Nov 082017
 

By Duncan Harley.

Freedom of speech is a fragile thing. Often hard won, it can be taken away at the stroke of a pen as an Aberdeenshire head teacher found to his cost in 1940.
Various Emergency Powers (Defence) Acts came into force in the early months of WW2.

Some, such as Defence Regulation 18B, provided a framework for internment of enemy aliens while others, like the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1939, gave the State wide-ranging powers to prosecute the war.

Aspects of life in the UK came under State control including the “apprehension, trial and punishment of persons offending against the Regulations.” In short, anyone suspected of acting against the national interest in any way whatsoever might suffer the indignity of a pre-dawn knock at the door.

The village of Oyne was of course quite distant from the battlefields. It had narrowly escaped being bombed by a German Zeppelin in a previous conflict but in the big scheme of things Oyne was not a front-line target. Nor was it a hotbed of pro-Nazi sympathy.

This was 1940 however and a paranoid nation was smarting from the military defeat in France. Invasion loomed and an aerial bombing campaign had begun. Towns across the North east had been attacked and coastal shipping had been sunk by German planes off both Stonehaven and Peterhead.

The newspapers of the time are filled with reports of arrests for the offence of “Careless Talk.” A meter reader from Oxford was detained after alleging “we should be just as well under the Nazi’s as we are now!” A Dorset policeman was jailed for expressing similar sentiments and a Peterhead plumber was fined £5 for “careless talk on the phone.”

Headmasters appear to have been at particular risk of prosecution. Overheard warning pupils that following imminent invasion they would have to resort to eating cats and dogs, a Lanarkshire headmaster found himself before a Hamilton Magistrate and at Oyne, George Hendry the local Primary School Headmaster, received the dreaded knock on the door in the late afternoon of June 24th.

The unwelcome visitor was Detective Inspector McHardy of Aberdeen City Police and, after suitable interrogation, Hendry was arrested on matters relating to the Defence Regulations. Lurid headlines followed and public interest was aroused.

Initially there was just the one charge. This related to statements made in the Union Street grocer’s shop of Andrew Collie & Co. Witnesses alleged that Mr Hendry expressed the view that Neville Chamberlain had sold the country down the river and should be placed against a wall and shot. The King, he said, was off to Canada leaving the country “Holding the baby” and Hitler seemingly had sufficient Torpedo Boats to sink the entire British Navy.

Oyne Primary School.

Following arrest, Hendry was released on bail of £60. On Monday July 15th the curious of Aberdeenshire queued to witness what promised to be a juicy trial at Aberdeen Sheriff Court.

Mr Hendry by now faced four charges – the police had been busy.

Alongside remarks about the King and Hitler’s naval prowess, there were allegations of him spreading alarm by remarking on Britain’s unpreparedness for war.

One prosecution witness termed Hendry a fifth columnist and had ordered him out of her shop but under cross-examination admitted she had in fact been joking and considered him simply a leg-puller. Another witness told the court she had discussed the war with him on several occasions and that despite their differences, there was no bad blood between them.

Finally, the case against the Oyne headmaster boiled down to one very simple issue: the spreading of defeatist talk. In a fine piece of courtroom theatre, Mr Blades for the defence lured the manager of Collie’s grocer shop into admitting that the case would never even have been brought had he himself not spread gossip about Mr Hendry’s statements to a crowd, including a policeman, at the public bar of the Royal Athenaeum.

Sheriff Dallas had clearly heard quite enough. A verdict of Not Proven on all four charges was greeted with applause from the crowded courtroom.

George Hendry, a graduate of Aberdeen University, became Headmaster at Oyne in 1927 having previously taught in Forres.  After the trial he returned to his post until his retiral, due to ill health, in 1963. He died in 1966 age just 63.

Duncan Harley is a writer living in the Garioch and author of the soon to be published A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire: https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/publication/the-a-z-of-curious-aberdeenshire/9780750983792/

‘Hitler’s Headmaster’ was first published in the April 2017 edition of Leopard Magazine.

