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Charlie Hutchinson: the only black Briton in the International Brigades

Form completed by Charlie Hutchinson in Spain, giving brief biographical details.
Form completed by Charlie Hutchinson in Spain, giving brief biographical details.

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 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.’1)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 Hutchinson 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.’2)Charles Hutchinson 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.’3)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.4)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 Hutchinson 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.5)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.

Letter from Gallo (Luigi Longo) to Comrade Fusimaña, Commissar of the XV Republican Corps
Letter from Gallo (Luigi Longo) to Comrade Fusimaña, Commissar of the XV Republican Corps

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.6)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 Hutchinson’s political views and his work were ‘Good [and] for his age quite developed.’7)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’.8)RGASPI, 545/6/150, p. 90.

Finally, in August 1938, an order was given that Hutchinson 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.9)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.’10)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.11)Alonzo Elliott to Charles Hutchinson, 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.12)On 15 December 1938, Hutchinson 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.’13)Interview with Harry Fraser, Manchester History Archive, tape 241, reel 1, side 2.

As yet, little evidence can be found of Hutchinson’s later life. We do know that Charlie 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.14)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 74.15)Many thanks to John Halstead for the details gleaned from census and registry files.

Charlie Hutchinson 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.16)Charles Hutchinson, cited in Hynes, pp. 25-6.

References   [ + ]

1. Interview with John Tunnah, Imperial War Museum Sound Archive no. 840, reel 1.
2. Charles Hutchinson cited in M.J. Hynes, ‘The British Battalion of the XVth International Brigade’, unpublished B.A. dissertation, University of Manchester, 1985, p. 40.
3. National Archives KV 5/112, p. 7.
4. 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.
5. Bill Alexander, British Volunteers for Liberty, p. 73.
6. RGASPI 545/6/150, pp. 93-4.
7. ibid
8. RGASPI, 545/6/150, p. 90.
9. RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 83.
10. RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 95.
11. Alonzo Elliott to Charles Hutchinson, 10 September 1938. RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 85.
12. On 15 December 1938, Hutchinson was at Ripoll, in northern Spain, still awaiting repatriation. RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 78.
13. Interview with Harry Fraser, Manchester History Archive, tape 241, reel 1, side 2.
14. Volunteer for Liberty, Vol. 6, No. 3, July 1945, p. 7.
15. Many thanks to John Halstead for the details gleaned from census and registry files.
16. Charles Hutchinson, cited in Hynes, pp. 25-6.

Review of Enrique Moradiellos’s Franco: Anatomy of a Dictator

For anyone who spends their working days immersed in the turbulent events of Twentieth Century Spain, the notion that anyone could have forgotten General Franco and his brutal regime seems far-fetched. However, the eminent Spanish historian, Enrique Moradiellos, believes that the gradual removal of the physical evidence of the Franco dictatorship – street-names, monuments, etc. – has led to a situation where many Spaniards, particularly the young, have forgotten the awful realities of life under Franco. Hence this new study of (or, rather, anatomy of) the dictator which examines in turn, Franco the man, Franco the ‘Caudillo’ and, finally, Franco’s regime.

The first section provides the reader with an astute depiction of Franco. Clearly the author – though scrupulously fair – is no supporter of the dictator, pointing out that even Franco’s own sister admitted that ‘cunning and caution define his character’. Commander of the Rebel air-force, General Kindélan, was apparently no more polite, portraying Franco in terms that might remind readers of someone rather more contemporary: ‘a man in the enviable position of believing everything that pleases him and forgetting or denying that which is disagreeable. Puffed up with pride, intoxicated by adulation and drunk on applause.’ ‘Franco’, wrote the American chargé d’affairs succinctly in 1950, ‘is the kind of Spaniard who likes to get into the movie without buying a ticket.’

Moradiellos outlines clearly Franco’s extraordinary rise to Generalissimo, pointing out (as have others, not least Franco himself), that his involvement in Spain’s colonial war in Morocco is key to any understanding of the man. The author remarks on Franco’s legendary skill in paying off Rightist groups against each other and his ruthlessness towards opponents, demonstrating that Franco always intended his dictatorship to be permanent. Moradiellos does concede that, despite his support to the Axis during the Second World War, Franco deftly ensured the survival of his regime. However, at the same time, he is very critical of the ‘bankruptcy of Western policy to oust him peacefully’ and their decision to allow the ‘Sentinel of the West’ back in to the fold. The author agrees with others that Franco’s abandonment of his disastrous policy of autarky in the 1950s led to much needed growth in Spain’s economy, though pointing out that it was not until the 1960s that Spain was transformed economically from an essentially agrarian feudal state into a modern industrialised nation.

