The wreath-laying party salute the memory of local men who died in the Spanish Civil War. Picture by Bill Heaney
By Bill Heaney
West Dunbartonshire International Brigade held a moving, wreath-laying ceremony in Renton today to mark the sacrifice and bravery of the heroes who took part in the Spanish Civil War.
Scotland’s contributions were among the most substantial foreign aid offered to the Republic over the period of 1936-1939.
Event organiser Cllr Jim Bollan, of the Community Party, said four brothers from Renton volunteered to become brigaders and fight the forces of the Spanish fascist dictator, General Francisco Franco.
Tommy, Daniel, Joe and John Gibbons were their names. The young men, who were of Irish stock, had come to Scotland seeking work and found none.
The majority of the Scottish men and women who supported the Spanish Republic were affiliated with socialist, communist and trade-unionist organisations.
Scottish life in the 1930s was characterised by high levels of unemployment, threatened redundancies and living standards which had resulted in the highest death rates in northern Europe.
Many volunteers had previously been involved in extensive labour struggles and protests against Oswald Mosely’s British Union of Fascists, believing that left-wing politics offered an escape from poverty.
In aiding the Spanish Republican government against the Fascist military coup orchestrated by General Franco in the summer of 1936, Scottish volunteers identified with the potential for social progressive change that Spain represented at the time.
Concurrent with a background of political activism for many of the volunteers was an awareness that if Fascism went unchecked in Spain, it would soon spread to Britain.
Recruitment was further boosted by people’s disillusionment with the government in Westminster in signing the Non-Intervention Treaty on 4 August 1936, and with the initial support of non-intervention by both the National Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress.
Scottish International Brigaders saw service in Spain as part of the British Battalion, formed in January 1937 as part of the XVth International Brigade.
They saw extended action first at the Battle of Jarama and later at Brunete; both battles saw high levels of Scottish casualties.
International Brigaders captured by Franco’s forces throughout the three-year conflict were either executed, repatriated back to Britain under threat of death upon re-entry, or held in Spanish prisons for the remainder of the war. Levels of desertion were relatively low and/or unreported.
The Ebro offensive and the victory at Sandesco in 1938 both gave hope to the Republican armies, however, the three days of fighting at Sierra Lavell resulted in heavy Scottish casualties.
In September 1938, republican prime minister Juan Negron announced to the League of Nations that all foreign volunteers were to be discharged and repatriated, and Scottish military participation in the Spanish Civil War ended with a parade through the streets of Barcelona before the International Brigades were disbanded.
While the International Brigaders were met with almost uniform local appreciation upon their return to Scotland, establishment appreciation was not forthcoming, with the Foreign Office requesting that the volunteers reimburse the government for the funds £3.19/3 per head that had been required to pay their passage home from Spain.
Ex-Brigaders who sought to enlist in the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy were often subject to blacklisting, or passed over for promotion while others were ostracized from manual employment on the grounds of perceived communism, or subject to hounding by plain-clothes policemen.
The last Scottish International Brigade veteran, Steve Fullerton, died in 2008.
An obituary by Bill Alexander informs us that Danny Gibbons was one of three brothers who fought in the International Brigades against fascism.
The fourth brother, Johnny, tried to volunteer but Henry Pollitt the Communist Party leader said “No, three from one family is enough.”
Joe who went to Spain from the USA served in the Lincoln Battalion. Danny and Tommy were with the British.
Their decision to go to Spain was a logical, natural step from their hard early life in industrial Scotland and Ireland and their active struggle against Mosley’s fascists and the Tories in Britain.
Danny was wounded in the Battle of Jarama where the British Battalion – part of the Spanish Republican Army – suffered heavy losses but stopped a very much larger and better armed Fascist army trying to cut off Madrid.
Danny was sent back to Britain to recuperate but returned again, distressed at the news that his brother Tommy had been killed in the battle for Brunete.
In March 1938 the people’s Government faced a grim threat. A powerful Fascist force headed by regular Italian and Nazi tanks, guns and troops had broken through the front.
Danny was among the hundreds of Brigaders who “deserted to the front” to try and stop the armoured blitzkrieg. They were moving into position just before dawn when they ran into a column of Blackshirt tanks. It was a disastrous situation.
Although a number of tanks were set on fire, the battalion was broken with many dead and over a hundred taken prisoner – Danny amongst them.
The prisoners were taken to the rear and put in a concentration camp. They felt ashamed that they had failed their anti-fascist convictions and their dead comrades, and they feared for their own fate.
In this situation, the sterling qualities of Danny were revealed – his deep political understanding, initiative, and willingness to risk all for his beliefs.
