Faith, Military History

Peter Kemp: “I Fought for Franco”

The following was written by Peter Kemp, and currently I do not know exactly where this was originally published. The text was copied from a PDF you can find here, as were some of the images posted throughout. Since it can be difficult to read the scanned PDF, I decided to post it here.

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Peter Kemp (third from left) with men of the Spanish Foreign Legion.

Anthropologists and historians of the future may find in the Spanish Civil War a useful illustration of how legend and mythology can crystallize over a few years into popularly accepted truth.

The outbreak of the Civil War in July 1936, a month after I came down from Cambridge and almost exactly a month before my twenty-first birthday, evoked in this country an emotional response hitherto unequaled by any purely external event, at least within my memory; it divided opinion in a keen and angry controversy whose bitterness has not faded yet. Those who favoured the Republicans saw the Civil War as a fascist conspiracy, engineered by Germany and Italy, to overthrow a constitutionally elected government and destroy Spanish democracy; to supporters of the Nationalists, it appeared as a Communist plot, directed from the Kremlin, to liquidate the forces of law, order, and religion, and establish a Red dictatorship in Spain. Accounts of the mass executions perpetrated in the early months by both sides quickly inflamed feelings to a point where reasoned argument degenerated into exaggeration and abuse.

The war that the Nationalists won on the battlefield was a virtually undisputed victory for the Republicans in the field of propaganda. Well supplied with funds from the gold in the Bank of Spain and supported by the formidable agitation and propaganda organization of the Western Department of the Comintern (Agitprop), the Republicans excelled in the art of public relations, their treatment of foreign journalists, in particular, was exemplary, and they exploited every opportunity to play upon the democracies’ legitimate suspicion of Franco’s German and Italian allies. The Nationalists, in contrast, confident like all good Spaniards that only fools or scoundrels would deny the justice of their cause, spent neither money nor effort upon propaganda; they positively discouraged journalists, whom they regarded as at best a nuisance and at worst potential spies. Not surprisingly, the British press as a whole was unkind to Franco.

During the two consecutive years I spent away from England in the Nationalist armies I was only dimly aware of this unfavourable image. But when I returned at the end of 1938 to convalesce from severe mortar wounds, I was astonished to learn from intelligent and usually well informed acquaintances that the comrades who had fought and died beside me were not, as I had supposed, Spaniards, but German and Italian mercenaries; and, moreover, that the cause for which we had been risking our necks was fascism – which, as a right-wing Tory, I regarded with loathing.

In vain I protested that, although our equipment was largely German or Italian – just as the Republicans’ was principally Russian or French – the overwhelming majority of our fighting troops were Spaniards; and that my own companions had been the monarchists and traditionalists of the Carlist militia, who loathed the fascist Falange, and the dedicated soldiers of the Spanish Foreign Legion – ninety percent of them Spaniards – who despised all politicians and particularly disliked Falangists. I was simply not believed: Republican mythology had become accepted truth. It remains so to this day, despite conscientious attempts by recent historians to set the record straight. As a result young people frequently ask me why I chose to fight ‘on the fascist side’; and in the summer of 1961 I heard the principal commentator on the BBC television programme Tonight describe the Civil War with superative distortion, as a heroic struggle by the Spanish people to preserve democracy against the might of Hitler and Mussolini.

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Italian troops in camouflaged capes. Mussolini sent 50,000 servicemen to Spain.
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Ground Crew of the German Condor Legion arm a Heinkel III for a strike into Republican territory.

‘A thirst for adventure’

What indeed decided me to take up arms for the Nationalist cause? I had no Spanish connections, I had never visited the country, and I spoke not one word of the language; nor was my impulse religious, for I was not a Catholic. Of my two principal motives, the first can be summarized tritely as ‘a thirst for adventure.’ I felt that hitherho – at home, at my public school, and at Cambridge – I had been too well looked after; I had never had to stand on my own feet or face serious difficult or danger. Now I had an opportunity, before some routine job claimed me, of learning to endure hardship and hazard and getting to know a strange country and people. My second reason was political. I had taken an active and at times controversial part in politics during my three years at Cambridge, and when the Civil War began I studied the newspaper reports carefully, especially the early uncensored dispatches from Madrid and Barcelona. It seemed clear to me – though evidently not to many of my equally studious contemporaries – that the greatest danger to Europe was Communism, and that the Communists were – or soon would be – in control of the Republican government. Within the first few weeks they had begun to recruit, equip, and train the International Brigades, whose senior officers and political commissars were trusted Party men; these splendid troops formed the backbone of the Republican army. I did not, of course, appreciate the imminence of the German and Italian threat; nor in those early months were the Nationalists receiving very extensive or very obvious help from either country.

