The last volunteer
In the Sky News studio talking about the former International Brigader, Geoffrey Servante, who died on 22 April 2019, aged 99. He was almost certainly the last surviving British veteran of the Spanish Civil War.
On 5 October 2019, as part of a weekend of activities to accompany the Annual General Meeting of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, I gave a talk on the role of London and volunteers from the capital, in the Spanish Civil war. As part of the talk, I chose to bring to light, or return to the light, a first generation Irish resident, who was born and lived in north Kensington. Like most of the men and women who went to Spain, he wasn’t famous, so little, if anything has been written about him. That’s not wholly surprising, for it’s not always easy to write about a relatively unknown individuals, as information is not always easy to come by. Fortunately, there are a few documents held in the National Archives in Kew and in the RGASPI archives in Moscow. Most helpful of all, there is an interview in the Imperial War Museum in London. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a photograph.
Harold Bernard Collins was born on 26 June, 1912, the son of Irish parents. He grew up in north Kensington, then ‘a real working class area.’ After a typically short elementary education, Bernard left school at 15 to work in the family coach-building business. Inspired by his father’s Irish Republican politics (Michael Collins – no relation – once stayed at their home) and by a lively political scene based around the Portobello Road, at 16 he joined the Young Communist League.
While other people might have joined the YCL for their regular dances, Bernard was spurred by their political campaigning. He helped defend tenants being evicted and he marched alongside the Hunger Marchers when they arrived in London in 1934, joining them at a rally. And, like many others, he took part in – frequently violent – demonstrations against Sir Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts, who were attempting to gain a foothold in the Portobello Road. Collins was himself arrested at an antifascist demonstration in Tooley Street, in Bermondsey in 1937, when the 8 stone Collins was accused of assaulting a 6’ police officer.
Like most Party members, Bernard was an avid reader of the Daily Worker and it was through the paper that he came to learn of the civil war in Spain. He was not initially thinking of volunteering, but a fellow Party member who had recently returned from Spain assured Collins that he could be of use, despite his complete lack of military experience. Nevertheless, Collins remained undecided for almost a year, until the sight of a group of Blackshirt thugs beating up some children in London’s east end, purely because they were Jewish, convinced him that he had to do something.
Accompanied by his friend, a local decorator called Wally Clasper, Collins approached his local Party and made out that, like his mate who had served in the Royal Artillery, he had military experience. His interviewer attempted to dissuade the pair, but realising that they were determined, let them go. So, in early February 1938, having said nothing to his parents, Collins set off with Wally for Spain, both dressed in their best suits. Using money given to them by the Party, they followed the typical route to Spain, via Folkestone, Dieppe, Paris and, finally, a long, exhausting night-time slog over the Pyrenees.
After some basic training in Figueras and Albacete, and a brief time in a training battalion at the British base at Tarazona de la Mancha, Collins joined the British Battalion itself at Teruel. Posted up high in the snow covered mountains, Walter and his comrades were a sitting target for enemy artillery. Walter later described his first experience of being under fire:
Strange to say I wasn’t nervous at all, because I don’t think I knew what fighting really was, anyway. I had no idea of people being killed, or anything like that. The shells from the fascists were falling about twenty or thirty yards away and it didn’t seem to worry me at all, even though everybody else would go down flat and dodge the shells coming. It didn’t happen to me and I don’t think it was because I was brave, or anything like that, I think it was that I really didn’t know what war was about.
Fortunately for Collins, he had arrived right at the end of the fighting at Teruel, in which as many soldiers died from cold as combat. The Battalion was withdrawn from the Teruel front towards the end of February and sent to the Aragon village of Lecera, a hundred kilometres north of Teruel. There they remained until the beginning of March 1938, living ‘in stone barns, huddled together against the bitter cold’.
On 7 March, Franco launched a colossal offensive against the Republican forces in Aragon. The Nationalists outnumbered the defending Republicans by almost five to one and what began as a series of breakthroughs swiftly turned into a rout, as the Republican lines virtually collapsed. As the Republic struggled to hold the onslaught, the British Battalion was rushed up by lorry to Belchite, which had been captured by the American Battalion the previous autumn, but was quickly overwhelmed as the Nationalists swept forward,. Motorised units punched holes in the Republican lines, in a forerunner of the Blitzkrieg tactics which would be used with devastating effect during the Second World War.
Over the next two weeks Collins and his comrades were in constant retreat, bombarded with anti-tank and anti-aircraft shells all the way. Only on reaching the town of Batea, over 100km from their initial position, were they able to find brief sanctuary. It was to be all too brief.
