After fighting Fascism – in the shape of Sir Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts – in Manchester, the 21-year-old Bernard McKenna went to Spain to join the battle against Franco’s troops. Despite being wounded he “never regretted going” and stayed involved in left-wing politics throughout his life. Bernard died in 2008, 2 years after this interview was carried out.
Born in Hulme, Bernard McKenna joined the Young Communist League at 18, attending meetings, educating each other about Marxism and political issues and supporting workers who were out on strike or suffering at the hands of their bosses.
There was always something to do, it was a busy time politically,” Bernard said of the 1930s. He himself worked in a clothing factory in Cheetham Hill, owned by one of the area’s Jewish businessmen. It was a ‘good company’ to work for, he recalled, and his jobs included stock-keeping and dispatch, making use of his good memory.
Manchester was, Bernard recalled, a very active area in terms of support for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Money and supplies such as clothes were collected by the Communist and Labour Parties (despite the national Labour Party’s policy of non-intervention) and by aid committees. Spanish refugees already in Britain were also supported, Bernard remembered. “It took hold of people’s imaginations,” he said, “it really livened up the political scene in Manchester because people could relate to it. And we heard about Franco’s misdeeds from French newspapers which were brought to Britain.”
At the age of 21, Bernard McKenna decided to head for Spain himself. The deciding factor, according to Bernard, was that the leader of the Manchester Communist Party decided to go, and Bernard himself thought “what the hell am I doing here? I’m doing a job here of no great importance, maybe if I go there I can do something useful.”
He left in January 1937, crossing the Pyrenees on foot, to find a situation of individual workers in Spain looking for ways to be useful. Meeting up with other volunteers from Latin America, Europe and the USA they formed a military unit, drawing on the experience of men who had served in WW1 or in regular armies in their own countries. Bernard himself recalled that “I was lucky, I’d no military experience so they put me in a group being run by a Czech ex-army man who was really good, and I got quite a number of weeks’ training. It was unusual to have been so well and efficiently trained” This training including physical fitness, use fo weapons, self-defence and political and military education.
“I realised it was more or less a dead end job,” Bernard joked, “but I hoped to be able to do something useful.”
As he was posted out, a need was identified for communications operatives, working with radios and telephones in an all-British battalion.
My job was simple,” Bernard described. “When we went into line to take up any lengths of phone wire and exchanges and field telephones and help to install them, and then after to fall back in with the battalion and fight with them, and then help to try and put things right if anything happened to the communications. At times when there wasn’t a lot of fighting, if the battalion was holding a position, that was something for me to do. When we got wounded members we could use the telephones to ring up and get cars or vans to move them out to bases where they could be looked after – this was difficult because if the fascists found a hospital they’d bomb it, you’d take a wounded person there and then have to find another one.”
According to Bernard’s descriptions, although this was a busy time the military action was mainly defensive, and at times members of the brigade would also be drafted in to help with farming and other tasks in villages where most of the men had been captured by Franco’s fascists or were in the Republican armies. But with the Fascist offensive in Central Spain and towards Madrid the action largely turned into defensive fighting and retreats. “It was a miserable existence from a military point of view, but there was still a feeling that we could stop them sometimes and stop them getting big victories,” Bernard recalled of the hot summer of 1937. “But there was a constant dwindling of people because of casualties, men would disappear to hospital or burial grounds, and fresh ones would come in and have to be trained.”
Bernard himself was wounded in the foot and taken out of the lines for several months. “It was a stray machine-gun bullet, it got lodged in my shoe,” he described of his injury. On recovery, he returned to the Aragon Front and was part of a major retreat under one of Franco’s attacks. But, he recounts:
“I was thinking it was a shame to leave all that telephone cable, so I took a trolley and collected some to take it back cross-country. I went onto the road to pull the trolley and ran into a group of Italian soldiers who took me prisoner, drove me off and handed me to Franco’s Spanish. They put me in a concentration camp, which was pretty rough. Ispent some months there, but we got by. Then the Italians helped me – they were pushing for an exchange of prisoners and after a lot of pushing the fascists agreed, so they took 100 International Brigaders from where I was, British and French, and handed us over in exchange for 100 Italians. We were given to the Italians in the rags we were living in, covered in lice and first thing the Italians did was to give us some second-hand Italian army uniforms, so I ended up dressed as an Italian private. I was handed to the front, under military guard then taken to a port and we were pushed onto boats. In Britain we were handed over to the police and sent under supervision to Manchester – still wearing an Italian private’s uniform.”
Bernard had been away for nearly 2 years, and on his return travelled round the North-West talking about his experiences and trying to raise support for the Republican cause. But he left the Communist Party during WWII in order to volunteer for the British army, so that he could choose to serve in the RAF rather than being conscripted into the infantry. With his communications experience from Spain he joined a signals unit and served in Malta, North Africa and what was then Persia.
Bernard McKenna rejoined the Communist Party after WWII and continued his efforts to keep the issue of Spain alive, joining anti-Franco rallies and supporting Republican refugees from Spain. He also trained to be a teacher and after the decline of the British Communist Party joined Labour. Even into his 80s, Bernard carried on listening to Spanish radio, reading Spanish left-wing newspapers and attending reunions with fellow members of the International Brigades.
In 2006, Bernard lamented the move to ‘middle-of-the-road’ politics and the absence of any real left-wing alternatives. “I’m glad I went to Spain,” he emphasised. “It was important not just for the people of Spain but also for anti-fascists from Britain – many weren’t that politically strong but went out of feelings of humanity and feelings of anti-fascism.”
And he also emphasised his fears about the continued presence of fascism in European politics. “People see Spain as somewhere pleasant with sunshine. It’s easy for them to forget that it was a fascist dictatorship until very recently.”
The International Brigades Memorial Trust
Working Class Movement Library resources on the Spanish Civil War
Bernard McKenna’s obituary in the Times
Manchester Evening News interview with Bernard McKenna from the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War
Information on Spanish refugees and evacuated Basque children in Britain
La Columna, a British re-enactment group commemorating the International Brigades
Basque Children of ’37 Association