RGASPI have recently updated their website, so this new post explains how to access the records of the British and Irish volunteers (the old blogpost can still be found here). As before, though the documents themselves are in the languages of the various national groups (English, Spanish, French, German etc.), the website itself is in Cyrillic. Unless you read Russian, I’d recommend accessing the site using Google Chrome, which can automatically translate webpages. The main page for accessing the six sections of the RGASPI files can be found here.
N.B. For those of you returning to this blogpost, I have made each image an active link, so you can go directly to the respective page.
As you can see there are six ‘children’ (main sub-sections of the site), accessed by clicking on the link ‘go to the next level’, which will take you to the next page.
The files are divided up by nationality, then alphabetically. The first of ‘English’ files is number 100 (Aa-Ai) and the last is 218 (Y-Z).
Other national groups in the Fifteenth International Brigade include: Australians & New Zealanders beginning from file 67, Irish from 439, Canadians from 534 and Americans from 845 (though the first personnel file, Aa-Ai, is not until 855).
If you want to explore further, the archivists in the Tamiment Library in New York have put together an extremely useful guide to all the RGASPI files, which can be found here.
I hope you find this guide useful. Please let me know if you have any suggestions, criticisms etc.
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.
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
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
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
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.
It’s widely known that within the American Lincoln Battalion of the International Brigades that served in the Spanish Civil War there were a number of African Americans. Most famously the Texan military veteran and Communist, Oliver Law, became the first Black American to command white troops in battle; when he was tragically killed at Brunete in July 1937, he had risen to the rank of commander of the American volunteers. What is much less known is that there was a black British volunteer serving in the British Battalion. His name was Charlie Hutchison [his name usually appears, erroneously, as Hutchinson].
It’s perhaps not surprising that little known about Charlie for, apart from a small file held within the Comintern archives in Moscow, few details of his time in Spain remain and, sadly, no photographs. While it would be a stretch to discuss wider issues of race and prejudice within the International Brigades based on the record of one volunteer, his experiences do tell us much about the difficulties many Britons encountered when they wanted to go home. As one Scottish member of the battalion later explained, ‘while you could volunteer in, you couldn’t volunteer out.’Interview with John Tunnah, Imperial War Museum Sound Archive no. 840, reel 1.
We know that Charles William R. Hutchinson was born in Witney, Oxfordshire, on 10 May 1918. His mother, whose maiden name was Harper, was presumably not in a position to raise him, for Hutchison tells of growing grew up in the National Children’s Home and Orphanage in London. In the spring of 1936, Hutchinson, who had just turned 18 years of age, was living in Fulham and working as a lorry driver. He was also Branch Chair of the local Young Communist League and it seems clear, from remarks he made later, that he had become personally involved in the battle against Mosley’s Blackshirts. In the late summer of 1936 this led him, like nearly 2500 from Britain and Ireland, to volunteer to go to Spain and personally take the fight to Franco, Hitler and Mussolini. As he explained: ‘’I am half black. I grew up in the National Children’s Home and Orphanage. Fascism meant hunger and war.’ Charles Hutchison cited in M.J. Hynes, ‘The British Battalion of the XVth International Brigade’, unpublished B.A. dissertation, University of Manchester, 1985, p. 40. For Charlie, as for the numerous Jewish volunteers, fascism was a real and personal threat, beyond any theoretical abstraction.
He left Britain in either late November or early December 1936 and was recorded by Special Branch as having ‘left for Spain to serve as machine gunner with Govt. Forces,’ having allegedly stolen money from a church to pay for his passage to Spain. National Archives KV 5/112, p. 7. At this time the British Battalion had not yet been formed, so once in Spain he joined the British and Irish dominated Number One Company of the Marseillaise Battalion of the 14th International Brigade.He served in a section of Number One Company commanded by Joseph Kavanagh, a long-time member of the Communist Party from London. RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 92. He was with the unit when it was sent to contain a Rebel breakthrough at Lopera, on the Cordóba front in southern Spain. There, outnumbered and at the mercy of the Rebels’ overwhelming air dominance, the British and Irish company was cut to pieces. Charlie Hutchison was wounded and a great number of his comrades – including Charles Darwin’s great-grandson, John Cornford – were killed.