It seemed to me, as it did to the far greater numbers who went to the other side, that if you hold deep convictions you must be prepared to defend them, if necessary in battle. There were barely half-a-dozen Englishmen in the National ranks, although six hundred Irish followed the disastrous O’Duffy (Vol. 11, p. 1454) to fight for their faith; but two thousand British volunteers joined the International Brigades to protect Spanish democracy. I find it tragic that men I knew and respected, however much we disagreed, should have lost their lives in a cause so cynically exploited by the Communists for their own selfish and sinister ends.

It was by no means simple for an Englishman to enlist in the Nationalist forces; they had no recruiting organization over here. It was only through a chance meeting with their agent in London that I obtained introductions to officers at General Franco’s headquarters in Burgos, where I arrived at the beginning of November 1936; even so, I had to provide myself with a letter of accreditation from a London newspaper, to avoid obstruction from the newly established Non-Intervention Committee. The staff officers in Burgos, however, were sympathetic and helpful as soon as I said I wanted to fight in the war, not report it, and offered me a choice between the Falange and Carlist militias.

The Falange was naturally repellent to someone of my Tory outlook; but everything I had heard about the Requetés, or Carlists, roused my enthusiasm. Originating in the bitter civil wars of the last century, their movement combined a deep religious faith with the ideals of monarchy, traditionalism, regional autonomy, and selfless patriotism, expressed in their motto, ‘Dios, Fueros, Patria, y Rey’ – ‘God, our liberties, our country, and our King.’ Incomprehensible or archaic as such beliefs may appear in the technocratic age, they inspired the Requetés to a devotion and heroism in battle that won them universal admiration among a nation famous for its courage. They had formed the spearhead of General Mola’s armies in the north, but because they lacked training and discipline, and insisted, moreover, on wearing their distinctive scarlet berets in action, they had suffered appalling casualties.

Carlists with Cross

A few yards of ground

The Carlists drew their main strength from the four Basque provinces; especially Navarre; indeed the liberties for which they fought were essentially the same as those the Basque Republican government in Bilbao claimed to be defending. “For me,” as one of my Navarrese friends observed sadly, “the tragedy of this war is not only that Spaniards are fighting Spaniards, but that Basques are fighting Basques.”

At this time the main battle was centered around Madrid, and so I hastened south, and a few days later enrolled as a trooper in a squadron of Requeté cavalry quartered in a village near Toledo. We had expected to go into action in the forthcoming Nationalist offensive against the capital, but it soon became clear that cavalry could play little part in the street fighting and trench warfare which followed. Instead, we spent our time patrolling among the olive groves by the Tagus, and the only action I saw was a mounted charge the squadron launched against a herd of goats, which our scouts had mistaken in the distance for a marauding band of Republican militiamen. I decided therefore, to transfer to the infantry, and had myself posted, towards the end of December, to a battalion operating in a suburb of Madrid. The contrast was as sudden as it was uncomfortable: if the inactivity of the cavalry had bored me, the street fighting scared me stiff. My platoon was holding a group of houses forming a salient and surrounded on three sides by buildings only a few metres away, occupied by the Republicans; by day and night they lobbed grenades and mortar bombs at us, so that we never dared speak above a whisper, and they sniped continually from all directions. The position had no conceivable tactical importance, yet our troops hung on to it until – fortunately after I had left – the Republicans blew it up with a mine. It was a feature of this war that both sides would fight stubbornly and at fearful cost for a few yards of ground of no military value: considerations of prestige too often prevailed over common sense.

During the battle of the Jarama, in February 1937, my battalion of Requetés was holding a line of hills overlooking the Manzanares plain, a few miles south-east of Madrid, when the Republicans attacked us in strength. After two days of heavy fighting we threw them back. But our casualties were unnecessarily high because our trenches, although we had been there over a fortnight, were much too shallow; moreover, they were most unprofessionally laid out, running in a continuous line along the hill crest without traverses or communication trenches to the rear. In my experience Spanish troops, even the crack Foreign Legion, could never be induced to construct proper trenches; they seemed to think – especially the Requetés – that it was a sign of cowardice to dig in securely.

