Alun Menai Williams

Spanish Civil War veteran
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The Independent Online

Alun Menai Williams, miner and soldier: born Gilfach Goch, Glamorgan 20 February 1913; married 1944 Maude Goldie (died 1998; one son); died Cardiff 2 July 2006.

Among the 2,000 British volunteers who took up arms in defence of the legitimate Spanish Republic against the insurgent Franco and his Fascist forces between 1936 and 1939 there were 174 Welshmen, of whom most were miners, and 33 of them were killed in the conflict.

Alun Menai Williams survived only by luck, a powerful physique and a steely determination to do all he could to help thwart the Nationalists' attack on the democratically elected government of Spain. The young man who had been buried in a roof-fall underground - he had been a collier - found himself swimming for his life when the boat carrying him and a few dozen of his comrades into Barcelona was torpedoed and most of them were drowned. " Lady Luck was always on my side," he would say wryly.

After leaving the mines - work was scarce in his native Gilfach Goch, a small valley in the East Glamorgan coalfield - he joined the Army in 1931 and served in the Royal Army Medical Corps. In his autobiography, From the Rhondda to the Ebro (2005), he describes the animus he felt towards his often unemployed father, a minor poet who wrote under the name Huw Menai, castigating him for his dreamy ways and, in particular, his failure to put food on the table for his wife and children.

Later the young Williams made his way to London, where he took part in the famous demonstration against Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts in Cable Street on 4 October 1936, in which he was badly injured and saved from almost certain death by his brother. The civil war in Spain offered this idealistic young man a chance for adventure in a cause to which he was instinctively drawn.

Crossing the Channel thinly disguised as a tourist and then making his way by train and foot to Perpignan and thence to the Spanish border, he had only a week's training before joining the British Battalion which was attracting left-wingers like him. At the battle of Jarama he served as a First Aider, tending the wounded and comforting them by his cheerful and gentle manner.

He saw action mainly in the Sierra Pandol and along the Ebro. Food and water were scarce, they were poorly equipped and short of ammunition and medical supplies. The ground was so hard they were unable to dig trenches. He served in a field hospital in a cave high in the Sierra, where he witnessed the most horrific scenes. After some of the fiercest fighting of the war, he escaped the advancing Nationalist army by swimming the Ebro under machine-gun fire, despite being shot in the leg, and left a hundred men of his group dead or wounded in the water.

Eventually captured, he spent the rest of the war in Franco's jails, though he took part in the farewell parade in which the Brigades were addressed by La Pasionaria, leader of the Spanish Communist Party:

You are history. You are legend . . . We shall not forget you, and, when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves again, mingled with the laurels of the Spanish republic's victories - come back!

Alun Menai Williams felt unable to return while the dictator was still alive and it was not until 2005 that he made the journey back to the dreadful scenes which had stayed so vividly in his memory. Accompanied by his only son, this frail old man was filmed visiting a memorial to the International Brigaders at which he was able to lay to rest the ghosts which had plagued him for 70 years.

On the grave of Harry Dobson, a Welsh miner who had been shot as he stood at Williams's side, he placed some lumps of coal and, with tears in his eyes, gave the clenched-fist salute as "The Internationale" was sung.

He was touched, too, by the presence at the ceremony of Geoff Cowling of the British Council who saluted the bravery and dedication of the Brigaders. "About bloody time too," someone was heard to mutter.

Alun Menai Williams also took part in the ceremony at which a plaque to the memory of those Welshmen who died in Spain was unveiled at the South Wales Miners' Library in Swansea in 1976, largely on the initiative of Hywel Francis, now the Labour MP for Aberavon.

He may not have been as prominent as some other ex-Brigaders such as Tom Jones of Shotton or Lance Rogers of Cefn-coed (both now dead), but his Republican ardour was undimmed. What made him bitter was the fact that the British and French governments had refused to intervene in the conflict, thus providing Franco, Hitler and Mussolini with an opportunity to rehearse the atrocities of the Second World War.

"We lost because of the democracies," he said, "and that always stuck in my gullet."

Meic Stephens

There are a number of points in Meic Stephens's obituary of Alun Menai Williams which are inaccurate, writes Alan Warren.

His autobiography, From the Rhondda to the Ebro, which I published, appeared in 2004, not 2005. He did not successfully enter Spain by Perpignan, but attempted to enter Spain on the ship The City of Barcelona, which was torpedoed on 31 May by an Italian submarine with the loss of four of the 60 crew and 187 of the 312 passengers.

He was immediately sent to Albacete, where he was attached to the Thaelmann battalion (XI Brigade) as a medic at Jarama for two weeks. He was then attached to the George Washington battalion of XV Brigade at Brunete where he was wounded whilst tending to George Nathan. After recovering from his leg wound, he was attached to the reformed and amalgamated Abraham Lincoln battalion (the Americans called him "The Limey Doc") through Belchite, Teruel and the Great Retreats of March/April 1938. After retreating across the Ebro, he applied to be transferred to the British battalion and was a medic with them through the Battle of the Ebro.

He was not captured and did not spend the rest of the war in Franco's jails, as there is a Robert Capa image of Alun marching past a review held at Marsa on 17 October 1938 holding the British battalion banner as the brigades were withdrawn.

He never gave a clenched-fist salute at the grave of Harry Dobson in May 2005, though there were many tears.

I have no connection with the British Council, writes Geoff Cowling. When I spoke at Hill 705 in the Pandols in May last year it was as HM Consul General Barcelona ­ a rank which I held until my retirement from HM Diplomatic Service last September.

I was privileged to chair the launch of the Catalan version of Alun's book in Barcelona just two weeks before his untimely passing.