Major Frank Ryan

Adjutant of the 15th International Brigade, Spanish Republican Army.

Captured by Spanish Fascists in 1938 - sentenced to death. Died in Germany. Irish patriot and socialist. Some recollections of conversations with him during our internment at De Burgos Penitentiary and suggestions as to how he escaped and later died in Germany.

Tom Jones, North Wales, February 1975

I was a member of the Anglo-America Anti-tank Battery of the 15th International Brigade, and late in 1937 I was sent to Madrid to chasse up the repairs of one of our anti-tank guns which was at the artillery park. For some reason I went to the International Brigade office in Madrid and it was here that I met Frank Ryan for the first time. He was with a number of other people in the room, mostly journalists, one of whom was Ernest Hemmingway.

I had heard a lot about Frank as he was rather a legendary figure in the Brigade, but at that time I did not imagine that I would late spend 12 months with him in Franco's penitentiary.

The Anglo-America Anti-tank Battery was not always in the same immediate war sector as the British Battalion so that we only met the British Battalion occasionally but we did hear regularly as to what was happening to the leading personalities of the Battalion and Brigade Headquarters. I remember hearing that Frank had been back in Ireland on a recruiting campaign and that he had been instrumental in getting about 250 Irishmen to Spain.

Frank played a distinguished role in the International Brigade, being twice wounded achieving the rank of Major and becoming adjutant of the famous 15th Brigade. He was captured by Franco forces while leading his unit at Calaceite in June 1938. His capture caused consternation in the Brigade as he was a very popular leader. In the 'Volunteer fro Liberty' which was the newspaper of the International Brigades there was an article dated Nov. 8th 1937, together with pictures, describing a ceremony arranged by the Popular Front government in Madrid to honour the International Brigades. This was held on October 31st 1937 at the Calderon Theatre in Madrid. The mass gathering was presided over by General Miaja - chief of the army and defender of Madrid. On the platform was Frank Ryan - commander of the Irish fighters in Spain. There is a picture of Frank holding a banner inscribed "The Popular Front of Madrid is the People's Front of the World."

In September 1938, I was with a company of a machine-gun battalion of the 15th Army Corps in the big fierce battle the Ebro. Our unit was eventually surrounded and wiped out. I was the only survivor and I was badly wounded.

I was taken to the fascist military headquarters in Zaragosa and from there to a prison hospital in Bilbao. From there I was taken to the Zaragosa Prison and on January 2nd 1939 I was taken for trial before a military tribunal at Zaragosa and was sentenced to death.

I was not allowed to communicate with the outside world but I did manage to smuggle out some notes on cigarette papers in the hope that someone would let my family know that I was alive. One of these messages did get to my home and Welsh Labour MPs forced the Foreign Office to find me and to make representations to the Franco government. As a result of this, my death sentence was commuted to 30 years imprisonment in March 1938? 39? And I was transferred to the Penitentiary of Burgos.

When I arrived at Burgos prison, I found the conditions somewhat better than at Zaragosa. The relatively modern prison had been designed to accommodate 500-1,000 prisoners but when I got there it held 5,200 political prisoners of war. There were doctors, Basque catholic priests, lawyers, technicians and other workers, farmers, etc. 97% of the prisoners were serving terms of 30 years imprisonment. 600 prisoners were under the death penalty and were eliminated by firing squads or garrotted before Christmas 1939. The ages of the prisoners ranged from 18 to 70 years and all were men. All prisoners had to attend Mass in the large exercise yard and machine guns covered the congregation the whole of the time.

It was at Burgos prison that I met Frank Ryan. Aa I mentioned earlier, he had been captured in March 1938 and we were both very pleased to meet one another. Both Celts in a foreign jail.

Frank Ryan in Burgos jail, 2nd from left in the front row.

