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Irish volunteers in the British Battalion

Obviously 30 minutes is not enough time to cover every aspect of the Irish involvement in the British Battalion during the Spanish Civil War. Instead, I will try and to give you a general overview, highlighting events and issues of particular importance during the volunteers’ time in Spain. In the main, the experiences of the Irish members of the unit were no different to those of their comrades from around the world. And, considering the obstacles it faced (of which more later) and despite the impression one might get from some hostile commentators on the International Brigades, the battalion operated surprisingly effectively. However, there were times when the volunteers’ ‘disciplined anti-fascist unity’ came under strain; this was particularly evident during the period following the creation of the battalion. I shall return to this in detail shortly.

Totalitarian regimes in Europe in the 1930s
Totalitarian regimes in Europe in the 1930s

While the reasons that lay behind the decision to go to Spain were probably as diverse as the volunteers themselves, they all shared a determination to ensure that fascism would not triumph. For these anti-fascists, the military rising in Spain represented the latest manifestation of a phenomenon they had witnessed sweep across Europe. As the Liverpool Trade Unionist – and former International Brigade Memorial Trust president – Jack Jones declared, ‘This was Fascist progression. It was real and it had to be stopped.’ It is important to remember that the volunteers saw this not simply as a civil war within Spain, but as one more episode in a European war against fascism, which many of them had already participated in at home. This was a struggle that went beyond national boundaries, a perspective lucidly expressed by the sculptor from London, Jason Gurney:

The Spanish Civil war seemed to provide the chance for a single individual to take a positive and effective stand on an issue which appeared to be absolutely clear. Either you were opposed to the growth of Fascism and you went out to fight it, or you acquiesced in its crimes and were guilty of permitting its growth…for myself and many others like me it was a war of principle, and principles do not have a national boundary.

As you have already heard from other speakers, volunteers from Ireland saw the conflict in much the same way, as the Dublin volunteer Bob Doyle (portrayed on the introductory slide) explained:

The propaganda of the Catholic Church and the official press was 100 per cent in support of Franco’s military revolt. It was a tremendous campaign, preaching at Mass and the missions about the need to support Franco, a gallant Christian gentleman, defending the Catholic Church in Spain. We were very conscious that the Nazis had come to power in 1933 and that General O’Duffy was intending to follow in their footsteps…I thought there was a danger that Ireland would go fascist and that was one of the motivating factors in making up my mind to go to Spain. I didn’t know much about Spain, but I knew that every bullet I fired would be against the Dublin landlords and capitalists.

Consequently, a large group of Irish volunteers, approximately 80 in number, left Ireland on 11 December 1936, under the command of Frank Ryan, a prominent and long-standing member of the Irish Republican movement. The group left Dublin by boat and arrived in Spain on 14 December, where they joined the English-speaking company of the French 12th International Brigade. To the surprise of many, despite Ryan’s reputation, the International Brigade command did not chose him as the Irish group’s section leader. This honour fell, instead, to Chris ‘Kit’ Conway, another experienced IRA activist and fighter. The official reason given was that Ryan was deaf, and would therefore be a liability in combat. While this may be true, it is perhaps worth noting that, unlike Conway, Frank Ryan was not a member of the Communist Party.

In addition to Conway’s section, the company included a number of veterans from the fighting during November 1936, where they had played a vital role in defending Madrid against the advancing Nationalist army, led by General Franco and supported by the military might of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Led by a British army veteran, George Nathan, the English-speaking company was sent to fight on the Lopera front, near Cordoba in southern Spain.

Meanwhile, other new arrivals from Britain and Ireland were joined the 16th (British) Battalion of the 15th International Brigade, formed on 27 December 1936. The Battalion was based in the small village of Madrigueras, about 20 km north of the main International Brigades’ base at Albacete, roughly half-way between Valencia and Madrid.

While most of the volunteers in the battalion were from Britain, it also included volunteers from Ireland and others from as far away as Australia and New Zealand. So, despite its name, it was never really a British Battalion, which was, in fact, recognised at the time. Attempts were made to give it a more appropriate name and the name Saklatvala battalion was mooted, (after the Indian Communist MP for Battersea in London who had died from a heart attack in January 1936), but the name never caught on. It could actually have been even worse: Spaniards called it el batallon inglés, the English Battalion.

The military commander of the new battalion was a Scottish journalist and World War One veteran called Wilf McCartney, who had previously served 10 years in Parkhurst prison for spying for Russia. The battalion political commissar, in charge of the political development and welfare of the volunteers, was Dave Springhall, the secretary of the London district of the Communist Party.

Military and political command structure of the ‘British Battalion’
Military and political command structure of the ‘British Battalion’

The battalion itself was divided up into four companies, one machine-gun company plus three of infantry. Military training, such as it was, was put into practice. Fortunately, a number of the volunteers had some form of military training; there was ‘a good proportion of ex-servicemen’ and a number had served in the Territorial Army or some other form of military organization.

However, there was a sizeable number who had not. It was later claimed ‘that in five weeks or so they had produced some very fair infantry,’ but in truth, five weeks of basic training was ‘absurdly short’. Undoubtedly, many of the problems with training were a result of the well-documented limitations of quantity and quality of Republican arms and ammunition, a result of the British and French governments’ policy of non-intervention. This prevented the legal Republic from buying arms, while turning a blind eye to the huge amount of arms and men flooding in to Franco from Germany & Italy.

However, a number of brand new Russian rifles did soon arrive, but as many volunteers were only allowed to practice with five bullets, the value of the training must be regarded as questionable at best. One volunteer’s summary of the situation in early 1937 was biting: ‘Many people writing on the International Brigades have described them as well-armed, highly disciplined and well-trained units. This we of the British Battalion were not.’

Despite the problems, by early 1937 there were 450 volunteers training at Madrigueras, a number approaching battalion strength. Unfortunately, however, the fledgling battalion suffered a major setback in the middle of the month, when a number of Irish members, apparently unhappy with British officers’ tendency not to make any distinction between British and Irish volunteers, discovered that two senior British figures in Spain – the commander of Number One Company currently serving at Lopera, George Nathan, and the Battalion commander, Wilf Macartney – were suspected to have played a role in British covert activities in Ireland. Both were alleged to have served in the Black and Tans or Auxiliaries in the 1920s; worse still, Nathan was rumoured to have been involved in a hit squad that murdered two prominent members of Sinn Fein in May 1921: George Clancy, the former Lord Mayor of Limerick and George O’Callaghan, the ex-mayor. Nathan’s rather chequered past gave rise to suspicions that he could be a Franco spy.

Major George Nathan
Major George Nathan

Nathan was not a member of the Communist Party and was directed, probably by André Marty, the French commander of the International Brigades in Spain, to explain himself to Frank Ryan and his Irish comrades. According to the Irish volunteer, Jim Prendergast, Nathan was in effect, put on trial for his life. Nathan vehemently denied that he was a spy, but admitted that he had indeed been an intelligence officer in the Auxiliaries in County Limerick. However, Nathan claimed that he was acting under orders whilst in Ireland and argued that, as a Jew, he was now a staunch anti-fascist, and that all the volunteers in Spain were now all on the same side.

According to Joe Monks, the meeting responded to the spirit of his speech and applauded him. It is probable that Nathan’s explanation was accepted because of widespread admiration of the military skills and courage that he demonstrated during the disastrous Lopera action. 8 of the 50 Irish volunteers had been killed and only the actions of Nathan, who coolly organized a retreat under fire, prevented further losses.

However, resentment continued to smoulder and was reignited by a tactless report in the British Communist paper, the Daily Worker in early January. The article recounted the actions at Lopera, but made no mention of the Irish volunteers, instead describing them all as British. A number of Irish training at Madrigueras were furious, and it became clear that an attempt needed to be made to resolve the simmering discontent.

A meeting was called on the 12th January by, it appears, Dave Springhall, the battalion commissar, which was attended by approximately 45 Irish members of the battalion. During a stormy session, a number demanded that the group leave the British dominated battalion, whilst others, who wished to remain, vigorously argued ‘that distinctions must be made between anti-fascist working-class comrades from Britain and British imperialism.’ At the end of the meeting, the Irish group voted by a ratio of two to one (26-11) to leave and join the Americans in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion at nearby Villanueva de la Jara.

