SEPTEMBER 8, START OF NEARLY 900 DAYS OF NAZI SIEGE
On 21st June 1941 Hitler broke Nazi Germany’s non-aggression Treaty with the Soviet Union and invaded through Poland, sending roughly 3 million personnel through, in addition to its Finnish and Romanian allies, in a three-pronged attack.
Leningrad was one of the primary objectives as it was the most industrialised next to Moscow, with numerous arms factories among its 600 factories turning out 11% of all Russia’s industrial production, along with being the port of the Russian fleet. For those reasons it was important to the Soviet Union too but there was another very important one: the Petrograd Soviet had played a key role in the 1917 February and October revolutions in Russia.
The Nazi German advance in its various Army Groups through Soviet Russia overcame most resistance fairly easily but in September the advance of Army Group North was finally halted in the Leningrad suburbs. The German and other Axis troops had air dominance and a massive artillery capability. Hitler instructed his troops not only to besiege the city but to wipe it out. The Finnish troops controlled the area to the north and the Nazis placed the División Azul (the Blue Division), the fascist Spanish unit, along the south-east1.
“The Führer has decided to erase the city of Petersburg from the face of the earth,” he wrote in a memo. “It is intended to encircle the city and level it to the ground by means of artillery bombardment using every caliber of shell, and continual bombing from the air.” The memo stressed that requests for surrender negotiations were to be ignored, since the Nazis didn’t have the desire to feed the city’s large population.2
Civilians in Leningrad worked frantically on the construction of defences, digging trenches and constructing antitank fortifications as the Red Army and partisans lost one battle after another. The town of Mga was taken, recaptured and then taken again by the Nazis, severing the city’s last rail connection. With the capture of Shlisselburg in early September, the last road was cut. The only way to supply Leningrad now was across Lake Ladoga.
IRON RING AROUND THE CITY
Artillery and air bombardment of the city began almost immediately; the city could receive supplies only by barge across the lake which could also be targeted by Luftwaffe attack. Incendiary attacks caused huge damage and destroyed vital supplies of oil and food and on September 19th Nazi aircraft dropped 2,500 high explosive and incendiary bombs.
The authorities evacuated around 600,000 civilians before the Nazi “iron ring” closed around the city but 2.5 million civilians still remained inside. It is said that officials had been negligent in stockpiling food, so the only way to feed the city was to bring fresh supplies across Lake Ladoga, the only open route into the city. Transport of Food and fuel was by barge until the lake froze, then by trucks and sleds – all of these frequent targets of Nazi aerial attack.
“By November, food shortages had seen civilian rations cut to just 250 grams of bread a day for workers. Children, the elderly and the unemployed got a scant 125 grams—the equivalent of three small slices.”3
The winter of 1941-’42 was bitterly cold and as many as 100,000 a month died of starvation. “In their desperation, people ate everything from petroleum jelly and wallpaper glue to rats, pigeons and household pets. For warmth, they burned furniture, wardrobes and even the books from their personal libraries. Theft and murder for ration cards became a constant threat, and the authorities eventually arrested over 2,000 people for cannibalism. As the famine intensified, one 12-year-old Leningrader named Tanya Savicheva recorded the dates of the deaths of all her family members in a journal. “The Savichevs are dead,” she wrote after the passing of her mother. “Everyone is dead. Only Tanya is left.””4
And yet the city held out. Another 500,000 civilians were evacuated early the following year, 1942, which reduced the city’s population to 1,000,000. As the city thawed in Spring, the survivors went out to bury the dead lining their streets and cleared bombardment rubble. Courtyard areas and parks were planted for vegetables but even so and despite the “Road of Life” across Lake Ladoga, food was short.
A number of Red Army attempts to break through to the city failed, with very high loss of Russian soldiers. In January 1943 the Red Army won a land strip from the Nazis and its engineers built a special railway link to run through it which, by the end of the year nearly 5 million tons of food and other supplies had been delivered into Leningrad. Machinery and ammunition were soon being turned out in the factories by a workforce nearly 80% composed of women.
MUSIC OF RESISTANCE
In august 1942 it was played and broadcast towards the Nazi German lines over loudspeakers.
The Red Army finally broke the Nazi blockade on 27th January 1944 and, with the Nazi forces all over Russia in retreat, the city was free. Survivors celebrated but the death toll was huge; some had lost all their family during the siege.
Altogether an estimated 75,000 bombs were dropped on Leningrad during the period of the siege and killed many – but more died from hunger and hunger-facilitated illness.
Because of the declared intentions of Hitler and the Nazis and the effect on the civilian population of the city, many historians categorise this siege as genocide; it was also the longest siege of WWII and one of the longest in history.
“In total, the siege of Leningrad had killed an estimated 800,000 civilians—nearly as many as all the World War II deaths of the United States and the United Kingdom combined. Soviet-era censorship ensured that the more grisly details of the blockade were suppressed until the end of the 20th century, yet even while World War II was still underway, the city was hailed as a symbol of Russian determination and sacrifice.”5
Perhaps the most appropriate accolade to the resistance of Leningrad was penned by the New York Times in 1945: “There is hardly a parallel in history for the endurance of so many people over so long a time. Leningrad stood alone against the might of Germany since the beginning of the invasion. It is a city saved by its own will, and its stand will live in the annals as a kind of heroic myth.”6
Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony performed by the Frankfurt Radio Symhony in 2019 (Russian composition, played by a German Orchestra, conducted by a Finn!) almost 1 hour 25 minutes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GB3zR_X25UU
MONUMENT TO THE HEROIC DEFENDERS OF LENINGRAD AND SCULPTURAL GROUPS IN VICTORY SQUARE PETROGRAD
On June 6th 1944, a flotilla of more than 4,500 ships would transport 130,000 soldiers, and 20,000 vehicles across the English Channel, becoming the largest movement of people and material in the history of mankind. Known as D-Day, the Normandy Landing was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany, but it would not have been possible without the key participation of a Spanish double agent, Juan Pujol, alias “Garbo,” who led Hitler to believe that the invasion would take place in Calais, 300 kilometers away. Garbo became a legend but recent investigations seem to indicate that perhaps the spy was not he but rather his beautiful wife. Today we know of a film-like story, the story of Araceli González Carballo, the Galician who deceived Hitler and who changed the course of a war1.
