Our Fathers Fought Franco, ed. Willy Maley, with contributions from Lisa Croft, Willy Maley, Jennie Renton and Tam Watters (Luath Press 2023) 200pp. Our Fathers Fought Franco, ed. Willy Maley, with contributions from Lisa Croft, Willy Maley, Jennie Renton and Tam Watters (Luath Press 2023) 200pp.

Our Fathers Fought Franco opens a window into the world of working-class communists from the 30s onwards, finds Chris Bambery

This wonderful book tells the story of four Scots who volunteered to fight in Spain against fascism in the 1936-9 civil war. They were all captured on first entering combat at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937, spending a grim time in General Franco’s prison camps and jails, before being repatriated to Britain, having been exchanged for captured fascist Italian troops.

The four were James Maley from the Calton in East Glasgow, Donald Renton from Portobello, Edinburgh, George or Geordie Watters from Prestonpans, East Lothian, and Archibald Campbell McAskill Williams, known as AC, born into a Scottish family in Portsmouth on the English south coast, after a spell in Canada, from where he was deported in chains as a dangerous Red. All were members of the Communist Party at the time and all, when captured, were serving in Machine Gun Company No. 2 of the British Brigade of the International Brigade (IB).

The book is edited by Willie Maley, James’s son, who writes about his dad. He is co-writer with his brother of the play From the Calton to Catalonia. Jennifer Renton writes about her dad, Tam Watters about his, and Lisa Croft about her grandad, AC. What I liked is that the book opens a window onto the world of communism in Scotland in the inter-war years and after. Obviously, being a communist in the 1930s and 1940s meant giving unconditional loyalty to Joseph Stalin, and that could not be avoided, but the communists were in so many ways the cream of the working class.

Anti-fascism and socialist activism

All four were acutely aware of the danger of fascism, both at home and abroad. In May 1936, Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, addressed a rally in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall. The Communist Party got tickets from sympathetic students. As Mosley began his speech, Donald Renton, up in the gallery, stood up and began belting out ‘The Internationale’. Fascist stewards jumped on him and gave him what a comrade said was a ‘hammering’.

Unbowed, Georgie Watters began heckling Mosley. When Mosley claimed he was being denied freedom of speech, Geordie demanded to know if there was freedom of speech in Nazi Germany. Geordie got a real beating from the stewards to the shock of the middle-class audience, unused to such scenes. Geordie was the one who was arrested by police, after he was chucked out onto the streets, and would be found guilty and fined £2 for disrupting the meeting.

Donald Renton had formed a branch of the National Unemployed Workers Movement in Portobello and represented unemployed workers appealing the cutting of their dole money under the Means Test: possession of a radio was deemed sufficient to cut off benefit. He was also involved in fighting to provide tenants in the new council schemes of Lochend and Niddrie with amenities. In one case, he barricaded himself into a first-floor flat with a family facing eviction for rent arrears. After four days, the bailiffs got in and Donald was arrested, charged with breach of the peace and jailed for thirty days.

After he returned from Spain, he became the NUWM organiser in the East End of London. Jennie Renton gives a vivid account of his exploits, including leading an invasion of the Ritz! While in London he met and married his wife, Queenie, a Jewish communist working on the staff of the Daily Worker. He would leave the Communist Party after the Russian suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, joining the Labour Party and becoming an Edinburgh City Councillor, and briefly a Bailie, but his daughter notes he missed the life he had known in the CP.

Experiences of Spain

The central event of each man’s story is their capture and imprisonment by the fascists. James Maley recalled that after just five weeks’ training, they literally jumped out of a lorry into the frontline of the battle at Jarama, telling his son it was ‘like coming out of a close into a street fight’.

Franco had planned an assault across the valley of the Jarama River to cut the road east out of Madrid to Valencia, where the Republic’s government was now based. Over the weekend of 12 and 13 February 1937, half the 500 strong British Battalion of the IB were killed or wounded. For the 2nd Machine Gun Company it was particularly harrowing. Of 129 members fighting, only 29 survived, and they were captured by the fascists.

They had been left holding a position known as Suicide Hill, but had run out of ammunition for the machine guns. They were not aware other units they were supporting had withdrawn, until Franco’s Moroccan troops enveloped them and demanded they surrender. The Moroccans killed any Spanish prisoners they captured, any officers whatever their nationality, and anyone they believed to be Russian. A British officer, Ted Dickinson, was shot. He died giving the clenched fist salute having shouted ‘salud comrades’. Donald Renton was a political commissar and would have been shot too, but none of the men revealed that fact.

The captured men who survived were marched off, with the Moroccans hitting them with whips and rifle butts, to a filthy old prison outside the town of Brunete. There was no medical provision, just starvation rations, while Italian officers and their girlfriends would come to taunt them and to encourage the guards to beat them.

From there, it was onto an overcrowded prison camp outside Talavera de la Reina where they were set to digging mass graves for the Spanish being executed. After a court martial at which they had no representation or translation, it was on to a prison in Salamanca, the fascist capital. Eventually they would be exchanged for captured Italian soldiers, after which they crossed the border into France and took the boat train from Paris to London, Victoria and then home to Scotland for James, Donald and Geordie.

Post-war activism

Those three returned to being active members of the Communist Party, for James and Geordie until the end of their lives. As a young revolutionary in Edinburgh and then Glasgow, the IB veterans were a constant presence on the marches you went on. A living link to their past struggle. In one of the pictures, taken at an IB reunion in Florence in 1976, it shows Donald Renton, another Scottish IB volunteer, Tom Murray and, although he is not identified, in the middle, Giovanni Pesce, who volunteered to join the IB as a teenager, was interned by Vichy France after the fall of the Spanish Republic, before returning to lead the Garibaldi Brigades (the communist-led Partisans) in first Turin, then Milan. He really did kill fascists.

I heard Donald Renton speak at a public meeting in Pilrig, Edinburgh, in 1974, after the police killing of Kevin Gateley, while he was protesting against a National Front march and rally in central London. By the 1970s, Tom Murray led a Maoist grouplet and was seen regularly on May Day marches wearing the beret with the IB badge in which he is pictured.

Having spent my childhood growing up in East Edinburgh, I really enjoyed Jeannie Renton and Tam Watters’ accounts of their fathers’ lives. This is no disrespect to Willie Maley and Lisa Croft. In part, the account of James Maley’s life is relatively familiar because I saw Willie’s play and had read the biographies of other Glasgow communists, such as Harry McShane; another I met on a number of occasions. To hear about how communists in Edinburgh and the Lothian coalfield fought unemployment, dreadful housing conditions and fascism was not so familiar and I always love hearing the other side of genteel Edinburgh’s story!

We owe a debt of thanks to the four men and to Willie, Jeannie, Tam and Lisa for giving us the accounts of their lives. This book deserves to be read and treasured.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

Tagged under: