Volunteering to serve the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, Alun Menai Williams said, ‘I witnessed most of the carnage from a height of six to 12 inches from ground level.’
It made him a criminal in the eyes of his own government, but it was a battle Alun Menai Williams could not ignore. He had protested against rising fascism in the East End of London, and now he had to do something—even if that meant dodging bullets on dusty foreign soil.
“The world was very different then,” the 93-year-old Williams said of his decision during an interview at his home in Wales in June 2005. “Everyone was politically minded. Between 1913 when I was born and 1939 when I got back from Spain, I became what I am—those years made me. I saw what fascism was doing in Europe. I knew what was happening in Germany and Italy, and I thought, why should it happen elsewhere? Somebody has got to make a stand. It was a personal thing. I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to get killed at all. I was frightened to bloody death when I got out there.”
Following General Francisco Franco Bahamonde’s July 1936 uprising, Spain became a battleground. While dictators Adolf Hitler of Germany and Benito Mussolini of Italy sent military forces to back Franco’s attempt to overthrow the Popular Front government of Republican Spain, the wider international community decided not to get involved. Britain’s Conservative government took a noninterventionist line that even prevented the Popular Front from buying arms. Americans were bound by the U.S. Neutrality Act of 1935, although large sections of their oil and motor industries backed Franco and the Nationalists.
Alun Menai Williams grew up in the economically distressed valleys of South Wales between the world wars. At age 14 he went to work in a mine in the Rhondda, famous for the quality of its coal seams and for the difficult conditions under which the men worked. His family could not escape from poverty, however, and early one morning the court bailiffs arrived to evict them from their home. After an argument with his father, the poet Huw Menai, the impulsive 17-year-old Alun ran off to London. There, a second impulse took him, and he signed up for the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). “Bed and breakfast would be assured,” he thought, but after training as a medic, he was returned to civilian life as a reservist. Life for the working class had improved little by then. The unemployed Alun entered college to study politics, learning about Mussolini’s rise in Italy. He went to meetings of anti-Fascists, then regarded by most Britons as cranks, intellectual crackpots and Communists. In 1933 Hitler became German chancellor.
In October 1935, Alun saw Italy invade Abyssinia and the woeful response from the League of Nations. The proximity of Mussolini’s Libyan garrisons to the Suez Canal did, however, concern the British, and soldiers were sent to Egypt to shore up the Canal Zone. Williams, still on the RAMC reserve list, was called up and sailed for Cairo as part of a field ambulance unit. The reservists slept in tents in the shadow of the Pyramids, swatted flies from their food and toured the museums of the ancient city. There was no real threat to the canal, and after six months Alun boarded the cruise liner Otranto for the journey back to Southampton. During the voyage, the ship was diverted to Majorca, Spain, and Williams got a glimpse of his destiny. “A war of some description had broken out in Spain,” he recorded in his book From the Rhondda to the Ebro. “The ship was diverted to rescue a number of VIPs and take them away from the conflict.”
Back in London, Williams got together with old comrades and discovered that a school friend from Wales, Billy Davies, had gone to fight Franco’s forces. The far right was growing in London too. On Sunday, October 4, 1936, the black-shirted British Union of Fascists led by Oswald Mosley marched in support of his anti-Semitic policies. The anti-Fascists launched a counterdemonstration, and almost 100 people were arrested in the fighting that followed, dubbed the Battle of Cable Street.
“I saw Mosley, but I saw the police more than Mosley,” Williams recalled. “I was knocked down by a police horse and pulled to safety by friends. The sight of Mosley on the streets of London made people aware of what was happening and what could happen if they were allowed to get away with it. We had to stand up to them. We argued with them.”
Williams’ reasons to go to Spain were more complex. “I was bored with my work,” he said, “unsettled, independent, irresponsible, wanting a change, to test, challenge and satisfy my curiosity of what was around the corner. But this time with the knowledge that my anti-Fascist credentials and first aid expertise would be of use where my friend Billy was already.”
Early in January 1937, Williams, who described himself as a “restless and an unpredictable ‘action man,’” presented himself at the offices of the left-wing newspaper the Daily Worker in King Street, near Covent Garden, to be signed up for Spain. It was a risky business. “The Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870 was made applicable with a penalty of two years in jail,” Williams later recalled. “I was about to break the law.” In his first effort to get to Spain, he and four others were met at the Gare du Nord in Paris by a contact and took another train the length of France to Perpignan, a short distance from the Spanish frontier. But when a second contact failed to show up there, they were arrested, fingerprinted, held for more than a week and sent to the British Consulate in Marseille for repatriation.
In the middle of March, Williams left Bordeaux and attempted to land near Santander, on the northern coast of Spain, where the Asturian and Basque people were holding out against a Nationalist offensive. The Nationalists had established an impenetrable blockade of the northern ports, however, and Williams was transferred to Marseille. There, he and fellow volunteers would board a ship for Barcelona.
