“It was in Spain that men learned one can be right and still be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own reward” Albert Camus
The first British prisoners of war were captured on the second day at Jarama on the 13th February 1937. They were Commander Harold Fry's machine gun Company who were cut off and surrounded after the majority of the company pulled back, 30 men were taken prisoner. The maching-gun company were part of the British Battalion and were armed with the Russian Maxim machine-guns and a few French Chauchet light machine guns. Glasgow's Jimmy Maley explains the confusion "After 200 yards going forward, the retreat was coming back and going down past us and we were going through. There were soldiers running past us and we were going up. And there were soldiers of the British Battalion dropping as we were going up. Without firing a shot they were getting killed." They fully expected to be executed, but were saved only by the intervention of a Spanish officer. However some individuals were still killed in the most unfortunate of circumstances. Phil Elias from Leeds was shot when reaching for his tobacco, and another prisoner given permission to smoke was shot in the stomach by the same guard. That same machine-gun burst claimed the life of John Stevens, an engineer from Islington in London. Second in command Ted Dickenson, who had emigrated to Australia as a small boy, muttered that "if we had 10,000 Australian bushmen we'd drive these fascist bastards back into the sea" for this he paid with his life. As he faced the firing squad Dickenson gave the red salute and shouted "keep your chins up boys" then three shots rang out...Dickenson had earlier saved Commander Harold Fry's life by ripping his officer's insignia from his uniform during the capture. They were then taken to a temporay facility nearby in San Martin de la Vega where they were finger printed and had their heads shaved. They spent a week here, in crowded conditions, often nine to a cell and were interogated by Alfonso Merry de Val who was educated in England at Eton. They were then photographed and filmed on the back of a truck, the picture appearing in the pro-fascist Daily Mail, which was very unsympathetic to their plight. News of the capture had not reached Jimmy Maley's mother in Scotland, who feared the worst for her son's fate. However, footage of the captured volunteers was screened in cinemas around the country as part of a British Movietone News broadcast. By chance, she was among those who watched it and was so relieved to see that, contrary to expectations, her son was alive, she then asked the projectionist in a cinema in Paisley to cut out two frames of the newsreel. The prisoners were then moved to Talavera de la Reina, an old factory where Spanish Republican prisoners were being held. Here they were worked hard repairing roads and burying the bodies of executed Republican prisoners. With little food and unsanitary living conditions the men soon grew weak with illness and disease.
After three months at Talevera, on the 18th May 1937, they were moved to Salamanca, here they were tried by military court, the charge 'aiding a rebellion'. All were tried together and no one represented or spoke for them, so the prisoners agreed not to speak one word in 'court' The result was that five were sentenced to death, Commander Harold Fry, George Leeson, Maurice Goldberg, Jimmy Rutherford and Charles West.
They were moved again to Model prison in Salamanca where they remained until May 1937. Soon after they were told that Franco had pardoned them and they were to be exchanged for Italian prisoners. One of the stipulations of their release was that none of the freed prisoners would return to Spain and resume their fight against fascism. A number of the men did not adhere to this agreement and were back fighting in Spain as soon as was possible. Jimmy Rutherford in particular with disasterous consequences ( see below 'Prisoners at San Pedro de Cardena')
23 British prisoners were exchanged at Irun and were back in England at the end of May 1937. A small number of prisoners were kept back, George Leeson, Maurice Goldberg, and Robert Silcock, who were then moved in with the Spanish Republican prisoners. Why this was done has never been made clear, perhaps it was to ensure the released prisoners would not speak too unfavourably about their treatment, or perhaps it was anti-semetic in it's nature. It was not too be for too long, as Leeson was released in September after a campaign in the UK and Goldberg and Silcock were released in November '37. Finally all the men who had been captured at Jarama were free.
Propaganda photograph which featured in the British newspaper The Daily Mail: from left: Maurice Goldberg, Charles West, Archie (AC )Williams, Thomas Bloomfield, Bert 'Yank' Levy, Richard Payne, Austin Skempton, Harold Fry, Charles Martenson, George Leeson, Basil Abrams (Minsk), Jimmy Rutherford, James Maley, Alfred Chowney. Donald Renton and George Watters were also in this group that were captured but are not shown here.
Newspaper article relating the fate of the Jarama prisoners in particular Charles West, who is second from left in the named picture. Charlie and AC Williams were close friends.
The Machine-gun Company walk from the truck into the prison at Talavera de la Reina
Propaganda photo opp. The fascist sergeant looks as thou he is about to distribute packet's of cigarettes amongst the men, but, they never did get the cigarettes.
