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British Battalion

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British Battalion

Shapurji Saklatvala Battalion
British Battalion
Active January 1937 – October 1938
Country United Kingdom
Allegiance Spain
Branch International Brigades
Type Battalion - Infantry
Size One battalion
Part of XV International Brigade
Garrison/HQ Albacete
Nickname(s) Batallón Británico
Engagements Jarama

The British Battalion (1936–1938) was the 16th battalion of the XV International Brigade, one of the mixed brigades of the International Brigades, during the Spanish Civil War.


Map showing British Battalion engagements

Early volunteers

A number of British volunteers, including Tom Wintringham and Nat Cohen, arrived in Spain during August–September 1936 and formed the Tom Mann Centuria – a rifle company in the German-speaking Thälmann Column. The Thälmann Battalion later formed part of XII International Brigade and fought in the Siege of Madrid, including the battle for University City. Bert "Yank" Levy served with the International Brigade as an officer in the Saklatava Battalion, under Wintringham from 1937. He was captured at the Battle of Jarama and spent six months in a Francoist gaol until he was released in a prisoner exchange.[1][2]

Another group of British volunteers – among them Jock Cunningham and John Cornford – fought with the French-speaking Commune de Paris Battalion, in the XI International Brigade. It also fought in the Siege of Madrid, including the battles for University City and Casa de Campo.

In December 1936, 145 British volunteers formed No. 1 Company of the French-speaking Marseillaise Battalion, part of the XIV International Brigade. They fought on the Córdoba front during December, and on the Madrid front during January 1937. Heavy fighting on 15 January at Las Rozas reduced the active ranks to 67.


In January 1937, the survivors of No.1 Company joined with 450 new British, Irish, and Dominion volunteers at Madrigueras, near Albacete, International Brigades headquarters. They were formed into an English-speaking battalion, with three infantry companies (Nos. 1, 3, 4) and a machine-gun company (no. 2).

The battalion was numbered the 16th battalion of the International Brigades. It was formally named after Shapurji Saklatvala, the former Communist Member of Parliament (MP) for Battersea. However, this name never caught on and it was normally known as the "British Battalion". (The Spanish referred to it as "el batallón británico" or "el batallón inglés"). Number 1 company was called the Major Attlee Company after the Labour Party leader.

The British Battalion was attached to XV International Brigade, XV IB. The other battalions were the US Lincoln Battalion, the crack Balkan Dimitrov Battalion, and the Franco-Belgian Sixth February Battalion.

Jarama, 1937

In February 1937, the battalion fought at the Battle of Jarama. In a single day's bloody fighting on 12 February against Moors from Francisco Franco's Army of Africa, the British Battalion suffered 275 casualties in No.1, No.3, and No.4 companies – leaving 125 rifleman fit for duty. On the second day of fighting, the machine gun company was surrounded by Spanish Nationalist troops and many of its members were captured. Battalion commander Tom Wintringham was injured, and Jock Cunningham took command of the battalion's 140 survivors. The battalion remained in the trenches at Jarama until 17 June 1937.

Brunete, 1937

Reinforced by new recruits and strengthened by returnees from hospital, the British Battalion mustered 331 brigaders at the Battle of Brunete. On 6 July, XV IB occupied the villages of Romanillos and Boadilla del Monte, and by midnight captured the village of Villanueva de la Cañada. (It was here that Alex McDade who wrote the song, Valley of Jarama, commonly heard at Brigade reunions, was killed in action.) The following day the British were ordered to advance on Mosquito Ridge, a piece of high ground which overlooked the battalion's original objectives. As they left Villanueva de la Cañada they were bombed by Junkers aircraft from the Condor Legion and shelled by Nationalist artillery. The two-hour barrage and devastating heat caused heavy casualties and prevented the battalion reaching Mosquito Ridge before Franco's army rushed reinforcements to defend the position. Only 42 members of the battalion were left fit for service, and the battalion was withdrawn into a reserve position.

