A King’s Ransom for a Welsh Miner

Tom Jones (centre)

Welsh miner Tom Jones survived a death sentence to be repatriated from Franco’s Spain after the UK government paid a massive ransom.

Jones, from Rhosllanerchrugog, Denbighshire, travelled to Spain in 1937 to fight for the International Brigades. He was wounded during the fierce battle on the River Ebro, in July 1938, and captured by Franco’s troops.

At one point he was sentenced to death, but this was subsequently changed to thirty years’ imprisonment – although his family was sent his death certificate.

Most of the International Brigaders returned to their home countries in December 1938, but Jones remained a prisoner in Spain when the Second World War broke out.

Then, in 1940, after the UK Government paid a £2m ransom – a colossal sum at the time – to Franco’s fascist regime, Jones was released.

On his return from Spain he became active in the Transport and General Workers’ Union. He died in 1990.

Next week Jones, who had worked in Hafod, Vauxhall and Bersham collieries before the war, will be honoured at the National Eisteddfod in Wrexham.

A specially-commissioned exhibition panel featuring Jones, also known as Twm Sbaen, and his extraordinary story is to be unveiled at the Cymru-Cuba stand on the Eisteddfod field on Thursday August 4, at 3.30pm.

It is hoped that a permanent location for the exhibition will be found in the area after the Eisteddfod finishes.

* Look out for ITV Wales’ special programme from the Eisteddfod which is due to be broadcast at 8pm on Friday, August 5.

Defying the Government to fight in Spain

A Bullet Saved My Life

Seventy-five years ago this month a group of military officers led a coup in Spain.

But when the cities of Madrid and Barcelona held firm, the failed coup d’etat became a bloody civil war which would last from 1936 until 1939.

The far-right governments of Germany and Italy supported the right wing rebels of General Franco, but the Spanish government had foreign support too.

Thousands of volunteers went to Spain to fight as part of the International Brigades.

This week, the National Archives released newly-discovered documents which revealed that many more people from Britain and Ireland volunteered than was previously thought.

The volunteers defied the British government’s official policy of non-intervention in the war. In doing so, they came to the attention of the British Security Service, MI5.

The National Archives’ documents show that MI5 was tracking the movements of around 4,000 people it believed were trying to travel to Spain to fight with the International Brigades.

It was previously thought that there were around 2,500 British volunteers.

This was believed to have included around 180 people from Wales – more than 30 of whom would die on Spanish battlefields.

This week the Western Mail asked whether that figure might now be revised upwards.

Among the volunteers listed in the 200 pages of MI5 files is “Robert Peters”, of Penarth, who was to return home on December 7, 1938.

On their return the men were monitored by the security services and, at first, were banned from joining the British armed forces.

That changed soon after as Hitler’s Blitzkrieg swept through Western Europe.

  • Bob Peters’ story is told in the book ‘A Bullet Saved My Life’. The book is priced £10 including p&p and is available by emailing greg_lewis@hotmail.co.uk

A Bullet Saved My Life

I have a small number of copies of the Spanish Civil War book ‘A Bullet Saved My Life’ available for sale.

The book, which was a Morning Star book of the week when it came out in 2006, tells the story of Welshman Bob Peters and his adventures in getting to and fighting in the war.
Bob became politically active while working as a deckhand in Canada and underook an arduous journey to fight in Spain.
While working as a runner for an International Brigade commander, he was shot in the back but recovered to work as a dispatch rider.
The book features more than 30 black and white photographs and copies of civil war documents, a foreword by Rhodri Morgan and a preface by Welsh International Brigader Alun Menai Williams.

“A book that is also full of small insights into the absurdities of war” Publishersdiary.com

Robert Capa’s Suitcase

Rhondda-born Alun Menai Williams had two remarkable photographs in his collection.
One was a sad reminder of a friend, Billy Davies, who served in the Spanish Civil War, and was killed a few days after the snap was taken.
The other was a source of immense pride. It showed Alun marching to the front, the flag of the British Battalion in his hands.
And it was taken by perhaps the most famous photographer of the 20th Century, Robert Capa.
Alun died three years ago but his inquisitive mind would have been fascinated by the recent discovery of previously unseen Capa negatives.
It is believed that Capa handed the negatives to someone for safe-keeping as he fled France at the outbreak of World War 2.
They have now been unearthed in Mexico.
According to the New York Times they were in an old suitcase – and were virtually untouched for 70 years.
In all, there are around 4,300 negatives taken by Capa, his lover and fellow photographer Gerda Taro, who was killed in Spain, and David Seymour.
However, the discovery does not solve the mystery of Capa’s world famous “Falling Soldier” photograph which appears to show a Spanish Republican militiaman reeling backward in the instant a bullet kills him.
A negative of that photograph has never been found.
All the same, Brian Wallis, chief curator of the US-based International Center of Photography, said: “We consider this one of the most important discoveries of photographic work of the 20th century.”

