Spanish Civil War veteran who kept alive the memory of his comrades who left their homes to fight against Franco and fascism
The following obituary of Bill Alexander appeared in the
of 14th August. In reproducing it in our paper we merely wish to comment that the conservative and imperialist organ –
– managed to give a far more objective picture of the pro-fascist role played during the Spanish Civil War, not only by the fascist powers, but also by ‘democratic’ imperialist countries such as Britain, the US and France, as well as the honourable role played by the Soviet Union in helping the anti-fascist struggle, than is given by the ever-so-revolutionary 57 varieties of Trotskyism. This is just one more proof of the anti-communist and truly reactionary political physiognomy of Trotskyism. [Lalkar]
Bill Alexander, veteran of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, was born on June 13, 1910. He died on July 11 aged 90.
A former commander of the British Battalion which fought as part of the International Brigade against Franco’s fascists during the Spanish Civil War, Bill Alexander had spent the last 30 years keeping alive the memory of those who perished in the Republican cause in that internecine conflict. In a war which for so long seemed to be “hijacked” by the poets, novelists and intellectuals – among them Orwell and Hemingway – who wrote so movingly about it as to give the impression that they and their type composed most of the brigade, Alexander, demonstrated conclusively that most of the 2,000 British volunteers were industrial workers from Scotland, Lancashire and Wales – most of the last miners.
His experience and subsequent researches showed that they were men motivated by the gut feeling – sustained in the teeth of the Chamberlain Government’s of the European dictators – that the fight for against fascism in Spain was their fight, and that if it was lost, Britain, which kept her head resolutely in the sand for those terrible three years 1936-39, would find herself fighting fascism much closer to home.
Alexander himself passed almost seamlessly from the Spanish conflict to the Second World War, throughout which he served in the Army, almost from first to last At its end he witnessed the apotheosis of the cruelties he had seen in Spain, when his unit liberated a concentration camp in Germany and saw a crowd of living skeletons crawling from its stinking hutments to blink uncomprehendingly at their liberators.
For the next twenty years he devoted himself to the Communist Party of Great Britain, serving eventually as its assistant general secretary. Thereafter he taught chemistry in a girls comprehensive in South London, retiring finally to devote himself to the International Brigade Association, and the histories of its inexorably diminishing band of members.
Bill Alexander came from a large Hampshire family who lived in conditions of poverty after the father, a carpenter, died. The eldest sister joined the local Labour Party, another became a Christian Scientist and yet another, a Quaker – they all in some way understood the need for social justice.
Bill Alexander went to Reading University where he a chemistry degree. Meeting Welsh hunger marchers in the town en route to London was a political catalyst for him. After graduating he joined the Communist Party and worked for a while as an industrial chemist, taking an active part in the campaigns against Oswald Mosley and his British Fascist Party’s Black Shirts.
In July 1936 the powerful Spanish Army under its charismatic leader, General Franco, rose up against the democratically elected Republican Government, which it considered immoral, godless and above all, communist. When it encountered surprising resistance from Spanish government troops both Hitler and Mussolini were on hand with their armies and air forces, determined that fascism should prevail. The reaction of the British French Governments was to stand resolutely aloof a Non Intervention Agreement.
This politicised the war to many working class onlookers in other European countries, and the result was the International Brigade, armed and trained by the Soviet Union as the champion in those days of resistance to fascism. To the Brigade’s Red Banner flocked a swarm of volunteers from a dozen countries whose numbers were eventually to swell to more than 40,000.
Describing his own emotional reaction to the Franco revolt in later years Alexander explained that when in Spain “the people stood up to stem the tide of fascism, I decided the natural thing for me was to go and help stop it there before it reached my home and family”.
Both the British and French Governments made it as difficult as they could for volunteers to join the Brigade in Spain. In Britain for anyone of working class background, merely buying the £5 8s railway ticket was tantamount to an intention to join the fight on the Republican side. Though recruiting for the brigade was not illegal, the police did their best to prevent it – and they were capably supported by their counterparts in Paris, who regarded with great suspicion any journey being made southwards from the city by foreigners who were not manifestly wealthy pleasure and sun seekers.
Like many before him, Alexander had to sneak across the Channel, dodge police surveillance in Paris by making endless confusing metro journeys and get himself to the south by train and across the Pyrenees on foot via smugglers’ routes used since time immemorial. Joining the British Battalion early in 1937, after training he took part in some of the major battles of that year. At Brunete in the cauldron-like heat of July 1937 he served with an anti-tank battery which repelled fascist attacks delivered in overwhelming strength. The battalion was down to 42 out of an original strength of 300 by the end of a fortnight’s fighting, during which Alexander was appointed a political commissar.
At Teruel, in December, conditions were very different, with temperatures down to -20C at nights, freezing and jamming breech blocks, rifle bolts and machinegun mechanisms. For its excellent handling of its artillery during the Battle of Teruel in January 1938 the battalion was praised by Lieutenant-Colonel Juan Modesto, commander of the Republican 5th Corps, and Alexander was promoted to captain in the field. In April 1938 Alexander took over as commander of the battalion, but shortly afterwards he was wounded in the shoulder and invalided back home.
There he was active in the efforts to send medicine and food to Spain and to end Britain’s policy of non-intervention. Following the Thetis tragedy of 1939, when all hands were entombed in the submarine when she sank while on trials in the Irish Sea, Alexander was one of the volunteers who helped J. B. S. Haldane carry out simulation tests for a rescue diving bell.
On the outbreak of the Second World War he joined the regulars but was refused a commission. The matter was raised in the House of Commons. As a result he was then sent to Sandhurst. After that he served in reconnaissance units in North Africa, Italy and Germany, reaching the rank of captain.
At the end of the war he became a full time organiser for the Communist Party in Liverpool, before becoming the party’s district secretary first in the Midlands and then in Wales. In 1959 he was called to Party Centre as assistant general secretary of the party. He left full time party work in the late 1960s to teach.
In retirement, for more than 30 years he presided over the affairs of the International Brigade Association which was set up after the volunteers returned from Spain. In 1982 he published British Volunteers for Liberty, an account of the International Brigade in Spain, and in 1996 collaborated with Colin Williams and John Gorman on Memorials of the Spanish Civil War, which records the history of 55 memorials to volunteers in the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic.
He was present at the unveiling of the International Brigade memorial in London in October 1985, and on the occasion of the 60th anniversary year of the Spanish Civil War in 1996 he led a delegation of veterans back to Spain to visit the old battle grounds. At that time the Spanish Government awarded the veterans citizenship of Spain in fulfilment of the solemn undertaking that had been made to them by the Prime Minister Juan Negrin in 1938.
Physically and morally tough, Alexander was still working on his vegetable plot until a year ago. He was indefatigable and drove miles in his tiny car to fulfil speaking engagements. He always acknowledged that there were sometimes inexcusable excesses on the Republican side, though he insisted that these hardly matched the thousands of innocents who were summarily executed by the fascist authorities in the wake of Franco’s victory.
When the Morning Star and the British Communist Party split, he rallied to the newspaper and he and other members of his local party branch were not re-registered. But he held to his principles and was a communist to the last.
Bill Alexander is survived by his wife Lena, and by their son and daughter.