For this year's Len Crome event, I discussed the difficulties involved in establishing the precise background and origins of the volunteers for Spain from Britain & Ireland and how the various national groups in the International Brigades got along while fighting in Spain. The talk will be on the IBMT's Youtube channel and a precis appears in issue 45 of the IBMT magazine (2/2017).
The Strange Death of Gerda Taro
On 31 May 2018 I joined the biographer and filmmaker, Jane Rogoyska, for a presentation at L.S.E.'s Cañada Blanch Centre, chaired by Professor Paul Preston. We were outlining our thoughts on the image that had recently appeared on social media: did it really show the celebrated photojournalist, Gerda Taro, on her death bed?
I was very happy to take part in a short six minute film produced by the Gill Parker Consultancy. The film was commissioned by the L.S.E. to showcase the expertise of LSE academics; in this instance Professor of Contemporary Spanish History, Paul Preston. In addition to myself, the film included interviews with former Basque child, Herminio Martínez; Professor of Spanish History, Helen Graham; and Spanish writer and journalist, Lala Isla.
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 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.
Sadly, we have now reached the end of an era. With the death of 98 year old Stan Hilton, there are no longer any British veterans of the International Brigades who fought in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 alive to tell their tale. Stan may well have been the last member of the entire English-speaking Fifteenth International Brigade. Jules Paivio, the last of the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, died in 2013 and the American, Delmer Berg, the final Lincoln, died earlier this year.
Over the course of the civil war more than 6000 international volunteers (1000 Canadians, 2500 British & Irish and 2800 Americans), served in the Fifteenth International Brigade, part of a 35 000 strong band of brothers – and sisters – from some 53 countries around the world. These anti-fascists volunteered to join the battle because, as one American from Mississippi put it simply, ‘I saw in the invaders of Spain the same people I’ve been fighting all my life.’ They believed that Spain’s struggle transcended national boundaries; arguing that fighting fascism in Spain would help the fight against fascism across Europe and conversely a victory for Franco would be, by extension, a victory for Hitler. The rapid and determined support for Franco’s Rebels by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy provided convincing evidence for a connection between the regimes.
While the International Brigades were only a small part of the Spanish Republican army, their arrival on the Madrid front eighty years ago this November was hugely significant. The international volunteers raised the morale of the defenders of the Spanish capital, whilst providing invaluable instruction in the use of weaponry such as machine-guns. However, the involvement of the International Brigades in the fighting around Madrid between November 1936 and the spring of 1937 was probably their high-water mark. As the war dragged on, their influence gradually waned. Outnumbered and outgunned, lacking crucial air cover, and consistently thrown into the heart of the fire, the foreign volunteers were, in the words of one senior Scottish volunteer, ‘cut to pieces’. Around a fifth of the 35 000 international volunteers were killed in Spain and the vast majority were wounded at some stage. As American historian Peter Carroll explained, raw courage and belief in the essential ‘rightness’ of the volunteers’ cause ‘could not overcome inexperience, poor coordination and superior military force’.
When nineteen year old Stan Hilton jumped ship in Alicante and volunteered to join the fight, he was convinced that ‘it was the right thing to do’. By this time, November 1937, the British Battalion had been fighting in Spain for almost a year. They had been having a very tough time of it: during the bloodbath at Jarama in February and in the ferocious heat of the Spanish summer at Brunete the British had been virtually annihilated. While some success had been seen on the Aragon front in the autumn, the target of the Republican offensive, Saragossa, had stubbornly remained in Rebel hands. With the battalion in reserve, Stan was sent for military training at the British Battalion’s headquarters in the village of Madrigueras, just to the north of the main International Brigades headquarters at Albacete. His period of training (such as it was) completed, Stan joined the battalion in early 1938, as the British volunteers fought as part of the Republican force desperately trying to hold on to the remote capital of Teruel. Conditions were horrendous: in freezing temperatures that sank to twenty below zero at night, more men died at Teruel from the cold than were killed in battle. For Stan, brought up on notions of ‘sunny Spain’, it was a brutal introduction to the realities of warfare: ‘It was freezing. I was always bloody cold,’ he later recalled.