Araceli was born in Lugo in 1914, into a wealthy family. In the middle of the Civil War she volunteered to work in a blood bank hospital, until in 1938 she decided that she wanted to leave her hometown. Her father got her a position in Burgos, where she would work as secretary to the Governor of the Bank of Spain.
In February 1939, she met Juan Pujol, a young Catalan officer who had started the war on the Republican side and later switched to the National2 side, although he no longer believed in it. They get married and move to Madrid.
The two were of the opinion that Hitler would eventually lead Europe into disaster so they decided to offer themselves to the British to act as spies on the Germans in Madrid.
The British turned a deaf ear to her offer, so, in a risky decision, Araceli suggests to her husband that if they win the trust of the Third Reich, then they will be accepted by the British. Pujol, an officer in Franco’s army, appears at the German embassy in Madrid and offers himself to the Nazis. The ploy works and he begins working for the Third Reich’s Secret Services, the Abwehr. He is christened “Arabel” (from Araceli bella) and Friedrich Knappe is assigned as his contact.
Without knowing a single piece of information of interest, they pass reports to the Nazis, making them believe that they reside in London and that they have a network of informants when, really, they live in Lisbon and all they share with the Germans are inventions and rumors.
Knowing that their cover was really weak, Araceli travels to Madrid to fake a fit of jealousy in front of Knappe. She shows up at the Embassy to tell him that she knew the German had held meetings with her husband and to ask him if he knew anything about Pujol, since she had left for London unannounced and had no news from him, fearing that he has abandoned her. Knappe succumbs to Araceli’s tears and beauty and reveals to her that Juan Pujol is doing essential work for the Third Reich. The deception had worked.
After that meeting, Pujol sent Germany highly valuable information about a British fleet that had left for Malta. He had learned the details by chance and considered it to be as false as the rest of the information he sent to the Nazis. But this time he was right, and the Abwehr took the information as a sign of Pujol’s skill.
That report was intercepted by the British and made their Secret Services very nervous so Araceli, without informing Pujol, decided that it was time to try again. And for this she turned to the North American Naval Attaché in Lisbon, Edward Rousseau, who got her an interview with the English. Araceli drops the bomb: “The spy you are looking for is my husband.” British Intelligence recruits Pujol and that is how “Garbo” was born, one of the most important and decisive double agents of the Second World War who, from London, and with a network of 27 false spies, misinformed the Nazis from the year 1942 until the end of the war.
At the orders of MI5, the British Secret Service, they transmitted information to the Germans about which areas should be bombed by their air force, the Luftwaffe, without the Nazis knowing that they were unpopulated targets and without strategic interest. To confuse them, they sent them doctored photos of ruins and corpses, making them believe that the bombings had been a success.
But it is in 1944 when his performance becomes so decisive that there are those who consider that thanks to this couple the Allies won the Second World War3. With their fake spy network, they informed German Intelligence that the D-Day invasion would take place at Calais and not on the beaches of Normandy. That information delayed the German response long enough for the invasion to be a success. The same morning of June 6th, Pujol sent a message to the Germans in which he told them that the real landing was not the one that was taking place, but that it would be in Calais, days later. Hitler bought it.
What is surprising is that, according to declassified MI5 reports, Araceli almost ruined the entire operation. In 1943, Pujol was keeping his wife and his two children confined and controlled at home, which eventually enraged Araceli. “I don’t want to live another five minutes with my husband. Even if they kill me, I’m going to the Spanish Embassy to reveal the truth about him”. To avoid this, the British deceived the Galician woman into believing that her husband had been arrested because of her, so that she would come to her senses, which she finally did.
Despite the collapse of Germany, the Nazis never suspected Garbo, and Hitler would award him the Iron Cross, the highest decoration of the Third Reich.
He would also receive the Order of the British Empire, becoming the only person decorated by both sides of World War II, but was unable to collect it, since he returned to Madrid with his family before he could receive it. In Madrid he was summoned by the Abwehr but it was Araceli who attended for fear that it was a trap. However the Germans just wanted to give him a monetary bonus for services rendered to the late Reich.
Now separated from MI5, they moved to Venezuela but Araceli did not adapt to that life, so she returned to Lugo with her children and separated from Pujol. Three years later, in a precarious financial situation, she settled in Madrid, where the British remembered that Garbo’s wife also got them to win the War, so they helped her with a job as an interpreter for the British and American embassies.
In 1956 news reached her that her husband had died in Angola4 from malaria and she married Edward Kreisler, with whom she maintained a hectic social life in the capital, where they received the most illustrious guests from the United Kingdom and the United States, and they founded an art gallery that would eventually have branches in New York and Miami and which is still in operation today.
However, a twist in this real-life film script was still missing. In 1984 the writer Nigel West met Pujol on the shores of Lake Maracaibo and convinced him to return to London and receive formal recognition of his achievements during the war. It turns out that his former boss at MI5 had spread a rumour that he had passed away in order to get the spy out of circulation. All the British and Spanish newspapers and different European television stations presented him as the hero that he was. And Prince Philip of Edinburgh publicly paid tribute to him in a commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Normandy Landings.
