Spanish Civil War veteran
Friday 17 February 2006
Lawrence George Wheeler, carpenter: born Mitcham, Surrey 21 March 1914; married 1940 Winifred McDougal (died 1993); died Croydon, Surrey 11 February 2006.
George Wheeler, a carpenter from south London, was one of the 2,000 or so volunteers from Britain who defied their government and secretly crossed the Pyrenees to fight on the side of the Republic during the Spanish Civil War.
He was captured during the battle of the Ebro in the autumn of 1938 and spent seven months as a prisoner of war. The horrors he experienced in the Spanish conflict and in General Franco's prisons - in which more than 500 of the British International Brigaders lost their lives - were later to be vividly recounted by him in print and in a four-hour sound archive recording at the Imperial War Museum in London.
A foretaste of how he would be treated in captivity came on the first night, when he and 18 other international volunteers, along with nearly 200 Spanish Republican soldiers, were herded into a barn outside the Catalan town of Bot. There they spent the night, forced to stand upright because there was no space to lie down.
At daybreak the Francoist guards summoned each of the International Brigaders in alphabetical order and asked them two questions. Why had they come to Spain and would they return if they were released? Wheeler was among the last, so heard all the others reply that they were in Spain because they were anti-Fascists and yes, they would probably return. Each was led out of the barn and there followed a burst of machine-gun fire. Then came Wheeler's turn and he too was led outside to be greeted by the sound of a machine-gun - and the sight of his comrades lined up but still alive. "I reflected on the meticulous care with which the Fascists had prepared their sadistic little joke," he wrote later in his memoir.
Released in April 1939, Wheeler returned to south London and his work as a carpenter. The war in Spain had affected him deeply, so much so that he wrote an account of his time in Spain, which for years remained unpublished, until the film-maker David Leach offered to edit it. To Make the People Smile Again was finally published in February 2003. Only days before his death, Wheeler learnt that a drama based on his account was to be be produced for the BBC World Service.
Wheeler was raised in Battersea, then a centre of radical working-class political activity. He left school at 14 and following apprenticeship was employed as a joiner in a boatyard further up the Thames at Brentford. His father was a committed socialist, and George and his brother were regularly taken to hear him champion the workers' cause at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park.
In the 1920s, Battersea North twice returned a Communist MP, Shapurji Saklatvala - after whom the British Battalion in Spain in which Wheeler subsequently served was to be named for a while. In the 1930s there were clashes with Oswald Mosley's Fascist Blackshirts and in 1936, when Spain's newly elected centre-left Popular Front government faced a Fascist-inspired military revolt, support for the Republic was very strong. Wheeler's father, a local councillor, was a member of the local Aid Spain committee.
Wheeler's momentous decision to go to Spain came after he heard a speech by the Labour MP Aneurin Bevan in Trafalgar Square early in 1938 denouncing the British policy of non-intervention. Like his father, Wheeler was a member of the Labour Party, but through friends in the Communist Party, the driving force behind recruitment to the International Brigades, he made contact with the London-based clandestine organisation helping them to travel to Spain. The British government was enforcing the 1870 Foreign Enlistment Act to prevent volunteers going to Spain, so Wheeler, like others, had to pretend to be travelling to France for the weekend. It was May 1938 when he set off from Victoria Station for Paris and on to Spain with two other recruits. They were Kevin Rebecchi, from Melbourne, Australia, who was to die in Spain, and the Liverpool docker Jack Jones, who became one of the great post-war union leaders in Britain.
In August and September 1938, Wheeler, as well as Jones and Rebecchi, took part in the Ebro offensive in a desperate push to reunite Catalonia with the rest of Republican Spain after Franco's forces had divided it in half a few months earlier. The British volunteers crossed the Ebro and advanced as far as the town of Gandesa, but there they were checked by ferocious aerial and artillery bombardment.
The Republican forces had no tanks and virtually no air cover. In fighting around the infamous Hill 481, Wheeler saw many of his comrades cut down. One, a fellow Londoner, Lawrence Pryme, died in his arms. And he was standing beside his company commander Lewis Clive - ironically, the godson of the prime minister Neville Chamberlain, proponent of non-interventionism and appeasement - when he was killed. Wheeler described the moment:
Lewis Clive reappeared and asked about the activity in the Fascist lines. It was a hot, sunny day and, as usual, my shirtsleeves were rolled up. At that moment I felt splashes on my forearm, and glancing down, was astonished to see they were splashes of blood. Turning, I saw Lewis reel and fall.
Following his capture on 23 September, Wheeler was eventually taken to the notorious International Brigade prisoner-of-war camp at San Pedro de Cardeña near Burgos. There he survived beatings, lice-infested and typhus- infecting squalor and ritual humiliations. But the British volunteers found ways of maintaining morale, he would later recount. When forced to make the Fascist salute and chant "Franco, Franco", they would enthusiastically chant instead, "Fuck you, fuck you."
Back in London, Wheeler married his childhood sweetheart and resumed work at the Thames boatyard. After army service during the Second World War, which took him to Africa, he settled in Croydon and worked as a carpenter in a local joinery, becoming a union shop steward. His big white beard - it had been ginger in Spain - stood out at reunions of International Brigade veterans, their numbers dwindling fast in the past decade. With George Wheeler's death, fewer than 25 remain alive today.
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