Books: Spanish lessons for arms dealers

John Crossland
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A few days before he was killed defending Madrid, Christopher St John Sprigg, one of the young intellectuals who had joined the crusade to stop the march of Fascism, wrote home: "We are all handicapped by shortage of ammunition due to the Arms ban. We are also short of artillery and aeroplanes." Sprigg, under the nom de plume Christopher Caudwell, had been influential in promoting "air mindedness" in the Thirties, which had seen revolutionary aeronautical development.

When the Franco rebellion was launched in July 1936 via an air bridge, using Junkers transports - and a Dragon Rapide chartered from Croydon airport, which dropped off the general in Spain before carrying his plea for those transports to Hitler - few would have dissented from the crew of the Spanish Republican aircraft which brought the first gold shipment to buy aeroplanes from the French: "this war will be won in the air".

Unfortunately, as this book establishes for the first time, all the gold in the Spanish treasury did not suffice to give the Popular Front Government even a fighting chance. Gerald Howson has combed recently declassified archives in Russia, as well as making an exhaustive examination of cargo manifests and correspondence on arms deals, to expose - among other things - the myth that the republic survived against the odds for two and a half years thanks to the selfless support of the international Left. Howson has made an important contribution to our knowledge of the "low, dishonest decade" [see Frank McLynn, below].

We already knew that the Spanish Government shipped three quarters of the national gold reserve (510 tons worth $518 million) to Moscow to purchase the modern weapons which a year earlier they had repudiated under a disarmament programme. Howson lambasts Stalin's "barrow-boy" tactics in his arms dealings - overcharging the Spaniards $51 million for equipment which was often outdated, lacking parts and with limited supplies of ammunition. He reveals that "the Soviet Government, having promised generous discounts on the prices of arms, resorted to Byzantine jiggery-pokery in order to claw back most of the discounts on the materials that were discountable and to make handsome profits on those, the majority, which were not."

Sprigg may have appreciated the few modern Russian fighters which eventually arrived at the battle front, to be greeted by the Madrilenos with cries of "they're ours this time!", but a Falangist bullet spared him the painful realization of the political chicanery which starved him and his comrades of munitions. Howson has penetrated the murky, secret world of arms dealing between the wars. Among the unsavoury deals struck between "little men in black suits with bags of gold" (acting for the republic) and the merchants of death, or their collaborators in European defence ministries, was one in particular which underlined the amorality behind the crusading exterior of the Spanish war. The Nazis, who were pouring men and bombers into Franco's rebellion, were simultaneously shipping arms to the Republicans - and Reichsmarschal Hermann Goering received handsome "kickbacks" from the covert transactions, arranged through the "free port" of Hamburg.

The author's detective work has furthermore established that the trade involved a deception practised on the trades union militias of Catalonia and Biscaya by Admiral Canaris, head of German Military Intelligence (hanged by Hitler as a traitor at the end of World War II). The militia handed over thousands of pesetas, collected by public subscription, in return for, as they thought, shiploads of modern rifles and machine guns. When the ships docked at Bilbao, says Howson, "nearly all the arms were found to be useless or sabotaged: cartridges without percussion-caps or the wrong size for the rifles, machine guns without firing pins or springs, aircraft bombs without fuses".

Such trading, with these inevitable results, was forced on the desperate Republicans by the Non-Intervention Committee set up by 27 nations to contain the war by imposing an arms ban, backed up by a blockade of Spanish water and land frontiers. Ironically, it was initiated by the French Popular Front Government of Leon Blum, who wavered between opening the frontier and conniving at the smuggling of aircraft (organized by Andre Malraux, whom Howson defends from his detractors, and Pierre Cot, the Air Minister unmasked last year as a major Stalinist spy), and a total arms embargo, reinforced by Surete "snoopers' and right-wing agents who had links with Franco.

Blum was manipulated from London - the centre for Nationalist support, where the Bank of England organized funds for Franco, and the Midland bank, along with the American Chase Manhattan bank, blocked the transfer of monies emanating from the legal Spanish Government to purchase arms. British agents were if anything more fanatical than French in reporting breaches of the Arms ban, ensuring that cargoes were impounded, and the authorities at Gibraltar refused to refuel the Republican fleet while Texaco and Standard Oil diverted their tankers to Nationalist ports. As almost the entire Spanish Diplomatic Corps had backed the rebels, tip-offs, particularly in American ports, ensured that Nationalist warships were often able to intercept arms shipments, arrest the crews and shoot them for treason!

Neither the Poles nor Czechs showed the solidarity with the Spaniards which might have been expected from Hitler's future victims, turning a blind eye to unscrupulous transactions which netted the Poles pounds 12m - 30 or 40 per cent over list price - on arms which were either not delivered or proved useless. When a complaint was made to the Polish arms trading commission, the reply came back: "Why should you worry? It's only to the Spanish Republicans!" The Czech ZB armaments firm, which had developed the Bren machine gun of Second World War fame, tried to cheat the Spaniards, aided by leaders of the country's arms-selling board who demanded pounds 1m in backhanders. Finally a Republican negotiator expostulated: "The Spanish Socialists have the right to ask if the Czechoslovakian Party can point to one single thing it has done to help its fellow party in Spain during this time of peril!"