AC Williams was a member of Harold Frys' machine gun company who were captured at Jarama on the 13th February 1937. Whilst being held captive AC kept a small notebook. His grand-daughter, Lisa Croft, has kindly copied for me most of the contents of his notebook for this website. Lisa has also written an excellent article about her grandfather which is included in the IBMT newsletter. (issue 34, 1-2013) Lisa's great article mentions such things as the autographs of the prisoners, a copy of a telegram to be sent home and a basball commentary. All of which are included here along with other writings from ACs' notebook. I cannot thank Lisa enough for her assistance and willingness to share such personal and wonderful memories of her late grand-father, International Brigader, (AC) Archibald Campbell McCaskill Williams b. Portsmouth 3rd October 1904, d. Glasgow 1973
Autographs of the Prisoners of War taken from A.C. (Archibald Campbell McCaskill) Williams Notebook he kept whilst in prison Courtesy Lisa Croft
A Russian pilot was also a prisoner of war held in the same camp as AC. He was in a serious condition and did not expect to live. He asked AC to copy down in Russian this letter which he hoped would be passed on to his loved one's on his death. A very moving and sad tale Courtesy Lisa Croft
Copy of telegram in AC Williams prison Notebook. Courtesy Lisa Croft
Nationalities of Prisoners being held and list of ailments suffered by the machine gun company. Taken from AC Williams prison notebook. Courtesy Lisa Croft
Payment letter to secure release of fellow prisoners Leeson & Goldberg, who had been held captive while all the other POW's had been released. Courtesy Lisa Croft
Scorecard from Baseball game from prison notebook. Courtesy Lisa Croft
AC Williams' Interrogation by Alfonso Merry de Val at San Martin de la Vega Courtesy Lisa Croft
The famous Baseball commentary between 'Payne's Panther's' and 'Giles Gorillas' from AC Williams prison notebook.. Courtesy Lisa Croft
A letter from AC to the local paper relating first hand the POW's conditions in Spain. Courtesy Lisa Croft
AC Williams' map of the prison. Courtesy of Lisa Croft
After release AC gets to know his daughter Rosemary (for rememberance) Courtesy Lisa Croft
AC Williams MI5 file. Courtesy Lisa Coft
As these newspaper articles show, AC was fighting against injustice, for basic human rights and for better living conditions in Canada, long before he embarked on his journey to Spain. He was deported back to the UK after one demonstration and arrest too many after being described as a "Rabid Agitator"
Archibald Campbell McCaskill Williams: Communist, Anti-Fascist, and member of the International Brigades, Born Portsmouth 1903, died Glasgow 1973. Picture courtesy of Lisa Croft
International Brigades: British Pow's at Irun cross the border into France in May 1937. Many were captured at Jarama and included members of the machine-gun Company AC Williams, Harold Fry and Yank Levy
Article in the Times newspaper about the release of the Jarama POW's
Letter replying to Charlie West's enquiry as to the release date for the two Jarama prisoners who were kept behind after Charlie and the others were released. Goldberg and Silcock were detained after the rest of the machine gun crew had been released. No reason was ever given Marx Memorial Library
Jimmy Rutherford from Leith in Edinburgh had been taken prisoner at Jarama in 1937, and his capture again in May 1938 was to end his short life. Desperate to avoid detection he gave a false name (James Smalls) and his comrades tried in vain to shield him. Merry de Val who had interrogated Jimmy after his capture at Jarama recognised him and he was summarily shot. The date was 24/5/1938 and the reason given was that Jimmy had contravened the previous agreement, that all prisoners were not to return to Spain after their repatriation to the UK. A tragic and unecccessary end to the life of anti fascist fighter and International Brigadista Jimmy Rutherford.
Three Prisoners of War return home, from Franco's prison's from Left: Joseph Maiden of Rotherham, Stephen Ward of Barnsley and Alfred Sterling of Sheffield. Picture Sheffield Telegraph
There were two main battles at which the International Brigades suffered the loss of men who were captured as prisoners of war. These were at Jarama in 1937 (above) and at the Aragon campaigns of 1938. Over 100 were taken prisoner at Calaceite in this action and were taken to Saragossa for interrogation, the others to San Pedro de Cardeña, near Burgos. These men were eventually exchanged for Italion prisoners of war held by the Republic.
