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.

Recycling history

The International Olympic Committee awarded Germany the 1936 Games before Hitler came to power.
But once German Chancellor, he seized the Olympics as a powerful propaganda tool.
Governments, including those of the United States and the UK, rejected calls for a boycott, even though Jewish athletes had been removed from Germany’s Olympic and Davis Cup teams.
However, international opposition to the Berlin games was great and it is a little known fact that ‘counter-Olympics’ were planned in a number of places.
The biggest of these was to be in Spain. History has forgotten it, not least because the proposed People’s Olympiad never took place.
In the summer of 1936 Spain saw the rise of its own branch of fascism. General Franco moved to seize power and the Spanish Civil War began.
The People’s Olympiad had to be cancelled.
Seven decades on, though, and with another Olympics underway, the spirit of the event is being recalled.
Members of the National Clarion Cycling Club had been expected to take part in the alternative Olympiad in Spain.
After it was cancelled – and with the war in full swing – two decided to undertake an amazing ride from Glasgow to Barcelona to raise money for the Spanish Republic (two other club members were to be killed in the civil war).
That was in 1938. On Wednesday, July 30, 2008, a group of 14 riders left Scotland to begin a 20-day ride on the cyclists’ 70-year-old trail.
They are due to arrive in Barcelona on Tuesday, August 19.
Anna Martí and publisher Alan Warren, who have done so much to keep alive the memory of Welsh veterans of the Spanish Civil War, are on the team.
Maite de Paul Otxotorena, who was born in Spain’s Basque country but now lives near Ammanford, is there in support and has organised the Spanish leg of the route.
Maite says the event ties together not only the 1936 Olympics and those currently being held in Beijing (which have been controversial in their own way too) but also Barcelona’s Games in 1992.
“I was a child in Franco’s military Spain when our memory of our history had been lost,” she says. “Events like the 1992 Olympics and the Expo put an international focus on Spain. People started to research our history.
“But as I have been contacting the mayors and the cycling clubs in the places we will be travelling through no one has heard of the other Olympics planned for 1936.
“Events like this are part of the end of our amnesia.”
I spoke to Anna Martí before the ride as she took a break in her training for the 2,000km journey.
“I have been told to take plenty of clothes for Scotland,” she told me. “But when we get to Spain we come through an area which is like a desert.
“It will be like cycling towards the centre of the Earth.”
:: First published in The Big Issue Cymru, July 28, 2008

The Wise and Foolish Dreamers: Wales and the Spanish Civil War exhibition is now on display at the Welsh Centre for International Affairs, Temple of Peace, in Cardiff.
The centre’s links to the Welsh involvement in the Spanish Civil War go back to the 1980s when it began to manage a special fund donated by Welsh veterans of the International Brigade.
The money was to be used to maintain links between young people in Wales and Spain.
Wise and Foolish Dreamers is the biggest project so far carried out with the help of the fund, and it is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
It includes a touring exhibition, a DVD, and a book, which pupils from three schools had a hand in helping to design and produce.
The project was launched in May 2007. This exhibition, which consists of 6 large panels and a short film, has already been displayed at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea, Ammanford Library, the National Eisteddfod in Flintshire, Rhondda Heritage Park, Trehafod and Pyle Life Centre in Bridgend.
It is at the Temple of Peace until February 12, where there will also be a major conference on February 9-10. Speakers will include Professor Paul Preston.

Ebro Memorial

Vandals defaced a plaque in honour of the International Brigade volunteers who were killed nearly 70 years ago in the Battle of the Ebro.
But on Saturday, November 10, a new plaque will be placed in memory of the dead of one of the Spanish Civil War’s bitterest battles.
The memorial is set at the top of a hill near Gandesa, overlooking the battlefield in north-eastern Spain.
The original plaque – which was inaugurated in May 2005 – was stolen earlier this year when symbols and slogans of the Spanish fascist party, the Falange, were daubed in its place.
The memorial is on Hill 705, near the village of Pinell de Bray in southern Catalonia. The site in the Sierra de Pandols mountain range was the scene of fierce fighting between the British Battalion of the International Brigades and General Franco’s rebel army from July to September 1938.
Franco was backed by German and Italian troops and aircraft sent by Hitler and Mussolini to crush the Spanish Republic.
The cost of the new plaque is being met by the local council of Pinell de Bray.
The Welshmen remembered on the plaque are: Alec Cummings (Cardiff); Harry Dobson (Rhondda); Willie Durston (Aberaman); Sid James (Treherbert); Dai Jones (Mardy); Tom Howell Jones (Aberdare); Alwyn Skinner (Neath); Jim Strangward (Neath); Brazell Thomas (Llanelli); James Watts (Swansea).