Harry (Henry Balfour) Fraser – Sussex Brigader
(13.02.1906 – 10.09.1998)
Harry Fraser was born on 13th February 1906 near Holloway Road, Islington, North London. When he was thirteen and a half, Harry, an only child, was taken out of school as the family moved to Glasgow where Harry’s father had accepted a job. Unfortunately, after less than a year, Mr. Fraser senior lost his job as the whole of Glasgow ground to a halt when the great shipping strike took place. The family moved back to London, but things were no better. “We had a really thin time,” Harry told the Imperial War Museum interviewer in 1976. “I could quite understand the feelings of people made homeless.”
Back in London, aged fifteen, Harry got his first job at a wholesale chemists called Gales. The pay was very poor and Harry joined the chemical workers’ union, determined to get some improvement, but instead, at the age of twenty one, he got the sack. After that he did various jobs but was never out of work for long.
Harry set his sights on getting work in the electrical industry and to equip himself with the necessary skills, he attended evening classes, mainly in mathematics, science, engineering and electronics. He remained a lifelong learner, attending his last OU course in mathematics at the age of 89.
In his spare time, Harry was a keen swimmer and springboard diver. He worked for a while as a lifeguard at Hackney swimming baths and was proud of his lifesaving medal.
By the time Harry was sacked from his first job, he had begun to take an interest in politics, asking himself: “Why should things be this awful?” When the General Strike took place, he played a small part in it, and a fortnight later, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. He was to remain a loyal Communist for the rest of his days.
In November or December 1936 Harry applied to join the International Brigades. He was interviewed at 16 King Street, the central London office of the Communist Party, by Robbie Robson, a member of the Communist Party Executive. With his record, Harry thought there would be no doubt that he would be accepted.
Robson asked: “Have you had any military experience?” Harry said: “No”. Robson said: “Do you drive a heavy lorry?” Harry said: “No”. He asked if Harry had any medical experience. Harry said: “No, I’ve got a lot of clerical experience if that might help”. “Oh, we’ve got hundreds of people who can do that. You’re no good to us. Don’t bother.” So Harry left, thinking: “You’re a fine comrade, I don’t think.”
After that disappointment, Harry saw a recruitment advertisement for the Royal Air Force, applied and was accepted. One of the questions he was asked was: “Are you a member of the Communist Party”, to which Harry answered with a forthright: “No”. After three months square bashing, and taking part in the Passing Out Parade, Harry waited eagerly for his leave and when it came, he went to see Dave Springhall, who was on the District Committee of the Communist Party. When Harry told Springhall what had happened at the interview with Robson, Springhall said that Robson didn’t know what he was talking about, signed a paper and told him to take it to King Street. He explained that Harry would get his fares and his ticket and must get a friend to post his RAF uniform back. Harry was asked to go with another volunteer, who he knew, and then they were asked to take a third, who neither of them knew. Harry only had the clothes he stood up in and eight shillings. The Party had given them thirty shillings between them.
They spent three days in Paris, during which they visited the Paris Exhibition, where the Spanish Pavilion showed Picasso’s masterwork, ‘Guernica’. Then they were called to the Place du Combat, Headquarters of the French Communist Party. There the trio were given their instructions: “Go to Gare St. Lazare, take the 9.20pm train to Béziers, do NOT take the train that stops at Nimes.” They got on the right train, but it stopped at Nimes. The volunteers were very worried, but to their relief, the train pulled out of Nimes and trundled on to Béziers, where they had been told to identify a contact from certain details he was wearing, but were not to speak to him and must remain sixty yards behind. It was real cloak-and-dagger stuff! They did as they were told and finally they arrived at a hotel where they had to stay quiet upstairs.
Several days later they were told to board a coach which took them to the foothills of the Pyrenees. This first attempt had to be abandoned and the volunteers were taken back to Béziers. On the second attempt they were guided across the Pyrenees by a smuggler who knew the route well. After an exhausting eleven or twelve mile route march at breakneck speed, stumbling up mountainsides and splashing through streams, in one of which Harry lost his treasured Parker pen, they arrived at the frontier as dawn rose – the mountains fell away and they were in Spain. Harry’s official date of entry into Spain is given as 27 August 1937, Brigade number 1264.
They were taken in trucks to the Castle of Figueres, a vast and impregnable 18th century fortress, where they stayed for four days. Then they were driven to Barcelona and on by train to Valencia where they passed some enjoyable hours waiting for the Madrid train. There was a holiday atmosphere, with melons and cognac on sale and Harry fell in with a bunch of heavy-drinking Scottish steelworkers.
Their destination was Tarazona, an ancient market town not far from Albacete, the HQ of the International Brigades. At parade, there was a call for volunteers for the machine guns. Harry volunteered with half a dozen others. Some stayed back as they wanted to go to officer training school. “We didn’t want to go as officers,” Harry explained to the IWM interviewer, “we just wanted to go and fight.” In the course of training, a bet was made as to how quickly a machine-gun could be reassembled and Harry was proud to have done it in 44 seconds, timed on a stopwatch. After a month’s training, Harry was enrolled as a member of No.2 Machine Gun Company of the British Battalion.
The newly-trained recruits were moved up to Fuentes de Ebro by night. They were issued with five rounds of ammunition each and told that was all they would get. They came under rifle fire and were told to duck down and get into a shallow trench. Then they were given the grim news that British Battalion Commander Captain Harold Fry and the Battalion Commissar had been killed. After ten days they were withdrawn from the line and taken to Mondejar where they met up with comrades from No.1 Machine Gun Company.
