Two interviews filmed in 1987, one with Charlie Woods, an activist on Tyneside who had supported the volunteers who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, the other with John Henderson and Frank Graham, who were both veterans of the Spanish Civil War. Frank Graham was later an important publisher on Tyneside, championing amongst other things the works of Jack Common. The interviews were done in connection with an exhibition at Side Gallery of photographs from the Spanish Civil War; the interviewer is Sue Todd, who was a member of the gallery team.
John Henderson & Frank Graham
00:11 ST: You both volunteered to fight with the international brigades in Spain. Why?
FG: When Franco invaded Spain it was a time in Europe that fascism was on the march. Spain was the first step in the main resistance to facism.
JH: For the Spanish people of course the most important thing was that Franco had invaded. People that were politically aware, we saw this as part of the general attack of the Nazi and fascist movement.
ST: Had you both been politically active before Spain?
FG: Yes, I had been part of the student movement in London and when i returned here I was active in the national unemployed workers movement. Went on the hunger marches to London.
JH: I was the same and in the young communist league and the communist party.
FG: Volunteers were already going [to Spain] it was obvious that this was going to be one of the major fronts to stop fascism
JH: I supported the legitimate Spanish government and so I was encouraging people to take part in the fight against fascism and I always considered that to be true to myself I ought to go [volunteer]. Not long before 1936, a poet, an Oxford man who wrote for the Daily Worker Maurice Carnforth was killed. And I thought right, if he can die I want to take my chance. So I went. I was 25.
FG: I was 22. My family were not politically active but they didn’t oppose it.
JH: My family were supportive, my wife to be at the time understood. We had only just got engaged in the christmas and I went to Spain on New Years Day.
05:22 ST: Charlie woods was talking about the campaign in the NE to support republican Spain..can you tell us more about that?
FG: After we were in Spain for 5 weeks, it was decided to return to England to tell people what had happened. 4 people were chose to come back and we were back for about 3 weeks and we addressed 2 or 3 meetings everyday. [The response was] overwhelming. When I returned again, towards the end there was very little opposition in this area to the republican government except from the fascists themselves. It was the only time in my political career where there was hardly any opposition. There was more support in the NE, because the labour party up here were more working class and left wing.
JH: The lack of wholehearted support of the leadership from the Labour Party stemmed from the feeling among them that in supporting the national brigade in Spain they were supporting communism. They were wary of being really in with it.
09:07 ST: What did you understand the government policy to be?
FG: At the time people talked of chamberlain and his appeasement policy but this word is false. The didn’t appease Hitler, members of the Tory party saw in him their saviour and supported him. They couldn’t come out openly but they expected him to attack the soviet union.
JH: [The non intervention policy] delayed things and made it much more difficult and costly to get across to Spain. You couldn’t stop people that felt like they had to go. I was a passport holder and there were about 24 people in my group, there were very few with passports. You were viewed suspiciously. It is important to think that we can’t understand the attitude of the British government to non-intervention unless we are fully aware that the capitalist governments were anxiously awaiting the time that Hitler would break up the soviet union. This was main spring to their policy in Spain. The didn’t understand Hitler but that is what happens with Tory politicians, they are generally stupider. ”
13:15 “ST: Frank, were there difficulties in you getting to Spain?
FG: The first time, no. It only took me 48 hours. The second time it was difficult. It would have been impossible had it not been for the fact that 95% of the French people supported us. There were parts of Paris and you could be open about it and the police wouldn’t arrest you. We had to climb the pyrenees at night and we had been delayed, we were a mile from the summit. The french troops tried to stop us. They opened fire and the guys said don’t take any notice they won’t shoot you. They didn’t hit us deliberately . ”
14:28 “ST: How were you recruited?
FG: I don’t quite remember, the first time there was no real organisation. We want to London and joined up. There were 3 others from the NE (Sunderland). Saw many killed in Spain.