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Jul 182013
 

In part one of his feature on the terror of summer 1940, when the Luftwaffe unloaded its murderous cargo on Aberdeen, Duncan Harley poked gentle fun at the contemporary media. This week, in part two, things get a bit more serious as Duncan explores the archives to make vivid the events of that fateful afternoon.

It’s the 73rd anniversary of the Battle of Britain this year.

The battle was fought over the whole of Britain between 10 July and 31 October 1940 and was probably the first occasion in the history
of warfare where two air forces literally fought each other to the death.

According to the Royal British Legion, RAF Fighter Command destroyed 1733 German aircraft during the battle and lost 915 of its own aircraft during the summer and autumn of 1940. One sixth of UK aircrew members did not survive.

Many people of course will associate the Battle of Britain with Luftwaffe attacks on cities and airfields in the south of England. However, the reality is that the whole of the UK, including NE population centres Aberdeen, Fraserburgh and Peterhead came under intensive aerial bombardment, resulting in many civilian deaths and massive destruction of property.

There are many remnants of that era still around if you take the time to look for them. The Aberdeenshire coastline is littered with evidence of coastal defences ranging from anti-invasion pill boxes, also evident at many strategic bridges and road junctions, to the aptly named dragon’s teeth which blocked routes deemed to be vulnerable to sea-borne enemy tank landings.

Long abandoned airfields are still in evidence further north, such as RAF Dallachy, near Spey Bay, where dispersal areas and the original 1940s control tower can still be found.

Local archives list places which were bombed and machine-gunned from the air and the Trinity Cemetery and houses on Seaforth Road in Aberdeen still bear scars of these attacks. Somewhat worryingly, there are maps in existence which mark the positions of unexploded bombs, quite a few of which were almost certainly neither recovered nor made safe.

It was overcast with low cloud on 12 July 1940 in the South of England, but sunny and bright in Aberdeen. It was two days into the Battle of Britain and the Granite City had been attacked twice in the previous fortnight with considerable loss of life. Early in the war it had been assumed that

Scotland was relatively safe from aerial attack but the invasion and conquest of Norway in April 1940 changed that. Raiders could now reach the coast of Scotland easily, and often undetected, until they made landfall. Typical targets were shipyards and harbours both of which attracted the enemy to Aberdeen.

Aberdeen had always been a secondary Luftwaffe target at that stage in the war

In mid-morning on 12 July, a flight of six duck blue camouflaged Heinkel HE111H-3 light bombers took off from Stavanger Airport and made their way over the North Sea towards the Scottish coast.

Some reports suggest that the intended target was RAF Leuchars and the harbour at Broughty Ferry, with the Tay Estuary the intended landfall, but that for some reason, possibly faulty navigation or a mid-flight alteration to plans, the attack was concentrated further north.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Aberdeen had always been a secondary Luftwaffe target at that stage in the war but on that bright summer day the bombers headed up the coast in search of the city.

Bomb loads usually consisted of both high explosive and incendiary bombs when attacking cities.

The high explosive devices were dropped first to blow open buildings and allow the secondary incendiary devices to drop through the damaged roofs and start fires. But on this mission, it appears that only high explosives were carried, reinforcing the idea that RAF Leuchars had indeed been the original target with the plan of destroying the runway and disrupting fighter defences.

At 12:45, the first bombs began to fall on the Hall Russell shipyard. There was no air raid warning when the bombers approached the city from the sea. Indeed, the first anyone knew was when around sixteen high explosive bombs exploded in quick succession. The boiler shop was worst hit with around ten bombs exploding in and around it.

Many years ago, policeman’s son George Robertson told me that several dozen of his workmates had been killed while queuing to buy lunch just outside the yard. He had been a young apprentice at the time and the memory of that dreadful day haunted him for the rest of his life, ‘There were bodies everywhere,’ he recalled, ‘some minus arms and even heads, it was not a sight for any young man to see’.

It was a bloody affair indeed, and shocked the city to the core.

