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Books: Review - They Shall Not Pass. By Ben Hughes

HE was a young father from Somers Town, trying to make ends meet in Depression-era London.

But despite the daily trials of providing for his family, Danny Gibbons didn’t just watch with horror at the military coup taking place in Spain 75 years ago this week – he and his brother Tommy decided they would do something about it. 

The pair were just two of the 4,000 British volunteers who risked death to fight against Fascism in the Spanish Civil War.

Danny lived in Platt Street, and as a new book chronicling the battle of Jarama explains, his heroism helped save the lives of scores of his comrades.

General Franco’s forces had laid siege to Madrid but the city’s workers stubbornly defended their homes.

As his assaults on the city foundered, Franco turned his attentions to the Jarama valley road that linked Madrid to Valencia and kept civilians supplied – but British volunteers stood in the way. 

Both sides suffered massive casualties and the battle became a symbolic rallying point for anti-Fascists everywhere: as the late historian AJP Taylor put it, the battle of Jarama represented the turning point against Fascism.

Danny – whose real name was David – had joined the Communist Party in 1933. When he joined the International Brigades he had a child and was married – so he was not the ideal candidate, as single men were preferred. But as records at Clerkenwell’s Marx Memorial Library show, he had spent two years in the Navy and five years in the IRA. This type of experience was sorely needed.

Historian Ben Hughes points out that the odds were stacked against Danny and his comrades. Franco’s soldiers were heavily armed and included battle-hardened Moorish troops.

It was February 1937 and Danny and his comrades were lying in wait in the olive groves that dotted the countryside south-east of Madrid. He was a popular member of the unit: his wife had sent him a pack of Woodbines and as the battalion took up a dangerous position on a slope they called “Conical Hill,” he shared them out among his comrades. 

“I received them as we were going into action,” he later wrote in the Daily Worker. “What a treat. I wish you could have seen me crawling about on the top of that hill handing them round to the boys.” 

But his war wasn’t to last much longer.

It was the evening of the 12th, and the Fascists were pouring forward. Danny and his unit were caught in a valley, and as contemporary accounts reproduced in Hughes’ book illustrate, it was a very dangerous place to be.

Near Danny, Maurice Davidovich, a Stepney volunteer, was killed – his friend Fred Copeman described his death: “Just as he opened his mouth to say something, a burst of gunfire ripped open his stomach. His guts fell out, but he just picked them up in his hands and stuffed them all back again with blood pouring down his legs...”

Commander André Diamant realised a retreat was necessary, and asked for volunteers to stay behind and provide cover. Thirty men stepped forward – one of them being Danny.

As Hughes’ book relates, his actions held up the Fascists and gave scores of others the chance to find safety. As his comrades withdrew, Danny hid among olive groves – and got the shock of his life when Moroccan troops appeared 20 yards from his position.

“It was impossible to miss them,” he would recount later. We just had to stand up and fire.” 

After staying the advance, Danny was hit: a bullet lodged in his right shoulder and for a moment he thought he had been mortally wounded. But his friend Tony Yates dragged him to safety. 

He was also fortunate about the treatment he received. Republican medics lacked supplies and were overwhelmed with casualties: as Hughes relates, in one instance 50 wounded men died on stretchers waiting for help. Danny, though, was taken to Valencia.

Danny returned to Britain to rally support before heading back to Spain.

He was eventually captured by Franco’s troops at the battle of Calaceite in March 1938. Even under lock and key he refused to give the Fascist salute to his captors, and rallied his fellow prisoners. 

Danny eventually made it home, a hero for his unwavering commitment to freedom and social justice, a cause he was ready to lay his life down for. 

• They Shall Not Pass. By Ben Hughes. Osprey Publishing £20 

Published: 14 July, 2011


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