The former spy traveled to Spain and, after asking Araceli for permission, he was reunited with his children and met his grandchildren. The Spain-based family also traveled to Venezuela where Pujol had rebuilt his life and had three other children.
Juan Pujol died in Venezuela in 1988, in Choroní where, in one of his residences, can be read: “Here was the greatest spy in history.” Araceli would die too just two years later, in Madrid, following a stroke. Her remains rest in the Sacramental Cemetery of San Isidro.
No one knew her true story until MI5 declassified a large part of the files that revealed Araceli’s true participation in her husband’s adventures, and writers and journalists such as José de Cora, director of Progreso de Lugo, Ben Macintyre, editor from The Times, Javier Juárez or Edmond Roch (winner of a Goya for his documentary on Garbo), began to investigate.
But Garbo was not a person, it was a team. It would not have existed without Pujol, but neither would it have existed without the help and courage of Araceli. One has to wonder which of the two was really the spy. The answer is not as clear as it might seem.
This is the story how a Galician from Lugo allied herself with a Catalan from Barcelona to have an adventure that would change the course of history, in which they would deceive the Third Reich, the Nazis and Hitler himself. Without them the history of Europe and of the world would have been very different.
1Certainly the Nazi focus on Calais allowed the the US, British and Dominion troops to fight their way ashore and eventually establish a beachhead. But most analysts would say that it was the Battle of Stalingrad that was the real turning point in the War and sealed the fate of the Nazi’s military plans and of the regime.
2The military-fascist side called themselves the “Nationalists” and much of the world’s media used that description in their reporting and many historical references continued that description. They were engaging in a coup against a democratically elected government and in so far as they were “nationalists” they were Spanish nationalists but suppressing the nationalist aspirations of the Basques, Catalans and Galicians, also doing so with foreign military forces of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. They should be called what they were: military-fascist coupists.
3This is obviously an inflated claim, if it is indeed true that historians are of that opinion; there is rarely one point other than the final battle which can be said to “win” a war (see also earlier footnote with reference to Stalingrad).
A black American traveling entertainer, boxer and trainer, soldier in two world wars for two different countries, awarded 14 French military medals, airplane pilot, nightclub owner, musician, civil rights activist, associate of famous writers and musicians.
Bullard’s biography is so amazing I cannot believe it has never been made into a movie. Like the lives of many African Americans, it is also a tale full of suffering and pain that highlights the horrible racism that pervaded America in his day. He is such a remarkable person that more people should know about the achievements of this unique figure.
Bullard was born in 1895 in Columbus, Georgia, the seventh of 10 children born to William (Octave) Bullard, a black Caribbean and Josephine (“Yokalee”) Thomas, a Native American Creek woman. Georgia at the time of his birth was a dangerous place for “uppity” African Americans and tragically lynchings were common. His father’s people were Haitians who revolted against French slavery and following the revolution, Bullard’s ancestors left the Caribbean for the United States and took refuge with the Native American Creek people.
As a young boy, he was traumatized by the sight of a white mob attempting to lynch his father over a workplace dispute. A proud man, his father imbued his son with the conviction that African Americans had to maintain their dignity and self-respect, despite all the indignities heaped upon them. Bullard fell in love with his father’s stories of France where slavery had been abolished and blacks were treated equally. At age eleven, Bullard ran away from home hoping to reach France. In Atlanta, he joined a family of English gypsies and traveled throughout Georgia with them, tending their horses and learning to be a horse jockey. The gypsies told him that there was also racial equality in England and Bullard determined to go there instead of to France.
Bullard found work with the Turner family in Dawson, Georgia. Because he was hard-working as a stable boy, young Bullard won the Turners’ affection and was asked to ride as their jockey in the 1911 County Fair races, where he was victorious. Eventually, he made his way to Norfolk, Virginia where he stowed away on a ship to England.
In 1912, Bullard arrived in Scotland and soon went on to London where he boxed and performed in humiliating racist pieces for the Freedman Pickaninnies, an African American troupe. While in London, he trained under the then-famous boxer Dixie Kid who arranged a bout for Bullard in Paris. Bullard fell in love with the “city of light” and decided to settle there. He continued to box in Paris and worked in a music hall until the start of the First World War.
A SOLDIER IN WWI
When the War broke out Bullard enlisted in the French Foreign Legion and by 1915 had become a machine gunner, seeing combat on the Somme front in Picardy. He served in a regiment known as the “hirondelles de la mort” (“swallows of death”) and saw combat at Verdun where he was severely wounded on March 5, 1916. During his convalescence, Bullard was cited for acts of valor at the orders of the regiment on July 3rd 1917 and was awarded the Croix de Guerre.
After recovering, he volunteered on October 2nd 1916 for the French Air Service and became a machine gunner. He joined a group of American aviators fighting for France on November 15, 1916, called the Lafayette Flying Corps and became the first African American aviator in World War I. He took part in over twenty French combat missions, and is sometimes credited with shooting down one or two German aircraft.
When the USA entered the war, The United States Air Service created a medical board to recruit Americans serving in the Lafayette Flying Corps to fly for the United States. Bullard went through the medical examination but he was not accepted, because in the segregated American military only white pilots were chosen. Sometime later, while off duty in Paris, Bullard allegedly got into an argument with a French officer and was punished by being transferred out of his combat unit and into a service battalion. Before he left the French military, the French government awarded him three different medals for his heroism in battle.
NIGHT CLUB OWNER
After his discharge, Bullard went back to Paris, where he started to play drums in a jazz band at a nightclub named “Zelli’s”, which was owned by Joe Zelli. Bullard worked with Robert Henri, a lawyer and friend, to get Zelli’s a club license, which allowed it to stay open past midnight. Zelli’s soon became the most celebrated nightclub in Montmartre because few other clubs could stay open so late. With the money he saved from playing at Zellis, Bullard traveled to Egypt, where he played with a jazz ensemble at Hotel Claridge and fought two prize fights.