We became very attached to one another, more like brothers than friends, in the prison. As he had already made contact with his family and friends and with the Irish Ambassador in Madrid, he was in receipt of money and food parcels which he shared with me and others, especially the Basques. Had I not received help from Frank, especially food, I would have become like thousands of Spanish prisoners, a physical wreck from TB and skin disease.

Frank told me a great deal about himself, his family and his own career and political background. How his ideals had developed towards socialism and his association with the British Battalion had undoubtedly given him a different view of English working people. He was extremely angry when the IRA started their campaign of bombings in England in 1939.

He classified them as irresponsible political lunatics who were doing the maximum damage to the Irish Republic and to the future unity of the whole of Ireland. He claimed they would alienate British public opinion against all Irish people (and he was so angry that he requested me to pass on tow or three names to the representative of the British Embassy who came to the prison to see me. One of the people he blamed for most of the bombings apparently operated from New York but I cannot now remember the names he gave me.) [Later note by Tom Jones - please do not publish those parts in the round brackets.]

Frank believed that the whole of Ireland would eventually re-unite, not so much by force of arms but through British and world public opinion and by agreement with the Protestant people of Northern Ireland. He felt that the old IRA of which he was a member, had done the main work of establishing the Free State and the Republic of Ireland.

The prison guards had a lot of respect for Frank. They used to tell him of the tremendous amount of mail which arrived at the prison all the time, numbers of letters and petitions demanding his release, also the parcels and food which arrived for him but he was only allowed the letters and parcels from his immediate family or from the Eire Embassy.

I remember on one occasion, Frank had been called to the Governors office and returned quite tipsy. It appears some bottles of whiskey had been brought to the prison for Frank and the Governor liked it very much. Frank was not allowed to bring it in to the cell so the Governor opened the bottle and shared it with Frank in his room.

At one time we had a very bad senior Catholic priest who came to take Mass on Sundays. His sermons were full of hatred towards the Republican prisoners and he accused us all of being murdered and rapers of nuns and other women. All prisoners had to attend Mass (even Welsh Non-Conformists like me!) and we had to stand to attention during the proceedings. All the prison guards were armed and there were soldiers with machine-guns on the roofs of the buildings around the parade ground.

One Sunday this senior priest delivered a very provocative sermon slandering all the prisoners to such an extent that they all started shouting in protest. A very tense situation developed and all the guards drew their guns. The machine gunners prepared their guns to fire on us. The shouting died down but the priest was extremely angry. He ordered the prison governor to pick out 200 men from the congregation and have them, beaten, [and] then put on half rations in solitary confinement for two months. This order was carried out, and Frank and I were appalled at the condition of those poor creatures at the end of their punishment. They were like ghostly zombies.

In the meantime Frank and I had been scheming how we could get rid of the senior priest from the prison. Frank did go to confess to an Irish priest who came specially for the purpose from Madrid. We decided that Frank should report the prison priest to the Irish priest and to the Eire Ambassador and that I should confirm his statement. Frank arranged for me to have an interview with both men and I confirmed everything he had said about the senior prison priest. Evidence against the priest was conveyed to the Papal Annuncio in Madrid and within a month we had a new senior priest who was a good human being. We heard that even the prison staff heaved a sigh of relief when the change occurred.

Frank told me that during his trial by Franco's men, when he received the death sentence, most of the evidence against him was about his activities in Ireland as a member of the IRA and that one of O'Duffy's officers gave evidence against him. He claimed that the pro-Franco extreme Irish right-wing elements were very keen to destroy him and wanted to prevent his return to Ireland.

Frank was under the death penalty for 16 moths when it was commuted to 30 years imprisonment when this was done [one word unreadable.] Franco instructed the military governor of Burgos to see to it that Ryan should complete his sentence.

Frank told me that some titled Spanish of Irish descent made representations to Franco and members of the government to get him released. He names the Duchess of Tetuan as one of them and he told me she had been to the prison to see him. The reason for this was that Frank had been able to help the Duchess and her family to flee from Madrid to France in the early days of the war and they had settled eventually in Franco's side of Spain. He said the Duchess had worked really hard on his behalf but without success.

