Fighting for Franco
DES RYAN writing in the Limerick Christmas Chronicle, 1995
When the Spanish Civil War began in July 1936, a large number of Irishmen went to Spain and fought, on both sides in that conflict. The cause of the civil was that some of the army generals were not happy with the way the country was being governed and used the excuse that the country was sliding into communism, to start their revolt.
The majority of the Irishmen went out to Spain under the leadership of General Owen O'Duffy, and joined the ranks of the rebel generals, and other right wing parties, collectively known as the Nationalists. A smaller amount fought with the International Brigades on the government (republican) side.
General O'Duffy had command of about 700 Irishmen. This is the story of one of those men, Bill McCormack from Limerick. I met Bill, who was home on holidays from England, in July this year. He told me the story of why he went to Spain in 1936. I have supplemented this story, where necessary, with additional information.
"There were sermons being given in the churches of how Spain was turning red (communist). One of my pals, Paddy Coffey, from the Sandmall, asked me to go to Spain with him. I met another one of our pals, Piery McNamara (Peter); he said he would also go with us.
They set off for Dublin on Wednesday, 10th December 1936. "We went to the offices of the Irish Christian Front, and asked if they were sending men to Spain. The staff at the offices told us that they would send us, but we would have to wait a few days." While they were waiting in Dublin, Bill and his pals had to stay in Iveagh House, a hostel for homeless men.
On Saturday night, 13th December, they went to a collection point, where other men, who were also going to Spain, were waiting to be picked up.
"We were driven to Galway.' Bill said, "by business people and doctors." When they arrived in Galway, late that night, they went straight onto the boat, the 'Dun Aengus', a tender between the Aran Islands and Galway. "The cabin of the 'Dun Aengus' held about sixty men, others were holding onto the sides and clinging to almost everything, some were even drunk." The next morning we saw a massive ship coming; some of the men said, "there's the boat we are going to Spain on."
"It came alongside and the swells were very heavy. They (the Germans) threw a rope ladder over the side. One minute the 'Dun Aengus was up near it and the next minute it was 20 or 30 feet away from it. The men had to jump and catch the rope ladder, when they got to the top the German sailors pulled them in. Some of the men hadn't the nerve to jump."
Bill remained on deck and watched, as he said, "the old country and the Aran Islands disappear" as the ship headed out into the Atlantic; this brought a few tears to his eyes. The journey out was rough and Bill got seasick. He went down to lie on the straw beds down in the holds. The youngest volunteer from Limerick, Christopher Whelan, brought some sandwiches and an egg down to Bill, but he was too sick to eat them.
"We landed at El Ferrol, and were taken to the railway station, and then we stopped at Salamanca. We were wined and dined, we had a great time; it was like Hollywood."
After Salamanca they were taken to Caceres, which was to be their HQ. In Caceres they received their military training. Bill remembered being called at 6 a.m. every morning. The beds consisted of two timber planks joined together. "If you didn't get up when the Spanish officer called you, he would kick the legs from under the bed when he came around again you got no breakfast you made sure that you were up the next morning."
"The pay was 11 (eleven) pesetas per week." Bill didn't drink at that time and when he had finished duty he would go into town and buy food; he didn't like the black coffee or bread that they were given in the barracks. Other times he would go to the pictures, or, himself and his pals would be trying to chat up "the local Senoritas, but they would only laugh at us as our Spanish wasn't very good." Although he didn't drink, Bill would go to the local pub with Christy O'Sullivan, James Frawley, Piery Mc and Paddy Coffey. "One night," he told me, he saw another Limerickman, P. J. Cleary, standing on one of the tables and singing "The Legion of the Lost."
One day, in Carceres, Bill and Christy O'Sullivan were going across the barrack square. Bill heard what sounded like a motorcycle engine. He climbed up a nearby wall, what he saw shocked him. Eight republican prisoners were being executed. Their hands were tied behind their backs and there were white markers on chests. After they were shot by the firing squad an officer went around and finished them off.
Some time after this incident, Paddy Coffey said to Bill: "I got ye into this and I'll get ye out of it." They decided that they would store up some food for a few days and then head for the Portuguese border, which was about fifty miles away. This idea fell through when another Irishman, with an American passport, had tried it, and was brought back and put in prison, where they threatened to execute him. Most of the men in the brigade marched down to the prison. After that the authorities released the captured man. On February 6th, 1937, General Franco, on his way back to Salamanca, after visiting Italian troops on the Malaga front, stopped at Caceres to view the Irish battalion. Although they had to get some of their uniforms altered to make them fit properly, Franco was impressed with the men's appearance. Christopher Whelan, from Limerick, was presented to Franco as the youngest Irish volunteer.
That same day Franco's forces launched a major attack through the Jarama Valley, capturing in the process the railway head at Ciempozuelos. During this offensive a number of Irishmen, including some from Limerick, fought on the republican side with the 15th International Brigade.