On 30 March 1938, Franco resumed his offensive and the remaining members of the battalion were urgently sent back to the front. Early in the morning of 31 March, they advanced cautiously past a small village called Calaceite, which was being violently shelled by Nationalist artillery. As the volunteers rounded a sharp bend in the road, they were confronted by a group of six tanks approaching them from the trees alongside the road. Collins watched as Battalion Commissar Walter Tapsell, assuming that the tanks were Republican, approached one and banged on the side of it with his pistol.
As Tapsell attempted to converse with the tank commander in Spanish, he responded by shouting out in Italian, drawing his pistol and opening fire on Tapsell. The commissar was killed instantly and Collins saw at least 50 other men hit, before he sought cover alongside the road. As darkness fell, a group of about 30 members of Collins’ Company made for the safety of Calaceite village, only to discover that it had already fallen to Italian troops. They opened fire with machine-guns and Collins saw his friend Clasper hit and badly wounded and another Kensington volunteer, Richard Moss, killed. Outnumbered and with little other option they surrendered and were taken prisoner.
The prisoners were taken to a POW camp in a former monastery near Burgos, called San Pedro de Cardeña (on 8 April 1938). Built in 1711 on the site of the first Benedictine monastery in Spain, San Pedro was, the prisoners were later told, ‘the last resting place of El Cid’. As they were marched through the massive wooden gates, one prisoner, looking up, noticed that ‘ironically, the monumental work over the main doorway was that of a horseman, lance in hand, on a fiery charger, trampling down Moors.’
That night Collins encountered the awful reality of conditions at San Pedro. Wrapped in a thin blanket, he was forced to sleep on the floor, surrounded by rats. Keeping clean was virtually impossible, for there was only one tap for the entire group of 600 international prisoners. There were so few toilets that inmates often had to queue for hours. Not surprisingly, such filthy and insanitary conditions proved a fertile breeding ground for fleas and lice. Diseases such as scurvy, malaria and enteric fever were widespread, for medical facilities were also extremely limited, with only five doctors divided between the International prisoners. The inhospitable conditions were exacerbated by the dire lack of decent food. The principal diet consisted of a thin soup of warm water flavoured with olive oil, garlic and breadcrumbs, accompanied by one small bread roll per day.
But what really made the prisoners’ lives utterly miserable was the brutal behaviour of the guards. Collins himself saw prisoners being savagely beaten:
[The guards would] walk around with sticks, thick sticks, and they’d lash you at the slightest chance they had. If you didn’t answer them correctly, they’d slash you. They weren’t worried where they hit you, [they’d] hit you across the head or across the face …. They were really nasty.
As the days of captivity turned into weeks and then months, Collins and the other inmates did what they could to pass the time and break the monotony. They organised lectures and discussions and played chess using pieces carved out of soap or stale bread.
A number of British were transferred out of the camp in a prisoner exchange in June, but Collins was not one of them. He remained in San Pedro for another 7 months, desperately hoping that another exchange would be arranged. Eventually, on 23 January 1939, almost all of the remaining prisoners, including Collins, were transferred to Ondarreta jail in San Sebastián.
And at the end of February 1938, the prisoners were finally released and marched across the international bridge into France and freedom. There Collins and his fellow veterans of the International Brigades were generously offered a huge dinner to celebrate their freedom. Unfortunately, having spent ten months on a starvation diet in a Francoist concentration camp, none of them were able to eat it.
 Interview with Harold Collins, Imperial War Museum Sound Archive (IWMSA) 9481, reel 1.
 Sarah Collins, ‘Why did Britons fight in Spain’s Civil War?’ March 1984, p. 9 from Marx Memorial Library (MML) SC/EPH/10/7.
 Interview with Harold Collins, IWMSA 9481, reel 2.
 Edwin Greening, From Aberdare to Albacete, p. 71.
 Bill Alexander, British Volunteers for LIberty, pp. 169–70.
 Report by George Fletcher, 5 May 1938, Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI) 545/3/497, p. 30.
 Bob Doyle, Brigadista, p. 71; Walter Gregory, The Shallow Grave, p. 143.
 Report of Franco Prisoners, MML SC/IBA/5/3/1/20, p. 8; George Wheeler, To Make the People Smile Again, p. 134.
 Cyril Kent, ‘I Was in a Franco Prison’, Challenge, 5 January 1939, pp. 10–11.
 Carl Geiser, Prisoners of the Good Fight, pp. 102–3.