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Aussies in the Spanish Civil War 1936/39 by David Leach

The Spanish Civil War was the "trial run" for WW2. It was a clash of the political right on one side (Fascists with Hitler and Mussolini as the senior international figures and General Franco as the leader of the Spanish revolutionarys) and the political left supported by Communists, Socialists, liberal democrats and people who were worried by the rise of the far right with Hitler's Nazis as the main concern.

The Germans used the War as a test bed for their new equipment and tactics.

Franco "won" the war merely because he did not lose.

Spain did not take an active role in WW2 although many feel that Spain supported the Nazis. 

Medals from the Fascist side
The Spanish Cross (Spanienkreuz) or Kondor Legion Cross was instituted on April 14th, 1939, to recognize those German Forces who served in the Spanish Civil War (July 1936- March 1939). The “Kondor Legion” who fought on the side of General Franco against communism in Spain was composed, at least publicly, of volunteers. Because of their semi-official status no awards were instituted prior to or during the war, and therefore there was no method  to recognize German bravery and accomplishment until 1939. The purpose of the Spanish Cross therefore was two fold; It was not only to be a campaign medal, but also an award recognizing achievements.

The Spanish Cross was awarded in four classes, Bronze, Silver, Gold and Gold with Diamonds. The bronzed and silver classes came in two categories, with swords (combatant) and without swords (non-combatant), while the Gold and Gold with Diamonds classes were awarded only with swords.

<< Breast badge of the German Kondor Legion, (Panzer section), supposedly non military volunteers but actually men from the German military gaining experience and testing new weapons and tactics.
Posters from the Republican side
All the youth united for Spain. Issued by the United Socialist Youth. (J.S.U.) " They shall not pass, WE SHALL PASS!" Issued by: anonymous. Artist: Puyol 1937 "Greed, Militarism, War - this is fascism. Unite to destroy it." by the National Confederation of Workers (C.N.T.)

Aussie Involvement

Australia took no official part in the Spanish Civil War so there are no official records about Aussie involvement. I approached David Leach, a UK resident, who has done considerable work on the subject. This is his reply. I thank him for it.
London, Monday evening 19 May 2003.

Dear Ted

 "We know little enough about the (Australian) volunteers we can identify but one characteristic is striking: 10 of the 66 were women - proportionally more than one would find in a conventional army. Otherwise they were not unusual. More than a third were born outside Australia, a little higher than the adult population where 70 per cent were native born, and most of that third had started life in the United Kingdom...Of 52 volunteers whose occupations we know, 36 were attached to fighting groups and 16 nursed, organised, investigated or propagandised. Before they left, 27 of the 36 fighters were manual workers - seamen, shearers, a shearer's cook, a boiler maker, sugar workers and general labourers; three were Communist Party functionaries; two were unemployed; one was a writer; four were farmers; one a school teacher; and one was a poster artist. The 16 non-fighters (including 10 women) had been nurses and white collar workers: six nurses, one advertising copywriter, two students, one office worker; two had been pedlars...Of the 27 whose politics are known, 22 were communists; two described themselves as anarchists, several were liberal democrats and three were Labor supporters"

The above extract comes from 'Australians in the Spanish Civil War' by Amirah Inglis (Sydney 1987). Amirah is the current authority on the subject and also edited  'Letters from Spain' by Lloyd Edmonds (Sydney 1985). Edmonds was a volunteer from Melbourne who had gone to England intending to study at the London School of Economics. Instead he went to Spain. In 1980, while a student at Melbourne University, I had the honour of interviewing Lloyd for my B.A. thesis. Born in 1907, it is likely that he has since died, although I did see a photograph of him on the Internet unveiling a memorial in Canberra c.1996 to Australian volunteers.

The Australians would, as a general rule, have served in the English-speaking Battalions of the 15th International Brigade: the British Battalion, the two American Battalions  - the  Lincoln and Washington Battalions, and the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion. Casualty rates among the International Brigades were particularly high; a number of Australians were killed and most would have been wounded at some point. A number of Australians making their way to Spain are said to have been drowned on the SS City of Barcelona when the ship was torpedoed by an Italian submarine off the coast of Catalonia in spring 1937. (I know a Welsh IB veteran who was on the ship. He spent the better part of a day in the water, was picked up by a fishing boat, taken to dry land, given a new pair of boots and sent straight to the Front. They were tough young men.)