Things were about to get much worse. Boosted by reinforcements, Franco’s forces recaptured Teruel before pressing home their advantage by launching a colossal offensive in the spring against the Republican forces in Aragon. Thirteen divisions, including Italians and the German Condor Legion, plus a huge number of tanks, artillery and anti-tank guns, backed up with over 900 aircraft, were massed for the push through to the Mediterranean. Much better armed and supplied, Franco’s forces outnumbered the defending Republicans by almost five to one. What began as a series of breakthroughs swiftly turned into a rout, as the Republican lines virtually collapsed. Franco’s soldiers successfully reached the Mediterranean in mid-April 1938, splitting the Republic’s territory in two.
With the Republican army in disarray and communications having essentially broken down, Stan ended up having to undertake a dangerous swim across the fast-flowing River Ebro to evade being captured (or worse). Half-drowned, starving and exhausted, Stan decided that he had had enough of the Spanish war and headed for the Mediterranean coast. In March 1938, with the permission of the British ship’s captain, he boarded the SS Lake Lugano at Barcelona, and sailed for home.
During the Second World War Stan served in the British Merchant Navy and, after demobilisation, in 1956 he took the decision to emigrate to Australia with his young family. There he remained, mainly working as a tiler in the building trade, living a quiet life, his presence unknown to the UK’s International Brigade Memorial Trust. That is, until he was tracked down in an old people’s home in Yarrawonga, Australia, on the border between Victoria and New South Wales. A couple of years ago Stan was transferred from there to a nursing home in Ocean Grove, near Melbourne, in order to be closer to his family. It was there, on 21 October 2016, that Stan Hilton, tiler, merchant seaman and International Brigader finally died, aged 98. He was the last of the last, el último de la última.
He gave what was, in many ways, a remarkable speech. Erudite, informative and wide-ranging, the topic was clearly dear to the President’s heart and his talk appeared to have been many years in the writing. It resisted clichés and over-simplifications, acknowledging that the war in Spain cannot be reduced to a binary struggle between good and evil, as the poet Stephen Spender once claimed. It was not, argued President Higgins, simply between Catholicism and Communism nor, for that matter, was it a straightforward struggle between democracy and fascism.
The speech was consistently generous in tone as well as content, and its conclusion generously praised the work of the Trust today, while honouring the efforts of the volunteers fighting for democratic Spain all those years ago:
Ba cheart dúinn, mar náisiún, a bheith an-bhródúil as na fir is na mná cróga Éireannach a chuaigh leis an Bhriogáid Idirnáisiúnta sa bhliain 1936. Is mian liom sibh a mholadh as an obair atá ar siúl agaibh le cuimhne agus le luachanna na ndaoine a throid ar mhachaire catha na Spáinne, ar son na saoirse i ngach áit, a choinneáil beo.
[As a nation we can be very proud of the brave Irish men and women who joined the International Brigade in 1936. May I commend you, therefore, for the work you do in keeping alive the memory and the values of all those who bravely fought for ‘freedom everywhere’ on the battlefields of Spain almost eighty years ago.]
On the face of it, Biggles creator Captain W.E. Johns seems a most unlikely supporter of the Spanish government in the civil war. However, much like Winston Churchill, who detailed his move from pro-Rebel to pro-Republic in Step by Step¸ Johns gradually came to see Franco’s victory as a potential threat to the British Empire. He didn’t seem to see things that way in May 1937, though, when he wrote an obituary for Christopher St. John Sprigg, who had been killed fighting (under the nom de guerre Christopher Caudwell) with the International Brigades during the Battle of Jarama in February. Johns knew and admired Sprigg, many of whose stories he had published in the journal Popular Flying under Sprigg’s nom de plume, Arthur Cave. Johns considered them ‘some of the best short air stories that have been written.’
In the obituary, which also appeared in Popular Flying, Johns recounted how ‘Sprigg had gone to fight on the side which may, or may not, be right … Heavens above, what waste!’ His view is representative of many in Britain at the time, particularly in the government and media, who saw, or at least depicted, the war as one between two repugnant political ideologies. ‘We English’, the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, famously declared, ‘hate fascism, but we loathe bolshevism as much. So, if there is somewhere where fascists and bolsheviks can kill each other off, so much the better.’ Unfortunately, some commentators still see the war in the same way.