The Irish Ambassador came to see Frank quite often at the prison and he told him that he and the Irish government were doing everything possible to get him released. Frank wanted to believe that his government were doing all they could but as time went on I felt that his faith was waning and that he had to find other means to get out of prison.

He began to talk of escape and he asked me if I would join in with a few trusted Spaniards to prepare a plan. We tried out a number of ideas but each had to be abandoned in turn because of impossible difficulties. In one plan we found that the sewers were riddled by thick iron bars and that fumes and gases would get us out very quickly even if some of us were able to enter the sewers to [one line missing.]

Frank spent a lot of time helping Spaniards to earn English and they were helping him to learn Spanish. Suddenly, about 3 months before I left, he started to learn German. He did not explain the reason for this but I remember this happened after he had been to see the Irish priest, but I did not place any significance on this at the time but in view of the fact that he eventually got to Germany, I now wonder whether the idea had been suggested by his friends in Spain.

When the Hitler-Stalin pact was made in 1939 Frank became very upset and talked about it for days. He was strongly of the opinion that Russia was going fascist and that this was the reason for the deal. Of course, it must be remembered that we only had the kind of news which the Franco Government cared to dispense. There were all kinds of rumours as to what was happening outside and these spread like wild-fire in the prison so that it was very difficult to assess the international situation. I told Frank that I could now see how the pact meant that Russia was turning fascist any more than that Germany was turning communist. This line of argument seemed to give him a measure of satisfaction.

Frank complained very often about the state of his health such as pains in the chest, rheumatism, etc. and applied to see the prison doctor very often. He was able to get some dried fruit and occasionally some fish. The prison diet was only just enough to keep one alive so that diseases like TB and skin rashes were very common. Lice were a big problem. All the time and we only had 400cm of space on a concrete floor at night so that disease and lice spread quickly,

When I informed Frank that I was to be released, he was extremely glad for me but he became quite depressed. On the 20th March 1940, I left Burgos prison en route for Britain. It was a very sad day in many ways as I had made friends with many Spaniards and other nationalities but it was leaving Frank Ryan behind that hurt most. My instincts told me that most of the prisoners would not see families again and I felt Frank was one of them.

A few days before I left he asked me to visit his family in Dublin to convey to them his love but not to mention his state of health. Most important of all his requests was that I should contact the IRA in Dublin with the following message: "That if he was not released from Prison and allowed to leave Spain within 6 months that the IRA should blow up every Spanish Embassy in the Western World." I was naturally very surprised and taken aback. I asked him if he thought the IRA would do this for him even if it were a practical operation. He was quite confident they would and that it was within their capacity to do the job. He proceeded to write two or three names of people I should contact in Dublin on cigarette paper and this we pushed in the sleeve lining of my coat.

I was also to approach his Catholic friends in Dublin for them to put the maximum pressure on the Italian Ambassador in Dublin for him to use his influence via the Italian government on Franco to release him. Also, that the avenues of the Catholic Church would be used to that end. Frank was desperately anxious to get out of prison like all the other prisoners, but more so because of his state of health and possibly a feeling that the normal channels for getting his release were not operating in his favour.

Tears were rolling down his cheeks when I said goodbye and smiles and tears were not [two unreadable words] at the Burgos Penitentiary. My last words to Frank Ryan [were] that I would convey all his messages and carry out his wishes.

When I got to Britain, I was inundated with letters, telephone calls and enquiries from Ireland, America and from all over Britain, concerning Frank Ryan, and also an impossible number of requests to address meetings organised by Frank Ryan Release Committees and other organisations.

A 1940s demonstration in London for his release.

As the Second World War was on, I found it was not easy to get to Dublin and I had to apply to the Foreign Office for a Travel permit card. I also had to get good references in order to get the permit. The Labour MP for the Wrexham Division, the late Robert Richards, who was also war time Regional Comptroller for North Wales, along with a Wrexham solicitor, the late Carol O Jones [??], gave me the maximum support to get the travel permit to Eire. Without such support I would not have succeeded.

