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  • New book on the Spanish Civil War

    Osprey are set to release a new book on the SCW. It's about the British Battalion in the International Brigades at Jarama. It's called They Shall not Pass. Here's a blog from their website…

    Over thirty-five thousand volunteers from fifty-two countries fought in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. Two thousand five hundred of them were British. Whilst a handful of pioneers fought in units of mixed nationality in the opening months, the first British Battalion was formed in December 1936. The volunteers were an eclectic mix. Communists rubbed shoulders with socialists, republicans, adventurers and anti-fascists. Labourers and miners mixed with actors, writers, intellectuals and idealists. A handful were veterans of the Great War. Others had gained military experience in the Officer Training Corps or Territorial Army. Most, however, had never fired a rifle in anger in their lives.

    After an initial assessment in the offices of the Communist Party of Great Britain, those that were accepted travelled by ferry to Dieppe, across France to the Spanish border at Perpignan and through a multifaceted Republican Spain. Catalonia was a blur of cheering crowds, Valencia was more subdued and Albacete, the sorting centre for the International Brigades, was chaotic. The British volunteers' final destination, the village of Madrigueras in Murcia, was inhabited by impoverished peasants who eked out a living on the windswept plains. After a few weeks of training, the battalion, six hundred strong and divided into four companies, was thrown into the battle of Jarama, a nationalist offensive aimed at cutting Madrid's sole remaining lifeline, the Valencia Road. It would be the bloodiest encounter of the conflict so far, the like of which had not been seen in Europe since the Great War.

    On the morning of the 12 February 1937, the volunteers, led by Captain Tom Wintringham, a Balliol graduate and Daily Worker journalist, left their forward base, an abandoned villa dubbed the cookhouse, crossed a plateau and advanced through well ordered olive groves. The men were in high spirits. They sang and joked as they marched. At midday the three rifle companies got their first sight of the enemy, Moroccan mercenaries and Franco's elite Foreign Legion. As per Wintringham's orders, they spread out over a line of low hills. For the next five hours the enemy infantry outflanked them, German machine guns swept their lines, Italian fighters strafed them and the nationalist artillery made the hilltops a living hell. There was little cover and the men were hopelessly exposed. One hundred were killed before the survivors withdrew to the second line at 5pm. Kit Conway, an IRA veteran of the Four Courts, was hit in the guts by a burst of heavy machine-gun fire. Tom Spiller's section were blown to smithereens and Clem Beckett, a speedway champion and pioneer of the Wall of Death, was killed by Moroccan Regulares hurling grenades whilst he was covering the retreat.

    By dusk, the nationalists believed victory was theirs. The enemy on the hills had been routed and the second line appeared to consist of nothing more than a few dozen riflemen. Captain León of the 7th Tabor of Melilla formed his men up and ordered them to advance. Five hundred yards across the valley, Harry Fry, the Edinburgh born commander of the British machine gun company, was waiting for them. Despite a frustrating day, caused by a mix up of ammunition, his eight Maxims were finally ready. As León's Moors charged, Fry ordered his men to open fire. The guns cut them down in swathes. It was to be the last act of the opening day. Of the five hundred volunteers who had advanced through the groves six hours before, less than half remained.

    The next morning, after a feverish night of false alarms and intermittent firing, a strange calm settled over the battlefield. Basking in the spring sunshine, the volunteers' thoughts turned to home. Wintringham pictured his wife and children and James Maley realised that if he were still in Glasgow he would have been going to watch Celtic at Parkhead that afternoon. By midday the firing had begun again and by the middle of the afternoon, the British lines were under heavy artillery bombardment. The increasing pressure took its toll. When a shell splinter wounded two of his men, Bert Overton, the ex-Welsh Guardsman commanding the 4th Company, fled his post on the right flank. The gap in the line was exploited by the legionaries of the 6th Bandera. Using the dead ground, they got behind Harry Fry's machine gun company. Before the Scot realised what was going on his position had been overrun. Twenty-seven of his men were taken prisoner. The rest were killed by grenades, bayonets and rifle butts in the first frantic moments of the assault. Minutes later Wintringham led a counter-attack from his reserve position in the Sunken Road. It was repulsed by a hail of fire. Twenty men died and dozens more were wounded. Wintringham was shot through the thigh and stretchered from the line.

    That evening the situation in the British line was chaotic. Exhausted after a second sleepless night, the men began to imagine Moors coming at them out of the dark. When a Very light touched off the battalion's ammunition stores, Overton panicked again and ran to the rear. Half of the one hundred men remaining fled with him. The Battalion's Political Commissar, George Aitken, tried to hold the rest together, but his efforts were in vain. It was only at dawn on the third day with the arrival of Jock Cunningham, a charismatic Glaswegian who had fought in some of the earliest battles of the war, that the remaining officers managed to re-establish the line.