Johns actually wrote about the Spanish Civil War, plunging Biggles and his redoubtable chums Ginger and Algy into the murky world of espionage in the Republican zone. The plot of Biggles in Spain suggests that Johns was fully aware of the widespread spying carried out behind the lines and was surprisingly accepting of the Republicans’ measures in order to counter it. Johns is also, through the words of his eponymous hero, disapproving of the Rebels, criticising the bombing of British shipping and expressing his disgust at the Rebels’ bombing of defenceless civilians. When the three pilots manage to swim to shore following the sinking of their ship, they encounter Barcelona experiencing a night-time bombing raid: ‘”Dirty work”, said Biggles coldly.’
The story is, of course, as far-fetched as you would imagine (or hope), featuring spies, treachery and other skulduggery. One of the more interesting episodes has one of Biggles’ sidekicks fighting with the International Brigades during the Battle of the Ebro, where he encounters a volunteer from London:
Ginger wondered what curious urge had induced the little cockney to abandon peace and security for a war, the result of which could make no possible difference to him. The same could be said of nearly all the other members of the International Brigade.
What a waste, in other words. Clearly, Johns could be referring to Sprigg here and he returns to his theme when describing a Scottish volunteer pilot who has abandoned his home for ‘the cause of freedom and justice – a cause for which millions of men since the beginning of time have laid down their lives, usually in vain.’
[Spoiler alert] In the end, of course, the plucky pilots survive their Spanish episode, with no more than a few bumps and scratches and a life-long dislike of the ‘reek of garlic’. And it is, after all, no more than a brief episode in which Biggles has only done what ‘any Britisher would do.’ As Johns’ final paragraph reveals, what really counts is not some meaningless squabble between those unfortunate enough to have been born the wrong side of the English channel, but that, like the adventures of Biggles himself, ‘the old Empire goes on’.
When Paul Preston was promoting his monumental study of atrocities committed during (and after) the Spanish Civil War, Spanish Holocaust, he took pains to point out how much his book had depended on the efforts of other researchers and historians, many of them amateurs, who had dedicated huge amounts of their time and energy into collating accounts of murders within their particular localities. All historians depend on the work of others. Many are published historians themselves, but others are not. A look through the acknowledgements in numerous works published in Britain over the last thirty years on the International Brigades and the Spanish Civil War will show the truth of this. In almost every work one comes across the same name, time and time again. That name is Jim Carmody.
I first met Jim in 1996, when I was an M.A. student at the University of London. He was sitting in a quiet corner of the Marx Memorial Library, working methodically through lists of volunteers from the International Brigades, trying to collate them all into one universal list. Using documents from archives in London, Salamanca, Moscow and beyond, Jim eventually established a record-card index of volunteers from Britain and Ireland to which all historians refer.
It was, in some respects, his life’s work. Over the last thirty years very few weeks have gone by without Jim ringing to tell me, in his distinctive Belfast accent, of the latest nugget of information he’d found, often in some obscure out of print book, or distant local newspaper. His diligence and meticulous attention to detail have become legendary, not just in the UK, but also in Spain, the US and in many other countries besides. For the last few years he has become the researcher and archivist for the International Brigade Memorial Trust, answering queries with a generosity that has earned him widespread gratitude and admiration. A stubbornly modest man, Jim has never written a book, never written so much as an article, but his expertise and encyclopaedic knowledge have been invaluable.
Sadly, for many years Jim has been beset with numerous health problems, the result of an accident on a building site in his youth. On Wednesday 3 August 2016, following an extended stay in hospital, his long struggle finally came to an end. Jim, you were a great friend and an amazing fount of knowledge. You will be sorely missed.
Rather than asking for flowers, the family have set up a donations page, for anyone who wishes to remember Jim by supporting the British Liver Trust.