Two years ago I wrote and produced a documentary film about British volunteers in Spain called 'Voices from a Mountain'. One of our interviewees called George Wheeler revealed that he had written a memoir about his experiences in Spain. Last year I was approached by a publisher who asked me to edit and annotate George's manuscript. I mention this not because I'm trying to sell the book ('To Make The People Smile Again' by George Wheeler is available online from, if you're interested) but because a young Australian features in his narrative. George left London for Spain in the company of Jack Jones from Liverpool (who went on to become one of Britain's most prominent Trade Union leaders) and Kevin Rebecchi from Melbourne. They crossed the Pyrenees together, trained together and went into battle together at the start of the Ebro Offensive in July 1938. George was captured, Kevin was wounded and later died from fever in hospital. I tried unsuccessfully to trace his family in Melbourne - Rebecchi would have been a rare surname in the Australia of the 1930s.

The attached photograph shows a group of volunteers in Barcelona in summer 1936. This is before the formation of the International Brigades as distinct fighting units. The Tom Mann Centuria consisted of a contingent of English-speaking volunteers who went to Spain within weeks of the military rebellion. The man standing second from right is the Australian Jack Barry. To his right, the lanky bloke is David Marshall who is still alive. He told me that they called Jack Barry 'Blue' but he (David) never understood why! Barry was killed in the defence of Madrid. Amirah Inglis has him down as a seaman but has no record of his age or place of origin in Australia.

If you're interested in the subject, there are a couple of websites that I'd recommend. 
  • The first is a site that stems from the archives of the Lincoln Battalion and has a lively discussion group. 
  • The second is the relatively new British site of the International Brigade Memorial Trust. It's possible to download the British Battalion's 'Roll of Honour'. You'll see a number of Australians. 

Some of the men who are listed as British were in fact Australian...either Australians who went from Britain or immigrant Britons who went from Australia, as Amirah Inglis points out. There was a legendary character called Ted Dickinson who was captured at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937. He was tied to a tree and executed by Moorish troops. His last words were (allegedly): "If we had 10,000 Australian bushmen, we'd drive these dogs into the sea." Dickinson is claimed as an Aussie. The British claim him as a Londoner. He was, in fact, from eastern Europe!  

At the Battle of Jarama in February 1937, the British Battalion (with Irishmen, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans etc.) was at full strength: three rifle and one machinegun company, totalling about 600 men. During the battle, in which the 'British' helped to check the nationalist advance on an important 'lifeline' road that linked Madrid with the port of Valencia, the Battalion lost a lot of men and was never to regain a full complement. Each Battalion had a Spanish component, but by the time of the last great Republican offensive in July 1938, the Battalion - as with all the Battalions in the International Brigades - was substantially Spanish in national composition.

  • Further reading;
    • 'The Last Mile to Huesca' by Judith Keene (UNSW Press 1988) is the story of Australian nurse Agnes Hodgson, including her Spanish Civil War diary. 
    • Also by Judith Keene is the recent 'Fighting for Franco' (Leicester Uni. Press 2001), an account of the men and women from around the world, including Nugent Bull, who supported the rebellion.

Aussies on Franco's side

The references have all been to Australians who went to defend the Spanish Republic against the military insurrection. There were in fact foreign volunteers who went to fight for Franco (Including my wife's Irish mother's uncle...but if I ever bring this up at the dinner table...). From Australia a young Sydneysider called Nugent Bull went to fight for his Catholic faith against what he saw as atheistic communism (the irony being that the Communist Party was inconsequential in Spain until the rebellion.) Bull, incidentally, was a friend of cricketer and sports writer Bill O'Reilly. I understand Bull stayed in Europe and subsequently served in the RAF. He was killed in action.

I'll end by mentioning another Australian connection. My interest in the Spanish Civil War was reawakened a few years ago by the chance discovery in a rural English churchyard of a private memorial to a young Englishman who had been killed in Spain: 

  • In memory of John Pascal Rickman
    • who was killed in Spain in April 1937
      • He gave his life in the cause of freedom

It was very unusual. I decided to investigate and, over a period of months and with the help of a  formidable British veteran called Bill Alexander, pieced together a fascinating story of 26 year-old John Rickman, a vicar's son and Oxford dropout who had been radicalised, as so many people were in the 1930s by the threat of fascism in Europe.