Spanish tribute to Welsh sea captain

A Welshman, who helped rescue more than 2,600 refugees from Spain during the civil war, was this week honoured by the people of Alicante.
Archibald Dickson, captain of the merchant steam ship Stanbrook, risked his life to enter the port as the civil war drew to a close.
On Sunday, his son and daughter, Arnold Dickson and Dorothy Richardson, joined an estimated crowd of 1,000 to hear tributes to their father.
The crowd – which also included survivors from the evacuation – was told that Republicans from all over Spain had converged on the port on March 28, 1939 in an attempt to escape the country as Franco’s troops advanced to victory.
Between 15,000 and 18,000 men, women and children gathered, desperate to flee Spain.
But Archibald Dickson was one of only a few skippers prepared to take their vessel into the port.
The Welsh captain filled his ship and ferried the refugees to Oran in North Africa.
Manus O’Riordan, son of Irish brigader Michael O’Riordan, said 1,000 people gathered in the rain last Sunday on the pier from which the Stanbrook left “to pay particular tribute to the memory of Captain Dickson”.
“For some of the survivors and their children this was a commemoration which, at times, was filled with unbearably raw emotion, culminating in a mass floral tribute to the sea, in remembrance of the dead,” he stated.
Archibald Dickson and his crew were all killed only eight months later when the 1,300-tonne Stanbrook was hit by a torpedo from a German U-Boat off Belgium.

Turning memorial into political football

The ‘Wise and Foolish Dreamers’ project which works with relatives of International Brigaders has been looking into the possibility of a new memorial to complement the one already in place in Cathays Park.
Some relatives have raised the possibility of a memorial in Cardiff either naming those IB-ers who died or all those who went to Spain.
At the moment there is a general plaque in Cathays Park and a list of names on a memorial in South Wales Miners Library in Swansea.
Quite separately, Leanne Wood AM has suggested a plaque be put somewhere in the vicinity of the Senedd. This is something the project thought was a pretty good idea, worthy of further discussion.
As a group, we hope to not only remember people who gave their lives but also to encourage modern-day discussions about tolerance, war and peace.
Leanne Wood was looking for AMs’ support for the memorial.
This is usually the kind of subject explored intelligently and sensitively…
…and then, as you may have seen in the Western Mail, Leighton Andrews got involved.

Who’s asking silly questions?

Governments like to tell us how well the country’s doing.
Our future prime minister, Mr Brown, has been particularly adept at it.
But bare, hypothetical economics often disguises real hardships.
For instance, while luxury goods such as clothes in fashionable high street shops, DVDs and electrical goods continue to fall in price, food and energy costs rise.
This means the elderly and vulnerable suffer most, with inflation on essentials running three times as high as the national figure.
It is not exactly what we would expect after 10 years of a Labour Government.

However, politicians don’t see any concerns about cash when it comes to spending between £25bn and £70bn on the new range of intercontinental ballistic missiles to replace Trident.
There was, it was mooted last year, going to be a consultation on the decision but it’s most likely you’ll have missed it.
And when the crunch comes, the Blair babes and blokes – jaded though they now might be– will stand in line and wave it through.
Not surprising then that a sense of helplessness overtook protesters at Faslane in Scotland earlier this month when a number were arrested for blockading the weapons base.
Among those carted off were Jill Evans MEP and AM Leanne Wood. The demo featured elected members from Westminster, Scottish, Welsh, Dutch and European parliaments, and local councils.
In lieu of real and meaningful consultation this is what it naturally comes to: protest.
There is, after all, a cowardly aspect to the way many politicians fail to recognize any alternative to the Trident replacement. They live in fear of a public they believe will turn on a government which supposedly leaves it defenceless.
This is at the heart of the nuclear obsession.
And so we will take on some system designed to destroy the centres of Prague, St Petersburg and Bucharest – work now done at weekends by stag and hen parties.
We will also be told that Britain must remain strong – when true strength would be to lead the way in disarmament, not to puff out our chests, beef up our muscles further, and act again like the agitator rather than the peacemaker.
Rhondda MP Chris Bryant was among the first to slag off Evans and Wood for their protest.
“I think trying to get yourself arrested is childish politics,” he said. “They should be representing their constituents. I think it’s a shame they have got their priorities all wrong.”
Childish politics? I’d love to know what Bryant sees as grown-up issues…
Four years ago this week, for instance, while working on Wales On Sunday, I posed the following question to all Welsh MPs: “Would you support British forces taking part in a war on Iraq without the backing of the United Nations?”
As we know the backing never came; the war did.
Almost all MPs responded with few sitting on the fence.
Ann Clwyd, Cynon Valley, whose response to Saddam’s execution featured here last time, was according to her assistant “not making herself available to answer that question.”
And Chris Bryant? Well, his response was priceless.
“I don’t do surveys,” he said pompously. “I don’t answer silly questions.”
Childish politics? Silly questions?
He’s the one who is not taking the real issues seriously.

