The Other Volunteers

By Judith Keene Author, "Fighting for Franco"

Carried on the BBC website, 27th Sept. 2006

Stories of young men drawn to Spain to fight Franco have been told countless times. But Wednesday marks the 60th anniversary of a call to arms for the lesser-known fascist volunteers - including many from the British Isles.

The liberation of Toledo's Alcazar on 27 September 1936 is one of the most symbolic occasions in the early days of the Spanish Civil War.

After two months of being holed up in the Roman fortress, withstanding the onslaught of Republican artillery, the 1,000 followers of fascist leader General Franco were freed by their own side.

The siege of the Alcazar became an iconic event in the mythology of Nationalist Spain, galvanizing Franco's supporters outside the country.

The exploits of ideological young volunteers - George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway, among them - who flocked to Spain to fight for the Republican cause are often celebrated today. But the story of their counterparts on the other side, foreigners drawn to fight for the fascists, is little known.

They numbered about 1,000. Never warmly welcomed by Franco, they included:

  • French fascists for whom the Spanish Republic was an extension of the hated Popular Front in Paris
  • White Russians hoping Spain could restage and win the civil war against the Bolsheviks
  • A handful of Britons
  • 700 Irish fascists.

Alongside them fought a single Australian, sundry Germans and Americans, several Poles and assorted individuals from the Baltic states.

Like their counterparts in the International Brigades, the volunteers for Franco saw Spain as the place where they might strike the first blow in the larger wars they were committed to prosecuting.

For them, Franco's Nationalists were ranged on the side of Catholic religion and traditional values that were under challenge from left-wing democracy, secularism and communism.

There had been a tradition of Spanish aristocratic families sending their sons to be educated in English Catholic public schools. When the civil war in Spain began, several groups who shared associations that dated from their English schooldays created Friends of National Spain, composed of British Catholics and Spanish Anglophones.

They lobbied the British government on behalf of General Franco and raised money for the Nationalist cause within England. They also helped volunteers who wanted to join up with Franco travel to Spain.

As well as some prominent Spanish expats, English lobbyists who were active for Franco included the historian Sir Charles Petrie, the Conservative MP Victor Cazalet, and the editor of the Catholic English Review, Douglas Jerrold.

Sense of adventure

All did what they could to promote Franco's cause, such as hiring the plane in England that flew the general to North Africa at the start of the war.

Prominent among the British volunteers was Peter Kemp. A young man, just down from Cambridge with a degree in classics and law, he believed in monarchism and values that were, as he describes them in his autobiography, on the "far-right of Cambridge Toryism".

Kemp was also drawn to Spain by the strong possibility of adventure. A Protestant, Kemp was badgered constantly by his Spanish comrades about whether he was a Freemason - Franco's supporters having been taught that Protestantism and Freemasonry went hand in hand, though in Kemp's case they did not.

He became a lieutenant in the Spanish Foreign Legion and by the end of the war was repatriated to England, seriously injured.

A Welshman, Frank Thomas, in search of adventure but struggling without Spanish support, made his way by train to Burgos and then to Talavera de la Reina where he enlisted with two Englishmen in the Spanish Foreign Legion. Badly wounded several months into combat, he was sent to convalesce in a hospital in Caceres.

There, Thomas managed to convince the Irish volunteers bivouacked in the town while waiting to leave Spain to smuggle him back to England.

Rowdy bunch

The largest group of foreign volunteers in Nationalist Spain were the 700 men in the Irish Brigade. Eventually, they became the 15th Bandera in the Spanish Foreign Legion, although led by their own Irish officers.

Eoin O'Duffy, one of the founders of the right-wing Irish Blue shirts, was in command. With the English sympathisers, the Irish came to fight for Franco to defend the shared "faith of their fathers".

The young Irish volunteers came predominantly from rural areas, with a strong contingent from west Belfast; O'Duffy himself an Ulsterman. Although O'Duffy was showered with honours when he first came to Spain, the Irish Brigade enjoyed a chequered experience on the Iberian Peninsula.

After arrival in Spain in November 1936, they remained in camp in Caceres until February 1937. There were cultural differences and hiccups in liaison between Irish officers and Spanish adjutants and interpreters.

The Irish found Spanish food unpalatable and never acquired the abstemious Spanish habit of drinking, but not imbibing so much to induce inebriation. The Irish were seen as rowdy and uncontrollable.

In their turn, as O'Duffy recalls in his autobiography, when the locals in Caceres put on a bull fight to entertain their visitors, the Irish cheered for the bull, in their estimation, "the best sport on the field".

Friendly fire

Although robust and eager for the front, their first engagement was dispiriting. On the way to the front they were fired upon by their own side - a newly-arrived fascist battalion from the Canary Islands mistook the Irish Brigade for pro-Republican Irish International Brigadiers.

On reaching their designated place at the front, the poor military leadership of the Irish was telling. Under heavy bombardment, the unit was dispersed and routed. Subsequently, a good number of the Irish Brigade voted to return to Ireland. Those who remained were incorporated into the Spanish Foreign Legion under Spanish command.

In general, the foreigners who crossed into Nationalist Spain to support General Franco knew little about Spanish politics. They came to fight what they saw as an international war.

In the end, General Franco defeated the Republican government though the European Right. His supporters outside Spain, in turn, were defeated in the much larger battle that came hard on the heels of Spain in World War II.

Judith Keene is director of the European Studies Centre at the University of Sydney in Australia, and author of Fighting For Franco: International Volunteers in Nationalist Spain during the Spanish Civil War.
More articles on the pro-Franco Irish forces are available here.