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Wally Tapsell

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Title: Wally Tapsell  
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Wally Tapsell

Walter Thomas Leo Tapsell (19 August 1904 – 31 March 1938) was a British communist activist, known as a leading figure in the British Battalion during the Spanish Civil War.

Early life and activism

Born in the East End of London, Tapsell joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) at the age of sixteen, and also became prominent in the Young Communist League (YCL).[1] He studied at the Lenin School in Moscow,[2] taking his wife Esther, and co-ordinated the passing of documents between Moscow and the CPGB.[3]

At the 1929 UK general election, Tapsell stood against Clement Attlee in Limehouse. However, he took only 245 votes, and was not elected. When the result was announced, he gave a speech complaining about the system of deposits, which, he claimed, made it difficult for representatives of the working class to stand.[4]

By 1929, Tapsell was the secretary of the YCL, and he had been noticed by the international locked out in West Yorkshire in 1930.[5]

Tapsell was declared bankrupt in 1934, at which time he described his trades as "journalist",[6] probably due to his role as circulation manager of the Daily Worker newspaper.[7] In his spare time, Tapsell was also a keen jazz drummer,[8] and was interested in sports, sitting on the National Committee of the British Workers' Sports Federation.[9]

Spanish Civil War

Tapsell volunteered to served in the Spanish Civil War. His friend Harry Young was concerned that he was sent by the CPGB leadership because he was viewed as an opposition figure.[10] He arrived in Spain on 1 March 1937, and enlisted with the British Battalion on 10 March. Initially, he was made Political Commissar of the British base at Albacete,[11] and in this role, he was asked to investigate the May Days in Barcelona; he placed responsibility for the events on the Communist Party of Spain.[12]

Tapsell soon saw action at the

Party political offices
Preceded by
William Rust
Secretary of the Young Communist League
1929? – 1935?
Succeeded by
John Gollan?
Military offices
Preceded by
Harry Dobson
Political Commissar of the British Battalion
1937 – 1938
Succeeded by
Robert Hunt Cooney
  1. ^ a b Harry Wicks, Keeping My Head, p.201
  2. ^ James K. Hopkins, Into the Heart of the Fire: The British in the Spanish Civil War, p.54
  3. ^ Labour History Review, Vols.68-69, pp.20, 117
  4. ^ Samantha L. Bird, Stepney, p.106
  5. ^ Tim Rees and Andrew Thorpe, International Communism and the Communist International, 1919-43, pp.77-78
  6. ^ "The Bankruptcy Acts, 1914 and 1926, Edinburgh Gazette, 12 October 1934
  7. ^ Ian MacDougall, Voices from War, p.357
  8. ^ Harry Wicks, Keeping My Head, p.39
  9. ^ Stephen G. Jones, Sport, Politics and the Working Class, p.79
  10. ^ Harry Young, "Why I Joined the SPGB", Socialist Party of Great Britain
  11. ^ "British Battalion", XV International Brigade in Spain
  12. ^ John McIlroy et al, Party People, Communist Lives, p.97
  13. ^ Cecil D. Eby, Comrades and Commissars, pp.194-195, 203-204
  14. ^ James K. Hopkins, Into the Heart of the Fire: The British in the Spanish Civil War, pp.219-220
  15. ^ James K. Hopkins, Into the Heart of the Fire: The British in the Spanish Civil War, pp.288, 422


Tapsell foughts in the Battle of Belchite, but shortly afterwards, the battalion was ambushed by Italian forces at Calaceite, and he died in battle. Although he had time to crawl out of the line of fire, he was never seen again. This prompted Copeman later to claim that Tapsell had survived the battle and been liquidated by "agents of Stalin" because he had his "teeth in something which was rotten and they weren't bloody well letting go". However, James K. Hopkins notes that there is no evidence to support this theory.[1][15]

In his role as commissar, Tapsell was generally well respected. Walter Gregory claimed that he was "surely the greatest of all those who served as political commissars" and noted that he was the first to advance and last to retreat. When they returned to Spain, Copeman told Tapsell that he would not accept his political authority, and Tapsell responded by picking up a rifle and focused on his role as a rifleman.[14]


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