Books: That arsenal score in full

Jan Morris hears topical overtones amid Spanish skullduggery
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The Independent Culture
Arms for Spain

by Gerald Howson

John Murray, pounds 25, 354pp

IF YOU can imagine a scholarly book by a steam-railway enthusiast revealing that Sir Nigel Gresley was offered a bribe of pounds 1m to sell the designs of his LNER 4-6-2 Pacific locomotives to the LMS instead, you may have some idea of the nature of . In an almost obsessive style, it turns topsy-turvy many assumptions about the way in which armaments reached both sides in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, in defiance of an international arms embargo.

Gerald Howson is no anoraked war buff. He is a serious historian and author of a delightfully learned book about flamenco culture, but he does bring to his subject some of the train-spotter's exhaustive concentration. No weapon of war is left unidentified, and by the end you will probably know rather more than you need about the granatenwerfer, the Japanese Arisaka 107 mm gun, or the advanced Polish gull-wing aircraft designed by Zygtmunt Kuwalski.

Don't be put off. Allow the lad his hobby. His book is not really about guns and aeroplanes, but the astonishing web of deceits, misunderstandings, scams, frauds and hypocrisies which sustained the ideological struggle in Spain.

It travels half the world in its search for the truth - from Bolivia to Lundy Island, from a Texas airfield to a Czechoslovak munitions factory - and involves characters from Goering to Hedy Lamarr, by way of Duff Cooper and Chiang Kai-Shek. It is an extraordinarily fascinating picture of political and financial intrigue in the fateful years before the deluge.

All the Powers of Europe then had their eyes on Spain. The conflict there between the democratically elected Republican government of the Left and Franco's rebellion of the far Right offered them a preview of the fearful international struggle so soon to come.

They responded in ways familiar enough to cynics. The great democracies, British and French, shaded their eyes with the mask of Non-Intervention. Nazi Germany, in the course of the war, sent to Spain some 800 aircraft from a Luftwaffe that never possessed many more than 3,000. And the Communist Soviet Union was, of course, the ideologically principled arms-supplier, which sustained the legitimate Republican government from the first day to the last.

Or was it? Nothing seems quite so black and white when you have spent a few hours with Howson. By and large, Franco's Nationalists had much easier access to foreign arms than their Republican opponents, but both sides seem to have been equally subject to international chicanery.

The Russians cheated their comrade clients disgracefully: not only did they supply out-of-date weapons with little ammunition, but they rigged exchange rates to their own advantage, and thereby pocketed a good deal of the gold reserve which the Spanish government had entrusted to them

The Polish government, then a military autocracy, publicly plumped for Franco but secretly sold huge quantities of weapons to his opponents. Even the Germans secretly provided arms for the anti- Fascists. They were supposedly destined for Greece, and got to Spain with the alleged collusion of Goering - conveniently providing cash to finance a drug ring he was mixed up in.

Howson's book is rich in skullduggery. Immensely complicated chains of intermediaries circumvented the arms embargo, involving manufacturers, financiers, crooks and banks from all parts of the world. Spanish embassies, officially representing the Republican government, some- times worked surreptitiously for Franco.

Private adventurers of many nationalities and motives, smuggled arms into tortured Spain: Captain John Ball, for instance, late of the Royal Flying Corps. Having failed to ship arms to Haile Selassie for his battles against the Italians in Ethiopia, he sold them instead to Mussolini's friend Franco. The Midland Bank in London deliberately delays the transfer of money to Mexico, where it would buy American-built aircraft for the Republicans; the Waldorf Hotel in Aldwych is bugged by MI5 to entrap politically unsuitable arms dealers.

It is a tangled tale, with many echoes. Money-laundering, "Merchants of Death", wire-tapping, bribes and blackmails, sinister ex-officers and avaricious scallywags - all these familiars of today's headlines were familiars in the 1930s too. Howson tells it all as fairly as he can, but it is clear where his sympathies lie. He concludes that the Republicans got the worst of almost every deal, and that this was a chief reason why they lost the war.

Hands up who cares? Falangists, Popular Fronts, the Comintern, Leon Blum and Hugh Dalton: for most of us, it probably all happened too long ago, and has been too overwhelmed by the monumental events of the later 20th century, to engage our emotions.

, all the same, raises some disturbingly topical speculations, besides being an enthralling cross between a thriller, a historical tragedy, a black comedy - and that trainspotter's thesis.

Jan Morris's most recent book is `Europe: an album' (Penguin)