Friday, 26 February 2021

The Epic of Peter Kemp, Part II: The English Legionnaire.

Mr Price continues his review of Peter Kemp's Mine Were of Trouble: A Nationalist Account of the Spanish Civil War and his very interesting life.

From Dyspeptic Mutterings

By Dale Price

Kemp's autograph.


Postcard of Carlist Requete and child issued 
by the Navarra postal service during the War.

From left to right: Carlist badge; 
1924 commemorative medal for veterans of the Third Carlist War;
Another Carlist badge with motto "Dios, Patria, Rey."

 
Kemp would spend several weeks being trained and shunted from Requete cavalry to infantry, until finally he entered the front line with a Carlist infantry unit on New Year's Day 1937. His company commander was a former lawyer and Basque Carlist who enlisted when the rising occurred. Kemp speaks well of the man, who had also went through an officer training school--which added a much-needed level of professionalism to the Requete unit.
 
The Spanish Civil War is often described as a "dress rehearsal" for the Second World War. This "common knowledge" is at best misleading and usually dead wrong. Yes, the fascist and communist powers would learn lessons from the Spanish conflict: e.g., machine-gun armed tanks were virtually worthless and control of the air was essential. And the Soviet Union learned the most, in the form of the design process which led to the T-34 tank. [As an aside, the subtitle for the above-linked book is among the worst you will read--author Steven Zaloga flatly states that the war in Spain was not a proving ground for tank warfare, let alone blitzkrieg tactics. But putting "blitzkrieg" in the title will sell more books, so.]
 
For the most part, however, the totalitarian advisors for each side would spend most of their time grinding their teeth down to the roots when it came to large-scale operations: the Spaniards on each side had their own agendas and approaches, and were not usually interested in the newest tactics or operational ideas--outside of heavy artillery and aerial bombardments. 
 
In fact, the Spanish war was a lot more like the First World War, only without the dense lines of entrenchments. Between the difficulty of entrenching in the oft-stony soil and the dislike of entrenching by both Republican and Nationalist soldiers, such tended to be rudimentary, outside of the front lines near Madrid. But, like Europe's 1914-1918 suicide attempt, it would be primarily a conflict between foot-mobile infantry and artillery.
 
Kemp's first combat assignment was near Madrid--and thus it would be the most he would see of entrenchments.
 
His Requete unit held half of a village near the capital, with Republican militiamen from Asturias holding the other half. The front line literally ran through the avenues, with Kemp's position being a larger building surrounded on three sides by Republican forces. And which could only be reached by crawling through a sandbag tunnel.
 
Which brings me to another feature of the War--neither side liked to give up ground, even when it made much more tactical sense to do so. 
 
So the Requetes held it, despite regular assaults and no obvious benefit to holding it. Kemp's depiction of the chaos of night attacks and the danger of being sniped or mortared are harrowing, delivered in an effective, economical writing style.  
 
And then the dread began: the Requetes could tell that the Asturians, with plenty of miners in their ranks, were tunneling toward their position, planning to take it out with an underground detonation. But there was no way to stop the process. And then the unit was given orders to rotate out of the lines to a new position to the north.
 
A week later, the Asturians detonated their mine and took out the entire company that had taken their place. 
 
Kemp and his fellow Requetes were moved into position just in time to receive a major Republican counterattack at the Battle of Jarama. Again, Kemp serves the reader well with his description of the narrow victory of his unit.
 
But while Kemp loved the Carlists, he wanted to be a part of a unit with a more professional ethos. And in Spain, then as now, the Legión Española, was the most professional of them all.
 
 A tradition of the modern Legion: 
Legionnaires participating in the Holy Week procession in Malaga.
 
The Spanish Legion was and is much like the French Foreign Legion, only the majority have always been Spaniards. Today, it is Spain's "rapid deployment force." In the Spanish Civil War, the Legion was the best-equipped and most experienced force in the Spanish Army. It saved the rising and enabled the Nationalists to go immediately onto the offensive. 

Kemp gravitated to the Legion and, after pulling some strings, was inducted as an alferez, or second lieutenant.

Legion discipline then was harsh, with the officers having the right to summarily execute Legionnaires for disobedience. As Kemp was to learn on two occasions during his exemplary service with the "Bridegrooms of Death," life as a Legionnaire meant obedience above all else.
 
As with his stint in the Requetes, Kemp was given the gimlet eye for his Protestantism--again because of the assumed association with Freemasonry. As an Irish Legionnaire told him, membership in any Masonic order was the end of your rise in the Legion. And other foreigners in the Legion had assorted grudges with England, and made sure Kemp was aware of their disdain. But otherwise, "Mister Peter" was accepted and admired for his ability to fight. 
 