Having spent the last two summers exploring civil war battle sites in Aragon, this year saw the return of four historians, two from Ireland (Emmet O’Connor and Barry McGloughlin) and two from England (John Halstead and myself), to explore some of the sites around Madrid. Our trip was given added poignancy by the knowledge that Emmet’s father fought with the American Abraham Lincoln Battalion. Having arrived in Spain in December 1936, Peter O’Connor fought in the Battle of Jarama in February 1937 and at Brunete five months later, where he was wounded. Following pressure from Irish Republican leader Frank Ryan, O’Connor was repatriated shortly afterwards ‘for political reasons … with an excellent record’ (International Brigade Archive Box 39, file A/29).
Our first visit was to the site of the Battle of Brunete, though, sadly, not much evidence remains. You can get a good sense of the overall layout from a viewpoint just south of Valdemorillo, but both the village of Villanueva de la Cañada (where Falangist defenders held out, crucially delaying the Republican advance) and the ultimate objective of the 15 International Brigade, Mosquito Ridge, have been built up and developed.
Fortunately, the Jarama battlefield remains much as it was nearly 80 years ago. It’s easy to find, lying just off the M302, three kilometres west of Morata de Tajuña and is marked by the large monument to the battle (see image above). The sunken road, mentioned in many accounts of the battle, is roughly 500 metres further west of the monument and runs south-west off the M302 (though it’s not sunken any more). This leads you right to the site itself and the memorial to the Irish volunteer, Kit Conway, who commanded the British Battalion’s Number One Company and was killed on the first day of the battle. Walk through the olive groves and scrub, rich with the pungent smell of wild thyme, and you will see the positions that the British Battalion attempted to defend on 12 February 1937. The Knoll, Conical Hill and ‘Suicide Hill’ on which the ill-prepared and poorly-armed volunteers were cut to pieces can all be made out clearly. Sobering.
Our third visit was not to a battle site, nor to a memorial to the International Brigades; in fact, quite the opposite. Surprisingly none of us had ever previously visited Valle de los Caidos, the Valley of the Fallen, Franco’s monument to the Nationalist dead. Set underneath a 150 metre high cross, the memorial houses one of the world’s largest basilicas, dug out of solid rock, in which rest the tombs of Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, leader of the Spanish Fascist party. The monument bears all the hallmarks of fascists architecture: it’s huge, overbearing, pompous and dripping with pseudo-religious imagery and rhetoric. Thousands of Republican prisoners died during its construction and, to this day, debates rage over its future. Should it be pulled down, as was the case with Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, or should it be kept as a reminder of the brutal and murderous excesses of Franco’s regime? On balance I favour the latter, despite the monument’s undeniable grandiose ugliness.
The last stop was Calle de Toledo, which runs south from Madrid’s Plaza Mayor. Today, the attractive, narrow little street is lined with cafés and bars full of tourists enjoying a cooling drink or sampling tapas as people bustle past, fending off hawkers. However, in November 1936, it looked rather different, becoming the scene for one of the most famous photographs of the civil war. The banner hung across it by defiant Madrileños proclaimed that ‘Madrid will be the tomb of fascism!’ ¡No Pasarán! they declared, ‘They Shall Not Pass!’
The banner spoke true, of course, for Madrid was never conquered militarily, only being occupied following the Republic’s collapse, which brought the war to its sorry conclusion. From Franco’s first assault on the Spanish capital in November 1936 to the end of the civil war in March 1939, the Madrileños, supported by volunteers from around the world, held out. The fascists did not pass.
p.s. Despite having visited the Madrid battle sites before, I found David Matthieson’s book, Frontline Madrid, invaluable. It gives precise locations of places of interest, along with detailed, comprehensible directions on how to find them. Recommended.
My review of the edited collection of US International Brigader Carl Geiser’s letters appears in the 2016 issue of the Bulletin of Spanish Studies, pp. 18-19. If you have academic or personal access to the journal please follow the previous link. For those who do not, there is free access to the review for the first 50 viewers. The first paragraph of the review follows…
Between 1936 and 1939, 35 000 men and women from around the world volunteered to leave their homes, families and friends, in order to join the International Brigades, fighting for the government forces in the Spanish Civil War. Of those, some 2800 came from the United States. The issue of volunteering to fight in foreign wars obviously has contemporary resonance, with reports suggesting that thousands of young western men are currently fighting with Jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. Yet, while elements in the media have been quick to draw comparisons, the motivations of those who joined the International Brigades—and the volunteers themselves—bear no resemblance to the young Muslim Jihadists.
