Northern people who fought
John Hunter, New Hibernia, Vol. 3 No 7, July August 1986For Belfastman Paddy McAllister the road to Spain and the International Brigades was a roundabout one. Born in the Lower Falls area in 1909, he emigrated to Canada in the late twenties and worked at a variety of jobs until laid off during the depression of the early thirties.
Active in Spanish solidarity work after the outbreak of the war, by 1937 he decided to volunteer for the newly formed Canadian contingent fighting with the Brigades. This unit was named the MacKenzie - Papineau Battalion, in memory of two leaders of the 1836 Canadian revolt against the British. In 1937 the Canadian Prime Minister William MacKenzie King was a grandson of William MacKenzie, the rebel leader of the previous century. Ironically, however, he was the man who introduced the law which made it a criminal offence to volunteer for the MacKenzie - Papineau unit. Like Britain and Ireland, the Canadian Government had decided on a non-intervention policy on the Spanish issue.
But despite the law, towards the end of the year Paddy McAllister and a group of other Canadian volunteers, mostly from the trade union movement, left for Europe, shipping out of Vancouver. They arrived in Europe, linked up with others on a similar mission and then crossed France by train to Perpignan. There they waited to cross the Pyrenees into Spain, like to many other foreign volunteers before them. Recruits for the Brigades were led across the French border on remote mountain tracks by sympathetic guides, who were mostly professional smugglers.
The Canadians were sent to an International brigades base at Figueras, an ancient fortress already crammed with men of a dozen nationalities who were training hard for action. Assigned to the MacKenzie-Papineau replacement unit, McAllister was trained in weaponry and field craft by several instructors.
Jackie Powers from Waterford was the Political Commissar, in charge of the men's political outlook and general welfare, while another training officer was Paddy O'Sullivan, a former Free State soldier who was later killed in the Sierra Pandols. It was an exciting time, Paddy recalls, and most of the men were impatient for action against the Fascists. They were not to wait long.
By early 1938, encourage by recent successes, the Franco forces were preparing for a major offensive on the Aragon front. On March 9th, with massive air and ground support from Italian Fascist and German Nazi contingents, the Nationalists attacked and quickly broke though Republican lines. After fierce fighting at Belchite, the 15th and 11th International Brigades fell back to make a stand at Caspera, then broke again and found themselves cut off near the town of Gandesa. There many of them were slaughtered while others - including Frank Ryan - were captured, while those more fortunate managed to break through the lines and cross the Ebro river to safety.
Paddy McAllister and the new recruits for the 15th Brigade had been moved out of their base hastily when the March offensive started. He remembers the confusion of the time. No one seemed to know where they were heading for or even where the front line was.
"We were driven backwards and forwards across the country in lorries a lot," he says. "We didn't know why."
The reinforcements, like the front line troops were badly armed, mostly with ancient Tsarist rifles dating from Tsarist days. Some were stamped with the Russian Imperial eagle, overprinted with the Soviet hammer and sickle. Paddy McAllister remembers that they over-heated quickly after a short time firing. Machine guns included pre World War 1 Maxims and more recent Dikterovs. In contrast, on the Fascist side, the Italian 'Black Arrow' Division on the ground and the German 'Condor Legion' in the air had the most modern equipment, used to deadly effect.
Paddy McAllister survived his first experiences of being under fire in Spain unscathed, although his sergeant was shot in the head on the first day. After various skirmishes, the Canadian contingent dug in along the banks of the Ebro, where the Brigades were regrouped, with increasing numbers of Spanish troops joining up to replace the missing Internationals.
By July 1938, the republican Army was ready to mount a counter-offensive across the river. Along with the rest of the 15th Brigade, the Canadian Mac-Paps crossed the Ebro in a flotilla of small boats, meeting little resistance at first and taking large numbers of prisoners. But the advancing Republicans were bombed relentlessly by Franco's German air support and five men in McAllister's group were killed near him by one shell. Among them, he recalls, was Jackie Patterson from Belfast's Newtownards Road, who had also been active in the unemployed action committees in Canada. During the summer offensive McAllister met several other Belfastmen serving with the American Lincoln Battalion and the British contingent. Among them was Jim Straney, from Ballymacarettt, who had only recently arrived from Ireland. Straney was killed in action shortly afterwards.
Causalities on both sides were appalling, and the dead lay in hundreds, swollen and smelling in the heat. But despite the courage shown by the Internationals in the attack, the Republican advance was gradually being checked right along the line. In desperation the Republican commander, General Enrique 'Lister' issued an order that no retreat was to be made. Officers who lost ground, he said, were to retake it with their men. In the end, however, retreat was inevitable and a disorganised rout followed. Paddy McAllister and several others were trapped by fascist troops in a remote mountain gully. As they tried to escape, several were shot dead, McAllister himself was hit three times but managed to get away. Until he reached safety and hospital behind republican lines two days later, one of the bullets was ticking from his arm.
As he lay in hospital in the autumn of 1938, Paddy McAllister read the news that the Republican Government had decided to withdraw the International Brigades. In November, at a final rally of the Brigades, the veteran Communist leader Dolores Ibarrai - La Pasionaria - said farewell to the foreign survivors of the closing battles of the Spanish War.
"You can go proudly," she said. "You are history, you are legend, you are the heroic examples of democracy's solidarity ad universality. We shall not forget you, and when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves again, mingled with the laurels of the Spanish Republic's victory…come back!"
Still recovering from his wound, Paddy McAllister stepped off the Liverpool boat in Belfast on Christmas Eve, 1938. He has never been back to Spain since then.
"But I often see it," he smiles. "In my dreams and my nightmares."
Another article by Matt Doolan, a Bandera member.