Having recuperated from his wounds, Charlie was informed that he was going to be sent home due to his age, but he refused to leave. Bill Alexander, British Volunteers for Liberty, p. 73. So, rather than being sent to join his compatriots in the British Battalion then fighting on the Jarama front, he was transferred away from the line, assigned to be an ambulance driver with the 5th Republican Army Corps. However, while Charlie seemingly wanted to remain in Spain, his mother (from whom it seems he was no longer estranged) was of a different mind and she wrote in April 1937, citing his young age and pleading that he be sent home. This seem to have rather changed Charles’ feelings about leaving, partly because he was becoming worried about his step-father, who had been hospitalised with serious gastric problems.
Over the next few months, Charlie made a number of appeals to his superiors, garnering much support, but little success. The following June, he wrote a worried note explaining that he hadn’t received a letter from his parents for ten months, leading him to assume that they must be facing dire circumstances. Yet, rather than asking to be permanently repatriated, Hutchinson asked only that he might be granted a temporary leave of absence to deal with his family problems. ‘I have been in Spain since Nov 25th 1936’, he pleaded, ‘When I came to Spain I was 18½ yrs and not on one occasion have I use[d] my age for an excuse.’ Furthermore, Charlie was himself now suffering from health problems, so was becoming increasingly desperate.RGASPI 545/6/150, pp. 93-4.
Assessments by his superiors make it manifestly clear that the lack of progress was not as a result of any failure on Hutchinson’s part. Jim Ruskin, a Captain in Brigade Transmissions, recounted that both Hutchison’s political views and his work were ‘Good [and] for his age quite developed.’ ibid Likewise, Charlie’s senior officer in the Motorised Company of the 15th Army Corps, Harry Evans, described Hutchinson as ‘a hard and capable worker’. RGASPI, 545/6/150, p. 90.
Finally, in August 1938, an order was given that Hutchison should be repatriated due to his young age and exemplary period of service. On the 27th of that month the Italian Communist, Luigi Longo, one of the most senior and powerful commanders of the International Brigades (known in Spain as ‘Gallo’), wrote to a Comrade Fusimaña, the Commissar of the XV Army Corps, on Hutchinson’s behalf:
Te ruego intervengas para que este Camarada obtenga un permiso de acuerdo con las ultimas disposiciones del Excmo. Senor Presidente del Consejo Ministros, Dr. NEGRIN.RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 83. [I ask you to intervene so that this Comrade obtains a permit in accordance with the last dispositions of the Hon. Mr. President of the Ministers Council, Dr. Negrín.]
Despite this, nothing seems to have happened, for on 2 September 1938, Charlie sent another personal appeal, complaining that ‘I was 18 when I came to Spain and I feel it is just to[o] bad if the I.B. can release a kid of 20 y[ea]rs after nearly two years of good service.’ RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 95.
His appeal was answered personally by Alonso ‘Lon’ Elliot, a former Cambridge University languages student, who worked under Luigi Longo in the Political Commissars’ headquarters in Madrid and in the Foreign Cadres Commission of the Spanish Communist Party in Barcelona. Elliott assured Charlie that he was taking a personal interest in his case and apologised that it still hadn’t been resolved. ‘For my part’, he wrote, ‘I will see that comrade Gallo is reminded of your case, and can assure you that everything that can be done from the Barcelona end will be done to help you. Best of luck, yours fraternally, AME.’ However, somewhat unhelpfully, he suggested that Charlie should raise the matter once again with his immediate superiors.Alonzo Elliott to Charles Hutchison, 10 September 1938. RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 85.
After all these efforts on Hutchinson’s behalf, one might assume that he would have been repatriated with the other British volunteers, following their withdrawal from the front in September. However, when the survivors of the British Battalion crossed the border into France on 6 December 1938, the unfortunate Hutchinson was not among them. Only on 19 December, nearly two weeks later, was he finally released from service and repatriated.On 15 December 1938, Hutchison was at Ripoll, in northern Spain, still awaiting repatriation. RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 78.
