Read We Saw Spain Die Online

Authors: Preston Paul

We Saw Spain Die (50 page)

Barely had George and Margarita settled into a flat in Chelsea when he travelled to Spain as a ‘special correspondent’ for
The Times.
From 8 August to mid-September, he was at the Franco–Spanish border and witnessed the fall of the Basque town of Irún. He noted that, as Irún and Fuenterrabía were being shelled from the sea and bombed from the air, the Francoists had dropped pamphlets threatening to deal with the population as they had dealt with those in Badajoz. He produced despatches about panic-stricken refugees heading for France and on the destruction wreaked on the town by retreating anarchists enraged by their lack of ammunition.
Steer stayed in Spain after he ceased working for the newspaper in order to complete his book
Caesar in Abyssinia,
which was finished in Burgos. In October 1936, he drove through Old Castile and was appalled by the scale of the repression being carried out by the rebel forces in a rural area where there had been very little left-wing activity. He recalled later, when considering the relatively small scale of violence in Republican Bilbao, what he had
seen in the rebel zone. He noted that ‘the province of Valladolid, with a population of 300,000, a deal less therefore than Bilbao and her refugees, had lost five thousand men and women to the punitive revolvers of the Falange and the Guardia Civil and the military courts; they were still being executed at the rate of ten a day’. On the road from Palencia to Valladolid, he found graphic evidence of the terror: ‘In small villages of Castile, numbering only a few thousand souls, like Venta de Baños and Dueñas, I found that the dead were one hundred and twenty-three and one hundred and five, including “Red” schoolmistresses and wives of murdered men who had complained that their husbands were unjustly killed.’

His friend and colleague, Noel Monks, would later refer to Steer having spent six months in the Franco zone. In November 1936, Steer was seen in Toledo by Peter Kemp, one of the very few British volunteers on the Franco side. Like so many other correspondents, Steer was impatient of the restrictions imposed on unescorted visits to the front. He was desperate to go north to witness the Francoist siege of Madrid and, finally, after many complaints, permission was granted for a trip to the capital. Kemp wrote later: ‘Steer, whom I had known before as a man of initiative and courage, could fairly be described as a natural rebel. The incident which precipitated his expulsion is worth recording, as illustrating the fury of an Englishman confronted with Spanish plumbing.’ As was standard practice with the Nationalist press authorities, the journalists were allowed to visit the Madrid front only as part of a specially conducted tour. The large group of journalists included English, French and American correspondents, as well as the more favoured Italians and Germans. They were escorted by a number of senior army staff officers whose job was:

to explain the situation as it should be presented. A senior official of the Ministry of Press and Propaganda was in charge. A fleet of cars was assembled, ready to leave from the hotel at 8.30 in the morning. Soon after nine o’clock the party was ready to start, but there was no sign of Steer. After waiting a while in a fury of impatience, they were about to start without him when he appeared on the steps of the hotel with a set, exasperated
expression on his face. In clear tones he addressed the assembled party: ‘You pull-and pull-and pull-and nothing happens. You pull again, and the shit slowly rises. There’s Spain for you,’ he roared, ‘in a nutshell.’

It is, in fact, very likely that, long before his public complaint about the lavatories in Toledo, the Nationalist press censors were highly suspicious of Steer because of his anti-fascist despatches from Abyssinia. Kemp remembered Steer as ‘a truly adventurous man of great initiative and charm, but a natural rebel whose utter contempt for authority and the pomposity that too often went with it was bound to land him in trouble’.
A temporary
correspondent called William F. Stirling wrote to London to complain that Luis Bolín regularly put obstacles in the way of his work because he ‘suffers from acute Anglophobia with
complications’. On 18 November 1936, Stirling wrote again to warn that the Francoist authorities, by which he almost certainly meant Bolín, considered Steer to be a ‘dangerous person in view of his record in Abyssinia… and his articles on Spain’.
Steer’s book
Caesar in Abyssinia
had just been published, to the intense chagrin of the Italian military authorities, and, given the scale of their complaints, it is inconceivable that Bolín was unaware of this. Not surprisingly, Steer was expelled from the Nationalist zone in late 1936, which is why he ended up reporting on the Basque campaign from the Republican side. He told a Lieutenant Colonel Clark of the War Office that he ‘was for some time at Salamanca, but was evicted owing, he thinks, to Italian influence; his book on Abyssinia has made him unpopular with them’.
The meeting with Clark substantiates the notion that Steer talked to British Military Intelligence even if he did not actually work for them.

