The Irish Independent
A series of articles
A LIFE OF THRILLS
A glance at the following story of the author’s adventurous career will give readers a foretaste of some of the thrills in store for them in "I Fought With The Reds".
Captain Charles J McGuinness is the embodiment of the spirit of adventure of the Twentieth Century.
He has had a truly amazing career. He has roamed the Seven Seas and there would appear to be few countries in the world that he has not trod.
A restless nomad, he has sought adventure in every quarter of the globe. Sailor, soldier, rebel, pearler, gold digger in Australia, polar explorer, gun-runner, jail-breaker, rum-runner – he has been all in turn – and a few more besides.
Captain McGuinness is a Derryman, who has the sea in his blood, for he comes from a seafaring family. He was born in 1893 and since he was 15 years of age, when he ran away to sea, he has allowed his roving spirit full freedom. Wherever adventure loomed he has packed his kit and made for it.
That early escapade of making off to the sea was quickly followed by a shipwreck in the South Pacific in 1909, when, after 15 days in an open boat, he was rescued.
This was not his only taste of shipwreck – three times subsequently he was on ships that came to grief and, in one instance, he was the only survivor of the entire crew.
He did pearl fishing n the South Seas, and visited the Near East, Africa, West Indies, Central America, China and Japan.
He joined the British Navy at the outbreak of the Great War, and was two years in the service. He was transferred to the army, and saw fighting in German East Africa. There he was captured, but escaped from the prison camp, travelling on foot alone for 200 miles through swamp and jungle.
The war over, he turned his attention to his native land, where plenty of adventure at the time was to be had.
He carried out gunrunning for the IRA and took part in the fighting against the Black-and Tans in Donegal. While awaiting court-martial in Derry, after being wounded in the hip, he escaped from prison, and made his way to Dublin.
He brought considerable quantities of arms into the country for the IRA.
WITH BYRD EXPEDITION
In the subsequent years his adventurous spirit brought him to many other countries, and the next highlight of his career was when he was appointed Chief Navigation Officer for the Expedition to the South Pole, commanded by Vice-Admiral Byrd. ‘An adventurer of a vanishing type,’ he was described by Admiral Byrd.
He played a big part in the success of the expedition, and when he returned he presented to Mr James Walker, Mayor of New York, an Irish Republican flag, which had been carried over the South Pole by vice-Admiral Byrd.
Captain McGuinness designed the emblem of the expedition, the members of which received a remarkable demonstration when they returned to New York. Lectures on the expedition were given by Captain McGuinness before many organisations and clubs in America.
That expedition over, this nomad was at a loose end. But not for long – for he had turned almost immediately to another field of adventure – rum running from Canada to [the] United States.
In this escapade he had many amazing adventure and escaped from the United States authorities.
Under the nom de plume of ‘Night Hawk’ he described his rum running exploits in American newspapers.
From rum running in America his wanderlust brought him to Soviet Russia where he spent some time.
His experiences in many countries he published in a book, ‘Nomad’, published a few years ago which created the greatest interest in these countries and in America, not only because of the amazing exploits of the man himself, but because of the disclosures it made.
And then Spain called him – for there was adventure there.
Don’t miss his own story of his exploits in Spain, commencing in the Irish Independent on Monday.
IT WILL THRILL YOU!
ADVENTURES IN WAR-TORN SPAIN
MONASTERY USED AS A BARRACK
Reds Orgy in A Chapel Shocks On Way to Front
"I SWORE TO DIE CLEANLY"
By Captain Charles J McGuinness, 4th January 1937
There was a war in Spain! Inactive, in the warlike sense, since the Chinese campaign of 1926, I decided to investigate Europe’s most complex fracas.
After studying the leading Press reports, like most people, I came to the conclusion that the Government forces were losing. This, then, was the side I should support. It was obvious the other could get on quite well without my services.
Not exactly the fervid motives of the average volunteering Galahad, but, as it was to be my fourth major campaign, I may be excused sentimentalism in choosing sides. I have found little sentiment in war.
MY RECEPTION IN PARIS
Armed with an introduction from the Communist Party of Great Britain, I proceeded to Paris in the beginning of September. Arriving at French headquarters on the Rue Lafayette, I pushed my letter of introduction through the steel wire meshes of the bomb proofed reception office. A surly attendant examined the note.
‘More damned English,’ he muttered courteously. ‘Just wait a minute.’
He disappeared up a caged-in staircase. In a few minutes the surly attendant returned, opened a steel door, and admitted me through the barricade.
Without interest, and certainly without any display of enthusiasm, he advised me to go to the ‘Place du Combat.’ He gave me a rough chart for street direction, and a slip on which was written: Comrade Garcia, Chief of the Bureau for Spanish Aid.
‘Why do they all come here! He whined as he ushered me out. I didn’t know, but I told him in good French that he was an unfriendly, stupid lout.
Credentials cause a Surprise
The initial reception was not inspiring, but in Soviet Russia I had experienced a liberal education in proletarian bog bureaucracy.
The ‘Place du Combat’ was a huge square surrounded by dilapidated, dirty buildings, covered in all kinds of flaring red placards, the Hammer and Sickle predominating. These buildings were the revolutionary headquarters in Paris.
In the middle of the Square stood a wooden shack surrounded by a nondescript mob of the proletariat. They eyed me curiously. Over the door of the shack was written the legend: BUREAU D’AIDE DE L’ESPAGNE I entered!
My credentials caused quite a flutter when I presented them. Comrade Garcia turned out to be a little Spanish Jew with Harold Lloyd spectacles and a huge portfolio. He was suspicious, as most communists are of anything beyond their ken.
‘You had better go to the Embassy. They can deal with your case. I know nothing about ships, ‘ he added, with a false smile.
‘Arms and ‘Planes from USA’
‘And less about war,’ I thought, ‘but you are the makings of a successful Proletarian general.’ He then gave me a letter of introduction to the Spanish Embassy.
At the Spanish Embassy on the Avenue George V, after interminable conferences, I was definitely engaged to secure and bring arms and ’planes from the USA via Mexico. My experiences and knowledge of the Americas would be invaluable. There was an unlimited supply of gold, I was informed, and already 40 aeroplanes had been purchased. When, they were flown to Mexico, I should make arrangements to have them shipped to Spain.
