BBC Radio 3 Proms Extra
On 9 August 2017, I introduced a number of readings relating to the International Brigades, movingly delivered by actors Christopher Ecclestone and Yolanda Vazquez and by Margot Heinemann’s daughter, Jane Bernal.
Len Crome was Chief Medical Officer in the 35th division of the Republican army during the Spanish Civil War; and a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Army Military Corps during the Second World War- earning the Military Cross for outstanding bravery.
He was born Lazar Krom in Dvinsk, Latvia, in 1909, but in 1926 he departed for Scotland, where his father had business interests, to study medicine at Edinburgh University When, in July 1936, four years after he graduated, civil war broke out in Spain, Crome viewed the rising as an attempt to instil another Fascist dictatorship in Europe. Though not a member of the Communist Party, Crome, like many others with leftist sympathies, on hearing that volunteers were leaving Britain to join the republican forces, decided to join them.
He wrote offering his services to Harry Pollitt, who suggested that he contact Sir Daniel Stevenson, a rich Scottish mine-owner, who was organising a Scottish Ambulance Unit. Despite reservations about Stevenson (Crome was taken aback to discover Stevenson was the proud owner of a signed photograph of Adolf Hitler), he joined the ambulance unit and arrived in Spain in December 1936. However, he did not remain with it for long; in March 1937, amidst rumours of members of the unit’s involvement in abetting the escape of rebel sympathisers from Madrid, Crome and three others left to join the International Brigades.
Len Crome became, Assistant Chief Medical Officer for the 35th Republican Division, of which the British Battalion was also part, until in August 1937 he replaced “Dr Dubois”, the Chief Medical Officer (Mieczyslaw Domanski, a Pole), who had been killed by a sniper: Displaying exceptional courage, Crome, with “General Walter”, the divisional Commander (another Pole Karol Swierczewski), personally retrieved Dubois’s body from no man’s land.
In his new role, Crome demonstrated great competence and imagination: by placing mobile hospitals as near the front as possible- necessarily increasing the risk to Crome and his comrades from enemy fire- trauma to the patients was dramatically reduced. As Jim Fyrth’s history of the British medical unit in Spain, The Signal was Spain: the Spanish Aid Movement in Britain 1936-39 (1986), acknowledges,
Wounded men in Crome’s command were getting better treatment than they would have been given at the time in famous London teaching hospitals.
When the International Brigades were withdrawn at the end of 1938, Crome returned to London, where he resumed his work as a GP and taught first aid to ARP workers. He also joined the Communist Party, impressed by what he had seen of the efforts organising the resistance against Franco in Spain. He continued to look after brigaders: with the help of Jack Brent, the Secretary International Brigade Association, he successfully, lobbied the US Ambassador to expedite the release of brigaders from camps in Vichy France.
In 1941 Crome was drafted into the British army as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps and posted to North Africa. Whilst helping many survivors of the International Brigades who had escaped there, Crome wrote an article in The Lancet complaining that medical lessons learned in Spain were not being fully utilised by the RAMC.
In the battles around Monte Cassino in Italy in 1943-44 Crome won the Military Cross for showing extraordinary bravery by carrying on working despite heavy enemy fire. His citation reads:
During the battle for the crossing of the River Gari, shortly after the bridge ‘AMAZON’ was established, on 13 May 1944, this officer established an A.D.S. [Advanced Dressing Station] on the west side of the river, having worked there himself from the time the bridge was established, until he decided it was safe to bring his section across. The section location was subjected to very heavy intermittent mortar fire for the next 48 hours, during which time an infantry A.D.S. nearby was forced to withdraw. Capt. Crome, by his courage and example, was instrumental in keeping the medical chain of evacuation open as established, and his conduct is worthy of the highest praise.
Two months later Crome was presented to King George VI during his visit to Italy. The King apologised to Crome for not being able to receive him in Buckingham Palace and invited him to “drop in next time you are in London”.
After the war Crome returned to Britain and trained as a pathologist at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Paddington (working under Alexander Fleming), and as a neuropathologist at the Maudsley Hospital. In 1956 he joined the Fountain Hospital in Tooting as pathologist before moving to the Queen Mary’s Hospital for Children in Carshalton as an expert in paediatric neuropathology.
Crome retired from the NHS at 65, though he carried on with locum work before accepting a post at the Wilhelmina Geisthuis Hospital in Amsterdam. Here he added Dutch to his impressive repertoire of languages, which included Russian, Latvian, Polish, German, English, Spanish and French.
Crone’s last position was at the Institute of Laryngology, specialising in the neuropathology of mental retardation. With J. Stern, he was the author in 1967 of the textbook The Pathology of Mental Retardation, which went into a second edition in 1972. After finally retiring at 75, he wrote Unbroken: resistance and survival in the concentration camps (1988), the story of his brother Jonny Hüttner’s resistance and survival through nine years of imprisonment in Nazi camps.
During the 1990s Crome continued to look after the interests of the International Brigaders as the Chairman of the International Brigade Association and was also the Vice-Chair of the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR from 1969 to 1976, before becoming National Vice-President.
Len Crome said that he was proud of having been in the International Brigades but, a self-effacing man, he resisted what he considered to be the glorification of the brigades in general and his role in particular. However, others do not doubt his worth. As Sam Lesser, one of his fellow International Brigaders, remarked,
War is a bloody business, and Len saw more bloodiness than most. But all who were treated by Len Crome and his team knew that everything that could be done for them would be.
Lazar Krom (Leonard Crome), medical practitioner born Dvinsk, Latvia 14 April 1909; MC 1944; married 1940 Helen Hüttner (died 1995; one son, one adopted son); died Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire 5 May 2001.
This obituary of Dr Len Crome originally appeared in the Independent (review section) 11 May 2001, p. 6.