Many of the details surrounding the split are unclear, though Frank Ryan always argued that it was provoked by the British battalion and Communist Party leadership, who were determined to wreck any chance of forming a specific Irish unit, a ‘Connolly Column.’ It is certainly highly unlikely that the communists who controlled the British battalion in Spain would have been amenable to the creation of a unit under the command of Irish republicans. It is surely revealing that despite his IRA experience and the dire shortage of officers in the Republican army, Frank Ryan was never given a field command.
In, I think, the best analysis of the split, Emmet O’Connor argues that the significance of ‘chronic suspicion of Irish republicanism in the leadership of the Communist Party of Great Britain,’ should not be underestimated. He also suggests that, André Marty, famously paranoid, was suspicious of volunteers from Catholic Ireland as potential fifth-columnists and deliberately kept them divided.

An immediate casualty of the fall-out was the Dubliner Terry Flanagan, who was acting commander of the Irish group in Madrigueras at the time. He seems to have been made a scape-goat for much of the conflict and was charged with sabotage and imprisoned. Only the personal intervention of Frank Ryan secured his release.

The incorporation of the survivors of the English-speaking Company from Lopera (who returned on 24 January), together with new arrivals meant that numbers in the battalion reached approximately six hundred by the beginning of February. The battalion was now considered to be of sufficient strength of and readiness for front-line action despite, firstly, the loss of the Irish group and, secondly, the widely respected commander of Number One Company, Jock Cunningham, who was taken ill in early February. This was a major setback, for the veteran of the battle for Madrid ‘was the best soldier of the lot,’ in Tom Wintringham’s opinion. However Cunningham’s place was taken by another popular and experienced fighter, the leader of the Irish at Lopera, ‘Kit’ Conway.

Finally, on 8 February 1937, the Battalion prepared to leave Madrigueras for the front, which lay to the south-east of Madrid. Following the failure of his earlier attempts on the west of Spain’s capital, General Franco had prepared a new offensive to the south, aiming to cut the vital road that linked Madrid with Valencia, the seat of the Republican Government.

Spain in February 1937
Spain in February 1937

The 600 odd members of the battalion made their way north by lorry to Chinchón, about 25 km from Madrid and 15 km south-east of the site of the rebel advance. Recent arrivals were given some hurried last-minute preparation. Early in the morning of the 12th February, the volunteers were moved up to the eastern edge of the heights and began climbing upwards to the plateau overlooking the Jarama River.

The Battle of Jarama, February 1937
The Battle of Jarama, February 1937

They advanced over a ridge then began to descend into the valley of the Jarama River, which lay in front of them. When they found themselves coming under enemy fire, they quickly pulled back to the top of the ridge and took up defensive positions on what would later become known as ‘Suicide Hill’.

The battalion was then subjected to a terrifying three hour machine-gun and artillery barrage, before they were attacked by ‘at least three battalions’ of highly experienced Moroccan infantry, Franco’s crack troops, who were in their element advancing across the open terrain of the Jarama Valley. Under the ferocious Nationalist attack, the Franco-Belge Battalion further to the north of the British Battalion was forced to pull back, which brought the three infantry companies under lethal enfilading machine-gun fire, which swept across them from their right. They tried desperately to hold their ground, but were cut to pieces.

As the day progressed, the rapidly mounting casualties put them in an increasingly untenable position. The survivors were left with little option but to retreat from Suicide Hill back to the battalion headquarters on the plateau, dragging their wounded comrades with them. But, as one volunteer remembered sadly, ‘There weren’t many to go back.’ As the last remaining dispirited members of the battalion withdrew, Moroccan soldiers rushed forward over the ridge in order to occupy the positions relinquished by the retreating volunteers. However, at this point, the battalion experienced perhaps their only moment of good fortune that day. After a terribly frustrating day spent without ammunition for the machine-guns, the correct calibre bullets had, at last, arrived. Quickly, the guns were brought into operation and used with devastating effect on the Moroccan soldiers who, for once, were caught out in the open and totally unawares. The Moroccan troops either quickly dropped down out of sight and waited for the cover of darkness or, where they could, retreated out of range. This brought to an end the first day of the battle of Jarama.

Like other Republican units, the Battalion had endured seven hours of extremely heavy losses: ‘Out of the 400 men in the [three] rifle companies, only 125 were left. Altogether less than half the battalion remained.’ Amongst those killed that day was the Irish company commander Kit Conway.

The following two days were no less terrifying, as Nationalist forces pressed forwards. The Battalion soon found itself surrounded on three sides and with the Machine-Gun Company’s flank totally unprotected rebel forces quickly took advantage of the situation and surrounded them. As many as 30 members of the Company, including its commander and his assistant, were captured.

Members of the British Machine-Gun Company, captured on 13 February 1937
Members of the British Machine-Gun Company, captured on 13 February 1937

A desperate charge by 40 men in a forlorn attempt to retake the trenches recently occupied by the Machine-Gun Company ended in disaster when the Nationalists soldiers simply mowed them down with their own machine-guns. Only six of the 40 men made it back to their positions.
The third day of the battle, on the 14 February, brought a new assault on the battalion’s lines by a fresh Nationalist brigade, now supported by tanks. Under severe crossfire and without any specialised equipment to combat the tanks, Jock Cunningham, who had temporarily taken charge of the battalion, had little choice but to withdraw his men away from the sunken road. Frank Ryan later described their plight:

Dispirited by heavy casualties, by defeat, by lack of food, worn out by three days of gruelling fighting, our men appeared to have reached the end of their resistance.
Some were still straggling down the slopes from what had been, up to an hour ago, the front line. And now, there was no line, nothing between the Madrid road and the Fascists but disorganised groups of weary, war-wrecked men. After three days of terrific struggle, the superior numbers, the superior armaments of the Fascists had routed them. All, as they came back, had similar stories to tell: of comrades dead, of conditions that were more than flesh and blood could stand, of weariness they found hard to resist.

Frank Ryan and John Robinson
Frank Ryan and John Robinson

With the battalion’s machine-guns crushed underneath the Nationalist tanks, the weakened line finally broke and the volunteers retreated in small groups back down the slope towards the Chinchón road. But here they were stopped by Colonel ‘Gal’, the commander of the 15th International Brigade, who explained to them that they were the only troops between the rebels and the Valencia Road. Despite their physical and mental exhaustion, 140 volunteers turned around and marched back to try to recapture their lost positions.

Under no illusions about the situation they were walking into, led by Frank Ryan and Jock Cunningham, the volunteers marched back, singing the Internationale to bolster their spirits, picking up stragglers on the way. The Nationalist forces, fooled into believing that fresh reinforcements had been brought up to the front, retreated back to their earlier positions. As the historian Hugh Thomas admitted, ‘It was a brave performance.’ The volunteers held the line at a critical moment for the Republic.

Positions at the end of the battle of Jarama
Positions at the end of the battle of Jarama

During the night of 14 to 15 February, Spanish units were brought up, and the gap in the line was finally plugged. Both sides dug defensive fortifications and a stalemate ensued, which neither side was able to overcome. The positions remained virtually static for the rest of the war.
Celebrated as a great victory over the fascist army, the battle of Jarama was, like the earlier battles for Madrid in November and December 1936, really only successful in that it stemmed the rebels’ advance on the capital. And at great cost: the Republicans lost somewhere in the region of 10 000 soldiers, to the Nationalists 6 000. Of the 600 who had gone into battle with the British Battalion on 12 February, a conservative estimate would suggest that 136 were killed, a similar number wounded, with at least 50 deserting the front line, leaving less than half the battalion remaining. In total nineteen Irish were killed fighting with the British Battalion at Jarama, including Kit Conway and the Protestant Reverend Robert M Hilliard, known as ‘the boxing parson of Kilarney’. As the Brigade Commissar Peter Kerrigan later stated, ‘This battle has been reported on many occasions. Suffice it to say that it was the bloodiest of all the battles that the British Battalion was involved in, in Spain. There was none as deadly.’