I was highly interested in the project. It would be gunrunning extraordinary. But there is many a slip…. At the last minute all the plans were altered and I was advised to proceed to Madrid. I was astounded and disappointed but determined to see the thing through.
En Route For Marseilles
The following night I boarded the midnight express for Marseille. The Gare du Lyon was crowded with drunken candidates for the Spanish International Brigade, and the whole reminded me of a very sordid counterpart of Victoria or the Gare du Nord during the World War.
One group of about ten stood apart, looking stiff and out of place. They were Oxford and Cambridge ‘comrades’ out to save the world for democracy! I think they had all hoped to get good jobs in the Labour Party after they had all written books about their adventures. Poor chaps, few would survive!
As the train pulled out of the station the seven hundred volunteers for Spain lustily sang the ‘Internationale.’ The leaders expostulate, trying to maintain the farce of secrecy.
‘Silence!’ they shouted. ‘Discipline!’
But the drunken legionnaires only moved to a higher and more maudlin key as the train rolled though the suburbs of Paris.
In my compartment was a select group of French Foreign Legionnaires. There was an ample supply of wine, and they sang all through the night, or held heated harangues on Communism, Fascism, the Legion, and Spain. Hey reviled German and Italian intervention.
'Wait until I turn this loose,' said Souchez - a tough looking hombre just home from China after completing 12 years in the Legion. He patted with his foot a long, heavy package which protruded from under the seat.
'Rat-a-tat-tat!' he further emphasised and then burst into a North African Legionnaires marching song.
By Liner to Spain
Arriving in Marseilles, we repaired in groups to various friendly Communist cafés to await orders. As I was to assist the captain of the transport, I was immediately driven to the docks, where I boarded the luxurious liner Cuidad de Barcelona.
The Captain explained that in the event of the ship being chased off her course and out of sight of land by the enemy I was to take command.
'I have only sailed on the coast,' he explained. 'I don't understand navigation.'
That evening and all the next day the departing legion thundered down to the ship in a fleet of taxis. No one took any notice, though it was quite evident we were a Spanish ship, and bound for Spain. There was no passport control - nothing. A couple of Gendarme patrolled the dock, and no one was allowed to go on shore. At the same time we loaded an assorted cargo classified on the manifest as 'general.' Then, at dusk on evening in late September, we sailed for Barcelona.
Off the Chateau d'If (famous fortress of 'the Count of Monte Cristo'), as we sailed south-west, the crew painted over the ship's name and port of registration 'Cuidad de Barcelona, Palma, Majorca,' also the red bands on the funnel. At night all lights were switched off, and the 2,000 Legionnaires squatted all over the ship, the political leaders, of course, annexing the cabins-de-lux.
No Irish in first Detachment
I was assigned a luxurious stateroom, with bath, in accordance with my rank. I felt self-conscious at this mark of esteem, and gladly allowed two Yugoslavs and two Czechs, all of whom spoke a smattering of Russian, to share the cabin. The British minority slept, or, at least, lay down in a forward alleyway. From first to last this forlorn contingent led a lonely existence in the Brigade. The barrier of language kept them apart. There were not enough of them to form a separate contingent, so they were shuffled back and forth. None of the other national groups would have the, - until on the final day, when they attached themselves to a French company and entrained for the front.
There were no Irish in this first detachment of the International Brigade with the exception of myself. I stood alone at all times, and had the distinction of having served in more campaigns than any other member. Bill Scott, the only member of the Irish Communist Party, arrived in Albacete, the base for Madrid, six weeks later. He had been jettisoned in Barcelona, and was on the point of returning home when he was moved frontwards.
We Arrive in Alicante
Six hours out from Marseilles we received radio instructions to proceed to Alicante, a port on the south Spanish coast. The passage was uneventful. Off Barcelona we spotted two Italian cruisers, but they paid no heed to our passing. Our great risk lay in approaching Alicante, where insurgent battleships were reported active. As we approached the entrance at day break we steamed slowly past German, Italian, French and British war vessels, but not a sign of the enemy, for which I was devoutly grateful.
Without the cup of coffee which had been our breakfast since sailing, we disembarked in Alicante in the group formation leaving Paris. A brass band led us through the beautiful city now draped with red banners and slogans.
An Oxford-Cambridge Yell
It has been the communist policy to make the Spaniards believe that Russia was helping with men and munitions, when the truth is that French Anarcho-Communism is the power behind the Red Government - even the well-bred and out-of-place Oxford-Cambridge contingent gave a college yell: 'Red Front! Red Front! Red United Fighting Front!' Their clear and superior enunciation fell on desert ears. They only yodelled once.
Our First Meal in Spain
Late in the afternoon we were issued tinned fish, dry bread, and a mug of wine - not so good for the first day in Spain! In the evening we fell in and marched back to the City Hall. Two hours of standing in the Square listening to the same prattle and we marched off to the railway station en route to Madrid, or so we thought.
The railway journey into the interior was a masterpiece of triumphal propaganda. Every railway station was festooned with flowers and red banners. The platforms were thronged with wildly cheering citizens shouting 'viva Russia!' Brass bands played the 'Internationale' and the 'Red Flag.'
The now partially revived foreign brigadiers entered anew into the spirit of the Russian hoax and sang in languages any one of which was Russian to the simple peasantry. Gifts of fruit and wine made us all fell better, and many of us drunk.
I was still with the French group of legionnaires, and benefited from their skilful foraging. At the beginning of our journey one untoward incident was typical of the type. Four British 'comrades' tried to hog a whole compartment by putting out the light, pulling down the blinds, and strewing the seats with baggage - and this on a train packed to suffocation.
An 'Attack' on British 'Comrades'
I led the French attack, talking easily understandable English. We soon ousted the cultured Communists. They were wroth to leave, and said: 'No true Communist gets drunk. You are breaking 'pawty' rules , and you are lowering British communism in the eyes of foreign comrades.'
'That's too bad,' I answered, as I chose a corner seat. 'I am not a Communist. Even worse, I suppose, as far as you Drawing Room Reds are concerned, I am an Irishman, and none too fond of Britishers of your type.'
