A cockney Muscovite in Spain

Post date: 25/11/2022

Drawing from research in the Marx Memorial Library’s archives, David Grant sketches the life story of Percy Ludwick, a Soviet International Brigader and engineer originally from the East End of London. This piece was originally published in ¡No Pasaran! 3-2022.

Percy and his partner Sasha defending Moscow during the Second World War.

Securely stored and accurately catalogued in the International Brigade Archive, within the Marx Memorial Library in London, is an unpublished manuscript by Spanish Civil War volunteer Percy Ludwick modestly titled ‘Notes of a Muscovite’. Modest, in my opinion, as the 250-plus typed pages are no simple notes but a compelling autobiography of a life anything but ordinary. While there have been many memoirs written about the Spanish Civil War by British and Irish volunteers, only a few stand out as exceptional. What makes the writings of Percy Ludwick so fascinating is that unlike many of the British volunteers his journey to join the fight to defend the Spanish Republic was far from conventional.

This unconventionality at first glance is surprising. Pinkus ‘Percy’ Ludwick was born in October 1908. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Minsk, Belarus, and settled in the London Borough of Stepney in the heart of the Jewish East End. It is not known what his father did as a profession although one could speculate that he worked in one of the hundreds of workshops in the garment trade. Percy describes his parents as ‘believing in socialism’ and as a young boy he attended Socialist Sunday School. The abrupt change in his life trajectory occurred in April 1917 when his father was deported back to Russia for being a conscientious objector, under an agreement with the Kerensky provisional government. The family would never see him again.

After the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, his father joined the Red Army and would later die of typhus in a Polish prisoner of war camp in 1920. That same year, for reasons unknown, Percy’s mother decided to return with the family to what was now the Soviet Union. Aged 12 years old, the young Percy, along with his cockney accent, did well at his new school and by his early 20s was training as an engineer at the prestigious Gubkin Institute in Moscow.

In 1936 his skills as a civil engineer and perhaps his background of living in England brought him to the attention of the authorities, who strongly suggested he should volunteer to fight in Spain. It was pointed out that his skills were easily transferable for military purposes. Recruited alongside other Russians and ‘internationals’ he was not permitted to have time to think about the proposal but answer either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. He answered in the affirmative, having already been inspired by the speeches he had heard in Moscow by the Spanish communist poet Rafael Alberti and the writer María Teresa León. Prior to his departure he met Harry Pollitt, which as it turned out would not be his last meeting with the General Secretary of the British Communists.

Percy arrived in France on a Russian ship in mid-1937 and then took the typical volunteer route of departing Paris by train, crossing the Pyrenees and on by lorry to Figueres, Barcelona and eventually the training camp at Albacete.

After a brief stint at officer training school in Pozorrubio, Percy, now a lieutenant, found himself laying barbed wire in front of the trenches on the front-line and machine-gun pavilions. His criticism of the condition of the existing fortifications and suggestions as to how they should be improved were well received by General Walter, the commander of the 35th International Division, and he was sent to join the zapadoras company, the sappers, in Ambite, who were supporting the 15th International Brigade. The sappers were mainly made up of recruits from Valencia and Percy writes in glowing terms of their bravery and good humour. At this time Percy got to meet and know fairly well British Battalion commander Fred Copeman and his lieutenants Bill Alexander, Sam Wild and George Fletcher.

As Percy did not effectively join the 15th Brigade until December 1937 he had missed the big engagements of Jarama, Brunete, Quinto and Belchite. However, he was soon to find himself fully involved in the major offensive at Teruel, which began on 17 December. Percy describes the early success of the offensive in detail as well as the consequences of the Rebel counterattack. A defensive perimeter was held by the British Battalion for 10 days before being forced to withdraw, with over 150 casualties. Percy was relieved from the front on 3 February 1938 only to be sent straight back from Valencia to try and prevent further attacks. However, Tereul was lost on 22 February 1938. The battle as we know exhausted the resources of the Republican forces and the casualties were enormous.

The perspective Percy offers in his manuscript of the Battle of Teruel is original and compelling. Having the benefit of being fairly mobile in his role of building defensive fortifications, as well as his close contacts with various commanders, he provides us with not only a sense of what it was like being there but an overall perspective of the military situation. He speaks with emotion of his close friend Paul Festerling, a German communist engineer who like Percy was sent directly from Moscow to offer technical support to the embattled Spanish Republic. At one point although not in the same brigade (Paul was carrying out similar duties commanding a team of sappers supporting the 11th Brigade) he recounts with deep affection watching him from a short distance, in the heat of battle looking ‘stressed and nervous’. They did not even have time for a brief reunion.

