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.
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.
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 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?
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).
Talk Radio's Home Schooling
On 12 June 2020 during Britain's Coronavirus lockdown, I was asked to contribute to Talk Radio's 'Home-Schooling' segment.
When Robert Stradling published his study of Wales and the Spanish Civil War, The Dragon’s Dearest Cause, in 2004, he was careful to pay homage to the earlier work of Hywell Francis, declaring that ‘it was never my intention to attempt the task – both impossible and gratuitous – of replacing his superb book Miners Against Fascism.’ Instead, Stradling declared his intention was to ‘complement’ Francis’s book, though in many ways his work was a critique. Now in 2018 we can add a new study to this contested field: Graham Davies’ You are Legend.
Wisely steering clear of the Francis-Stradling arguments, Davies opts for a more conventional account, concentrating on the personal experiences of the 200 or so Welsh volunteers in the war itself. Beginning with an overview of the background in Spain, the author then turns to 1930s Wales, before looking at the creation of the International Brigades, the motivations of the Welsh for joining and a chronological account of the war.
The inspiring story of Potato Jones and his fellow mariners is included, as is an account of the selfless role Welsh men and women played within the Republican medical services in Spain and accommodating and supporting Basque refugees at home. The author has included a number of photographs of Welsh volunteers that I haven’t seen before, together with some helpful photographs of his own, presumably taken on trips to Spain. Perhaps most useful of all, Davies has gone further than previous researchers, by including brief biographies of 149 Welsh survivors of the war. His definition on who to include in his list, incidentally, is eminently sensible: those who were born in Wales ‘or had strong Welsh connections’.
Aside from the inevitable small errors in a work of this scope (for example, Davies mistakenly claims that the Thaelmann, Garibaldi and Dombrowski battalions were part of the 15th International Brigade at Jarama) there’s no doubting that You Are Legend is a very a comprehensive account. This is not to say that all will agree with some of the author’s conclusions, of course, and there are certainly some areas in which I would take issue; for example, I think he overstates the power of the Russian Intelligence Services – and consequently the Soviet Union – in the recruitment and day to day control of the brigades. He also has a tendency to quote some of the propaganda from IB memorial leaflets rather uncritically; I very much doubt that when Billy Davies was killed at Villanueva de Cañada in July 1937 ‘his clenched fist shot up in salute as his body fell, riddled with machine-gun bullets’. To the author’s credit, however, he generally avoids over-eulogising, recognising that ‘not every volunteer for such a stressful and horrific theatre of war will be a hero.’ As has been said before, these were mostly ordinary men and women who chose to do something extraordinary.
How much the experience of Welsh volunteers differed from those from other parts of Britain, particularly from mining communities in Durham or Fife, is difficult to say. Certainly, as Davies acknowledges, ‘the Welsh did not develop as strong a national identity as the Irish.’ However, perhaps this is to miss the point. While the experiences of the Welsh volunteers may not have been ‘exceptional’, their contribution both individually and collectively is beyond doubt and Graham Davies should be applauded for helping make sure their efforts will not quickly be forgotten.
The review first appeared in the IBMT’s No Pasarán, 1-2019, pp. 20-21.
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.
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)
It is now eighty years since the failed military coup which marked the beginning of the civil war in Spain. During the bitter conflict some half a million Spaniards were killed, a sombre warning of the greater slaughter to follow. For while the civil war was at its heart a Spanish tragedy, the internationalism of the war conferred on it a lasting significance beyond the Iberian Peninsula. Crucial military support from Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany for Franco’s Nacionales was countered – to some degree – by that from Stalin’s Russia for the Republic. Meanwhile, the western democracies did their utmost to ‘keep out of it’, making ineffectual efforts to encourage other regimes to do the same. The ‘non-intervention agreement’ (as it was called) was therefore not akin to neutrality and decisively helped the Nacionales, later openly acknowledged by the Francoist minister Pedro de Sáinz Rodríguez. Britain may have been the main guilty party, but other western democracies also bear culpability for the Republic’s defeat, including the United States. As a new book by the award-winning author Adam Hochschild reminds us, President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to much the same conclusion in January 1939, admitting to a cabinet meeting that the embargo on arms for the Spanish Republic had been a ‘grave mistake’.