Only fifty percent of the French in the Brigade are Communist: the other fifty are just plain unemployed ex-soldiers. As results have shown, the soap-box soldier is the first to fall; a good soldier can generally get cover if any at all is available. The death rate in the international brigade is high as a result of politics over military skill. Few professional Communists are good soldiers.
About 3 a.m. we came to a stop in a brilliantly lighted station, where we left the train. Lined up in straggling formation we marched off behind a band, accompanied by the curious townsfolk. No one knew the name of the town; some thought it was Madrid. We marched though stately streets until we came to a smaller one.
'Right turn!' we marched into our latest barracks.
A Monastery as a Barracks
Once inside I realised that I was in a religious building - a monastery or convent, perhaps. A huge statue of Our Lord lay broken in the patio. Altar candelabra was strewn everywhere - surely a strange setting for a military barracks.
The patio was surrounded on all four sides by a two-storied building, situated between two streets. One side, formerly a school, was now converted into a huge dining hall, wooden tables running its full length. On these were strewn tin dishes our second meal in Spain - a piece of pork fat, a chunk of dry bread, and a mug of strong wine.
In spite of our hunger few made a hearty meal. Sleeping quarters were provided in a cellar underneath and in the violated chapel adjoining and at right angles to the dining room.
Loath to sleep in either, with a French chap, who was as much disgusted as myself, I found a small nook on the top floor. There we spent the night n anything but comfort.
Revolting Scenes in Violated Chapel
In the morning we descended to wash to find the troops up and about exploring the monastery and having a rare orgy of blasphemy. We had to pass through the chapel to get outside. Here a most astounding tableau met our gaze.
A group of Poles and Italians were marching round the church attired in sacred vestments. A group of Jew boys were swinging incense burners. On the altar another group were mimicking the Mass. Up in the organ gallery a Frenchman was playing the 'Internationale' in slow time. All were chanting an accompaniment.
In niches in the chapel wall stood bold Hebrew legionnaires attired in clerical robes. The displaced statues lay broken on the floor beneath.
Near where I entered, close to the dismantled altar, a depraved-looking Slav was in the act of breaking the cover off the Mass Book, laughing like an idiot the while.
I pushed him to one side. 'You swine,' I said, 'I hope you will be as tough when you get to the front and your opponent tougher.'
Latrines Draped with Vestments
To cover up my effrontery, which might easily have meant death amongst such depravees, I spoke sharply in Russian: 'Don't you know, you fool, that looting merit's the death sentence on active service? I shall report all this to Brigade Headquarters.'
Other decent chaps were also showing signs of disgust, but they were easily in the minority. Later on in the day I spoke with a Spanish Miliciano who informed me that but a week prior to our arrival 40 priests, nuns and lay brothers had been executed in the Patio where lay the broken statue of Our Saviour.
Housing such a crowd, the Chapel barracks soon became intolerable. A faint trickle of water from one surviving spigot was the sole source of drinking water. Vandalism had destroyed the entire plumbing system. Latrines were erected in the square, huge wooden tubs, guarded by a wooden railing on which were draped altar cloths and vestments.
Sleeping accommodation was of the foulest. Imagine 200 men of all nations laying on the stone floor of one damp cellar on dirty pallets of straw. Imagine them eternally coughing and spitting, wrangling and sweating, discussing the virtues of Communism, cursing fascism, until daylight steamed in through the barred windows.
One such night and I swore to die cleanly rather than undergo another period of such degradation. There was, and is, no medical supervision in the brigade. There is only room for Communist propaganda. Many suffered from pernicious and contagious maladies. Sleeping on stone or tiled floors (wood is scarce in Spain) soon left its mark.
FOUL WAR ON RELIGION
Charles J McGuinness, 5th January 1937
After my first experience o found a room in town. The town, we discovered, was Albacete, in the province of Murcia, about 150 miles from Madrid. There was much criticism of my superiority complex by the British. They, in the ignorance of a first military venture, considered dirt and vermin the hallmark of really roughing it.
They boasted of not having undressed since leaving Paris. As I had come to Spain to go to Madrid on a special mission, I ignored all criticism. One thing I stipulated definitely, I would in no way become attached to or assigned with any group of British Communists.
A week in the barracks of the 5th regiment, as the transformed monastery buildings were now officially dubbed, a general shuffling of the Brigade took place. The German group being the more disciplined, and looked up to as military models, were accorded a barracks to themselves. The remaining conglomeration moved to the barracks of the old Garda Nacional. This was a huge roomy structure, built in the usual style, enclosing a spacious square. It was soon packed to completion, and a bit over.
Another Irishman for the Brigade
Contingents were arriving daily from France - Perpignan and Marseilles being the concentration points. From Perpignan troops and material were brought to a point near the Spanish frontier by motor lorries. Then they marched across the border, carrying baggage and equipment. Spanish motor lorries concluded the transit by bringing the new arrivals to Figueras, the Spanish concentration point in Catalonia.
Another small group of British arrived, this time a really decent bunch of ex-Army men and a couple of officers. Amongst them was an Irish lad from Achill - Tom Patton. There were now two Irishmen with the Brigade - a very small percentage then out of 8,000 diverse nationalities.
A month later, when Bill Scott arrived, Ireland's only Communist representative (Patton was an English Communist Party member), there were three Irishmen in a Brigade of 12,000 men.
Patton was a decent chap. I told him of the executions and stupid vandalism and asked how he could reconcile such actions with his faith.
'No matter what I am, or where I am, I shall always be a Catholic,' he replied. 'I can’t help the actions of those scum.' He was eventually attached to the British group, who were attached to nobody. If they had left Spain with any degree of secrecy they would never have been missed.
Arms from France and Russia
Up to this time, no member of the Brigade had laid hands on rifle, machine-gun, mortar, or grenade. There were a few old sporting guns and some Spanish Oveido rifles to give guards and sentries the appearance of the real thing. Later a consignment of about 5,000 Remington rifles with ammunition arrived from France. Then came a few Lewis guns, but it was not until the beginning of November that Russian armaments came on to the scene.
These were mostly machine-guns of the Vickers type, mounted on a three-wheeled carriage, and good copies of the Lewis gun. But it was the aircraft and tanks that roused the hopes of the International column.