Yet Spain was still a dictatorship, even if Franco was getting old and his regime was crumbling, beset by challenges: labour disputes, student protests, Catholic support for democracy & ETA terrorism. It was the assassination of the Prime Minster, Admiral Carrero Blanco, on 20 December 1973 that marked the beginning of the end for Franco’s regime and Moradiellos logically concludes his initial section with the dictator’s death in November 1975.

He then moves on to briskly discuss the notion of Franco as Caudillo. Moradiellos argues that the association of Franco with the term (and his quasi-religious ‘crusade’) was due mainly to Franco’s successful advance on Madrid in the autumn of 1936, though also to his iron control of the press and propaganda. Franco knew full well that Rightist conspirators understood that the coup depended on the army, giving him huge leverage and allowing his conscripted army to predominate over volunteer groups such as the Falange and Carlist militias. As Moradiellos argues, the military, Church and Falange authority ‘cemented the consistent cult of charismatic personality that would continue until his death in 1975.

The book’s final section is much more discursive, academic even, looking to establish an over-arching definition of Franquismo, even though, as Moradiellos recognises, the longevity of Franco’s regime means attempting to provide one single definition is difficult. His fundamental question is: was it a traditional conservative military dictatorship, or a Spanish version of European fascist regimes? Clearly Franco felt it was a dictatorship and most historians would accept that labelling it simply as fascist is problematic: ‘Franco wasn’t a fascist, he was something much worse’, argues Paul Preston. Nevertheless, fascism was a part of the regime, even if it was absorbed into Francoism or used as ideological window-dressing. As Moradiellos argues, Franco’s regime was fascist for social rather than political reasons; it was fundamentally ‘a violent and extreme expression of a movement of reaction’.

While Enrique Moradiellos’s biography of Franco is undoubtedly scholarly, it’s not immediately clear that it contains enough new material (the final academic section aside) to appeal to someone who has already read one of the numerous earlier biographies. Still, clear and concise and well-written as it is, it will, no doubt, prove to be an important resource for students of contemporary Spanish history.

This review first appeared in ¡No Pasarán! 3:2018, pp. 20-21.

BBC Radio 3 Proms Extra

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. The event was a Radio 3 Proms extra, presented by Clemency Burton-Hill and produced by Karen Holden.

LINE-UP OF EXTRACTS

You Who Stand at Your Doors – Randolph Swingler (CE)

George Orwell – On what the International Brigades were fighting for (CE)

Why Go to Spain? – Explanation by London volunteer, Jason Gurney (CE)

Dance of Death – W.H. Auden (CE)

The Volunteer – Cecil Day-Lewis (CE)

Excited to arrive in Spain – Nottingham volunteer Walter Gregory (CE)

General Emilio Mola – On the Rebels’ deliberate use of terror (CE)

No Pasarán – Speech by Dolores Ibárruri (YV)

Poem (Heart of the heartless world) – John Cornford to Margot Heinemann (JB)

Farewell to the International Brigades – Passage from Dolores Ibárruri’s famous speech in October 1938 (YV)

George Orwell – On the horror of war (CE)

Speech at Oxford unveiling on 10 June 2017

Speaking at Oxford, 10 June 2017. Photo by Ric Mellis, © The Oxford Times
Speaking at Oxford, 10 June 2017. Photo by Ric Mellis, © The Oxford Times

In addition to being a historian, I am the Chair of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, a charity which keeps alive the memory and spirit of the men and women who volunteered to fight fascism – and those who supported them – during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.

The trust, made up of family members, friends, supporters and historians, organises events around the country, including the forthcoming national commemoration on 1 July in Jubilee Gardens on London’s South Bank. We provide assistance to those researching the International Brigades and the Spanish Civil War and promote the preservation of archives. Through our magazine, our eNewsletter, website and social media feeds, we keep our members and the wider public informed about developments concerning the memory and legacy of the International Brigades.

And, of course, we ensure that the more than 100 memorials to the volunteers located around the British Isles are maintained in good order. Where we can, we help new ones to be erected, such as this wonderful new monument. But all of this takes time and, more importantly, money. Please support us. If you are not yet a member, join. If you are a member, give generously. It really is money well spent.

