Annual commemoration: Remembering Otto Estensen

Post date: 19/07/2022

Elizabeth Estensen, actress and daughter of International Brigader Otto Estensen, was an honoured guest speaker at the IBMT’s 2022 annual commemoration on Saturday 2 July. She spoke about her father and the legacy of the volunteers. The speech is reproduced below.

Elizabeth Estensen speaking at the commemoration in Jubilee Gardens. (Photo: Andrew Wiard)

I’ve often been asked why my father had been given a German name. The fact is, it’s a Scandinavian name too. My father’s father – my grandfather (also Otto) was born in Norway. He sailed to England, was naturalised British and married a girl from Yorkshire with whom he had 5 children. Being the oldest, my father was named Otto after his father. His siblings didn’t fare so well in the exotic name stakes. They were: Elsie, Jenny, Doris and Jack.

Otto left school at the age of 13. His family couldn’t afford for him to take up the scholarship he was awarded to attend secondary school. He joined the merchant navy and it was there that he met Tommy Chilvers who was to become his great friend. Together they volunteered for Spain where they were told that they would both be joining the newly formed and highly regarded Anti-Tank Battery of the British Battalion.

Otto Estensen (centre, with mandolin) and the British Anti-Tank Battery.

I’m sure that many of you are familiar with the now iconic photograph (above) of members of the Anti-Tank Battery making music around the artillery gun. My father is seated in the middle, playing his mandolin.

I’m going to read part of a letter he wrote in 1937 to Tommy Chilvers (who had been smuggled out of Spain because of the return of his malaria). The letter shows his thoughts were continually returning to home:

Dear Tom, I wrote saying I would be home partly on the basis of unfounded rumour, but mostly to ease the mind of my mother who I know must be worrying. Anyway, Tom, I won’t be home until this war is finished. If I come through it safely, I’ll get married.

And he did come through it safely and did get married – to Eleanor, a wonderful woman, but that’s another story. I was shown some years later that he finished the letter with a postscript saying that he was acting commander. I believe it was the grief of having lost so many dear friends and comrades that made the news seem trivial.

The war, like all wars, was brutal and savage. Of course I never knew the brave young man who volunteered for the International Brigade. I remember a lovely father. A gentle, kind, intelligent man, quietly spoken with a pronounced Teesside accent who, until his sudden death at the beginning of 1979, was always there when I needed him.

He used to take me for lunch, or dinner as we called it, to the YWCA. That was in my teenage years. In my 20s he came to see me in various theatres.

He didn’t talk much about Spain but I remember as a little girl noticing a scar on his knee. He said it was from a battle wound that he’d received in Spain. Apparently a sniper fired a shot at his heart just as my father (who was climbing an olive grove at the time) raised his leg and his knee, not his heart, took the bullet. A nurse in the hospital that he was sent to removed the bullet with wire (and he said, rather unnecessarily I thought, that it really hurt).

He was given some rope to bite on in lieu of anaesthetic. There was so little anaesthetic that it had to be saved for those who needed surgery.

The war in Spain finally came to an end, but alas, not with the outcome hoped for.

Dolores Ibárruri, ‘La Pasionaria’, made her famous speech to the International Brigades and he was given a copy – in Spanish of course. Ever the linguist, he learned to speak Spanish from his comrades who were from that country. My father was cited for bravery twice and wounded three times. Otto Estensen was a hero, as were all who were prepared to sacrifice everything to help the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War.

Posted on 7 July 2022.

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