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A Gay Soldier's Story

by petertatchell

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Private Dudley Cave
Location of story: 
Thai-Burma railway
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
01 June 2004

A gay soldier's story

PETER TATCHELL tells the moving story of a gay soldier during WW2, PRIVATE DUDLEY CAVE.

Over five million men served in the British armed forces during World War 2. 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).

A friend of mine, Dudley Cave, who died a few years back, was one of these many gay soldiers.

Conscripted in 1941, aged 20 he joined the Royal Army Ordnance Corps as a driver.

Before his death, he told me his story, with a mixture of pride and sorrow. I retell it here, in remembrance of a good friend.

Having risked his life during WW2, and nearly died in a Japanese POW camp, Cave was angry that once the war was over Britain's gay soldiers were persecuted and jailed by the military authorities.

"They used us when it suited them, and then victimised us when the country was no longer in danger. I am glad I served but I am angry that military homophobia was allowed to wreck so many lives for over 50 years after we gave our all for a freedom that gay people were denied", said Cave.

During WW2, and until 1999, there was an official ban on lesbians and gays serving in the armed forces. Indeed, homosexuality was grounds for dismissal from the forces and for harsh imprisonment.

But 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 later homophobic uproar about gays undermining military 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 anti-gay witch-hunts we had after WW2", he told me. "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 later fears of the generals, during WW2 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", said Cave.

Cave noted there was never any disciplinary action taken against gay men in his unit:

"One was renowned for [providing sexual favours] in the mangrove swamps. He was well liked. Even supposedly straight men made use of his services. You could say 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 insisted 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 back-breaking 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, London, in 1954 after it was discovered he was gay.

"They asked me to resign", protested 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 gay man.

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.

But as an added insult to those lesbians and gay men who risked their lives defending freedom against German and Japanese fascism, this decriminalisation excluded members of the military.

Not until almost half a century after the end of the Second World War did lesbian and gay service personnel cease to be court-martialled and jailed for consensual sex.

It was not until 1999 that homosexual men and women were finally allowed to serve in the armed forces.

Private Dudley Cave nearly lost his life to help safeguard a democracy that continued to treat him and his fellow homosexuals as second class citizens. Sadly, he died shortly before the military ban was lifted.

He never saw the day when gay and lesbian military personnel finally, at long last, secured their share of the freedom that he and millions of other soldiers - gay and straight - fought to secure.


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