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

Hope Not Hate Day

Three major events are being planned this month to commemorate those who fell in the battle against fascism in the last century.
Searchlight Cymru’s Wales Hope not Hate day on Sunday, May 17, will also highlight what the organisation describes as the “continuing threat of fascism in Wales in 2009”.
“This threat, although commonly perceived as being just against black and minority ethnic people, is actually a threat against us all,” said Searchlight Cymru.
“Everyone is threatened by the British National Party and everyone can work together to remove that threat.
“This special day will give supporters as well as Euro election campaigner’s space to come together and outline to the people of Wales just why the BNP and what it stands for is a threat to people like me and you.”
In Flint, Swansea and Cardiff, from 10.30am, simultaneous events will feature readings at the Cenotaph of 100 names of those who fell in World War 2 against fascism, a laying of wreaths and two minute’s silence.
Cardiff will also hold a similar event at the Spanish Civil War International Brigades Memorial at Cathays Park from 11.40am.

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.