Sunday, 24 July 2011

An Englishman for Franco

As promised previously these are my thoughts on Peter Kemp's memoirs "The Thorns of Memory".

Peter Kemp died in 1993. and you can find various obituaries on line (check out the one from the Independent, which was written by MRD Foot, the well known historian of the secret services). By all accounts he was a real boy's own hero, constantly seeking action despite the opening statement that he doesn't like being shot at. Aside from his service in various pro-fascist forces under Franco he also served in the SOE and fought in Vietnam after the war. The book covers all of these and more as he was a freelance journalist who seems to have constantly sought out trouble.

I'm mainly interested in the Spanish Civil War portion of the book, and that is principally where I'll target my remarks.

I think that anyone who has an interest in the SCW should read the Spain section of this book. There. Can't say it clearer than that. It is an important book, with real colour and "feel" to it. However, I have one strong caveat. It is book to be treated with caution, - if it was the only book you read on the subject you would come away with a very lopsided view of what went on. It is a book written in the style of the Daily Mail in many ways. It it massively one-eyed and prejudiced yet it presents itself as even handed. I have read memoirs by the most unreconstructed Marxist-Stalinists who fought in the SCW but at no point do they pretend that they are anything other than biased. Kemp's attempt to show himself as a reasonable man presenting a balanced view does him no favours. In a petty way I'm glad that I bought the book second hand and so did not end up putting cash into metaphorical pocket of a man who couldn't see anything wrong with Franco's conduct during the war or afterwards.

Right, I've got that out of the way. So what is good about the book? Kemp fought in a Carlist cavalry unit, a Carlist infantry unit and also in the Spanish Foreign Legion. He was wounded in action a couple of times. He took part in attacks and defences. He fought against regular Spanish forces and also International Brigades. He was attacked by aircraft (his own and Republican) and he was shelled again by both sides. He was attacked by tanks and attacked supported by tanks. He commanded infantry and MG companies.

How much more do you want? He's very good on what it was like to be in an SCW battle, and what it was like to be in some of the iconic units. There are several strong impressions I'll take away from this book. Most battles seem to be fought either side of a ridge line and mostly in olive groves. SFL MG companies include a light mortar platoon. The level of detail is priceless.

So why should you treat these memoirs with care? Whilst Kemp claims to have no regrets and does not feel he needs to apologise for what he did these memoirs provide his justification. Now I know he was there and I was not but there are factual errors and oversights.

Firstly you would be hard pressed to identify that the Germans or Italians played a major role in Franco's victory (and the tacit support provided by American oil companies is totally ignored). The only foreign intervention of any importance (and also the first intervention according to Kemp) is the presence of the International Brigades. This ignores completely the airlift of the SFL by German planes. Without a doubt that was the most significant intervention of the whole war.

His personal justification that he was fighting Communism is also coloured by full 20:20 hindsight. At the outbreak of the war the Communists were a minor force. The government Kemp was volunteering to overthrow was a democratically elected democratic socialist government. He would be more honest to admit that at that point, like so many people of his background and class, he was not a big believer in democracy and he was not totally opposed to the ideas of the Nazis and Fascists. His excuse, that he was a Tory at University and most Tories felt the same, is a fairly pathetic excuse. Ted Heath became a Tory leader and Prime Minister and he was opposed to Franco and supported the Republic.

Finally in this section we have to consider his views on Guernica. I have written about the evidence on Guernica before on this blog - see  In this book, written in 1990, he peddles some of the same myths, - including the old one that Guernica was burnt down by the Republicans. His evidence for this is the account of the Daily Mail's reporter Harold Cardoza who was a known Franco sympathiser. This is of a piece with his other accounts of the people he meets. With one exception they are all honourable, decent, people, all of whom have a justification for the barbaric acts they commit.His previously controversial account of the execution of an Irish IB deserter in his book "Mine were of trouble" is changed here to heap all the blame on one individual. The others previously implicated in the incident are now exonerated as discussions with them in 1986, post the death of Franco, has lead them to clarify that they did all in their power to prevent the execution. Clearly a massive surprise there that when asked "Did you commit a war crime?" the answer was no.

SOE, - a most secret organisation. My reading of memoirs of those who fought in the IBs is that they were mostly treated in exactly the opposite way. Many, despite the fact they signed up to fight against fascism in Spain were denied the chance to do the same for their own country.

I have to say that made me fairly cross, to say the least.


  1. Did a organised tour on the Spanish Civil War about 10 + years ago - found it very interesting - at the time the Spanish had not come to terms with the Civil War and the British organisers (Holt's Tours) had to do all their own research as they could find nobody in the Spanish tourist industry to help. When we visited Guerinca our group was bought a round of drinks by a local when he found out we were British - evidently Britian gave sanctury to Basque orphans . He introduced us to his aged Granmother who had fled to France at the end of the war . Although she did not speak English when France was mentioned see said 'Ha France' and spat vigourosly !!!! .

  2. I'm tempted by an SCW tour, but Mrs T is less keen.

    We have close ties with the Basques and the orphan story is true, although we had to send a lot of them back when Franco's regime generated heartfelt pleas for their return from family members.

    I think that's harsh on the French, - although the border closure at the end of the war was deeply unpleasant there's more to the story than that. If we had not restrained the French government in the beginning they'd have supplied the Republic and maybe prevented the eventual tie up with Stalin.

    I can't believe I've just typed a pro-French post.

  3. The book sounds like an interesting read - though I'd be more tempted if I hadn't just bought 10 books at COW recently!

  4. Funnily enough this year I didn't find any books I wanted. Now I know why!

  5. Re. your final paragraph - my father fought in Spain and, as far as i know, had no problem joining up on his return (this was pre-consription). Then again, he was merely joining the infantry as a private.

    Your author's Tory comment is amusing...were none of them listening to Churchill?


  6. It might have been only those who were really awkward or got picked up by the police as volunteers who had issues, but I know that some did have problems joining up.

    Good on your Dad. My father was too young to go to Spain, but he did join the Communist Party at University as "they were the only people fighting the fascists", before volunteering to fight Hitler.

  7. Excellent and thought provoking post - I've had a (slight) interest in the Spanish Civil War ever since reading "Homage to Catalonia" years back - Hemingway and Laurie Lee followed, and after university I did a working holiday on a farm just north of Barcelona where it was still possible to see the bullet holes in one of the walls...

  8. It is hard not to read anything on the subject and not get caught up in it.

    I've still never had a holiday in Spain.