Truthfully speaking, the foreign Communists had little sympathy with the Spanish people. They blindly worshipped Russia. Spanish Milicianos and Legionnaires did note fraternise. On one occasion when a large draft of Valentian Militia, mostly Anarchists, were approaching Albacete, rumours were adroitly spread tat they were Fascists on the warpath. The International Brigade were confined to barracks until the Spanish Anarcho troops had gone to the Front.
Women in the Brigade
Fraternising with Anarchists was strictly taboo, and yet the war was being fought by the Anarchists. Only a small percentage of Spain follows he teachings of the third International (Russia). Trotsky has more followers, while the Syndico-Anarchists easily outnumber all the Radical groups. Thus it will be seen that, no matter how this conflict in Spain is settled, there will be warring forces at large for another decade at least.
Occasionally, women cam e with the various drafts from France - Hungarians, Poles, Romanians, and Germans. Mostly all were Jewesses; they looked absurd trotting around in uniforms with Sam Brown belts and revolvers. As with many of the effeminate males, quite a few wore bracelets of revolver cartridges.
For amusement there were never-ending harangues for new arrivals, and send-offs to the Front. Andre Marty, noted French Communist Deputy, and leader of the Black Sea fleet mutiny, was the principal speaker.
Marie Nicolette ('Nicko') was next in point of favour. The 'Internationale ' was sung on all and every occasion. 'Reveille' was played on a concertina by an Italian ex-circus clown. His repertoire was limited, consisting only of the 'Internationale' and 'Bandera Rosa', the Italian Red Flag hymn.
My First and Last Bull-Fight
The first and last bullfight I attended was one given in our honour in Albacete.
The Plaza de Tore (of unhappy memory), or Bull Ring, was a huge ornamental arena situated close to our barracks on the fringe of the town. Before the so-called amusement started the International brigade marched around and though the arena to give the Spaniards a treat. Clad in various designs and colours of uniform, from artisans blue overalls to a job lot of British khaki, newly arrived from Valencia, the effect was colourful - but as the rank and file included some of France's submerged citizenry, native and adopted, they were anything but specimens of physical fitness.
Their physical vagaries ran the gamut of the average freak show. Marching behind a burly, shapeless, Italian 'comrade', who rolled and lurched like a tug in a cross-sea, keeping step was difficult. Away off to starboard was an ex-French soldier with one leg at least six inches shorter than its pal kept the company busy changing step. Some executed a few steps of a jig trying to do this difficult military feat, invariably landing back on the same mis-step.
How the half of them were accepted is a mystery. What the thousands of physically fit and of military age Spaniards thought was strictly their own business, but anyhow, the spectators cheered loudly. If they could cheer a bull being tortured to death, cheering us was not quite so difficult.
The Parade over, we got what seats were left. Then a beautiful black bull was released into the ring. Five toreadors were mincing around waving red handeros - there were no horsemen. The bull apparently thought it was a game and began to romp with his torturers. Even when a dozen darts had transformed him into a cavorting blood fountain he seemed more hurt than angry.
The crowd were delighted. Beautiful senoritas clapped their hands, 'Brava, mi brava!' they shouted. Then an assembled downtrodden Spanish proletariat.
A graceful matador approached the now bewildered, panting bull. Draping his red bandero round his sword he waited the feeble rush. A quick side step; then with an affected nonchalance the brave matador drove the sword down behind the bull's shoulder.
The poor animal dropped on its knees in a pool of blood. It struggled desperately to rise, slipping pathetically in the blood-soaked turf. The crowd now jeered the matador for bungling his stroke. He drew a long bladed dagger from its sheath and at last finished his unsavoury job.
A pair of horses dragged the bleeding carcass across the ring at full gallop as another victim entered the place of slaughter.
'We Are All Damned Fools'
Seated on my right was an ex-French soldier of the World War and later a Sergeant in the Foreign Legion. 'Armande du Bois' was my closest friend and a most loveable type of fellow. I had noticed he was extremely nervous during the bullfight , occasionally clutching my arm and shuddering.
Jerkily he jumped to his feet. 'Come, let's go. Vite, vite!' I arose and quickly followed him up to the terrace surrounding the amphitheatre. Two other Frenchmen also left their seats.
Clear of the howling mob, Armande spontaneously burst into tears. 'They are not human,' he moaned. 'Such barbarians.' We were all affected, and gladly exchanged the remaining contests for the solace of a bodega.
The Leaders Behind the Lines
Said Jacques Renaud, a cashiered officer of the Armee Nord Afrique, 'Spain is but a French-Russian pawn. Look at the leaders behind the lines. Who are they? Leon Blum, in France directing the stream of International political refugees across the Pyrenees, in Perpignan the Socialist Mayor turns over the huge military hospital and grounds to the Communist Party. Everyone there sees the contingents arrive and leave for Spain almost daily. Then we have Leon Braunstein (alias Trotsky), Finkelstein (alias Litvinov), and Rosenburg, Soviet Ambassador to Spain united in fighting for the Spanish Government!'
One Certainty: The War on Religion
This angle opened a new train of though, and opened a floodgate of dangerous criticism. The fact that Trotsky's forces, the POUM, the largest Communist organisation in Spain; the Freemasons of the Anarcho-Syndicalist groups, and the Soviet Third international were working together was not loudly advertised
We discussed the Basque Catholic situation and their adherence to the Red Government.
One thing we knew of for certain - that nowhere we had been stationed was there a single Catholic church unmolested and free for Divine Service.
And we saw ample evidence of the war on religion everywhere - the horribly indecent blasphemous periodicals openly on sale. These filthy journals are flaunted before the eyes of Spanish youth to inculcate in them a hatred and loss of respect for the Church. I have some of these journals here in Ireland to prove that they are directed solely against the Catholic Faith and - the authors are mostly non-Catholic.
January 6th 1937
Massacre in A Cemetery
Reverting to the Plaza de Toro at Albacete. This magnificent arena may have the advantage of providing the bloodthirsty citizens of Albacete with amusement, but when we were forced to eat the bulls, and in the Bull Ring, the place became revolting.
Underneath and behind the concrete stands and directly facing the latrines, long tables were stretched, flanked by crude benches. This was the mess hall, called upon to feed over a thousand or more troops daily. It was a shocking fiasco. Organisation was so infantile that no proper preparation was ever made to feed the tens of thousands of troops passing through the town.
