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Obituary for Len Crome, Chief of Medical Services, 35th Division

Len Crome was Chief Medical Officer in the 35th division of the Republican army during the Spanish Civil War; and a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Army Military Corps during the Second World War- earning the Military Cross for outstanding bravery.

He was born Lazar Krom in Dvinsk, Latvia, in 1909, but in 1926 he departed for Scotland, where his father had business interests, to study medicine at Edinburgh University When, in July 1936, four years after he graduated, civil war broke out in Spain, Crome viewed the rising as an attempt to instil another Fascist dictatorship in Europe. Though not a member of the Communist Party, Crome, like many others with leftist sympathies, on hearing that volunteers were leaving Britain to join the republican forces, decided to join them.

He wrote offering his services to Harry Pollitt, who suggested that he contact Sir Daniel Stevenson, a rich Scottish mine-owner, who was organising a Scottish Ambulance Unit. Despite reservations about Stevenson (Crome was taken aback to discover Stevenson was the proud owner of a signed photograph of Adolf Hitler), he joined the ambulance unit and arrived in Spain in December 1936. However, he did not remain with it for long; in March 1937, amidst rumours of members of the unit’s involvement in abetting the escape of rebel sympathisers from Madrid, Crome and three others left to join the International Brigades.

Len Crome became, Assistant Chief Medical Officer for the 35th Republican Division, of which the British Battalion was also part, until in August 1937 he replaced “Dr Dubois”, the Chief Medical Officer (Mieczyslaw Domanski, a Pole), who had been killed by a sniper: Displaying exceptional courage, Crome, with “General Walter”, the divisional Commander (another Pole Karol Swierczewski), personally retrieved Dubois’s body from no man’s land.

In his new role, Crome demonstrated great competence and imagination: by placing mobile hospitals as near the front as possible- necessarily increasing the risk to Crome and his comrades from enemy fire- trauma to the patients was dramatically reduced. As Jim Fyrth’s history of the British medical unit in Spain, The Signal was Spain: the Spanish Aid Movement in Britain 1936-39 (1986), acknowledges,

Wounded men in Crome’s command were getting better treatment than they would have been given at the time in famous London teaching hospitals.

When the International Brigades were withdrawn at the end of 1938, Crome returned to London, where he resumed his work as a GP and taught first aid to ARP workers. He also joined the Communist Party, impressed by what he had seen of the efforts organising the resistance against Franco in Spain. He continued to look after brigaders: with the help of Jack Brent, the Secretary International Brigade Association, he successfully, lobbied the US Ambassador to expedite the release of brigaders from camps in Vichy France.

In 1941 Crome was drafted into the British army as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps and posted to North Africa. Whilst helping many survivors of the International Brigades who had escaped there, Crome wrote an article in The Lancet complaining that medical lessons learned in Spain were not being fully utilised by the RAMC.

In the battles around Monte Cassino in Italy in 1943-44 Crome won the Military Cross for showing extraordinary bravery by carrying on working despite heavy enemy fire. His citation reads:

During the battle for the crossing of the River Gari, shortly after the bridge ‘AMAZON’ was established, on 13 May 1944, this officer established an A.D.S. [Advanced Dressing Station] on the west side of the river, having worked there himself from the time the bridge was established, until he decided it was safe to bring his section across. The section location was subjected to very heavy intermittent mortar fire for the next 48 hours, during which time an infantry A.D.S. nearby was forced to withdraw. Capt. Crome, by his courage and example, was instrumental in keeping the medical chain of evacuation open as established, and his conduct is worthy of the highest praise.

Two months later Crome was presented to King George VI during his visit to Italy. The King apologised to Crome for not being able to receive him in Buckingham Palace and invited him to “drop in next time you are in London”.

After the war Crome returned to Britain and trained as a pathologist at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Paddington (working under Alexander Fleming), and as a neuropathologist at the Maudsley Hospital. In 1956 he joined the Fountain Hospital in Tooting as pathologist before moving to the Queen Mary’s Hospital for Children in Carshalton as an expert in paediatric neuropathology.

Crome retired from the NHS at 65, though he carried on with locum work before accepting a post at the Wilhelmina Geisthuis Hospital in Amsterdam. Here he added Dutch to his impressive repertoire of languages, which included Russian, Latvian, Polish, German, English, Spanish and French.

Crone’s last position was at the Institute of Laryngology, specialis­ing in the neuropathology of mental retardation. With J. Stern, he was the author in 1967 of the textbook The Pathology of Mental Retardation, which went into a second edition in 1972. After finally retiring at 75, he wrote Unbroken: resistance and survival in the concentration camps (1988), the story of his brother Jonny Hüttner’s resistance and survival through nine years of imprisonment in Nazi camps.

During the 1990s Crome continued to look after the interests of the International Brigaders as the Chairman of the International Brigade Association and was also the Vice-Chair of the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR from 1969 to 1976, before becoming National Vice-President.

Len Crome said that he was proud of having been in the International Brigades but, a self-effacing man, he resisted what he considered to be the glorification of the brigades in general and his role in particular. However, others do not doubt his worth. As Sam Lesser, one of his fellow International Brigaders, remarked,

War is a bloody business, and Len saw more bloodiness than most. But all who were treated by Len Crome and his team knew that everything that could be done for them would be.

Lazar Krom (Leonard Crome), medical practitioner born Dvinsk, Latvia 14 April 1909; MC 1944; married 1940 Helen Hüttner (died 1995; one son, one adopted son); died Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire 5 May 2001.