Initially, as people arrived, the atmosphere seemed a little muted, with people’s minds – and many of the conversations – seemingly dominated by the tumultuous political events of the previous week. Several of the speakers would later allude to the referendum on membership of the European Union and what, for many of those present, was a feeling of lingering sadness. The overhead presence of a police helicopter monitoring the latest demonstration in support of Britain’s continued membership of the E.U. acted as a constant reminder.
However, the ceremony itself was a good tonic. This year saw perhaps the most balanced combination of speakers and performers. Compered, as usual, by IBMT Secretary Jim Jump, the afternoon’s events opened with two uplifting songs from long-standing favourites, folk duo Na Mara.
Almudena Cros, President of AABI (the Spanish Friends of the International Brigades) followed, delivering a typically passionate and heartfelt speech, referring to the internationalism of the volunteers in the 1930s and beseeching the current residents of the UK to echo their internationalism and not withdraw from Europe.
After the singing of ‘There’s a valley in Spain called Jarama‘, the laying of wreaths in front of the memorial and a dignified minute’s silence, it was the turn of Spanish rapper Perro Lobo. I confess to wondering how a performer rapping in Spanish might go down with the (not exactly teenage) IBMT crowd, but I needn’t have worried. His performance was more poetry than rap; the powerful lyrics were delivered with anger, but there was real eloquence there too.
More music followed from Neil Gore, who is presently involved in putting on a performance about Clem Beckett, the motorcycle speedway star of the ’30s who was killed on the first day of the battle of Jarama in February 1937. I particularly enjoyed Neil’s accompanied version of Si mi queires escribir.
The penultimate speaker was Paul Preston, Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish History at the London School of Economics, author of numerous books on the Spanish Civil War and Twentieth Century Spanish history [see video above]. He explained why the Spanish Civil War and its memory continue to matter. Paul concluded with a poignant excerpt from a virtually unknown American novelist, Josephine Herbst, on her – and many others’ – inability to adjust to life following the end of the Spanish tragedy.
The last of the speakers was the irrepressible Rodney Bickerstaffe, IBMT patron and former General Secretary of UNISON and President of the National Pensioners’ Convention. In his characteristically drole and entertaining manner, Rodney launched a call to arms, or rather a call to join. As he pointed out, supporting the IBMT’s valuable work – erecting memorials, holding commemorations, helping to educate people about the sacrifice of the volunteers for the Spanish Republic – only works out at a few pence per day. Money well spent!
The final act was a reading of two poems by another IBMT patron, the actress Maxine Peake. The first was ‘The Dead Have No Regrets’ by Aileen Palmer, an Australian nurse who volunteered for Spain. The second is familiar to most IBMT members: Cecil Day Lewis’s, ‘The Volunteer’. It’s an emotional piece, as the catch in Maxine’s voice during her reading showed. As a professional she may have been disappointed at becoming overwhelmed, but I don’t think she should be. Sometimes it’s good to see what lies beneath the greasepaint.
Y ou may never have heard of the Hoo Peninsula. I imagine many people living outside the south-east of England haven’t. You might, however, have come across it under the name ‘Boris Island’, which some media wit came up with following a proposal by the former London Mayor that the area would be an ideal site for a new London airport. To the relief of many, not least many of local residents, Boris Johnson’s controversial plan was never realised, condemned in an Airport Commission report for being too costly, environmentally problematic and hugely disruptive for local businesses and communities. Nevertheless, despite widespread criticism – and no small amount of ridicule- Johnson remains keen on the project. Whether, assuming that he replaces David Cameron as Prime Minister, he will work to reinstate the plan, is anyone’s guess. It is just one of all too many ‘known unknowns’ that could follow last week’s Brexit.