While Williams was making his second attempt to enter Spain, bombers from the German Condor Legion took off on April 26, 1937, to attack Guernica, a small town that was considered the spiritual capital of the Basques. It was market day, and the town was crowded. The aircraft included Heinkel He-111s and Junkers Ju-52s/3ms. After three hours of bombing and strafing by German and Italian planes, at least 1,650 people lay dead and hundreds were wounded.
During his trial as a war criminal after World War II, Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring said callously, “The Spanish Civil War gave me an opportunity to put my young air force to the test, and a means for my men to gain experience.” The shock waves from Guernica went further, however—they focused world attention on Spain, with the raid becoming an international symbol of Fascist brutality and the horror of war. In Britain the bombing terrified Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and stirred the British to modernize their Royal Air Force. Pablo Picasso’s painting inspired by the raid is considered by many to be the defining piece of antiwar art of the 20th century.
While the outrage over Guernica spread, Williams was hiding in Marseille. After a few days he joined a handful of Britons and a large group of Americans who were smuggled on board the cargo ship City of Barcelona. At night it headed out into the Gulf of Lyons, and the following day Alun went up on deck. “It was late afternoon,” he recalled. “I was leaning on the ship’s rail taking in my first view of Spain, 11⁄2 miles in the distance, when there came one hell of an almighty bang. The ship shook, tried to get airborne, before settling down at a crazy angle. Shouts of ‘Torpedo! The ship’s sinking!’ came from every direction and in every language. There was no jostling, pushing or shoving and no hysteria. The ship was sinking fast. The last lifeboat had been lowered and, because of the ship’s angle and its death lurches, the boat tipped over, emptying its human cargo into the sea.”
Williams leapt into the water and clung to an upturned lifeboat as the ship went down. “In less than 10 minutes from the time of the torpedo hitting City of Barcelona, it had disappeared,” he said. The ship and an unknown number of volunteers had been the victims of an Italian submarine. “Fishing boats were quickly put out from the shore,” Williams recalled, “picking up all the survivors that were in the water and delivering us to land, to the shocked population of the small town of Malgrat.” He was then put on a train south to Albacete, where he was interviewed by Peter Kerrigan, British commissar of the International Brigades. From there, the Welshman was assigned to the XV International Brigade. In August 1936, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin had given the order for Communists to aid the Republic. Funds were raised and support organizations formed, with liberals and socialists also signed up in support. Planning to send soldiers to join the International brigades started that September, although many left-wingers and some anti-Nazi Germans had already arrived in Barcelona. It was always stressed that this alliance was not sectarian but anti-Fascist. In all, some 35,000 foreigners from 53 countries served in the International Brigades. According to Antony Beevor’s The Spanish Civil War, the largest national group—the French—numbered 10,000 volunteers. The Poles and German-Austrians contributed 5,000 each and the Italians 3,000. Between 2,800 and 3,000 people came from the United States, more than 2,000 from Britain, and the Yugoslavs and Czechs contributed about 1,500 each.
There were also Scandinavians, Belgians, Dutch, Irish, Cubans, Canadians and Mexicans. “They saw fascism as an international threat, and the brigades appeared to offer the best way of fighting it,” Beevor wrote. “Spain was seen as the battleground which would decide the future. This belief was maintained long afterward, so that even to this day there are those who argue that a Republican victory would have prevented the Second World War.”
“I was given a uniform of sorts and later a haversack with a red cross emblazoned on it, filled with bandages, field dressings, tourniquets, syringes and morphine,” Williams said. He was initially sent to the front line at Jarama, near Madrid, to serve with a German unit, the Thaelmann Battalion.
The dusty hills of Jarama had already seen some bitter fighting. In February 1937, having failed to take Madrid by frontal assault, Franco ordered that the main road linking the city to the rest of Republican Spain be cut. He sent 40,000 Nationalist soldiers across the Jarama River, but the vastly inferior Republican force managed to hold them back. After a few days, both sides had dug in and the battle became a stalemate.
In May, on Williams’ fourth day at Jarama, mortar bombs and artillery shells rained down on the Republican trenches. “Within a few seconds of the end of the bombardment, there were shouts of ‘Sanitario’—that was me—Spanish for medical aid,” he remembered. “A young German volunteer was sitting on the floor of the trench with a few of his comrades around him. They moved aside as I approached to reveal the hand of this young man, hanging by the wrist, almost totally severed by a piece of shrapnel and with blood pouring out. It was a terrifying experience, the first time I had seen anything like it. Although I was a trained first-aid man, it was strange to see. Momentarily I was shaken, but training came to my assistance. I applied a tourniquet to stop the flow of blood, then proceeded to apply a field dressing to the wound and bind the almost severed hand with bandages to his forearm.”