I traced the sister who told me that her mother was the daughter of a grazier from Tumut in New South Wales. At the turn of the 20th century she met a young, physically frail English cleric who had been sent to Australia because it was felt the climate would be good for his health. They married and came to England, eventually settling in the remote hill village of Powerstock in south west Dorset. The vicar died at a relatively early age. In late 1936 the mother went to Australia on an extended trip to see family and avoid the northern winter. Meanwhile, John told his sister that he was going to Paris to work on one of the 'Aid for Spain' committees. In fact he was going to fight. After the battle of Jarama, in (northern) spring 1937, the sister discovered that not only had her brother gone to Spain, but he had been killed. The mother was at this point on a boat making her way from Sydney to England.

This young woman, with no English family to turn to, had the awful task of meeting her mother off the Southampton train at Victoria Station to explain that John was dead. Apparently, the mother paused and simply said, "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away." And the issue was closed.

David Leach

A potted history of the Spanish Civil War

In July 1936, the opening shots of the 2nd World War were fired in Europe's poorest country. Spain was long governed by a wealthy elite and its brutal military police, the infamous Guardia Civil (civil guard). 

The people saw their chance for democracy in the collapse of the 13 year old dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera. When elections were held and the monarchist candidates defeated at the polls, King Alfonso XIII left Spain for exile in Italy.

On April 4, 1931, the Provisional Government of the Republic of Spain was proclaimed to wildly enthusiastic crowds. To a nation long victimized by malnutrition, illiteracy, unemployment, mass arrest and torture, these were heady days of freedom. 

 <<< Copy of the 1936 Peace Medal

Social Democrats, intellectuals, peasants, workers, artists, labour unionists, anarchists, communists, socialists, all intoxicated with the idea of a new society, worked tirelessly towards a Spain free of grinding poverty, privilege and cruel repression.

When the new Republican government set about the task of modernizing Spain, class conflict erupted. To break-up the great estates of the rich and give land to the landless peasants was regarded by the wealthy as an attack on property. Improving the conditions of those who worked in factories, shipyards and mines was seen by the capitalists as threatening their profits. Giving autonomy to Catalonia was for the right-wing nationalists the tearing of Spain to tatters. Removing the privileges of the enormously wealthy Catholic Church was seen by conservative Catholics as the "de-christianization" of the country. Moves to reduce the overblown officer corps created animosity against the government from within the army.

Ultimately these conservative social forces sought salvation and the restoration of "order" by launching a military coup. The aim of the army rebellion led by General Franco and his Nationalist movement was the crushing of the Republican government in Madrid, but instead this treason was met with popular armed resistance. The civil war began in earnest.

Franco's Nationalist movement had powerful allies in the fascist regimes of Germany and Italy. Without the combined military might of these two dictatorships aiding Franco, his dreams of destroying the Spanish Republic would have failed. The first airlift in modern war occurred when Nazi planes transported Franco's troops to battle. Italy sent airplanes, tanks, trucks and some 47,000 ground troops. Nazi planes conducted the first saturation bombing of a defenceless civilian target when they obliterated the town of Guernica.

The great powers of the west did nothing while Spain was being ravaged. There was tacit approval in this silence as the young republic was cut apart by fascist bayonets. However, people from all over the world came to the aid of Spain. Artists were in the forefront of this international outpouring of sympathy. 

Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Paul Robeson, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro are but a few of those who lent their talents to the Republican cause. Volunteer brigades came from every corner of the globe to defend Spain as combatants, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from the U.S. being the most well known of these (members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade would later be persecuted in the U.S. for being "premature antifascists" and pro-communist).

The internal pressures of disparate ideologies working together in coalition, the vicious onslaught of the fascist armies, plus the blockade imposed upon the young republic by the west, led to the demise of the revolution. from Spain took no active part in WW2.

Who was General Franco?

Francisco Franco y Bahamonde was born on December 4, 1892.  In 1926 he became the youngest general in the Spanish army.  Following his support, in 1930, for the King during the abdication crisis, the Spanish government removed him from his appointment as director of the Military Academy at Saragossa.  

However, his skill led to a renewed military career, and by 1935 he was commander-in-chief in Morocco.  In 1936 he was sent to the Canary Isles as fears of a military rising against the left-wing government spread. 

However, he kept in touch with the insurrectionary movement and on the outbreak of the civil war in July he flew to Morocco to supervise the transportation of the Army there to mainland Spain, quickly becoming commander of all the 'Nationalist' forces and political leader of the anti-Republicans.  Following the end of the civil war in 1939, he remained head of state in Spain until his death in 1975.