Hochschild’s Spain in our Hearts is subtitled ‘Americans in the Spanish Civil War’, though the book is not, in fact, about the 2800 American volunteers in the International Brigades. Instead, his account is told through the experiences of a select number of individuals (not all of whom are American) within the cataclysmic war in Spain. And they are select, for Hochschild’s characters are all highly-educated, middle-class writers. The notion of a poets’ (or writers’) war is clearly still attractive to writers and publishers, which neither time, nor the undoubted presence of an overwhelming proportion of manual workers among the volunteers, seems to have dispelled.
Admittedly, the author has chosen his stellar cast shrewdly, including the two most famous writers of the civil war (in English at least), Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell. While Hochschild seems to have little new to say about the latter, his account of Hemingway’s participation in a guerrilla raid behind enemy lines, which clearly inspired Robert Jordan’s mission in For Whom the Bell Tolls, may come as a revelation to some readers. Jordan’s real-life counterpart, the Professor of Economics and Abraham Lincoln Battalion commander, Robert Hale Merriman, also features, as does society debutante and reporter Virginia Cowles and journalist and International Brigader, Louis Fischer.
Accounts of the war’s impact on the characters’ personal relationships are a recurring theme; Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn obviously, but also Bob Merriman and his wife Marion, POUM supporters Lois and Charles Orr and the cross-Atlantic war romance between American nurse Toby Jensky and English sculptor and International Brigader, Jason ‘Pat’ Gurney, who had suffered a nervous break-down after the appalling carnage of the Jarama battle of 12-14 February 1937.
Gurney’s account of the war, like Hemingway’s and Orwell’s, has been frequently cited and retold and it’s difficult to find much within Hochschild’s account that is strikingly original. Certainly the author’s debt to earlier studies, particularly those of Paul Preston and Peter Carroll (which he generously acknowledges) is clear. So, why then, should this new book be of interest? Principally, it is because of the sheer quality of the writing and story-telling. Spain in our Hearts is a rewarding and enjoyable read, for the elegant prose is littered with some of the most telling anecdotes from the literature.
It is also a pretty fair and balanced account. The author is fortunately too sophisticated to fall for the simplistic, binary notion of a war between two equally repugnant totalitarian philosophies, in which ‘Spain’ is merely a passive bystander. Nor does he make the mistake of seeing Republican Spain as a satellite state of the Soviet Union, though not denying that the supplies of military materiel and the organisation of the International Brigades gave Stalin great influence. This ‘devil’s pact’ was really the only option left to the Republic, once the western democracies had refused to come to their aid.
Hochschild will, no doubt, come into some criticism for justifying what has become seen as ‘the Communist line’ regarding the argument over ‘war or revolution first’ that Orwell discusses in detail in Homage to Catalonia. Yet it is often forgotten that, after the war, Orwell himself came to the reluctant conclusion that the military necessities of the war should take precedence, though he nevertheless remained furious about the Communist Party’s use of the argument as a smokescreen for the suppression of other parties of the left. Like Orwell, Hochschild clearly has great sympathy for the POUMistas and Anarchists, yet he is not dewy-eyed, dryly observing that ‘the ideal of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to their needs” however splendid in theory, proved hard to enforce, especially when many workers felt that what they needed was more time off.’ (p. 146)
Balanced, of course, is not the same as neutral and Hochschild’s Republican sympathies are plain to see. Perhaps the clearest example is his illuminating account of the role of Torkild Rieber, the pro-Nazi C.E.O. of the American oil company, Texaco, in supplying millions of gallons of oil to Franco on credit. To this can be added the 12 000 trucks received by Franco from General Motors, Studebaker and Ford. As Hochschild points out, the admission by the Under-Secretary of the Spanish foreign ministry that Franco could not have won the war without U.S. trucks and U.S. oil credits reveals just how significant this contribution really was to the Nationalists’ cause.
Hochschild’s Spain in our Heart is much more than just another account of Orwell and Hemingway in Spain. It offers the reader a window into the personal, emotionally searing experiences of those who decided to make the Spanish cause their own. As Albert Camus, from whom the book’s title is drawn, wrote just after the end of the war, ‘it was in Spain that [my generation] learned that one can be right and yet be beaten’. Hochschild’s beautifully crafted book explains why, for them, the Spanish drama was and remained a personal tragedy.
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.
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 British Battalion of 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 his 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, only 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’.
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.