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They Died Fighting for Democracy

John Simkin

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In January 1937 Clem Beckett wrote to his wife from the front-line at Jarama: "I'm sure you'll realise that I should never have been satisfied had I not assisted. Only my hatred of Fascism brought me here." On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War this leading speedway rider abandoned his successful career to fight for the International Brigades who were defending the democratically elected Popular Front government against Franco's nationalist army being supported by Hitler and Mussolini. This was a generation of men and women who had become pacifists because of the horrors of the First World War. However, with the emergence of fascists governments in Germany and Italy, they became international warriors defending democracy in Spain. They argued that if fascism was defeated in Spain, it would not be necessary to fight a Second World War. They were right, but unfortunately, governments in the rest of the western world, decided that the best policy of dealing with Hitler was appeasement. They also passed laws that made it illegal for these men and women to aid the Popular Front government. Those who survived faced persecution when they arrived back in their own countries. These men and women later became known as "premature fascists"

Bernard Knox describes what happened to him when he enlisted in the US Army when America entered the war against Germany and Japan:

The doctor noticed the scar on my throat. "It looks like a bullet wound," he said. I told him it was and he asked how I got it. "And don't tell me," he added, "that it was a hunting accident -or that you were cleaning the gun and it suddenly went off." So I told him I had fought in Spain. "What side were you on?" he asked, and I replied, indignantly, "The government side, of course. His face became a scowling mask. "You mean the Goddam Reds," he said. I made no reply, as he turned me round to find the exit scar. Then he said, "All right, go on to the next booth," and as I started he said, "They damn near got you, didn't they?"

Hank Rubin was another who joined the International Brigades. He later served with the US Army in the Pacific. As he pointed out in Spain's Cause Was Mine (1997): "We were pariahs to our government. When Brigaders volunteered for the armed forces in World War II, the official army line, at first, was that we were not to be sent outside of the continental limits, so that we would not have contact with European communists. This ruling was later successfully challenged. Even so, most of us were sent to the Pacific combat zone. But despite all of the government's fears about our politics, some of the Brigaders, because of their experience and skills, were needed for the war effort. Some, therefore, were sent across the Atlantic to assignments behind the German and Italian lines to work with the various resistance forces, which, ironically, were often communist or communist-led. More than six hundred American vets served in World War II, in addition to another three hundred more in the merchant marine. In all, about twenty-five Spanish vets gave their lives for their country in World War. Many were decorated for bravery. Between sixty and seventy, including myself, were commissioned as officers." Despite this, until a successful court-case in the early 1950s, these American International Brigadiers were denied passports and the freedom to travel abroad.

Over the next few weeks I intend to write on this thread about these men and women who gave their lives for democracy.

Clem Beckett was born in Oldham in 1906. After leaving school he became a blacksmith. He also became a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. According to Graham Stevenson: "His trade was of a blacksmith but, faced with victimisation and depression after the late 1920s, he started riding the Dome of Death at fairgrounds. So, stunning and confident was his mastery of this feat that, in no short time he had became famous as Dare Devil Beckett, the man who rode the Wall of Death and who broke world records."

Beckett became a speedway rider for White City, a team based in London. According to David Hallam: "When speedway was first introduced to this country many greyhound stadium owners jumped on the bandwagon. Young kids were persuaded to race irrespective of their experience and many were killed or seriously injured. Clem Beckett... played a major part in setting up a trades union for riders that stopped this lethal exploitation." George Sinfield later commented: "Beneath his leather jacket beat a heart of gold. It was a heart that throbbed in rhythm with the struggle of the working people."

Jon Tait recently wrote: "Clem Beckett loved the dirty growl of his bike's engine, the smell of diesel and hot metal filling his nostrils. An enduring image for those lucky enough to see him ride was of the legendary speedway star zipping around the final corner before crossing the finish line, muck spraying up from his back tyre before he lifted his goggles, his face flecked with mud as he celebrated another win. Beckett loved the thrill of the speedway track, the rush of adrenaline as the back end of his ride slipped out, gunning the throttle and feeling the cool blast of wind in his face... The racetrack owners must have regarded Beckett as a bit of a rebel - he unionised the sport when he formed the Dirt-track Riders Association."