Aragon, 1937

In mid-August, the Republican 35th Division, which included XV IB, was moved to Aragon. The focus of the Aragon campaign was to draw-off Nationalist attacks on Santander and to capture the strategic city of Zaragoza. On 25 August the battalion took part in street fighting to capture the Nationalist strongpoint at Quinto. On 25 August the battalion attacked a strong Francoist position at Purburrel Hill, and was repelled by intense rifle and machine gun fire. The following day another assault was made on the hill, supported by the XVth Brigade antitank artillery battery, and this time the attack succeeded. Heavy fighting had reduced the battalion to 100 men, and a number of Spanish Republican troops were drafted as reinforcements for the battalion.

Teruel, 1938

Ebro, 1938


On 21 September 1938, Juan Negrín announced to the League of Nations that the Republican government would disband the International Brigades. The British battalion was withdrawn into reserve at the end of September 1938, and on 17 October, the battalion took part in the International Brigades' farewell parade through Barcelona. President Azaña and Prime Minister Negrín joined the crowds who took part in one of the last great Republican celebrations. On disbandment, 305 British volunteers left Spain. They arrived at Victoria Station on 7 December, to be met by a crowd of supporters including Clement Attlee, Stafford Cripps, Willie Gallacher, and Will Lawther.


An estimated 300 people from Wales enlisted in the International Brigades, fighting Franco in Spain from 1936–39. Of the battalion’s 170 Welsh volunteers, 116 were miners, one in five was married and the average age was over 30. The South Wales miners provided the largest regional group in the British battalion.,[3][4]

International Brigade Memorial Trust

The International Brigade Memorial Trust has been established by veterans and historians to preserve and catalog the history of the British Battalion.

Roll of Honour

A memorial to the British volunteers in the International Brigades in London

The IBMT has compiled a Roll of Honour, listing the members of the British battalion who fell in Spain. The list is compiled primarily from documents held in the International Brigade Archive in the Marx Memorial Library, London and the International Brigade Archive in the Russian Centre for the Preservation and Study of Recent Historical Documents, Moscow.

Notable members

Veterans' flag for the unit

Further reading

  • British Volunteers for Liberty: Spain, 1936–39, Bill Alexander, Lawrence & Wishart, 1983, ISBN 0-85315-564-X.
  • No to Franco, the Struggle Never Stopped, 1939–1975, Bill Alexander, 1992, ISBN 0-9519667-0-7.
  • British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, Richard Baxell, Routledge, 2004, ISBN 0-203-64785-8.
  • The Shallow Grave: Memoir of the Spanish Civil War, Walter Gregory, Gollancz, 1986, ISBN 0-575-03790-3.
  • Reason in Revolt, Fred Copeman, Blandford Press, 1948. (Out of print)
  • Britons in Spain – The History of the British Battalion of the XVTH International Brigade, William Rust, Lawrence & Wishart, 1939.
  • Crusade in Spain, Jason Gurney, Faber. 1974. ISBN 978-0-571-10310-2
  • We Cannot Park on Both Sides: Reading volunteers in the Spanish Civil War 1936–39, Mike Cooper and Ray Parkes, Reading International Brigades Memorial Committee, 2000. ISBN 0-9535448-0-X.
  • Miners Against Fascism: Wales and the Spanish civil war, Hywel Francis, Lawrence & Wishart Ltd, 1984, ISBN 978-0853155775, 2012, Paperback 320pp
  • Bradley, Ken International Brigades in Spain 1936–39 with Mike Chappell (Illustrator) Published by Elite. ISBN 978-1855323674. Good basic introduction to the subject in a readable and well-illustrated format. Author made several visits to battlefields and interviewed veterans in the 1980s and 90’s.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Durham and South Wales Miners and the Spanish Civil War, Lewis Mates, Durham University, abstract, from: Twentieth Century British History, 2006,pp.373 [1]
  5. ^
  6. ^

External links

  • British International Brigade veterans tell their stories – The Guardian
  • The International Brigade Memorial Trust –
  • History of the British Battalion, XV International Brigade –
  • Irish vol. in SCW
  • RealAudio interviews with British Battalion veterans –
  • Men who fought Franco fêted as Spain finally confronts its past – The Times, 15 July 2006
  • flyer for 75th Anniversary Gala, showing banner listing battles
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