Diary of a Scottish medic in Spain

Post date: 11/03/2020

Alan Lloyd reviews 'The Road to Madrid: Diary of Donald Gallie, Member of the Scottish Medical Aid Unit, Serving in the Spanish Civil War, September– December 1936' by Nina Stevens (Sussex Academic Press 2019). Originally published in ¡No Pasarán! 1-2020, we have reproduced this review as a prelude to this year's IBMT Len Crome Memorial Conference on 'Scotland and the Spanish Civil War', Saturday 21 March in Edinburgh. Tickets to the conference can be booked here

This book is based on the diary of Donald Gallie, a member of the Scottish Ambulance Unit, who was in Spain from September to December 1936. Whilst much has been written about the SAU this is the first book to give voice to the thoughts and experiences of one of its participants.

The chequered and somewhat controversial story of the SAU began in Glasgow, ‘the hub of the Scottish Aid for Spain movement’. It was the brainchild of wealthy philanthropist Sir Daniel Macaulay Stevenson, with the support of a number of wealthy friends and the Scottish TUC. Chief amongst the TUC supporters was General Secretary Walter Citrine, who was keen to see that the SAU stressed the humanitarian and non-political nature of its work, which may have been as much about his paranoia regarding the Communist Party as putting the SAU in a non-partisan light.

The first of what was to become four missions to Spain by the SAU consisted of six ambulances loaded with stores and medical supplies. There was a crew of 19 people, including the 24 year old motor mechanic Donald Gallie, and one woman, the formidable Commandant Fernanda Jacobsen, who had been a secretary to Stevenson.

THE WIZARDS: Members of the second Scottish Ambulance Unit, from left, Morris Linden, Roderick MacFarquhar, Alan Boyd, John MacKinnon, George Burleigh, Thomas Penman, unknown, Thomas Watters.

The notional leader of the group was the sole doctor, Louis Levin, and it was not long before he was locking horns with Jacobsen. The conflicts between the two ended shortly into the journey after a wire was received from Glasgow telling the group to send Levin home, and put Duncan Newbigging in charge. Curiously, in view of events during future missions, this is one of the very few occasions that Donald mentions Jacobsen in his diary, although in his appraisal of some members of the group he describes her as ‘highly strung, fairly headstrong and a hard worker. Would like to have her hand in everything.’

Just over two weeks after leaving Glasgow, and having driven down through France and Spain, the SAU were on the Toledo front, south of Madrid. As well as the continuous ferrying of casualties back to base, there was the constant fear of being shelled or strafed, with Franco’s forces judging ambulances to be legitimate targets.

However, strains within the group remained and Donald complained about ‘drunkenness and immorality’, which eventually led to seven men being sent home. Two wished to return and the other five went ‘for disciplinary reasons, as they are a menace to the unit’. He was also pretty scathing about Newbigging who ‘preferred driving to leading’ and was often ‘missing again’.

Despite these various machinations, there is no doubt from Donald’s honest and graphic descriptions of their work that the core of the unit was totally committed and extremely brave, risking their lives on a daily basis to tend to soldiers and civilians alike. In a letter to his girlfriend at the end of October he wrote that ‘for the three and a half weeks that we have been in Spain we have dealt with about 1,000 wounded…’. They built a great reputation for the unit, and were known locally as ‘The Wizards’.

A combination of exhaustion and shattered nerves led to a request for withdrawal from Spain in December 1936, and they were able to get transported via HMS Greyhound from Alicante to Marseille, and then to drive back to Glasgow, having set the standard for future missions. Not only are Donald’s diary entries descriptive and heartfelt but they are also supported by a great number of the photographs he took, along with a diagram of the bombing and destruction of ambulance No 3 in Parla.

The book has been transcribed and edited by Donald’s daughter, Nina Stevens, who has done a wonderful job of producing this fitting and sincere memorial to her father.


Posted on 11 March 2020.

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