By Mike Pentelow
Local artists, nurses, and students fought against Fascism in Spain in 1936, the 75th anniversary of which is now being celebrated.
The Spanish people had just elected a Popular Front government, including socialists, by a narrow majority in February. General Franco led an armed revolt against it in July, with the support of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, which supplied troops, tanks and planes, as well as the Moroccan soldiers of the Spanish colonial army. Support for the legally elected government was denied, however, by the British and French governments with a policy of “non-intervention” that prevented the Spanish government buying arms to defend itself (although some were supplied by the Soviet Union).
There was, however, huge public support from democrats throughout the world. Over 35,000 joined the International Brigades in Spain, with over 2,500 of them being from Britain and Ireland. They fought until the end of 1938 when they were withdrawn.
The very first British person to be killed in Spanish was Felicia Browne (1904-1936) who had studied in the Slade School of Fine Art, at 62 Gower Street, and was a member of the Artists’ International Association, based at 84 Charlotte Street.
She was driving to Barcelona in July 1936 when the war started. Surrounded by fighting she joined a communist militia in defence of the government on August 3. Three weeks later she took part in blowing up a Fascist munitions train. On her way back she and the rest of the group were ambushed by 40 Fascist soldiers. One of her comrades, an Italian, was shot through the foot. Felicia went to get her first aid equipment and returned to him under heavy fire. As she tended the wounded man she was killed with bullets through her chest and back.
Felicia had studied metalwork and stone masonry in Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power, where she took part in anti-Fascist street fighting. On her return to Britain she joined the Communist Party in 1933, and the following year won a TUC prize for designing a medal to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
Clive Branson (1907-1944) was another Slade student and AIA member who fought in Spain for the International Brigades. Early on in the war his task was to escort volunteers to Paris for the onward journey to Spain, which was illegal because of the British government’s so called “non-intervention” policy. Finally in January 1938 he was given permission by the Communist Party, which he had joined in 1932, to fight in the British Batallion of the International Brigades. He was captured by Italian Fascist troops in April 1938 and held in a prisoner of war camp under atrocious conditions, which he sketched.
He was released after six months and returned to London. When the second world war started he was arrested for criticising the government for not providing deep air raid shelters. (His comrade George Caffell, a communist transport worker who had also fought in Spain, supported him in this and led the breaking of gates to let people shelter in Goodge Street underground station).
Branson painted many scenes of the blitz which were exhibited by the AIA, until in 1941 he joined the Royal Armed Corps and became a tank commander posted to Burma. He was killed in February 1944 on the Ngankedenk Pass when an enemy shell penetrated the top of his tank.
His paintings were recently exhibited in Marx Memorial Library at 37a Clerkenwell Green, which he had helped set up back in 1933. His works are also held in the Tate Gallery.
A third Slade student to fight in Spain was Humphrey “Hugh” Slater (1907-1958). Like Felicia Browne he had also been in Berlin in the 1930s, witnessing the rise of the Nazis, and joining the Communist Party. In 1936 he fought for the International Brigades and became a Chief of Operations. During the second world war he was a trainer in guerrilla warfare for the Home Guard, before becoming a private in the regular army. After the war he wrote novels about his experiences in Spain, one of which, “The Conspirator”, was turned into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Taylor.
Wogan Phillips (1902-1993), was an artist with a studio at 8 Fitzroy Street, who was in Spain when the civil war broke out. He immediately joined the Medical Aid to Spain campaign as an ambulance driver, operating between Valencia and Albacete. He was wounded in Segovia in 1937 and returned to London. There he visited artist Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) who had a studio below him in Fitzroy Street. He told her he had seen her son Julian (1908-1937), a poet, who was also an ambulance driver in Spain, and that he was unharmed. Sadly, the news of Julian’s death came a few days later.
Phillips joined the Communist Party in the same year, and later inherited his father’s title of Lord Milford in 1963. In his maiden speech to the House of Lords he called for its abolition.
Patience Edney (1911-1996) was a trainee nurse at University College Hospital in Gower Street in the 1930s and joined the Communist Party after observing the effects of poverty on health. The poor could often not afford treatment in these days before the National Health Service was formed.
The News Chronicle organised a medical convoy to Spain which she joined. Patience and six other nurses were sent to the Aragon front as part of the Carlos Marx communist division, but she switched to the International Brigade after an uprising in Barcelona. After helping to deal with an outbreak of typhoid she transferred to a mobile hospital. This took shelter in a cave as Nazi bombs fell during the battle of Ebro as she continued treating the wounded.
Symbolically she died in Madrid in 1996 just after being awarded honorary Spanish citizenship for her service during the civil war.
Another to fight in Spain was Manassah Lesssor (1916-2010) who had won a scholarship to study Egyptology at University College London in Gower Street. While there he drank regularly in the Fitzroy Tavern, Charlotte Street, and joined the Communist Party, taking part in demonstrations against Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists. He was starting his third year at UCL when the civil war broke out and he was one of the first to join the International Brigades. After three weeks’ training, he was sent to the front, and was badly injured in the leg during the battle of Lopera at the end of December 1936. He was stranded in no man’s land until his comrade Jock Cunningham found him and dragged him back. After recovering from his wounds he stayed in Spain as a correspondent for the Daily Worker, writing under the name of Sam Russell (an approximate reversal of his real name).
Fitzrovia also had some pro-Fascists. Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists had a recruiting office nearby in Regent Street, and its members regularly met in Schmidt’s restaurant at 33-37 Charlotte Street.
One of these was William Joyce (1906-1946), later to be known as Lord Haw Haw for his radio broadcasts of Nazi propaganda from Germany to England. (Coincidentally his brother worked as an engineer at Broadcasting House in Langham Place).
Joyce studied at Birkbeck College, where he became a cadet in the University of London Officer Training Corps in Malet Street.
His poetry teacher was alarmed when he brought his rifle to class, and she insisted he put it in the umbrella stand.