© John MacDonald
125,000 foreign nationals came to fight for Spain’s Second Republic during those desperate years of civil war. At least this was the hugely inflated figure published by Franco’s foreign Ministry in 1952. Andreu Catells estimated the number at 60,000 in his book Brigadas Internacionales de la Guerra de Espana written in 1974. Some served with the militias but the vast majority with the International Brigades. Catells’s figure of 60,000 probably includes the Spanish serving with the brigades of which there were many drafted in to make up numbers after initial heavy losses. In September 1937 a decree by the Republican Government ensured a Spanish presence in the Brigades. The decree ruled there must be a Spanish battalion in every International Brigade, a Spanish company in every battalion and a Spanish section in every company. The Spanish Brigaders were paid almost a third more than their foreign counterparts. An accepted figure today for the number of foreigners in the Brigades between 1936 to 1938 is just over 35, 000 from 53 nations. This figure is insignificant compared to those who intervened on the behalf of the Nationalists.
The outwardly simple task of counting the volunteers is not easy. Some used assumed names, some epithets and a surprising number appeared to have changed their identities several times. This was to try and keep on the right side of the Non-intervention Agreement which the British Government had extended to include the situation in Spain. Under the Act it became illegal for ex-prisoners of war to return to Spain. James Rutherford, despite changing his name was re-captured by the Nationalists and duly shot on the strength of the act. The British Government also reimplemented the Foreign Enlistment Act which further legalised the execution of more British volunteers by Franco’s men.
Of the 35,000 Brigaders some 2,300 were British. The earliest arrivals, after an inactive couple of months with the Tom Mann Centuria fought with the German Thaelmann Centuria or the French Commune de Paris Battalion. The British Battalion of the 15th International Brigade wasn’t formed until the December of 1936. Of the original 19 Britons serving with the Commune de Paris Battalion only nine survived the war. James Albrighton and 14 other British nationals served with the sinister Muerte es Maestro Centuria which took part in the furious defence of Madrid in the November. This action alone reduced the Centuria to 40 men from an initial strength of 128.
As the casualties mounted so recruitment slowed, falling off sharply in February and even further in the March of 1937. The background of the volunteers also changed with the frivolous thinking twice. No longer seen as good sport for adventurers, it was instead a good way of getting yourself killed. The largest age group was 21 to 30, with almost a third from south east England mainly London. The four most common occupations listed by the Brigaders were Labourer, Miner, Motor Driver and Seaman.
These men came despite the hostility of the British establishment. It wasn’t just the stream of pro-Franco lobbyists being warmly greeted by Government departments, it was an active involvement with the events unfolding in Spain. The aircraft that collected Franco from his internal exile on the Canary Islands was paid for with British cash. It delivered him to Spanish Morocco where he could oversee the embarkation of his Ejército de África onto Hitler’s JU-52s bound for the mainland. The journey was organised by the British Secret Service and accompanied by a British Major and his daughter. Recent de-classified papers at the Public Records Office in London show the extent of MI6 involvement. The Rapide aircraft piloted by Captain Cecil Bebb and on hire from Olley Air Services at Croydon aerodrome was authorised at the highest level of the British establishment. Major Hugh Pollard, his daughter Diana, and another young woman Dorothy Watson were also on the flight which collected Franco. Nor were the British press sympathetic to the volunteers, only four of the hundreds of daily newspapers in the country showed anything like sympathy. This attitude only began to change when the refugee Basque children arrived in Britain during 1937.
The British Brigaders fought on all fronts from Lopera to Belchite including Jarama. Here the British rifle companies totalling 400 took 275 casualties in the desperate attempt to hold ‘Suicide Hill’. The machine gun company had been supplied the wrong ammunition and had to hold off the advancing Nationalists with small arms. When the correct cartridges did arrive they were boxed and had to be belted by hand before the heavy machine guns could be deployed. The British Battalion was also actively involved in the last major action of the War. At the Ebro, they took considerable casualties trying repeatedly to capture Hill 481, ‘The Pimple’ as it was known to the Brigaders. Their attempts were unsuccessful. Without the reserves and infrastructure possessed by the Nationalists this battle ended like most others during the conflict with a Republican rout.
In October 1938 the British Brigaders left Spain, leaving some 500 dead. Returning to, at worst a hostile reception and at best ambivalence. The world war which followed vindicated them in the eyes of many and the Law of Historical Memory honoured them with Spanish Citizenship. They were on the losing side in a pivotal war in world history. They were fighting for a democratically elected government and for freedom and this is how they should be remembered.
There is a sculpture to their memory on London’s South Bank. The inscription reads. ‘They went because their open eyes could see no other way’
Who do we celebrate? The labourers and bus drivers who gave up everything, who went to fight against fascism, or the peers and politicians who actively supported and helped Franco. Conveniently forgetting their involvement with the start of the Second World War.
NB: For the total number of Brigaders I have accepted Richard Baxell’s figure but I accept it is still under debate.