In January 1938 the Company was taken up to Teruel by lorry, but the vehicle kept slipping back in the snow so they had to get out and walk. Harry and his comrades came under shellfire for the first time on Sugar Loaf Hill. The shells were coming over at the rate of about 120 a minute according to Battalion Commander Captain Sam Wild. This continued all day from 8am until dark, about 6pm. The enemy were trying to knock out the machine gun post, but they kept missing. Barney Shields, a veteran of the First World War, stayed on the gun all day.
Harry relates that this was the day that Thomas Moore was killed. Harry mistakenly refers to him as ‘young George Moore’ on the IWM tape, but correct first name was Thomas as recorded on the Roll of Honour. The machine gun company were in a dugout watching the battle. About half a mile away, some enemy soldiers attempted to run up the trench, but the gun was turned on them and they retreated.
Sam Wild asked Harry and two others to go over to assist the carabineros. There was a Spanish officer, clearly an enemy, waving his gun around. Harry felt he could have ‘got him’ with the machine-gun – as he rated himself quite a good shot – but the officer in command told the men to hold their fire as ‘it might have been one of ours’. Harry said that couldn’t have been the case as the officer had got round from the other side of Sugar Loaf Hill.
Sam Wild gave Harry and two others a message to take to the Russian commander. They passed by two dead volunteers, one of whom had had his leg blown off and his entrails were falling out. When they delivered the message, which was a request to advance, the big, fat Russian commander told them to go back to their captain and tell him: “He could understand their enthusiasm, he could understand their captain’s enthusiasm, but they should go back to Captain Wild and tell him that he was in charge!”
They could see the town where they had blown up the prominent hill known as El Muleton to the north of Teruel. In one incident six of the Machine Gun Company were sitting down taking a rest, when a tracer bullet came right through the middle of them, just missing all of them. Harry commented that there were many near misses like that during the war.
The battalion lost a third of its number at Teruel, according to Richard Baxell (‘British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War’). It was the coldest winter that century: apart from casualties of war, volunteers also suffered from frostbite and some died of hypothermia, while rifles and other matériel froze. The Battalion was a month at Teruel before being withdrawn to Mondejar for an all too brief period of rest. Then they were taken by train back to Quinto where there had been a second battle. The enemy were forced to retreat because they had been without water for five days. Then the Battalion advanced to Belchite.
Harry remembers seeing former Battalion Commander Paddy O’Daire when they were at the Estado Mayor (HQ). He was a captain then but later further promoted.
Harry escaped injury, but was twice hospitalised due to illness. The first time was before Teruel when he got jaundice. He was kept in hospital for a fortnight and ordered to rest. After Teruel, Harry got a leg infection, possibly caused by shrapnel and couldn’t walk, so he was sent to hospital for a second time.
During the last six weeks of fighting on the Ebro, Sam Wild appointed Harry postman for the Battalion. He was nicknamed: ‘Harry the Post’ and so on. Harry thought it was rather demeaning and prevaricated, but Sam Wild said: “That’s an order”.
It was there that Harry caught a glimpse of George Green who he had met previously. He thought he would like to have a chat with him and asked Sam Wild where he was. “He’s dead,” said Sam bluntly. Years later Harry visited a Scots volunteer in hospital in Uxbridge who explained the circumstances in which George had been killed. He was sitting on one side of a boulder and George was on the other, when a bomb came down on George’s side and killed him.
When the Brigades were withdrawn, the surviving members of the British Battalion were sent to Ripol, near the border with France, to await repatriation. Below the town on the Ripol River were a number of textile mills, all English-owned. They turned out the ‘Gents’ natty suiting’ that the Barcelona office workers wore. The British influence must have started following the defeat of Napoleon in the Peninsular Wars, Harry thought.
The returning volunteers were taken from Ripol to Puigcerda and from there in cattle trucks on a train the short distance into France. The French police, in their smart uniforms, served them omelette, nice French bread and butter – something they hadn’t seen for a couple of years – but they weren’t allowed out of the station. Perhaps the French authorities feared there would be a massive demonstration of support to bid them farewell. Then they got back in the train and were taken all the way back home arriving to a heroes’ welcome at Victoria Station on 7th December 1938.
After his return, Harry gave himself up to the RAF. He was court martialled and sentenced to a week or two in RAF Halton’s ‘glasshouse’, or prison. One of the top brass at the station asked Harry why he had gone to Spain. He replied that he wanted to stop the spread of fascism across Europe and the officer said that he liked a man with the courage of his convictions.
Back in civvy street, Harry landed a job at Plesseys electronics company in Ilford, Essex. While staying in Ilford he met Con Harvey and they married in October 1940.
During the Second World War, Harry worked on radar, under an essential work order, for Cossors, one of the firms that developed the Chain Home early warning radar network for the RAF. He continued to work for electrical and electronics firms until his retirement in 1971.
In 1978 Harry and Con moved to Brighton, where Harry attended local Communist Party and other left-wing meetings and continued his studies in maths.
Harry and Con in the doorway of 16 Carlyle Street, Brighton
Harry and Con celebrated their Golden Wedding in October 1980.
One of Harry’s hobbies was photography. Looking for the perfect shot, he aimed for quality rather than quantity. Perhaps this reflected a lifetime spent struggling for a better society.
Pauline Fraser, with thanks to Margaret A. Brooks, the Imperial War Museum interviewer of Harry