Whatever happens, the Hoo Peninsula is likely to continue to face issues of development. Lying on the new fast train line from Ashford International to London, the local station at Strood is only 30 minutes from St. Pancras. Since the completion of the new line, locals have noticed steep rises in house prices. Developers circle, eager to make a killing provide urgently-needed affordable new properties. The latest area identified for development is an old military site at Lodge Hill, just north of Chattenden which has been designated by Medway Council as a ‘brown site’ so, on the face of it, a perfect place for new houses. However, many locals and conservationists believe that the intrinsic value and unique importance of the area has been seriously underestimated. Last year’s designation of the area as a Site of Special Scientific Interest by Natural England, the government’s environmental protection agency, might suggest that they have a point. The presence of a unique unspoilt habitat, in particular one of the country’s most important populations of Nightingales which, so proponents of the scheme claim, could be safely moved twenty kilometres away to new grasslands in Shoeburyness, Essex, has met with strong opposition from environmental campaigners and the issue has been picked up by the national media.
So, on 16 July 2016, I took part in a site visit to Lodge Hill, organised by the charity, People Need Nature. I was just one of a large group, including photographers, journalists, writers, poets, conceptual and sound artists, ecologists and entomologists. Led by ecologist, environmentalist and serial blogger Miles King, the purpose of the visit was not to come down on either side of the debate (though most of the participants were probably sympathetic to the conservationists’ arguments), but to record and catalogue what remains.
We quickly discovered that entrance to the site is normally forbidden. This, of course, added a little frisson of excitement. So too did the health-and-safety briefing given by the gatekeeper on our arrival, warning of the numerous types of unexploded ordnance we could encounter and suggesting mildly that we probably shouldn’t stray too far from the path. There’s nothing like the potential of one’s imminent demise to heighten the senses.
Suitably alarmed, we spent a long day wandering around the site, carefully (watching where we placed our feet and) surveying the astonishing diversity of flora and fauna, a consequence of years of isolation. It’s an ecologists’, environmentalists’ and conservationists’ heaven. At one point the glorious singing of the famous Nightingales could be heard, to the delight of all.
From the perspective of a historian, the area is particularly fascinating. The Peninsula and its environs has long been important strategically, overlooking the both River Thames, route to England’s most important city, and the River Medway, home of the Royal Navy since the time of Henry VIII. Castles, towers, hill-top beacons, gun-emplacements, river barriers and a plethora of defensive fortifications are scattered liberally, maintaining guard over the rivers and the Peninsula itself. In the late Nineteenth Century, Hoo was chosen by the Navy as the site for a number of huge depots of munitions and explosives. One of those facilities was Lodge Hill.
Just as the military and naval history of Britain is written across the Peninsula itself, Lodge Hill is a microcosm of Hoo. Disused military buildings and former munitions storage facilities litter the site, including the remains of one of the country’s first Anti-aircraft batteries (scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 to be of national importance) and First World War trenches constructed by the Royal Military Engineers, which were at the centre of military technology experiments in trench design and warfare. While many remains date from the First and Second World Wars, there are also sobering reminders of more recent conflicts: rows of terraced houses set-dressed to help train British soldiers in urban warfare. One was clearly designed to represent a street in Northern Ireland, the second a (rather less accurate) depiction of somewhere the middle-East, Basra perhaps. The attention to detail was astonishing, right down to pro-IRA murals on the end of the terrace and posters extolling the virtues of Osama Bin Laden.
After even a short time wandering around the site, it’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that much of Lodge Hill should be considered for conservation. With the property developer, Land Securities, abandoning their plan to build 5000 houses on the site, perhaps this is a good moment to take stock and evaluate seriously its potentially unique value, both as a testament to the nation’s past and its all too rapidly diminishing natural environment. The fate of the development now lies in the hands of central government. Unfortunately for the residents and environment of the Hoo Peninsula (not to mention everyone else), who that will be and what they will do is presently anything but clear.
Between 1991 and 1994, I was lucky enough to study at the beautiful Trent Park campus of Middlesex University (nee Polytechnic). A former teacher training college, the campus was set within a large country park dating back to the Fourteenth Century in which, if you were very quiet, you might occasionally spot shy, Muntjac deer. In the middle of the park, next to the outdoor swimming pool(!) was the glorious main building, Trent Park House. Originally an uninspired Victorian edifice, in 1923 it was rebuilt into a magnificent country house, and it is now a grade II listed mansion. I was fully aware – and still am – that it was a fantastic place in which to study.
