By Richard Baxell

Clapton Press. 407 pages. £16.99. ISBN 978-1-913693-33-6

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Richard Baxell wrote Unlikely Warriors: The British in the Spanish Civil War and the Struggle Against Fascism (Aarum Press, 2012), described by Paul Preston as “the definitive work on the British volunteers”. Numerous names  were mentioned in it, but as a general history encompassing the stories of up to 2,500 participants, it out of necessity could only sketch in brief references to their backgrounds and other relevant details. In Forged in Spain he takes a closer look at a number of individuals who, for one reason or another, were involved in events in Spain between 1936 and 1939. Not all of them fought for the Republic. Peter Kemp joined General Franco’s forces and served as an officer with the Spanish Foreign Legion, a notoriously hardbitten unit. But the others in Baxell’s book were fiercely anti-Fascist and mostly fought with the Communist-organised International Brigades. An exception was Stafford Cottman, who was alongside George Orwell in the anti-Stalinist POUM (the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unity) militia.

Cottman, born in 1918, was a member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), a left-wing group with ties to the POUM. Baxell says about forty ILP members went to Spain to fight with the POUM. Before going to Spain Cottman had been a member of the Guild of Youth, the ILP’s junior wing but later moved to the Young Communist League (YCL) which seemed more dynamic and determined to practically oppose fascism. He never joined the Communist Party. Cottman was eighteen when he arrived in Spain in January 1937 and, after being kitted out with a make-shift uniform, he was given a “German Mauser rifle, not a bad gun in itself, but rendered almost useless by its age, having been constructed at the end of the previous century”. Two weeks basic training followed and he was then posted to a POUM unit occupying a position “overlooking the road between Huesca and Zaragosa”. As Baxell points out, the POUM were said to be Trotskyists by the Communist Party and were therefore never the recipients of arms and ammunition from Russia. Both were in short supply, hence Cottman being issued with the old Mauser rifle.

The British ILP volunteers saw only a limited amount of action in Spain, and it soon became evident that they were likely to be arrested as, in May 1937, fighting broke out between Republican Government troops and anarchist and POUM supporters in Barcelona. In June the POUM was officially banned. Cottman and Orwell had to make a quick exit into France. A detailed account of their adventures is in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, of course, so I’m only mentioning them here. Back in Britain Cottman worked for the Aid Spain movement, and when Britain went to war in 1939 he originally registered as a conscientious objector on political grounds, feeling that “the war was a capitalist enterprise and that the working class should stay out of it”.  In 1940, however, he joined the RAF, trained as a rear-gunner, and took part in several bombing raids over Germany. He was “permanently invalided out of  flight crew and retrained as an airfield controller” because of a burst ear drum. After the war Cottman worked for BOAC and was based in air traffic control at Heathrow. He joined the Labour Party and became involved in trade union activities. Baxell says that he “remained an ardent socialist and a passionate anti-capitalist, eschewing unnecessary consumption”. He died in 1999. It’s worth noting that Cottman had been consulted by Ken Loach during the making of Land and Freedom, his film about the Spanish Civil War.   

On the other side of the fence, or rather the firing line, was Peter Kemp, a man who might well be described as “larger than life”. Born in 1915 in Bombay he was the son of Sir Norman Kemp, a one-time High Court judge in the Indian Colonial Service. Kemp was educated at the private Wellington College where he met Giles and Esmond Romilly, who both fought with the Spanish Republican forces. Unlike them, Kemp was a dedicated anti-communist and when the war started he decided to enlist in Franco’s army, initially as a member of a Carlist regiment. Later, he transferred to the Spanish Foreign Legion, reputedly “the toughest unit in the Spanish army” with “a well-founded reputation for brutality as much as for military prowess and fearless bravery”. Like the International Brigades on the Republican side they were used as “shock troops”. Kemp was wounded while serving with the Spanish Foreign Legion.

