Eoin O'Duffy, centre, commander of the Irish volunteers
Stories of young men drawn to Spain to fight Franco have been told countless times. But Wednesday marks the 70th anniversary of a call to arms for the lesser-known fascist volunteers - including many from the British Isles.
By Judith Keene
Author, Fighting for Franco
The liberation of Toledo's Alcazar on 27 September 1936 is one of the most symbolic occasions in the early days of the Spanish Civil War.
After two months of being holed up in the Roman fortress, withstanding the onslaught of Republican artillery, the 1,000 followers of fascist leader General Franco were freed by their own side.
The siege of the Alcazar became an iconic event in the mythology of Nationalist Spain, galvanizing Franco's supporters outside the country.
The exploits of ideological young volunteers - George Orwell and Laurie Lee, among them - who flocked to Spain to fight for the Republican cause are often celebrated today. But the story of their counterparts on the other side, foreigners drawn to fight for the fascists, is little known.
The siege galvanized support for General Franco
They numbered about 1,000. Never warmly welcomed by Franco, they included:
• French fascists for whom the Spanish Republic was an extension of the hated Popular Front in Paris
• White Russians hoping Spain could restage and win the civil war against the Bolsheviks
• a handful of Britons
• 700 Irish fascists.
Alongside them fought a single Australian, sundry Germans and Americans, several Poles and assorted individuals from the Baltic states.
Like their counterparts in the International Brigades, the volunteers for Franco saw Spain as the place where they might strike the first blow in the larger wars they were committed to prosecuting.
For them, Franco's Nationalists were ranged on the side of Catholic religion and traditional values that were under challenge from left-wing democracy, secularism and communism.
There had been a tradition of Spanish aristocratic families sending their sons to be educated in English Catholic public schools. When the civil war in Spain began, several groups who shared associations that dated from their English schooldays created Friends of National Spain, composed of British Catholics and Spanish Anglophones.
International fascist volunteers numbered about 1,000
They lobbied the British government on behalf of General Franco and raised money for the Nationalist cause within England. They also helped volunteers who wanted to join up with Franco travel to Spain.
As well as some prominent Spanish expats, English lobbyists who were active for Franco included the historian Sir Charles Petrie, the Conservative MP Victor Cazalet, and the editor of the Catholic English Review, Douglas Jerrold.
Sense of adventure
All did what they could to promote Franco's cause, such as hiring the plane in England that flew the general to North Africa at the start of the war.
Prominent among the British volunteers was Peter Kemp. A young man, just down from Cambridge with a degree in classics and law, he believed in monarchism and values that were, as he describes them in his autobiography, on the "far-right of Cambridge Toryism".
General Franco defeated the Republican government
Kemp was also drawn to Spain by the strong possibility of adventure. A Protestant, Kemp was badgered constantly by his Spanish comrades about whether he was a Freemason - Franco's supporters having been taught that Protestantism and Freemasonry went hand in hand, though in Kemp's case they did not.
He became a lieutenant in the Spanish Foreign Legion and by the end of the war was repatriated to England, seriously injured.
A Welshman, Frank Thomas, in search of adventure but struggling without Spanish support, made his way by train to Burgos and then to Talavera de la Reina where he enlisted with two Englishmen in the Spanish Foreign Legion. Badly wounded several months into combat, he was sent to convalesce in a hospital in Caceres.
There, Thomas managed to convince the Irish volunteers bivouacked in the town while waiting to leave Spain to smuggle him back to England.
The largest group of foreign volunteers in Nationalist Spain were the 700 men in the Irish Brigade. Eventually, they became the 15th Bandera in the Spanish Foreign Legion, although led by their own Irish officers.
Eoin O'Duffy, one of the founders of the right-wing Irish Blue shirts, was in command. With the English sympathisers, the Irish came to fight for Franco to defend the shared "faith of their fathers".
The young Irish volunteers came predominantly from rural areas, with a strong contingent from west Belfast; O'Duffy himself an Ulsterman. Although O'Duffy was showered with honours when he first came to Spain, the Irish Brigade enjoyed a chequered experience on the Iberian Peninsula.
Franco's troops entering Bilbao
After arrival in Spain in November 1936, they remained in camp in Caceres until February 1937. There were cultural differences and hiccups in liaison between Irish officers and Spanish adjutants and interpreters.
The Irish found Spanish food unpalatable and never acquired the abstemious Spanish habit of drinking, but not imbibing so much to induce inebriation. The Irish were seen as rowdy and uncontrollable.