For members of the Trust, the enduring significance of the International Brigades’ fight is not open to doubt. The recent, tragic events in Manchester and London are just the latest examples of the intolerance, bigotry and hatred – which we all know as fascism – that the International Brigades were determined to confront. The words of General Emilio Mola, the organiser of the Spanish military coup, could just as easily have come from those attacking democracy and pluralism today: ‘It is necessary to spread terror. We have to create the impression of mastery, eliminating without scruples or hesitation all those who do not think as we do.’

It was this kind of murderous ideology that spurred the 35 000 men and women from more than 52 countries from around the world to leave their homes, families and friends and volunteer to join the fight in Spain. The International Brigades fought in all the major battles in the civil war, from the last-ditch defence of Madrid in the autumn and winter of 1936-37, to the final, desperate Republican offensive across the River Ebro, in July 1938. Of 2500 to leave from the British Isles, more than 500 of them never returned.

The shattered remnants of the Brigades were withdrawn from the front in September 1938 and the following month in Barcelona, a huge farewell parade was held in their honour, famous for the speech by La Pasionaria, in which she invited the departing volunteers to return to Spain, ‘when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves, entwined with the laurels of the Spanish Republic’s victory’. It would be a long wait.

The tragedy of the Spanish Civil War is that despite the volunteers’ sacrifice, they – and the Republican Army in which they fought – were unable to defeat Franco and his German and Italian allies in Spain. Just as the volunteers had feared and prophesised, this led the way to six years of world war and the death of 60 million people.

It also led to more than thirty years of dictatorship in Spain. Only with the death of Franco in November 1975 could a democratic Spain emerge, which did not forget the gratitude conveyed by La Pasionaria so many years earlier. Efforts to express this by awarding Spanish nationality to the veterans of the International Brigades took some time to materialise, but in 2009, at a poignant ceremony in London, seven surviving British and Irish veterans were presented with Spanish passports. Anyone fortunate enough to be present that day will never forget the sight of the 94 year old Sam Lesser delivering an emotional thank you speech in fluent Castilian. The Spanish Ambassador to Britain, Carles Casajuana, responded graciously, assuring the handful of elderly survivors that:

Your efforts were not in vain. Your ideals are part of the foundations of our democracy in Spain today.

The volunteers were, to some extent, a paradoxical group of men and women: both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. They were right to feel pride and we are right to feel pride in them. I would like to leave you today with the words of the popular London volunteer, Fred Thomas, who expressed his feelings with characteristic eloquence:

There were no medals to be won in Spain. But I believe that no man, not even that band of brothers who fought upon St. Crispin’s Day, nor that later Few of 1940, justly honoured though they may be, was ever prouder of his part than we who were of the International Brigade.

Carmen Negrín, grand-daughter of the last prime minster of the Spanish Republic, laying a wreath at the new memorial. Photo by Pauline Fraser
Carmen Negrín, grand-daughter of the last prime minster of the Spanish Republic, laying a wreath at the new memorial. Photo by Pauline Fraser

British & Irish killed in Spain

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, for many years, was not listed.

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 an appendix to the list, which breaks it 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.

Where killed Number
Madrid (Casa de Campo etc.) 5
Boadilla del Monte 9
Lopera 13
Las Rozas 8
Jarama 152
Brunete offensive 73
Aragon offensive (Caspe, Belchite & Quinto) 6
Fuentes de Ebro 6
Teruel 24
The retreat through Aragon 121
Ebro offensive (Hills 481 & 666 and battalion’s last stand) 84
Other actions (Aragon, Chimorra etc.) 11
Died as a POW (various locations) 10
Other (non-battle casualties) 18
Total 540

Testament of Hoo

The Lodge Hill site’s military heritage. ©Ordnance Survey.
The Lodge Hill site’s military heritage. ©Ordnance Survey.

You may never have heard of the Hoo Peninsula. I imagine many people living outside the south-east of England haven’t. You might, however, have come across it under the name ‘Boris Island’, which some media wit came up with following a proposal by the former London Mayor that the area would be an ideal site for a new London airport. To the relief of many, not least many of local residents, Boris Johnson’s controversial plan was never realised, condemned in an Airport Commission report for being too costly, environmentally problematic and hugely disruptive for local businesses and communities. Nevertheless, despite widespread criticism – and no small amount of ridicule- Johnson remains keen on the project. Whether, assuming that he replaces David Cameron as Prime Minister, he will work to reinstate the plan, is anyone’s guess. It is just one of all too many ‘known unknowns’ that could follow last week’s Brexit.

