“Vinimos a la soleada España
para devolver al pueblo su sonrisa
y echar a los cabrones fascistas
de las colinas y del llano
¡Oh el ir, Oh el ir
Oh el Rio, Rio, Rio, Ha, Ha Ha!
Una canción de marcha del Batallón Británico.
Brigadista Internacional nacido en Mitcham, Surrey el 21 Marzo de 1914 y murió en Croydon, Surrey 11 February 2006.
Un extraordinario hombre de clase trabajadora, voluntario a luchar contra el fascismo en la Guerra Civil Española y también veterano de la II Guerra Mundial con el ejercito Británico.
En su juventud en el sur de Londres fue un aficionado de los deportes, principalmente del Boxeo y el fútbol.
En su 24 cumpleaños tras un acto en apoyo de la República Española en la Plaza Londinense de Trafalgar, decidió apoyar a la República. Su padre si era un militante importante del Partido Laborista, pero George no creía en los partidos políticos.
Tras juntarse en la Estación Victoria de Londres junto con otros brigadistas, entre ellos Jack Jones histórico líder sindical, viajaron como turistas. Ya que estaba prohibido participar en la guerra. Cruzaron a pie los pirineos y se unieron al lado Republicano.
Vemos en la foto sujetando la bandera de la XV Brigada Internacional,a la izquierda Frank West uno de los seis camaradas junto con George detenidos por tropas fascistas Italianas en Septiembre de 1938.
Tomando parte en la última acción del Batallón Británico en Septiembre de 1938, antes de la retirada de las Brigadas Internacionales. En la ofensiva de Agosto y Septiembre para intentar volver a unir la República, ya dividida en dos. A la desesperada y sin tanques, fue detenido junto con seis camaradas en 23 de Septiembre de 1938. Tras cavar su propia tumba y estar preparados para ser ejecutados, tuvieron la suerte de que un capitán Italiano paró su ejecución.
Trasladados primero a Zaragoza y el segundo día en tren a Burgos. Tras un paseo de 11km en autobús llegaron a San Pedro de Cardeña. Conoció los golpes de los sargentos,el hambre,los piojos,los interrogatorios, pero también la solidaridad de los voluntarios internacionales allí presos. Las partidas de ajedrez,las clases populares o el boxeo,sirvieron como apoyo mental y físico.
El 23 de Enero de 1939 fueron conducidos todos los Británicos, Canadienses y Suizos fueron conducidos a una prisión en San Sebastian. Antes de ser intercambiados por 110 prisioneros Italianos, en manos de la República en Gandía. Finalmente el 5 de Abril de 1939, fueron liberados en el puente internacional de Irún.
Escribió sus impresionantes memorias de un brigadista internacional en la guerra de España, ”Devolvamos al pueblo su sonrisa”,en el que narra en varios capítulos sus experiencias en la guerra y en San Pedro como prisionero de guerra.
We came to Sunny Spain
To make the people smile again
And to drive the fascist bastards
From the hill and from the plain
¡Oh the Ri, Oh the Ri
Oh the Rio, Rio, Rio, Ha, Ha Ha!
An ordinary man who volunteered to fight fascism and spoke out when he needed to
George Wheeler, who has died aged 91, was an ordinary working man who had an extraordinary life. He volunteered to fight fascism in the Spanish civil war and joined the British army in the second world war. He stood up for what he believed in and spoke out when he needed to.
He grew up in Battersea, south London, and was a keen sportsman with a passion for football and boxing. He followed the fortunes of Fulham FC all his life and, as a boy when pocket money was short, used to climb over the perimeter fence with his brother Ron. On leaving school he worked as a wood machinist and during his lunch hour he used to swim in the Thames.
While George did not belong to a political party, his father was an active member of the Labour party who regularly spoke in public. Not long after his 24th birthday, George attended a rally addressed by Aneurin Bevan in Trafalgar Square urging support for the Spanish republic. George made up his mind: he was going to help the Spanish people defend democracy.
It was illegal for British people to go to Spain and take part in the civil war, so volunteers had to travel disguised as tourists. George joined the International Brigade and met other Brigaders at Victoria station in London. He had been told to carry only a small amount of luggage so he would give the impression that he was taking a weekend break. He travelled to Spain with Jack Jones, the former trade union leader, who wrote of George as "no experienced politician, a young man in his 20s prepared to give his all, risking life and limb and whatever hardship might be involved, to support what he believed to be the just cause of the beleaguered republic". Indeed, many members of the International Brigade did not return from Spain.
In August and September 1938, Wheeler, as well as Jones and Rebecchi, took part in the Ebro offensive in a desperate push to reunite Catalonia with the rest of Republican Spain after Franco's forces had divided it in half a few months earlier. The British volunteers crossed the Ebro and advanced as far as the town of Gandesa, but there they were checked by ferocious aerial and artillery bombardment.
The Republican forces had no tanks and virtually no air cover. In fighting around the infamous Hill 481, Wheeler saw many of his comrades cut down. One, a fellow Londoner, Lawrence Pryme, died in his arms. And he was standing beside his company commander Lewis Clive - ironically, the godson of the prime minister Neville Chamberlain, proponent of non-interventionism and appeasement - when he was killed. Wheeler described the moment:
Lewis Clive reappeared and asked about the activity in the Fascist lines. It was a hot, sunny day and, as usual, my shirtsleeves were rolled up. At that moment I felt splashes on my forearm, and glancing down, was astonished to see they were splashes of blood. Turning, I saw Lewis reel and fall.
He witnessed the death of friends and comrades. The Spanish people and republican forces were under-resourced against the might of Franco, Hitler and Mussolini. But although often without adequate food, water and shelter, the Republicans were still a formidable force. Captured in the last action of the British battalion of the International Brigade, he spent seven months in a Nationalist concentration camp. Following his capture on 23 September, Wheeler was eventually taken to the notorious International Brigade prisoner-of-war camp at San Pedro de Cardeña near Burgos. There he survived beatings, lice-infested and typhus- infecting squalor and ritual humiliations. But the British volunteers found ways of maintaining morale, he would later recount. When forced to make the Fascist salute and chant "Franco, Franco", they would enthusiastically chant instead, "Fuck you, fuck you."
Back in London, George returned to woodworking, making landing craft for the navy. He became a union representative. When war broke out he was not allowed to join up as he was in a reserved occupation. He spoke out against the waste of materials and reminded his fellow workers that seamen were losing their lives bringing materials and goods to Britain and they should not be squandered. When George discovered that the foreman was helping himself to company timber, using the company vehicle and precious petrol to take it home, he could not turn a blind eye. A fortnight later, the company dispensed with his services and he joined the army. He became an instructor and was posted to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to train local troops, rising through the ranks to become regimental sergeant-major. He was due to travel with his troops to Burma but caught malaria and was unable to leave. This probably saved his life.
I got to know George when my publishing firm brought out his memoir of his time in Spain, To Make the People Smile Again. George had written it in the 1960s, but like many writers he had been unsuccessful in finding a publisher. However, he did not give up hope, and when it came out in 2003 he was thrilled. The book has subsequently been published in Spanish, and a dramatisation by the BBC World Service is due to be broadcast later this year.
George had married his childhood sweetheart Winifred after he returned from Spain. They had no children. He nursed his wife through Alzheimer's disease. He missed her tremendously, but kept a positive outlook to the end. He considered himself to have had "a very lucky life".
George Wheeler, Spanish civil war veteran, born March 2 1914; died February 11 2006.