San Pedro de Cardena was an old disused monastery outside the town of Burgos, which was used as an early 'concentration' style prison camp for Republican prisoners. Conditions in the prison were appalling, with no toilet or washing facilities things quickly became unsanitary. A bar of soap was issued every month, but this had to be shared between six men. Food was scarce, stale bread and rotten fish soup were a staple of the 'menu'. Their clothes soon became rags infected with lice, and no blankets were provided so in the winter months the men froze. Prisoners were subjected to summary beatings, intimidation and psychological scare tactics were employed to break the spirit of the men. Many different nationalities shared this hell on earth in 1938 after the Aragon campaign and San Pedro was a place where humanity was an alien concept to the prison guards. To combat this, some of the prisoners decided to organise themselves in order to improve morale, and gain back the self respect which the fascist's were so intent on taking away from them. Americans Hy Wallach, who was captured by Italian fascists and spent 17 months incarcerated in San Pedro, Carl Geiser, Syd Rosenblatt and Bob Steck orgainised classes for the men in many different languages. Greek, Polish, Russian, and English were all taught, reflecting the nature of the International Brigades. Political Commissar's taught political economy, dialetical materialism and discussions on the International situation. Bob Steck taught music and writing. A chess set was fashioned from soap, each man contributing a precious piece, which became crucial to relieve the endless boredom of prison life. However, considering the conditions, the real coup de grâce was that the men even managed to produce a one sheet newspaper called the 'Jaily News', which was written and editied by a combination of Bob Steck, Hy Wallach and Syd Rosenblatt, with British prisoner Jimmy Moon and the Czech Kaline doing the illustrating. This constant activity saved the men from retreating into themselves, for although they were incarcerated in San Pedro, they were free where it mattered most, in their minds.
It took until between February and April 1939 for all of the men to be freed as part of a prisoner exchange scheme. Even then two men still remained behind, Tom Jones, who was only released in March 1940, when a ransom of some two millon pounds had been paid, and Irishman Frank Ryan. Ryan who was under sentence of death commuted to 30 years imprisonment, was eventually released in July 1940. He died in Dresden, Germany, June 10th 1944.
San Pedro de Cardena, Burgos 1938, the Monastary outside Burgos in the heart of Franco occupied Spain was used by the Fascists as a prison camp for arrested volunteers from the International Brigades. Frank Ryan from Ireland is front row second left. Morgan Havard, Tom Jones (Wales) Hy Wallach, Sid Rosenblatt, Bob Steck (Lincolns) Maurice Levitas, George Wheeler, Tony Gilbert, (smallest row third left) Jimmy Moon (British Battalion), Yugoslav Radavoy Nicolitch, and Bob Doyle (Ireland) could all possibly be in this picture.
Maurice Levitas: served with the British Battalion of the 15th International Brigade was imprisoned in San Sebastian and San Pedro de Cardena. Here he recalls the camp authorities attempts to force the prisoners to read Fascist pamphlets.
London protest demanding the release of Irishman Frank Ryan from Franco's Jail's
International Brigade Prisoners of war return on the SS Worthing, sailing from Dieppe to Newhaven, repatriated under the prisoner exchange scheme November 2nd 1938. Picture World Wide Photos Date and photo awating verification
All the following Scots arrived in San Pedro de Cardena prison between 8th and 14th April 1938. J. William Armour, Glasgow, Dan Burns, Greenock, Thomas Booth, Paisley, Robert Clunie, Dundee, John Croll, Dumbarton, William Collins, Glasgow, Samuel Cooper, Glasgow, Michael Clarke, Greenock, Robert Douglas Simpson, Aberdeen, David Docherty, Greenock/Paisley, Thomas Dow, Clydebank, David ‘Danny’ Gibbons, Renton, George Gillan, Dundee, Arthur Henderson, Dunfermline, George Glassey, Edinburgh, William Kelly, Glasgow, David Kennedy, Greenock/Port Glasgow, Lindsay Ballingall, Dysart, Fife, William Garry McCartney, Glasgow, Frank McLaughlin, Newmilns, John McColl, Glasgow, John Penman, Cardenden, Fife, George Poustie, Dundee, William Dougan, Glasgow, Edward Biggins, Lanarkshire, George Drever, Leith, John Gallacher, Gartcosh, David McGarva, Glasgow, Luke McGoochan, Edinburgh, Robert Dickie, Aberdeen/Canada, James Farrell, Dundee.
All were released/exchanged in two main groups, all arriving back in the UK either between 23rd & 28th October 1938 or in February 1939, with a couple in December 1938.
Fragment of the Prisoners underground newspaper 'The Jaily News'