In their turn, as O'Duffy recalls in his autobiography, when the locals in Caceres put on a bull fight to entertain their visitors, the Irish cheered for the bull, in their estimation, "the best sport on the field".
Although robust and eager for the front, their first engagement was dispiriting. On the way to the front they were fired upon by their own side - a newly-arrived fascist battalion from the Canary Islands mistook the Irish Brigade for pro-Republican Irish International Brigadiers.
On reaching their designated place at the front, the poor military leadership of the Irish was telling. Under heavy bombardment, the unit was dispersed and routed. Subsequently, a good number of the Irish Brigade voted to return to Ireland. Those who remained were incorporated into the Spanish Foreign Legion under Spanish command.
Alcazar siege became iconic event
In general, the foreigners who crossed into Nationalist Spain to support General Franco knew little about Spanish politics. They came to fight what they saw as an international war.
In the end, General Franco defeated the Republican government though the European Right. His supporters outside Spain, in turn, were defeated in the much larger battle that came hard on the heels of Spain in World War II.
Judith Keene is director of the European Studies Centre at the University of Sydney in Australia, and author of Fighting For Franco: International Volunteer in Nationalist Spain during the Spanish Civil War.
I feel proud for my nationality, not for the reasons these people went to Spain to fight for Franco, but because no greeks fought for him. To the contrary, I even know poor villagers from the islands of Samos taking the long trip to fight for progress and freedom alongside the democrats in Barcelona
Dimitris , Athens, Greece
Very interesting and a good opportunity for the author to say something more about the crimes commited in Spain by those "helpers" of traditional fanaticism.
By the way, the Toledo's Alcazar (castle) wa not "Roman". It was built up for the emperor Charles the Vth in the XVIth century, upon what was left from and older medieval castle.
Amando Hurtado, Madrid
While it obviously makes sense, given the times, I had never heard of or even considered that there would have also been foreign volunteers on the Fascist side of the Spanish Civil War. I wonder what became of most of these volunteers during WW2 and of the Blue Shirts especially.
Stan Flouride, San Francisco, USA
It is quite wrong to call all the pro-Nationalist foreign volunteers "Fascists". Many were, certainly, but others (such as Peter Kemp) would fight with distinction against the Fascists during the Second World War. To say that all who supported the Nationalists were Fascists is as inaccurate as to say that all Republican supporters were Communists.
Alan Fisk, London, England
Very nice to see your photo of Franco troops entering Bilbao. This was on 19 June 1937 and I was a child living in Bilbao where I was born.
The street is La Ribera, with Teatro Arriaga on the left and El Arenal at the bottom.(Here I went with my mother the day after to queue for bread.) That morning we came out from the shelter where we had spent many days of the war and I vividly remember passing thrugh the Brigada de Navarra troops in Plaza de Bilbao la Vieja near San Antón bridge that had been blown out two nights before.Soldiers were shouting "Todos a sus casas"
(everybody to his home), obviously to have full control of the streets, because the republican forces had just left the city.
IGNACIO DE BARBARA, VITORIA SPAIN
I find this aspect of the Spanish Civil War interesting, as no historian before has looked into the subject. I disagree with the Facists and found Franco to be too brutal and his allies, Germany and Italy, too willing to try out their new war machines in Spain in preparation for WWII. Overall I still would rather read about George Orwell, Ernest Hemmingway and Norman Bethune, since they stood up for the internationally recognized government of Spain, the Repubican Government.
Sean Henderson, St. Catharines, Canada
"In their turn, as O'Duffy recalls in his autobiography, when the locals in Caceres put on a bull fight to entertain their visitors, the Irish cheered for the bull, in their estimation, "the best sport on the field"."
As anyone who's been to Spain knows, you're SUPPOSED to cheer the bull, hence the traditional cheer of "Toro!" ("Bull!") not "Torreodor!" ("Man in silky sequin pants!")
Chris, Charleston, SC, USA
You left out the Americans who served in the Condor Legion. Most volunteers for Franco were probably anti-communist, not pro-fascist.
George Dalton, North Riverside, Illinois USA
The article does not mention a small group of young Romanian members of the Iron Guard, led by a Romanian army general. Two of them, well known in their home country, died in an assault on Majadahonda. Their bodies were brought back to Bucharest , Romania, where they were given a quasi-national funeral, despite the fact that the king and government were at odds with the Iron Guard. In the 1970s, a monument was errected on the field of the battle to commemorate them that still stands today.
The same as the young men who fought for the Communist side were not necessarily communists and the young men who fought for the Fascists were not necessarily fascists.
The majority of them were fighting against an idealogy or totalitarian state that they did not agree with..
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