Missing Paris, Bullard returned to the City of Lights where his career was about to take off. He became an entrepreneur hiring jazz musicians for private parties with Paris’ social elites, worked as a masseur and exercise trainer. Bullard then got a job managing the nightclub “Le Grand Duc”, where he hired the famous American poet, Langston Hughes. Around 1928, Bullard had saved enough money to enable him to purchase “Le Grand Duc.” Thanks to being the owner of a hot Parisian club, Bullard made many famous friends, including the dancer-actress Josephine Baker, poet Langston Hughes and jazz musician Louis Armstrong. He eventually became the owner of another nightclub, “L’Escadrille” where he got to know writer Ernest Hemingway, who based a minor character on Bullard in his novel “The Sun Also Rises.” Bullard also opened his own gym and gave boxing lessons, training successful fighters such as “Panama” AL Brown and “Young” Perez. In 1923, he married Marcelle Straumann, a striking French woman from a wealthy family. The marriage ended in divorce in 1935, with Bullard gaining custody of their two surviving children, Jacqueline and Lolita.
A SOLDIER IN WWII
When World War II began in September 1939, Bullard, who also spoke German, agreed to a request from the French government to spy on the German citizens who still frequented his nightclub. When the Germans attacked France, Bullard volunteered and served with the 51st Infantry Regiment and was severely wounded in the battle for Orleans. When the Nazis took over Paris, he slipped over the border into Spain and then headed back to the United States.
Bullard spent some time in a New York hospital and never fully recovered from his wound. He missed Paris and his minor celebrity there. In New York, he had no celebrity and had to work menial jobs. He longed to return to Paris but learned that his nightclub had become a casualty of the battle for Paris. The French government gave him a financial settlement with which he purchased an apartment in Harlem.
Returning to America after World War II, Bullard was active in the civil rights movement. During one confrontation, a bus driver ordered him to sit in the back of the bus. In 1949, Bullard was a victim of one of the most notorious incidents in New York State history, the Peekskill riots. Bullard was a fan of African American communist entertainer Paul Robeson who was scheduled to sing at a Civil Rights benefit. Before Robeson arrived, however, a mob attacked the concertgoers with baseball bats and stones. Thirteen people were seriously injured including Bullard who was knocked to the ground and beaten by an angry mob, which included members of the state and local law enforcement. The attack was captured on film in the 1970s documentary The Tallest Tree in Our Forest and the Oscar-winning narrated documentary Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist. Despite photographic evidence, none of his attackers were prosecuted. Graphic pictures of Bullard being beaten by two policemen, a state trooper, and a concert-goer were later published in Susan Robeson’s biography of her grandfather, The Whole World in His Hands: a Pictorial Biography of Paul Robeson.
The 1950s were difficult years for Bullard whose daughters had married and he lived alone in his apartment, which was decorated with pictures of his famous friends and a framed case containing his 14 French war medals. His final job was as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center, where no one suspected he had once been the “Black Swallow of Death.” In 1954, the French government invited Bullard to Paris to be one of the three men chosen to rekindle the everlasting flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe and in 1959 he was made a Chevalier (Knight) of the Legion De Honeur by President Charles De Gaulle, who called Bullard a “véritable héros français” (“true French hero”). He also was awarded the Medaille Militaire, another high military distinction. On December 22, 1959, he was interviewed on NBC’s Today Show presenting his amazing biography and received hundreds of fan letters.
Bullard died in New York City of stomach cancer on October 12, 1961, at the age of 66. He was buried in the French Veteran’s section of Flushing Cemetery, where nine years later his good friend Louis Armstrong would also be interred. On August 23rd 1994, 33 years after his death and 77 years to the day after the physical that should have allowed him to fly for his own country, Bullard was posthumously commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the United States Airforce.
In the midst of an arrest operation on Wednesday of 21 people for alleged misuse of public funds to assist the Catalan independence movement, the Spanish State issued a statement alleging that Russia had offered the movement 10,000 Russian soldiers to aid their struggle. It wasn’t the only Russian connection to the Spanish police operation, which they had named Operación Volkhov.
The arrests this week form part of measures by the State against Catalan independence activists since 2017. That year, a coalition of pro-independence political parties and a huge grassroots movement in Catalonia pushed for a referendum to vote for or against an independent Catalan republic, which the pro-Spanish union opposition called on people to boycott. The Spanish State sent its police to raid Catalan regional government offices, confiscate ballot papers, search for ballot boxes (unsuccessfully) and, on the day of the Referendum itself on October 1st, to storm polling stations and beat up voters.
Since then, the Spanish State has jailed seven Catalan politicians and two leaders of grassroots movements on charges of sedition, charged senior Catalan police officers with disobedience (recently acquitted), charged activists with possession of explosives (turned out to be fireworks), other Catalan politicians – including the former President — are in exile, the current President of the regional government has been banned from holding office, 700 local town mayors are under investigation and others are facing charges arising out of strikes and acts of civil disobedience such as blocking streets and a motorway (for which one activist was charged with terrorism). The raid this week comes in addition to all those legal processes.
There is something of an irony in charging Catalan activists with misuse of public funds in pursuance of independence, given that independence is what many of the Catalan public desire but even more ironic considering the rampant corruption endemic in Spanish political circles and the Monarchy itself, the former King Juan Carlos resigning amidst allegations of financial corruption and being allowed to flee the country ahead of an investigation.
Whatever about the charges of misuse of public funds it is unlikely that most political observers will take the allegations of an offer of Russian military intervention seriously and not only because it comes from Guardia Civil intelligence, a police force maintaining the fascist Franco dictatorship for four decades and, according to many, especially Basques and Catalans, not much changed since. The notion that Russia would risk a war with the EU and the US-dominated NATO, in order to help free a nation of 7.5 million people nowhere near its own territory, must be laughable.