Yet the battalion, bolstered with new recruits, managed to regroup and fight on in defence of the Spanish Republic for nearly 18 months.

In the full heat of the Spanish summer at Brunete in July 1937, where despite gaining territory, Franco’s superior numbers and complete air domination soon stemmed and pushed back the Republican advance. Events were repeated in Aragon during the autumn of 1937. The capture of Quinto in September bode well, though it was marred by the death of the popular Irish commander of the battalion, Peter Daly from Wexford. His place was taken by his fellow countryman, Paddy O’Daire. And in during Christmas 1937, in one of the worst Spanish winters for years, Republican supporters around the world viewed the capture of the remote provincial capital of Teruel as ‘the turn of the tide’.

The battle of Teruel, December 1937 – January 1938
The battle of Teruel, December 1937 – January 1938

That it may have been, but not in the manner they expected. Franco’s forces soon retook Teruel and Franco was able to use the success as a springboard for a colossal offensive in the spring of 1938. Back in Aragon, the battalion was at the forefront of a desperate – and ultimately unsuccessful – attempt to prevent Franco’s forces reaching the Mediterranean and splitting the Republic in two. In what became essentially a headlong retreat, Italian troops captured over 100 members of the battalion – including both Bob Doyle and Frank Ryan – in what was probably one of the battalion’s lowest points during the civil war in Spain.

Republican troops crossing the River Ebro in July 1938
Republican troops crossing the River Ebro in July 1938

Yet, somehow, the battalion and the Spanish Republic itself, managed to regroup and return to the battle. In the summer of 1938, the Republican army launched a huge offensive back across the River Ebro. The International Brigades were involved in the crucial battles around the Aragon town of Gandesa in July and August and in the mountains of the Sierra Caballs and Pandols in September.

It was during this time that one of the less savoury episodes occurred, involving British and Irish volunteers in Spain. During an attack on a hill strategically overlooking Gandesa, members of the battalion reported coming under machine-gun fire from their own side. As the Scottish volunteer, John Dunlop, recalled:

I was just at the edge of a small hill. Right above my head, just inches above my head, there was a long burst of machine gun fire but it was coming in the wrong direction. It wasn’t coming from in front of me, it was coming from behind me and it was just hitting the top of this ridge, just above my head. I looked back and I could see this gun, one of our own machine-guns, actually firing. It appeared to be firing on us, so that more or less ended our attack.

An investigation into the incident concluded that they had been fired on by a volunteer from Tipperary, called Maurice Ryan, who was alleged to have been ‘flaying drunk’. Ryan was charged with firing on his own comrades, and Divisional headquarters gave orders for him to be executed by members of the British Battalion. At the beginning of August 1938, Maurice Ryan was taken for a walk in the woods by battalion commander Sam Wild and his adjutant George Fletcher, and shot in the back of the head.

The final action of the battalion in Spain came on 23 September 1938, when the 337 remaining members of the unit moved up to the front for one last time. The day began with Franco’s forces subjecting them to a five-hour artillery barrage, before they were ‘attacked and attacked, again and again with his artillery, tanks, aircraft and infantry.’ No. 1. Company bore the brunt, remaining stubbornly in their positions until their trenches were overrun. Many volunteers were killed or captured in the brutal hand-to-hand fighting, including a number who had been in Spain ever since the battles of Madrid during the winter of 1936.

Eventually the order was given to retreat and at 1 a.m. on 24 September 1938 the 15th International Brigade were withdrawn from the line. In its final forty-eight hours’ fighting, some two hundred members of the battalion had been killed, wounded or missing. It was a tragic and heart-breaking end to their time in Spain, though, in many ways, a fitting final act. Despite their unquestionable bravery, the men in the British Battalion were simply outnumbered and outgunned. Raw courage and a belief in the essential ‘rightness’ of their cause ‘could not overcome inexperience, poor coordination and superior military force’.

The tough Scottish political commissar Peter Kerrigan described his shock at this terrible outcome of the last action:

I could give dozens of individual acts of heroism but what is the use. The list of citations which I enclose, tells in brief official terms of the acts of deathless glory which were played out against a background of the cutting to pieces of our very bravest. I saw what No. 1 Coy. came through at Córdoba and I will never forget when I was told what our casualties were in those first 3 days at Jarama. But nothing can compare with the end of our battalion.

On 28 October 1938 the surviving volunteers of the 15 International Brigades took their place in a huge farewell parade in Barcelona, renowned for the speech of ‘La Pasionaria’ in which she thanked them and promised: ‘We will not forget you’ she said, ‘and, when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves, entwined with the laurels of the Spanish Republic’s victory, come back! Come back to us and here you will find a homeland.’

Capa’s famous photo taken at the October 1938 farewell to the International Brigades in Barcelona
Capa’s famous photo taken at the October 1938 farewell to the International Brigades in Barcelona

But six months later, the beleaguered Spanish Republic finally collapsed and, with it, the hopes of the supporters of democratic Spain from around the world. It caused the French writer Albert Camus to write an embittered comment on the lessons on the Spanish Civil War and the sacrifice of the International Brigades:

‘It was in Spain that [my generation] learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense.’ ‘It is this which explains why so many, the world over, feel the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy.’

And why, of course, many people around the world continue to do so.

This lecture was given on 13 September 2014, as part of a weekend of events in Limerick organised by the Limerick International Brigade Memorial Trust.

La Place du Combat

In the centre of Paris, three kilometres north-east of the Louvre and just east of the Canal Saint-Martin, lies an apparently nondescript intersection of six streets, the Place du Colonel Fabien. Named in honour of the ‘militant Communist and member of the French Resistance’ killed in 1944, the junction’s only feature of note (metro station aside) is a large curved glass building, built during the 1960s, judging by the fairly brutal architectural style.  This is the modern headquarters of the Partie Communiste Francais which played a key role in the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939, when it acted as the main recruiting centre for the International Brigades.

The headquarters of the PCF, the French Communist Party, in Place de Colonel Fabien in Paris
The headquarters of the PCF, the French Communist Party, in Place de Colonel Fabien in Paris

Between October 1936 and the summer of 1938, some 35 000 men and women from around the world made the journey to Spain to join the Brigades, with as many as 2500 of them coming from Britain and Ireland. Initially, volunteers made their way to Spain independently (though this required money and, crucially, a passport), however following the decision by the Communist International (the Comintern) in October 1936 to organise international volunteers, the role of the national Communist Parties – in particular the PCF – became crucial both in the recruitment of volunteers and getting them to Spain.

Plaque at the entry to the French Communist headquarters in Paris, dedicated to the 35 000 volunteers for the International Brigades
Plaque at the entry to the French Communist headquarters in Paris, dedicated to the 35 000 volunteers for the International Brigades

The process of volunteering was straightforward, though had to be carried out in secret. Those in Britain wishing to go to Spain would make contact with their local Communist Party who, assuming they were seen as politically trustworthy (Trade Unionists, members of the Party or other left-wing political organisation), would forward them to the Party’s head office in London’s King Street. Here, further checks would be made on their political and military background, and applicants would be given stern warnings that they may well not return. Those accepted and wishing to continue would then travel onward in small groups, trying (usually fairly unsuccessfully) to maintain a low profile, making their way by train to a port (usually Newhaven or Dover), then by ferry to France and on to Paris.

Here, in the PCF offices in Place du Combat, the volunteers underwent further checks and were given a medical examination. The British representative in Paris was the French-speaking Charlotte Haldane, (known by the pseudonym ‘Rita’), wife of the renowned scientist and ardent Republican supporter J.B.S. Haldane and mother of a volunteer in the British Battalion. Her job was to partly process the incoming volunteers, but she was also instructed to confiscate volunteers’ excess money in order to, as she put it, ‘avert the danger that any of the volunteers should get drunk, start brawls or become involved in them, or be lured into the neighbouring brothels.’ Instead, each volunteer was provided with ten francs daily pocket money (food and lodging were provided for free).