    On the 14 February the nationalists launched an offensive spearheaded by captured Russian T26 tanks. Rolling up from the left flank, their cannon and machine guns killed dozens and routed the rest. The nationalist infantry then swarmed into the Sunken Road and finished off the wounded. Back at the cookhouse all seemed lost. The survivors crammed into trucks and sped from the scene. Others followed on foot. Threatening them with pistols, their commissars tried to force them back into the fight. Once more it fell to Cunningham to take control. Within an hour, he had managed to rally a few dozen men. That night they marched back to the front singing the Internationale. Their numbers were swelled by stragglers as they advanced. In the fire-fight that followed, the nationalists were caught by surprise. By dawn the British had retaken their old positions. The Valencia road remained open and the frontline would not significantly change for the rest of the war.
    Following its baptism of fire, the British Battalion took part in several other key engagements. At Brunette, André Diamant, an Anglo Egyptian who had led the 1st Company at Jarama after Conway's death, was hit in the thigh by a bomb splinter. In the Aragon offensive, Harry Fry, who had been released by the nationalists and had subsequently rejoined the battalion, was killed whilst leading his men into the attack. Five weeks later Jimmy Rutherford, another veteran of the machine gun company, who had been captured by the Spanish and then released after Jarama, was recaptured when Italian tanks ambushed the British at Calaceite. This time there would be no reprieve. The young Londoner was recognised by his interrogators and executed by firing squad.

    After one last offensive at the Ebro in the summer of 1938, the International Brigades were disbanded and the British survivors returned home. Readjusting to civilian life proved difficult. John 'Bosco' Jones was a mass of nerves, Jason Gurney's career as a sculptor had been cut short by an explosive bullet and Walter Gregory had to face the mother of a comrade he had buried at the battle of Teruel. Ten months later the Second World War began. Although they had valuable experience, many of the veterans were not allowed to take part. Jock Cunningham was dismissed by the British Army as a 'Red' who could not be trusted, George Leeson's applications were simply ignored and Sam Wild was not even permitted to become an Air Raid Warden. Many of those who applied to the Royal Navy or Royal Air Force, on the other hand, were allowed to join up. Some, such as Albert Charlesworth, a metal polisher from Oldham, and David Crook, a former brigadier turned Soviet spy, served with distinction. Back in Britain, Captain Tom Wintringham found another way to contribute to the war effort. Setting up a guerrilla warfare school at Osterley Park, he helped train the Volunteer Defence Force, the predecessor of the Home Guard.

    For many of the veterans the post war years were a period of disillusionment and depression. Following such coldly calculating examples of real politick as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the Soviet occupation of Hungary, the majority came to believe that the Communist Party had betrayed them. Throughout the fifties they left the organization in their droves. The ghosts of Jarama tortured others into an early grave. Giles Romilly took an overdose of pills in a lonely hotel room in America, Wintringham died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-one and Jock Cunningham ended his days as an anonymous figure tramping the streets of Britain. Nevertheless, the vast majority still believed they had made the right decision in going to Spain. As one would later write, 'you have to believe in something, in a cause that will make the world a better place, or you have wasted your life.' With the seventy-fifth anniversary of the battle approaching, the story of these men is fading into obscurity. They Shall not Pass! aims to cast a light on their actions and redress this imbalance.

  • #2
    Here's a review from Publisher's Weekly, an American trade magazine.

    They Shall Not Pass: The British Battalion at Jarama
    Ben Hughes. Osprey, $25.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-84908-549-6
    Hughes (Conquer or Die! Wellington's Veterans and the Liberation of the New World) ably narrates the incredible story of the unlikely triumph of a heroic British battalion in the Spanish Civil War. The outlook for the Spanish Republic early in 1937 was not good. Madrid managed to hold out against the Nationalist forces of Francisco Franco, but its only lifeline was a single road that ran to the coast through the olive groves by the Jarama River. That February, the International Brigades, motley formations consisting of assorted antifascists and adventurers, were brought up for a long-awaited offensive to secure that road. But Franco's forces struck first, with the brunt following on a battalion of British volunteers. In three days of ferocious combat, the Brits took horrendous casualties as a result of ill discipline, poor training, cowardly and incompetent leadership, and political interference. By the third night, the Brits had had enough and launched a night counterattack that gave the Republicans a much needed tactical and propaganda victory. and Hughes fleshes out the individual combatants while placing their sacrifices in the strategic and historical context, although not without a tendency to engage in pro-Republican hagiography. 36 color and b&w illus.; maps. (July)
    Reviewed on: 05/16/2011



    • #3
      Another to add to a too long 'To get list'
      Cymru am Byth


      • #4
        Here's a log I wrote aout the sources used in They Shall Not Pass!

