Harry Stratton: Scrapbooks of an anti-fascist life

Post date: 09/06/2021

Harry Stratton (1905-1989) was an International Brigader, and taxi driver by trade from Swansea, who drew cartoons, scribbled notes and collected stamps and newspaper clippings during his time in Spain, as well as in his later service during the Second World War. Stratton preserved these ephemera in extensive scrapbooks, which his son Les Stratton has shared with the IBMT, along with a biography.

Photo from Stratton’s scrapbooks. Back row (from left): Jack Williams, William Morrisey, Lance Rogers. Front: Harry Stratton.

Harry Stratton was born in Swansea in 1905. His father ran a small horse cab business and when Harry left school at 14 he began working for his father as a coach painter. During the evenings he attended art classes and discovered a talent for drawing, as demonstrated by the cartoons he would draw in Spain. He began taxi-driving in 1922, when horses were replaced by internal combustion engines, and in 1929 he bought his own car and became self-employed. That same year he also married his first wife Winnie.

Harry was brought up as a Christian, and indeed had been a choirboy as a child. He began questioning his faith after his brother-in-law Alan was tragically killed in a road accident. Spurred on by the poverty in Swansea, and obvious inequality, he also questioned the political orthodoxy and became a socialist. He was a powerful man who worked 80 hours a week, swam 19 lengths in the mornings and still had time for political activity, including campaigning for Communist Party (CP) General Secretary Harry Pollitt, who stood for Parliament in the Rhondda in 1935.

When Franco started his rebellion against the Spanish government ‘support and help was given by democrats from all over the world’, Harry wrote in his autobiography ‘To Anti-Fascism by Taxi’. The Welsh District of the Communist Party organised a petition asking Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to recall Parliament to discuss the Spanish Civil War. A delegation, including Charlie Williams of the Cardiff Trades Council, two Communist councillors from the Rhondda and miners’ leader Will Paynter, presented the petition to Baldwin. He was on holiday in mid-Wales and Harry drove two of the delegation there, where they subsequently held a meeting in Newtown. 

Harry was involved in helping with many meetings and driving for leaflet and fly-posting campaigns. He was asked to join the Communist Party, and agreed as he understood it to be the only party capable of fighting for socialism. 

Food and clothing were collected for Spain, and Harry made many journeys to the docks, including two trips to Spanish ships calling at Southampton and Port Talbot. He agonised over whether to volunteer for the International Brigade, as he and Winnie had two young daughters, Jean and Elaine. Worse, Winnie did not agree with his politics. He was told by Charlie Williams that if he went to Spain, Winnie would be given a weekly allowance from a fund for International Brigade dependents, organised by author and campaigner Charlotte Haldane. Harry told Winnie he had a job in Southampton; in fact he set off for London. It would be the pivotal experience of his life.

Postcard replicas of a series of posters produced by the Spanish Communist Party with the heading ‘Conditions in order to win the war.’ The above are numbers 3, 5 and 6.

He went to the Communist Party headquarters in King Street for directions, then to Victoria Station and travelled to Paris with many other volunteers. The MI5 records held in the National Archives state that on 22 January 1937 Harry Stratton left Newhaven for Dieppe. He visited the Place de la Bastille, significant to him as he was born on the anniversary of Bastille Day. Then he went to Perpignan by train, sent Winnie a postcard, and was taken by coach across the Spanish border to an old fort in Figueras, where Americans and others joined them. A thousand volunteers of many nationalities sang ‘The Internationale’ together as they marched from the camp. Harry never forgot the exhilaration. 

After a train journey to Barcelona they marched up La Rambla to a great welcome. They were given oranges at every stop on the way to the International Brigade base at Albacete. At the British Battalion camp at Madrigueras, Harry delivered a pair of socks knitted for Tom Wintringham by his wife. Wintringham was one of the founders of the Daily Worker, who later trained the Home Guard in guerrilla tactics. A week later, on 15 February 1937, Harry was sent to the Jarama front line, and was immediately under fire. He remembers loosening a piece of rock from a shallow trench and as he pushed it onto the beginnings of a parapet, it was immediately struck by a bullet. 

Harry was one of the fortunate ones. The heaviest losses and casualties – 450 out of 600 men – had happened over the previous three days. With two breaks, he stayed in the front line until the end of April. His mother had written that Winnie was expecting in July, and he asked Will Paynter, now a battalion commissar, if he could go home in July. He asked again on 27 September and Will agreed. 

Meanwhile he worked at a hospital and drew illustrations for La Voz de la Sanidad. At that time he was also suddenly taken ill with a heart problem and spent time in hospital himself. 

Cartoon captioned ‘The newly arrived, and thirsty, British volunteer.’