The only remaining sign of La Place de Combat, now known as La Place de Colonel Fabien
The only remaining sign of La Place de Combat, now known as La Place de Colonel Fabien

From Paris the volunteers would travel south and over the border into Spain by train, until volunteering was made illegal in January 1937, after which the usual route was to be smuggled in groups over the Pyrenees at night, which involved an exhausting and hazardous climb of some twelve hours.

Those that actually made it to the border were then taken the short distance to Figueras by lorry and put on a train to the International Brigade headquarters at Albacete, where volunteers were divided up by nationality and language. British volunteers were sent to their base at the nearby village of Madrigueras where they were given rudimentary military training, before they joined their comrades on the front-line.

Few would escape unscathed.

The British Battalion at the battle of Jarama

This lecture was originally given as part of the Charlie Donnelly memorial weekend in Madrid in 2010. It outlines the role of the (so-called) British Battalion in the three days of desperate and bloody fighting that occurred between the 12th and 14th February 1937.

Surviving members of the British Battalion following the Battle of Jarama, February 1937
Surviving members of the British Battalion following the Battle of Jarama, February 1937

Established just after Christmas 1936, the 16th ‘British’ Battalion was formed mainly from volunteers from Britain and Ireland, though it also included those from a number of other countries, including Cyprus, South Africa, and Australia. The majority of its numbers had arrived in the large influx during December 1936, but during January it also incorporated those that had already been in Spain fighting with the various militia units, with the International Brigades in Madrid and, most recently, as part of the mainly English-speaking company of the French 14th International Brigade at Lopera near Cordoba in the south and at Las Rozas to the west of the Spanish capital.

By the beginning of January 1937, the English-speaking group at the battalion’s training base at Madrigueras – just to the north of Albacete – numbered around 450. However, the battalion suffered a major setback in mid-January, when a number of the Irish volunteers, already unhappy with British officers’ tendency not to make any distinction between British and Irish volunteers, discovered that two senior British figures in Spain had played a part in British covert activities in Ireland.[1] Following a stormy meeting, the Irish group decided to leave the British Battalion and instead joined the American volunteers in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion who were training at nearby Villanueva de la Jara. Despite this setback, an influx of new arrivals brought the number in the battalion up to approximately five to six hundred by mid-February and the battalion was considered to be of sufficient strength and readiness for front-line action. Alongside the Yugoslav Dimitrovs, the Franco-Belge  and the American Lincolns (who were still training), they comprised the 15 International Brigade, which was commanded by an unpopular Hungarian, under the name of Gal.[2] The 15th Brigade political commissar was the Yugoslavian Vladimir Copic, who would later replace Gal as Brigade commander.[3]

Senior British officers in Spain, in early 1937
Senior British officers in Spain, in early 1937

At this stage, the British Battalion was commanded by a Scottish journalist, Wilf McCartney, who had previously served 10 years in Parkhurst prison for spying for Russia.[4] He was assisted by Tom Wintringham, an influential British Communist and The Party’s specialist in military matters. The battalion political commissar, working alongside McCartney, was Dave Springhall, who had studied at the Lenin School in Moscow, the finishing school for the Party’s elite.[5]

The battalion itself was divided up into four companies, one machine-gun company, plus three of infantry. All but one of its commanders from company level upwards had some level of military experience. The only company commander without was Bill Briskey, a political activist from London, who had already shown himself to be a talented and innovative company commander.[6] Thus, the battalion appeared to be in a fairly healthy state.

British Battalion structure in January 1937
British Battalion structure in January 1937

However, the wounding of the battalion commander Wilf Macartney in a freak accident – he was his replaced by Wintringham – plus the loss to illness of the experienced company commander, Jock Cunningham, caused some upheaval. Furthermore, the questionable quality of the training was causing real concern to many of the volunteers with military experience. So too, understandably, was the lack of any decent weaponry. As Jason Gurney, a sculptor from London later described:

Something over fifty of them had been in action on the Cordoba Front, and the remainder had received some sort of training in Madrigueras but had still not fired a shot from any of their weapons. Only one Company Commander had been in action, and that, only as the second in command of a platoon. We possessed an assortment of automatic weapons of doubtful value as well as the Russian rifles. The Commander of the Battalion was well intentioned but totally inex­perienced. The other three battalions which formed the Brigade were not very much better off. Whether Gal and his staff knew any more than the rest of us, I cannot tell. But it is quite certain that the Brigade was not the well?armed, well?trained force that various people have pretended it to have been. There was no lack of courage or firm intent amongst the rank and file[,] but events were to prove that this was not enough.[7]

Division of Spain in January 1937
Division of Spain in January 1937

The battle began on the morning of 6 February 1937. Following the failure of the attempts on the west of Madrid in November and December 1936, Franco had prepared a new offensive to the south of the capital, aiming to cut the vital road that linked Madrid with Valencia, the seat of the Republican Government.[8]. Initially intended to be part of a combined operation with Italian troops to the east of the city, Franco decided to push ahead with the Jarama action despite the Italians having being delayed by heavy rain.

Colonel Varela, Franco’s field commander, had five brigades of six battalions at his disposal, plus eleven reserve battalions, totalling some 25 000 men – mostly elite Moroccan regulares and legionnaires – backed up by German armour.[9] The Republicans had a similar number of men available, who had been mustered for an impending Republican offensive in the same sector, which had also been delayed by the weather.

The Rebel offensive pressed forward quickly and by the evening of the 6th the Republicans had been pushed back to the Jarama River, and Rebel troops were within shelling distance of the Madrid-Valencia road.  Over the next three days, Nationalists continued to force themselves forwards, despite the Republican commander, General Miaja, throwing the elite Spanish Lister, El Campesino and 11th International Brigades into the defence.

By 7 February, Rebel forces had reached the junction of Manzanares & Jarama rivers, and the following day they captured the bridge across the Manzanares just south of Vaciamadrid and threatened to reach the Madrid to Valencia Road. At the same time, despite desperate defensive efforts by the Republicans forces to the south, Nationalist troops managed to cross the Jarama and prepared themselves for an assault on the Pingarrón Heights, the imposing ridge in front of them. The 15th International Brigade was now thrown in to the defence. The 600 odd British in the battalion left their base at Madrigueras and were taken by train to the International Brigade base at Albacete, and then by lorry to Chinchón, about 25 km from Madrid and 15 km south-east of the site of the rebel advance.

Early in the morning of the 12th the British were transferred from Chinchón to the junction of the Morata to St. Martín de la Vega and Chinchón to Madrid roads, where they arrived at 5.30 a.m.[10] They were then ordered to move forward towards the Jarama River, which lay beyond the next ridge. Moving in single file, the volunteers in the battalion climbed upwards to a plateau overlooking the Jarama River, near a farmhouse where they quickly established a cookhouse.[11]

The front line at the beginning of February 1937
The front line at the beginning of February 1937

The battalion’s new commander, Tom Wintringham, was informed that a Spanish cavalry unit would be protecting their left flank and that half the Dimitrov battalion would be protecting their right. At this point, according to Wintringham, a Russian Engineers’ Officer, who was attempting to install a telephone link to 15th Brigade headquarters, ordered the battalion to advance beyond what later became known as Suicide Hill and attack the advancing Rebel forces, despite Wintringham’s opposition.[12]

The battalion therefore continued its advance, but with no maps and no knowledge of the position of the Nationalist forces they had no clear idea of when they would meet the enemy.  They moved forward over the ridge then, after crossing a narrow sunken road, began to descend into the valley of the Jarama River, which lay in front of them. At this point, the volunteers began to come under fire from the Nationalist forces, which the Republican command did not realise had already crossed the Jarama river. For Albert Charlesworth, a metal-polisher from Oldham, it seemed at first to be a beautiful sunny day. It was a dream from which he would shortly be very rudely awakened:

 I thought it was a glorious day actually. It was a nice day, beautiful day. There was the sun… it got really warm and the birds seemed to be singing very nicely to me. We weren’t being fired on although firing seemed to be taking place- I thought so anyway. But it wasn’t until eleven o’clock in the morning that I realised that the birds that were singing were bullets whistling past and there was a fierce battle going on.[13]