A couple of days would have sufficed to build fireplaces and ovens. Instead, all food was cooked in huge boilers over a wood fire burning on the ground. As the tables could only accommodate about four hundred at a sitting, getting to the Bull Ring late was a tragedy. It was not uncommon to wait two hours to consume a meal in ten minutes.
First Real Taste of War
Breakfast consisted of black coffee and dry bread. Dinner: Beans stewed in rancid olive oil, a piece of boiled bull and a tin mug of red wine. Supper was much the same as dinner.
At 8 p.m. there was a complete blackout of the town as a protection against air raiders. Late diners gulped their beans and bull in the dark. Luckily the keen invigorating air of the central Spanish plateau bred vigorous appetites, and personally as the food I had little to complain of. The Britishers suffered though. They yearned for Tea and I felt that many of them also yearned for Mater.
I had little to complain of. The Britishers suffered though. They yearned for Tea and I felt that many of them also yearned for Mater.
In the later days of October we got our first real taste of the war, and in a gruesome and unorthodox manner.
Murder in a barber’s shop
One of the Polish group of the Brigade entered a Pelugueria (a hairdresser’s shop) to have a haircut and shave. He was drunk, offensive and spoke a little Spanish. It is stated that he kept up a running fire of abuse against the fascists, boasted of the number he would kill, and the manner in which he intended to kill them.
The barber gave him a nice haircut and proceeded to shave him. The Pole got more enraged against fascism. The barber cut his throat from ear to ear, a torrent of blood spurted forth, and soon the bloody stream ran over the doorsill onto the street.
The barber stood still – paralysed by the thought of what he had done. The assistants froze in horror, then ran for the door through the blood. Too late! In a military town a hundred Milicianos were on them. Whistles blew, and in a moment the Polica were in the shop. The razor lay on the floor, barely perceptible in a thick congealing coat of red.
Who Killed that?’ Ask Police
The Policia knew their job. ‘Who killed that?’, pointing to the head hanging over the back of the chair. No one answered. ‘All right. Let’s have your names, addresses, name of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters – all your living relatives.’ Notebooks were busy. Soon trucks came rumbling back with fifteen unfortunate men, women and children, relatives of the hairdresser and his staff. The Padrone and his four assistants were bound and put on another truck. The entire load of prisoners sped off.
‘Assemblement! ‘Assemblement! Tout le monde.’ ‘Fall in everybody.’ Wondering why, we fell in at the Caserne Garda Nacional. ‘Another recruiting march,’ grumbled Armande.
The troubled days in Ireland
But there was a vague feeling of fear and unrest in the manner in which the marching orders were given. Three deep, in the Continental fashion, we marched through the streets of Albacete. The usual saluting and anti-Fascist slogan crying were more than moderate.
I fancied now and then that the beautiful pale faces of the Spanish senoras wore looks something like that of our Irish womenfolk when the ‘Tans’ went swaggering through semi demolished towns in Ireland in 1921. One particular Madonna like face caught my eye. Her eyes were like those of a wounded deer. I blushed and felt strangely uncouth and ashamed.
Armande’s repeated querying; ‘Where are we going, Mac? I don’t like the look of this’ roused me from a reverie of Bloody Sunday in Dublin – of the day when I stood with the brave Fitzgerald brothers and Sean MacMahon watching the Croke Park rout spreading over the city. ‘The @@@@@@@ Tans,’ I muttered. ‘Time? What time? asked Armande, looking perplexed. He thought I’d said ‘Temp.’
'We Are Going to The Cemetery'
I noticed the direction we were heading. I knew of the murder in the barber's shop. I had seen the trucks drive off and I felt our destination was similar to where they went.
'We are going to the cemetery, I imagine,' I said. But as none of the column bore arms I did not grasp the real meaning of our mission.
An hour's march brought us to the cemetery gates. As in all Spanish cemeteries today, sentries were posted all around. We passed through into the beautifully kept central walk and soon arrived at the further wall. We halted in marching alignment, three deep, facing inwards.
'About turn!' we turned about----
A line of Bleeding Corpses
A ghastly spectacle was revealed. At the base of the whitewashed wall on the ground lay a line of bleeding corpses. Twenty metres long was that line. The bodies lay singly or crossed., one above the other. Pale hands and faces, bloodstained, shattered, made vivid splashes in the sombre grisly line.
I felt horribly sick. The deep trench between us and the wall yawned gaping. To left and right were mounds. What they covered was grimly portrayed lying under the wall.
Above a cloudless blue sky looked down pure and serene: little birds were pecking for twigs not a metres length away from the body nearest to me.
I had witnessed executions in China; saw firing squads during the World War in East Africa, but never anything so wanton as this.
'Tomorrow Fifteen More Will Be Shot'
It seemed there was no limit to the accumulation of horrors. Taking advantage of the gruesome moment, an oily Hungarian Jew, a political group leader, jumped upon one of the mounds. 'Comrades,' he cried, 'There lie the enemies of the proletariat. This is the only answer to Fascism. Death to the traitors.'
He held forth on the slavery of the working classes, spoke of the broad highway of Communism leading upwards.
The impious swine waved his hand skywards.
I refused to listen to such muck and left with hundreds more who had immediately fallen out of the line after turning about. 'Tomorrow fifteen more will be shot.' We heard this bandied around as we left. Thirty five workers murdered to build up Socialism. A good day's work.
Executions Carried Out in Secret
I might explain that in Albacete the Policia area armed with Italian big game hunting rifles, double the calibre of an ordinary service rifle. The bullet fired is nothing short of a small projectile, and inflicts an awful wound, the rough base spreading fanwise and serrated on leaving the gun barrel.
A closing note. At present no one is allowed admittance into a graveyard except those directly interring a body. Executions are carried out in secret by a trusted and hardy group well primed - secrecy robs them of nothing of their terror. The following day fifteen 'Fascists' were executed according to plan.
Three days after the execution in the cemetery, at least at night, we had an air raid. A solitary bomber flew over the city bent on bombing the Government hangers. He dropped a couple of bombs and retreated, chased by three Red 'planes, firing bullets of machine gun fire. It was thrilling to watch, and spoke highly of the nerve of the sole aviator to venture so far over enemy territory. The bombs dropped out on a saffron field, making two small craters.
