Life and times of a working-class hero

Post date: 08/02/2016

From the Morning Star of Monday 8 February 2016

TOM SIBLEY recommends an inspiring memoir by one of the heroes of the International Brigades who fought in the Spanish Civil War

Proud Journey:
A Spanish Civil War Memoir
by Bob Cooney
(Manifesto Press, £5)

Eighty years ago the International Brigades were mobilised from volunteer recruits from many parts of the world.

They went to Spain to assist the elected republican government in its life-and-death struggle against a fascist military coup, supported internally by the great majority of the regular army led by General Francisco Franco, big landowners and the powerful Catholic church. 

Externally, nazi Germany and fascist Italy quickly came to Franco’s aid when it became clear that the republican militias had repelled the first wave of the rebel army’s offensive.

Thousands of trained soldiers and state-of-the-art tanks and planes poured in from Germany and Italy to turn possible defeat for Franco’s forces into probable victory, given the balance of national and international forces in 1937.

Of the European powers, only the Soviet Union stood by the republic, supplying arms, food and medicines and providing diplomatic and political support throughout the three-year civil war.

Britain and France deliberately supported the fascist cause and, by promoting non-intervention, they deprived the republic of the right to buy arms on the international market.

Yet 2,500 volunteers from Britain and Ireland went to Spain, with over 500 killed in action. They were part of the greatest act of international solidarity the world has seen.

These men and women — over 70 per cent of whom were members of the communist movement — were part of a 40,000 force organised under the auspices of the Comintern, the umbrella body of the international communist movement.

One of them, Bob Cooney, was a leading figure of the British Battalion. Born in 1907, he studied at the Lenin School in Moscow from 1931 to 1932 and soon after became a tutor at the Aberdeen Labour College.

In the next few years, he was active in the anti-fascist struggle as Mosley’s movement tried unsuccessfully to build a mass base in Aberdeen. After initially blocking Cooney’s persistent applications to go to Spain, arguing that he was doing essential anti-fascist and solidarity work in Scotland, the Communist Party relented.

Cooney arrived in Spain in 1937 and, after six weeks’ training, was drafted into the British Battalion and quickly promoted to political commissar of No 4 Company.

He was to see action on several fronts before returning to Britain with the rest of the battalion in December, 1938.

Cooney later fought as a gunner with the British army in WWII, helping to win the battle against nazism and fascism which had begun in Madrid in 1936.

This book does indeed tell the story of a proud journey. Cooney not only sets before his reader the political context but vividly illustrates his narrative with examples of the heroic sacrifices made, based as they were on the determination of the brigaders to rid the world of the fascist threat.

He shows how the republic was betrayed by the imperialist powers and how the cynical non-intervention policy deprived the Popular army and the Spanish people of the arms and supplies necessary to defeat the fascist powers.

“Our troubles in action were aggravated by the ever-present supply difficulties,” he writes. “At Hill 481 every piece of ammunition had to be dragged up the sheer heights by mules.

“One particular animal was dubbed Chamberlain by the muleteer because it constantly made off in the direction of the fascist lines.”

That’s just one of many memorable quotes in this book, an inspiring memoir which should be in every public library. It’s a clarion call to stand up to the dark forces of fascism and reaction by building solidarity movements nationally and internationally.


Available at £5 plus £2 p&p from Marx Memorial Library, 37a Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R 0DU, and the Morning Star shop

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