When I met Will on the battlefield

Jim Prendergast, Railway Review, 13th December 1968.

In this article National Union of Railwaymen member Jim Prendergast tells of the time he encountered Will Paynter, who has just retired as general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers.

It was in Spain that I really got to know Will Paynter, although I had previously met him in 1934 in Moscow only to find him gloomily contemplating the snowbound houses and streets in that particularly hard Russian winter.

“Bloody snow, man, just look at it,” he muttered and it did not surprise me to learn that, staunch friend as he has always been of the Soviet Union, he had suddenly returned to his beloved Welsh valleys.

Recovering from wounds, and already a ‘veteran’ of three fronts, I had arrived hack in Albacete, once a sleepy provincial Spanish town, but now a vibrant headquarters of the International Brigade. I made my way to XVth Brigade Headquarters and was quite amazed to learn that Will was there and had been appointed Base Political Commissar of the Brigade, an appointment, I might add, that he clearly did not relish.

I also remembered thinking, “Why the hell did they let such a valuable Trade Union leader take such chances?” When I got to know Will better I knew that wild horses could not divert him from the course he had determined.

I must have made a very bad job of trying to conceal my youthful blushes as he explained to me that the Brigade had set up a crash course for potential officers at nearby Pozo Rubio and that they were having difficulty in persuading some of the ‘veterans’ to take it, although he very shrewdly reminded me that Jack Nalty and Paddy Duff (two of my heroes!) had agreed to take a previous course. I swear to God that I took the course only because of Will’s persuasiveness.

A terrible row blew up on my return. I had found out that someone to whom I had taken an aversion was in charge, for the moment, of the British and Irish units, and I had accepted an offer of a commission in the Mackenzie-Papineau (Canadian) Battalion. In the presence of Will Paynter the towering Frank Ryan soundly berated me.

How dare I even dream of deserting my Irish and British colleagues? Frank continued roaring, quite illogically, alternatively threatening me with a court-martial or writing to my father and mother in Dublin to tell them what a big-head I had become. Since I was not the least intimidated by Frank’s dire threats, knowing that he really loved us all, I just felt an overwhelming sense of shame, and I guessed that I must have shown signs of becoming tearful. Frank rushed me from Will’s presence, mainly I think to cover up his own emotion, and having plied me with enormous meat and salad rolls, Spanish beer and Lucky Strike, dispatched me back to Will Paynter ‘to apologize.’

Will made it clear that he needed no apology, and that, furthermore, he accepted that I had the right to go where I liked. At the end of my talk with Will I was firmly convinced that my place was with the British and Irish lads where I had started.

A few days later Frank Ryan again astonished me. He verbally instructed me to remain at Albacete where I was to await three other Irish lads and we were to return to Ireland! Having imparted this amazing information, Frank made a hurried but emotional farewell and boarded a Madrid bound camion [a large truck designed to carry heavy loads; usually without sides]. I went in search of Will to seek confirmation of this whirlwind order only to find that he, too, had suddenly and mysteriously departed for Madrid.

On my return to Barracks HQ I found a letter awaiting me. Inside it was addressed to all officers and non-coms of the International Brigade instructing them to immediately proceed to a military centre outside Madrid for ‘battle orders’. Much as I loved and respected Frank I felt it was safer to obey the written instruction, and I set out on the long hitch-hiking journey.

I arrived at the reporting point to learn that a great Republican offensive, known as the July Brunete Offensive, had already begun, the objective of which was to raise the Fascist siege west of Madrid. For the participants on both sides this was a truly terrible battle when one realises that in the box or salient driven into the enemy ranks by the Republicans, a mere ten miles long by twelve miles wide, some 35,000 lives were lost.

Attempting to catch up with the Brigade, I had an awesome sight of the battle from the heights of Guadarrama. The only battle I can recall to compare was Tobruk. Through the carnage of close artillery, tank and aviation fire I eventually caught up with Frank Ryan, at that moment attached to 13th Brigade HQ. His face went as red as a beetroot when he beheld me, and I got the usual stormy ritual of abuse for having disobeyed his orders – it all seemed so bloody silly in that great bowl of destruction and sudden death, and eventually Frank reverted to his usual kindly self.

For several days I remained with Frank, whose duties kept him just in the wake of the gruelling advance. Along the road from Villanueva to Brunete we came across rows and rows of bodies, many with their names pinned on slips of paper.

Many of them were British lads. I remember one, who had been a Labour Councillor at home, clutching, of all things, a dead rabbit. Frank told me that Will Paynter was in the very front position with the lads.

The next day Frank took me over to the 15th Brigade HQ located in a huge pantechnicon. George Aitkin, the Brigade Commissar, was seated on an upturned box, banging grimly away at a typewriter; from time to time the pantechnicon shuddered as bombs dropped nearby. Frank told George to give me a safe conduct back to Albacete, explaining his reasons.

After much grumbling George gave me the precious slip of paper with the Brigade stamp. Again the emotional farewell, and shortly afterwards I found myself alone on a raised road trying in vain to flag down the madly speeding vehicles and in a veritable criss-cross of shellfire. At last a quaint box-like little ambulance car slowed down and stopped and, of all people, out jumped Will Paynter!

He was covered with grime and dust. At that moment I think he was hardly conscious of my presence. On the road he started arguing with his fellow passenger, a British chap, whose name I cannot remember now. It became horribly clear to me from the argument that just a few miles up the road that men were going through a veritable inferno so bad that some had even committed suicide. The British chap was telling Will that his job was to take him back to the base HQ and that instructions should be carried out.

Will wanted to return, fiercely arguing that he had just seen Wally Tapsell trudging back to the front with a machine gun over his shoulder and that was what we should all do now.

At that moment he seemed to become aware of my presence, and turning his back on the other chap he asked me outright if I was prepared to come back with him. I cannot honestly sat that I felt very brave at that moment but I did say to him that I would go back to the front if he agreed to continue his journey to Albacete where he had work to do. Will looked at me for a moment then suddenly said: “Let’s all get in the bloody box,” which we did and continued, on what was to be the most hair-raising journey of my life, back to the base town.

I did some more useful business with Will Paynter before I finally left Spain, and our paths have crossed not too frequently in the long interval since.