Disgusted With The Campaign
The following day I was summoned to Headquarters and told to prepare to leave for Madrid that night. At last I was to proceed to the capital, and in doing so, pass mighty close to the firing line. By this time I was utterly disgusted with the campaign, but determined to stick it out until I had first-hand experience at the front.
For weeks columns of the brigade had been leaving for the Front line, but still the commander of the Brigade, Kleber, remained in Albacete, riding round on the proverbial white horse. He was a Russo-German, speaking both these languages perfectly.
Russian aviators and engineers were now making their appearance in connection with deliveries of trucks and 'planes., but no Soviet citizens or soldiers made an appearance. There was no reason why they should. The Government had ore man power than they could cope with economically. It amused me to watch the thousands of young men of military age who were more mentally and physically fit than the flotsam and jetsam of the International Brigade.
Orders to Proceed to Madrid
The solution to this seeming paradox is simple enough. France gets rid of an embarrassing section of her population. Spain will see that they are exterminated in the campaign, thus solving the problem of their absorption if the Government wins. The Brigade has been formulated to act as the spearhead of attack wherever hey were in action. This is clear to almost everyone with the possible exception of the poor political refugees who imagine a land of ml and honey to exploit when they end their victorious war.
Even if they win, I cannot see Trotsky, Stalin, Blum and the Freemasons and, the most important factor of all, the Spanish people, forming a Coalition Government to rule a land of milk and honey.
On my reporting to Headquarters that night ready to move, I got the surprising order to proceed to Madrid, acting on the way as a guard of an ammunition convoy bound to the front en route Madrid.
Under Fire by the Enemy
January 7th 1937
Thrills in Night Attack
Reds prove to be poor fighting men Authors Dramatic Getaway
The ammunition convoy was speeding along the Aranjuez - Madrid road. Ten Russian three ton trucks loaded with American Remington rifles, Russian maxim machine guns and .303 ammunition for both.
I was riding on the first truck, together with two French men and a Bulgarian refugee long resident in France. NO one spoke, and in the bitter cold we crouched down on top of the hard angular cases.
The section of the road we were transversing was well known to the Insurgent bombers and guards covered the important railway junction close by zealously.
A Journey of Fear and Dread
They had repeatedly blown up the railway tracks after each fresh repair job by the Red railwaymen. At any moment we might be ambushed, either from above or below. Then I would probably have to fight - for my life- in a cause with which I had lost all sympathy.
The lure of adventure had called me hither, and the odds against me ever escaping from the adventure were many. I scanned the bleak and black expanse into which the dimmed headlights of the convoy shone feebly.
'Here, Comrade, Have a Drink'
Noting but an opaque wall and the monotonous drumming of the engine. Since the horrible spectacle of the mutilated bodies in the churchyard my nerves were shaky.
Now I dwelled morbidly on the fact that at any moment a withering blast of machine-gun fire might rake the convoy or a mine explode and blow us into eternity. Or- out of the inky sky a winged monster might appear and attack us from above. Or -
Groe, one of the Frenchmen, broke in on my meditations.
'Here, comrade, have a drink.'
He proffered a bottle of cognac, I noticed that his hand was shaking. The hand I stretched forth to meet the bottle wasn't too steady either.
I drank a generous draught, so all the others, but we might as well have drank water for all the stimulus we obtained.
Air Attack on the Convoy
Suddenly the harsh bark of a klaxon and a shrill whistling. The alarm signal. 'Halt.'
The convoy ground to a stop and all lights were switched off.
In a silence and darkness that seemed solid, the hum of powerful aeroplane motors came out of the western sky. We dismounted and retreated a short distance form the explosive cargo on the trucks.
The roar of the 'planes drew nearer until they were directly overhead, but still invisible.
From the direction in which we came a blinding flash cut the darkness, followed by a deafening roar. We dropped flat on the ploughed earth.
A couple of seconds and there came another explosion nearer and more terrifying. A shower of earth and stones flew over our recumbent bodies. No one was seriously hurt.
Class in Every Truck Shattered
We lay for another couple of minutes until the disappearing hum of the bombers faded away to a thin drone.
Every truck had the glass in its hood windows shattered, and one refused to start. After repeated failures to function, we divided the load amongst the nine remaining trucks and set off for the front.
Daybreak found us not far from Getafe, where the Red Army held a line cutting across the Toledo-Madrid road.
Do not confuse this with your ideas of the World War front. The troops, Spaniard and foreign, were scattered irregularly over the countryside, occupying farmhouses, outhouses, sheds, and shelters of all kinds.
There were often wide gaps ion either side, but no portion of an army will pierce these gaps deep enough through fear of being cut off.
There are also pretences of modern fortifications in the shape of crude barricades of stone and earth. Here and there were concealed machine-gun nests and an odd, very odd, dug out completed the military structure.
Well to the rear were a couple of German 7 millimetre light field pieces. When we drove up with our precious load there was no enthusiasm.
A Dissertation of Food
'Better leave the boxes on the trucks,' said the wise Spanish Commandante. I got his meaning without the aid of an interpreter. I also took in the graceful lines of his Hispano Suizs, and gave it the odds in beating all in the field in the race to Madrid or elsewhere away from this mala guerra.
There was no opposition. I asked the Commandante where we ate. 'Come with me,' he said. Linking his arm with mine he led me to his own billet which was also company headquarters - a small dirty room adjoining an odoriferous goat house. I enjoyed a good meal of beans, meat and fish stewed in olive oil.
Here I must explain that having travelled considerably my tastes in food are catholic, but I have a weakness for olive oil, garlic, macaroni, rice, and I even find the Spanish oddities of octopus or octupi and garden snails savoury tit-bits. But woe to those living in Spain who care not for such food.
Frenchman Who was a Philosopher
I was anxious to proceed to Madrid, but all cars were requisitioned for local service, so I had to wait the Commandant's pleasure - and, believe it or not, I had to wait with a group of French and Poles holding this particular section of the Front.
One of the Frenchmen humorously remarked when I complained of the delay: 'Oh! I shouldn't worry, Comrade. You stay with us and you will get to Madrid fast enough. Wait and see.'