Whatever happens, the Hoo Peninsula is likely to continue to face issues of development. Lying on the new fast train line from Ashford International to London, the local station at Strood is only 30 minutes from St. Pancras. Since the completion of the new line, locals have noticed steep rises in house prices. Developers circle, eager to make a killing provide urgently-needed affordable new properties. The latest area identified for development is an old military site at Lodge Hill, just north of Chattenden which has been designated by Medway Council as a ‘brown site’ so, on the face of it, a perfect place for new houses. However, many locals and conservationists believe that the intrinsic value and unique importance of the area has been seriously underestimated. Last year’s designation of the area as a Site of Special Scientific Interest by Natural England, the government’s environmental protection agency, might suggest that they have a point. The presence of a unique unspoilt habitat, in particular one of the country’s most important populations of Nightingales which, so proponents of the scheme claim, could be safely moved twenty kilometres away to new grasslands in Shoeburyness, Essex, has met with strong opposition from environmental campaigners and the issue has been picked up by the national media.

One of many signs forbidding entry to the Lodge Hill site.
One of many signs forbidding entry to the Lodge Hill site.

So, on 16 July 2016, I took part in a site visit to Lodge Hill, organised by the charity, People Need Nature. I was just one of a large group, including photographers, journalists, writers, poets, conceptual and sound artists, ecologists and entomologists. Led by ecologist, environmentalist and serial blogger Miles King, the purpose of the visit was not to come down on either side of the debate (though most of the participants were probably sympathetic to the conservationists’ arguments), but to record and catalogue what remains.

Assessing the biodiversity of Lodge Hill. Photograph ©Catherine Shoard
Assessing the biodiversity of Lodge Hill. Photograph ©Catherine Shoard

We quickly discovered that entrance to the site is normally forbidden. This, of course, added a little frisson of excitement. So too did the health-and-safety briefing given by the gatekeeper on our arrival, warning of the numerous types of unexploded ordnance we could encounter and suggesting mildly that we probably shouldn’t stray too far from the path. There’s nothing like the potential of one’s imminent demise to heighten the senses.

Suitably alarmed, we spent a long day wandering around the site, carefully (watching where we placed our feet and) surveying the astonishing diversity of flora and fauna, a consequence of years of isolation. It’s an ecologists’, environmentalists’ and conservationists’ heaven. At one point the glorious singing of the famous Nightingales could be heard, to the delight of all.

Poster bearing image of Osama Bin Laden.
Poster bearing image of Osama Bin Laden.

From the perspective of a historian, the area is particularly fascinating. The Peninsula and its environs has long been important strategically, overlooking the both River Thames, route to England’s most important city, and the River Medway, home of the Royal Navy since the time of Henry VIII. Castles, towers, hill-top beacons, gun-emplacements, river barriers and a plethora of defensive fortifications are scattered liberally, maintaining guard over the rivers and the Peninsula itself. In the late Nineteenth Century, Hoo was chosen by the Navy as the site for a number of huge depots of munitions and explosives. One of those facilities was Lodge Hill.

Just as the military and naval history of Britain is written across the Peninsula itself, Lodge Hill is a microcosm of Hoo. Disused military buildings and former munitions storage facilities litter the site, including the remains of one of the country’s first Anti-aircraft batteries (scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 to be of national importance) and First World War trenches constructed by the Royal Military Engineers, which were at the centre of military technology experiments in trench design and warfare. While many remains date from the First and Second World Wars, there are also sobering reminders of more recent conflicts: rows of terraced houses set-dressed to help train British soldiers in urban warfare. One was clearly designed to represent a street in Northern Ireland, the second a (rather less accurate) depiction of somewhere the middle-East, Basra perhaps. The attention to detail was astonishing, right down to pro-IRA murals on the end of the terrace and posters extolling the virtues of Osama Bin Laden.

After even a short time wandering around the site, it’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that much of Lodge Hill should be considered for conservation. With the property developer, Land Securities, abandoning their plan to build 5000 houses on the site, perhaps this is a good moment to take stock and evaluate seriously its potentially unique value, both as a testament to the nation’s past and its all too rapidly diminishing natural environment. The fate of the development now lies in the hands of central government. Unfortunately for the residents and environment of the Hoo Peninsula (not to mention everyone else), who that will be and what they will do is presently anything but clear.

