Rosaleen Ross: Medical volunteer in the Spanish Civil War

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The Independent Online

Rosaleen Ross – then Rosaleen Smythe – was one of the 150 volunteers from Britain who worked in the medical services of the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. She crossed the Pyrenees in November 1936 and spent most of the next two years involved in the war, working as an administrator and interpreter, often in makeshift front-line hospitals that regularly came under enemy fire.

After the war, she married Allan Ross, a Canadian International Brigade volunteer whom she had met in Spain. But she had also fallen in love with a doctor, Reginald Saxton, another of the more than 2,000 Britons who served as soldiers or medics to help the Republic resist General Francisco Franco's military uprising. They were not to be reunited for another six decades.

Smythe was born into a left-wing family. Her father, an engineering worker, chaired the local Independent Labour Party branch and she described her mother, a school-teacher, as a "utopian socialist". She left school at 15 and learnt shorthand and typing at evening class. Soon she was living and working as a secretary in London – including an unlikely stint at Conservative Party headquarters.

By the time the Spanish Civil War began in July 1936, Ros Smythe had joined the Communist Party and was a veteran of anti-Blackshirt demonstrations. Her decision to join the International Brigades was not well received at home. "My parents weren't terribly joyous about it," she recalled, "but they weren't too surprised because they understood that that was the kind of person I was."

Her first hospital posting, in early 1937, was to a requisitioned hotel at Torrelodones, north-west of Madrid, where Republican forces were launching a counter-attack against a rebel offensive on the capital. The hotel bar served as an operating table. Here she first met Saxton, a newly qualified GP practising in Reading.

Later that year Smythe was sent to Aragon as part of an unsuccessful Republican push towards Saragossa. She helped organise a hospital in three wooden huts outside the village of Grañén. Saxton was its director. As winter approached, they endured freezing cold and, when it was not raining, bombing by Italian planes. In a report to the Spanish Medical Aid Committee in London, she wrote: "We had orders to pack up and move off, but the floods have prevented the lorries from coming up. For two and a half weeks we have been in a state of package. We have scarcely any food and what there is is bad. We each keep a bit of quite mouldy bread under the pillow to nibble at night. Oh for something to put on it.

"In the evenings, by the light of a few candles we put on a gramophone. The records we have available to listen to are Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, one movement of Schubert's Unfinished and one Haydn. We play them over and over again to the drip, drip of incessant rain. We put on extra pullovers to go to bed in; we have given our blankets to the patients.

"Today the lorries tried to get down: we could have cried when they returned empty. Yet everyone is being very brave. The nurses are splendid. The bombing has begun again."

"She and I merged into one person," Saxton later remembered about working with Smythe. "But marriage was a much smaller thing than the war and it was something we never talked about. There were so many ordinary things that we became unaware of. I remember dictating a letter to Rosaleen, and neither of us knew what the date was; then we remembered that it was Christmas Day."

For the battle of the Ebro in the summer and autumn of 1938, the Republican army established several new hospitals in Catalonia. First, Smythe was sent to a former TB sanatorium at Santa Coloma de Farnés, near Gerona, where she was the hospital's secretary and personnel officer. Later she moved closer to the front line to a 1,000-bed hospital at a farm near Valls, inland from Tarragona.

She was sent home in October 1938, soon after the International Brigades were withdrawn by the Republic, and married Ross who, along with her younger brother, Jim (who had joined her in Spain in 1937), had been working as a driver and mechanic. They moved to Vancouver.

The "reds" of the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion were initially kept under surveillance and Allan found it difficult to find work. Ros made ends meet by resuming employment as a secretary. She became active in the Canadian anti-Franco and peace movements. One of her proudest moments came in 1976 when she visited Cuba as part of a Canadian government delegation led by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. She was also instrumental in getting a memorial to the "Mac-Paps" erected opposite the British Columbia Parliament in Victoria in 2000.

Ros and Allan had ended their marriage in the 1950s and Saxton, soon after his wife died, joined her in Vancouver in 1998. They had met again two years earlier, at an International Brigade reunion in Madrid. She recognised him instantly, but he was slower on the uptake: "I was merrily chatting away but he had no idea who I was."

With Saxton's health deteriorating, they moved to England in 2002, settling in a cottage in Small Dole, a West Sussex village by the South Downs. Their political passions were undimmed. An anti-war poster hung in their front window and visitors were invited to sign Stop the War petitions. Following Saxton's death in 2004, Ross returned to Vancouver to be with her family.

Jim Jump

Rosaleen Smythe, secretary and political activist: born Limbury, Bedfordshire 12 May 1909; married Allan Ross (one son; marriage dissolved); died Vancouver 26 October 2008.