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Joe Boyd’s war against fascism began long before the first shots of World War II were fired. A Belfast milkman in the years between the wars, Boyd had been active in the Fabian Society for some time. The society had been formed in Great Britain in 1884 with the aim of bringing about a Socialist state by gradual and peaceful means rather than revolution.

Boyd and his friends had a keen interest in the events unfolding in Madrid, Spain, as General Francisco Franco launched a coup attempt against the democratically elected Popular Front in 1936. What had begun as a struggle between the forces of the right and left within Spain had quickly taken on an international tone as proponents of both sides poured men and materiel into the civil war. An avowed Socialist and pacifist, Boyd wanted to support the Popular Front in its war against the Fascists without disavowing his own beliefs. On July 8, 1936, he began actively contacting people he knew within the Socialist movement in an effort to find a way to help the cause.

In August Boyd learned that he was one of 12 Ulstermen who had been chosen to serve in an ambulance unit in the International Brigades formed by Socialist volunteers. Although there were many applicants, his time as an apprentice pharmacist and experience in driving a truck made him an ideal candidate. As soon as he received word of his selection, he took the night boat from Belfast to meet with the other volunteers in Glasgow.

After arriving in Scotland Boyd met Tom Waters, a bus driver; Joseph Johnson, an Irishman from the Free State (or Eire); two World War I veterans; and a cook. The party eventually grew to 20, some of whom were medical students. The men were joined by a Miss Jacobsen. Together, they would form the Scottish Ambulance Unit, which had been organized by Sir Daniel Stevenson, the provost of Glasgow University, and the Duchess of Athol.

In a letter home to his mother, Boyd wrote that his new unit was composed of persons with a variety of political opinions, whose reasons for volunteering ranged from adventure and summer holiday to Christian duty, humanitarian motives and the possibility of gaining further practical medical experience. He said each participant knew at least one job well, and that they seemed a healthy, hardy bunch.

The unit left Glasgow by the end of the month, traveled through England and stayed overnight in Dover, where the members received inoculations. The next stop was France, where they enjoyed the support of many small communities along their route. In Chartres, the local authorities allowed them to secure their vehicles within the walls of the local school to protect their medical supplies. Driving on to Limoges, they were welcomed by the local people, who gave them much-needed provisions. Communists within the community even raised money for the unit to purchase additional supplies and donated a case of red wine to the ambulance unit. Not to be outdone, local women busied themselves sewing red crosses onto uniforms and providing other items of clothing. Following the festivities, Boyd wrote home that there were some very pretty girls in the town but that he had been too shy to talk with them.

One reason for their warm reception was that there were many Spanish refugees in Limoges. These unfortunate people told the members of Boyd’s unit what had been happening in their homeland and thanked them for volunteering. When the Scottish Ambulance Unit volunteers finally pulled out, they were surrounded by well-wishers, many of whom were weeping in gratitude.

Their next destination was Toulouse, where they slept in the town hall, which had been decorated with portraits of Karl Marx. Unfamiliar with Scottish tastes, the local Communists gave the volunteers a meal of horsemeat. When two of the men found out what they had eaten, they were sick. Driving on to Perpignan, they met members of the Thaelmann Battalion, a largely German unit in the International Brigades, and practiced using gas masks.

It took two more days to cross the border into Spain and get to Barcelona and a further day’s travel to reach Valencia. The final stop was Madrid, where they were billeted in the Hotel National. After three days in Madrid, the unit traveled to Aranjuez and then on to the front. Soon to be in action, Boyd was introduced to Juan José Escanciano, a doctor and professor at Madrid University, with whom he quickly became friends.

Boyd and his ambulance unit were soon in the thick of the action, bringing a steady stream of wounded off the front line. As the fighting progressed, Franco’s Nationalists began to break through, forcing the Republicans to retreat. Many of the Nationalist attacks were preceded by air raids, which terrorized the local populace. During one raid, Boyd remembered that “the nuns opened the school doors and sent the children home.” What followed was a horror the young ambulance driver would never forget: “The children ran straight into an ambush, fired upon from vehicles parked across the plaza. We had to leave. I couldn’t even attend to the wounded. We were in retreat and were ordered out. I had no choice—I had to drive over dead children.”

Shortly thereafter, in November 1936, Boyd was captured while serving on the Toledo Front. He was caught in no man’s land trying to evacuate the wounded of both sides and was taken before General Miguel Cabanellas Ferrer, who told him he would be held prisoner until Franco had won. During his interrogation Boyd looked out a window and saw the execution of 18 or 20 other Republican prisoners as shells fell on the city.

Fortunately Boyd was spared a similar fate, being transferred instead to the basement of the Hotel Castilla in Toledo, and then taken by truck to a town close to Avila. For nourishment, he was allowed to gather chestnuts during the trip. After arriving in Salamanca he endured further questioning and was then condemned to death. Many of his fellow captives had already been shot, but his execution was delayed. The former Belfast milkman could only assume at the time that this was because his Ulster Scot accent confused his captors, who apparently thought he was Russian and could supply them with valuable information.

