Bill Alexander

Bill Alexander

Bill Alexander, the son of a carpenter, was born in Hampshire on 13th June, 1910. He studied at Reading University where he obtained a chemistry degree. After graduating he became an industrial chemist.

Alexander joined the Communist Party and played an active role in the campaign against Oswald Mosley and the National Union of Fascists during the 1930s.

After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Alexander decided to join the International Brigades fighting against the Nationalist Army in Spain. Alexander, a member of the British Battalion, arrived at the battlefront early in 1937. He took part at the battle at Brunete where after a fortnight the battalion was down to 42 out of an original strength of 300.

Alexander, now a political commissar, also played a prominant part in the fighting at Teruel in January 1938. Two months later Alexander took over as commander of the battalion, but shortly afterwards he was wounded in the shoulder and invalidid back home.

In 1939 Alexander joined the British Army but was refused a commission. The matter was raised in the House of Commons and as a result he was sent to Sandhurst Academy. During the Second World War he served in North Africa, Italy and Germany and reached the rank of captain.

After the war Alexander became a full time organiser for the Communist Party in Liverpool. Later he became party district in Wales and in 1959 assistant general secretary of the party. In the 1960s Alexander left party work to become a chemistry teacher in a comprehensive school in South London.

In retirement Alexander devoted a great deal of his time to the International Brigade Association. In 1982 he published British Volunteers for Liberty, an account of the International Brigade in Spain. He was also co-author of Memorials of the Spanish Civil War (1996).

In 1996 Alexander led a delegation of veterans back to Spain to visit the old battle grounds. In recognition of his actions during the Spanish Civil War the Spanish government awarded him citizenship of Spain. Bill Alexander died on 11th July 2000.

Primary Sources

(1) Bill Alexander, Memorials of the Spanish Civil War (1996)

The character and fight against fascism moved centre stage when, in 1936, Franco attempted to overthrow by force the Popular Front Government of Republican Spain. In Britain at the time there was little knowledge of Spain, its people, life and politics. The brutal repression of the striking Asturian miners in 1934 by the army commanded by Franco aroused anger and solidarity here, especially in the mining communities. The rebellion of the generals, the big landowners and industrialists heightened concern and questioning about Spanish affairs. Would fascism be able to score yet another victory? Would there be destruction of the popular, democratic forces? Would all the dictatorships gain more influence and strength? Spain was no longer a remote far-away country. It was seen as the setting and focus of struggle against fascism and reaction. The news of the open military help to Franco from Hitler and Mussolini, and the heroic resistance of the people of Madrid, Barcelona and the big cities fired a widespread wish to help the Republic and its people.

An Aid Spain movement developed in many towns, cities, coalfields and factories which drew in wide groupings of people. Many thousands contributed and helped to collect food, medical supplies and money for the Spanish people who were short of everything. There was political activity stretching across party lines, trying to change the Conservative Government help for Franco by ending the Non-Intervention Agreement which prevented the Popular Front Government buying arms for its defence. Pressure was exerted on those in the Labour Party and trade unions who supported Nonintervention.

(2) Bill Alexander, quoted in British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War (2007)

It was not only from abroad that the menace came. Oswald Mosley was actively trying to build a fascist movement in Britain, and sent disciplined, uniformed groups of Blackshirts to beat up Jewish people in London's East End. British fascists also attacked unemployed workers in Merthyr Tydfil, Aberdeen and elsewhere; any hecklers or interrupters at Mosley's rallies were treated with extreme brutality. It was clear that British fascism had the same ugly face as its German counterpart.

(3) Bill Alexander, British Volunteers for Liberty (1992)

Eleven men in all commanded the British Battalion in actual battle: Wilfred McCartney (writer, who had to return before any fighting), Tom Wintringham (journalist), Jock Cunningham (labourer), Fred Copeman (ex-navy), Joe Hinks (army reservist), Peter Daly (labourer), Paddy O'Daire (labourer), Harold Fry (shoe repairer), Bill Alexander (industrial chemist), Sam Wild (labourer), and George Fletcher (newspaper canvasser). All except Wintringham had the opportunity of showing their abilities in action before being given leadership. All of them had been involved in working-class, anti-fascist activities at home, and had been influenced by Communist ideas and activity, although only Wintringham had held responsible positions in the Communist Party itself. In Spain their beliefs were reinforced by struggle and experience. The majority had been manual workers, having left school at fourteen - the usual lot of most in those days, no matter how intelligent or able. Only McCartney, Wintringham and Alexander had been to university; all had experienced the difficulties and frustration of finding work in a period of heavy unemployment. Their anti-fascism was anchored in hatred of the class and social system in Britain.

(4) Bill Alexander, Memorials of the Spanish Civil War (1996)

Around 2,400 volunteered from the British Isles and the then British Empire. There can be no exact figure because the Conservative Government, in its support for the Nonintervention Agreement, threatened to use the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1875 which they declared made volunteering illegal. Keeping records and lists of names was dangerous and difficult. However, no-passport weekend trips to Paris provided a way round for all who left these shores en route for Spain. In France active support from French people opened the paths over the Pyrenees.