Ten days later, when Williams was transferred to the George Washington Battalion, an American unit recently formed to supplement the original Abraham Lincoln Battalion, he was the only member of its first-aid team with battlefield experience. He would spend most of his time at the front with the Americans.
“I witnessed most of the carnage from a height of six to 12 inches from ground level,” Williams recalled. “A kind of worm’s eye view of the bloody proceedings. I became an expert in the taste and texture of the Spanish earth. My body, for days and nights on end, had the unnatural propensity of hugging the ground as I went about my business of applying tourniquets and field dressings, in between crawling to the aid of wounded soldiers and scratching around in the dark, locating the mournful cries of volunteers in awful trouble.
“I remember soldiers in great agony,” he continued. “I remember seeing soldiers mutilated beyond recognition. My mind sees as of yesterday soldiers with smashed legs, soldiers with arms almost severed and hanging from their shoulders, and men dead without visible marks on their bodies.”
At Pardillo his comrade, a Dr. Sollenberger from Baltimore, was blown to bits by an aerial bombardment as he tended the wounded. At Teruel Williams himself was shot in the leg, but he recovered and was at the front again within three weeks.
At Belchite he saw a Nationalist soldier die at close range after a church was shelled. “I can always remember that church on fire,” he said. “Some of the Fascists came out, and stretcher-bearers brought them to the first aid station and you could see them blistering, it was as if they were still boiling. One young soldier’s clothes were still smoldering, and his body was one massive blister from head to toe. I did not know what to do. He was beyond help and was in great pain and conscious. One of the Spanish bearers bent down, said something to him, stood up, took out his revolver and put the young man out of his agony.”
In the Sierra de Pandols, Williams watched his countrymen die. Brazell Thomas, of Llanelli, was killed trying to help his wounded friend Evan Roberts. Frank Proctor, from Liverpool, fell to the ground with a sliver of shrapnel the thickness of a darning needle in his temple. Tom Howell Jones, of Aberdare, went face down, dead in the dirt, his false teeth thrown from his head.
At the Ebro River, Williams was standing on a hillside with two friends when a machine gun opened up. Fellow Welshman Harry Dobson was killed, and the other man was shot in the stomach. Williams was unscathed.
And then there was Billy Davies. Once he and Williams had been small children running together in a little gang in South Wales. Williams had followed his former playmate to Spain. During a lull, Williams sought out the British Battalion and quickly found Davies. “Good God, Alun, what the hell are you doing here?” Billy asked, his dark spectacles doing nothing to hide the bewilderment in his eyes. “The same as you, Billy,” Williams told him.
Davies took Williams off to a local village where he knew a photographer. The picture they had taken together that day shows the tall, handsome Williams seated with his hands folded. Davies stands at his side in a rough, ill-fitting uniform, awkwardly holding a rifle. The photograph was meant to be a keepsake they could look at after the war, to remind them of their Spanish adventure. But there would be no future for Billy. Three days later, on July 6, 1937, Davies and his comrades tried to storm the town of Villanueva de la Cañada, where Nationalist resistance was unexpectedly fierce. Davies was among those killed. He has no known grave, but his name is on a plaque in Swansea listing the 33 Welsh Brigaders who died in Spain.
Williams pointed out that he does not really need the image to remind him of Billy, but he has kept the photograph, a memento of a loyal and trusted friend. “I still see them all now,” he said, “as the age they were then.”
The power of the Nationalist force, backed by Italian soldiers, German tanks and aircraft, was becoming overwhelming. Williams found himself in a retreat that became a rout, running and hiding for several days, eventually holing up in a place called Corbera. There, together with “Tiny” Holland, a 6-foot first-aid man from Chicago, he tended the casualties as Nationalist armor rolled into the town. One of the tanks sprayed the building they were in with machine gun fire, and the two medics dashed for cover. The pair searched for their comrades, but they had gone. They were alone with the injured, and enemy infantry was bearing down on them behind the tanks.
Holland shouted, “Those sons of bitches will kill us if we don’t get the hell away from here quickly!” They could do no more for the wounded. They ran until they were exhausted.
“For three days, Tiny Holland and I skirted enemy outposts, dodging patrols and sentries, hiding by day and moving by night,” Williams remembered. “On the fourth morning of our flight, hungry and bedraggled, we were hiding at the rear of a small hut in the middle of an olive grove. We saw some men in the near distance, making their way through the grove.”
The men were stragglers from the British Battalion. Alun and Tiny joined them and headed for the Ebro. “We reached the river, the tanks and gunfire getting closer,” Williams said. “We could see soldiers on the opposite bank in hastily prepared positions, waving and beckoning us. There were no bridges, boats or any means to make the crossing. There was no alternative but to wade in and swim across. Bullets were cracking all around, thumping into the olive trees and plopping into the ground. It was sink, swim, be killed or captured.”