JH: They were people like us, people interested in politics. It was a very heartening thing in the group I was in, when we got to Paris in their various little ways the people supported you. Frank and I knew each other before Spain, Frank had been before and been sent to an officer training school. That was my first glimpse of him, when he returned from the school.
18:00 ST: You were both thrown into one of the most significant battles in the civil war. Can you tell us about that?
FG: The time is important, I was passing through Barcelona on Christmas day and we were the first to arrive. On January 1st for 6 weeks we were on the battlefront for one of the biggest battles of the war shows you how little training we had. The battle of Jarama, if that hadn’t been won the war would have been over. We surrounded Madrid, it was a dreadful battle with mainly Moorish troops. The moorish army of Franco were wiped out. We lost heavily in the first day there were 200 dead out of 650. When reinforcements came in 4 days later there were only 50 or 60 men. We needed to retake the hills around Jarama, or else the outcome of the war would have been very different.
20:17 JH: Our lot Frank got in to Majaderas in early February, we had no rifles but only (?) guns
FG: They were like machine guns but they were so unreliable they would have been better without them.
JH: We had no rifles. These guns when you fired them were pop pop pop then you had to stop and release it from the chamber and then carry on. It was absolutely infuriating, with one man carrying that heavy brass tripod. It was only the 15th of February that we actually received guns, rifles, with 10 rounds of ammunition. That was our total training. We got some gruel on arriving and then we were marched up to the front. The first 2 people I saw were from Newcastle the rest of were coming down the hill , there was a line of fascists coming over the hill. We retreated quickly and we ran down, and lay among the olive groves.
Eventually we moved into position at the top of his sunken road which was a very good defensive position. It was important that we held on to that part (of the hill). Winston Churchill’s nephew (Giles Romley) came next to me and he didn’t know how to use a rifle.
FG: Everyones instructions for that battle was fire as much as you could. Even if you couldn’t see anybody. The rifles got red hot after half an hour they were being fired so much.
JH: Then we got the french maxim guns [but had to hand load the machines gun belts] but it was the best you could do.
27:40 “ST: You were both given special status after the battle of Jamara…
JH: [Laughs] I don’t know about that!
FG: I was sent to officer training camp and I then went back and was put in charge of intelligence and scouting. For the battalion and then the brigade. As a scout I was more or less independent.
JH: Shortly after when Frank became a scout, I became an observer. I had a periscope to survey the space but then they took it away. We went to try and get their machine gun and a few of us were sent across, one of which was Professor Haldane (?) you couldn’t hold him back!
FG: I was appointed the announcer for Radio Barcelona. I had to compose everything, write out half an hour programme then do it. I took chunks out of newspapers and I did that for about 2 months. I still have the scripts that have the government stamp!
JH: [Gov policy] must have had some effect, it would have prevented some of them [from going to Spain] over a wide area. In France and other countries.
ST: Did you get a warm welcome in the NE when you returned?
FG: Very much so. Everyone was welcomed back by all the political organisations. It was realised that they had done an important job in Spain. The second world war was just around the corner. So it was recognised that they had in the first battle of the second world war.
Cuts 33:12 ”
33:56 JH: I did tell you that I had been an observer. Another job I had in the battalion was as postman. All it amounted to was that I had a box, an orange box. If people had letters along the trench they would put it in the box. In the morning I went to Merada, and handed in the mail then pick anything up and take it back. One day when I came back at the back of our trench set back there was a chateau of some sort. And there was an open air swimming pool. On a couple of occasions I jumped in to the swimming pool, it wasn’t big but to feel the water was marvellous.
Cuts at 36:50
36:53 Talk together about photographs, and lists who is in it.
FG: talks about memorial in Jamara.
JH: We had three light tanks that ran up and down the hill. To give an impression that there were more tanks. I was following behind the tank and suddenly it slewed around and I had to jump out the way. What had happened was the track had snapped.
FG: there was supposed to be about 30 tanks that was why the action was aborted.