On May 3rd 1940, I sailed from Holyhead to Dublin but before I embarked I was cross-examined by Immigration Officials as to the purpose of my journey. Naturally I could only say I was going to see Frank Ryan's aged parents.

I had a great reception in Dublin and stayed for a few days with Frank's parents. They were naturally delighted to have first hand information about their son and they were a grand couple.

Arrangements were made for me to contact the IRA secretly; and I was conducted blind-folded to somewhere in Dublin. I entered the building which appeared to be part of an office block and I was taken to a large room which could have been a solicitor's office. There were three or four well dressed people in the room who gave me a warm welcome and made me feel at home. I conveyed Frank Ryan's message to them They cross-examined me thoroughly as to my own identity and background and then asked how I came to know Frank in the first place and as to his situation in the prison, etc. They appeared to believe that I was who I said I was and that I was conveying a genuine request from Frank Ryan. They told me they would do everything possible to get his release and would do all he requested if it were necessary. As I left them I felt as if they would do everything in their power to get Frank out of Spain.

It appears from letters I received in 1940, that Frank was moved from the part of the prison where I left him and he was put in a room in the prison where there were only four others. Then on July 15th 1940 he was moved to the prison at Santander and I understood that on July 20th he escaped from that prison and made his way to Portugal. Later Gerard O'Reilly, New York Secretary of the Irish-American Committee for the Release of Frank Ryan, received a cablegram direct from Frank in Portugal on November 28th 1940 and O'Reilly heard from another person who spoke to Frank on November 26th 1940 in Portugal.

In a letter dated January 8th 1941, Gerard O'Reilly stated that he was expecting a letter from Frank the following week and that he would be sending him a foreign draft and was making the arrangements for his welfare.

After this batch of letters nothing more was heard in a definite way about Frank Ryan. There were plenty of rumours without substance.

In my opinion, Frank could not have escaped from Franco's prison without the knowledge of the fascist authorities in Spain. No doubt, the pressures which were being put on Franco by all the organisations which were demanding Ryan's release were enormous and very embarrassing to the fascist authorities. Why did they make it easier for him to escape by transferring him to Santander? Why did Frank have to go to Germany and not to his own country? Was his escape arranged in such a way that he no choice but to go to Germany?

I knew that his greatest wish was to return to his beloved Ireland and only intimidation would have persuaded him to go to Germany. Some people in Dublin must have the true facts? What did the people who forced Frank to go to Germany hope to gain? Did they think he could be used in Hitler's propaganda machine against Britain? What a hope!!

It is now known that the Germans did try to get Frank to broadcast in favour of Germany bit that he constantly refused. It is also now known that he was allowed to live with a middle class family in Germany and that he died some time later, I do not know when. I have seen a picture of his grave in East Germany.

Frank Ryan's grave marker in East Germany, 1966.

Frank Ryan's grave marker in East Germany, 1966.

Frank Ryan was a great Irish patriot and a socialist. He was a brave man, highly cultured and his honour, integrity and kindness were of the highest level. He was a born leader of men.

The Eire government should arrange for Frank Ryan's body to be brought from East Germany and it should be re-interred in Dublin with a hero's funeral. This is the only way to repay the debt and the wrong done to him.

Tom Jones.

Bob Doyle laying a wreath at Ryans grave in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. This was in Oct.2005 at the IBMT annual general meeting.

Bob Doyle laying a wreath at Ryans grave in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. This was in Oct.2005 at the IBMT annual general meeting.


There are several other articles about Ryan on this site, among them a number of reviews of the Fearghal McGarry biography by Manus O'Riordan and Robert Stradling. There is also the oration given by Manus at Ryans Graveside in October 2005 as part of the IBMT Annual General Meeting.