That a request to repatriate one British volunteer should thwart the efforts of several senior figures in the International Brigades rather flies in the face of the view that the Brigades were a highly-disciplined, strictly-hierarchical organisation, where commanders, such as Longo, held absolute power and could act with impunity. While that could certainly be the case on occasion, it is important to recognise the corrosive effect the war had on the Republicans’ political and military efficacy. As Paddy O’Daire, one of several Irish commanders of the British Battalion accurately observed, ‘all war’s a muddle.’ Interview with Harry Fraser, Manchester History Archive, tape 241, reel 1, side 2.
As yet, little evidence can be found of Hutchison’s later life. We do know that Charlie was one of a number of veterans to take part in Clive Branson’s ‘International Brigade Convoy’, a nationwide tour of 20 British veterans which raised over £5000 for the Spanish Republic (equivalent to over £300 000 today). MML SC/IBA/5/3/3 We also know that he was one of the first of the Spanish veterans to volunteer for service in the British Army in the Second World War. He served for a time in Iran, before being transferred to France in 1944, just after D-Day. Volunteer for Liberty, Vol. 6, No. 3, July 1945, p. 7. And in early 1947, a Charles W. Hutchinson was married to a Patricia L. Holloway and the same individual reappears in the electoral register of 1958, living at 11 Argyll Mansions, Fulham, London. Records suggest that he later moved to Bournemouth, where he died in March 1993, aged 74. Many thanks to John Halstead for the details gleaned from census and registry files.
Charlie Hutchison occupies a unique position as the only mixed-race volunteer among the British volunteers in Spain, so it would be fitting if more details could be found about his life. However, there is one small detail that remains to tell: in 1985, while helping M.J. Hynes with his research for an undergraduate dissertation, Charlie Hutchinson (along with 65 other British International Brigaders) completed a questionnaire on his experiences as a volunteer in Spain. Whether the questionnaires themselves survived is unknown, but one snippet remains, allowing Charlie to have the last word on why he believed so many people from around the world joined him in choosing to risk their lives on behalf of the Spanish Republic:
The Brigaders came out of the working class; they came out of the battle of Cable Street, they came out of the struggles on the side turnings … they weren’t Communist, they weren’t Socialists, but they were anti-fascist. Charles Hutchison, cited in Hynes, pp. 25-6.
Over the last few years, several announcements have mourned the passing of the last of the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. First there was David Lomon, then Philip Tammer and most recently Stan Hilton, all of whom were hailed as ‘the last of the last’. In fact, none of them were. As a recent article by Carmelo García in The Times revealed, 99 year old veteran Geoffrey Servante is alive and well, living in a nursing home in the Forest of Dean.
Geoffrey’s Spanish adventure began in the summer of 1937. He was drinking in a Soho pub with his father, when he overheard a man claiming that it was no longer possible to join the International Brigades, as the Spanish border had been closed. ‘I bet I can join’, declared Geoffrey, impulsively. When the man insisted that there was ‘no chance’, Geoffrey refused to believe him, vowing ‘I’ll bet you a hundred quid I can do it’.
Geoffrey was hardly a typical volunteer for the International Brigades. He had been educated by Jesuits and had never joined a political party nor even a Trade Union: ‘I wasn’t politically inclined at all’, he confessed. However, he had served briefly in the Royal Marines and his earlier experience working on the Canadian–Pacific line helped him secure passage on a boat to Spain.
When they docked in Valencia, Geoffrey jumped ship and accosted a local, repeating the only Spanish phrase he knew: ‘¡Internacional Brigadas! ¡Internacional Brigadas!’ Surprisingly, it was enough to land him a rail ticket to Albacete, the headquarters of the International Brigades. Interviewed there by a Political Commissar, Geoffrey admitted that he was only 18 years old, and was consequently refused admission into the British Battalion, which was then being slaughtered on the Brunete battlefield. Instead, he was posted to a much less hazardous unit, an artillery battery then in training in Almansa, some 70km east of Albacete.
The Anglo-American artillery unit, known as the John Brown Battery, was commanded by an Estonian born American called Arthur Timpson, who had been trained in artillery in Moscow. Alongside Geoffrey were four other English volunteers, all under the watchful eye of their Sergeant, David King, a Communist Branch Secretary and former Royal Marine from Skipton in Yorkshire. Initially posted to the Estremadura front in south-west Spain, the battery was transferred to Toledo in December 1937, where it remained for the duration of the war.