This philosopher had reason to know. He explained that the present rout had started in Toldeo some ten or twelve days ago and was but temporarily hung up. 'We'll be on the move soon,' he promised, scratching himself vigorously.
During the day a shabby-looking shaven brigand allocated to each group their stand-to stations in case of a sudden attack.
Assigned to Outpost Duty
A Moorish battalion covered this section of the Line, so I was most assiduous in selecting a spot that would offer the most safety from direct or enfilading fire. I was much more particular about selecting a safer line of retreat. I was keenly conscious of the inferiority of our command in general - officers and men, armament and tactical. They did not seem to co-ordinate.
There was no mental bond - everything done was singularly amateurish. The few who knew a little of military matters either made a terrific fuss or concealed their knowledge entirely.
At dusk I was assigned to outpost duty. Upon this plateau the wind was cold and penetrating. Wrapped in none too fleecy blankets, their living content gave is the only source of warmth in scratching fits, but this could not be maintained indefinitely. All the troops not on outposts or patrols sheltered in barns and sheds, packed together like sardines.
Wide Spaced Flashes of Fire
There was little sign of life from the enemy. Sporadically up and down their line ran wide-spaced flashes of rifle fire, just to show us, as it were, that they were on the job. The Red troops fired at the flashes, and thus each side had a vague idea of each other's position.
I earnestly prayed that I might get through to Madrid without stopping a bullet or a bayonet. At about 10 o'clock we were relieved, and I went back to the high powered goat hose, where I ate a satisfying meal of raw bacon and bread washed down with wine. Then I lay down on a pile of straw between two Polacks (Poles) and fully attired, soon fell asleep.
'The Moroccans are Upon Us'
I awoke to the shrilling of a whistle. 'Assemblement, assemblement! Vite, vite! The Moroccans are upon us!' we rushed out in the darkness, each group going to their stand to position fully equipped. I reached the small earthwork barricade and lay down behind a well-reinforced parapet of my own construction.
The ground in front was scrubby and strewn with boulders. It would prove a difficult terrain for a sweeping charge, but such was the weakened morale that the red Army tactics were at that time concerned with defence. The others could do the charging.
Along a distance of about five hundred yards a steady stream of fire poured into our lines. It took a couple of minutes before the answering fire checked some of this. Then the Moors dropped to desultory firing.
Company of Recruits Decimated
Was the attack off? Away to the right of our earthwork barricade a group of Milicianos were firing regularly in a long line of flashes. I remembered the low ridge there, or small dyke, that the Company Commander allocated to a 'green' company just arrived from the base. Their firing died down and little was happening on either side.
Five or ten minutes of tense waiting. Then suddenly as if operated by one switch, a dozen blinding searchlights lit up our positions as brightly as by noonday sun. Simultaneously a terrific gust of withering machine-gun fire burst forth in a deafening crash. Sheltered ad temporarily out of danger behind the hillock of earth and rock, I looked over to the strategic ridge. To my utter amazement I saw the defenders of the ridge like chaff literally blown away in the leaden storm.
'I Picked out the North Star and Ran'
The poor 'rookies' had draped themselves over the ridge to get a better firing stance, or for some other reason (there were no survivors to explain), instead of taking advantage of its proper element of shelter.
The line broke and ran, closely followed by the shouting Moors. I ran crouching to a barn two hundred yards away. From one side extended a low adobe wall, part of a yard enclosure. Near a small wooden gate I dropped flat as a torrent of lead whined over me.
I waited for a moment - then dashed through and ran behind the building. Everyone was running wildly. I ran towards the Commandant's Headquarters adjoining the goat-house, but the Hispano Suiza was gone, so had our trucks, and so had the artillery.
Then I picked out the North Star, laid a course Nor' Nor' West and ran.
AMONG THOSE ABOUT TO DIE
Irish Independent, 8th January 1937
The rising sun threw a pale light on the roofs of the small town to the south. I was on the main road to Madrid and travelling with an assorted company. Milicianos on trucks, on foot, and officers in cards went flying past - some with arms, some without. I picked up a rifle that some weary or frightened soldier had dropped on the route, and marched on. Again unattached!
My side felt chafed and raw; possibly my belt with the heavy ammunition pouches. I threw them away. Then I noticed two neatly drilled holes in the side of my tunic.
I Arrive in Madrid
I had a look inside. Sure enough, a bullet or something had grazed me, scarcely breaking the skin by the sheerest of good luck. I felt devoutly thankful, and then threw away the rifle. As one army retreated, a new one was rushing along the road collecting arms and men to make a further stand - further on.
Arriving in Madrid by way of the Princesca Bridge, I discovered that the Minister of Marine had left for Valencia. If I wanted to see him I must go there. I certainly wanted to go to Valencia, to any seaport or outlet where I could leave this unhappy land. Any move I had made up to now seemed to get me deeper in the toils, and again I prayed hard for delivery.
How the Spaniards Are Insulted
Columns from the International Brigade were now arriving to stiffen the defence of Maid and were being concentrated in the Case de Campo. How the Spaniards swallowed this gratuitous insult so meekly I cannot understand.
The Communist (Russian) organs were forever lauding this band of very mediocre conscripts and unemployed as a modern military achievement. Trotsky's crowd will say anything so will the Anarchists of Catalonia and, of much more portent, so will the Spanish people when they are called upon to met the bill.
At this stage I don't intend to enlarge further on my experiences, but will deal with the few remaining unpleasant episodes that marked my departure from Spain.
Permission to Leave Spain
Back at Brigade headquarters I demanded to be returned to France. Would I accept command of a gunboat? No A cruiser? No. I knew they had no commands to offer and this was but a stall to coax me into the Artillery or Flying Corps. All right. Marty agreed with bad grace and I received permission from the Frente Populaire to leave Spain.
My papers were in order, I was immediately put under police supervision - until a suitable train left for the coast. There were four of us returning, two French, a Hungarian and myself.
The night before our departure was spent in the guardroom of police Headquarters in an atmosphere of smoke and garlic. Now and then prisoners were brought in, singly or in batches, after the approved after midnight forays.
Talk with a Condemned Priest
In the morning I went out into the prison yard to get a sluice of cold water. I was half-drugged and stickily dirty from grime and smoke. About twenty prisoners were walking about the yard or standing in little groups. They looked pale and wan and were conversing in low tones.