The bombing continued unabated with the Neptune Bar on the waterfront receiving a direct hit. In those days it had an upper floor which collapsed on to the lunchtime drinkers below, killing 40. A fragment from the bomb cut the end off the tail of the bar’s cat who went around with a shortened tail for the rest of its days.

they came under fire from machine gunners on top of the Station Hotel

Urquhart Road, Spa Street, York Street and Regent Walk received hits as did Kings College’s grounds, 32 George Street and 7 Roslin Terrace, where an unexploded bomb later had to be defused. The London boat in Waterloo Quay was also badly damaged, with loss of life.

As the raiders continued across the city they came under fire from machine gunners on top of the Station Hotel, which was then occupied by the military. No hits were reported.

During the attack one of the bombers became detached from the main group.

Three fighter aircraft from Dyce Aerodrome had been scrambled minutes after the first bombs had exploded. They were manned by pilots of Yellow Section 603 Squadron and led by Pilot Officer Caister. Seeing that the single German plane had become separated the Spitfires headed towards it with the intention of shooting it down. The bomber pilot, sensing the danger, headed out to sea only to be headed back inland by the pursuing fighters.

For around six minutes the game of cat and mouse was played out in the Aberdeen skies with hundreds on the ground watching the unfolding drama. Eventually, after receiving several bursts of machine gun fire and some ineffective shots from Torry Battery which put the pursuing fighters at some risk, the bomber burst into flames and began a slow but inevitable descent to earth.

None of the aircraft’s four man crew survived

Some at the time wondered if the pilot had tried to avoid crashing into houses in Morningside Crescent and South Anderson Drive.

Others assumed that he had been dead at the controls, as perhaps was the rear gunner, who seemingly continued to fire his machine gun all through the final descent. Whatever the truth is, we will never know.

The end came suddenly and violently as the aircraft’s wingtip struck a tree at the foot of Anderson Drive near its junction with Ruthrieston Road. Already alight and out of control, the Heinkel smashed into the newly-built Aberdeen Ice Rink which collapsed in flames around it.

None of the aircraft’s four man crew survived, although one was reportedly found half way out of the escape hatch with his parachute harness on. A ladies shoe was also found in the wreckage, perhaps the property of a wife or girlfriend.

In true boys own rhetoric, the newspapers of the day reported on a ‘Thrilling Dog-Fight with Spitfires’ and ‘bullets rattling on our roof like a sea of hail.’

The official record of the episode reads:

“9./KG26 Heinkel He 111H-3. Sortied to attack Leuchars airfield with harbour installations at Broughty Ferry, Dundee, as alternate. Shot down by Yellow Section No. 603 Squadron (Pilot Officer J. R. Caister, Pilot Officer G. K. Gilroy and Sergeant I. K. Arber) over Aberdeen 1.10 p.m. Crashed and burned out at the skating rink in South Anderson Drive. (Ff) Lt Herbert Huck, (Bf) Gefr Georg Kerkhoff, (Bm) Uffz Paul Plischke and (Beo) Fw August Skokan all killed. Aircraft 1H+FT a write-off. This crew were buried in Graves 155, 150, 149, and 152 in the Old Churchyard at Dyce on July 16, 1940.”

I visited the German fliers’ graves today. It’s such a strangely captivating place. Who amongst us could fail to be impressed with the Pictish stones in the roofless church above the bend on the River Don with converted mill buildings on the far bank?

Unusually perhaps, their remains were not transferred to the German War Cemetery at Cannock Chase when the conflict ceased, so they lie there still, alongside two fallen comrades from a different plane crash.

The Commonwealth fliers’ graves are there too, including Canadians and South Africans. Other graves hold the remains of two Polish Air Force pilots and even an unfortunate ferry pilot from the Royal Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

Pilot Officer Caister, who was credited with the kill, force-landed near Calais three months later. He was taken prisoner and spent the rest of the war in captivity.

