17 JULY 1976, Page 12

Forty years after the Spanish war

Peter Kemp

When, after six years of alternate hope, frustration, disillusion, riot, and civil commotion, Spain at last erupted into civil war in the middle of July 1936, I was staying with my parents in Scotland, polishing up on the Law of Contract and Tort for a Bar exam. I was nearly twenty-one, a month down from Cambridge, with a BA degree in Classics and Law, and radical Tory political views of the kind Wyndham Lewis once described as `Bolsho-Tory'.

The British people, hitherto indifferent to foreign upheavals, reacted to the Spanish Civil War with a depth of feeling that almost split the country, severing friendships and even dividing families. Republican supporters talked of the struggle between democracy and fascism, while the Nationalists pointed to religious persecution and the indiscriminate slaughter of the clergy. Republican propaganda greatly exceeded that of the Nationalists; ably directed by the Agitprop organisation of the Comintern, it depicted Franco as a mere puppet of Hitler and Mussolini, and his army as German and Italian mercenaries encouraged by a few Spanish absentee landlords shouting from the touch lines. (The myth of Franco as a German/Italian puppet has even survived to this day, long after the events of the Second World War demonstrated its absurdity.) The Nationalists adopted a typical Spanish attitude that all men of goodwill would automatically support them, and so foreign propaganda was unimportant.

My own decision to fight for the Nationalists was dictated partly by an eagerness for adventure and the feeling that, after a typical English public school and university education, it was time 1 learned to look after myself; partly by my Tory principles, which I felt I ought to defend in action and partly by my conviction, after reading early uncensored press reports from Republican territory, that a Republican victory would mean the establishment of a communist government in Spain—a view I still hold. In France there was a front populaire government under strong communist influence, and it seemed likely that if Spain became a communist state France would soon follow,

with unpleasant consequences for my own country. Outside left-wing circles the threat from Germany and Italy did not seem so obvious in 1936 as it later became. Moreover at the beginning of the Civil War German and Italian help to Franco was neither very evident nor extensive—in fact, it has been much exaggerated. Communist help for the Republicans, on the other hand, was unconcealed and most effective, principally in the recruitment, equipment and training, through the Comintern, of the backbone of the Republican army, the International Brigades; in its formations, the senior officers and political Commissars were trusted members of the Party.

It proved easier to make my decision than to implement it. Unlike the Republicans, the Nationalists had no organisation in Britain to recruit volunteers, and I knew no Spaniards nor any Spanish for that matter. However, persistent inquiries put me in touch with Franco's agent in London, and through him with a courier in Biarritz who sent me by car across the frontier to the Nationalist headquarters at Burgos. There I fell in with some officers of the General Staff who were delighted to help me join up and offered me the choice of enrolling in the Falange (fascist) or the Carlist militias. As a Tory, I recoiled from the former, who, in my view, belonged on the other side of the political fence, along with the Communists; the Carl ists on the other hand, appealed to me strongly, and within a few days of my arrival, I had enlisted as a Requete.

The Carlist, traditionalist or Requete movement, which originated in a dynastic dispute in the 1830s, caused two savage civil wars in the last century; it was a struggle between those who wished to centralise authority, abolish civil rights (fueros), and eliminate the influence of the Church, and the Carlists whose ideals were embodied in the phrase: 'Dios, Fueros, Patria y Rey'.

Although defeated, the Carlist movement remained active, especially in Navarre and the other Basque provinces, and in July 1936, its followers rallied to a man round the Nationalist General Mola. Untrained and ill-equipped, unskilfully but gallantly led, and totally dedicated and fearless, they stormed the defences of Irun and San Sebastian on the Franco-Spanish frontier, and perished in thousands among those hills; with their traditional scarlet berets they presented perfect targets for the enemy fire. Their opponents were Basque Republicans and it should never be forgotten that this was a Civil War between Basques as well as Spaniards.