On 30th March 1929, Beckett joined forces with Spencer Stratton and Jimmy Hindle to establish the Sheffield Tigers. As Graham Stevenson points out: "Operating as Provincial Dirt-Tracks Ltd, the group had sunk their savings into buying land at Owlerton Meadows. Since the sport was then sweeping the country, it was perhaps not such a risky venture in retrospect but many thought not at the time. It was so new that it was only the fifth such venture in the country. Beckett now shone as the star of the new Owlerton Stadium, winning the golden helmet in front of 15,000 spectators, whereas even with a renaissance in the sport only a few thousand would now turn out."

In 1932 Clem Beckett was active in the campaign to gain access to open spaces in what is now the Peak District National Park. In 1932 he took part in what became known as the Kinder Trespass. Joseph Norman was one of those activists who worked alongside Beckett: "My first real experience of political activity was the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in Derbyshire which eventually led to the designation of the area as a National Park. Dozens of those that fought the police and landowners on that mass trespass were... men like Clem Beckett and George Brown."

On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Clem Beckett was one of several members of the Manchester branch of the CPGB who volunteered to go to Spain to defend the Popular Front government.

Clem Beckett and his friend Christopher Caudwell, took control of a Charcot light machine-gun at Jarma. On 12th February, 1937, at what became known as Suicide Hill, the Republicans suffered heavy casualties. Hugh Thomas, the author of The Spanish Civil War (1961) has commented: "A mere two hundred and twenty-five out of the original six hundred members of the British Battalion were left at the end of the day." Beckett's friend, George Sinfield, later pointed out: "Clem and Chris were posted at a vital point. They faced innumerable odds: artillery, planes, and howling Moors throwing hand-grenades. Their section was ordered to retire. Clem and Chris kept their machine-gun trained on the advancing fascists, as a cover to the retreat. The advance was halted, but Clem and Chris... lost their lives."



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Philip Detro was one of the Americans who was killed during the Spanish Civil War. Born in Texas he became a seaman and in 1932 he was in Nazi Germany when he heard Adolf Hitler make a speech. This resulted in Detro becoming an anti-fascist.

On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War he attempted to join the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, a unit that volunteered to fight for the Popular Front government against the military uprising in Spain. However, the American Communist Party turned him down. In his book, Comrades and Commissars: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War (2007), Cecil D. Eby suggests that this was because he was "a poor political risk". However, John Gates later recalled that Detro was an undercover member of the party.

After the disaster of Jarama the leaders of the American Communist Party changed its mind about the role of its activists and allowed Joe Dallet, Steve Nelson, David Doran and 22 other volunteers to go to Spain. At the Tarazona training camp Detro impressed his tutors and this 6ft 4in soldier was marked down as a future officer.

During the fighting at Hans Amlie Detro took over from Hans Amlie as commander of the Lincoln-Washington Battalion. He was injured at Mosquito Ridge and therefore missed the Quinto campaign. According to Cecil D. Eby he refused to wear tailored uniforms like Robert Merriman and David Doran: "Detro invariably wore a faded beret and a turtleneck sweater several sizes too large for his thin chest."

Philip Detro was shot by a sniper while fighting in Teruel in January 1938. He was rescued by Joe Bianca and taken to the dressing station. The doctor found that he had a compound fracture in the right femur. He was advised to have his leg amputated but he refused and he died of gangrene six weeks later in a Murcia hospital.


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Ralph Fox was born in Halifax on 30th March 1900. While at Oxford University he became an ardent socialist. On 31st July, 1920, he became a founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). His friend, Harry Pollitt, later argued: "There was no personal economic reason why Fox should have joined the Communist Party. He did so from a deep sense of intellectual conviction, and from the moment he took out his Party card, his life was dedicated to the cause of Communism. Whether as author, journalist, or instructor of our factory groups in various parts of London, Fox undoubtedly influenced the thought of thousands of working men and women, and also of a big section of the professional classes of this country."