Sources:

Evening Express Friday July 12th 1940

Google overlay of bombing incidents in Aberdeen: https://maps.google.co.uk/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&vps=1&authuser=0&oe=UTF8&msa=0&msid=204031601317387489834.00048e01602ad2ff1d387

BBC Peoples War 1996: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/83/a2034983.shtml

Aberdeen City & Aberdeenshire Archives: https://maps.google.co.uk/maps/ms?hl=en&gl=GB&ptab=2&ie=UTF8&oe=UTF8&msa=0&msid=204031601317387489834.0004d844d6bc20fcdc4f5

With grateful thanks to George Robertson (deceased)

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Apr 062012
 

With thanks to  Kevin Hutchens.

Aberdeen TUC successfully mounted a co-ordinated campaign against the plans of the National Front (the NF) to march in Aberdeen on Hitler’s birthday, Friday 20th April.
The NF of course claimed it had nothing to do with the birthday of the Fascist Dictator and everything to do with the founding date of the SNP.

Surprisingly then, some would say, both the reports from Grampian Police and the Human Rights Impact Assessment carried out by the City Council argued that there might possibly be a link between the date and Hitler’s birthday: though both, in the interests of democracy, recognised the need to consider other options .

The Trade Union movement played a vital and crucial role in co-ordinating opposition via written representations, and also expressed its opposition via two media and press events. Not surprisingly, the NF did not help themselves when they accused the media of being “Zionist” because of the way they reported the proposed event .

On the day of the Aberdeen City Council Licensing Committee, 27th March 2012, a small but determined and committed group of activists from ATUC waited outside the Council Chambers. Much was made of this by the NF, but what they failed to realise and mention is that the activists which were present, though small in number, represented the interests of thousands of Trade Unionists from across the North East.

At the end of the day, Aberdeen City Council Licensing Committee refused (“Prohibited” in Council parlance) the application to march, on public order and public safety grounds. What had however been noticeable in the debate was the unwillingness of the NF to move on crucial issues including the planned time of the march, the starting point of the march and the route. Clearly the committee made the right decision on behalf of the City of Aberdeen.

Whatever the decision, it still remains an important role to expose the National Front for the way many of their supporters promote racism, Islamophobia and Holocaust denial.

“No Pasaran” is the call that comes to mind !

Kevin Hutchens
ATUC Delegate for Unite Local Government,  Aberdeenshire Branch.

Nov 082011
 

With Remembrance Sunday approaching fast and the wearing of a poppy being de rigueur for every stuffed shirt and empty suit on TV, Voice’s Dave Watt thinks about 11 November.  

11 November falls on a Friday this year, so the dead will have to wait until Sunday to be remembered, as the powers that be don’t seem to think that remembering them on the actual Armistice Day would be convenient.
I mean, businesses might lose a whole two minutes profit and think what a disaster that would be for our thriving economy. After all, big business interests shovel money into party funds and one and a quarter million dead servicemen and women don’t. So, balls to them.

Armistice Day on 11 November was originally meant to signal the end of The War to End Wars, back in a time when that phrase wouldn’t bring forth a cynical snigger.

In fact, on my grandfather’s medals, hanging in a frame in my hallway, it refers to The Great War For Civilisation which shows that there were politicians in the 1920s capable of coming out with the same kind of drivel as George W Bush did with his ludicrous War on Terror ten years ago.

Presumably, at some time in the future there will be a War For Straight Bananas or a War For Fashionable Sandals or something equally weird.

Hopefully, this year will not feature such irretrievable tat as the Royal British Legion inviting The Saturdays to frolic half-naked in a sea of poppies or getting the judges on X Factor to wear grotesque poppy fashion items – two tasteless frolics which inspired ex-SAS soldier Ben Griffin to describe them as ‘stunts to trivialise, normalise and satirise war’. Griffin, in fact, went on to state that remembrance has been turned into ‘a month long drum roll of support for current wars’, a point of view it is increasingly difficult to disagree with.

My grandfather joined up in 1914 in the surge of patriotism engendered by Germany illegally invading Belgium; my uncle joined up in 1939 when Hitler illegally subjugated Poland. Presumably, if Tony Blair had been Prime Minister in 1914, we’d have joined in the illegal invasion and attacked tiny Belgium as we did with impoverished third world Afghanistan, not one of whose citizens had previously done us the slightest harm.

