James Maley - Spanish Civil War veteran

Written by Jim Jump, published: in the Independent18 April 2007

James Maley, labourer and political activist: born Glasgow 19 February 1908; married 1949 Anne Watt (four sons, five daughters); died Glasgow 9 April 2007.

James Maley was captured during the Battle of Jarama in February 1937 when the Spanish Republic rebuffed a ferocious attempt to encircle Madrid which had been launched by General Francisco Franco's rebel army.

As a volunteer in the International Brigades, Maley expected to be executed immediately. Indeed, Franco issued a proclamation soon afterwards saying that any foreigners captured under arms would be shot. The edict was not carried out in the case of the captured Britons thanks to a stiff note sent by HM Government which, despite its distaste for the International Brigaders, reminded Franco of his obligations under the Geneva Convention. In addition, Benito Mussolini put pressure on Franco to use the prisoners to negotiate exchanges for Italian soldiers being held by the Republicans.

Maley and the other prisoners were later paraded before newsreel cameras. Franco also decided to stage a show trial. A military court in Salamanca in May 1937 found the men guilty of "aiding a military rebellion" - they had, of course, been fighting on the side of a democratically elected government and against a Fascist-backed military uprising - and Maley was sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment.

News of the capture had not reached Maley's mother in Scotland, who feared the worst for her son's fate. However, footage of the captive Britons was screened in cinemas around the country as part of a British Movietone News broadcast. By chance, she was among those who watched it and was so relieved to see that, contrary to expectations, her son was alive that she asked the projectionist in a cinema in Paisley to cut out two frames of the newsreel.

She kept the pictures as a memento until his return home soon after the trial as part of a prisoner exchange involving the British prisoners and a similar number of the Italian troops sent by Mussolini to assist Franco's rebellion.

Maley, from the Calton district of Glasgow, was one of 500 volunteers from Scotland (out of a total of 2,300 from the British Isles) who enlisted with the International Brigades to defend the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War. He arrived in Spain in December 1936, five months after the start of the war, and joined the newly formed British Battalion. The Battle of Jarama saw the battalion in action for the first time. It suffered horrendous losses as it resisted Franco's attempt to cut the main road from Madrid to Valencia. Out of the 500 who advanced towards enemy positions on 12 February 1937 near Morata de Tajuña, 125 were killed and a similar number injured. Maley was one of the 30 members of the machine-gun company who were captured.

The British volunteers, who had received only basic training beforehand, faced Franco's crack troops: the foreign legionnaires and Moors of the Army of Africa which Nazi German transport planes had ferried from Spanish Morocco to the mainland. Maley, who had served in the British Territorial Army in the early 1930s, later recalled the confusion of the battalion's advance while Spanish Republican units were in retreat:

After 200 yards going forward, the retreat was coming back and going down past us and we were going through. There were soldiers running past us and we were going up. And there were soldiers of the British Battalion dropping as we were going up. Without firing a shot they were getting killed.

In fact Maley nearly avoided capture after his machine-gun company found themselves stranded in no-man's land on what was named by the surviving volunteers as "Suicide Hill". They hid among the olive groves for two days before finally being taken prisoner by the Fascists. They were initially mistaken for Russians. "Somebody shouted, 'Inglés?' " Maley recalled. "If it hadn't been for that we would have been shot one at a time."

The story of Maley's capture and the strange way that the family found out that he was still alive inspired a play written by two of his sons, John and Willy, entitled From the Calton to Catalonia. It was first performed in December 1990 in the Lithgow Theatre, Glasgow.

One of a family of six, Maley left school to help his mother, Anne Sherlock, a hawker, wheel her barrow around Glasgow. In 1929, following the death of his father, he emigrated to Cleveland, Ohio, where he worked briefly in a car factory, but returned to Scotland the next year, homesick and disillusioned by American attitudes to immigrants. In 1932, aged 24, he joined the Communist Party and became a familiar public speaker at Glasgow Green and Govan denouncing the rise of Fascism in Europe and the inequalities and social injustice which the economic slump had exacerbated in Britain.

After his repatriation from Spain, Maley gave in to his mother's pleading for him not to return to the International Brigades and face certain death if he were recaptured. He continued to speak on public platforms, campaigning for an end to the British government's non-intervention and its refusal to sell arms to the Spanish Republic until its eventual defeat in 1939.

In 1941 he enlisted with the King's Own Scottish Borderers, then the Highland Light Infantry, serving in Burma and India. After the Second World War, he worked in Maryhill Barracks as a telephone operator until demob in 1947. He was then employed for the next 12 years laying tracks for British Railways and afterwards as a building labourer for Glasgow Corporation. Astonishingly for a father of nine, he remained politically active as a lifelong Communist, trade unionist and tenants' association campaigner.

Maley was an avid fan of Glasgow Celtic and two 30ft-long banners were unfurled in his honour at Hampden Park on Saturday during the cup-tie against St Johnstone. Quoting the slogan used by the defenders of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, "They shall not pass," the banners said: "James Maley RIP. No pasarán".

Jim Jump

2 other obituaries are available.
The first from the The Mirror, April 12, 2007, by Ron Moore
and the second from the The Scotsman, April 16, 2007, by Jim Gilchrist