The re-imaginers. L to R: <a href="http://peopleneednature.org.uk/who-are-we/">Norman Crighton</a> (back row), <a href="http://www.marionshoard.co.uk/">Marion Shoard</a>, <a href="https://palebluedot1.wordpress.com/about/">Jane King</a> (back row), <a href="www.northkentmarshes.org.uk">Gill Moore</a>, <a href="http://www.theguardian.com/profile/catherineshoard">Catherine Shoard</a>, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/profile/davidcox">David Cox</a>, <a href="http://peopleneednature.org.uk/who-are-we/">Keith Datchler</a> (back row), <a href="https://julianhoffman.wordpress.com/">Julian Hoffman</a>, <a href="https://anewnatureblog.wordpress.com/about/">Miles King</a>, <a href="http://www.richardbaxell.info/about/">Richard Baxell</a>, <a href="https://texlahoma.bandcamp.com/">Matthew Shaw</a>. Photo ©<a href="http://www.stevenfalk.co.uk/">Steven Falk</a>
The re-imaginers. L to R: Norman Crighton (back row), Marion Shoard, Jane King (back row), Gill Moore, Catherine Shoard, David Cox, Keith Datchler (back row), Julian Hoffman, Miles King, Richard Baxell, Matthew Shaw. Photo ©Steven Falk

Save Trent Park!

The magnificent grade II listed Trent Park House
The magnificent grade II listed Trent Park House

Between 1991 and 1994, I was lucky enough to study at the beautiful Trent Park campus of Middlesex University (nee Polytechnic). A former teacher training college, the campus was set within a large country park dating back to the Fourteenth Century in which, if you were very quiet, you might occasionally spot shy, Muntjac deer. In the middle of the park, next to the outdoor swimming pool(!) was the glorious main building, Trent Park House. Originally an uninspired Victorian edifice, in 1923 it was rebuilt into a magnificent country house, and it is now a grade II listed mansion. I was fully aware – and still am – that it was a fantastic place in which to study.

Fortunately, I found the teaching as inspirational as the setting. Despite lacking the research profile of Oxbridge and the other Russell group institutions, Middlesex’s history department benefited from a team of dedicated, enthusiastic lecturers who were able to engage their students and instil a life-long love of their subject. Soon after graduation, I returned to the university to teach history myself and continued to do so there for a number of years.

Sadly, Middlesex University no longer has a history department nor, in fact, teaches many of the humanities subjects enjoyed by myself and my cohort. Presumably, the management felt that such subjects were not ‘cost-effective’, or sufficiently focused on employability. To anyone involved in the UK’s higher education sector, of course, it’s a familiar tale. However, the story gets worse, for in 2012 the university sold the beautiful Trent Park site and it now faces the imminent threat of development.

Fortunately, voices are being raised in protest, helped by the site’s unique and important history, something I was not aware of when I studied there. It’s now emerged that during the Second World War the building had been requisitioned by M.I.6 and, from May 1942 onwards, it housed captured senior German officers. Unknown to the prisoners, the rooms in which they idled away their time, chatting discreetly to their fellow former officers, were all wired up with hidden microphones. Crucial information about Hitler’s V1 and V2 rockets and the German atomic bomb programme was unwittingly revealed to British intelligence officers. Like the nationally treasured Bletchley Park, the institution’s contribution to the Allied war effort is incalculable.

A Save Trent Park campaign has been set up to help the fight to preserve this vital piece of Britain’s history and heritage. They are pressing for the creation of a museum in the former mansion house, rather than allowing it to be carved up into luxury flats. Please visit their page to find out more. You can also sign a Change.org petition to support the campaign. Please do so!

The Malcolm Dunbar papers

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.

Major Malcolm Dunbar of the 15th International Brigade. Image © International Brigade Memorial Trust
Major Malcolm Dunbar of the 15th International Brigade. Image © International Brigade Memorial Trust

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.

Testimonial of Dunbar’s distinguished record in Spain. Image © International Brigade Memorial Trust
Testimonial of Dunbar’s distinguished record in Spain. Image © International Brigade Memorial Trust

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.

James Maley, International Brigader

Scottish volunteer, James Maley, served in the British Battalion on the 15th International Brigade from December 1936 to May 1937. He was a member of the No.2 (Machine Gun) Company captured on 13 February 1937 during the infamous Battle of Jarama and imprisoned in the Francoist prisoner-of-war camp in Talavera de la Reina. During the Second World War he joined the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, serving in Burma and India.

In the Youtube video above, James Maley discusses in detail his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. Here is a link to a transcript of the interview (in MS Word format), generously provided by his son, Willy: James Maley International Brigader

James Maley appears in both my accounts of the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War and there is also an interview with him in the Imperial War Museum. He received fulsome obituaries following his death in 2007, including this one in The Scotsman.

James Maley, 19 February, 1908 to 9 April, 2007.