Then again, if Tony had been in charge in 1939 he’d surely have produced some shoddy dossiers to our gullible Parliament showing how those dastardly Poles were all set to attack peace-loving Nazi Germany and that they had weapons of mass destruction concealed in Cracow and Gdansk which could be deployed within 45 minutes.

Yes, if good old Tony had been on the case then, we could nowadays watch Wellington bombers joining the Stukas strafing the women and kids in Warsaw on World at War on Yesterday – with a suitably solemn voice-over courtesy of Laurence Olivier. God, wouldn’t that make us just so proud of ourselves?

No, the bottom line is that we’re not the Good Guys helping the Underdog against the Bully any more. We’re something quite different now.

If you were wondering what happened to my uncle and grandfather in their wars, my uncle died in Normandy in 1944 after fighting in North Africa, Italy and Sicily. My grandfather survived four years in the trenches but was wounded and mustard-gassed in 1918. The mustard gas steadily and horribly eroded his lungs over the years and he eventually died in 1955 aged 56, so the War for Civilisation got him in the end.

I also had a relative on board HMS Hood when the Bismarck sank her in the Denmark Straits in May 1941. He was not one of the three survivors.

It’s interesting to think that if my three relations had survived wars and lived until now that their reward from a grateful country would be to have some pampered ex-public schoolboy Tories and Lib Dems cutting their fuel allowances by £100 this winter.

I’ll have my own two minutes silence for my relations and all the rest – the ones who came back and the ones who didn’t.

On Friday.

Photo Credits –
Row Of Crosses © Mediaonela | Dreamstime.com  
Poppy At Newe July 2011 © Elaine Andrews

Oct 212011
 

An event to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the International Brigades who fought in the Spanish Civil War against Fascism and Tyranny in support of Freedom and Democracy, took place in Aberdeen on Friday 14 October 2011 in the ATUC Club, Adelphi, Aberdeen.  Brian Carroll was in attendance and shares the occasion with Voice readers.

The event was well attended and kicked off with a talk by Neil Cooney on the Aberdeen Boys’ contribution to the fight for freedom and democracy in Spain to which 19 of them committed. It was no mean feat in those days to get from Aberdeen to Barcelona, traveling through France to be smuggled into Spain over the Pyrenees; and then to endure the depravity and inhumanity of war for the three long years it took the overwhelming forces of Franco’s men and machines to defeat the Republicans.

The Spanish Civil War raged from 1936-39

Nineteen of Aberdeen’s finest committed to this fight and five made the ultimate sacrifice to the cause, dying on the battlefields of Spain at Gandesa and Ebro.

The nephew and son of two of those who undertook this remarkable journey and adventure attended the celebration, They were Neil Cooney and Ian Dewar, nephew and son of Bob Cooney and Archie Dewar respectively. Neil Cooney gave a talk about the contribution of those from Aberdeen.

Bob Cooney survived the War and returned to Aberdeen to then fight in the Second World War, but Archie gave the ultimate sacrifice and died in action at the Ebro.

There was some poetry, music and a general discussion on the war, the events leading up to it and the policy of non-intervention by Britain and France, a policy which resulted in a Fascist/Franco victory. But the Spanish Civil War did sow the seeds of the beginning of the end for Hitler and Mussolini.

The flag you see in the photos is hanging proudly in the ATUC Social Club. It was the then Spanish Flag of the Republic of Spain, and the bodies of Archie Dewar and Tom Davidson were wrapped in this flag on their deaths. The flag was then sent back to Aberdeen by Bob Cooney.

Aberdeen Women’s Aid Committee sewed on the legend “From the Aberdeen Boys Fighting in Spain”.

An ATUC booklet produced for the war’s 60th anniversary, Remembering the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, was available to those attending the celebration. I requested both Neil Cooney and Ian Dewar to sign my copy, which was a very proud and emotive moment indeed, after hearing of the courage, bravery, commitment and endurance of those who volunteered to fight in Spain.

