- For information relating to the World War Two British Army unit, see British Battalion (Malaya 1941).
The British Battalion (1936-1938) was the 16th battalion of the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. It was also sometimes known as the Saklatvala Battalion (for Shapurji Saklatvala) or the Clement Attlee Battalion.
A number of British volunteers, including Tom Wintringham
and Nat Cohen
, arrived in Spain during August-September 1936 and formed the Tom Mann Centuria
- a rifle company in the German-speaking Thälmann Column
. The Thälmann Battalion
later formed part of XII International Brigade
and fought in defence of Madrid
, including the battle for University City
Another group of British volunteers - among them Jock Cunningham and John Cornford - fought with the French-speaking Commune de Paris Battalion, in the XI International Brigade. It fought in the Madrid, including the battles for University City and Casa de Campo.
In December 1936, 145 British volunteers formed No. 1 Company of the French-speaking Marseillaise Battalion, part of the XIV International Brigade. They fought on the Córdoba front during December, and on the Madrid front during January 1937. Heavy fighting on 15 January at Las Rozas reduced the active ranks to 67.
Formation of the British Battalion
In January 1937, the survivors of No.1 Company joined with 450 new British, Irish
, and Dominion
volunteers at Madrigueras
, near Albacete
, International Brigades headquarters. They were formed into an English-speaking battalion, with three infantry companies (Nos. 1, 3, 4) and a machine-gun company (no. 2).
The battalion was numbered the 16th battalion of the International Brigades. It was formally named after Shapurji Saklatvala, the former Communist Member of Parliament (MP) for Battersea. However, this name never caught on and it was normally known as the "British Battalion". (The Spanish referred to it as "el batallón británico" or "el batallón inglés").
The British Battalion was attached to XV International Brigade, XV IB. The other battalions were the American Lincoln Battalion, the crack Balkan Dimitrov Battalion, and the Franco-Belgian Sixth February Battalion.
In February 1937, the battalion fought at the Battle of Jarama
. In single day's bloody fighting on 12 February against Moors
from Franco's Army of Africa
, the British Battalion suffered 275 casualties in No.1, No.3, and No.4 companies - leaving 125 rifleman fit for duty. On the second day of fighting, the machine gun company was surrounded by Fascists and many of its members were captured. The battalion commander Tom Wintringham
was injured, and Jock Cunningham
took command of the battalion's 140 survivors. The battalion remained in the trenches at Jarama until 17 June 1937.
Reinforced by new recruits and strengthened by returnees from hospital, the British Battalion mustered 331 brigaders
at the Battle of Brunete
. On 6 July, XV IB
occupied the villages of Romanillos and Boadilla del Monte, and by midnight captured the village of Villanueva de la Cañada. (It was here that Alex McDade
who wrote the song, Valley of Jarama
, commonly heard at Brigade reunions, was killed in action.) The following day the British were ordered to advance on Mosquito Ridge, a piece of high ground which overlooked the battalion’s original objectives. As they left Villanueva de la Canada they were bombed by Junkers aircraft from the Condor Legion
and shelled by Fascist artillery. The two-hour barrage and devastating heat caused heavy casualties and prevented the battalion reaching Mosquito Ridge before the Fascists rushed reinforcements to defend the position. Only 42 members of the battalion were left fit for service, and the battalion was withdrawn into a reserve position.
In mid-August, the Republican 35th Division, which included XV IB
, was moved to Aragon
. The focus of the Aragon campaign was to draw-off Fascist attacks on Santander
and to capture the strategic city of Saragossa
. On 25th August the battalion took part in street fighting to capture the Fascist strongpoint at Quinto. On 25th August the battalion attacked a stong Fascist position at Purburrel Hill, and was repulsed by intense rifle and machine gun fire. The following day another assault was made on the hill, supported by the XVth Brigade antitank artillery battery, and this time the attack succeeded. Heavy fighting had reduced the battalion to 100 men, and a number of Spanish troops were drafted as reinforcements for the battalion.
Disbandment of the British Battalion
On 21 September 1938, Juan Negrin
announced to the League of Nations
that the Republican government would disband the International Brigades
. The British battalion was withdrawn into reserve at the end of September 1938, and on 17 October, the battalion took part in the International Brigades' farewell parade through Barcelona. President Azaña
and Prime Minister Negrin
joined the crowds who took part in one of the last great Republican celebrations. On disbandment, 305 British volunteers left Spain. They arrived at Victoria Station
on 7 December, to be met by a crowd of supporters including Clem Attlee
, Stafford Cripps
, Willie Gallacher
, and Will Lawther
International Brigade Memorial Trust
The International Brigade Memorial Trust
has been established by veterans and historians to preserve and catalog the history of the British Battalion.
Roll of Honour
The IBMT has compiled a Roll of Honour
, listing the members of the British battalion who fell in Spain. The list is compiled primarily from documents held in the International Brigade Archive in the Marx Memorial Library, London and the International Brigade Archive in the Russian Centre for the Preservation and Study of Recent Historical Documents, Moscow.
Notable Members of the British Battalion
- Bill Alexander - industrial chemist, commander of the British Battalion from 1938, later Assistant General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
- Christopher Caudwell - journalist, poet, killed in action at Jamara.
- Fred Copeman - former sailor, organiser of the Invergordon Mutiny, commanded the British Battalion during 1937.
- John Cornford - poet, great-grandson of the naturalist Charles Darwin.
- Jason Gurney - British sculptor, also served with the Lincoln Battalion.
- Len Crome - doctor, neuropathologist, winner of the Military Cross during the Second World War.
- Jack Jones - later General Secretary of the Transport & General Workers Union.
- Laurie Lee - poet, novelist, author of Cider with Rosie.
- Will Paynter - NUM General Secretary 1959 - 1968
- Esmond Romilly - journalist, nephew of Winston Churchill.
- Stephen Spender - poet, essayist, professor at University College, London, knighted 1983.
- Alfred Sherman - Conservative philosopher, battalion Russian translator; taken prisoner in 1938
- Tom Wintringham - journalist, author, commander of the British Battalion to 1937.
- British Volunteers for Liberty: Spain, 1936-39, Bill Alexander, Lawrence & Wishart, 1983, ISBN 0-85315-564-X.
- No to Franco, the Struggle Never Stopped, 1939-1975, Bill Alexander, 1992, ISBN 0-9519667-0-7.
- British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, Richard Baxell, Routledge, 2004, ISBN 0-203-64785-8.
- The Shallow Grave: Memoir of the Spanish Civil War, Walter Gregory, Gollancz, 1986, ISBN 0-575-03790-3.
- Reason in Revolt, Fred Copeman, Blandford Press, 1948. (Out of print)
- Crusade in Spain, Jason Gurney, Faber. 1974. ISBN 978-0571103102
- We Cannot Park on Both Sides: Reading volunteers in the Spanish Civil War 1936-39, Mike Cooper and Ray Parkes, Reading International Brigades Memorial Committee, 2000. ISBN 0-9535448-0-X.