Curiously, in May 1969, when Herbert Southworth tried to find out the circumstance of Steer’s expulsion from the Nationalist zone, he was informed by the editor of
The Times Archives:
‘We regard with grave doubts suggestions that George Steer was once expelled from Nationalist Spain. There is nothing whatever in our papers to indicate this, and we feel sure that if he had been expelled,
The Times
would have stated so in the news columns.’
Yet Stirling’s letters and a memoir by Steer’s father discovered by Nick Rankin suggest that it was the
records that
were at fault. And the reason for that was simple. Having resigned from the newspaper in order to finish writing
Caesar in Abyssinia,
he was taken on again on a freelance basis. Steer’s status as ‘a special correspondent’ actually meant that he was not on the staff, but paid by the column inch for any articles that happened to be accepted for publication.

He returned to Spain, to Bilbao, at the beginning of January 1937. He met and very quickly became an admirer of the Basques in general and of their president, José Antonio de Aguirre, in particular. Indeed, he would become as partisan in favour of Aguirre as he had been about Haile Selassie. Steer was entranced by Aguirre’s essential decency. Recalling the fact that, between 1924 and 1926, Aguirre had played in midfield for Athletic de Bilbao, he commented: ‘he was captain of a soccer team again, and even if they lost they were going to obey the whistle and the rules. No biting; no hacking; no tripping.’ The Basques came to symbolize for Steer the best elements of the fight against fascism. In his idealized and lyrical description, the Basque

stands only for freedom between the classes, camaraderie and truthfulness, humanity under war conditions, unwillingness to fight for any extreme and violent doctrine; self-reliance, stubbornness, straightforwardness and simplicity, dislike of propaganda on his own behalf, and an open-eyed guilelessness in face of the enemy’s. He is naturally orderly, fitting into no fancy scheme of order. A big, handsome man, he is not aware of his own strength and beauty.

Steer could empathize with the Basques more than he had done with the Abyssinians and more than he could with Spain’s left-wing Republicans. Indeed, Steer quickly came to share the Basques’ traditional hostility to Spain, and when he spoke of ‘the Spanish attack upon the Basques’, he was referring both to the oppressively centralist military rebels and the forces of the Left.

He reported on the bombing of Bilbao on 4 January and the consequent outburst of rage from the starving population. The Basque authorities characteristically lifted all censorship restrictions on the reporting. Having recently been expelled from the Nationalist zone
himself and aware that in the Republican zone there were tight controls on what could be published, Steer was astonished and saw this as the Basques’ expiation for what had happened. He was equally pleasantly surprised to find that his hotel was home to numerous right-wingers who lived without fear of molestation.
He visited the British Consul, who later reported:

Mr. G. Steer, a ‘Times’ correspondent, who was recently expelled from insurgent territory, spent the past week in Bilbao. He was most cordially received and the President’s secretary for Foreign Affairs was instructed to look after him and Madame Malaterre, a French lady of consequence in politics, and her companion, Monsieur Richard, a correspondent of ‘L’Oeuvre’ of Paris. A programme was arranged for visiting the prisons, the gun emplacements and fortifications constructed in a ring around the city, the tribunal in session and the historical Assembly Hall at Guernica. Mr. Steer told me that he was amazed at the frankness with which what were obviously military preparations of the most confidential nature were shown him. He expressed to me also his surprise at the orderly appearance of the city and its inhabitants which he had been led to believe, from reports circulating in insurgent territory, was showing all the symptoms of declining morale and disintegration.

He had returned to London at the end of the month after receiving news that his wife Margarita was seriously ill. It was typical of the Basque Government’s treatment of correspondents that a mine-sweeping trawler was placed at his disposal for the first leg of his journey, a thirteen-hour trip across a storm-tossed Bay of Biscay to Bayonne. He arrived in London to find the worst. Margarita died in premature childbirth on 29 January 1937. A funeral service was held in London, attended by Sir Sidney Barton, who had been British Minister in Addis Ababa when Steer had been there. Although devastated, Steer took advantage of his time in London to lobby government officials on behalf of the Basques. He also visited the War Office and reported in detail on the military situations in both the rebel and Republican zones. He gave
detailed estimates of German and Italian positions and strengths, which may have suggested a more than casual connection with British Military Intelligence or simply reflected his determination to alert the establishment to the scale of Axis intervention. He returned to the Basque Country, burying his wife in Biarritz on 2 April.
His memoir,
The Tree of Gernika,
would be dedicated ‘To Margarita snatched away’.

