WHILE holidaying in Spain early in 1936, Wogan Philipps took a keen interest in the people in the countryside and was moved by the harsh conditions of their lives, writes Bill Alexander.
It was a time when all over Spain the different progressive political parties were coming together to form the People's Front. Philipps saw at first hand the ferment taking place in the squares and bars of the cities and villages, the concerned discussion among the intellectuals. Back in England he was pleased to learn of the electoral victory in February 1936 and the formation of the Popular Front government with its programme of reforms aimed to alleviate social conditions. Philipps's sympathies were with the government when in July 1936 Franco and the Generals rebelled.
He went to the Spanish Medical Aid offices in London. The committee had been set up after the Republican Government appealed for medical assistance. Its treasurer was Cristina Hastings, who later became Philipps's second wife.
Philipps's offer of help was gladly accepted. He himself bought a Ford van, filled it with supplies and then in convoy with other trucks and ambulances drove across France to Barcelona. In the team were Ewart Milne, a poet, the writer and poet Stephen Spender, and George Green. George Green was a talented musician and a convinced member of the Communist Party. Green and other Communists in the Spanish struggle had a profound influence on Philipps. He joined the Communist Party and remained a Communist through out his life.
Philipps was allocated to a British medical team which was sent to the Jarama front, where the British Battalion lost 400 dead and wounded in the four crucial days of the battle.
Hastily improvised arrangements were made to deal with the wounded as near the front as possible. Philipps, a driver with no medical experience, was drafted in to help at Villarejo. He worked continuously: he carried out amputated limbs and bodies, mopped up blood and even, at times of heavy pressure and extreme emergencies, administered anaesthetics.
General Walter, Divisional Commander, heard of Philipps's courage and fortitude and made him a Sergeant. This was rather an irregular act since Philipps was not a member of the International Brigade or a military unit. But in the difficult, confused conditions at the time military conventions often went by the board.
At the end of May 1937 the Republican Army was preparing for an offensive at La Granja towards Segovia. Philipps and his ambulance were attached to the Franco-Belge International Battalion, and he wrote a graphic description of the action, published in New Writing. He was wounded in the fighting and sent back to Britain.
He set out again, when fit, for Spain. This time he was driving a three-ton Bedford truck loaded with medical supplies. In Paris he met Geoffrey Bing (a barrister, later to become a Labour MP) who was helping the Republic to secure shipping to overcome the blockade imposed by the Non-Intervention Committee. Philipps had had experience in the family shipping business in the City. He was pressed to become the Secretary of the organisation of British ship owners trading with Spain. Reluctantly he accepted. His work involved commercial affairs and responsibilities but also considerable public relations activities. He organised public meetings for the British skippers running the blockade which told of the hostile actions of German and Italian naval vessels.
With Franco's advance and military victory in March 1939 many thousands of Spanish refugees fled across the French frontier. There they were interned in the harshest conditions. Mexico offered asylum and visas for all who could get away. Once again Philipps's shipping experience was invaluable. He chartered the SS Sinaia, built to carry pilgrims to Mecca, using funds collected by the Aid Spain Committee and the Republican Government in exile. It was packed with nearly 2,000 Spanish refugees - men, women and children.
Wogan always longed to see the restoration of democracy in Spain. He played an active part in the many campaigns and demonstrations protesting at the brutal persecution and trials of all those who opposed the Franco regime. He was proud of and valued his experiences in Republican Spain and the International Brigade and closely followed the advance towards full democracy after the death of Franco.
As an artist and 'Volunteer for Liberty' he played a special role in selecting the design of the British International Brigade Memorial now in Jubilee Gardens, on the South Bank, in London.
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