Miles Tomalin: poet of the Anti-Tank Battery

Post date: 24/03/2022

IBMT member Tony Fox writes about some of the contributions of International Brigader Miles Tomalin, who was part of the British Anti-Tank Battery and was described by fellow volunteer Jim Brewer as 'one of the battalion's most popular figures'. He served alongside Teesside volunteers Otto Estensen and Tommy Chilvers. 

Fox’s research on Teesside volunteers has been published as a pamphlet titled ‘I Sing of My Comrades’ (2022), in support of the fundraising campaign for an International Brigade memorial in Stockton-on-Tees led by John Christie. It is available to order here. This piece is an edited version of a blog originally published here.

This story starts with this iconic photograph (above) of the 15th International Brigade Anti-Tank Battery.

My original interest in this image came from the fact that Teesside volunteers Otto Estensen and Tommy Chilvers were both members of this specialist unit; Otto can be seen here seated before the gun playing his mandolin. Above him is Miles Tomalin playing his recorder.

William Rust, in ‘Britons In Spain’ (1939), describes Miles thus:

The anti-tank soon became known as the happiest family of the Brigade, and their comic wall-paper, Assault and battery news, and merry social evenings were the envy of all. Miles Tomalin, Battalion poet, musician, and cheery soul, was their foremost mirth provider, while the commander himself sometimes displayed his versatility by dancing steps from classical ballet.

Very early in writing ‘I Sing of My Comrades’, I approached Miles’ daughter Stefany informing her I was writing about her father and enquiring about his poetry. She very kindly gave her permission for us to use an image of the commanders of the British Battalion and to include Miles’ poem, ‘The Gunner’ in our book. Later, in July 2020 Stefany asked me to check on her father’s recorder which she had donated to the Imperial War Museum; I was pleased when IBMT Historical Consultant Richard Baxell confirmed that it was safe.

The Gunner


The gunner on his crest

Watched the battalions waiting to assault

And saw his friend, relaxed there as if dead

Among the rest.

He’ll go at the first shout, the gunner said,

Meantime the waiting makes his mind still

As a watch when it’s wound up’ sometimes will

Until you shake it.

He’ll go – I know that fellow well enough,

I shouldn’t wonder if the going’s tough.

Oh God, the gunner said, I hope he’ll make it!

There’s that damned fascist rather going again.

Give me another five, Chief, or they’ll start

Before we’ve got it. Give me another five –

I want to see that man come out alive.


Recently I was reading through a copy of the illustrated pamphlet about the British Battalion, published by the International Brigade Wounded and Dependants’ Aid Committee in January 1939. Its cover quotes Byron: ‘Yet, freedom yet, thy banner torn but flying…’. IBMT member Stuart Walsh had given me a copy as he felt that I would find the Roll of Honour useful. As ever Stuart was correct – also, the articles within have been equally as useful.

In ‘I Sing of My Comrades’ I had tried to uncover every reference to the Stockton men. Only after writing it did I find one I had missed. Miles Tomalin wrote a chapter in the January 1939 pamphlet on the 15th International Brigade Anti-Tank Battery which mentioned Otto’s command of the unit. An extract from Tomalin’s piece is produced below:

In time it became a byword in the XVth Brigade that you couldn’t get the Anti-Tank Battery down. Our reputation was up to anyone’s and a matter of pride to every man. For this, good leadership was largely responsible. Malcolm Dunbar and Hugh Slater were our first two commanders-none better. Bill Alexander was our political commissar before he left to become adjutant of the British Battalion. Otto Estensen, Arthur Nicoll and Alan Gilchrist carried on their tradition. These men not only gave us good military and political direction, but were wise enough to encourage our cultural activities as well at times when there was opportunity for them, and our wall newspaper, ‘Assault and Battery News,’ achieved, we were told, a reputation among the best in the Spanish Army.

The Battery saw service in all the Brigade’s campaigns until March, of 1938, when massed fascist artillery knocked out our guns at the beginning of their push through Aragon down to the Ebro. By the time we were ready to hit back and cross the river again, the remaining members of the battery had been drafted into the British Battalion, and played their part there with the best. There lie some of the best of them now.

Ours was a fine unit, and we shall not forget it. Those of us who have come back will see it that its spirit stays alive.


A scanned copy of the pamphlet can be read in the Warwick Digital Collections here

One must remember that Miles was writing this in December 1938, as the British Battalion returned from Spain. Despite the passage of time and the work of numerous historians, I feel that one would be hard-pressed to find a better summary of the Anti-Tank Battery.

I feel pride in the fact that, as members of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, John Christie, Stefany, Stuart and myself are playing a small part in ensuring the spirit of the Anti-Tank Battery and the International Brigades are kept alive.


Posted on 24 March 2022.

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