All seven men dived into the river. Williams, Holland and two others reached the other side. Two drowned. One hesitated and waded back, where he was most likely killed.
On the opposite bank, the chaos of the Republican collapse became apparent. Hundreds of stragglers had struggled across the Ebro. “Every man who reached the safe bank of the river had similar stories to tell of their flight,” Williams said. “Of dodging the enemy, of hiding fear, hunger and exhaustion, and of the wounded left behind.”
Williams had by then been fighting alongside his American comrades for more than a year. During a lull in the battle he discovered that the British Battalion was short of first-aid men, so Holland and the other Americans said goodbye to their “Limey doc.”
The worst was still to come, however. The Republican army was preparing for an offensive that would precipitate the most ferocious battle of the war.
On the night of July 24, 1938, commandos swam across the Ebro to kill sentries and attach ropes for the assault boats. The main force followed in the early hours of the next day. They caught the Nationalists—who believed their enemy was no longer capable of launching a major attack—off guard. Williams crossed the water in a rowboat in a second wave. “As the sun was rising, artillery fire was targeting the river approaches when the battalion emerged on a sandy strip of shore,” he said. It was the start of more than three months of advancing and retreating, an “unyielding mass slaughter” around the strategic heights of the Sierra de Pandols.
“There were times when the battalion was cut off and fought its way out with many casualties,” Williams recalled. “The battleground was rock, with the bursting of shells and mortars sending showers of flying rocks and shrapnel in all directions. The only protection was flat on the belly on the rock surface and blind hope.”
Although the Republican army was initially successful, it was finally beaten and effectively destroyed as a fighting force. “There was no earth to cover the dead,” Williams said. “When we left the Pandols, the ridges were marked with cairns of stones where the bodies of our comrades were placed. I have often wondered if they are still there on that Godforsaken place.”
From the ridge that Williams called a “rock-strewn abattoir” caked in blood, he would have to cover a mile of open ground, raked by machine guns and shellfire, to reach the ambulances that could get the injured men to the field dressing stations. “Darkness was the best time for the bearers to do their work,” he said. “The snag with this was that the most severely wounded could not wait until sunset.”
The International Brigade managed to hold its section of the line, but the foreign fighters were scheduled to be repatriated. Williams and his comrades crossed a rickety footbridge over the Ebro near the town of Asco. In October 1938, he joined the other brigaders for the final march in Barcelona, where Republican leader Dolores Ibarruri, known as La Pasionara, told the volunteers: “You are history. You are legend.”
“We were marching as she spoke and we could not hear her as there was no microphone,” Williams recalled. “But it was a very moving farewell.”
Alun Williams’ fight against fascism was over, at least for the time being. “The Fascist army with superiority in numbers, together with the Italian Division and the German Condor Legion with their modern tactics and weaponry, was too much,” he said. “We were outmanned, out-gunned without adequate air cover, short of ammunition, in rags and hungry.
“We were leaving a defeated country,” he added of his repatriation from Spain. “It was very sad. Within nine months everyone was fighting fascism in World War II.” Williams would be among them, serving as ground staff in the RAF.
Many years later, looking back from his home in Barry, South Wales, Williams still maintained, “I am very proud to have been in Spain and proud of the people I met there.” Still, the conflict had changed the idealistic Welshman. He became quiet and introspective, and the apparent apathy of the public and the continuing appeasement policies of his government drove him to despair. He believes that the volunteers’ warnings about fascism went unheeded then—and he also feels that those who fought in Spain do not get the recognition they deserve now.
In May 2005, Williams returned to the scene of the Battle of the Ebro for the unveiling of a plaque to the 90 men of the International Brigade who died at Hill 705, the brigade’s last action in Spain. He was now, with the other surviving brigaders, an honorary citizen of Spain, although he had not set foot in the country for 67 years. At the tiny cemetery at La Bisbal de Falset, he visited the final resting place of Harry Dobson.
Dobson and Williams, once both miners in the Rhondda Valley, had been moved by conviction to fight a desperate war in a far-off country. Dobson had been shot down in August 1938 as he stood at Williams’ side. Williams had lived on to remember and to tell his friend’s tale. Now, standing at his grave nearly a lifetime later, he leaned down and left a piece of black Welsh coal to shine in the blistering Spanish sun.
Greg Lewis, who lives in Cardiff, Wales, is a member of the International Brigade Memorial Trust. For additional reading: The Spanish Civil War, by Antony Beevor; From the Rhondda to the Ebro, by Alun Menai Williams; or The Spanish Civil War, by Hugh Thomas.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.