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Last updated:07 May 2015

Bernard McKenna

(Summary of Tape 200)

Bernard had spoken at the Mechanics' Institute in Manchester the previous Wednesday, and this interview appears to be a follow-up from that.

Photograph of a young Bernard McKennaBernard got to Spain through the Young Communist League (YCL). He was 21 at the time and had been a member of the YCL for at least two years. He lived in Manchester and the YCL South Manchester Branch used to meet in Grosvenor Street. The branch was composed of young people with Evelyn Brown running it. They would normally have 18-24 people at their meetings.

Bernard knew others who had gone to Spain, and Alex Armstrong, Fred Killick, Vince Shemma had been killed there. He had a list of all the battles. He decided he wanted to go too and was at first refused but when things got more difficult in Spain he was allowed to go. They had to be at least 21 and some were younger than that went but were sent back. Bernard was a clerk in a small textile firm in Manchester at the time. He did not tell his parents, not until after he had left.

Bernard went to London to meet the Communist Party of Great Britain there. He went through France which had not closed their border at that time. He went to Paris on a weekend ticket. The British police may have disapproved but did not try to prevent his group from going. Bernard was given a code to use when he got to Paris.

He went to a recruiting office in Paris. He was accepted and was told to report to a railway station. He travelled through the night on a train to Perpignan where he got off and had breakfast and got on a coach. He was in a group of 200-300, so there were several coaches. When he arrived in Spain he went to a military fort where he was for a few days. By that time quite a few others had arrived and they then went on a train to Barcelona and then to Valencia and Albacete, in Murcia, perhaps 150 miles from the Front.

Bernard McKenna

Bernard McKenna

He was lucky in that he had three months' training which went through the French infantry handbook, from start to finish, under a very demanding commandant (a Czech). They had mixed arms - Swiss, French, Soviet - anything they could get. They learned how to fire rifles, machine guns, hand grenades etc. He also learned how to set up telephones, wireless communications, signals etc. French was the language used to start with, and later on they used Spanish. He was in the 15th International Brigade, in the British Section, although there were men with other nationalities in this.

After the training he went out to the Front. He went out to Spain in February 1937 and went into action in July at the battle of Brunete. It was a ferocious battle with many Iinternational Brigade casualties; 300 went in and 80 came out. The rest were missing, wounded or killed. It was a scorching hot day. There were one or two small ravines where they could shelter for a while. They were fighting mainly Spanish troops. It was a half-hearted offensive. They hoped to make a complete sweep, starting in two different places and one half worked and made big advances, but the other half, starting from south of Madrid, did not. The battle lasted for 23-24 days. Bernard was wounded on the first day, in the foot. It was only a slight wound but it bled and he went to hospital. As soon as he could walk he left the hospital in Madrid and went back to the fighting. There were no real trenches just little holes in the ground. After a few more days they were told to retreat, and he returned to the base outside Madrid.

After that he went to Aragon and stayed the rest of the war there. The fascist forces had held Saragossa since the start of the war, and the Republican forces were attacking the small towns along the river Ebro. Saragossa had been an Anarchist city, but they lost control and could not regain it, although they were very keen to do so. By the time Bernard arrived in Spain the militias had been incorporated into the army.

It was very hot and there was very little water to drink, with some going mad through thirst. The fascist forces were much better organised, equipped and trained. Bernard said that although the men discussed the problems they encountered they felt they were there to carry out a job and that was it. Bernard could speak Spanish very well by that time. At Aragon they took part in several small battles and took some small towns - Quinto and Codo, and fought at Belchite until the Americans came and took over, while they went into reserve. Then they carried on fighting in some small towns. At Fuentes del Ebro everything that could go wrong went wrong. They lost probably sixty men from their battalion, but they were told to keep on attacking. They were there for about 3 weeks then things quietened down and they returned to their base outside Madrid. They later took up positions outside Teruel, in December 1937.

Bernard was captured in March 1938. He and the men were being strafed by machine gun fire and bombing. He was not with the British, but with the HQ of the 15th Brigade. The commander decided that they should move back slowly, because all communications had been lost although they knew the enemy had got through.

They started to fall back, breaking up into smaller and smaller groups.

A motor cycle patrol came round the corner just as he was about to cross the road. He was taken to Candessa where he was put in a cell below ground with some Americans. The following morning they were taken out and handed over to the Italians and taken to Burgos, about 30 miles away. It was in a concentration camp in an old converted monastery. He was treated very badly - thin blanket, thin straw, poor food, lots of lice, beatings, no medical attention. They used to dream of food, and almost fought over it. The Red Cross visited once, and they were shown off to a group of international journalists.

International Brigade members used to be shot. It was what they expected. At Quinto Bernard remembered that they shot the officers.

After a few months at Burgos a couple of hundred of the British prisoners were taken to a better camp at Valencia, in accordance with the articles of war. They were allowed to send cards home and a British diplomat visited and brought them chess sets etc.

In Spain Bernard met people from all over the world.

During the Second World War Bernard was in the RAF. War was declared on the Sunday and he joined on the Monday. He joined because it was an anti-fascist war. He was still in the Communist Party of Great Britain, doing a lot of talking, collecting for Spanish refugees. When the Communist Party declared that it was an imperial war, Bernard just carried on. He did not try to influence the others in the RAF. When the USSR joined the war things were all right then. Bernard was in Iraq then, near Basra. There was a Russian squadron and also an American squadron.

By that time the Iraqis revolted in 1941, but there were some tense moments. There was one vast camp of Indians, Russians, Americans and British.

Bernard was back in Spain recently to commemorate. He had been offered Spanish citizenship six Photograph of an older Bernard McKennamonths earlier after the Spanish Parliament had offered citizenship to all ex-Brigaders. This had stalled though, because of a legal requirement that to obtain Spanish citizenship, they would have to renounce their own, and also Bernard would have had to take an oath of loyalty to the Spanish monarchy.

Bernard showed photographs of the Manchester and district men killed at Jarama, of those killed on all the fronts, and of those who went and did return.

In memory of Bernard McKenna, 1916-2008

For more information about the Spanish Civil War, click here


Archival resources about Bernard McKenna in the library collection

Spanish Civil War: International Brigaders - Bernard McKenna (EVT/SPAIN/3/5)
Biographical information, Photographs, Speech notes, Interview transcript Correspondence, Press cuttings, Invitations, Obituaries and appreciations – Shelfmark: JS39 Spain Box 10

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