A few were at the water spigot, washing. I divested myself of upper clothing down to an armless sports singlet and commenced to wash. Alongside I noticed a gentle-faced young Spaniard.
'Good morning,' he said in Spanish, as he moved aside to give me more room. 'Quite well,' I replied, 'How are you?'
Then looking cautiously around, he added softly, 'I see you are a foreigner, and', looking at a tattooed crucifix on my forearm, 'a Catholic.' 'Yes, I am a catholic and an Irishman,' I also spoke quietly.
'Tomorrow I go to the Cemetery'
Our conversation was a dangerous one. Why, he might have been a spy, for all I knew, but his face was reassuring, 'and', I further remarked, with a note of satisfaction in my voice, ' I leave for France today.'
'May God go with you, my friend,' he barely breathed. 'I am a Catholic priest and the day after tomorrow I go to the cemetery.' Everything went blank before my eyes. A cold hand touched my heart. The grisly terror that lurked everywhere, robbed me of understanding.
I turned to ask the young priest if it were really true - but he had gone. A guard approached. 'Don't listen to these Fascists, Comrade,' he said. Then he remarked pointedly, 'And don't ask or answer questions. We'll do all that.'
I took the hint, and also understood why the priest so quickly left me. He feared the danger I might have got into through conversing with him.
Barcelona Today is Sovietised
I dressed quickly and, as in a trance, walked though the heavy iron grille back to the guardroom. I understood later that most of the prisoners were 'Fascists' awaiting execution or imprisonment in the hulks of Barcelona or Valencia.
I saw touching scenes as relatives brought the prisoners food. Mothers, wives, sisters - they smiled bravely; but when the visit was over I saw them weep unrestrainedly.
I will omit details of the journey to Barcelona, via Valencia and Tarragona, and deal directly with this once beautiful and prosperous capital of Catalonia.
Barcelona today is the capital of a partly Sovietised Province. It is a glaring nightmare of red banners, placards, slogans, and slovenly disorder.
'The Anarchists Rule Supreme'
The Anarchists rule supreme, backed by Trotsky's Communists. Tramcars and buses are painted the diagonal red and black of the Anarchist flag, so are trucks and automobiles.
Every faction has a different coloured flag, and some cars and buildings fly the lot. The effect can well be imagined.
As Barcelona was formerly the industrial centre of Spain, so it was the revolutionary or separatist centre. But it was rather a contradiction of Anarchism (which is individualist!) to see the wholesale collectivisation of factories, hotels and transport.
As in Russia, the people must become mere ciphers, and must without quibbling obey the rulings of their betters - the chairmen of the various Councils.
'Privileges' for the Proletariat
Food cards are issued and admission by special permit. The Proletariat have the privilege of eating a hasty meal of beans, sitting at long deal tables in the Ritz. When they finish they must at one vacate. They have had the satisfaction of eating where once their betters are - if that is any satisfaction.
Their present masters do not eat in the common mess hall in the Ritz. They dine de-lux in decent restaurants where good food, good wine, music, and really good obsequious service is obtainable.
There is much to be seen and analysed in Barcelona, and the attitude of its huge population towards the present conflict. One thing seems certain. No matter who wins in Spain there will be a stern Catalonian problem to be dealt with. This province (the richest) is determined to cut adrift, and the future will see interesting and sanguinary developments.
Off For the Frontier
Barcelona has been overrun by writers and Drawing Room Reds eager to get 'copy' at a safe distance from the firing line. But they are all within a short walk from the French, British and American Consulates, whose good services they are not loath to take advantage of when dropped by their sceptical Spanish 'comrades.'
Armed with additional papers, issued by the Catalonian Military Control, we set off for the frontier station of Port Bou, en route La Belle France. At the French frontier town of Cerberes the two French Legionnaires were allowed to enter France on producing cards of identity. The Hungarian and myself, minus these, must perforce return- and were escorted over the Pyrenees by relays of French Gendarmes, walking, climbing, and slipping all the way.
On sighting the Spanish frontier post they stopped and watched s safely negotiate the No-Man's Land between France and Spain. It was raining when we left Cerberes. As we had climbed the mountain goat tracks, the rain changed to sleet and finished in a blizzard of blinding snow.
My Hungarian friend was a nervous wreck. Luckily, I have a wonderful store of optimism and a tough constitution, besides, I have the most implicit faith in St. Anthony, who has protected me though a not unadventurous life.
Back in Barcelona, jaded and dispirited, I repaired to the British Consulate to obtain an emergency passport to prove nationality. The Consul General and his Staff (one of whom was a good Irishman) treated me with the utmost kindness and consideration. They begged of me to accept the hospitality of and a passage to Marseilles on a destroyer.
But I decided to leave Spain as an adventurer, not as a helpless refugee. I didn't like hauling down my flag as token of surrender to adversity.
A Dream That Was Shattered
I took the Pass and again set off for the mountains. Going through Figueras, in North Catalonia, I saw a small church picturesquely situated at the foot of a vine-covered hill. I looked at the building with a feeling of gladness that up her Hate had possibly stayed her hand and the Spanish people were as they were but a few short months ago.
My dream was soon shattered. The door opened, two men walked out, followed by a truck loaded with petrol drums. I was denied even one pleasant memory to dwell on.
Close to Port Bou the Chief of police gave me a mule and a guide wherewith to cross the mountains. I reached Perpignan in due course and later took the train to Paris.
It was like returning to a new life to mingle with well-dressed and courteous human beings. But it was in Paris itself I appreciated the change most of all, and realised the vast difference between Christian and non-Christian principles.
At the Irish Free State Legation I was welcomed with open arms. Art O'Brien, a courteous and worthy representative of Ireland, did all in his power to help a fellow soldier of the Anglo-Irish war days. There I met Commandant O'Byrne, and my passing through Paris will forever remain a pleasant memory.
In concluding these articles, I wish to state that the present Government of Madrid is 100% Red and violently opposed to the Catholic Church. Any Irishman preparing to fight for or defend vicariously this regime is defending the enemy of his faith. I learned these facts by bitter experience. If they will open the eyes of my misinformed or misguided countrymen, I shall have done a great service for Ireland.
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