        I began reading about the Spanish Civil War in earnest four years ago. Previously, I had been aware of George Orwell's participation in the POUM, but I had never realised that the vast majority of British volunteers fought in the International Brigades. The best known secondary sources (Thomas, Preston and Beevor) mentioned their contribution, but very few details were provided. Intrigued, I began to focus my research on the first-hand accounts. As the wealth of material became obvious, it dawned on me that I would be able to tighten my focus further. After several months perusing published memoirs, I settled on the battalion's baptism of fire: the first three days of combat at the battle of Jarama. Although not the earliest encounter involving British volunteers in Spain, Jarama was the first time the battalion was deployed as a unit and the story contained all the elements I was interested in.

        The next step was to systematically collect the first-hand sources. The easiest to acquire were the published memoirs released in the aftermath of the war. English Captain (Penguin 1939), written by Tom Wintringham, the battalion's commander, was the most useful. His account had three advantages: it was written relatively soon after the battle; Wintringham's focus was the first few days at Jarama; and, by merit of his rank, the author had a good overall understanding of the events I wished to describe. The next most important was Jason Gurney's posthumously published work, entitled Crusade in Spain. The South African born scout and former sculptor wrote of his journey from England, the rudimentary training he received and his experiences at Jarama. As Wintringham's scout, the South African had a grandstand view and his account is beautifully written and emotionally honest. The other memoirs were less useful. Tommy James, a private, wrote his unpublished account, The Pounded Earth, in 1939. Though it only deals briefly with Jarama, he was one of the few eyewitnesses to describe the tank attack of 14 February. Walter Gregory's memoir dedicates a chapter to his experiences at Jarama. As a runner with the 4th company, Gregory had some perspective of events, but as he was wounded on the afternoon of the first day, his account is somewhat limited.

        David Crook's autobiography (available online) also has a chapter on his experiences in Spain. The Cheltenham College graduate fought with the 1st Company at Jarama. He was wounded on the first day whilst retreating from Suicide Hill with Sam Wild. Crook provides some details of the training the volunteers received in Madrigueras village and his comments on his later career as a Communist Party informer in Barcelona are fascinating. The last of the memoirs I used was Reason in Revolt by Fred Copeman. Whilst highly entertaining, as a source his account has to be used with caution. Copeman was an egotistical fantasist. If taken at face value, his account would lead the reader to believe that the Republicans won the war and that Copeman himself was largely responsible. Many of his claims are wildly exaggerated, if not entirely fictitious and are often unsubstantiated by other accounts. Nevertheless, Copeman was present at the first day at Jarama and, when carefully sifted, his account has considerable dramatic merit.

        Aside from the memoirs, several other published accounts were used. The Book of the XV Brigade is a collection of first-hand sources detailing the battles of Jarama and Brunete. It was compiled shortly after the events described and therefore has considerable merit. The book was an official party publication, however, intended to promote the Communist Party's version of events. The pen portraits painted are of one-dimensional working class heroes, and there is little room for criticism of higher command or disagreement with the party line. The extent to which the accounts had been edited becomes clear after reading the originals held in the Marx Memorial Library. Negativity, profanity, the questioning of orders and disrespect to superior officers had all been removed. In 1987 another compilation of first-hand accounts and secondary summaries was published. The editor, Frank Graham, was a young student from Sunderland before he joined the battalion and fought at Jarama. Graham's book, though only a slim volume, is more objective than The Book of the XV Brigade. As such it was extremely useful. Other compilations I used were The Road to Spain: Anti-Fascists at War 1936–1939 and Voices from the Spanish Civil War: Personal Recollections of Scottish Volunteers in Republican Spain 1936–39. The latter contains several accounts by members of Harry Fry's machine gun company. The unit, which had a large Glaswegian contingent, was captured on the afternoon of the 13th. Compiled and edited by Valentine Cunningham, Spanish Front: Writers on the Civil War was also useful. Amongst lengthy musings on the meaning of the war and its results by various non-combatants are the memoirs of one of the moat interesting characters to have fought with the British battalion at Jarama. Tony Hyndman, an ex-Welsh Guardsman and the former lover of the pre-eminent Marxist poet of the age (Stephen Spender) provides a refreshingly honest account of the action and its aftermath.

