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.
George Wheeler one of the last survivors of the International Brigades that fought in the Spanish Civil war has died, aged 91.
Born in Battersea in 1914, the son of a committed socialist, he left school at 14 before taking an apprenticeship and working as a joiner in Brentford for a company that made spare parts for Royal Navy ships.
Following the outbreak of civil war in Spain in 1936, his father, a Labour councillor, became an active member of the local Aid Spain Committee. Inspired by a speech given by Aneurin Bevan at a rally in Trafalgar Square in early 1938, George decided to volunteer for the Republican forces. Assisted by the Communist Party, he departed for Spain in May 1938, accompanied by, among others, the trade unionist Jack Jones.
Within three months, he and his comrades in the British Battalion were thrown into the dramatic republican Ebro offensive which astonished those who had written off the Spanish loyalists. However, Franco’s superior forces – supplied with huge amounts of materiel by Hitler and Mussolini, despite an international agreement not to intervene in the conflict – soon reversed the Republican gains. After seeing many of his comrades killed or wounded, George was finally captured by Franco’s forces on 23 September 1938.
He was fortunate not to be summarily executed and was imprisoned in the notorious PoW camp at San Pedro de Cardeña, near Burgos. Kept in appalling conditions, many prisoners died from a combination of disease, malnutrition and the frequent vicious beatings. Finally released in April 1939, George returned to London, work and marriage to Winifred, who died ten years ago, before continuing his anti-fascist fight in the Second World War.
Although he was in a reserved occupation, he became such a thorn in the side of the management at the factory where he spoke out against the waste of raw materials, that he was released to join the army. George became an army instructor and was posted to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to train local troops. Promoted to Regimental Sergeant-Major, he was due to travel with his troops to Burma, but he caught malaria and was unable to travel.
Surviving the Second World War, he resumed his work as a carpenter and became an active trade unionist. After his wife’s death, George renewed his interest in the International Brigades and, to his obvious delight, his graphic account of his Spanish experiences, To Make the People Smile Again, was published in 2003.
Lawrence George Wheeler, carpenter: born Mitcham, Surrey 21 March 1914; married 1940 Winifred McDougal (died 1993); died Croydon, Surrey 11 February 2006.
The obituary above originally appeared in the Morning Star. An interview with George (with a portrait by Eamonn McCabe) appeared in The Guardian‘s ‘Last of the Brigade’ in 2000 and International Brigade Memorial Trust Secretary, Jim Jump, also wrote an obituary for George, which appeared in The Independent on 17 February 2006