With ammunition extremely scarce, the men rarely did much more than take the occasional pot shot at the enemy lines. However, on one of the few occasions when they were called upon, the battery members had just taken the opportunity to polish off a barrel of local brandy. Geoffrey, who was by his own admission utterly ‘sozzled’, did his valiant best to aim the gun, but the shell missed its target by miles. For this, Geoffrey was punished with six extra guard duties; ‘it was a very lax discipline’, he laughed. Only later did he discover that he had inadvertently scored a direct hit on a fascist officer’s car, blowing him, his aide-de-camp and the car to pieces.
When the majority of the International Brigades were withdrawn and repatriated at the end of 1938, the battery members remained in place, seemingly forgotten. Only in early 1939 were they withdrawn to Valencia, then on to Barcelona. From there, a narrow gauge railway took them half-way to the frontier and they then had to walk the remaining 80km, harassed constantly by Nationalist aircraft. Safely across the French border, Geoffrey and his comrades enjoyed a huge breakfast, courtesy of the International Red Cross, before being repatriated via Paris and Dieppe.
Within a year, Geoffrey was back in uniform, having been called up into the British Army. He had a relatively good war, spending three years in Egypt with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. After demobilisation, he worked for Marshalls, reconditioning military lorries, joining Vauxhall Motors in 1957, where he remained until he took early retirement twenty years later.
‘I heard on the radio that there were no more International Brigades left, and I said, ‘Well, that’s nonsense. There’s still me.’
When his daughter Honor contacted the Spanish embassy, Geoffrey was invited to London to sign the declaration entitling him to his Spanish passport. He still retains an interest in Spanish affairs; he is a strong supporter of Catalan independence and voted in the 2017 referendum. Geoffrey remains extremely proud to have fought for Spanish democracy and has no regrets. Well, perhaps one. When he returned from Spain and triumphantly called into the pub to collect his winnings, Geoffrey was saddened – and a little disappointed – to discover that his fellow gambler had passed away. So he never did get to see his £100.00.
On 16 January 2018, Sir John Kiszely (@JohnKiszely), the former Director General of the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom and National President of the Royal British Legion, posted a photograph on twitter, showing a doctor tenderly caring for his patient. She looked to be a young woman, lying prone with her eyes closed, arms folded across her abdomen and with blood flowing from her nose and mouth. She appeared ominously still. The gentle doctor, Sir John recounted proudly, was his father, who was working for the Spanish Republican medical services during the civil war of 1936-39.
As is often the case when photographs of international volunteers are posted – particularly by family members – the image proved immediately popular, with numerous users expressing their gratitude for the father’s efforts on behalf of the Spanish Republic and remarking on the sensitive and powerful nature of the image. However, one sharp-eyed user (@barne065) stunned those taking part in the discussion, by suggesting that the young woman in the photo could be Gerda Taro, the famous photo-journalist, who was tragically killed during the Battle of Brunete in July 1936, aged only 26. Following a number of eager requests, John posted an image of the rear of the photo, on which had been written a brief pencilled note:
Frente Brunete Junio 37. (En Torrelodones) Mrs Frank Capa = of ‘Ce Soire’ of Paris. Killed at Brunete.
Possibly written later, the caption is incorrect in a number of details (the Battle of Brunete was in July, not June 1937 and Gerda Taro was the girlfriend of Robert Capa, rather than ‘Mrs Frank Capa’), but was nevertheless strongly supportive of the theory that the image was of Gerda Taro.
At this point, the discussion was picked up by the wider media. The journalist and author Giles Tremlett (@gilestremlett), who knows a good story when he sees one, quickly put together a piece for The Guardian. Having talked to historians and the author and filmmaker Jane Rogoyska (@janerogoyska), who is a published expert on Gerda Taro, Giles came to the conclusion that the photograph was genuine. There were clearly a number of unanswered questions and more research needed to be done, but it was Taro.
