The Londoners who fought Franco
28 July 2006
This week marks the seventieth anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War, when thousands of people voluntarily journeyed to the continent to fight fascism.
Sam Lesser [UCL Archaeology], 91, was born in Hackney into a family of Polish Jewish immigrants. He was a member of the Officer Training Corps as well as the Communist Party and joined the International Brigade in 1936. Eventually he was wounded and returned to London, later returning to Spain to work as the 'Daily Worker's correspondent. There he also met his future wife, Margaret, a nurse.
"I was a student at University College London studying Egyptology. I was preparing to go on a dig in Egypt when I met up with an old friend who said that people were needed to fight in Spain who had military experience. I had my OTC [Officer Training Corps] training and I immediately decided to go. We were told to keep our journey top secret but in Paris everyone was talking about it. Leaving Paris, the railway workers raised clenched fists as we passed. There was a great feeling of solidarity.
"We were training at Albacete but one day were suddenly transported to Madrid University and billeted in these beautiful new buildings. We had just dug in at the Philosophy and Literature faculty when we came under fire. None of my training had prepared me for running up and down stairs and fighting in a building like that. After the battle only six of us were left from a battalion of 32.
"In another battle around Lopera, I felt the force of a bullet like a kick in the arse and ended up lying in No Man's Land with wounds to my back and leg. I thought, 'I'm a goner.' I couldn't move my leg and there was no sign of anyone coming to pick up the wounded, who I could hear moaning all around me. But a friend of mine found me and dragged me to a truck. It turned out to be an agricultural dung cart. I was in excruciating pain and the stink didn't help. We were driven to a hospital in Linares. In the moonlight it looked as if the whole town had come to the hospital to greet us and bring us presents: I was given pasties and grape juice and a woman told me how thankful she was for what we were doing.
"Ten years ago I went back to Madrid with some other veterans. We were walking around the university and suddenly all these students swarmed around us. They had heard we were visiting. One student said, 'My grandad told me about how you came when we needed you.' It was a marvellous feeling after all those years."