The first of Kemp's firsthand encounters with the Legion's "obey or else" culture occurred when he ordered the arrest of a lower-ranking Legionnaire for disobeying orders.
 
While the officers were angry with disobedience, Kemp's Colonel was almost as angry for how he handled it. The Colonel berated him: "You have a pistol--you should have used it! Now we have to waste time on a trial!"

The second involved an Irish prisoner from the International Brigades. The Brigades were full of brave men, to be sure--but Communist propaganda and pro-Republic revisionism have slathered on layers of mythic heroic gloss which do not hold up to serious scrutiny. They were largely Communist, and Communism would have done to Spain what Communism does had they prevailed. 

One day during the decisive campaign for Teruel, an Irish prisoner from the Brigades was captured. He insisted he had been forcibly drafted by Republican authorities into one of the British brigade units. Kemp deemed the man credible, and asked where they should send the prisoner.

"He has to be shot."

Kemp recoiled in horror, and his immediate superior, in an effort to soften the blow for an admired officer, told him to take the matter--and the prisoner--up the command chain. Maybe something could be done?

It could not. The Legion Colonel told Kemp that the prisoner had to be shot--and that Kemp had to order it be done. 

Numb with horror, Kemp began to transport the man back, and delivered the fatal verdict to the Irishman. Resignedly, the latter requested that it be quick.

Kemp gave the order, and the two Legionnaire sergeants who had accompanied Kemp and the prisoner shot the poor man dead.
 
Both of the sergeants then solicitously assured Kemp that death had been instantaneous and the man had suffered not at all. It was only later that Kemp learned that the Colonel had ordered Mister Peter to be tailed by another pair of Legionnaires, both of whom had orders to summarily execute Kemp if he refused to carry out the order.

When Kemp returned to his unit, he erupted at a Spanish colleague, who heard him out and then patiently explained the "problem" with his thinking. Namely, that the Spanish on both sides were not happy with foreign meddling in their war. Kemp then shot back with the obvious--what about German and Italian support for the Nationalists?

To paraphrase the Legion officer's response: We are not delighted about that either, to be honest. Oh, sure--we'll take the help--especially with the Soviets backing the Republic. And we are happy to have men like you and the other foreign volunteers fighting alongside us. But in truth, we are not even entirely comfortable with your presence, even if we like you as a soldier. This is a Spanish war, and foreigners meddling makes it worse.

Truth to tell, there is a lot of history underlying the Spaniard's sentiment: between the long decline of Spain, foreign meddling in the War of the Spanish Succession, Napoleon's invasion, Louis XVII's invasion, the First Carlist War and America's crushing humiliation of Spain in 1898, resentment of foreign machinations, "assistance" and outright degradation stoked a furnace of resentment. And in Espana, memories are long. Not to mention vindictive.

Besides, the Spanish Legionnaire responded: if the Republicans capture you, they'll do the same. 

And, as it turns out, such was the case. After the Second World War, Kemp managed to be on speaking terms with British volunteers of the International Brigades. 
 
This is only strange if you are unfamiliar with the next part of Kemp's saga: his fight against Nazism as a member of Britain's elite Special Operations Executive. Killing Nazis earned you some leeway on the left after 6/22/1941. One of the British Brigade veterans confirmed that, yes, captured foreign volunteers for the Nationalists were shot out of hand. 

It doesn't make either side actions morally correct, but it was consistent.
 
The Legionnaires then embarked on their part in the grueling campaign for Teruel, where the brutal winter of 1937-38 was just as lethal as the lead. In the final stages of that campaign (a back-breaking victory for the Nationalists), Kemp was critically-wounded by a mortar shell. His Legion brothers rushed him to the medics while fully expecting him to die. Instead, Kemp had the good fortune to fall into the hands of one of the finest surgeons on the peninsula, who not only saved him but restored him to full function.
 
At this point, Kemp's fame among the Nationalists had spread very high indeed, and the book ends with his meeting with one Francisco Franco in early 1939. Kemp doesn't report much of the conversation, though he states Franco spoke to him for half an hour. 
 
This lines up quite well with the historical record: Franco was a notorious chatterbox in private. The most famous example being the pedantic Caudillo boring Hitler to tears for several hours during their one meeting in 1940.

The part of the exchange Kemp vividly remembered was the ending, when Franco asked Kemp what he would do next. Kemp replied that he would enlist in the British army, given that war with Germany was on the horizon.

Franco replied: "I do not think there will be a war." Fortunately for Spain, there wasn't. Though it came closer than most people think. But that--and Kemp's fighting in the Second World War--are for future posts.

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