When the war ended he returned to England and, though rejected for military service because of his wounds, eventually found his way into the Special Operations Executive (SOE) which had been formed to carry out clandestine excursions into enemy-held territory. In due course he would be parachuted into Albania, Poland, and Thailand. I’m summarising Kemp’s adventures and it’s well worth reading Baxell’s more complete account of them. On his return to civilian life Kemp “took up selling insurance for Canadian Imperial life Insurance”, employment in which he seems to have been quite successful, though it must have been a curious contrast to his wartime activities. But he clearly couldn’t settle down. In 1956 he was in Budapest, in 1961 in the Belgian Congo. Other trips, working as a reporter, took him to Vietnam and to Nicaragua. Baxell quotes from a report by a fellow-journalist who referred to encountering Kemp in the rain forests of Central America and described him as “a tall, stooped Englishman, now entering his seventies, wearing a well-tailored safari suit, with a shoulder bag full of essential kit, such as maps, a pipe and tobacco, a bottle or two of beer, and a paperback copy of Right Ho, Jeeves”. There’s no doubt that Kemp still saw communism as the key threat, and he sought out anti-communists wherever he was. He died in 1993.

I’ve spent a little time with two contrasting individuals, each doing what they thought was right in the circumstances, and the rest of Baxell’s subjects tend to be more closely aligned with the International Brigades and the British Communist Party.  Malcolm Dunbar and Peter Kerrigan were, in Baxell’s words, representative of “the two wings of the British Communist Movement in the 1930s : one, middle-class, university educated and a member of the London aesthetic set; the other a tough working-class engineer and Trade Unionist from Glasgow”.

Malcolm Dunbar, born in 1912, was the son of Sir Loraine and Lady Dunbar. He was educated at Repton in Derbyshire, moving to Christ’s College, Cambridge in 1930 to read history and economics. Others in Cambridge at that time, included David Haden-Guest, Julian Bell and John Cornford, all of them later in Spain with the International Brigades. When he left Cambridge in 1933 Dunbar made a living in London as a journalist and photographer, “working with a number of leading dance companies, such as Ballet Rambert”.  He went to Spain in January, 1937, and joined the International Brigades. By February he was in action at the Jarama River, where the British Battalion suffered particularly high casualties. Dunbar was wounded. When he returned to the Battalion he was quickly promoted and became commander of the British anti-tank battery.

There’s no doubt that Dunbar was highly respected for his military skills and personal courage, but Baxell states that he wasn’t liked as a person : “The sensitive, highbrow and intensely private Dunbar seems to have felt uncomfortable in other people’s company”. There have been suggestions that he was homosexual, which would have been something to hide. And his aloofness and privileged background set him apart from the largely working-class rank-and-file in the British Battalion. But, as already noted, he was admired for his competence as an officer and for his bravery. He was wounded more than once. Bill Alexander, the leading British Communist commissar, described him refusing to be evacuated even when he received “about fifteen fragments in his face, chest and legs.... he keeps calmly puffing on his cigarette while his wounds are dressed”.

When the International Brigades were withdrawn from Spain, Dunbar worked for the Daily Worker and in 1940 he was drafted into the Royal Artillery as a private. He never rose above the rank of sergeant in the British Army, despite his record in Spain and the fact that he was awarded the Military Medal for his “cool calculating courage in the face of the enemy” during the Normandy campaign. When he was discharged in January 1946 he worked for the Labour Research Department, but by 1949 he was moving away from the Communist Party. Baxell says he had “apparently become a drinker and a hypochondriac and was unhappy to the point of depression”. In 1963 a body was washed up on a beach at Milford-on-Sea, near Bournemouth. It was identified as that of Malcolm Dunbar. The formal verdict was suicide, but a friend of Dunbar wasn’t convinced that it was and asked someone she knew who worked in military intelligence to make some enquiries. He did, and advised her to “drop it” and refused to discuss the matter any further. It was known that Dunbar had talked to Kim Philby just prior to the latter’s defection to Russia.  

Peter Kerrigan the tough, working-class Glaswegian that Baxell referred to, was born in 1899 into a family with strong trade union links, and was conscripted for military service towards the end of the First World War. He was posted to Egypt but did not experience any fighting, other than in the boxing ring where he became the regimental champion. When he returned to Glasgow he continued to box locally as “Kid Kerrigan” and worked as an apprentice turner. He joined the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and, after losing his job in an economic downturn, he became a member of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. In 1922 he joined the Communist Party. Kerrigan made what Baxell says was “the first of many trips to Russia” in 1924. He married Rose Klasko, an equally devoted communist, in 1926. He rose quickly in both the Communist Party and the Amalgamated Engineering Union. And in 1929 he was sent by the Party for “a special course of Marxist-Leninist training” in Moscow. It was there that he met Stalin and he was to remain a Stalinist all his life.