The quality of Percy’s memoirs is acknowledged by historian of the British volunteers Richard Baxell, who referred to the manuscript in his book ‘Unlikely Warriors’. The detail he offers the reader as a military engineer with special responsibility for defensive fortifications provides us with an original perspective of many of the key and defining moments of the civil war. 

Franco wasted little time after Teruel and immediately began a new offensive in Aragón. Percy at this time fell ill with a high fever. Upon rejoining the brigade he witnessed the 11th, 13th and 15th Brigades of the 35th Division fighting a rearguard action while retreating. At Caspe, Percy narrowly avoided being captured by the enemy. Soon after Calaceite fell on 31 March 1938, with heavy losses sustained by the British Battalion. Chaotic scenes ensued at Mora de Ebro on 1 April, when the destruction of the bridge by Republican forces left some stranded Brigaders unable to navigate their way across the river. However, by 25 July the International Brigades were involved in a new offensive, with Percy heavily involved in the coordination of the crossing of the Ebro, by boat and pontoon bridge, of 3,000 men of the 13th Dąbrowski Brigade.

The Battle of the Ebro raged on for months as Republican forces tried to push towards Gandesa. Facing aerial and artillery bombardment with little cover, the 15th International Brigade, including the British Battalion, suffered many casualties in their attempts to capture the hill ranges overlooking the town.

In late August 1938, in the midst of the fighting, Percy led the task of building a monument to his slain comrades: ‘We built a small mausoleum on which we engraved the names of the men of the 15th International Brigade who had fallen in the Ebro operation.’ Percy’s concrete slab monument was rediscovered in 2000 in the Sierra Pandols range and indeed stands to this day. 

Word reached Percy by 22 September 1938 that the International Brigades were to be withdrawn – a last throw of the dice of the Negrín government to secure effective non-intervention. On 28 October Percy took part in the ‘farewell march’ in Barcelona and witnessed La Pasionaria’s famous speech. He made his way along with others across the border into France and from there by train and boat to London’s Victoria Station, where he and other volunteers were met by enthusiastic crowds. 

Republican infantry, engineers and International Brigaders assembling a pontoon bridge to cross the Ebro river in the morning of 25 July 1938.

Given some financial support by Harry Pollitt and the Communist Party, Percy attended various meetings in support of the Spanish Republic throughout 1939. At this time he applied for a British passport, his application being supported by Willie Gallagher MP and his former East London primary school teacher, but his heart was set on returning to the Soviet Union. He applied for a Soviet visa and had to convince an incredulous Soviet official that he was a long-term resident of the Soviet Union and had studied at the Gubkin Institute, having to describe in great detail the characteristics of the building and its exact location. 

Upon his return Percy lived with his partner Sasha at her mother’s apartment and they both went on to serve with distinction in the Red Army during the Second World War, exploits that space does not permit to recount. After the war he taught English at the Potemkin Pedagogical Institute in Moscow. He rarely spoke of his Jewish origins apart from some observations about Mosley and the British Union of Fascists operating in the East End of London during the 1930s and the personal consequences for himself of Stalin’s antisemitic purge in the early 1950s. Percy was dismissed from his post in 1952 and was unable to work for five years, which brought with it great hardship. By 1957 he was employed by Radio Moscow (an English-language service, later renamed Radio Moscow World Service) where he was to remain for 25 years. 

The Sierra Pandols memorial (left) and the grave of 15th Brigade captain Egan Schmidt constructed by Percy Ludwick, photographed by Harry Randall of the International Brigade Photographic Unit in August 1938.

In the post-communist years Percy maintained a steady correspondence with former Brigaders as well as their respective veteran organisations, notably the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA). In his published letters he rails against the ‘new capitalist Russia’ of the early 2000s and how this had reduced his economic circumstances to one of extreme poverty. Certainly Percy’s final days were not ideal; he died in September 2001, a week before his 93rd birthday. 

It is a shame that a life so full of personal sacrifice in the hope of a better world should not have ended with a little more comfort and security than it eventually did. 

Peter Carroll, historian and editor of ALBA’s periodical, The Volunteer, knew Percy, having dined with him in Madrid, visited him at his apartment in Moscow and crossed his path at various veteran events. He recently wrote a poem entitled ‘A Wound in the Heart’, that mentions Percy by name. 

A short tribute also appears in The Volunteer from his American friend and Lincoln volunteer Len Levenson, who praised Percy’s commitment to educating the younger generation about the lessons of the Spanish Civil War and acknowledged the devotion of his wife, Sasha. A short obituary appeared in the Spanish daily El País, where his contribution to supporting the Republic as well as his involvement in the Spanish section of the Soviet Veterans’ Association after the war was recognised.

Posted on 25 November 2022.

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