Footnote:
Bob Cooney was the Political Commissar to the British Battalion of the International Brigade, and he penned the poem ” Hasta La Vista Madrid” no doubt somewhat inspired by the words he wrote when he was requested to leave Spain by Prime Minister Negrin, when the defeat of the Republicans and their Democratically elected Government was inevitable:

“We went to Spain
Because of that great yesterday
We are part of that great tomorrow
Hasta LaVista- Madrid”
(Until we see Madrid again)

Sep 232011
 

Dave Watt asks Voice readers the question …..

Which one would you let watch your pet deer while you were on holiday?

 

a)   Adolf Hitler – Nationalsozialistiche Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (Above)

b)   Aileen Malone – Liberal Democrat (Opposite)

Jun 182011
 

In a time before widespread international travel, Bob Cooney would journey across continents to realise the depths of his beliefs. He would find himself at the sharp end of unfolding events that would prove to be of considerable historical significance. In the second part of the trilogy written by Bob’s nephew – Aberdeen City Councillor Neil Cooney – we learn how Bob would selflessly bring his talents and convictions to bear to oppose fascism, both at home and in Spain, and with increasing vigour, passion and heroism – to say nothing of intense mortal danger.

Bob missed most of the 1931 crisis because his life had entered a new phase. In 1930, he packed in his job as a pawnbroker’s clerk in order to devote himself full time to politics.

It was a brave decision, his new job carried no wages but it did give him an opportunity for further education.

He spent thirteen months during 1931-32 in Russia, studying by day in the Lenin Institute, working by night in a rubber factory.

There he picked up an industrial throat infection and spent some time in a sanatorium. It left him with huskiness in his voice that became part of his oratory. Times were tough in Russia but good in comparative terms with the destitution of the Tsarist era.

Bob found a thirst for knowledge that was infectious throughout Russian society. Even grannies were going back to classes to learn the skills to make their country prosperous. There was even time for a glorious holiday down the Volga. It charged up his batteries for the tasks ahead. He was not short of work when he returned in 1932.

There was a lot of heavy campaigning to do, to mobilise the unemployed and to organise the hunger marches. He travelled from Aberdeen to Glasgow and Edinburgh speaking at open-air meetings to campaign against unemployment, to rally public opinion against the iniquitous Means Test, which robbed the poorest of their Dole as well as their dignity.

Fascists in Aberdeen

Out of the turmoil of the Depression came the strange phenomenon of the British Union of Fascists. Oswald Mosely, its creator, had served in both the Tory and Labour camps before forming his Blackshirts. He was copying the style of Mussolini and was both influenced and funded by Hitler. His area Gauleiter for the North was William Chambers Hunter, a minor laird by inheritance.

He had started off life as plain Willie Jopp but now he had pretensions of power. Aberdeen was targeted as his power base and he recruited and hired thugs from afar afield as London to help him take over the city.

Bob and the others decided to stop him.

There were pitched battles, arrests, fines and imprisonment, but they succeeded. Fascism was not allowed to take root in Aberdeen. Those who deny the free speech of others did not deserve free speech themselves.

Aberdeen has a tradition of fairness. No trumped up laird was going to destroy it. Bob emerged out of these pitched battles as a working class hero. He displayed his undoubted courage as well as his often under-rated organisational skills. It wasn’t enough to stand up to the Fascists, you had to out-think them and outnumber them and run them out of town.

The first Fascist rally organised for the Music Hall, to be addressed by Raven Thomson, Mosely’s Deputy, had to be cancelled half an hour before it was due to start.

The Fascists eyed the Market stance as a key venue. It had become a working class stronghold. The key battle was to take place there.

Chambers Hunter pencilled in the evening of Sunday 16 July 1937 for his big rally. The workers would be caught out on a Sunday in the height of the holiday season. He miscalculated. The grapevine was finely tuned; and Bob addressed a crowd of 2,000 at the Links at 11a.m. They vowed to gather at the Castlegate in the evening. The Fascists duly arrived with their armour-plated van and their police escort, their amplifiers and their heavies.

Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy gave immense aid to the Spanish Fascists

As Chambers Hunter clambered to the roof of the van, the workers surged forward, cut the cables and chased the Fascists for their lives. The Castlegate was cleared by 8 p.m. Bob was one of many arrested, and served four days for his efforts.

A young Ian Campbell, later of folk music fame, remembers sitting on his father’s shoulders watching Bob being carried shoulder high on his release from prison. He also remembers how the crowd went silent as Bob addressed them. It was Bob’s last speech in Aberdeen for a long time because within hours he was on his way to Spain.

In Spain in 1936, the army revolt triggered the Nationalist Right-wing attack on the democratically elected Republican government. Despite the terms of its Covenant, the League of Nations opted for a policy of  “Non-Intervention”. Eden and Chamberlain were quick to agree, even though such a policy guaranteed a Franco victory.

It provided a precedent for our later inaction in Austria in the spring of 1938 and Czechoslovakia both in the autumn of 1938 and in the spring of 1939. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy gave immense aid to the Spanish Fascists. Stalin’s Russia gave much more limited aid to the Republicans. International Brigades of volunteers were also formed to aid the Republic.

The Go-Ahead for Spain

‘And if we live to be a hundred
We’ll have this to be glad about
We went to Spain!
Became the great yesterday
We are part of the great tomorrow
HASTA LA VISTAMADRID!’

– Bob Cooney

 

Bob had pleaded for months to go to Spain but the Communist Party kept stalling him, saying he was too valuable at home in the struggle against the Blackshirts.

In the spring of 1937, he set off from Aberdeen but was again stopped by party HQ. It wasn’t until the Castlegate victory that he eventually got the go-ahead from Harry Pollitt, the party’s General Secretary. Bob had argued that he felt hypocritical rallying support for the Spanish people and urging young men and women to go off to Spain to help the cause, and yet do nothing himself. Thoughts of Spain filled every moment of every day – the desire to fight for Spain burned within him. He later reflected that participation in Spain justified his existence on this earth. Spain was the front line again Fascism. It was his duty as a fighter to be there.

Bob was 28 when he left for Spain, getting there via a tortuous route; a tourist ticket to Paris, followed by a bus to Perpignan and then a long trek across the Pyrenees to Barcelona and beyond. He got five weeks basic training at Tarragona, a small town close to the modern resort of Salou.

There he was given his ill-fitting khaki uniform, strong boots, a Soviet rifle and a food bowl. He was appointed Commissar (motivator) of the training group. He was offered officer’s training but refused. He had promised Harry Pollitt that he was there to fight, not to pick up stripes.
Bob eventually was promoted to the position of Commissar of the XV (British) Brigade. The Brigades were integrated with local Spaniards. Bob, to lead them, had to learn their language. They soon caught on to his wry sense of humour.

His first action was at Belchite, south of the Ebro. He always said he was afraid to be afraid. He told his men never to show fear, they weren’t conscripts, they were comrades and they would look after each other. He had to prevent their bravery descending into bravado. There were some who vowed never to hide from the Fascists and to fight in open country. This would have been suicidal and such romantic notions had to be curbed.

Bob served in two major campaigns. The first was at Teruel, between Valencia and Madrid. The Brigade was drafted in to hold the line there in January 1938. Paul Robeson, the great singer, dropped in to greet them there: Robeson was heavily involved in fund-raising for the Spanish cause. The XV Brigade held their line for seven weeks before Franco’s forces complete with massive aerial power and a huge artillery bombardment forced them back.

Conditions were hard, supply lines were tenuous and the food supply was awful. Half a slice of bread a day was a common ration. His next great battle was along the Ebro from July to October 1938.

On a return sortie to Belchite, organising a controlled retreat through enemy lines, he was captured along with Jim Harkins of Clydebank. Another group on the retreat distracted their captors and Bob and Jim fled for cover. Sadly, Jim later died at the Ebro.

