As a tribute to Herminio Martínez, who died on 29 December 2019, we reprint the speech he made at the IBMT’s commemoration on London’s Southbank on 1 July 2017. Eighty ears previously Herminio had arrived in England, aged seven, as one of the nearly 4,000 children who were evacuated from Spain’s Basque Country while it was being bombed by Franco’s German and Italian allies.
Herminio Martínez: How I arrived in Britain
Friends. I have been asked to speak here today very briefly. This year has marked the 80th anniversary of two events in the lives of some of us present. On 26 April 1937, the German Condor Legion bombed and destroyed Guernica in the Basque Country. And, on 23 May 1937, the steamship Habana docked at Southampton with very nearly 4,000 Basque children refugees aged six to 15, 96 women teachers and 118 young women helpers.
Early in the Spanish Civil War, the Basque Country and the area of Santander and Asturias had been cut off from the rest of Republican Spain by land and sea. The Basque government under President Aguirre, tried to get as many children as possible out of the bombing and hunger.
Children were sent to France, Belgium, Mexico and Soviet Russia. But the British Conservative government under Stanley Baldwin had refused to take refugees from the Spanish Civil War. The astonishing reason given was that if they were to do so, there would be fewer mouths to feed in Bilbao, and resistance to Franco’s forces would be prolonged, and this would contravene the Treaty of Non-Intervention that Britain had signed.
But in Britain, besides those who volunteered to join the International Brigades, there were many who supported the legally elected Republican government and who saw the danger of the spread of fascism. The National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief was set up to co-ordinate support for the Republican cause, and the Basque Children’s Committee was set up to arrange an evacuation of children to Britain.
The horrific destruction of Guernica on 26 April by the German Condor Legion caused such protests here that the British government was forced to change its policy. It did not want us, but agreed to allow children refugees to come. However, it stipulated it would not provide any assistance or funding. It never did. Leah Manning, an officer of the National Union of Teachers, was sent to Bilbao to organise the evacuation.
We arrived at Southampton on 23 May. This was the largest single arrival of refugees to the UK, ever. To greet us on the dockside was a band of the Salvation Army. We were loaded into buses and taken to a massive tented camp at Stoneham, just outside Southampton. A local farmer had given over three fields and volunteers had dug latrines and laid on water. Everything had had to be done quickly. We slept 10 to a tent on sacks filled with straw.
I now look back in wonder and admiration at how we were fed and cared for in the camp. Many of us were six, seven or eight years of age. There were even efforts to have lessons sitting on the grass outside the tents. Some of the children fell ill and at one time. It poured with rain for three days, so that the place became a quagmire. Yet there were film shows and physical activities such as folk dancing, PE sessions, boxing and games of football.
Volunteers from all manner of organisations worked endlessly to make life possible at the camp. They came from the Co-op, Boy Scouts, trade unions, church organisations, citizens of Southampton and elsewhere. There were individuals from all walks of life and political affiliations, and the whole strata of British society. The chairperson of the Basque Children’s Committee was the Conservative MP, the Duchess of Atholl. She was dubbed ‘The Red Duchess’.
Quickly, committees were formed all over Britain to gather support and funds to open up homes so that the children could all be taken from the camp by the end of September before winter set in. Very nearly 100 such homes were opened.
From the Southampton camp, my first stop was Swansea, in a large house outside the town. This housed some 80 children, two teachers and several of the young women helpers. I have circulated photos of that colony and you can see what the British people had taken on! So many of the children were so young and tiny and needed so much attention.
Shortly after our arrival, the war in the north of Spain ended. Franco’s forces had taken Bilbao. Groups of children started being repatriated. This was a scandal. Children were repatriated without the knowledge of their parents. Some did not have parents to return to; they had been killed, were in prison or had gone into exile to France, Mexico and other countries. A bogus ‘Repatriation Committee’ was set up here by Franco supporters and they were forging the parents’ signatures. This was so in the case of my brother and myself. Fortunately the International Red Cross intervened and stopped our repatriation.
By the time the repatriations finished, with the onset of the Second World War there were only some 460 of the children left in the UK.
I want to end by expressing our deepest thanks and gratitude to the British people. They were wonderful in the support they gave us. Some people gave years of their lives to support and look after us. Life has been tough but in many ways, it has been wonderful.
Thank you. ¡Viva la República!
Herminio Martínez Verguizas was born on 16 May 1930 in Regato, Barakaldo, Bilbao, and died on 29 December 2019 in Cambridge.
Posted on 1 January 2020.