He left for Barcelona, was deloused and returned to Swansea on 13 October 1937, where he learned that Winnie had miscarried. Their relationship slowly mended as Harry started work again, first coach painting and then driving. He started going to Swansea Communist Party meetings and became more involved in political activity. Harry campaigned against Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy and would also become a shop steward with the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), for his fellow taxi drivers. He would also sell the Daily Worker as well as other socialist literature, campaigned for bomb shelters as war became more likely and helped to set up the Swansea Peace Council. Harry witnessed bombing in Cardiff and Swansea, and helped put out fires in the aftermath. He was called up in January 1941 and went to Kinmel Park in North Wales, to join the 11th Ack Ack Driver Training Regiment which was part of the Royal Artillery – he became a driving instructor. There he also met John Prebble, who would make a name for himself as a Communist author and historian of Scotland, and they struck up a friendship. Tragedy struck on Harry’s first leave in May, when Winnie became ill with meningitis. Harry wrote: ‘For several days she fought that sudden and terrible illness with all her tremendous courage, but never had a chance.’ He took Jean and Elaine to the top of Caerphilly mountain and broke the news to them there. 

Back at camp, Harry and his comrades organised a petition calling for a Second Front – to attack Germany in the west, thus helping the Red Army in the east. He also exercised his campaigning and organising skills through a number of small initiatives: writing to the Ministry of Food as their YMCA canteen was overcharging for food, starting a newspaper called The Beam and organising weekly meetings of talks, quizzes and educational classes. 

Cartoon sketches made at the front. Left: ‘Spanish kitten taking cover in tin hat.’ Right: ‘Incident at Brunete’

Around this time Harry met Lil, a Jewish-Hungarian refugee who had joined the British Army and was working as an army cook. They fell in love and married. Lil organised opposition to compulsory church parades, recruiting other Jews as well as Christians to the campaign. Harry volunteered for a unit that would take part in the Second Front and was posted early in 1943.

Harry and Lil missed each other greatly, and wrote letters to each other every day they were apart, carrying on until November 1945, two months after their son, and the author of this piece, was born. The letters survive, and will be archived at Swansea University. The collection includes family letters, letters from government departments, and letters from friends and comrades – about 1,700 in total. They paint a picture of army life during the war, the political landscape – and a love story. 

In 1943 he wrote to Lil about a film: ‘It turned out to be fairish, with one interesting picture of life inside Franco Spain. The shots were taken with the permission of the Fascists, and weren’t intended to be as revealing as they actually are.’

Lil responded that she had read that: 

‘The CPs of 53 countries were represented in the International Brigades having sent, in addition to the others who were eager to join, quite a number of Central Committee members and leading Party workers. Among them were men like Hans Beimler, a member of the Central Committee of the German Communist Party who had been crippled in a German concentration camp, and who fell at Palasete crying ‘Rote Front’ (It means ‘Red Front’.) There were men like the Hungarian Communist, old Hevesi, who led the Rakosi Battalion in an attack on one of the enemy’s concrete fortifications at Huesca, captured it but like the Battalion commissar, died a heroic death. There were rank-and-filers like John, an English truck driver who under heavy fire brought water to the men who were tormented with thirst; when mortally wounded he said: ‘If Comrade Stalin saw this he would clap me on the back and say: Well done John, you’re a fine comrade John!.’ I like this piece darling very much, it reminds me of our own little union, a Hungarian and an English.’

Though he moved through many camps around the UK, Harry was never posted abroad. John Prebble, who had been part of the Second Front, wrote to Harry reassuring him: ‘I know you well enough Harry to know that wherever you are you are doing valuable work. You went to Spain. In years to come that perhaps will mean more than saying “I went on the Second Front”.’

Lil passed away in 1961 and Harry produced an album in honour of her life, meticulously written using calligraphy. After the fall of the Franco regime, he would return to Spain as a guest of honour. He continued to work as a taxi driver until he was well into his 70s and he died in 1989. 

His obituary in the Morning Star attempted to capture the incredible range of commitments that defined his life: ‘A life-long Communist, Stratton was a member of the International Brigade in Spain and served on the Management Committee of the Daily Worker and Morning Star from 1959 to 1973 and again in the late 1970s.

He was involved politically in Swansea up to his death, was the Morning Star organiser in Llanelli, member of the West Wales Area Committee and the Welsh Committee of the Communist Party. Later, he joined the re-established Communist Party of Britain. As part of the TGWU, he organised a group of local taxi drivers. Harry Stratton lived a rich life, committed to the politics of socialism and anti-fascism, the ample evidence of which is to be found in both his autobiography ‘To Anti-Fascism by Taxi’ and his incredible scrapbooks.


Posted on 9 June 2021.

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