In the 1930s the political scene was changing across Europe. The Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, and his Nazi Party had seized power in Germany. Benito Mussolini was the Duce of the Italian Social Republic and had proclaimed himself First Marshall of the Empire. Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists - thugs wearing black shirts - were attacking communists and Jews on the streets of London. The evil grip of fascist dictators was spreading.
On the 16th February 1936 the people of Spain turned their back on fascism and elected a Popular Front Socialist Government. The Popular Front immediately banned the fascist party and purged fascists from positions of authority. One of the first to be sacked was General Franco. Francisco Franco, a decorated soldier and the youngest General in Europe, was a charismatic leader and the Popular Front knew he was a dangerous enemy. Having relieved Franco of his command, they exiled him to the Canary Islands. Franco escaped to North Africa and, with the help of sympathetic officers, took control of Spain’s African Army. Franco’s next move was to transport the army to Southern Spain which he did using military transport planes provided by Hitler and Mussolini. It was the first time an army had been moved by air. The German and Italian fascist’s help would later prove to be decisive.
Franco escaped from the Canary Islands, in July 1936, with the help of Cecil Bebb, a British secret agent, who came from Pontypridd. Bebb, a retired RAF pilot, flew the sacked general to Morocco. Franco decorated the Welshman for helping him and later presented him with the aircraft; an English Dragon Rapide. Without Bebb’s intervention, the Spanish Civil War might not have started.
The British Government secretly helped Franco’s campaign. Having a fascist government in power would have certain advantages. Britain had considerable commercial interests in Spain and was the largest importer of Spanish goods, including half of Spain’s iron ore production. Franco was seen as a potential friend and his right wing fascists as a bulwark against the spread of bolshevism. The choice for the British was who to support, the legally elected socialist or the authoritarian Franco. The right wing British Government of the day chose Franco. General Franco wasn’t the first fascist that Britain had helped into power. Mussolini had been given £100 (£6,000 in today’s values) a week by MI5 to help start his political career. The payment was authorised by the Conservative politician, Sir Samuel Hoare. Publicly, the British remained neutral and pursued a policy of non intervention in Spanish affairs.
Franco’s forces soon established themselves in the south. It was a brutal campaign. Franco’s men gave no quarter. They used workers as human shields and executed prisoners. With few troops to defend their elected government, workers formed militias to fight the fascists and appealed for help from abroad. It was an appeal that would be heard in the socialist heartland of South Wales. The rise of fascism had been perceived as a threat by British socialists from the start. On the 4th October 1936, at the Battle of Cable Street in London, workers smashed a fascist anti Jewish rally. The right wing authorities had done nothing to protect the Jewish community from the Mosley’s British Nazi thugs.
In the coalfields of South Wales, mine owners had sacked socialist activists and black listed them from working in the pits. There had been resentment and industrial strife in the mines since before the General Strike of 1926. Most men were members of the South Wales Miners Federation and many were communists. Unemployed young men with strong political views and no prospect of work were ideal recruits for a Spanish adventure. When a bus took a group of Ammanford miners toCardiff to hear a talk, by a Spanish seaman about the plight of Spanish workers, three men decided to go and fight the fascists. Sammy Morris, Jack Williams and Will Davies left the meeting and tried to stow away on a Spanish freighter. They were discovered trying to board the ship, arrested then released and told to go home.
International Brigades recruited 59,000 volunteers to fight against Franco from 55 different countries. 2,100, including many women, volunteered from Britain. The largest British contingent of 174 came from Wales, mostly from the southern coalfields. 33 of them were killed in the fighting. Many more are thought to have gone and the true number will never be known.
Morris and Davies met at Ammanford Social Club, the following week, to discuss what had happened. They vanished a few days later. The pair had enlisted in the British Battalion of the International Brigade and were on their way to fight in Spain.
Sam Morris’ story is typical. Sammy was the chairman of his miner’s lodge and had been sent to jail, together with 58 other miners, for picketing mines in the Amman Valley during a strike. He had been arrested at the Battle of Ammanford on the 4th August 1935 when police baton charged the striking miners.
Sam and his friend caught a train to London where they bought a return ticket to Paris, to convince the immigration officers that they were coming back. From Paris they went on to Barcelona. Crossing the border into Spain, the guards didn’t bother to inspect their passports. Three days later they were in Albacete where the British Battalion of the International Brigade was being assembled. The journey from Ammanford to Albacete took the young men into an alien world where life was cheap, where men didn’t go to prison for their principles; they died for them.
There are memorials to Welshmen who fought for the International Brigade at Ammanford, Aberdare, Burry Port, Caerleon, Caerphilly, Cardiff, Llanelli, Merthyr Tydfil, Neath, Porthcawl, Rhondda and Swansea.
