Malcolm Dunbar: the forgotten warrior

Post date: 04/03/2023

IBMT Historical Consultant Richard Baxell presents the story of British volunteer Malcolm Dunbar. Highly respected at the time for his service as commanding officer of the Anti-Tank Battery and later as chief of staff to the 15th Brigade, he is oddly under-remembered today.

It is now nearly 90 years since the end of the Spanish Civil War and memoirs and biographies continue to be added to what is already an impressive and valuable library. Yet gaps still remain; for example many British senior figures in Spain never wrote memoirs, including Sam Wild, the longest serving British Battalion commander, and Peter Kerrigan, the highest ranking political commissar. Nor is there much on another senior officer, who the former volunteer, Daily Worker journalist and IBMT Chair, Sam Lesser, argued had shown ‘remarkable powers of leadership’ in Spain. The name of the officer was Major Ronald Malcolm Loraine Dunbar.

Malcolm Dunbar in Spain.

While the majority of volunteers for the International Brigades hailed from working-class backgrounds, Malcolm Dunbar most decidedly did not. Born a leapling in 1912, he was the son of Sir Loraine Geddes Dunbar, formerly the Secretary and Treasurer of the Bank of Bengal in Calcutta. Malcolm was educated at the prestigious English public school of Repton, gaining a place in 1930 at Christ’s College, Cambridge to read economics and history. Like many of his peers, Dunbar involved himself in left-wing politics at university and was a member of what was described as the ‘advanced aesthetic set’ (likely a coded reference to his homosexuality).

After graduation Dunbar moved to London, where he began work as a journalist and photographer. Having joined a number of anti-fascist protests in the capital, in October 1936 Dunbar was working as a reporter for Century Press when he was arrested at the anti-Mosley demonstration in Cable Street. Though his press credentials enabled him to be released quickly, the protest clearly made a powerful impression, for Dunbar later explained that it was this that lay behind his decision to volunteer to fight in Spain.

Though not a Communist Party member Dunbar was accepted for the International Brigades, probably due to time in the Officers’ Training Corps at Repton and his good command of French. He left London on 5 January 1937, arriving in Spain four days later. After a brief period of training at the volunteers’ base in Madrigueras, Dunbar joined the British Battalion at the Battle of Jarama in mid-February. Serving as a rifleman, Dunbar was one of very few to get through the three days of bloodshed unscathed. His superior officer reported, in fact, that he ‘conducted himself very bravely’ and Dunbar was given a field promotion to section leader, responsible for up to a dozen men. However, Dunbar’s initial period of service ended three days later, when he was badly wounded in the arm.

After he returned from three weeks convalescence, Dunbar’s obvious intelligence and aptitude for languages led to him being sent to officers’ school. When a new elite artillery unit was formed in June, Dunbar was quickly promoted to lieutenant and appointed its first commander. The British Anti-Tank Battery, as it became known, was formed too late to be involved in any of Jarama’s major actions, so the gun crews had to be satisfied with taking the occasional pot-shot at the Rebel lines. Dunbar ingeniously devised a series of ramps so that the guns could fire off a few shells before quickly being moved back out of sight. The unit soon built up a reputation for being highly effective; even the notoriously ‘rough and ready’ Battalion Commander, Fred Copeman, admitted that the ‘Anti-Tank company were bloody good...and they had plenty of courage’. Accounts by members of the Battery make clear that this reputation owed much to Dunbar’s skilful leadership. 

A copy of Dunbar's International Brigade carnet.

Wounded again at the Battle of Brunete in July, Dunbar was recommended for the prestigious Republican Navalperal medal. He returned to the front in September, joining the Brigade staff as Commander of Operations. However, during the Battle of Teruel, fought in temperatures that sank to 20 degrees below zero at night, Dunbar was hospitalised with jaundice, keeping him out of action until the following spring. He returned to find the Republican forces facing their most serious challenge of the war. Flushed with his success at Teruel, Franco had launched a colossal offensive against the Republican forces in Aragón. With the Rebel forces outnumbering the defenders by almost five to one, what began as a series of breakthroughs swiftly turned into a rout, as the Republican lines virtually collapsed. 

Dunbar rejoined the British as they were fighting a last-ditch defence of the Aragón town of Caspe. Wounded once more during the battle, Dunbar returned to the front nine days later, only to be wounded yet again during a catastrophic ambush by Italian troops outside the small Aragón village of Calaceite. Having been patched up at a field dressing station, Dunbar insisted on returning to the front, joining a group of volunteers attempting to make a defensive stand on the road to the east of Caspe. However, in real danger of being overrun, the group were urgently forced to retreat, only finding sanctuary on the other side of the River Ebro. Dunbar’s exemplary leadership under almost impossible conditions during the retreats led to his promotion to 15th International Brigade Chief of Staff. On 24 July 1938 Republican forces triumphantly crossed the River Ebro, over which they had been forced to flee only two months earlier. Dunbar had been closely involved with planning and executing the ambitious offensive, though other senior members of the 15th Brigade were beginning to worry that Dunbar was not the leader he had been. While his military skills were still sin reproches , the tough American commissar, John Gates, worried that Dunbar was physically and emotionally exhausted.

On 7 September Dunbar was badly hurt when a five-inch Nationalist shell exploded right in front of the Brigade staff’s position. The wound kept him out of action for two weeks and by the time he returned the International Brigades were preparing themselves to be withdrawn from the war. Following one last action on 22-23 September, Dunbar and the other volunteers were finally taken out of the line. A week later, on 1 October 1938, several officers were presented with certificates at a Brigade lunch in recognition of their ‘outstanding work’ in Spain. The first to receive theirs was Malcolm Dunbar. Two weeks later there were a number of promotions; both Dunbar and the British Battalion’s commander, Sam Wild, were promoted to Major. In what may have been seen as the highest accolade, Dunbar was one of five British volunteers to receive a signed note from La Pasionaria.

From left: Malcolm Dunbar, Daily Worker journalist Bill Rust, 15th Brigade Commander Vladimir Ćopić and Hugh Slater, second in command of the Anti-Tank Battery.

There is little doubt that Dunbar’s military prowess was widely admired. Arthur Olorenshaw, in charge of the English Section at the Officers’ School between April and August 1937, described Dunbar as ‘one of the best C[omra]des to have been in Spain’ and Milton Wolff, commander of the Lincolns, thought him one of the two best soldiers in the entire 15th International Brigade. However, while Dunbar was generally respected and admired, few accounts suggest that he was warmly liked. The sensitive, highbrow and intensely private Dunbar seems to have felt uncomfortable in other people’s company and his aloofness, even if due more to social awkwardness than snobbishness, did not always endear him to his comrades. Nor was he entirely trusted by his political superiors; even as late as July 1938, having been accepted into the Spanish Communist Party at the beginning of the year, Dunbar’s political work was still being described as ‘weak’ and ‘undeveloped’.

Despite the criticisms, the Spanish war clearly enabled Dunbar to develop a hitherto untapped talent for military command. The sculptor Jason Gurney had known Dunbar in London, finding him ‘a very elegant and evidently rich member of the local amusing, if somewhat cynical, character with whom to have a drink.’ Yet when the two met again in Spain, Gurney found him ‘totally different to the one I had known in the King’s Road...It sounded very strange to hear the King’s Road Malcolm ranting on about the necessity for organisation and discipline.’

Dunbar’s remarkable transformation from intellectual aesthete to courageous warrior was elegantly summarised by the American historian James Hopkins: ‘For certain individuals circumstances could produce a costume of the moment, and Spain was the greatest theatre in the world.’

Posted on 4 March 2023.

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