Meanwhile, with money saved up from my scholarship funds, I had been spending all my vacations in Paris, living in cheap hotels on the Left Bank, deepening the knowledge of the French language I had acquired from a brilliant teacher at my London school, making friends among French students and even taking part in demonstrations against the government's policies. For in France, as in England, La Crise, as they called it, still crippled the economy and, as in England, a Fascist movement, Les Croix de Feu, the Fiery Crosses, had made its debut. One of its demonstrations provoked riots that resulted in 15 dead and more than 1,000 injured. The threat of a Fascist coup united the French Communist and Socialist parties together with the liberals in a Front Populaire, which won an overwhelming victory in the elections of 1936. For the first time since the long-lasting Depression had begun, a government set out to redress some of the injustices of the system; long-overdue reforms were introduced: the 40-hour week, paid vacations. And Fascist organizations were banned. For the first time, a Western government had broken out of the pattern of retrenchment and repression.
It was a moment of jubilation and hope, but it did not last long. French capital reacted by pulling out of the country, and, meanwhile, the newly elected Spanish government of the Frente Popular was challenged by a military revolt. Popular demand in France--huge demonstrations shouting "Des canons pour l'Espagne," "Des avions pour l'Espagne" --and national interest both spoke strongly for the Spanish government's request to purchase arms, but the French premier, Leon Blum, under pressure from London, agreed to join the Non-Intervention Agreement, though Germany and Italy were openly supplying the rebels.
In September I received a letter from my friend John Cornford, the leader of the Communist movement in Cambridge, who had just returned from Spain, where he had fought for a few weeks on the Aragon front, in a column organized by the Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista, the POUM, a party that was later to be suppressed as too revolutionary. He had returned to England to recruit a small British unit that would set an example of training and discipline (and shaving) to the anarchistic militias operating out of Barcelona. He asked me to join and I did so without a second thought.
I knew no more about Spanish politics and history than most of my fellow countrymen, that is to say, not much. I had read (in translation) much (but not all) of "Don Quixote" and seen reproductions of the great paintings of Velazquez and Goya. I knew that Philip II had married an English reigning Queen--Mary--and on her death claimed the throne of England, but had been defeated when in 1588 he sent the great Armada to invade England and enforce his claim. I knew that the Duke of Wellington had fought a long, hard campaign against Napoleonic armies in Portugal and Spain and that guerrilla (which was to become my military specialty in World War II) was a Spanish word. But I had no real understanding of the complicated situation that had produced the military revolt of July 1936.
What I did know was that Franco had the full support of Hitler and Mussolini. In fact, that support had been decisive at the beginning of the war. The military coup had failed in Madrid and Barcelona, Spain's principal cities. Franco's best troops, the Foreign Legion and the Regulares, the Moorish mercenaries recruited to fight against their own people, were cooped up in Morocco, since the Spanish Navy had declared for the Republic. Planes and pilots from the Luftwaffe and the Italian Air Force, in the first military airlift in history, had flown some 8,000 troops across to Sevilla, Franco's base for the advance on Madrid.
And this was all I needed to make up my mind. I left a few days later for Paris, with a group of a dozen or so volunteers that John had assembled. There were three Cambridge graduates and one from Oxford (a statistic I have always been proud of), as well as one from London University. There was a German refugee artist who had been living in London, two veterans of the British Army and one of the Navy, an actor, a proletarian novelist and two unemployed workmen. Once in Paris, we went to the Comite d'Entraide au Peuple Espagnol and that was where John's scheme for a small British unit on the Aragon front was abandoned. We were sent to a hotel in Belleville, a working-class section of Paris, where we found ourselves a tiny English drop in a sea of large national groups--French, Polish, Belgian, German, Italian--all of them bound for Spain.