Bob Peters learnt his politics from conviction.
Growing up in the 1920s, he couldn’t find work in his hometown, Penarth.
With his mother struggling to make ends meet – she was alone with nine kids – the Salvation Army stepped in to train him for a trade. Aged 16, he sailed for Canada.
There, as a deckhand on the cargo ships of the Great Lakes, he worked hard for union recognition, a battle that sparked a political fire inside him.
Within a short time he was in Spain, fighting against General Franco’s Hitler-backed forces.
I knew Bob for a short time before he died last week, aged 92. We worked together on a book.
Its title, ‘A Bullet Saved My Life’, alluded to an incident in Spain when Bob was shot in the back: the wound took him away from a unit which went on to suffer terrible losses.
But Bob was more than a war veteran. He was humble and kind. A gentleman.

:::from The Big Issue Cymru, January 22

Bob Peters

WALES’ last veteran of the Spanish Civil War has died.
Bob Peters, was the last surviving member of a brave generation of Welsh men, who volunteered to fight fascism in Spain in the 1930s.
He died on Monday, aged 92, after a brave battle with cancer.
Today First Minister Rhodri Morgan paid tribute to Mr Peters, saying Wales could “take pride in his memory”.
Mr Peters was born in Archer Terrace, Penarth, in 1914 and was the youngest of nine children.
He left Wales to find work in Canada when he was just 16 and was working as a deckhand when he learned about the war in Spain.
He volunteered to fight for the democratically-elected government against the military uprising led by General Franco and supported by Hitler. The volunteers were called the International Brigades and around 150 went from Wales.
However, in July 1937, he was badly wounded and transferred from the frontline. As casualties were so high in his former unit, Bob says if he had stayed on the battlefield he would have been killed.
For 70 years he kept quiet about his time in Spain. All that changed when in 2006 his remarkable story was recorded in a book called ‘A Bullet Saved My Life’ published by Warren and Pell.
“Maybe we were naive, I don’t know,” said Bob. “We thought we could help and that’s why we went.”We never considered we might be killed. Not until we got there.”
When Mr Peters was shot, medics could not at first remove the bullet as it was too near his spine.
However, he recovered to become a motorcycle despatch rider, taking messages to the frontline. While riding on rough roads the bullet moved and it was cut out. In October 1938, the International Brigades were withdrawn. Although the war was lost they were treated like heroes.
During the Second World War Mr Peters served in the British army in Sicily, Italy and Yugoslavia. He later settled in Kent where he worked as a fork-lift driver.
His wife Frances died in 1990 and Rodney, the eldest of their four sons, died last year.
First Minister Rhodri Morgan said: “Bob’s death is almost the closing page of the history of Wales and the Spanish Civil War – one of the great ideological dividing lines of the 1930s; his was a life charted not only by unemployment, hunger and the other necessities that guide working people everywhere but also by his commitment to fight for his socialist principles.
“We all take pride in his memory and pay our respects for his contribution, and send our strongest sympathies to his family.”

Brief details: A Bullet Saved My Life

A Bullet Saved My Life tells the remarkable story of Bob Peters, one of the last surviving veterans of the Spanish Civil War.
Penarth-born Bob left Wales to go to Canada during the Depression. He found work on the Great Lakes and also became interested in politics.
Early in 1937 he sailed from New York to France and was smuggled into Spain where he joined the International Brigades.
He went into battle against Franco’s armies at Brunete and was shot in the back while crawling through a trench.
The bullet was too near his spine to be removed.
Bob was transferred from the frontline to work as a motorcycle dispatch rider.
Incredibly, the bullet moved with the jarring impact of the rough roads and doctors could eventually cut it out.
As casualties were so high in his former unit, Bob says that if he had stayed on the battlefield he would have been killed.
The book features more than thirty photographs and fascinating reproductions of Bob’s membership, pay and safe passage documents relating to not only the International Brigades but the Socorro Rojo Internacional and the anarchist CNT union.
It features a foreword by First Minister of Wales Rhodri Morgan and a preface by the late Alun Menai Williams, another International Brigader.
The book is available from http://www.warrenandpellpublishing.co.uk/ and from Amazon.
: Further reading Western Mail & Western Telegraph

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