On the 17th February, O'Duffy's Brigade, now known as the 15th (Irish) Battalion, of the Spanish Foreign Legion, made their way to the front line, to the little town of Ciempozuelos, 15 miles from Madrid. The area was being shelled as the men made their way forward through the olive groves. About a mile from the town they came across a detachment of Franco's soldiers from the Canary Islands. In the confusion that followed the Islanders opened fire killing two of O'Duffy's men and two of their Spanish interpreters.
I asked Bill did he remember this incident. He told me that most of the men had marched up, but he and three or four others, who were carrying equipment, came up on the back of a truck. They heard the shooting, and as they got down off the truck, leaving their rifles behind them, one of the Canary Island officers appeared in front of them. The officer was trembling as he waved a forty-five in front of them.
"He would have shot us," Bill said, "Only for one of the men shouting 'Amigos, Amigos', and explaining in Spanish who they were, after that the officer calmed down.
The question remains unanswered as to what exactly happened that day. I believe that, as O'Duffy's men made their way forward, the Canary Islanders, on hearing English speaking voices, mistook O'Duffy's men for a British Irish unit of the 15th International Brigade who were still in the area.
As Bill and his comrades took up their positions in the trenches, which were on the side of a hill, they were horrified to discover bodies buried there since the previous fighting. Outside the trenches some of the men were placed in listening posts and these had to be watched and guarded. The trenches overlooked a railway track and an armoured train "bristling with guns" used to come out from Madrid and fire on the men's positions. When things were quiet the men often played cards.
The battalion was divided into four companies, A, B, C and D; each company spent four days in the trenches and two days resting. The resting company had to do guard duty for a German engineering corps which was several miles away. The Germans were part of the infamous "Condor Legion" which later bombed the Basque capital, Guernica.
As the fighting at Jarama reached a stalemate, Franco's Italian allies, flushed with their victory at Malaga, tried to pressurise the General into supporting them in an offensive to capture Madrid. Franco finally consented, as he was tired of their criticism as to how the war should be run and also of their bragging of how they would capture the capital. This friction between Franco and the Italians was to have serious consequences for O'Duffy and his men.
The Italians began their attack on the 8th of March, east of Madrid, towards Guadalajara; Franco agreed to create a diversionary attack in the Jarama valley which was to the southwest of Madrid. Franco wanted to teach the Italians a lesson. He delayed for a few days in issuing the orders for the attack at Jarama. When he did give the order, the Italians at Guadalajara were on the verge of defeat. It was at this stage that O'Duffy and his men were thrown into the fighting. At 5 a.m. on the morning of the 13th March, his men, preceded by a squadron of Moorish (Arab) cavalry began their advance towards the republican held village of Titulcia. This was to be in support of two Spanish infantry battalions, but as we now know, from the reasons stated above, they failed to turn up and O'Duffy's men were left on their own.
"The Moorish Cavalry, waving their guns, went first," Bill said. "They (republicans) were waiting for them, they were cut down. We got as far as a dry riverbed. You daren't stick your head up; there was shelling and machinegun fire. We came back at the dark of night. There were a couple of men killed. I saw this fellow, lying down, be had a wound in his neck, it was a piece of shrapnel."
After the Italian rout at Guadalajara and the failure at Jarama, the Irish battalion were moved closer to Madrid, to a place called La Marmnosa, which was six miles from the capital. There they were holding a sector of the front line with two battalions of the Carlist and monarchist militia known as the Requetes. The most prominent feature of their uniform was the red beret that they wore. When Bill's pal, Piery McNamara, first saw these soldiers with their red berets, he thought they were communists.
"We were on the outskirts of Madrid. We were dug in at the side of a bank. They (republicans) shelled you every day, and they had aircraft up. The Germans opened up on them. The Germans were sitting around playing cards; waiting for anything to come over. One plane was painted all red. The German anti-aircraft guns opened fire on it, but it got away."
By the end of May 1937, the battalion's period of service was up and the men voted to return to Ireland.
"It wasn't what you expected. We had the wrong opinion of the whole thing. It was frightening to get into it all of a sudden." Bill told me again about the sermons being given in the churches of how Spain was turning red. He felt that they were going out to defend Catholic Spain. Here they were with Franco's Moorish soldiers, who were kneeling down, and worshipping Allah. It made them think of who or what they were fighting for.
O'Duffy and his men returned to Ireland on the Portuguese liner "Mozambique". They arrived in Dublin on the 21st June 1937.
"There were thousands on the streets in Dublin. Being tall, I was put up to the front, they picked all the tall ones and shoved them up front."
After a reception at the Mansion House the men left for their homes. "We arrived in Limerick at about 10 o'clock that night. We were dropped off near Cruise's Hotel. There were some boy scouts waiting. We just went home."
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