The following photos and text was kindly supplied by Ross Bastiaan OAM RFD
  • Spanish Civil War Plaque is located on the shores of Lake Burly-Griffin, Canberra behind the Hilton Hotel. 


  • The memorial commemorates all those Australians who gave support to the armies involved in the Spanish Civil War. 


  • The plaque was unveiled by the last living Australian survivor of the war in 1993.

Text from Plaque

This monument honours the seventy Australian men and women who went to Spain during the Spanish civil war of 1936-39 to defend the cause of the Spanish republic.

A republican government was elected in Spain in 1931 and a democratic constitution promulgated. In July 1936 a group of generals led by Francisco Franco staged a military uprising against the popular front government precipitating a bloody civil war. When the conflict ended in 1939 general Franco's nationalist forces controlled the country.

During the civil war some 50,000 supporters from fifty-three countries went to Spain to defend the republic. For them the Spanish civil war represented the first battle in a larger war against fascism.

The Australian writer Nettie Palmer who was in Barcelona when the uprising occurred said of those who supported the Spanish republic - though they were few in number and not powerful and seemed often to be shouting against the wind theirs was truly a brave chapter in Australia's history.

This monument erected by the Australians in Spain memorial committee was dedicated on 11 December 1993 by Lloyd Edmond's, international brigade veteran.

Kevin Rebbechi

Dear Sir


I have just stumbled across your page on Australians in the Spanish Civil War. In it  David Leach relates how he was unsuccessful in tracing a young Australian International Brigade member called Kevin Rebbechi (incorrectly spelled Rebecchi), from Melbourne who went to Spain with George Wheeler and Jack Jones trained and served with them as an infantryman in the 15th International Brigade. 


Kevin was machine gunned in the legs during the Ebro offensive in July 1938 and then badly injured when a mule rolled on him while being evacuted during the night. He was very knocked around and with little medical care died of yellow jaundice at Vic, 60 kms from the French border, on the 1st January, 1939.  (It was only  a few weeks ago with the help of a German friend in Barcelona that I have finally found where he is buried.)


David Leach was interested in tracing Kevins family as he apparently features in the narrative of George Wheelers book, 'To Make The People Smile Again', published in 2003.


Kevin was my fathers eldest brother and I was named after him.  My father, Gregory, is still alive in Sydney at 80 years of age but in very poor health with Parkinsons disease. The only information the family ever received was a photo of Kevin with other Australians, including Lloyd Edmonds, prior to them being repatriated by the Red Cross across the French border. Unfortunately Kevin was unable to go with them as he was too ill. 

The only information the family ever received was from Lloyd Edmonds who met him in hospital. 

The attached photo appeared in the Melbourne Age and this was the first time that anybody even knew that Kevin was even in Spain. 

“Melbourne Boys Safe from Franco’s Killers.” – Melbourne Age 2/2/1939

Rear: from left: Kevin Rebbechi, Lloyd Edmunds, Murn McDonald (NZ), Joe Carter.

Front: Jack Franklyn, Bert Bryant (NZ), Jim McNeill.

Kevin Rebbechi and Lloyd Edmunds remained in a Barcelona hospital when their six Aussie comarades were repatriated. Fears were held for their safety. It is now reported that they are on their way home to Melbourne.

Kevin was only 21 when he died and as he had left home in Melbourne at the age of 15 my father was only 10 and never saw him again. He travelled all over Australia working as a cane cutter, miner and prospector. He apparently worked his way to England as a stoker. Unable to obtain work and unable initially to be accepted into the International Brigade due to his Italian/Catholic background he crewed on blockade runners running food into Spain. On his last trip their ship was bombed/shelled at Bilboa and they had to run it aground as it was sinking.


Surprisingly there seems to be a complete blank in Almirah Inglis's book on Australian veterans as to Kevin’s family background in Melbourne. Our family came to Australia during the gold rush in 1850 and were involved in the Eureka Stockade incident (My original ancestor Antonio married Peter Lalors cousin, Mary Masterton immediately after the uprising). Kevin’s father was a prominent trade union official in Melbourne. He was founder and Secretary of the Federated Clerks Union and was one of the founders of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

Kevin Rebbechi

17 Attwood St

Waikaraka, RD4


New Zealand


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