Here’s another interesting article for the series about the Spanish Civil War, International Brigades Memorial Trust member, Tony Fox, looks at representation from North East men during the conflict…….I discovered that volunteers travelled to Spain together, Frank Graham left Sunderland on 15th December 1936 with friends, Tommy Dolan and Bill Lower. In London the groups were sent to the Communist Party offices at 16 King Street to meet the formidable ‘Robby’ Robson who would assess their suitability, in military and political terms. Robson explained in detail the dangers to be faced.
On acceptance volunteers were told to purchase weekend return rail-tickets from Victoria Railway Station to Paris, as this did not require a passport. In France volunteers had to act with discretion as groups of volunteers would occasionally be arrested and repatriated. The recruitment of the International Brigades was coordinated by the Communist Party in Paris.
On arrival in Paris the volunteers would meet the liaison, Charlotte Haldane. It was in the red-light district of Paris they underwent medical examination and checks on their political reliability. From Paris they would travel to the Spanish border by train on what became known as ‘The Red Express’, then travel across the frontier by bus or train.
After February they would be smuggled in groups past non-intervention patrols, over the top of the Pyrenees. Some volunteers were smuggled onto ships which attempted to break through the naval blockade of patrolling Royal Navy warships and Italian submarines.
Bill Lower, Frank Graham’s companion from Sunderland, died along with 54 volunteers and about 100 passengers and crew when the SS Ciudad de Barcelona was torpedoed by an Italian submarine in May 1937.
Once across the frontier, they would be taken to the International Brigade headquarters at Albacete, where volunteers would be vetted again, processed and divided up by nationality to be placed into the different linguistic battalions of the International Brigades. British speakers were placed in the XVI Battalion of the XV Brigade.
Frank Graham and Bert Overton, from Stockton arrived at the Madrigueras training base on 1st January, four of the seven Stockton men I am studying arrived in Spain the following week. At Madrigueras the Brigaders with military training instructed the others. Bert Overton had been in the Welsh Guards, therefore he was made an officer in No.4 Company.
Officers, commissars and specialists received separate instruction, leading activists from the North East took key positions in the British Battalion: George Aitken would be the first Political Commissar for the British Battalion, Frank Graham would command 3rd section of No.1 Company until later becoming a scout.
Bill Meredith, a well know activist from Tyneside, would later command No.2 Company. Bob Elliott would be the Political Commissar for No.2 Company with Wilf Jobling his deputy commissar.
The North East continued to be overly represented as officers and Commissars throughout the conflict; later in the war Sunderland born Bob Cooney became Battalion Commissar, Stockton’s Otto Estensen was Commissar and commanded the anti-tank Battery. Dave Goodman from Middlesbrough became the No. 4 Company Commissar on his arrival in Spain in January 1938.
More stories soon from the front line of the Spanish Civil War in Postcards from Spain.
If you have any information about North East men and women who were in any way involved in the Spanish Civil War please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Battle of Jarama 1937 by Frank Graham. Published 1987
Unlikely Warriors by Richard Baxell. Publisher Aurum Press 2012
Fred Thomas diaries currently being transcribed for the Imperial War Museum by Alan Warren.
Gary Alikivi April 2020.