However, not everyone was convinced. A Spanish biographer of Taro, Fernando Olmeda, penned an article for the Spanish New Tribune listing his reasons to believe that (probably) the woman in the photo was not her. He pointed out the lack of signs of serious injury, inconsistent with someone who had been crushed by a tank, as Taro was known to have been. He also noted the obvious errors and inconsistencies within the text on the reverse and wondered not just who had written the text, but who had taken the photo? Was it an amateur, or was it, as the careful and elegant composition might suggest, a professional photographer? And if the latter, why did it not appear in the media at the time? After all, Gerda Taro was a major celebrity and her tragically premature death received widespread coverage. Olmeda concluded, not unreasonably, that with so much unclear or unknown, there was little possibility of a firm identification.
What Olmeda and other commentators may not have been aware of, is that the Hungarian Doctor, Janus (known as ‘Johnnie’ after the famous Hungarian Tarzan, Johnnie Weismuller) Kiszely was interviewed in 1992. The tape forms part of the Imperial War Museum’s Spanish Civil War Collection in London. According to the interview, the wounded young woman was rushed into the operating room at Torrelodones, to the west of Madrid, where Kiszely worked alongside British medics. He remembered her being ‘more or less dead when she came into my hands’. At that stage, he admitted, ‘I did not have a clue who she was … nor did the person who took the photograph.’ All Kiszely knew was that she was some kind of reporter. It was only later that he was informed of the identity of the mortally wounded young woman who he had just treated.
She was then taken away (if it were Taro, it would have been to the main 35 Division hospital at El Escorial, just under 20km away, where she later died), but Kizsely had no time to spend thinking about her. With more than 10 000 casualties passing through the hospital during the battle of Brunete, it was rare to have the time for anything but responding to the urgent needs of patients. Lacking the resources to treat everyone, Kiszely recounts how a number of French doctors went round at night, giving lethal injections to those who had been mortally wounded and had been left to die in the open air, ‘covered in flies and dust … not even cleaned up properly’.
Despite the widespread surprise at the photograph turning up so long after the event, it has in fact, appeared before, as a number of twitter users (@RevistaFv and @alexis_nogeur) have pointed out. The image (or a slightly less tightly cropped version), can be found in a chapter by the famous Catalan surgeon Moisès Brioggi, within a study of the Republican medical services, Sanidad de las Brigadas Internacionales. Unfortunately, it doesn’t add any further details, nor does it reveal the identity of the photographer. Sir John cannot add much to the story either, for the photo is the only image he possesses of his father in Spain. It didn’t arrive into his hands until after his father’s death, when it was passed to him at an International Brigade Association commemoration event.
In situations such as this, with so much unknown, it’s very difficult to categorically identify the woman in the photograph. However, both Jane Rogoyska and Irme Schaber, who have written biographies of Taro, believe it to be her. Furthermore, Professor Josef Kittler from the Centre for Vision, Speech and Signal Processing at the University of Surrey argued that, ‘based on the ear shape, the tip of the nose, the chin shape and the eyebrows, I am convinced that it is Gerda Taro with a very high probability.’ His opinion was backed up by forensic photographer, John Smith, who found no evidence to suggest that it wasn’t her and pointed out the lack of other possible explanations. As he asked – not unreasonably – just how many beautiful, young women with plucked eyebrows were there killed on the battlefield of Brunete?
Of course, it’s still not possible to say beyond any doubt that it’s Taro. While the errors in the text on the reverse are easily explained – it was in fact written by Johnnie Kiszely himself, many years after the civil war – Olmeda’s point that much is unknown remains a good one. All that can reasonably be stated is that, based on the currently available evidence (Kiszely’s interview, the text on the reverse of the photo and the similarity in appearance of the young woman to Gerda Taro) it is much more likely to be her, than anyone else.
Please note that, as of early 2020, RGASPI have rearranged their website. I have put together a new blogpost that should help you locate the files you’re after.
If you are looking for information on one of the 2500 or so British and Irish volunteers for the Spanish Civil War, it’s well worth considering tackling the RGASPI Archives, held in Moscow. In an amazing piece of good fortune for researchers, all the personnel files (or those that exist, at least) now seem to have been placed online. The majority of the documents are in English, though quite a few are in Spanish and a smaller number in French and German. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the website itself is all in Russian. However, if you know how to use the web, it’s not that difficult to negotiate. (And if you use Google Chrome, you can download the Google translate extension and convert the Cyrillic to English with a click.)