Fox graduated with a first in modern languages. He then went to the Soviet Union in 1923 and worked for the Friends Relief Mission in Samara. In 1925 he started work with the Communist International. Later he became the librarian at the Marx Engels Institute in Moscow.

Fox contributed a regular column for the Daily Worker. In 1933 he published a biography of Lenin. This was followed by Marxism and Modern Thought, Genghis Khan and the Novel and the People. In 1934 Fox joined forces with Tom Wintringham and John Strachey to establish the Writers' International, "an association of revolutionary socialist writers who are working for the end of the capitalist order and a new order based on co-operative effort."

In 1936 Fox joined the International Brigades that fought on the side of the Republican Army in the Spanish Civil War. He became a political commissar in the British Battalion. He was killed at Córdoba on 3rd January, 1937. Harry Pollitt compared Fox to Lord Byron: "The great poet Byron went to Greece to fight for liberty; this is the example that our British comrades are following today in the conditions of our time." Harold Laski added that his death was “for him, simply a necessary service to his ideal.” A book on his experiences in Spain entitled, Ralph Fox: A Writer in Arms (1937), was published posthumously.


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  • 2 weeks later...

Harry Dobson was a coalminer from the Rhondda Valley. Dobson was involved in the campaign against fascism. He was sent to prison after taking part in one demonstration against Oswald Mosley. On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War he joined the British Battalion of the International Brigades.

Dobson took part in the fighting at Brunete, Huesca, Gandesa and Ebro. The author of Wales and the Spanish Civil War (2004) points out: "Many incidents of the bloody and prolonged encounter between the English-speaking battalions and the 6th Bandera of the Spanish Foreign Legion, an elite Nationalist unit which was well dug in to the key pinnacles, have passed into legend. The hill was attacked repeatedly for four or five days, incurring severe losses, and all in vain. At the first onslaught, Dobson was badly wounded in the upper abdomen and fell alongside Morris Davies (Treharris). Both men sustained their injuries whilst attacking enemy positions without thought of their own safety, an action which deserves to be regarded as heroic. It was an advanced and exposed position and only one stretcher party was in the vicinity. The bearers chose to take Davies, whose wound was more immediately life-threatening. Dobson lay helpless and in agony within the fire field for some time before being rescued."

Morris Davies later recalled: "I was given orders to capture a ridge. As I advanced with six other men we were peppered with enemy fire. We would not have achieved our objective had not Harry Dobson of the Rhondda given us cover-fire. Harry and I were caught by shrapnel. He insisted that his wound was not as bad as mine and... that I should be taken back on a stretcher first."

As there was only one available stretcher it was sometime before he was eventually taken back to base camp. Nan Green, Patience Darton and Leah Manning were all involved in nursing Dobson when he was wounded at the Battle of the Ebro. Green later recalled Manning holding his hand until he died. Manning later described what happened: "Patience (Darton) was just coming on duty for the night and as we went into the cave, the stretcher bearers brought in an English comrade from the British Battalion who was gravely wounded in the abdomen. He had had his spleen removed and Reggie Saxton had given him a blood transfusion. As I stood by he opened his eyes and spoke my name. I recognised him as a comrade whom I had met at a by-election in South Wales, a miner from Tonypandy named Harry Dobson. Dr. Jolly told me that it was not possible that he could live in fact they thought only a few hours, so I determined to stay by him until the end. Actually, it was fifteen hours before he passed away but I did not leave him during that time and he seemed very happy to have me there."

Harry Dobson died on 28th July 1938.



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  • 3 months later...

Milton Woolf was a pacifist he initially wanted to be a medic in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. However, after fighting at Brunete, Belchite and Teruel, he was made commander. He was 23 years old.

During the Second World War Woolf joined the United States Army and served in Italy and Burma. General William Donovan recruited him into the Office of Strategic Services, and served with the "British Special Services after the fall of Paris and the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia." He told Studs Terkel: "I don't ever want to see another bloody war again. There's a certain amount of glamour attached to a guy like me because I was a warrior. But I've always had more respect for the conscientious objectors. We were in good wars, that's what we should be honored for, but not because we were warriors."


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