For those facing charges, under investigation, in exile or already in jail, the situation is not humorous. And then there is the sinister name of the police operation. During WW2, General Franco, dictator of a neutral Spain sent fascist volunteers to aid the Axis in Europe, many of them fighting on the Russian front. Franco had quite recently led a successful military-fascist uprising against the Spanish left-wing Popular Front Government, for which he had been aided by Nazi German and Fascist Italian armament and men. His victory was followed by a repression that left Spain with more mass graves than anywhere else other than Cambodia. The Spanish volunteers to fight Soviet communism formed the Blue Division – blue, from the colour of the Falangist shirts and uniforms.
SPANISH FASCISTS ON THE VOLKHOV FRONT
Among the Nazi German forces in the Volkhov region were the men of the Blue Division and it seems they carried out a successful night crossing of the Volkhov River on 18th October 1941. A subsequent Red Army advance in January 1942 failed ultimately because not all the components of the operation had advanced according to plan. In August 1942 the Blue Division was transferred north to take part in the Siege of Leningrad, on the south-eastern flank of the German Army.
However in February of that 1943, operations on the Volkhov Front formed Part of the Red Army plan to first break the siege of Leningrad and then trap Nazi forces in encirclement. According to what seems a Spanish-sympathetic Wikipedia account of the battle at Krasny Bor, in the vicinity of Volkov, the Blue Division fought stubbornly from 10-13 February 1943. On February 15, the Blue Division reported casualties of 3,645 killed or wounded and 300 missing or taken prisoner, which amounted to a 70–75% casualty rate of the troops engaged in the battle. The remnants were relieved and moved back towards the rear.
Red Army casualties were much higher and, although forces attacking well-fortified positions backed by good artillery and tanks, all of which the Nazis had, can expect to lose three attackers for every one defender, Russian analysis later blamed bad leadership, ineffective use of artillery and clumsy use of tanks for their losses.
A Spanish police force evoking today the memory of Spain’s fascist troops in WW2 might seem ominous but to those who believe that the Spanish ruling class and their police force have never ceased to be fascist, the only surprise will be its effrontery. To the Guardia Civil, the fighting in the vicinity of Volkhov in October 1941 might seem the finest hour of the Blue Division but they might do well to remember that effectively it also met its end there in 1943: the Division ceased to exist and was reformed as the Blue Legion, soon afterwards to be disbanded, some soldiers absorbed into the Waffen SS and others withdrawn home.
RUSSIAN TROOPS FOR CATALONIA?
Fast forwarding to the present, the Russians, at least in their Embassy in Madrid, treated the allegation of their offering troops to support Catalan independence as a joke. The following post in Spanish appeared on their electronic notice and comment board (translated):
Note: The information that appeared in the Spanish media about the arrival of 10,000 Russian soldiers in Catalonia is incomplete. It is necessary to add a further two zeros to the number of soldiers and the most shocking thing of all this conspiracy: the troops were to be transported by “Mosca” and “Chato” planes assembled in Catalonia during the Civil War and hidden in a safe place in the Catalan Sierra (mountain range) until they received the encrypted order to act through these publications.
A few hundred Irish Republicans and other Anti-Fascists gathered today in the Ballybock area north of Dublin city centre to commemorate IRA leader of the 1940s Seán Russell. The event was organised a few weeks after the incumbent Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, had made a public statement suggesting that Russell was a fascist sympathiser and that his monument and some others in Ireland should be removed. In attendance yesterday (Sunday 21st June) was a cross-section of the Irish Republican movement in addition to independent Irish socialists and anti-fascists.
Note: Photos of the event are from individuals D. Breatnach and C. Perry and organisations Saoradh and Anti-Imperialist Action.
“NAZI COLLABORATOR” SLUR
Leo Varadkar’s comment that Sean Russell had been “a Nazi collaborator” was made in the course of a TV discussion on racism, arising out of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in the USA, an event which sparked off huge protests not only in the USA but, because it had been so clearly documented and shared on social and news media, around much of the world. Among the angry retorts in reply had been an Open Letter by Matt Doyle, of the National Graves Association, pointing out that Russell was an Irish Republican with no elements of fascism in his history or ideology and that in fact Varadkar’s party, Fine Gael, was the one built on fascism, i.e the Blue Shirts movement of the 1930s, which Republicans had fought and defeated.
Seán Russell had gone to Nazi Germany in 1940 to seek assistance from them in ridding Ireland of British colonialism but on his way back to Ireland in a German submarine, accompanied by Frank Ryan, Russell had become seriously ill, died and was buried at sea, 20 miles from Galway. Frank Ryan was also an Irish Republican but had been wounded fighting fascists in the Spanish Civil War; after his capture the Nazi German allies of the Spanish fascists had expressed interest in Ryan for the purposes of assisting Irish Republican action against the English occupation of the occupied Six Counties.
A BROAD REPUBLICAN PARTICIPATION IN PROCESSION AND RALLY
The attendance had representation from across the Irish Republican spectrum from “Stickles” to “Provies” to “Dissidents”1, mixed with some independent socialists and antifascists but notably absent was a representation from the Irish socialist and communist parties in any numbers, nor were their flags to be seen. No anarchist flags were in evidence either and only one Antifa flag was, that one from the Basque Country. The event was organised by “Independent Republicans”, a headline permitting a wide attendance free from sectional hostilities or the more fundamental division of for or against the Good Friday Agreement. The flags most in evidence among the attendance were the orange rising sun on a blue field of Na Fianna and both versions of the “Starry Plough”, the one in gold on a green field and the one with white stars on a blue field.