Despite his captivity, Boyd never stopped trying to help the wounded. On the way to one interrogation, he applied first aid to a bleeding Nationalist soldier. He managed to convey that he and his co-driver, Fred McMahon, also from Belfast, were British ambulance-men. He asked the wounded man to contact the British Consulate.

The wounded man was as good as his word, and soon Anthony Eden, the British foreign minister, and Harry Midgley, a member of Parliament from Ulster, were able to secure the release of the two men. With the threat of immediate death lifted, the Ulster pair were offered a choice of deportation to Portugal or France. Boyd chose Portugal.

His travails were not at an end, however. As soon as Boyd set foot in Portugal he was arrested and imprisoned in Lisbon for two weeks. His documents had been confiscated when he was captured in Spain, and his only identification was the “Friend of Spain” badge he had been given and the key to his room in the Hotel National.

Once more behind bars, Boyd wrote to the British Consulate in Portugal; when he was finally released, he met an official who simply said, “We’ve been expecting you.” Content to return home, Boyd went back to Ulster, where he resumed his duties as a milkman.

He did not have long to enjoy the peace. On September 3, 1939, Britain, its attempt to peacefully check Adolf Hitler a failure, was again at war. As opposed to Hitler and the Nazis as he had been to Franco, Boyd immediately tried to enlist. Rather than being welcomed, however, he was told that his past service with the heavily Communist International Brigades in Spain was a liability: If he was captured there was no guarantee that he would be treated as a prisoner of war. He might be sent to a concentration camp or shot immediately.

Unable to serve, Boyd did what he could to support the war effort in mundane ways. However, he maintained his desire to lend a greater hand. In 1941 he was approached by a British army officer who discussed with him the likelihood of a German invasion of Northern Ireland. With the military situation for Great Britain grim, many feared that the Germans would seize upon discontent in Ireland to launch an invasion of Britain from the Emerald Isle.

Boyd accepted the Englishman’s offer to join an underground resistance organization that would fight the Germans, if and when the time came to combat the might of the Reich. To face the anticipated invasion force, he was armed with only a pistol and a handful of ammunition.

Although doubtless a little bemused by his potential role as a resistance fighter, Boyd did what was asked of him, preparing to repel any invasion and using his job as a milkman to deliver messages among fellow potential resistance members and British authorities.

When the threat of invasion had passed, Boyd continued to work for Allied authorities in and around his hometown. Belfast was the site of a major naval and submarine base on the River Foyle as well as a nearby installation at Lough Erne. Also based there were flying boats that protected Allied convoys in the Atlantic. In addition, Belfast had several manufacturing facilities that produced desperately needed ships and planes for Britain. And, as the date for the Allied invasion of France approached and England became swamped with millions of men in uniform, Belfast was used as a staging area for Allied troops waiting to invade Normandy.

Given the city’s proximity to neutral Ireland (the formal designation “Republic of Ireland” came after the war, in 1949) and the divided country’s long, troubled past, Allied authorities feared that German agents could easily infiltrate the area or that Irish Republicans could work against the British in support of their own ends. To help prevent this, the British employed local people to keep an eye out for any potential threat to the Allied war effort.

As a milkman, Boyd was able to move unobtrusively about the divided city and during the months prior to the invasion was one of many working diligently to keep the operation a secret. After June 6, 1944, with the Allies successfully in France, Boyd and the other Irishmen he worked with were evidently forgotten by their former bosses. In 1945, when he tried to return his pistol, he could not find anyone who would take it.

Fearing reprisals against his family by the Republican movement in Ulster, in the years after the war Boyd kept his wartime activities a secret, but he continued to serve his community. During the 1950s he was appointed a justice of the peace. In this role he struggled to unite his religiously and politically divided community.

In 1953 he took his wife to Spain on a driving holiday. As they traveled past guarded chain gangs on the roads, men waved and cheered at the car, and Boyd’s wife Bette remarked to the American priest with them that the prisoners were remarkably friendly given their circumstances. The priest replied that it was probably something to do with Joe giving them the International Salute out the car window as he drove by.

At the very start of the “Troubles,” which rocked Northern Ireland in the 1970s, Boyd spent night after night on “peace patrol.” Walking the streets with a Protestant clergyman and a Catholic priest, Boyd did his best to calm people and stop them from leaving their homes. As a token of peaceful solidarity and to give his own family a better sense of all sides of the situation, he also attended a Catholic Mass.

Despite escalating violence, Joe Boyd remained dedicated to his pacifist ideals, refusing to take one side or another and always talking to parties from both sides. “Keep talking and you will work out the differences,” he said.

Following his retirement, and technically still under a death sentence (an amnesty was declared in 1976) for his earlier involvement in the Spanish Civil War, Boyd moved to Spain, where he eventually befriended an officer who had been an aide-de-camp of the same General Cabanellas who had interrogated him 50 years earlier. He died in his adopted homeland in 1998.


Originally published in the February 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.