The British volunteers came from all walks of life, all parts of the British Isles and the then British Empire. The great majority were from the industrial areas, especially those of heavy industry They were accustomed to the discipline associated with working in factories and pits. They learnt from the organization, democracy and solidarity of trade unionism.

Intellectuals, academics, writers and poets were an important force in the early groups of volunteers. They had the means to get to Spain and were accustomed to travelling, whereas very few workers had left British shores. They went because of their growing alienation from a society that had failed miserably to meet the needs of so many people and because of their deep repugnance at the burning of books in Nazi Germany, the persecution of individuals, the glorification of war and the whole philosophy of fascism.

The International Brigades and the British volunteers were, numerically, only a small part of the Republican forces, but nearly all had accepted the need for organization and order in civilian life. Many already knew how to lead in the trade unions, demonstrations and people's organizations, the need to set an example and lead from the front if necessary They were united in their aims and prepared to fight for them. The International Brigades provided a shock force while the Republic trained and organized an army from an assemblage of individuals. The Spanish people knew they were not fighting alone.

(5) James Hopkins, Into the Heart of the Fire: The British in the Spanish Civil War (1998)

On December 17, 1937, the Republic launched an offensive in the snow and cold of Teruel during the worst winter Spain had experienced in twenty years, and took the small city with heavy losses. The attack was intended to thwart another Nationalist offensive aimed at Madrid. The town itself sits on a hill, oddly grand in the bleak terrain surrounding it, and yet irrepressibly prosaic, reminding the English correspondent, Henry Buckley, of "a sort of Spanish Buxton."

During the assault on Teruel by Spanish troops, the XVth Brigade was held in reserve east of the provincial capital. The apparent victory caused the battalion to be sent by rail to the Aragon, only to hurry back in time to help contain what proved to be a successful counter-attack by the Nationalists. In all of this blooding the British consolidated a well-deserved reputation for courage and efficiency: They were commended especially for their valor by Colonel Jose Modesto. Teruel, however, remained in the hands of the enemy.

Bill Alexander, an industrial chemist from a working-class background, received a battlefield promotion to captain and took command of the battalion. In the XVth Brigade's effort to prevent the recapture of Teruel, the British carried out a diversionary attack and Alexander was wounded. Sam Wild replaced him, and became the last commander of the British Battalion. Wild had been a member of Copeman's machine-gun section at the Jarama and later a company commander under his leadership. He too was "a born leader," and, as such, saw no reason to emulate his predecessor. The ex-sailor and boilerman from the Paramount Theater in Manchester possessed his own special genius as a commander of men, as well as his own optimism that a new relationship was being forged between the classes on the battlefields of Spain. Wild once remarked that what bound together "workers and intellectuals ... trained and untrained soldiers ... all fighters for a new social order" was "unshakable unity."

(6) Bill Alexander, British Volunteers for Liberty (1992)

Early in May 1937 news reached the front of the fighting in the streets of Barcelona between supporters of the POUM aided by some Anarchists, on the one hand, and Government forces on the other. The POUM, who had always been hostile to unity, talked of "beginning the struggle for working-class power."

The news of the fighting was greeted with incredulity consternation and then extreme anger by the International Brigaders. No supporters of the Popular Front Government could conceive of raising the slogan of "socialist revolution" when that Government was fighting for its life against international fascism, the power of whose war-machine was a harsh reality a couple of hundred yards across no-man's-land. The anger in the Brigade against those who fought the Republic in the rear was sharpened by reports of weapons, even tanks, being kept from the front and hidden for treacherous purposes.

(7) James Hopkins, Into the Heart of the Fire: The British in the Spanish Civil War (1998)

After his service in Spain, Bill Alexander won the Sword of Honour at Sandhurst for his military efficiency, and subsequently commanded a reconnaisance unit in World War II. Alexander believed that "our experience in Spain gives us the answer. In the working class are men for every job-the working class, given the urge and the enthusiasm, shown the direction, can storm the world." Never had ordinary British working men been given such an opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities. "Everyone in our battalion could study and develop himself because he knew that his ability would be recognised and used-no matter birth or education." He urged: "Let these people turn to us, members of the working class. We could produce the leaders to carry out any job put to us in Spain, and to-day we can produce the men to defend the people of Britain." Walter Greenhalgh, who came from the north of England, said his service in Spain "has given me a pride in my working class origins that nothing and nobody had since been able to shake.

(8) The Times, Bill Alexander (July 2000)

A former commander of the British Battalion which fought as part of the International Brigade against Franco's fascists during the Spanish Civil War, Bill Alexander had spent the last 30 years keeping alive the memory of those who perished in the Republican cause in that internecine conflict. In a war which for so long seemed to be "hijacked" by the poets, novelists and intellectuals - among them Orwell and Hemingway - who wrote so movingly about it as to give the impression that they and their type composed most of the brigade, Alexander, demonstrated conclusively that most of the 2,000 British volunteers were industrial workers from Scotland, Lancashire and Wales - most of the last miners.

His experience and subsequent researches showed that they were men motivated by the gut feeling - sustained in the teeth of the Chamberlain Government's of the European dictators - that the fight for against fascism in Spain was their fight, and that if it was lost, Britain, which kept her head resolutely in the sand for those terrible three years 1936-39, would find herself fighting fascism much closer to home.