The Starry Plough was the flag of the Irish Citizen Army, founded by James Connolly and Jim Larkin and described as “the first workers’ army in the world”; formed in 1913 to defend the Dublin strikers and locked-out workers from the attacks of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, its ethos was socialist and for Irish independence. The ICA recruited men and women and a number of the latter were officers during the 1916 Rising, including third-in-command in two insurgent garrisons. That version was gold-on-green field version but the Republican Congress of the 1930s had the white-stars-on-blue-field version. The Republican Congress was a short-lived attempt to unite communists, socialists and the Irish Republican movement in one front.
Na Fianna Éireann was an Irish Republican youth organisation founded by Bulmer Hobson of the IRB and Constance Markievicz in 1909 and therefore predated the ICA (and the Irish Volunteers). Members of na Fianna were highly motivated and disciplined and played a prominent part in the collection of Mauser rifles smuggled into Howth in 1914, in the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence and in the Irish Civil War.
Led by a traditional Irish Republican colour party and a lone piper, the parade on Sunday set off from under the railway bridge crossing the North Strand road and marched north in the traditional formation of two lines, their flags fluttering in the strong breeze. The procession crossed the Tolka river at Annesley Bridge, scene of a battle in 1916. In fact, the whole area had also been the scene of running battles in 1014 as the defeated Viking mercenaries from Orkneys and Manx ran for their ships, pursued by some of Brian Boróimhe’s (“Boru”) forces, for prior to the draining and reclaiming of the marsh, dunes and mudflats of the “sloblands” to permit laying out of Fairview Park and parts of the East Wall area, the seashore had been there.
Once over the bridge, the procession turned into Fairview Park and marched a short distance under trees until arriving at the Seán Russel monument and its surrounding low iron fence, where a number of people had already gathered. The monument had been erected in 1951 by the National Graves Association, a totally independent NGO and had been attacked twice, once having an arm removed and on the other occasion, its head. The first attack has been attributed to right-wing elements and the second, to antifascists.
WREATH, SPEECHES AND SONG
Patrick “Parko” Burke as MC for the event welcomed those in attendance and called for the placing of a floral wreath at the monument on behalf of Dublin Republicans. The piper played a short piece while the flags of the colour party were lowered and a moment’s silence was observed, then as the flags were raised again a short piece was played again.
The MC then introduced Gerry Mac Namara, who is a member of the extended Russell family.
Speaking briefly first in Irish and going on to address the gathering in English, the speaker recounted that Russell’s antecedents had been Fenians and that Seán himself was an Irish Republican who fought in the 1916 Rising and War of Independence and continued in the IRA after De Valera led a split to form Fianna Fáil. Mac Namara denounced Varadkar for his comments and commented that if the Prime Minister was in the mood to remove monuments there are a number of memorials of the British occupation and to English landlords in Ireland with which he might make a good beginning. Mac Namara made some comments in a similar vein in reference to Cnclr. Ray McAdam, “the publicity-seeking Fine Gael Councillor” who had recently sought to desecrate the 1798 mass grave monument at Croppies Acre. “Sean Russell has no grave”, commented Mac Namara, “because he was buried at sea. This monument is the closest thing to a gravestone he has.”
If Varadkar wanted to talk about racism in Irish history, he would do well to refer to Oliver J. Flanagan, a prominent member of the Fine Gael party and Minister in Fine Gael government, who had in the Dáil in 1943 called called on the Irish Government to do as the Nazis had done and to “rout the Jews out of this country …. where the bees are, there is honey and where the Jews are, there is money.”
Liam Manners, a young man came forward then to read a statement from the Irish Republican prisoners in Maghaberry, Mountjoy and Portlaoise jails. The first of those prisons is of the Six Counties colonial administration while the other two are of the Irish State.
Pat Savage was called forward and performed the Republican ballad “White, Orange and Green”, about an anonymous teenage Republican girl who refuses to surrender the Irish Tricolour to an English soldier during the War of Independence.
“A REPUBLICAN LIKE TONE AND PEARSE”
Mallachy Steenson came to stand in front of the monument and gave a resumé of Seán Russel’s service to the Republican movement. In seeking help to rid Ireland of British occupation Russell had been not only to Nazi Germany but to imperialist USA and Soviet Russia, however he had not been accused by Varadkar of being a Soviet or a US imperialism collaborator. Russell was ready to receive help from Nazi Germany to get rid of the British occupation, as he said himself but nothing more.
Steenson stated that Russell had been an Irish Republican in the same mold as Patrick Pearse and Theobald Wolfe Tone: Tone had sought help from France and Pearse from Imperial Germany, yet Tone was not a “French collaborator” nor was Pearse a collaborator with German imperialism or monarchy. Steenson commented that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” has been a well-known tactical slogan on many occasions.
Briefly touching on John Mitchell, whose statue in Newry some had suggested had suggested should be got rid of, Steenson pointed out that Mitchell had opposed English rule in Ireland for which he had been deported to Australia as a convict. From there he had escaped to the USA. While it was unfortunate that he had taken the side there of the slave states of the Confederacy, were it nor for the English he would have been in neither Australia nor America.
The Sean Russell monument is not only to commemorate Russell, Steenson pointed out and there are names on the pediment of many other Republicans, including those executed by the De Valera government because they had continued the fight which Fianna Fáil had abandoned. The Irish Republicans of the 1940s, of which group Sean Russell was an important member, passed through a particularly difficult period.