        An often overlooked source of material for any history is contemporary newspapers. Intelligence on bombings, troops movements and the shifting frontline mingled with reports of atrocities committed by both sides abounded in both the left and right wing British press throughout the period. More focussed for my purposes, though clearly biased, were the glowing obituaries of fallen British heroes which appeared with depressing regularity in The Daily Worker, the Communist Party of Great Britain's newssheet. The best sources published in the newspapers were occasional letters written by British volunteers at the front. In mid 1937 The Aberdare Leader printed a series penned by Willie Lloyd which provides details on his entire experience, from leaving his mother in tears in the valleys of southern Wales, to mastering a Porrón (a wine skin with a pointed spout) at Madrigueras and combat at Jarama. Another useful letter was written by Jim Prendergast, a veteran of the fighting at Lopera and Las Rozas. Published in The Irish Democrat in November 1937, Prendergast's account is highly detailed but ends when he was badly wounded in the middle of the afternoon of the 12th.

        Once I had covered the published sources, I turned my attention to the archives. The Imperial War Museum Sound Archive contains approximately 100 hours of interviews with British veterans of the Spanish Civil War. Those of Sam Wild, George Leeson, George Aitken, Fred Copeman, Albert Charlesworth, Michael Economides, Joseph Garber, John ‘Bosco' Jones and James Maley were particularly relevant. These accounts detail the men's movements during the first three days at Jarama and several also describe the journey to Spain and training at Madrigueras. Recorded from 1974 to the mid eighties, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the interviews is the perspective that time had given the men who took part. Although it may have muddied their memoires, the distance enabled the interviewees to reflect on their experiences, both during and after the war in the light of subsequent events. How they adapted to life back in Britain, their frustrations as under appreciated veterans during World War Two and their growing disillusionment with the Communist Party are all revealed.

        Entering the Marx Memorial Library in central London is like stepping back in time. A giant mural of the father of socialism greets you as you enter, and one almost expects to find a portrait of Stalin in the toilet. The library holds a mine of information on the British Battalion's activities in Spain and boosts an unrivalled photographic archive. Several accounts of Jarama are to be found: including the memories of Tom Spiller, a New Zealander who provided the most detailed account of the nationalist attack on the British line on 14 February. Other items of interest are Walter Gregory's written recollections (recorded several years before he began his book); the unedited proofs of The Book of the XV Brigade; and the memoirs of Cyril Sexton. Something of an oddity amongst the Communists, Anarchists and Socialists of the battalion, Sexton was a self-confessed ‘a-political' and military history buff who had been visiting the battlefield of Waterloo when he learnt of the outbreak of war in Spain.

        My next port of call was the National Museum of Labour History in Manchester. The museum holds much of the Communist Party of Great Britain's correspondence from the period. The files are full of letters from anxious parents, wives and siblings enquiring about their loved ones. In the aftermath of Jarama as rumours of catastrophic losses began to filter back from Spain, the correspondence reached fever pitch. No complete casualty records were made during the first three days at Jarama and some relatives had to wait months before receiving confirmation of their worst fears. Also held in Manchester are Pollitt's diaries covering his trips to visit the battalion, the results of an investigation into the fate of the missing ammunition truck on the afternoon of the 12th and a detailed map of the area of operations at Jarama made by the wayward leader of the battalion's scouts, Lieutenant Bee.

        The trail then led to Spain. The Archivo Militar in Madrid and its sister institution in nearby Avila hold the republican and nationalist war records. These were useful for casualty figures, the names and ranks of the individuals who led the nationalist units and the numbers and armaments of their men. In general, however, the Spanish archives were disappointing. Although a few files exist detailing individuals service records, those dating to the Spanish Civil War were sparse and the majority were missing. The Comintern Archives in Moscow, on the other hand, are incredibly detailed. The Battalion's commissars maintained secret files on each individual. Details of political affiliation, military experience, wounds received, and notes on each individual's suitability for service were all recorded. Having read the published sources, I was familiar with the official version of events: the heroism of the working classes selflessly volunteering to defeat Spain's fascist oppressors. The Moscow archives reveal another side to the story. Desertion, drunkenness, insubordination and infighting are all covered in detail.

        Considering the battle of Jarama is approaching its 75th anniversary, the scope and variety of sources available is phenomenal. Over 35 of the 350 men of the British Battalion who survived the first three days of the battle left written or recorded accounts. With such a wealth of material, it was possible to reconstruct the events in minute detail. They Shall not Pass! is the result.


        • #5
          A review of sorts (more like an article really) has been published in the Camden New Journal.


          • #6
            Glad to hear that a new Spanish Civil War book is coming out and it is being done by Osprey. I have a couple of Osprey's books that they did on some Fighter Groups in World War 2 and they did an excellent job.

            I have only one book on the Spanish Civil War and it was written in the 1950's by a veteran of the International Brigade. It is not very well done and I could never finish it.
            “When you're in jail, a good friend will be trying to bail you out. A best friend will be in the cell next to you saying, 'Damn, that was fun'.”
            ― Groucho Marx


            • #7
              Found a review here



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