Scots and peace activists protest US Navy Base at Holy Loch, Scotland, 1960-61

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Timing
Time Period:  
December
1960
to
September
1961
Location and Goals
Country: 
United Kingdom
Country: 
Scotland
Location City/State/Province: 
Holy Loch, Scotland; Glasgow, local towns such as Dunoon and Greenock
Location Description: 
Sea loch open to the Firth of Clyde, a large body of water
Goals: 
To prevent the stationing of Polaris submarines in Holy Loch, Scotland as part of a local effort to prevent the militarization and Americanization of the town and a national campaign for peace and nuclear disarmament.
 

In November of 1960, the United States and British governments reached an agreement on the use of the Holy Loch in the Firth of Clyde, Scotland as an overseas base for the US Navy. The governments believed the U.S. military required an overseas nuclear base for refit and crew overturn for its new Polaris missile submarines, built to serve as a deterrent to Soviet military might.

Holy Loch was deemed a defensible and secure location in the advent of Soviet attack or a nuclear accident, and plans were made for the housing of crew and family in communities near the base and for the arrival of a submarine tender, the USS Proteus (AS-19), on 1 December. Submarines equipped with the new Polaris ballistic missiles (A-2) were scheduled to dock thereafter.

The agreement sparked concern from various organizations in Britain, most notably the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War (DAC), the Scottish wing of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the Committee of 100, various leftist and trade unions in Scotland, and members of the Labor, Communist, and Scottish Nationalist parties.

The issue was both national, with aims to achieve unilateral nuclear disarmament in Britain spearheaded by the CND and DAC, and local, with opposition from local Scottish communities in Glasgow, the lower Clyde, and elsewhere who believed the arrival of U.S. military would Americanize the local culture, undermine the local shipyard business. Community members also feared that the base left itself and thereby the local community at risk of a nuclear attack. As of November 1960, public opinion in support of nuclear disarmament was only at 20%.

Protests followed the announcement, including a December rally attended by 2,700 protesters in Glasgow organized by the Glasgow District Trade Council. The protests in Glasgow, anticipation over promised protests by the CND, and continued nuclear safety concerns sparked internal debate in the government of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, which, in addition to a strike in the US affecting the manufacture of spare missiles, delayed the Proteus until at least mid-December.

The US Navy decided to delay the arrival further until after Christmas. In the meantime, the British Royal Navy made detailed plans for the tender's arrival, press coverage, and control of demonstrations on both land and sea.

Protesters set up a tent camp at the base in Holy Loch, holding protest meetings and dispatching telegrams to the Prime Minister. The issue became a rallying point for the pacifist left wing of the Labor Party, and local officials in addition to Scottish trade unions participated. Believing the Proteus's arrival was rescheduled for 18 February, 5,000 staged a sit-in at Whitehall, organized by the CND. They handed a declaration of opposition to an official from the Ministry of Defense.

The next day a march led by piped bands in Glasgow attracted a large crowd of 4,000 to 10,000 people demanding that the Macmillan government repudiate the agreement with the United States. The US proposed that the Proteus should arrive Saturday, 4 March, but British authorities insisted that the date be advanced to Friday the 3rd, in order to minimize the number of demonstrators.

After these initial protests, the Direct Action Committee for Nuclear Disarmament (DAC) organized a direct action campaign, warning US President Kennedy in a telegram dated 22 February that their supporters "would occupy non-violently the submarines, the Proteus depot ship, and land installations. Our aim is to immobilize the base." They also announced plans for a march from London to Holy Loch between the holidays of Easter and Whitsun.

In preparation for the arrival of Proteus, local protesters formed a group called the Glasgow Eskimos to occupy the water with kayaks and rowboats alongside the CND, which would conduct land protests. In a rehearsal on 2 March, the Eskimos announced their intention to "cross the path of the Proteus and obstruct its entrance…Specific actions of nonviolent civil disobedience to obstruct each of the submarines as they arrive will be carried out until May." However the next day the protesters did not have enough boats to form a barrier across the Loch as planned, with three canoes and one dinghy in attendance. When the ship passed and anchored in Holy Loch, several members of the CND attempted to invade the boat by climbing onto the anchor chains until they were pried off by US sailors.

