A Square Peg in a Round Hole (Maybe?)

A Brief Account of Captain TF Smith XV Bandera (Irish Brigade) in the Spanish Civil War

This article is reprinted from the History Ireland with permission from the author.

A person of average intellect may have preconceived notions of an Ulster protestant who was prepared to lay down his life in rural Spain in an episode that was dubbed a “Catholic Crusade”. One can say with certainty that despite his rooted protestantism, Thomas Frederick Smith (my grandmothers brother) was indifferent about religion and spent little or no time thinking about it. His inbred Catholic prejudice muted during the Great War through witnessing then admiring the Irish soldiers sacrifice and bravery. A fireside favourite, was his story of an Irish soldier, galloping on horse at full speed past the trench where he rested in the middle of an artillery battle at night. “This brave and magnificent Irish fellow, had no care but his duty, he rode through heavy shelling, so intense that night was day, surely the most dramatic sight I will ever witness”.

Tom spent six months in Spain, four of those with an Irish Brigade in a brief and somewhat extraordinary encounter fighting the Spanish Nationalist cause. A square peg in a round hole some might say. Catholicism and the defense of their co-religionists was the mobilising factor for the majority of the Irish who volunteered to fight on the side of Franco, however such religious enthusiasm could certainly never explain his participation. I spent 5 years researching his life, totally intrigued with this episode. My objective was to understand his reason to volunteer and attempt to shed some light on the circumstances behind his seemingly abrupt departure, authored with ambiguity by other historians. There is also strong evidence to suggest through mutiny, Tom directly contributed to the Brigade's failure, albeit, with help from others.

By March 1936, Tom became Technical Director of Electra Company in Dublin, a thriving business specialising in audio visual cinematic equipment. A cinema in Middleton, County Cork installed the Electra sound system in July 1936 and it might be no coincidence that its proprietor Thomas Hyde was on the same boat journey to Spain. Hyde may have been influential in Tom's decision to enlist during the course of their business dealings though this is circumstantial. I did not surface other evidence that Tom was acquainted with others in the Irish Brigade prior to their departure. No evidence surfaced either, that Father John O’Doherty, a 26% stakeholder in the Electra Company and strong supporter of O'Duffy's Irish Brigade had directly influenced Tom’s decision to volunteer, though it can be speculated that events in Spain was a regular topic of conversation as Tom would eventually return from Spain with his job in tact. When I think about Tom’s motivation, he was not a Catholic crusader or a mercenary but he did have an aversion to communism. He spoke of them as “Reds” and “commies” always with an expression of antipathy. At the age of forty, Tom felt compelled to risk his life for this cause and left Dublin for Spain on 20 November 1936 with the advance guard of the Irish Brigade.

At their Caceres training base, Major Patrick Dalton (CO), formed the 750 Irish volunteers into 4 companies (A to D), and appointed Tom, Captain of “B” Company, a decision that must have raised a few eyebrows as other Irish Officers were ex-IRA and National Army veterans. In a book published in 1938 “In Francos Spain” the author writes “Captain Smith is an Ulster Protestant who, in the Great War, lost all his anti-Catholic prejudices and gained a great deal of experience in the matter of soldiering and of organizing. Although he was handicapped by his ignorance of Spanish, the Spaniards regarded him as the best officer O'Duffy had, and wanted to make him the commander of the Bandera”. This sentiment was repeated in his only mention in O'Duffy's biography. There is also evidence of his popularity with his own subordinates in the form of a silver inkwell I possess inscribed... “Presentation to Captain TF Smith, Officer Commanding B Coy, 15 Bandera Irish Brigade, EL TERICO from Officers and NCO's of B Coy, Caceres, Espaňa, 1937”.

Despite this obvious popularity, I struggled to find any significant mention of him in the hundreds of resources I researched. In 2010 however, I interviewed three reliable sources and learned when the Irish Brigade reached the front, an enemy armoured train with fixed guns constantly impeded Irish attempts to meet their objective. While officers agreed that alleviating this situation was priority they were split on how to deal with this nuisance. Tom, one of the few officers with extensive experience of trench warfare disagreed with the final proposal and an argument ensued. Company “C” had mined the track with minimal success, frustrating Tom and some of the other officers. Tom decided to take matters into his own hands and on 11th March 1937, in a heavy downpour of rain, Tom and one of his Lieutenants (O'Reilly with the pseudo name Nangle) took a small group to destroy the gauge on the armoured train and put it out of action, but had to abandon the mission. Tom left the Irish Brigade the following day, whether he was sent home or resigned his commission is still unclear, what is clear is that he did not leave Spain until the 10th May 1937, his daughter plausibly claiming that he joined the Spanish Foreign Legion. The Spanish high command refused O'Duffy's restructuring of the Irish Brigade and removed them from the front a week after Toms departure and subsequently sent them home. Major Dalton who was hospitalised a week before these events remained Toms good friend until he died in a south Dublin nursing home in1956. In 1940, at the age of 45, Tom joined the WW2 effort with Royal Ordnance Army Corps (ROAC) and when the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) were formed in 1942 he served out the remainder of the war with them in India and the middle-east. After the war, he remained in Dublin and became a Director in “Garnett and Keegans”, a renowned Gun and Fishing Tackle shop in Parliament Street.

About the Author: Stephen Myall (Belfast), living in Swords County Dublin. Researching my family's history since 2007. TF Smith, was my grandmothers brother