When they realised that the Rebels had already crossed the river, the battalion very rapidly pulled back to the top of the ridge and took up defensive positions: No. 3 Company to the left, No. 4 Company to the right, the Machine-Gun Company just behind them and Number 1 Company in reserve, much to the disgust of its commander, the ex-IRA man Kit Conway[14]. They then prepared to engage with the advancing Nationalist forces.[15]

The battalion was then subjected to a three hour artillery and machine-gun barrage, before being attacked by ‘at least three battalions’ of experienced Moroccan infantry. For many of the British volunteers, this was their first experience of action, and they faced the battle-hardened, elite regulars of Franco’s Army of Africa. The Moroccan troops were highly skilled soldiers, in their element when advancing across the open terrain of the Jarama Valley.[16] Jason Gurney described the absolute horror that the rapid advance of the North African troops had on the poorly trained volunteers, and he effectively summarised the inequality between the two opposing factions:

Nobody at Madrigueras had said anything about artillery fire or the genius of Moorish infantry to move across country without presenting a target for anyone but a highly-trained marksman- a category that included no one in our outfit…[The Moors] were professionals, backed by a mass of artillery and heavy machine-gun fire supplied by the German Condor legion. It was a formidable opposition to be faced by a collection of city-bred young men with no experience of war, no idea how to find cover on an open hillside, and no competence as marksmen.[17]

Their position worsened considerably when the members of the Machine-Gun Company discovered that their Maxim machine-guns had been given cartridge belts filled with the wrong ammunition.[18] Deprived of their machine-guns, Harold Fry’s No. 2 company was forced to resort to firing their rifles desperately at the enemy soldiers advancing rapidly towards them.

Both No. 3 and No. 4 Companies quickly began to sustain casualties due to the artillery barrage and machine-gun fire. No. 3 Company lost their commander, Bill Briskey, and his replacement, Ken Stalker, within a short time of each other. Meanwhile, No 4 Coy’s terrified commander was making little preparation to defend the company against the imminent assault.[19]

Wintringham had initially ordered No. 1 Company to hold in reserve, but due to the threat it was hastily moved up to a small bare hill to the right of the companies on the ridge. Under the ferocious Nationalist attack, the Franco-Belge Battalion further to the north of the British was forced to pull back, which brought the British companies and the battalion headquarters under lethal enfilading machine-gun fire which swept across them from their right. The British tried desperately to hold their ground, but were cut to pieces.

Kit Conway’s Company, mostly seasoned veterans, but reinforced by new recruits – many of whom had only a few days training – were forced to retreat back on to the ridge on the top of Suicide Hill. When Moroccan troops appeared on the knoll to the right, Conway withdrew his men back further still, but was hit and mortally wounded in the process.[20] With no form of communication with the company commanders apart from runners – perhaps the most dangerous job of all in the battalion- Tom Wintringham later described the confusion surrounding him at the time:

 I did not know that casualties were mounting steadily and quickly; that Kit Conway, when I lost sight of him, was not lying down to seek cover, but was dying; that the section commanders in his company were either dead or wounded; that the thin grass and weeds on the crest of the hill was being slowly mown down, as if a gigantic scythe was passing and repassing, by bullets from the machine-rifles of the Moors and machine-guns of the Germans. I did not know that the wounded I could see were only a small proportion of those limping or lifted to the rear…I did not know that one of my company commanders was on the edge of panic and would come running back to find me.[21]

By the afternoon, the desperate position of the battalion and its mounting casualties left them with little option but to attempt an orderly retreat from Suicide Hill back to the battalion headquarters on the plateau, dragging their wounded comrades with them. But, as one volunteer remembered, ‘There weren’t many to go back.[22] As the dispirited British pulled back, Moroccan soldiers rushed forward over the top of Suicide Hill in order to occupy the positions relinquished by the retreating British.

At this point, the battalion experienced their first moment of good fortune. After a desperately frustrating day spent without ammunition for their machine-guns, the correct calibre bullets had at last appeared. Quickly, the machine-guns were brought into operation and used with devastating effect on the Moroccan soldiers who, for once, were caught out in the open and totally unawares. The Moroccan troops either dropped down out of sight and waited for the cover of darkness or, where they could, retreated out of range. This brought to an end the first day of the battle of Jarama.

Like other Republican units, the British Battalion had endured seven hours of extremely heavy losses: ‘Out of the 400 men in the rifle companies, only 125 were left. Altogether less than half the battalion remained’.[23] The remnants gathered at the headquarters on the sunken road, or the cookhouse next to the farm, desperate for food and water. After dark, Jason Gurney was asked by Tom Wintringham to reconnoitre the sunken road which ran across the plateau, near its forward edge. Here he made a horrifying discovery; about 50 injured men were lying on stretchers, where they had been left and forgotten in the chaotic and desperate times during the day. By the time he discovered them it was too late; most were dying or already dead.[24]

During the night a number of stragglers were discovered at the cookhouse by George Aitken, who had replaced Dave Springhall as battalion political commissar. Aitken attempted to cajole them back to the line but, as he freely admits, some volunteers were pressed back to the front under the threat of his gun.[25] Another group of men were found hiding in wine vaults in a farmhouse behind the lines. They were also marched back to the front. Coerced or not, the volunteers would be desperately needed on the frontline over the next two days.

The following day was to be no less terrifying for the shocked and traumatized survivors of the battalion. Morning began quietly, though the volunteers could hear a battle erupting to their right and see a huge amount of enemy activity in the valley below. Wintringham prepared his depleted forces as best he could. Harold Fry’s Machine-Gun Company were kept in a forward position, overlooking the valley and river below them. No. 4 Company, under Bert Overton, were placed to the right and No. 1 Company, now under André Diamant, were facing the open left flank. Early in the morning, Dave Springhall, now the assistant political commissar of the 15th International Brigade, brought orders from headquarters that the battalion was to attack the enemy forces directly front of them, in order to take pressure of the Thaelmanns and Dimitrovs to their right. Springhall assured Wintringham that the attack would be supported by aircraft, tanks and the elite Spanish Lister Brigade.

However, no tanks appeared and the air support turned out to be 3 little planes who quickly dropped their bombs and disappeared. This made little or no impression on the Rebel forces, who were well dug in, and had set up effective machine-gun positions. In addition, the nationalists launched another artillery barrage on the British Battalion’s positions. Faced with a suicidal 600 yard advance into enemy machine-guns, Wintringham ignored the order to go forward. The order was later repeated, and again Wintringham ignored it. This was a brave decision, for he must have been fully aware that it could have seen him executed for dereliction of duty.

When dawn broke, the members of Harold Fry’s No. 2 machine-gun company were able to see a number of rebel soldiers who had moved up in the night between the ridge and Suicide Hill and quickly drove them back with concentrated machine-gun fire.[26] But as the day progressed, the Franco-Belge and Dimitrov Battalions on the right were gradually pushed back and the Battalion found itself once again surrounded on three sides. By late afternoon Wintringham was aware that an assault on Fry’s position was imminent, as small groups of Moroccan troops could be seen working their way forward to Fry’s right, where Bert Overton’s No. 4 Company was situated. At this point the nervous Overton finally panicked, and withdrew his company right back to the sunken road, as he had been begging the Scottish political commissar George Aitken to allow him to do all day.[27] This left the Machine-Gun Company’s flank totally unprotected and rebel forces quickly took advantage of the situation and surrounded them. As many as 30 members of the Company, including its commander Harold Fry, and his assistant, Ted Dickenson, were captured. [28]

Members of the British Machine-Gun Company captured at Jarama on 13 February 1937
Members of the British Machine-Gun Company captured at Jarama on 13 February 1937

When Bert Overton realized what he had done, he tried to make amends by leading a charge of 40 men in a desperate attempt to retake the trenches recently occupied by Fry’s Machine-Gun Company. The Nationalists soldiers simply mowed them down with the machine-guns they just captured. Only six of the 40 men made it back to the British positions. In the mêlée Tom Wintringham sustained a leg wound, and George Aitken took temporary control of the battalion. By nightfall only 160 still remained in the line.[29] With Wintringham injured, Fry captured, and Overton in tatters, the British Battalion was in an unenviable position. So the return from his sickbed of the experienced and widely respected Jock Cunningham, came not a moment too soon.