Through May, protest marchers crowded the streets in neighboring Glasgow and Dunoon, carrying banners such as "Yankee Go Home" or "Killers Withdraw!" The protest campers at Holy Loch occasionally attempted to board the Proteus or the submarine USS Patrick Henry. On 17 May, there was a protest march by trade unionists against the base at Holy Loch. The leaders voiced concerns about DAC support for the campaign, remaining unconvinced that sit-ins could produce change, and suggesting that the DAC, currently marching its way to Scotland, would be of better use if its members returned to London.

By mid-May the march organized by DAC reached Holy Loch; only thirty-five people made the 465 mile trek from London. Preparations were made for massive civil disobedience on 21 May to board the Proteus and stage a sit-in to block the pier used by Proteus crewmen.

The British Royal Navy issued DAC a warning not to proceed because it could result in injury or loss of life, and warned the committee that the piers were property of the Admiralty, threatening arrest should the protesters trespass. When the DAC requested permission for marchers to board the Proteus to explain the purpose of their protests to her captain, the request was denied.

The DAC proceeded with its plan, dividing the protesters into two groups, one to demonstrate on land, and the other to launch "action by sea-borne demonstrators" against the Proteus. They ensured that all volunteers for action could swim and provided life jackets in the event that a protester did not have one of their own.

The pacifist group that confronted the Proteus consisted of sixteen canoes, one sixty-foot launch, and a houseboat serving as a hospital ship. Some counter-protesters in a large boat opposed the protesters by creating large wakes to overturn their crafts and crossing the path of their boats. Nine canoeists were arrested, and eight canoes confiscated. Approximately 70 people were involved in attempts to board the Proteus. Those who succeeded were washed off with high powered water hoses and picked up in police boats. At the same time, 200 protesters staged a sit-in and candlelight vigil that lasted 22 hours at the Ardnadam pier. Police arrested 32 people trying to clear a path on the pier.

In September the Committee of 100, a British anti-war group formed in 1960 comprised of many former members of the CND and DAC, took over leadership of the national campaign, staging simultaneous demonstrations in Trafalger Square and on the Holy Loch for 17 September. In response the government arrested a third of the committee's members and banned the Trafalger Square demonstration.

The Committee of 100 continued with their plans. In Scotland, on Saturday the 17th bad weather plagued the campaign: 400 protesters were stranded on a ferry unable to land at Dunoon. Protesters staged an impromptu march to the navy building at Greenock, but were headed off by the police. A sit-in conducted again at Ardnadam pier saw 351 people arrested.

When American personnel appeared at the pier gate, protesters jeered at them, yelling "Ban the bomb," "Yankee filth," and "Who dropped the first bomb?" Police cleared demonstrators by Saturday evening.

In the highest attended event of the campaign, 12,000 reportedly participated at the illegal demonstration in Trafalger Square.

Despite the relative high attendance of this last protest, the campaign died out thereafter and proved unsuccessful in driving out the US Navy from Holy Loch.

One view is that the campaign’s loss of momentum resulted from loss of unity among the campaigners. Disagreements between the DAC, on the one hand, and trade unions and political officials on the other may have been a factor.

Small protests organized by the CND and others continued intermittently through the years--such as the January 1963 protests against the arrival of the USS Huntley--but in 1967 the first British Polaris submarine was commissioned, and it was not until November 1991 that the last US missile submarine left Holy Loch.

Research Notes
Sources: 
“Holy Loch’s Unholy Row.” Life Magazine, 17 March, 1961. 44-45. Text and Pictures.

Hotchkiss, Christine. “The U.S. Navy Conquers Holy Loch.” Christian Herald (July 1963).

Kritzer, Herbert M. “The Military as a Target of Protest.” The Ghandi Peace Foundation. January 1973.

Munro, Ailie, and Morag MacLeod. The Folk Music Revival in Scotland. London: Kahn & Averill, 1984.

Wittner, Lawrence S. Resisting the Bomb: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1954-1970. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1997. Print.

Video: “Anti-Polaris Demonstrations at Holy Loch - 1961.” British Pathe. http://www.britishpathe.com/video/anti-polaris-demonstrations-at-holy-loch

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Susana Medeiros, 16/12/2012