This obituary of Dr Len Crome originally  appeared in the Independent (Review section) 11 May 2001, p.6.

Review of James Hopkins’ Into the Heart of the Fire

James Hopkins’ new work follows three earlier books on the role and experiences of British volunteers in Spain, all of which, as Hopkins argues, have been determined to portray the British Battalion, and the Communist Party, in a positive light. The ex-Daily Worker journalist Bill Rust and the ex-volunteers Frank Ryan and Bill Alexander are thus “keepers of the story by which they wanted the battalion to be remembered”. Hopkins attempts to redress some of the oversights and biases of these earlier accounts of the British volunteers, a task considerably eased by the opening up of the large archive in Moscow, on which his work draws heavily.

Hopkins divides his work into two main sections: the first examines the social, political and cultural climate of Britain in the 1930s in which the volunteers motivations can be set; the second assesses the experiences of the volunteers in Spain. Part one is itself divided into two sections: the first looking at middle-class ‘thinkers’, the second at ‘proletarian intellectuals’. The former is an area that has been well studied: how ‘writers took sides’ and the role of British middle class intellectuals such as Orwell and Spender has been written about in great detail. Hopkins argues that despite the influx of middle-class intellectuals into the Communist Party during the 1930s, they were to some extent seen as outsiders; that the alliance between working-class and middle-class communists was somewhat uneasy, at best.

Part two provides much more of fresh interest. Hopkins here presents a detailed examination of working-class intellectual culture in the 1930s, explaining the development and dissemination of left-wing political ideology that led to more than two thousand volunteering for a war in a country ‘of which they knew little’. Hopkins suggests it found three main forms. First, newspapers, in particular the Communist Daily Worker; second literature, not just Marx and Engels, but also the works of Robert Blatchford, Robert Tresswell and Jack London, and third, the oral tradition of street orators: many of the speakers, and many of their audience, ended up in Spain. Hopkins also cites other influences: the influence of religious non-conformism, the alternative ‘English historical tradition’ of Wat Tyler, Thomas Paine and the Chartist movement, the influence of the Lenin School (though only the elite such as Will Paynter and Bob Cooney were sent to Moscow) and, finally, a tradition of internationalism, which Hopkins traces back to the ‘Hands off Russia’ campaign of 1917. To Hopkins, the crucial factor that differentiated the British working-class volunteers from their contemporaries was that they were ‘thinkers’, products of ‘an influential working class political culture’. Thus the much-derided view of the conflict as ‘the poets’ war’, has been represented by Hopkins instead as ‘the intellectuals’ war’.

How representative his view is of the battalion as a whole is not clear. Hopkins cites a number of volunteers, but they are only a small proportion of the volunteers. His examples all tend to be Communists, so this ‘plebeian intellectualism’ may be more typical of the Communist volunteers rather than the non-Communists who, by Hopkins’ own estimate, number at least half of the British volunteers. And, as he admits, “for the most part, the British volunteers were not Marxist revolutionaries. Rather, they were men of the left who saw themselves as “the standard-bearers of British Democracy in Spain.””

The second part of the book centres on a trenchant critique of the Communist Party’s role in Spain. Hopkins claims that the only route to promotion in the British Battalion was through the CP and it is the (by definition mainly communist) leadership, at battalion level and higher, that comes in for particular criticism. Hopkins supports Jason Gurney’s criticisms of the role of the political commissars, claiming their propaganda was misguided and they often ill-advisedly drifted into military, rather than political, affairs. He also accuses senior members of the British Battalion of complicity in the suppression of the POUM. Hopkins conclusion is that the leadership of the party, both at national and international level, cynically used the International Brigades to further the aims of the Communist Party, which were inextricably intertwined with the foreign policy of the USSR. Thus the accusation that appeared in the contemporary press that the volunteers were ‘dupes’ returns.

Having argued how he believes the leadership ‘sold out’ the rank and file, Hopkins goes on to claim that the party deliberately covered up the level of discontent by maintaining that deserters had been wounded, and that political ‘unreliables’ were at best imprisoned, and at worst deliberately sent into hazardous areas where there was a high likelihood of being killed. Hopkins completes his attack on the role of the Communist party by examining the ‘true believers’ in Spain, the advocates of ‘revolutionary expediency’. Hopkins believes that there was extensive NKVD and SIM (the Spanish military police) interference in the running of the battalion and that on several occasions, CP representatives of lowly rank appear to have held more influence than the battalion leaders. Here Hopkins’ summary is explicit in its criticism: “If the men on the battlefield sought to live their political ideals on the battlefields of Spain, they were betrayed by the party that made it possible for them to be there.

Few volunteers agree with Hopkins’ conclusions. As Fred Thomas, who fought with the Anti-Tank Battery (and who, sadly, died recently) has pointed out, Hopkins sometimes places too much reliance on volunteers’ testimonies, which as he himself would admit, are often somewhat subjective and impressionistic. For example, Hopkins readiness to accept Fred Copeman’s claim that he created an anti-tank battery composed of “good looking students” to keep the middle and working class Communists separated in a kind of apartheid, seems ill judged. Likewise, the reliability of the testimony of Bill Griffiths, on which Hopkins draws heavily, has also been questioned by ex-volunteers. However, despite these and other criticisms, the value of Hopkins’ work is without doubt. His extensive research, particularly his careful analysis of the Moscow files, ensures that this is a major work which adds substantially to the knowledge and understanding of the experiences of the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War.

This review first appeared in The Journal of Contemporary Iberian History, 13:2, 2000, pp.125-127.