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.
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.
Only in 2009 did Geoffrey discover that the Spanish government had offered citizenship to surviving veterans of the International Brigades:
‘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.
This article first appeared in the IBMT‘s ¡No Pasarán! 2:2018, pp. 8-9.
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.)||5|
|Boadilla del Monte||9|
|Aragon offensive (Caspe, Belchite & Quinto)||6|
|Fuentes de Ebro||6|
|The retreat through Aragon||121|
|Ebro offensive (Hills 481 & 666 and battalion’s last stand)||84|
|Other actions (Aragon, Chimorra etc.)||12|
|Died as a POW (various locations)||10|
|Other (non-battle casualties)||18|
A new updated edition of Antifascistas has been published in Spain, under the title, Help Spain! It features an introduction by Angel Viñas and considerable new material, including numerous images and a chapter on the awful experiences of British and Irish prisoners of war incarcerated in Franco Spain.
The book is available direct from the publishers, Pamiela, for €20, plus packing & postage.
Set on a minimalist stage with a cast of two, Dare Devil Rides to Jarama is a surprisingly successful account of the International Speedway star from Oldham, Clem Beckett, during the economically and politically turbulent 1920s and ’30s. The play’s central story – and its climax – recounts his time spent fighting in the Spanish Civil War alongside the writer, Christopher St. John Sprigg (more familiar under his nom de plume of Christopher Caudwell) with whom Beckett struck up a powerful friendship.
David Heywood makes a convincing Beckett and Neil Gore shows off his versatility by playing a number of parts from Sir Oswald Mosley to Christopher Caudwell. The play has some nice touches which (on the occasion that I was there) went down well, including a clever representation of the ‘wall of death’ with a puppet and a lusty sing-a-long to Euan McColl’s Manchester Rambler. There were many opportunities for audience participation (should you be in such a mind); such was the atmosphere, I even noticed a professor of history joining in. No mean feat.
It’s often difficult for historians at these events, particularly if (as is often the case) they are asked how accurate the production is. Often the answer is ‘not very’ though, of course, it should be remembered that the the constraints placed on fiction are rather less demanding than those placed on historical studies. It would be most unwise to take Shakespeare’s plays, John Ford’s westerns or George MacDonald Fraser’s historical novels too literally. To their credit, Townsend Productions‘ writer/actor Neil Gore and director Louise Townsend have clearly worked very hard to tell Beckett’s story as honestly and accurately as possible. I certainly think that the play does a remarkable job in explaining why so many men and women from Britain and Ireland (not to mention another 50 countries from around the globe) chose to leave their homes, families and friends to fight in a foreign civil war.
My only small criticism is that I felt the play was a little unkind to Caudwell/Sprigg. His character was something of a caricature, a bumbling upper-class twit, with the voice of John le Mesurier, yet little of the knowing, ironic humour. In ‘Dare Devil’ Sprigg rather seems to have ended up in the International Brigades, influenced by the strength of character of Beckett, whereas my impression is that ‘Spriggie’ volunteered to fight in much the same way as the other 2500 British and Irish volunteers. Likewise, in the final scene [spoiler alert], Sprigg is nowhere to be seen as Beckett, his French machine-gun having typically jammed, meets his end on the Jarama battlefield. Yet accounts from other member of the battalion fighting that day in February 1937 suggest that Beckett and Caudwell fell side by side, as inseparable in death as they had become in life. To be fair, a cast of two – one of whom needs to be operating the lighting – does rather limit one’s options.
But don’t let this small gripe put you off. Dare Devil Rides to Jarama is a powerful, atmospheric production and you have the additional satisfaction of knowing that, by going, you are supporting the work of the IBMT, who helped fund it. The play is on tour around the country at the moment, with dates available up to March 2017. Catch it while you can.
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.
This article originally appeared in The Spain Report on 28 October 2016.
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.
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.
Scottish volunteer, James Maley, served in the British Battalion on the 15th International Brigade from December 1936 to May 1937. He was a member of the No.2 (Machine Gun) Company captured on 13 February 1937 during the infamous Battle of Jarama and imprisoned in the Francoist prisoner-of-war camp in Talavera de la Reina. During the Second World War he joined the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, serving in Burma and India.
In the Youtube video above, James Maley discusses in detail his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. Here is a link to a transcript of the interview (in MS Word format), generously provided by his son, Willy: James Maley International Brigader
James Maley appears in both my accounts of the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War and there is also an interview with him in the Imperial War Museum. He received fulsome obituaries following his death in 2007, including this one in The Scotsman.
James Maley, 19 February, 1908 to 9 April, 2007.
On 4th June I joined Edward Ayers and Colin Carritt at St. Giles’ College to talk about the involvement of men and women from Oxfordshire in the Spanish Civil War. The event was held as part of a campaign to erect a new memorial in Bonn Square, a prestigious site in the city centre.
As Colin and Edward explained, they both had relatives who volunteered for Spain. Colin’s father, Noel Carritt fought and was wounded at the battle of Jarama in February 1937, before joining the medical services at Huete hospital. His uncle, Tony, served as an ambulance driver. He was badly injured during the Brunete offensive of July 1937 and later died of his wounds in hospital.
Ed’s great uncle, George Leeson, fought alongside Noel Carritt at Jarama and was taken prisoner on 13 February 1937. He spend three months in a Francoist prisoner-of-war camp, before being released and repatriated back to Britain.
In the Q&A following the talks the audience, primarily undergraduates, demonstrated a wide knowledge not just of the civil war, but of the situation in contemporary Spain. Speaking personally, I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I did the event itself.
There is a review of the symposium by Connal Parr on the IBMT’s blog.