Aussies in the
Spanish Civil War 1936/39
by David Leach
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
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.
from the Fascist side
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.
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.
from the Republican side
|All the youth
united for Spain. Issued by the United Socialist Youth. (J.S.U.)
shall not pass, WE SHALL PASS!" Issued by: anonymous. Artist: Puyol
Militarism, War - this is fascism. Unite to destroy it." by the
National Confederation of Workers (C.N.T.)
|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
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
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
amazon.co.uk, 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
- 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
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.
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
- He gave his life in the cause of
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.
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 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
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
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.
Spain took no active part in WW2.
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.
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
- 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
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
This monument erected by the Australians in Spain memorial committee was
dedicated on 11 December 1993 by Lloyd Edmond's, international brigade
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.
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.)
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.
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.
only information the family ever received was from Lloyd Edmonds who met
him in hospital.
attached photo appeared in the Melbourne Age and this was the first time
that anybody even knew that Kevin was even in Spain.
Boys Safe from Franco’s Killers.” – Melbourne Age 2/2/1939
from left: Kevin Rebbechi, Lloyd Edmunds, Murn McDonald (NZ), Joe
Jack Franklyn, Bert Bryant (NZ), Jim McNeill.
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.
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
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.