Just over 2,400 joined the Brigades from Britain, 526 were killed, and almost 1,000 were wounded. Of the 476 Scots who took part, 19 came from Aberdeen. The Spanish Civil War claimed the lives of five Aberdonians, Tom Davidson died at Gandesa in April 1937 and the other four at the Ebro. Archie Dewar died in March 1938, Ken Morrice in July 1938, Charles MacLeod in August 1938 and finally Ernie Sim in the last great battle in September 1938.

The final parade of the Brigade was through Barcelona on October 29th. They were addressed by the charismatic Dolores Ibarruri who had been elected Communist MP for the northern mining region of the Asturias: she was affectionately known as La Pasionara. She told them:

“you can go proudly. You are legend. We shall not forget you”.

It had taken the combined cream of the professional forces of Germany, Italy and Spain almost three years to beat them. They had every right to be proud. Barcelona fell to Franco late in January 1939, Madrid falling two months later.

Dont miss the third and final part of Neil Cooney’s account of his Uncle Bob Cooney’s amazing story – when we learn that  Bob Cooney has barely time to reflect on the events relating to the Spanish Civil War before joining the fight against Hitler and the Nazis.

May 192011
 

Scottish Novels of the Second World War – by Isobel Murray

For individuals (OK, OK, generally men) of a certain age, the Second World War holds an enduring fascination. For the Voice’s David Innes, this certainly rings true and when there’s a book written and launched on the effect of the War on one of his other passions, Scottish literature, he’s among the first in the ticket queue.

Aberdeen University’s WORD festival has previously offered strong attractions, but I’ve either been too busy or too slothful to organise attendance at its impressively-wide range of events in the past. Not so for the launch of Isobel Murray’s latest book, Scottish Novels of the Second World War. Scottish fiction AND that conflict? My attendance was guaranteed, even at 11am on a Sunday.

The University’s Multimedia Room was sold out as historians and fiction aficionados mixed to hear what insights the author had to offer in this hitherto little-explored area.

Familiar names – Naomi Mitchison, Robin Jenkins, Eric Linklater, Jessie Kesson and Compton MacKenzie – were discussed alongside lesser literary lights who had written about the War. Fred Urquhart and Stuart Hood, for example, were new literary names to almost all audience members. For some authors their writing was autobiographical, for others almost wholly fictional, several written in real time during the conflict but others more modern, with experience and emotion allowed to mature and distil before crafting and publication.

The one criterion Isobel Murray applied in writing Scottish Novels of the Second World War was that the authors had to have been adults during the 1939-45 period, thus able to articulate the hopes, fears, discomfort and hardship they experienced and by those with whom they shared time and place, whether or not in uniform. For some featured authors, the war was to be the second global conflict in their lives.

Backgrounds to the authors revealed that they viewed the War through different prisms, some fearing the threat of communism from the menacing east as much as they abhorred the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini.

Jenkins was a conscientious objector, as was Urquhart. Background affected their writing to differing degrees, and in Compton MacKenzie’s case, his Hebridean Home Guard tales set on the island of Todday, are affectionately comic despite the potential severe consequences of the voluntary local defence’s ill-preparedness. Of course, as some sort of governmental writer-in-residence, MacKenzie’s fiction was obliged to end happily to maintain civilian and military morale.

Not only did the author give an overview of her research and read illustrative and illuminating passages from the original texts, she went to some length to help those who will now seek rare and out-of-print texts to enhance their historical perspective of a series of ever-fascinating political and military turning points of the last century.

This is all a far cry from the jingoistic playground games of British and Jerries or Japs, and the Commando comics’ “Banzai, I die for my Emperor!” , “Achtung Schpitfeur!” and “Cripes Skip, bandits at 12 o’clock!” we Sixties kids devoured as war fiction, which in all probability turned many of us into obsessives seeking new perspectives and truths.

Scottish Novels of the Second World War itself looks fascinating and insightful. It is published by Word Power Books, whose ethos chimes sympathetically with that of Aberdeen Voice, making it all the more worthwhile.

To purchase, or for more info, see: http://www.word-power.co.uk/books/scottish-novels-of-the-second-world-war-I9780956628312/