By November 1936, the successful advance of the Nationalists from the Mediterranean to Madrid had been halted on the outskirts of the capital, mainly by the spirited resistance of the newly arrived International Brigades. After a week or two with a Requete cavalry squadron patrolling the Tagus valley west of Toledo, and trying to pick up some Spanish with the help of a Hugo, I transferred to an infantry unit; my first introduction to warfare was the extremely uncomfortable one of street fighting in a Madrid suburb with the enemy a few paces distant' on every side.

The early months of a 'war of movement' were over; and from now and until the great Nationalist offensive of March 1938, the fighting resembled, although on a much reduced scale, the trench warfare of the 19141918 war. There was certainly less mud than in the Flanders trenches, but on our side at least, there was even less protection, because it was impossible to persuade Spanish troops, even the crack foreign legion, to dig deep enough. They seemed to consider it cowardly, which for a long time as also their objection to taking cover. Casualties therefore tended to be heavy.

The standard of strategy and staff work on both sides, could not, of course, be compared to the Second World War—although only too often it could be compared with the First. Indeed the failures of the Republicans in this direction, and the lack of leadership among their officers, except in the International Brigades, contributed more to their loss of the war than the foreign help to Franco. For example, the mutiny in the navy left them in potential command of the „ sea, but they failed to exploit it. They could "1 not even intercept Franco's sea convoys from Africa, escorted only by a small gunboat or destroyer. I myself witnessed an instance of their incompetence during the Battle of the Jarama in February 1937, when my battalion of Requetes withstood an assault on our positions by Republican infantry and tanks. Attacking across open country with quite inadequate artillery support and no co-ordination between the tanks and in

fantry, they were swiftly massacred.

As the war developed, both sides received very considerable foreign help—the Nationalists from Germany and Italy, the Republicans from the Soviet Union and France. German help was chiefly with war material. Instructors, and technicians, although they supplied air crew until sufficient Spanish Pilots had been trained. Both sides used foreign pilots at first, as there was virtually no Spanish airforce. The Italians supplied two Infantry divisions, with artillery, tank and air support for them. The overwhelming majority of the Nationalist forces, however, were composed of Spaniards. The Russians supplied weaponry, armour, and technical aid, and used them to enforce their own control of the Republican war effort and the dominance of the Spanish Communist Party, and the liquidation of its principal Opponents.

After the Jarama battle, I moved to the north and took part in the last phase of the Bilbao campaign and the capture of Santander. Soon afterwards in September 1937, 1 was transferred from the Carlists to the highly professional Spanish Foreign Legion (El Tercio), the shock troops of the Nationalist army. This magnificent corps formed In 1920 by Generals Franco and Milian Astray for service in Morocco was modelled Partly on the French Foreign Legion, partly on the sixteenth-century tercios of the Duke of Alba. Its members, all volunteers, were 90 per cent Spaniards—the remainder were Mostly Portuguese, and despite a fierce discipline, all ranks were united by the loyalty, comradeship, and pride in the Legion. For an Englishman to be accepted by them as an officer was almost unheard of—I would never have achieved it but for a lucky meeting with General Milian Astray and I faced considerable suspicion at first which changed quickly to friendship after we had fought a couple of actions.

With the Legion I took part in some of the Teruel campaign—where for a time we lost five to six men every night from the cold—and in the great Nationalist breakthrough south of the Ebro in March 1938. Our hardest battles were always against the International Brigades, and the last, in Which I was wounded three times, was against a British battalion. In July 1938, a Motarr bomb smashed my jaw ending my active service in that war.

Forty years on the scars are not yet healed In Spain, or even in Britain among those Who took part in the war. My own feelings are mixed: for the communist leaders who Cynically exploited the idealism of the Republican cause and were the first to abandon it when it was defeated I have only Contempt. But I shall always feel the geatest respect for those who actually fought in the War, on either side, as well as a kind of affinity with the men of the International Brigades who went there for motives not so different from my own. Ironically we now have something else in common: according to Angolan justice, we are all liable to the death penalty.