By the beginning of April, the grief-stricken Steer was back in Bilbao. On 31 March, Franco had unleashed a major assault on the Basque Country under the command of General Emilio Mola. The campaign opened with a frightening proclamation from Mola, both broadcast and printed in a leaflet dropped on the main towns: ‘If submission is not immediate, I will raze Vizcaya to the ground, beginning with the industries of war. I have the means to do so.’
This was followed by a massive four-day artillery and aircraft bombardment in which the small picturesque country town of Durango was destroyed; 127 civilians died during the bombing and a further 131 died shortly after as a consequence of their wounds.

Over the next three months, Steer was even more impressed than before by the facilities provided by the press officers of the Basque Government. The contrast with his own experience at the hands of Bolín in the rebel zone could not have been greater:

the Basque authorities in Bilbao permitted me absolute freedom of movement and manoeuvre within their territory. I could go without hindrance or escort to any part of the front at any time. Other journalists were given the same facilities: that they did not use them as much as I did is no fault of theirs, for they had more to lose than I in the firing line.

Steer was always intrepid, not to say impetuous. Now, in the wake of the death of Margarita and his child, feeling that life had nothing to offer, he became positively foolhardy. In his visits to the front, he became so familiar with the Basque militia that, when he came to write
The Tree of Gernika,
he sometimes wrote ‘we’ instead of ‘they’, something which he had also done with regard to the Ethiopian troops in
Caesar in Abyssinia.

Bilbao was starving.
The rebels had announced that they would permit no more supplies to enter the port. The pro-Franco British Ambassador Sir Henry Chilton had reported that the rebel fleet commanded the waters off the Basque coast and that the immediate approaches to Bilbao were mined. Since Britain had not granted belligerent rights to either side in the war, British merchant ships had the right to Royal Naval protection, at least outside Basque territorial waters. To avoid embarrassing clashes, the British Government decided on 8 April to order all British merchant vessels within one hundred miles of Bilbao to go to St Jean de Luz. Sir Henry Chilton reported that he had been informed by the Francoist authorities that they would repel by force any British merchant ships trying to enter the Nervión. Accordingly, on 10 April, the cabinet met and it was decided that the Royal Navy would not protect British shipping. There was a major uproar in the House of Commons that the world’s greatest naval power should thereby admit to being unable to protect British merchantmen. The cabinet was choosing to believe unsubstantiated reports that the sea approaches to the city were mined and that Nationalist ships were operating inside the three-mile limit.

Writing from the Basque Government offices, Steer sent a telegram to his friend, Philip Noel-Baker, reporting that the blockade did not exist in any meaningful way ‘for any power prepared to protect its shipping outside Spanish territorial waters’. He went on: ‘Everybody here from Consul downward knows that there is not slightest danger and that blockade made out of paper and exists only in hopes Salamanca imagination Whitehall.’ He reported that Basque mine-sweepers had ensured that the approaches to Bilbao were not mined. He further pointed out that Basque batteries of naval artillery with a fifteen-mile range were keeping the Nationalists at bay.
On the night of 19 April, the SS
Seven Seas Spray
left St Jean de Luz. Ten miles off the Basque coast, it was met by a British destroyer, which signalled the captain, William Roberts, that he entered Bilbao at his own risk and wished him good luck. On 20 April, Steer went out on a Basque trawler to meet the
Seven Seas Spray,
the first British ship successfully to run the gauntlet, and he was aboard as it made a triumphal passage down the nine miles of the river Nervión that lead to Bilbao. His moving account of the
cheering crowds helped lead eventually to Royal Navy ships escorting subsequent food convoys. The British Government was forced to admit its mistake in believing that the approaches to Bilbao were mined and issued instructions to the Royal Navy to protect British merchant shipping.

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