The third day of the battle, on the 14 February, brought a new assault on the British Battalion’s lines by a fresh Nationalist brigade, supported by tanks. Under severe crossfire and without any specialised equipment to combat the tanks, Jock Cunningham had little choice but to withdraw the battalion away from the sunken road. One of battalion (‘OR’) later described their desperate retreat:

About 1 p.m. I heard the tanks on our left…At that moment, a tank shell burst a few yards away. Across to the left a big tank, bigger than any of ours, loomed up. Behind it swarmed Moors. Their main fire was on the Spanish Company on our left. Simultaneously, the din on the right became terrific. Nothing could live in the face of such fire…In those days we had no anti-tank guns, no grenades, no anti-tank material. The left flank broke, and the rout spread to the whole line. The slaughter was terrible. One would see five men running abreast, and four of them suddenly crumple up… Here and there, little groups rallied to stem the Fascist advance. Five or six times, a little bunch of Number 1 Company under André Diamint held up the Moors. Finally, they too, had to give up the unequal fight.[30]

The Irish leader, Frank Ryan, wrote:

Dispirited by heavy casualties, by defeat, by lack of food, worn out by three days of gruelling fighting, our men appeared to have reached the end of their resistance.
Some were still straggling down the slopes from what had been, up to an hour ago, the front line. And now, there was no line, nothing between the Madrid road and the Fascists but disorganised groups of weary, war-wrecked men. After three days of terrific struggle, the superior numbers, the superior armaments of the Fascists had routed them. All, as they came back, had similar stories to tell: of comrades dead, of conditions that were more than flesh and blood could stand, of weariness they found hard to resist.[31]

With the British machine-guns crushed underneath the tanks, the desperately weakened British line finally broke and the volunteers retreated in small groups back down the slope towards the Chinchón road.

But here they were stopped by Lieutenant-Colonel Gal, the commander of the 15 International Brigade. He explained to them that they were the only troops between the rebels and the Valencia Road.[32] Despite their physical and mental exhaustion, 140 volunteers marched back with Jock Cunningham and Frank Ryan to try to recapture their lost positions. Under no illusions about the situation they were walking into, the volunteers marched, singing the Internationale to bolster their spirits, and picking up stragglers on the way.[33]

Sounding suspiciously like a Comintern propaganda creation, the story of what became known as ‘the great rally’ is nevertheless corroborated by many witnesses. and has become an powerful image of the British Battalion’s involvement in Spain.[34] There is no doubt that, as Hugh Thomas admitted, ‘It was a brave performance’.[35] The volunteers’ courage, and the deception that enabled them to fool the rebel forces into thinking they were faced by more than a handful of men, held the line at a critical moment for the Republic. It was a lucky break for the battalion, as Tom Wintringham described:

There were no Republican forces to the south of the British Battalion to their left. However, this weakness was disguised by the stubborn defence of Suicide Hill. This is the justification, the achievement, of the defence of Suicide Hill. We held our own half-mile or more; we masked the utter weakness, emptiness, of the three miles south of us.[36]… A battalion that does not know how to be defeated deserves an occasional stroke of luck…The biggest and best organized drive that Franco had so far made had been stopped – within a few miles of its starting place. Arganda Bridge was ours. The Madrid-Valencia Road was ours. Madrid lived.[37]

The Nationalist forces, fooled into believing that fresh reinforcements had been brought up to the front, retreated back to their earlier positions. During the night of 14 to 15 February, Spanish units were brought up, and the gap in the line was finally plugged. Both sides dug defensive fortifications and a stalemate ensued, which neither side was able to overcome. The positions remained virtually static for the rest of the war.

The front line following the battle of Jarama, February 1937
The front line following the battle of Jarama, February 1937

However, it was not the end of the carnage, with men continuing to be killed, either by snipers, or in futile attempts to break the deadlock. One of the most costly came shortly after the arrival on the front of the American Lincoln Battalion, and who played a central role in the attack.

Almost two weeks after the end of the three day battle, on 27 February, Colonel Gal launched an attack on the strongly held front between San Martín and Pingarrón. Facing well-directed Nationalist machine-gun fire, many volunteers refused to advance and those who did were shot to pieces. This was the Americans’ first action and they suffered terribly, losing 120 killed and 175 wounded. Among the dead was the Irish poet Charlie Donnelly. Manchester volunteer Charles Morgan was also involved in the disastrous attack:

We were all in trenches, we were told on the morning that there would be air cover, there would be a bombardment. There was neither. We were just rushed over the top to face crossfire and machine-guns. It was a slaughter. We didn’t stand a cat in hell’s chance! I saw lads, my comrades that I’d learnt to love, die and some of these boys never fired a bloody shot.[38]

As Jud Colman, a comrade of Morgan from the Manchester Young Communist League, explained, ‘Most of the attacks were almost suicidal, because there’s no way you can send men against machine-guns without losing some. It was just physically impossible’.[39]

Gravestone erected to the Jarama fallen
Gravestone erected to the Jarama fallen

Long portrayed by many supporters of the Brigades as a triumph, the battle in fact merely stemmed the fascist advance. It also provided a brutal wake-up call for those who believed that the rightness of their cause would ensure the Republic’s victory. As the French writer, author and philosopher Albert Camus later wrote:

It was in Spain that men learned that one can be right and still be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own reward.

Yet, despite this, the international Brigades fought on. The Spanish Republic fought on. Indeed, the following month, the Republican army would score a stunning victory at Guadalajara, bringing hope that eventually right could triumph over might. Sadly, the next major action of the British Battalion in Spain, the battle of Brunete in the full heat of the Spanish summer, would suggest otherwise.


[1] Nathan had served, probably as an auxiliary, with the Black and Tans in Ireland in the 1920s and strong rumours linked him to involvement in a hit squad that murdered two prominent members of Sinn Fein; George Clancy, the former Lord Mayor of Limerick and George O’Callaghan, the ex-mayor in May 1921. See Richard Bennett, ‘Portrait of a Killer’, New Statesman, 24 March 1961 pp.471-472. According to Joe Monks, one of the Irish volunteers, Nathan admitted to having worked for British intelligence in Limerick. Interview with Joe Monks, IWMSA 11303/4/1. (However, as Kieron Punch points out, Irish hatred of Nathan has probably been exaggerated. During his time in Spain, Nathan gained the reputation as a brave, efficient and talented officer which, for most volunteers, probably more than compensated for his murky past. Kieron Punch, ‘Did Irish recoil from a ‘Black and Tan’ in the International Brigades?’ ALBA. On-line posting. http://forums.nyu.edu. 6 December, 2002). McCartney was also rumoured to have served in the Black and Tans in Ireland. Richard Bennett in The Black and Tans, London: Edward Hulton, 1959, p.147 states that the Black and Tan auxiliaries, ‘used the Long Bar at the Trocadero as their headquarters, where they were advised by their ringleader, who later achieved a certain notoriety as a Soviet agent, to threaten to ‘blow the gaff’ about conditions in Ireland’. This may be a reference to McCartney.

[2] Gal’s real name was actually Janos Galicz. He was a naturalised Russian, born in Austro-Hungary. Thomas, Spanish Civil War, pp.590-591 and Richardson, p.72.

[3] Walter Gregory states of ?opi? that, ‘As an intelligent man with a good appreciation of the tactics and strategy of warfare, ?opi? was ideally suited to take command of the brigade. His expertise, coupled with his popularity, assured him of our respect and admiration. Indeed, I cannot remember ?opi? being the subject of criticism.’ Gregory, p.58.

[4] Alexander, p.65.