First, go to the home page of the 545/6 series here. You should be presented with something like this:
As you can see from the image, the files are in numerical order, with up to 50 listed on each page. If you scroll down to the bottom of the page, you will notice that you are looking at page number 1 of 33. The first of the British personnel files is on page number 3: file number 100, covering surnames from Aa to Ai (though the numerous lists contained in files 87-99 might also be worth looking at). Clicking the name of a file will take you to a summary, as shown in the screenshot below.
N.B. Top tip: if you intend to look at a number of different files, don’t left click on the file number from the index page. Instead, right click the link and select ‘Open Link in New Tab’ or ‘Open Link in New Window’. That way you keep open your original index page, rather than being returned to the first page each time. I found that this saved me a lot of time and hassle.
From the file summary page, click on the link halfway down the page marked ‘”Cyrillic text” 84’, which will take you to the first of five pages. From there it’s really just a process of browsing through until you find the individual you’re looking for. While some volunteers have extremely large, detailed files, others consist of little more than a mention. In general, the later they arrived in Spain and the longer they were there, the more detail there will be. Not so good if you’re looking for one of the many volunteers killed at Jarama in February 1937, unfortunately.
Copying files is a slow and laborious process I’m afraid as, as far as I can see, it has to be done one image at a time. If you find a better way, do please let me know!
p.s. If you want to explore further, the index page containing links to all six fonds (collections of files) can be found here and archivists in the Tamiment Library in New York have put together an extremely useful guide to all the RGASPI files, which can be found here.
p.p.s. For those looking for other nationalities in the predominantly English-speaking 15 International Brigade: Australian & New Zealander files begin at 545/6/67, Irish at 545/6/439, Canadians at 545/6/534 and Americans at 545/6/845 (though the first personnel file, Aa-Ai, is not until 545/6/855)
Precise figures for the numbers of British and Irish volunteers killed in the various battles in the Spanish Civil War are hard to come by. Record-keeping was not always as accurate as historians might wish for (there was, after all, a war on), leading to a number of errors in lists that have appeared over the years.
Many include the names of volunteers who, it later transpired, had actually survived the war. For example, a young miner from Swansea called Dillwyn Ledbury was long thought to have been killed during the Republican Ebro offensive of July 1938. In fact, he was repatriated via France that December and lived long enough to be interviewed on 2 July 1970 by Hywell Francis for his book on the Welsh volunteers. Likewise, the Leeds volunteer Henry Carass was believed to have died during the Jarama bloodbath of February 1937, but as his son (who was born in 1941) confirms, Carass survived to continue his fight against fascism during the Second World War. At the same time, a number of people who died in Spain were not included in the various ‘Rolls of Honour’ which appeared in books and pamphlets dedicated to the British & Irish volunteers. For example, the London carpenter William Featherstone, who died in Vich Hospital in November 1938, is one of twelve known to have been killed in Spain who was not listed for years.
A full updated list appears on the International Brigades Memorial Trust website. It was complied by myself and the IBMT’s researcher and archivist, Jim Carmody, with the assistance of historians and family members too numerous to mention. Below is a table which breaks the list down, battle by battle. It is clear from the figures that Jarama, the first action of the British Battalion in Spain, justly earned its reputation as a bloodbath and baptism of fire. Likewise, both the battle of Brunete in July 1937 and the Republican Ebro Offensive a year later also proved terribly costly. However, the retreat through Aragon during the spring of 1938 also stands out as a time when the volunteers faced some of the toughest odds. As at Jarama, the British were desperately fighting to contain a colossal Rebel onslaught. But this time, outnumbered and outgunned, the Republican forces were unable to hold the line, as Francoist forces broke through reaching the Mediterranean and splitting the Republican zone into two. It was a blow from which the Republic would, I think, never really recover.
British & Irish casualties in Spain, by battle.
Madrid (Casa de Campo etc.)
Boadilla del Monte
Aragon offensive (Caspe, Belchite & Quinto)
Fuentes de Ebro
The retreat through Aragon
Ebro offensive (Hills 481 & 666 and battalion’s last stand)
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.
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.
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.