Kerrigan arrived in Spain in December, 1936, and his standing in the British Communist Party ensured that he was quickly promoted to Political Commissar for all the British-speaking volunteers at the International Brigades base in Albacete. Kerrigan later claimed that commissars were welcomed by most Brigaders but Baxell isn’t sure and adds that they were often referred to as “comic stars” and full of “pious rhetoric”. When Kerrigan returned to Spain after a short visit to Britain, it was as the correspondent for the Daily Worker, a role which took him to the front lines, enabling him to see what the situation was really like     and “the pitiful  condition of the British volunteers”, many of them without proper footwear and with their clothing in shreds.  

Kerrigan was denied the opportunity to join the British Army in 1940 due to his activities as a leading light in the Communist Party. And he was precluded from certain jobs as a security risk. There may have been substance to suspicions about his activities. Baxell points out that in 1943 Kerrigan met with a member of a Soviet Trade Delegation and passed on “secret information and photographs relating to British shipbuilding”. Another veteran of Spain named Kerrigan as a Soviet agent. No action was taken against him and he continued in his role as Industrial Organiser for the Party. The 1950s and 1960s saw trade unions as particularly powerful and influential, so Kerrigan was in a good position to influence events. However, he was in the spotlight for the wrong reason when, in 1959, there were allegations of vote-rigging by communists during an election for leadership of the Electrical Trade Union (ETU). Kerrigan died in 1977. According to Baxell, some people thought that he was “sectarian, inflexible and ruthless, a typical Communist Party apparatchik.....a hardcore Stalinist”.  Baxell says that “he never made any secret of his loyalty to the USSR and his great admiration  of Stalin, despite the purges and regime of murderous terror”.  

In devoting space to just four of Baxell’s chosen subjects I’ve not wanted to play down the interest aroused by others in his book. Alexander Foote after Spain really did work for the Russians, though mainly against the Germans, operating a radio transmitter from Switzerland. Clive Branson was a talented painter and poet. He survived his time in Spain, though some of it was in a Nationalist prison, but was killed in  action in 1944 while with the British Army in Burma. Alex Tudor-Hart was a surgeon, performing miracles under difficult circumstances. He often operated by torch-light. Leah Manning looked after Basque children evacuated to England following the attack on Guernica. Sam Lesser was in Spain early, before the British Battalion was formed, and along with some others like Ralph Fox and John Cornford was “placed in the French Commune de Paris Battalion of the Eleventh International Brigade”. Wounded, he went back to London, but returned to Spain to report for the Daily Worker. Finally, there were the Haldanes, who, in Baxell’s words, were “the one case of an entire family volunteering to go to Spain: they were the journalist, writer and feminist Charlotte Haldane, her teenage son Ronnie, and her (second) husband, the distinguished geneticist and scientist, Professor JBS Haldane”. Ronnie, as a member of the International Brigades, came through the war in Spain, and in 1940 was commissioned into the British Army. He was a Second Lieutenant in the Wiltshire Regiment and was wounded during the battle for Caen in 1944.

Richard Baxell clearly devoted a lot of care to researching the lives of the people covered by his book. There are over sixty pages of notes. It’s not a reflection on the value of Forged in Spain to say that it obviously deals with those who, for one reason or another, left some kind of record of their activities, not only of their experiences in Spain but also of what they did before and after the war. I would guess that it might be difficult to track down details  of many of the 2,500 or so British volunteers who supported the Republican side. Most were working-class and, if they survived (500 or so didn’t), never got around to writing accounts of who they were, why they went to Spain, and what happened there. From that point of view they were like the rank-and-file in any army, and in any war, whose voices are rarely heard. But the point to remember is that they believed in something and thought they could make a difference by opposing fascism in Spain. We can easily debate about whether or not they were misguided in putting their faith in communism, and perhaps even duped by Stalinist knavery, but we need to see them in the context of the 1930s to understand their actions at the time. Forged in Spain helps us do that.