[5] As John Halstead and Barry McGoughlin state, ‘Of the 11 battalion political commissars in the 57th, British Battalion of the 15th Brigade, nine, if not all, had been sent to the ILS [International Lenin School in Moscow] or had worked in the Comintern bureaucracy in Moscow. They were, in chronological order: Douglas Springhall, George Aitken, Bert Williams, George Coyle, Jack Roberts, Ernest Torrance, James Bourne, Eric Whalley, Harry Dobson, Walter Tapsell and Bob Cooney.’ John Halstead and Barry McLoughlin, ‘British and Irish Students at the International Lenin School, Moscow, 1926-37’, Conference Paper, Manchester, April 2001, p.3. Ralph Fox, the intellectual founder of the Left Review, with Tom Wintringham and Daily Worker journalist who was killed at Lopera in December 1936 and other senior party figures, such as the brigade commissar Peter Kerrigan, had also studied at Moscow.

[6] Wintringham, p.??

[7] Gurney, Crusade in Spain, p.85.

[8] The Republican Government had ‘divisively and controversially’ moved itself to Valencia on the 6 November 1936 when it looked at though the capital city might well fall to the rebels. Preston, Concise History, p.117.

[9] Beevor, The Battle for Spain, p.209.

[10] Interview with Patrick Curry, IWMSA 799/3/1 and Alexander, p.94.

[11] Gregory, p.44.

[12] Wintringham, English Captain, p.65.

[13] Ibid.

[14] No.1 Company was made up of a combination of those who had fought at Las Rozas, and new untrained volunteers who arrived shortly before the battle. According to Jud Colman who had fought with No. 1 Company at Lopera and Las Rozas, No 1 Company were mainly kept together and became the brigade guard charged with guarding the headquarters, and didn’t fight as much at Jarama as many other groups. ‘I was very relieved. I’m not that sort of a hero. I’d be a fool if I was.’ Interview with Julius Colman, IWMSA 14575/3/2.

[15] Tom Wintringham’s description of the engagement contains a useful sketch map of the positions during the morning of 12 February 1937. See Wintringham, p.62.

[16] As battle-hardened crack soldiers, the Moroccan soldiers were used as shock troops by the rebels, just as the International Brigades were for the Republicans. Many other volunteers refer to the terror of coming up against the Moors. See for example, interview with David Anderson, in MacDougall, p.94.

[17] Gurney, p.104 and p.108.

[18] The problem was a symptom of the Republican Army’s forced dependence on antiquated military supplies. The belts were the correct type for Maxim machine-guns, and the bullets were also for Maxims, but for guns of a more modern design than the German Maxims the British were equipped with. Wintringham, p.69.

[19] Gurney, p.107.

[20] Account by Frank Ryan from Ryan, XV International Brigade, p.62.

[21] Wintringham, English Captain, pp.76-7.

[22] As Charlesworth retreated he also joined the long list of casualties when he was blown into the air by an artillery shell. After a spell in hospital he rejoined the battalion and became its postman. Interview with Albert Charlesworth, IWMSA 798/4/1.

[23] Alexander, p.97. Rust estimates that, including officers and members of the Machine-Gun Company, a total of 275 British were still in action by the end of the first day. Rust, p.46.

[24] Gurney, pp.113-114.

[25] Interview with George Aitken, IWMSA 10357/3/1. One disgruntled volunteer later wrote his memoirs anonymously and referred significantly to this event in an attempt to discredit the battalion. Anon, In Spain with the International Brigade: A personal narrative, London: Burns Oates and Washborne, 1938, p. 24.

[26] Rust, p.47.

[27] See written reports from members of the machine-gun company captured that day; Harold Fry, Bert Levy Donald Renton, Charles West and Basil Abrahams undated, NMLH Manchester, CP/IND/POLL/2/5-6. They are bitterly hostile and critical of Overton, describing how he withdrew his company after two shells had fallen to their right and claimed Overton had stated, ‘God Damn it! It is too bloody hot here; I am getting out of it.’ See also interview with George Aitken, IWMSA 10357/3/1. Aitken claims that it was later rumoured that Overton threw a Mills bomb into the company’s ammunition dump to justify the retreat.

Clearly Overton panicked at Jarama, but some responsibility must also lie with his commanders, for Overton’s weakness had been recognised before the battle. Tom Wintringham him described as ‘a fool, a romantic, a bluffer who wanted to be courageous but had lived too easily, too softly’ and went on to admit that, ‘Macartney, myself, Springhall- we had already to some extent seen through O. at Madrigueras.’ Wintringham, pp.109-110.

[28] There are discrepancies between differing accounts over the numbers captured at Jarama on 13 February 1937. Bill Alexander states that there were 30 captured (p.183), whereas James Maley- who was himself captured that day- states that the number was 28. Interview with James Waley, IWMSA 11947/3/2. My research support’s Alexander’s findings. Carl Geiser lists 27 of the 30 in his study of the American prisoners-of-war Prisoners of the Good Fight, Connecticut: Lawrence Hill, 1986, pp.270-271 note 7. The three he missed were a volunteer named Struthers or Stuhldeer, John Bruce from Alexandria and S. J. Giles from Liverpool. In addition, two volunteers, Jack Flynn and Fred Jones, were captured at the end of February.

[29] This total includes the remaining few remaining members of the Machine-Gun Company.

[30] Account by ‘O.R.’ from Ryan, XV International Brigade, p.57.

[31] Account by Frank Ryan from Ryan, XV International Brigade, p.58.

[32] Unknown to many of the British at the time, there were also no troops to their left, where a Spanish cavalry regiment was supposed to be. This made their desperate defence extremely critical for the Republic. ‘There were no troops to the south of the English…all our reserves were up to the north…It would have been impossible to stop a Fascist attack south of us. There was our weak spot.’ Gurney, pp.113-114. Fortunately for the British Battalion, and for the Spanish Republic, the rebel forces, ‘did not find this weak spot until February 14th or 15th, when it was no longer very weak’. As Tom Wintringham argues, ‘That is the justification, the achievement, of the defence of Suicide Hill. We held our own half-mile or more; we masked the utter weakness, emptiness, of the three miles south of us.’ Wintringham, p.82.

[33] Here too, George Aitken describes using his pistol to encourage a small number of reluctant volunteers back to the front. Interview with George Aitken, IWMSA 10357/3/1.

[34] An account by Frank Graham appears in his book on Jarama. It states: ‘The events which followed were some of the most glorious in British working-class history. As these men began to climb the hill again, they broke spontaneously into the Internationale. These soldiers who had previously left the front line and gone some distance stopped in surprise, and those who were sitting on the sides of the slope, jumped up to look at this strange band of men, bearded, dirty, ragged, covered with blood, who after three days’ hard fighting were proudly marching along. They broke into applause and they too began to sing. The whole mountainside echoed with their song, the song of struggle. More and more men began to join the marching column. It was a real regrouping!’ Frank Graham, p.24. Similar accounts of ‘The Great Rally’ appear in Rust, pp.51-54 and Ryan, pp.58-61.

[35] Thomas, Spanish Civil War, p.592. Robert Stradling agrees: ‘Although the British Battalion was neither significantly outnumbered nor outgunned by the forces actually facing it, its achievement was nonetheless an epic one. The assertion may ultimately be incapable of proof, but this writer is confident that its conduct- especially on 12 February- represents the greatest single contribution to the victory of Jarama, and thus to the survival of Madrid.’ Stradling, Irish and the Spanish Civil War, p. 166.

[36] Wintringham, English Captain, p.82.

[37] Wintringham, English Captain, p.117. As Wintringham notes, more significant than good fortune were the vigorous attacks of the Dimitrov battalion to the north of the British, who eventually pushed the Rebels back to the river valley gorge.

[38] Interview with Charles Morgan, IWMSA 10362/2/1.

[39] Interview with Jud Colman, IWMSA 14575/3/3.