Fortunately, I found the teaching as inspirational as the setting. Despite lacking the research profile of Oxbridge and the other Russell group institutions, Middlesex’s history department benefited from a team of dedicated, enthusiastic lecturers who were able to engage their students and instil a life-long love of their subject. Soon after graduation, I returned to the university to teach history myself and continued to do so there for a number of years.
Sadly, Middlesex University no longer has a history department nor, in fact, teaches many of the humanities subjects enjoyed by myself and my cohort. Presumably, the management felt that such subjects were not ‘cost-effective’, or sufficiently focused on employability. To anyone involved in the UK’s higher education sector, of course, it’s a familiar tale. However, the story gets worse, for in 2012 the university sold the beautiful Trent Park site and it now faces the imminent threat of development.
Fortunately, voices are being raised in protest, helped by the site’s unique and important history, something I was not aware of when I studied there. It’s now emerged that during the Second World War the building had been requisitioned by M.I.6 and, from May 1942 onwards, it housed captured senior German officers. Unknown to the prisoners, the rooms in which they idled away their time, chatting discreetly to their fellow former officers, were all wired up with hidden microphones. Crucial information about Hitler’s V1 and V2 rockets and the German atomic bomb programme was unwittingly revealed to British intelligence officers. Like the nationally treasured Bletchley Park, the institution’s contribution to the Allied war effort is incalculable.
A Save Trent Park campaign has been set up to help the fight to preserve this vital piece of Britain’s history and heritage. They are pressing for the creation of a museum in the former mansion house, rather than allowing it to be carved up into luxury flats. Please visit their page to find out more. You can also sign a Change.org petition to support the campaign. Please do so!
Shortly after Unlikely Warriors was published in 2012, my publishers, Aurum Press, passed me a letter they had received from a reader wishing to contact me. He claimed to have some interesting information – and papers – relating to one of the British volunteers mentioned in my book. When I heard about the nature of the documents and the identity of the volunteer, my interest was piqued, to put it mildly.
The name of the volunteer was Ronald Malcolm Lorraine Dunbar. As anyone who has read my book (or, in fact, any book on the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War) will know, Malcolm Dunbar was the senior British ranking infantry officer in Spain. A middle-class, Cambridge-educated, homosexual aesthete, he could hardly have been a less typical volunteer. Yet, like a number of other intellectuals, in Spain he discovered a hitherto undiscovered talent for military life. Ranking only soldado (private) at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937, he rose quickly through the ranks, becoming Chief of Staff of the entire 15th International Brigade at the Battle of the Ebro in July 1938. Unfortunately, the shy, taciturn Dunbar never gave any interviews on his time in Spain and information on him has always been fairly scarce, despite his high rank and illustrious record.
Not much is known about his life after Spain, either. During the Second World War Dunbar served in the British Army, but never rose above the rank of Sergeant, adding fuel to claims that veterans of the Spanish war were being discriminated against. He later worked in the Labour Research Department until, in July 1963, having apparently removed all identification from his clothing, he walked into the sea at Milford-on-Sea, near Bournemouth. A clear case of suicide on the face of it, yet intriguingly, as Vincent Brome pointed out in Legions of Babel, his (now out of print) history of the International Brigades, the coroner declared an open verdict at the inquest, rather than declaring his death to have been suicide. This, and Dunbar’s alleged relationship with the Cambridge spy, Kim Philby, have led to persistent rumours of official cover-ups and Secret Service skulduggery.
Following his death, Malcolm Dunbar’s papers, including a number of photographs, were saved by a close friend, the ballet dancer, Thérèse Langfield, whose partner contacted me. In June 2016, I finally fulfilled his wishes, when I handed over the mass of material to the Bishopsgate Institute in London, where they will be available to all. It’s a fantastic collection and I recommend it to anyone interested in the British in Spain.
Malcolm Dunbar is the subject of one of a number of biographies I am writing for a forthcoming book. Watch this space for updates.