Talking about monuments which he said should be removed, Steenson referrred to the wall of names in Glasnvevin Cemetery, which he said should be called “the Wall of Shame” and went on to refer to the attempt to interfere with the Croppies’ Acre memorial2. Steenson said that there was a concerted effort to remove or rewrite Irish history. There had not been too much controversy during the early part of the “Decade of Commemorations” but coming up soon would be the Civil War. How would Varadkar and Fine Gael justify the Free State’s execution of 77 Republicans after a summary court martial, he wondered. Or the Free State army tying of captured Republicans to a land mine and blowing them up? Or the removal from their cells in Mountjoy Jail of four Republican leaders, one from each province before shooting them dead the next day3?
The MC made a mention of the National Graves Association and announcing that the organisation had a big event planned for later in the summer, then called for another song which Pat Savage performed: “Off to Dublin in the Green”, a Republican ballad about the 1916 Rising.
Patrick Burke acknowledged the presence of Dublin City Councillors Cieran Perry and Christy Burke and invited the latter to say a few words.
Like Steenson, Cnclr. Burk referred to the “wall” in Glasnevin but also reminded listeners that in January of this year the Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan had proposed to commemorate the Black ‘n Tans4 but his plans had been defeated by the public reaction of outrage. Burke referred also to the plan to build a playground on the United Irishmen mass grave at Croppies’ Acre and that a motion by Councillors such as Cieran Perry against any such desecration had won 50% of the vote and since he had been Chair, he had given the additional casting vote in favour of the protective motion. Cnlr. Burke said that he along with Cnclrs. Mannix, Perry and others were preparing a motion to prevent any Republican monument being removed in Dublin.
The formal part of the event concluded with the playing of the chorus of Amhrán na bhFiann, the Irish National Anthem while some remained in the area to take photographs, have theirs taken in front of the monument or catch up with friends or acquaintances whom they had not seen for some time.
There were three minor incidents during the event:
1) Two cyclists had strung a line of bunting in LBTG colours between their bicycles and were at first some distance behind the monument but later moved to the street in front. It is not known whether they were supporting the event or commenting on it in some way.
2) While one of the speakers was addressing the crowd, one of a small group of secret police approached one of the supporters of the event who had become momentarily separated from the general attendance and tried to detain him there for questioning. However, the man shouted to the crowd that he was being “harassed by the Special Branch” and with a snarl the secret policeman stepped out of the man’s way. After all, there were several hundred supporters of the event present but only a handful of secret police!
3) During the proceedings, a middle-aged woman came from behind the monument and stood to one side of it in the space left open, looked at the statue, then at the attendance with an insolent attitude, then stalked away without saying anything.
The event was marked by the absence of any obvious representation of the fascists and racists of the far-Right in Ireland who have been for some time now attempting to represent themselves as “Irish patriots” and who, it was rumoured had been warned not to attend.
The mood at the event was defiant and the speeches militant in form, seeming to reflect a determination to defend Irish Republican history and monuments to the anti-colonial resistance of the Irish people from forces in or outside Government who might wish to destroy or misrepresent them.
The calumny that Sean Russell was in any way a supporter of fascism has been staunchly refuted. However the correctness or otherwise of the general thesis that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and its specific application to Nazi Germany or other cases remains a subject of some debate even in Irish Republican circles.
1Popular words used to describe the Official Sinn Féin and IRA and its split, Provisional Sinn Féin and IRA and those Republicans of various groups and none, of armed group or none, that rejected the Good Friday Agreement.
2The “wall” referred to is an installation put up in 2016 by the Glasnevin Cemetery Trust commemorating fatalities during the 1916 Rising but which includes the names of soldiers of the British Army alongside those of freedom fighters of the insurgency. Many in Ireland have objected strenuously to this juxtaposition and the installation has been continually guarded by Gardaí, the police force of the Irish State which has failed to prevent at least two attacks on the “Wall” and there are plans to include Black and Tans and Auxilliaries on it in future.
3Actually more than 77 executions of Republicans, since the number does not include a few executed for armed robberies to raise funds for the struggle. The first of the land mine atrocities was the Ballyseedy Massacre in Kerry, on 7th March 1923, followed by others within 24 hours: five at Countess Bridge near Killarney and four in Cahirsiveen. There were many unofficial executions by the Free State during the Civil War, varying from kidnapping and murders to shooting prisoners of war: of the 32 Republican fighters killed in Kerry in March 1923, only five were killed in combat.
4In January Charlie Flanagan, Minister of Justice of the Fine Gael minority Government, had declared his plan to commemorate the colonial police force of the British occupation of Ireland, the Royal Irish Constabulary. In 1920 these had also included two auxiliary special police forces, the “Black and Tans” and the “Auxiliaries”, whose role was to terrorise the Irish population and who committed torture, murder, arson and theft until they were disbanded in 1921 after the signing of the “Anglo-Irish Treaty”. A wave of public repugnance had caused the Government to “postpone the event”.
A central character in a Cory Doctorow novel comments that the cast-iron railings donated by householders in Britain for use in making munitions during WWII were instead dumped into the Channel.
Doctorow takes liberties with the present and the future but not so much with the past. Even so I doubted this story. I doubted even more the reason given, that the iron was allegedly unsuitable for making munitions but that the people were not told in order to keep their morale up – the belief that their sacrifice was helping the war. While working in London I had heard stories myself of the railings going to help Soviet Russia, convoys carrying the iron on those awful Artic runs to Murmansk, across a sea infested with Nazi submarines and so cold that your body in the sea had minutes at most to live. And no ship would stop to pick you up either, because it would endanger their whole crew and the rest of the convoy.
Did I doubt that the British Government was capable of keeping the truth from the people in the cause of war morale? Not for one minute – they have lied and concealed truth from the people for reasons much worse throughout history …. and continue to do so. No, what I doubted was that the metal was unusable. I’ve worked in a few foundries and although they were non-ferrous, I think I know a little about metal and its preparation. I’ve been a welder too.