Studying and writing the Spanish Civil War

When I give lectures and talks about the British volunteers for the Spanish Civil War, I am often asked not just about the motivations of the volunteers themselves, but mine too. What led me to become interested in a foreign war fought so many years ago? Did any of my family fight in Spain, perhaps? The answer to the last question is simple:  no. The answer to the first, however, is more complicated.  Like many others in Britain, I suppose, it all began with George Orwell

George Orwell’s <i>Homage to Catalonia</i>, first published in 1938
George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, first published in 1938

I was a big Orwell buff when I was at secondary school. I read most of his novels, including 1984 and Animal Farm obviously, but I also enjoyed his non-fiction, particularly Down and Out in Paris and London (I was probably the only schoolboy in second year French who knew what a plongeur was). Homage to Catalonia I read too, but it would  not be true to say that, at that stage, I had become fascinated in the Spanish Civil War. My two strongest feelings on reading the book were probably confusion over the numerous acronyms in the two chapters on Spanish politics and disappointment that Orwell’s brave adventure in Spain ended with him fleeing Spain pursued by those who were, ostensibly, on the same side. That was about it, for some ten years.

While it may sound a little hyperbolic and pretentious to describe a book as life-changing, I have no doubt that, in this case at least, one undoubtedly changed the direction of my life. I cannot now remember where the the copy of the book came from, whether it was a present or that I had picked it up on a whim, but I began to read Ernest Hemingway’s famous novel of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Despite Hemingway’s use of archaic dialect (and other oft-cited weaknesses of the book), I was immediately taken with the story of the young American who had chosen to volunteer to fight in defence of the Republican government against a military uprising.

Ernest Hemingway’s <i>For Whom The Bell Tolls</i>, a novel set within the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939
Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, a novel set within the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939

[Spoiler alert!] But it was the dramatic, heart-breaking ending which really captivated me. The image of the distraught María being physically dragged away from her lover, Robert, as he stoically prepares for the end he, and we, know is inevitable. When I finished reading the book I could think of little else for days and it still puts a lump in my throat, even to write about it. It is a terribly, terribly sad story, particularly when you are aware of the parallel in the real world. In Spain in September 1938, of course, it was actually the tearful foreign volunteers who were plucked from the arms of la niña bonita, as the Second Spanish Republic (1931-1939) was known. The famous quote by Albert Camus from 1939 sums up the tragedy and why it is still so affecting for me – and many others:

‘It was in Spain that [my generation] learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense.’

As an undergraduate student during the early 1990s at Middlesex University (or Polytechnic, as it was then), I threw myself into studying the Spanish Civil War, taught by Clive Fleay, who had published an article in the Historical Journal on the British Labour Party’s response to the conflict. I spent most of my final year in the British newspaper library in Colindale, perusing copies of The Times¸ the News Chronicle and The Morning Post as research for an undergraduate dissertation on the coverage of the war in the British Press.

Middlesex University’s Trent Park Campus
Middlesex University’s Trent Park Campus

A year later found me teaching at Middlesex and at Queen Mary and Westfield College (now Queen Mary University of London) and studying for an M.A. at the Institute of Historical Research, as I began to put together an annotated list of the 2500 or so volunteers who left Britain and Ireland to fight for the Spanish Republic. This was later expanded to become the foundation for my Ph.D. thesis, when I was lucky enough to be accepted to study under one of the world experts on twentieth century Spain, Professor Paul Preston, at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Paul’s Cañada Blanch Centre at the L.S.E. was – and still is – a central hub for scholars from around the world interested in contemporary Spanish history. As a research student there, between 1997 and 2001, I listened to papers from many distinguished historians, including Helen Graham, Enrique Moradiellos, Gabriel Jackson and many, many others. Milton Wolf, the last commander of the American Abraham Lincoln battalion in Spain, came to give a talk and a number of British veterans of the International Brigades were regularly in the audience, including the former Daily Worker and Morning Star reporter, Sam Lesser (then using his nom-de-guerre from Spain, Sam Russell), Bill Alexander (Milton Wolf’s opposite number in the British Battalion) and David Marshall, one of the early volunteers and the only surviving member from the iconic photograph of the Tom Mann Centuria in Barcelona in 1936.

Paul Preston, Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish History and Director of the Cañada Blanch Centre at the London School of Economics
Paul Preston, Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish History and Director of the Cañada Blanch Centre at the London School of Economics

With the death of Bill Alexander in 2000, my relationship to the Spanish Civil War dramatically changed, when I became involved in attempting to establish a new charitable trust, intended to unite two existing organisations, the International Brigade Association and the Friends of the International Brigade.

Over a course of meetings, expertly and diplomatically chaired by Paul, the International Brigade Memorial Trust eventually came into existence. Alongside Paul and Ken Livingstone as patrons, there were three veterans of the Spanish Civil War on the committee: David Marshall and Sam Russell/Lesser were joined by the Liverpool Trade Unionist Jack Jones. A number of family members such as Marlene Sidaway (David Marshall’s partner) and Peter Crome, son of Dr. Len Crome, the commander of the Republican 35th Division medical services joined the committee; as did a recently graduated doctoral student of the LSE: one Richard Baxell. The organisation published its first newsletter in February 2002 and a website and Facebook page followed.

Present at a preliminary meeting in 2000 to discuss the foundation of the International Brigade Memorial Trust. L to R: Pauline Fraser, Marlene Sidaway, David Marshall, Paul Preston, Sam Lesser and Angela Jackson. Photograph by Richard Baxell
Present at a preliminary meeting in 2000 to discuss the foundation of the International Brigade Memorial Trust. L to R: Pauline Fraser, Marlene Sidaway, David Marshall, Paul Preston, Sam Lesser and Angela Jackson. Photograph by Richard Baxell

Being a member of the committee and meeting numerous veterans and the families obviously changed the nature of my relationship, making it more personal. This presents obvious challenges to objectivity. However, the value of the help, support and contacts that membership of the committee the IBMT itself, have been incalculable.  I have no doubt that my recent oral history of the volunteers, Unlikely Warriors, would have been very much poorer without it.

Richard Baxell, October 2013.

Iconic photographs of British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War

This is one of the first photographs taken of British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. Kneeling in front in white trousers, is Tom Wintringham, who commanded the British Battalion in their first action in Spain, at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937.

Members of the British Machine-Gun Company, captured at Jarama
Members of the British Machine-Gun Company, captured at Jarama

Members of the British Machine-Gun Company, captured at Jarama in February 1937 and paraded in front of the cameras of Movietone News under the watchful eye of their Civil Guard captors. The prisoners were eventually released and repatriated in May 1937.

Members of the British Anti-Tank Battery relaxing at their base in Ambite in autumn 1937
Members of the British Anti-Tank Battery relaxing at their base in Ambite in autumn 1937

The British Anti-Tank Battery was an eilte unit formed in June 1937 and armed with state-of-the-art Russian guns. Hugh Slater, in the centre of the photo, replaced Malcolm Dunbar as their commander in August 1937.

Thanks to Joan Brown, Jim Carmody, Dan Payne and others for their help in identifying everyone. If you know the name of any of the unknown volunteers, please get in touch.

Further reading…

The following suggestions for further reading are from my Unlikely Warriors:

For British politics in the 1930s, see John Stephenson and Chris Cook’s Britain in the Depression and Juliet Gardiner’s The Thirties. Joe Jacobs’ memoir Out of the Ghetto is good for a view from the street.

There are many published accounts by British volunteers in the International Brigades; of those still in print, Walter Gregory’s The Shallow Grave and Fred Thomas’s To Tilt at Windmills are justifiably popular. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and the Spanish born Arturo Barea’s The Forging of a Rebel are both important and highly readable. Many works focus on the national and ethnic groups within the ‘British’ volunteers, of which Hywell Francis’ reissued Miners Against Fascism and Daniel Gray’s Homage to Caledonia are two notable recent additions.

Paul Preston’s We Saw Spain Die is a fascinating account of the foreign correspondents who witnessed the conflict. For the war itself, Hugh Thomas’s The Spanish Civil War in its fully revised third edition is always useful, though Helen Graham’s The Spanish Civil War and Paul Preston’s Concise History offer more accessible introductions to the subject. Ronald Fraser’s Blood of Spain remains a shining example of the merits of oral history.

For the role of the former volunteers after the civil war and the continuing relevance of the conflict, see Tom Buchanan’s Impact of the Spanish Civil War on Britain.