after lights out, the commanding officer, who knew exactly what went on in the mangrove swamps, dismissed the charges. He had the wisdom to know that it was all harmless fun and a useful relief from the stress of war”.

Despite the gossip that he was a “nancy boy”, Cave insists that the worst homophobia he ever faced was being chided for “holding a broom like a woman”.

So, apart from a bit of sweeping, what did Cave do during the war? Instead of being sent to fight the Nazis, as he had expected, Private Cave was posted to the Far East and the war against Japan. During the fall of Singapore in 1942, he was captured by the Japanese. Sent north in a prisoner-of-war labour detachment, his unit was assigned to work on the construction of the Thai-Burma railway, about ten miles beyond the bridge on the River Kwai. Three-quarters of Cave’s comrades in’H’ force perished. Luckily, after a bad bout of malaria, he was sent back to Singapore and remained in Changi Prison until the end of the war.

Close to death from malnutrition, Private Cave was liberated after the Japanese surrender and repatriated to Britain in October 1945. He returned to a society where discrimination against gay people remained rife. Indeed, Cave was dismissed from his job as manager of the Majestic Cinema in Wembley in 1954 after it was discovered he was gay. “They asked me to resign”, protests Cave indignantly. “I refused, so they sacked me.”

Like many other gay soldiers, Private Cave had put his life on the line in the defence of democracy. Yet the democratic nation he had helped to defend refused to respect his human rights as a homosexual.

It was 22 years after 1945 that the first glimmer of freedom was granted to gay people with the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in 1967. As an added insult to those lesbians and gay men who risked their lives defending freedom against fascism, this decriminalisation excluded members of the military.

Not until almost half a century beyond the end of the Second World War did lesbian and gay service personnel cease to be court-martialled and jailed for consensual sex. Even now, however, at the Ministry of Defence’s insistence, gays continue to dismissed from the armed forces.

Private Dudley Cave nearly lost his life, it seems, to help safeguard a so-called democracy that still treats homosexuals as second class citizens.

* Peter Tatchell is the author of We Don’t Want To March Straight – Masculinity, Queers & The Military (Cassell, £4.99).

Published as “Camp Followers”, Guardian, 8 May 1996. Modified versions published in Pink Paper (A Gay Soldier’s Story, 18 August 1995) and Thud (A Gay Soldier Remembers, 23 October 1997)