Obituary: Stafford Cottman

David Keys@davidmkeys
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:55

THERE CAN be few lives that better represent the heroic yet irreverent nature of our century. Almost killed by the great flu epidemic of 1918, a teenage hero of the Spanish Civil War, a furious opponent of appeasement, a less than conventional conscientious objector who became a bomber crew member in the Second World War, a victim of the petty prejudice of post- war Britain, and a trade-union and political activist all his life, Stafford Cottman symbolised the struggle and jubilation of the century we are about to leave.

He was born in March 1918. His first year of life saw the start of the West's campaign to destabilise the Soviet Union, the formulation of plans to punish Germany at the end of the Great War, the establishment of the Communist International and Mussolini's launch of Europe's first major Fascist party.

It was a time when national and class barriers were beginning to break down. His father was a left-wing sea-captain - of middle-class background - who scandalised his family by marrying a parlour-maid and went on to captain a Soviet tanker. His grandfather - also a mariner - had been one of the first Panama Canal pilots. "Staff" - educated in east London and in Bristol - was sent to Socialist Sunday School at the age of 11, and joined the Young Communist League at around the time his father was killed in a dock-side accident in 1935. Then, as the world began to plummet headlong towards war, at the age of just 17 he decided to play his own personal part in the struggle against Fascism. He became the youngest volunteer to join the Independent Labour Party contingent which left for Spain in 1936.

There he fought in a unit of the POUM (the left-wing Republicans hated by the Communists) under the immediate command of George Orwell. And it was with his friend Orwell and two others that Cottman, on leave from the battlefield with suspected TB, evaded a Communist police raid and succeeded in escaping from Spain. Other POUM members - including some of his friends - failed to escape and were gaoled or murdered by their Communist rivals.

Cottman featured in Orwell's book Homage to Catalonia (1939) and Ken Loach based his epic 1995 film Land and Freedom largely on Cottman's Civil War experiences. Indeed the film's hero is based on Staff Cottman himself.

On his return to Britain, Communist hatred for the POUM made it impossible for Cottman to live at home with his mother in Bristol. Demonstrators picketed the house and made life intolerable - so he left to work for the ILP in London. Having fought against Fascism in Spain, he loathed the appeasement policies of Chamberlain's government. He was so angry that in order to make a political point he registered as a conscientious objector on political grounds and thus gained the right to air in open court his contempt for the years of appeasement. At the hearing, he told the tribunal chairman that if the democratic world had acted sooner against Fascism, as he had done four years earlier aged just 17, then the Second World War could have been avoided.

In 1940, having made his point in court the previous year, Cottman joined Bomber Command as a rear gunner. He survived scores of bombing missions over enemy-occupied Europe. Just as suspected TB had saved him in Spain, illness saved him in the Second World War. The day before his bomber was shot down over Germany, he was invalided out of flight-crew duty with a burst eardrum. He retrained as an airfield controller and was posted to Northern Ireland. It was at this juncture that he met the woman who would become his wife and lifelong companion - Stella Enfield.

In 1943, both were returning to Ulster from leave - and Stella was being pestered by a drunken major in the first class part of the ferry. Staff saw what was happening, paid extra to have his third class ticket upgraded - and strode to the rescue. They married a few months later - and in 1945 a daughter, Barbara, now a consultant psychiatrist in Bath, was born.

Post-war Britain was a place of bizarre contradictions. Victory and optimism co-existed with massive quantities of racial and social prejudice. Young married demobilised servicemen and their young families faced great difficulties finding even a roof over their heads. Many adverts for lodgings stated simply "no children, no coloureds, no dogs". Indeed between 1946 and 1951 Staff and Stella Cottman had to live apart for most of the time - simply because of prejudice against children.

In 1946 Staff had joined the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) as a clerk - and in 1951 the young family got a house in Eastcote, Middlesex, through BOAC's Staff Housing Association. It became their home for the next 35 years. At around the same time Cottman left the ILP - as did his great friend Fenner Brockway - and joined the Labour Party, in which he remained active in all his life. He also threw himself into trade-union work, first as the treasurer of the Clerical and Administrative Workers' Union branch within BOAC and then within Apex (now absorbed by the GMB) which took it over. For many years he was a leading and much- respected staff representative.

Staff Cottman was a true internationalist. Not just in Spain in 1936 - but also in Czechoslovakia in 1968 when he and Stella attended Dubcek's May Day parade in the Prague Spring. But, in a sense, his spiritual home was New Zealand, where his younger brother had settled down and lives to this day. Staff went there at least 30 times between 1962 and 1992. He adored the place - its mountains, its beauty and its people.

He loved irreverent humour, cricket and classical music too. Indeed as wartime duty NCO at Limavady airfield in Northern Ireland he used The Thieving Magpie by Rossini to rouse all the airmen at wake-up time - not always a popular ploy.

Cottman remained a socialist to the end. He didn't believe in possessions - just people and justice. "I only need one shirt - because I can only wear one," he often told his wife.

His taped accounts of the Spanish Civil War are in the Imperial War Museum - and his archives are kept by his wife and at their grandson's home in Bath.

Stafford Leslie Charles Cottman, trade unionist and political activist: born Southampton 6 March 1918; married 1943 Stella Enfield (one daughter); died Bath 19 September 1999.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments