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Anti-Fascists flock to the Spanish Civil War

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics, War on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

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This edited article about the Spanish Civil War originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 954 published on 3 May 1980.

Spain, picture, image, illustration

The Republicans fought valiantly but Franco’s superior forces finally told, by Severino Baraldi

There are many recorded instances in the twentieth century of men, and women, taking up arms to fight for a cause in which they passionately believed. Often the struggle in which they engaged had no direct connection with their own country and was centred on the resistance of a foreign people to tyranny or aggression. But they were prepared to fight for, and if necessary die for, the principle of freedom.

In July, 1936, a group of Spanish generals attempted to depose the legal Republican Government of Spain by force. Their coup d’Ètat failed, the country and the army divided into two camps, and civil war broke out.

The generals, led by General Franco and supported by the Royalist and Fascist parties, led the Foreign Legionaries and Moorish troops of Spanish Morocco, with regular forces from the mainland, against the untrained Republican Militia, largely composed of peasants, workers and townspeople. The militiamen fought stubbornly, but they had little defence against Franco’s regular troops, who pushed steadily towards Spain’s capital Madrid.

The governments of Britain and France proposed a Non-Intervention Pact which would ban military aid to either side in the Spanish conflict. The democratically governed nations of Europe upheld the Pact but the fascist powers, Germany and Italy, supplied Franco with arms, equipment and men.

German planes and artillery bombarded the republican troops, while Italian tanks and soldiers stormed their trenches. To many of the peoples of Europe and America the struggle in Spain was now a part of the larger issue of Fascism versus Democracy.

Volunteers from many nations rushed to Spain to help the Republicans defend Madrid against Franco. They went because they wanted to fight Fascism or simply because they believed that men should be able to choose their own government in peace and freedom. Communists, Socialists, intellectuals, poets, artists, writers, and working men left their homes behind and took up arms to defend their principles. As their numbers grew they were formed into International Brigades.

Many of the men arrived in Spain unequipped and largely untrained. Some had fought in the First World War and some had experience of service in peacetime armies, but the majority of them had to learn the lessons of war on the battlefield.

The British battalion served with the English-speaking 15th International Brigade, which was composed of French, Belgian, British, Canadian, American, Irish and East-European volunteers.

The British came in small parties of ten, twenty, or fifty. By the beginning of January 1937 the battalion had a strength of 600 men. The British volunteers were lucky, for they had over a month’s training as a battalion before they went into action. In their first battle at the Jarama River the 15th Brigade fought the Fascists to a standstill, but their inferior numbers and equipment led to severe casualties.

Altogether five Brigades were formed and 40,000 volunteers fought in Spain. Of this number, 2,000 were British and they alone lost 500 men killed or missing and 1,200 wounded. The International Brigades were disbanded at Barcelona in November, 1938. The cause they had served so courageously was finally defeated in March, 1939, and General Franco began his long rule as the dictator of Spain.

Although freedom’s battle had been lost in Spain, volunteers fighting in defence of another nation’s liberty were soon to be in action again.

In July, 1937, the Japanese Army began a full-scale invasion of China, supported by an air force consisting of modern aircraft and well trained pilots. To provide better air support for their own hard-pressed troops the Chinese Government sought the services of a recently retired US Army Air Corps Captain, Claire L. Chennault.

Chennault had trained as a fighter-pilot and had written many articles for professional military journals on the development of aerial warfare. He was appointed to the rank of colonel in the Chinese air force and spent three years training Chinese and foreign mercenary pilots in modern air tactics.

His efforts were hampered, however, by the obsolete planes flown by the Chinese and by the unreliable quality of many of the soldiers of fortune who served as his pilots. To solve these problems he gained Chinese approval early in 1941 to form a special group of skilled American fighter pilots who would fight in return for good pay.

The American Government gave Chennault permission to recruit pilots from the air personnel of the US Army, Navy and Marine Corps and agreed to provide China with 100 P-40 fighter planes.

By the summer of 1941 Chennault had 90 volunteer pilots and 150 mechanics and administrative staff for his American Volunteer Group (AVG).

The AVG began its training at an abandoned British airfield at Toungoo in south central Burma and Chennault schooled his pilots in his own brand of aerial warfare. He also taught them about the aircraft used by the Japanese and about the battle tactics of Japanese fliers.

While at Toungoo his pilots decided to decorate their planes by painting the eyes and teeth of a tiger shark along their engine cowlings. Seeing the paintings a visiting newpaper reporter described the AVG as the “Flying Tigers” and this was the name by which they were to go down in history.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and the entry of America into the Second World War, two of the three AVG squadrons were sent to protect the north-east of Burma while the other was stationed at a Royal Air Force base near Rangoon.

Heavy Japanese air raids were made on both regions but the Flying Tigers scrambled their fighters to meet each wave of bombers, taking off from their airfields as bombs fell around them. In a little under three months the Tigers shot down 100 Japanese planes for the loss of only 15 of their own P-40s.

The volunteer squadrons held the Japanese airforce at bay until American military pilots reached China, when most of the AVG personnel returned to the United States to join the regular forces. The Flying Tigers’ contribution to the eventual defeat of the enemy had been significant, since their skill and example did much to encourage the fledgling Chinese air force at what was a crucial time for the Chinese nation’s survival.

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