In complete secrecy he made contact with five others who knew each other in the labour movement in Britain. They decided to try to give leadership to all the others.
They set out to get everyone out of the camp alive with unbroken morale and back to Britain to continue the anti-Fascist struggle. They had to withstand interrogation by Spanish Fascists and the Gestapo who were trying to find the Political Commissars, Jews and Communists.
The prisoners were half-starved, beaten up nearly every day, and lived in appalling, overcrowded, filthy surroundings. They were ordered to give the Fascist salute and shout ‘Viva Franco’ or face crippling beatings.
At the initiative of the group they shouted ‘Viva Blanco’, and gave the Fascist salute but followed it with the British army salute. The secret committee ran sports and lectures.
The ‘University of San Pedro’ had courses on Labour History, Mathematics, Dialectical Materialism and any other subject with a “resident expert’.
Danny and the others moved their beds to be next to any who were finding the strain too much, gave them some of their own meagre rations or intercepted blows form the sadistic guards.
In February 1939 the British prisoners were exchanged for Italian prisoners – Fascist officers. They marched over the frontier to France, disciplined and with heads high.
Many went on to leading positions in the British labour movement. All of them owed much to the political understanding, deep humanity and courage of Danny Gibbons.
Following the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941, many CPGB members, Douglas Hyde alleges, passed on military or industrial secrets to the Soviet Embassy via the Party to help the Soviet war effort.
MI5 uncovered a GRU network of British Spanish War veterans and tried to cultivate members of another GRU ring known as the “Gibbons-Robson Group”.
This name is a reference to Danny Gibbons, an ex-officer of the British Battalion in Spain and the brother of John Gibbons, Daily Worker correspondent in Moscow during World War II, and in Romania in the post-war years.
The contacts of John Gibbons (born in 1905) to Soviet institutions were of long standing, going back to his direction of the “anti-militaristic” department in the CPGB Central Committee in the late 1920s, and continuing in Moscow where he was accepted for a KIM course (“John Ross”) at the Lenin School in 1930.
By 1938, John Gibbons was head of the English Section of the international broadcasting service (Inoradio) of Radio Moscow, supervising the work of his wife V. Harvey, the Deptford communist Dora Hart and Oliver Stoker, who was not a CPGB member but had undergone training at an electro-technical school in Moscow. Maggie Jordan, another ILS alumna (1927-30), was a “senior correspondent” at Inoradio between 1933 and 1939.
Patrick Curley, from Bonhill, is named on the Jarama memorial in Tarancon and John McNultywas born in 1909 at 174 Main Street, Jamestown.
Curley fought with the Abraham Lincoln brigade and when his ship was sunk off the coast of Spain, he kept two non-swimmers afloat for two hours in freezing conditions until fishing boats rescued him.
Daniel was captured by the fascists and only released when there was a prisoner exchange.
He then made his way to the front again to fight even though he knew if caught he would be executed.
The fourth brother John was not allowed to join as the leader of the Communist Party would only allow three brothers from the one family to fight.
John ended up the senior English correspondent in the Russian army.
He was the first correspondent to send dispatches about Baba Yarr concentration camp outside Kiev.
A respectful gathering of villagers to honour the local heroes of the Spanish Civil War at Renton Community Centre today. Picture by Bill Heaney
The British government turned their backs on the Spanish people hoping Franco and his friends Hitler and Mussolini would stop at Spain.
But as is evident now, they used Spain as a testing ground for Luftwaffe bombing raids and and the fascist forces on the ground.
West Dunbartonshire has an immensely proud history of fighting Franco and Renton takes its place as a village of immense importance in this fight.
Dh Shantivaira, aka Les Robertson, told us: “A late comrade and friend Martha McGregor’s husband also fought in Spain and McGregor Avenue in the Haldane is named after him.”
And Drew MacEoghainn added: “This area is absolutely steeped in heroes that fought the fascists in Spain.”
Ellen O’Hare, a relative of Dan O’Hare after whom the housing estate in Bonhill is named, said: “This very important and very interesting local history should be taught at local schools.”
At the ceremony in Renton today, special guest Mike Arnott, Secretary of Dundee TUC, made this poignant reference: “The men and women, including those from the very streets around us, who fought or drove or nursed in Spain knew why they went.
“And those who collected food or bandages or in our communities here knew the cause as well.
“To uphold democracy and combat the evil of fascism, aware of the consequences for their friends and families, and indeed the wider world is it triumphed.
“We keep alive their memory because their fight, the fight against fascism, continues.
“Just as it reared its its ugly head in the depression and misery of the 1930s, it persists in the austerity and despair of today.”