Thora Silverthorne was the daughter of a coal face worker who worked at the Vivian and Six Bells Pits. Her father was an activist in the South Wales Miner’s Federation and a founder member of Abertillery Communist Party. By the age of 16 she was a member of the Young communist League. Thora left Abertillery and trained as a nurse in Oxford. After she qualified, Thora moved to Hammersmith Hospital. In 1936 she volunteered to join the International Brigade as a nurse and was soon the matron of a field hospital tending to the wounded of both sides. Thora returned to Britain in 1937, married Dr. Kenneth Loutitt, another International Brigade Veteran, and began to raise funds for the cause.
The Spanish Civil War was never a battle of equals. Franco commanded a well equipped and trained army. In addition, he was supported by supplies from Nazi Germany and Italy. Mussolini sent 100,000 troops. The German Luftwaffe supported Franco’s troops with blitzkrieg bombing attacks, perfecting the strategy that was so effective during World War II. On the 26th April 1937 the Luftwaffe Condor Legion blitzed the Basque town of Guernica. The Germans dropped incendiary bombs and 100,000lbs of high explosive to pulverise the town. It was market day and the town was crowded with shoppers. People running away were strafed by German fighter planes. An estimated 1,600 people died as a result of the surprise attack. Franco denied responsibility for the attack but it was a hollow claim.
The Popular Front was in a far weaker position. Britain and other countries refused to help with war materials. Basic foodstuff and medical supplies were withheld and banks, notably the Midland Bank, delayed transferring money belonging to the Popular Front. French Gendarmes arrested Welsh volunteers trying to reach Spain and sent them home. Britain made it a criminal offence to fight in Spain and sent warships to stop arms reaching the Popular Front. The Popular Front did, however, have one foreign supporter. Joseph Stalin sent aircraft, tanks and artillery to help their cause. Despite his weapons there could only be one outcome, Franco would emerge victorious.
Swansea skipper David Jones, known as Spud to his friends, sailed from Cardiff to Bilbao smuggling guns and other much needed supplies to the Popular Front. Blockade running was extremely profitable and a number of vessels were doing the same. On one occasion, when his vessel, the Marie Llewelyn, was ordered to stop by a fascist cruiser, HMS Hood intervened to protect Spud’s ship because it was flying a British Red Ensign. The crew of the Hood knew he was smuggling but turned a blind eye.
Regardless of their disadvantages, the Popular Front fought on. In December 1936 Sam Morris was shot in the leg and spent three months in hospital. Despite the wound, he refused to be repatriated to Wales and returned to his unit. Will Davies returned to Ammanford with an eye injury but was determined to return to the war. A friend, John Williams, persuaded him to stay at home and went to fight in his place. It was an act of kindness that would prove fatal. The Battle of Brunete took place fifteen miles from Madrid in July 1937. Sam Morris was with John Williams when he was hit. He died in John’s arms. John Williams was killed a few days later. 331 British volunteers took part in the battle. 42 survived.
Franco announced the end of the war during a speech broadcast by radio on the 1st April 1939. Reprisals followed. The fascists executed over 30,000 prisoners. Others died as slave labourers building railways or digging canals. Some were sent to ‘purification camps’ to be re-educated.
After the war 306 soldiers from the British Battalion returned home, arriving at Victoria Station on the 7th December 1939. Crowds of supporters greeted them including Will Lawther, President of the Miner’s Federation of Great Britain and Clement Attlee, Leader of the Labour Party.
Spain was wrecked by the three year civil war and remained, technically at least, neutral during World War II. Having consolidated his iron grip on the country, General Franco ruled Spain as a dictator for 36 years. Trade unions were outlawed, political opponents killed and Spanish minorities such as Basques and Catalans suppressed. Women were not allowed to have their own bank accounts and if a wife ran away, from her violent husband, she could be arrested and imprisoned for ‘abandoning the home.’ After Franco died in 1975, Prince Juan Carlos, who Franco had anointed as his heir, became King of Spain, the Spanish Monarchy was restored and normality returned. The wounds caused by the bitter civil war would take longer to heal.
The figure of 30,000 executions is hotly disputed in Spain. In 2008 a Spanish Judge opened an enquiry into the disappearances of 114,266 people. He was prosecuted for breaking an amnesty law and the enquiry was abandoned.
Thora Silverthorne continued to fight. She established the National Association of Nurses and was
accused of being paid with Moscow Gold by the Royal College of Nursing who also claimed that she was not qualified. Both smears were lies. At the time they were campaigning for nurses wages to be cut. When Pablo Picasso, the artist who painted graphic images of the Guernica atrocity, visited London she met him at Victoria station. Later, as a full time union official, she was instrumental in setting up the National Health Service. At her funeral in 1999, Cwm Rhondda, Land of My Father’s and The Internationale were played. Her coffin was draped with the International Brigade Flag.
There are portraits of Sammy Morris and John Williams hanging In Ammanford Social Club (The Pick and Shovel), images of just two of the South Wales miners killed trying to protect the world from fascism, a sacrifice that many others would make during World War II.