Penny Feiwel: Last survivor of the British women who served with the International Brigades in Spain

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The Independent Online

Penny Feiwel was the last of the British women who served as volunteers on the side of the Spanish Republic during the civil war of 1936-39.

She was one of about 75 women from Britain who joined the International Brigades following the military coup launched by Francisco Franco and other generals with backing from Hitler and Mussolini. Like Feiwel, known in Spain by her maiden name of Phelps, most of them were nurses and worked in makeshift frontline hospitals in conditions of great hardship and danger. Phelps herself suffered serious injuries in a bombing raid that put an end to her service in Spain.

Born into a working class family of nine brothers and sisters in Tottenham, she left school at 13 to go into domestic service, but hated it. She then tried factory work before deciding at the age of 18 to train as a nurse, working in several London hospitals, including Homerton and Charing Cross.

By her mid-20s she was eager to overcome her lack of school education, so spent 1934 studying English, history, economics and psychology at Hillcroft College, Surbiton, Surrey, which specialised in teaching working women from less privileged backgrounds. There, she began moving in more politically aware circles. Through college principal Mabel Ashby she found work for two years in the Welwyn Garden City household of the clothes designer and socialist Tom Heron, owner of Cresta Silks. Among her four charges was the eldest child Patrick, who as a teenager was already showing signs of being a gifted artist. "I was accepted into the family and they had a great influence on me," she recalled later in life. "I even went to Italy with them many years later. They educated me, really."

Though after the Spanish Civil War she would play down her political activism in the 1930s, saying that she had been motivated more by humanitarianism, it was a politically charged incident that triggered her decision to go to Spain. She left the Herons in 1936 and took a temporary nursing job at a hospital in Hertfordshire where, with another nurse, she volunteered in her spare time to collect food for hunger marchers on their way to London and to care for the sick. One marcher's feet were so shockingly raw that she rang for an ambulance and used her name to get him admitted to casualty. The following morning she was confronted by a furious matron: "Nurse Phelps, we don't employ nurses who are 'red'."

She walked out, and another nurse suggested she should go to Spain, where the civil war had begun. "She told me all about Spain, how the nuns were taking Franco's side, and of course it grabbed my heart – I was young and very emotional." She left London on 6 January 1937 with three other nurses. Via Barcelona and Valencia they arrived at Albacete, the main base for the International Brigades; she was sent to Murcia and put in charge of a 200-bed ward for French volunteers.

Next she was attached to theGerman-speaking Thälmann Battalion. At Tarancón, east of Madrid,with the New Zealand surgeon Douglas Jolly, a pioneer of mobile emergency surgery, and four Spanish medics – and while facing deadly raids by fascist planes – she helped set up an improvised operating theatre.

She was next sent to Jarama, south-east of Madrid, where a desperate battle was raging as Franco tried to surround the capital by cutting off the main road to Valencia. "We were flooded with wounded men. It was ghastly. Inside the operating theatre we had no heating except a gasoline stove, and sometimes it was so cold that I would be glad to be in a room crammed full of people to share their bodily heat. I was working as an anaesthetist, assistant surgeon and theatre nurse. I had to decide which case was the most urgent for operation, and then at once set up tables for instruments."

Moved to a hospital at Colmenar Viejo, north of Madrid, she fell ill with typhoid, spending a month in bed before making the first of three brief visits to England to recuperate, collect medical supplies and speak at meetings in support of the Republic. She would later recall being admonished: "But Spain is red." "Yes," she replied, "it is red with blood. Blood splashed over the streets and the gutters run with it. For weeks my fingernails were stained by the blood, and my arms were spattered up to the elbows with it."

She was back in time for the Republic's offensive at Brunete, west of Madrid, in July 1937. Her hospital at Torrelodones was regularly bombarded – despite a prominent red cross – as she and the other medics worked into the small hours, at times by the light of torches and cigarette lighters. She was sent home suffering from shock after six of her colleagues were killed by a shell. On her return she was posted to Quintanar, east of Madrid, to be the medical officer in charge of the barracks of the Italian Garibaldi Battalion. There was a scarlet fever epidemic and an outbreak of typhoid. She set about fumigating the premises and disinfecting and inoculating all 600 men.

Penny was badly injured in spring 1938 while attached to a mobilemedical station in the mountains of Teruel, tending to the wounded in the Republican retreat eastwards. In an air raid she suffered lacerations to the arm, broken ribs and abdominal shrapnel wounds. "I have no recollection of what happened when we were bombed – the memory is wiped out. What Ido remember is that I woke up in a barn full of wounded people, lying onmy back on a stretcher, naked except for tight bandages around my chest and abdomen."

She was evacuated from Gandía by HMS Sussex, taken to Marseilles and put on a train to London. Of her time in Spain, she later wrote: "I thought, if the fascists in Spain were beaten, there wouldn't be any danger of air raids over London. I never ceased to believe this, all the time I was in Spain. Spain was a warning of what would happen to all of us. If we let Spain go, then it would be our fate, too, to go to war."

While convalescing she met Michael Feiwel, a noted dermatologist, whom she married three months later. Unable to have children because of the injuries sustained in Spain, she dedicated herself to her nursing career, eventually becoming her husband's assistant in his Harley Street practice. "I would have liked to have had a baby but the wounds made it impossible," she said. "I'm sorry that I got my injuries but I suppose that it is still better than having your brain blown out."

In 1992 she published her memoir, English Penny, under the pen-name Penny Fyvel. In 2009, she and a small group of surviving International Brigade veterans attended a ceremony at the Spanish embassy in London to be awarded Spanish citizenship. Ambassador Carles Casajuana told them: "Your efforts were not in vain. Your ideals are part of the foundations of our democracy in Spain today."

Ada Louise "Penny" Phelps, born Tottenham, London 24 April 1909; married 1938 Michael Feiwel (died 1999); died Bournemouth 6 January 2011.