Bob Peters

Spanish Civil War veteran
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The Independent Online

Robert James Peters, soldier, plasterer, window-cleaner and forklift driver: born Penarth, Glamorgan 17 November 1914; married 1940 Frances Wisdom (died 1990; three sons, and one son deceased); died London 15 January 2007.

Bob Peters was the last surviving Welshman to have served in the International Brigades during the civil war that ravaged Spain between 1936 and 1939. Up to 180 of the 2,300 volunteers from the British Isles were from Wales, most of them from the South Wales coalfields.

Born in 1914 in Penarth, close to the docks from which much of the Welsh coal was exported, Peters had to make a far longer journey to reach Spain than the rest of his compatriots. As the youngest of nine children, he had left school just as the Great Depression struck. So, in 1931, with assistance from the Salvation Army, he escaped the dole queues by boarding a steamship to Canada. In Ontario and Quebec, he worked as a labourer on farms and building sites, as a lumberjack and finally as a deckhand on the Great Lakes.

During this time his political consciousness was awakened by the attack on workers' conditions that had been unleashed by the economic slump and, in Europe, by the rise of Fascism. So, when General Francisco Franco, with the help of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, launched his coup d'état in Spain in July 1936, Peters, like many of his generation, felt inspired by the resistance mounted by the Spanish people and disgusted that the Western democracies chose to stand by and watch democracy being crushed in yet another European country.

He was not alone. Nearly 1,600 volunteers left Canada to fight for the Spanish Republic. In doing so they defied the wishes of the government of Mackenzie King, a strong advocate of appeasement with Nazi Germany, and the hostile attention of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. More than 700 of them would be killed in Spain.

Peters and his Great Lakes shipmate Joe Turnbull decided to go to the Canadian Communist Party's offices in Toronto to offer to join the International Brigades. "We tied up for the wintertime when the Great Lakes are closed down because of the ice," he said. "So we thought why don't we go to Spain and find out what we can do."

In Toronto they were given secret instructions for their journey to Spain. Turnbull left first, then Peters took a Greyhound bus to New York, where he joined a group of nine other volunteers who sailed to Le Havre on the SS Washington. From there, they were smuggled through France via Paris and Perpignan to the Pyrenees, crossing the mountains on foot at night with the help of local guides. From the Spanish frontier, they were taken to the International Brigades' garrison in Albacete.

It was not until July 1937 that the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion of Canadians - the "Mac-Paps" - was formed. So in March 1937, when Peters enlisted in the International Brigades, he had to choose to fight alongside either British or US volunteers. He opted to join his native countrymen in the British Battalion. Following training, Peters and the rest of the battalion were sent to positions east of Madrid in preparation for a major assault on Fascist lines around the town of Brunete, 15 miles west of the capital. The aim was to divert Franco's forces away from their advance through the Republic's enclave along the northern Atlantic coast.

On 6 July, the British volunteers joined other republican units in a dawn attack on the Fascist-held village of Villanueva de la Cañada. Peters survived just two days of action before taking a bullet in the back while bending down to help a comrade who was shaking with fear during ferocious fighting. "As I was crouched down, talking to him, I suddenly felt as though I had been kicked by a horse," he said.

The bullet was too near his spine to be removed, he was told by doctors in Madrid. But, after several weeks of convalescence on the Mediterranean coast, he felt well enough to return to the International Brigades' base at Albacete. He volunteered to become a motorcycle despatch rider - thus following the same vocation as his father, who had been a chauffeur in Penarth.

Astonishingly, Peters later gave the terrible state of the Spanish roads, made worse by war, as the reason why the bullet could eventually be extracted. After a few weeks his right arm became stiff and painful. His medical officer sent him for an X-ray, which showed that the bullet had moved up his back and down his right arm, from where it was later cut out. He kept the X-ray of the inch-long white bullet - subsequently identified to be of Italian origin - as a souvenir of his narrow escape.

Whether or not it was the motorcycling that dislodged the bullet is conjecture. What is certain is that Peters's chances of survival were hugely improved by being withdrawn from the front line early in the fighting at Brunete. Of the 331 volunteers in the ranks of the British Battalion at the start of the battle, only 42 remained alive or uninjured after less than a week of fierce combat. Hardly surprising, therefore, that A Bullet Saved My Life was the title given to the biography of Peters which was written by Greg Lewis and published last year.

Not that the 22-year-old Peters let his early brush with death make him shun reckless behaviour during the remainder of his time in Spain. Recalling how there was no tea or coffee to be drunk, only wine, he described later how on one occasion he had been ordered to deliver a message after having drunk too much wine on an empty stomach. "I came to a chasm where a bridge had been blown out and there was just a plank across," he said. "I went tearing over on my motorcycle. What an idiot I was - I would never have managed it sober."

On another occasion, he was lucky to survive an air-raid on Tarragona. "The city was being bombed by Italian planes, high-flying bombers," he recalled:

I kept going through the town until an explosion blew me right off my motorcycle and into a ditch. My bike was OK and I wasn't hurt - only my pride.

Peters served as a despatch rider through most of 1938, based in Barcelona after the International Brigades' headquarters were moved there in anticipation of Franco's blitzkrieg through Aragon and southern Catalonia in the spring of that year. "In Barcelona they were bombing all the time," he said:

At night, I had to go down into the metro as in London. They particularly bombed the working-class areas. It was Italian planes from the Balearic Islands. They didn't touch the upper-class area.

In September, shortly after the Munich Agreement between Britain, France, Germany and Italy, the Spanish Republic withdrew the international volunteers from active service. Peters was repatriated to Britain in December 1938 along with the rest of the British Battalion. By then, Spain's fate had been sealed by the policy of appeasing Hitler and Mussolini. The Republic collapsed at the end of March 1939, a fortnight after Hitler had marched into Czechoslovakia - but still five months before Britain finally declared war on Germany following the invasion of Poland.

Peters and the 40 other Welsh volunteers arrived in Cardiff to bunting, bands and crowds of well-wishers under a large banner saying "Welcome to the Welsh War Warriors". But there were no jobs to be found so, after a few weeks with his mother, Peters decided to seek work in Kent where one of his sisters was living.

During the Second World War, which Peters, like most International Brigaders, came to regard as a continuation of the Spanish Civil War, he served with the London Irish Rifles, again as a despatch rider and also as a lorry driver and bren-gun carrier-driver in Egypt, Sicily, Italy and Yugoslavia. Demobbed in 1946, he settled in Bexley, Kent, near the home village of his wife Frances, whom he had married in 1940. They raised a family and, after stints as a plasterer and window-cleaner, Peters worked for 25 years as a forklift driver until retirement in 1979.

In recent years he regularly attended the annual reunion of the now dwindling number of veterans who gather each year at the memorial to the International Brigades on London's South Bank. Interviewed in 2002, he said that there had been so many volunteers from Wales and the rest of Britain because they were angry at the way their government was appeasing Hitler and Mussolini. "Instead of helping the Spanish, they allowed thousands to die," he said. "I'm still angry about it 65 years later."

Jim Jump