Cast iron is what it sounds like, iron that has been cast – melted in high heat and then poured into molds to the required shape. But it isn’t just iron – among other things it also contains carbon. So does steel, even the lower-carbon steels – but cast iron contains a much higher proportion of carbon, at least 2% and often just over 4%. Not much, you might think but it does make a big difference.
Once, many familiar objects were made out of cast iron – gutters, drainpipes, gas pipes, sewer pipes, manhole covers, gas lamp-poles, baths ….. A very hard metal but also brittle. You’ve seen an old metal broken drainpipe, right? Broken into a point? Cast iron, for sure. Steel doesn’t break like that. Corrodes, dents, bends and under extreme pressure, shears – but doesn’t shatter or break off like cast iron when it gets a hard enough knock. Well, maybe steel will shatter in extreme cold but we’re talking about within a normal range of temperatures here.
Cast iron is denser and heavier than steel and needs a greater thickness than steel to make something, it being possible to work the latter while very thin. Think of a food ‘tin can’: it’s not tin, though typically it had a coating of tin inside. It is steel, pressed very thinly – “thin can” would have been a more accurate name. Now, think of those cans you’ve seen, rusting away from the outside (the reason for the protective coating of tin inside).
So why use cast iron at all? Well, corrosion-resistance is one of the reasons to choose it as a material — cast iron doesn’t corrode as badly or as quickly as steel (stainless steel of course is something else). And cast iron melts at a lower temperature than steel, which makes it significantly cheaper to produce. Cast iron is very good under compression, i.e. at bearing weight and, when used in arches, could and did make effective iron bridges (though not good under tension or “pull”, where steel has it beat). And it can be machined well – so engine blocks and big machine frames could be made from it. And the kitchen range stove.
For years my mother wanted a big cast iron frying pan like those she had been familiar with from the Spanish state, because the heat stayed in the pan longer and food stuck less (this was before Teflon and other non-stick surfaces). The cast iron pan is heavy to manipulate but I prefer cooking in it myself.
Now, iron is common to cast iron, steel and wrought iron. All iron can be melted down and re-used. You might have to process some other elements out and add other elements but so what? Is it being suggested that Britain in the mid-20th Century did not have the technology to do so? Or even that it was cheaper to dump the cast iron, at a time when cheaper imports could not possibly be available?
But then what happened to the missing railings? They were definitely removed and to this day you can see some walls in Britain, with rows of holes filled with lead, where the railings were secured. The newspaper magnate and owner of the Daily Express, Lord Beaverbrook (William Maxwell Aitken),who was variously Minister for for Aircraft Production and later for Supply, had put out the call for the public to donate the cast-iron railings for armament production.
There are at least hundreds of recorded eye-witness accounts of the removal of railings and gates, as well as quite a few photographs showing people working on their removal. But where they went is a mystery. There are no similar eye-witness accounts of the arrival of those railings in the steelworks of England, Wales and Scotland, even though the histories of those steelworks are well documented.
Discounting the popular belief that the metal was “unsuitable”, the London Gardens Trust website writer has this to say:
“Another more likely explanation is that far more iron was collected – over one millions tons by September 1944 – than was needed or could be processed. Certainly the huge underground munitions factory Beaverbook set up at Corsham in Wiltshire ran far below capacity for its short life.”
So why not just halt the collection? One reason might be that Government Ministers hate admitting mistakes. But another could be the desire to keep the war effort morale going among the population:
“Faced with an oversupply, rather than halt the collection, which had turned out to be a unifying effort for the country and of great propaganda value, the government allowed it to continue. The ironwork collected was stockpiled away from public view in depots, quarries, railway sidings. After the war, even when raw materials were still in short supply, the widely held view is that the government did not want to reveal that the sacrifice of so much highly valued ironwork had been in vain, and so it was quietly disposed of, or even buried in landfill or at sea.”
John Farr wrote an article in Picture Postcard Monthly, (‘Who Stole our Gates”, PPM No 371, March 2010), in which he claims that only 26% of the iron work collected was used for munitions. He also states that “most of the pertinent records at the Public Records Office had been shredded”.
A recurring tale in London is that the railings were taken out on barges and dumped in the Thames Estuary. The source for this seems to be an 1984 often-quoted letter to the Evening Standard by journalist Christopher Long. It seems too that this might have been Cory Doctorrow’s source, although his character said “the Channel” (hardly likely in time of war),
Christopher Long claimed to have this information from dockers in Canning Town, East London, who gave accounts of the disposal. So much was dumped, they said, that ships in the estuary needed local pilots to guide them because their compasses were made unreliable by the sheer amount of iron down below.
Sadly, we are unlikely to verify or disprove this story except through archaeological underwater investigation. Strangely, Christopher Long appears not to have rigorously documented his sources or to have recorded the names of his informants, much less made oral history recordings. If he did do all that, he did not refer to it in his letter or subsequent publication.
But it does seem extraordinary that, if true, this information could be kept a secret for so long. One possible reason is a political one – but from the Left rather than the Government. Support for the Soviet Union from British workers was a significant element in British Left-wing discourse during the War and afterwards. It may not have suited the Left to undermine the dominant narrative of British railings, torn out by British workers, going to make Soviet tanks. And collectors of oral history among working class communities tend to be of Left-wing ideology, it would appear.
But it would also seem that these stories are not too far away in time to be investigated, as other investigations of oral history of WWI in Britain or the 1916 Rising in Dublin have shown. And how hard would it be to investigate the often-repeated story that some of the railings are to be found in West African ports, as allegedly they had been used as ballast in ships bound for Africa?
It occurs to me that one unexpected effect of the mass removal of railings would have been rendering public many of the parks in bourgeois areas, previously accessible to “residents only”. Perhaps working class people living nearby would have been particularly enthusiastic about removing these to support the war effort?