Magnificent but not war

The Requeté spirit was very evident in this action. Men exposed themselves quite recklessly to enemy fire, even clambering into the parapet in their eagerness to get a clearer shot – often to slump forward riddled with bullets and roll some yards down the hill; then our company chaplain would run after them, the purple tassel of the scarlet beret flying in the wind, and kneel over them in prayer, heedless of the bullets churning the earth around him. I regret to add that when the enemy was in full retreat, Father Vincente was just as zealous in pointing out targets to our marksmen. Our company commander walked calmly up and down, clearly silhouetted against the skyline encouraging us and directing our fire, until he too collapsed with a shattered shoulder. This was the true Carlist tradition – magnificent but not war.

Our enemies suffered very heavy losses in their attack. I wondered who had conceived the idea of sending men to advance with inadequate artillery preparation, across an open plain almost devoid of cover to assault a strong natural position. I believe what really lost the war for the Republicans, apart from their initial failure to gain command of the sea, was the poor quality of their officers – except in the International Brigades – and their bad tactics, planning, and generalship, of which this battle was an example.

In the northern campaign, where I served from June to September 1937, the Basque Republicans and their allies, surrounded on land and blockaded by sea, faced greatly superior concentrations of artillery and aircraft. Although the mountainous country provided strong defences, their fortifications were badly sited and their troops too few to man them. Nevertheless, they fought with great tenacity and courage – the Asturian miners especially – and made us pay dearly for every ridge we stormed.

To compensate for their loss of Bilbao the Republicans achieved in this campaign their greatest propaganda victory of the war: the myth of Guernica, according to which that ancient centre of Basque liberties was set alight and totally destroyed by German Stukas. The truth was quite different, as I learned at the time from two journalist friends, an Englishman and a Frenchman, who entered the town with the first Nationalist troops on 29th April and closely questioned the inhabitants; their account was confirmed recently in the most impartial and best documented analysis I have seen (Brian Crozier, Franco). The Nationalist – not the German – air force did bomb Guernica, an important communications centre crowded at the time with troops, and hit the railway station and an arms factory. The burning and destruction of the town, however, were the work of Republican militiamen – chiefly Asturian dynamite squads – immediately before they left; they had done the same to Irun and other Basque towns I myself visited. Nevertheless, Republican propaganda created a legend which, fortified by the skill of Agitprop and the genius of Picasso, will probably outlive truth.

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Left: A map detailing occupation and gains of Nationalist and Republican forces throughout the Spanish Civil War. Right: A Tank and its crew from the Condor Legion.

By the autumn of 1937 the military character of the war had developed from its largely amateur beginnings into a grimly professional contest; for this reason – and with the prospect of another world war only too evident – I thought I had better learn something of the serious business of soldiering. And so I arranged, not without difficulty, to transfer in my existing rank of ensign to the Spanish Foreign Legion; I joined the 14th Bandera (Battalion) at the end of October.

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The Spanish Foreign Legion during the Civil War.

The men of this elite corps, formed in 1920 by Generals Milian Astray and Franco for service in Morocco, were the best equipped and trained in the Nationalist army; all were volunteers. Moulded in a tradition of courage, self-sacrifice, and endurance, they were employed, like the International Brigades on the other side, as ‘shock troops’ in every difficult situation. The legionary, though allowed considerable freedom off-duty, was subject in the field to a ferocious discipline, and punishments were arbitrary and savage. Ninety per cent of the men and almost all the officers were Spaniards; the remainder were Portuguese, with a sprinkling of other nationalities. One of the very few foreigners to be admitted as an officer, I encountered at first considerable suspicion which only vanished after I had fought a couple of actions with the Bandera.

A just and noble cause

Early in February 1938 we took part in operations about Teruel, where we suffered few battle casualties but lost several dead from exposure at night to the bitter cold; in mid-February we attacked a strong position held by Americans and Canadians of the XV International Brigade, and suffered heavy losses. On 17th March, at Caspe on the borders of Aragon and Catalonia, I fought my bitterest engagement of the war – ironically enough, though I did not know it then, against British units of the XIV International Brigade; in twenty-four hours of fighting – often at hand-to-hand – my company suffered seventy-five per cent casualties, and I myself was wounded three times. This was the only occasion in my life when I was convinced I was going to die; strangely, at that moment, it seemed worthwhile.

Whether or not I was right in joining the Nationalists – and I am still convinced I was – I shall always feel the greatest affection and respect for those who fought in that war, whether alongside or against me. To the fighting soldier, Nationalist or Republican, his cause seemed at the time just and noble; other opinions, in comparison, are unimportant.

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