The prognosis was grim for Tom in February 1964. His physical frailties in evidence, his resolve, helpless and weakened, for this was to be his final battle. The overpowering strength of the enemy ensured it was one he could never win, for it was not an enemy soldier standing in his path. This time cancer was the unstoppable and overwhelming opposition.
A young Church of Ireland chaplain clutching a bible came into the ward at Adelaide Hospital in Dublin, aspiring to offer some comfort and no doubt, salvation for Tom’s soul. Reading the situation, a visiting friend offered to take his leave, for this moment is a personal one, requiring dignity and privacy, he thought. As Éamon McEnery (pictured right) edged off his seat, he felt obliged to comply with a commanding look from Tom’s weak and sunken eyes, which he interpreted as “sit down and stay”. As if this moment had been rehearsed, Tom turned to the chaplain and said in an authoritarian manner “I lived without you, I’ll die without you, now you can GET OUT!” As the chaplain hurried towards the door, he was heard muttering “may your soul have eternal peace, my friend”. Tom had made his final reckoning and didn’t seem agitated by the encounter; however, he reclined in his bed, pointed to a book on his bedside locker asking Éamon “can you get that for me, please?” For the remainder of the visit a copy of the “Lotus Sūtra” (Sutra of the Lotus of the Wonderful Law) containing the words of the historical Buddha provided Tom’s comfort resting on his chest, held firmly in his hands.
In a chapter about the Spanish Civil War, it is important to explore Tom’s spirituality to help contextualize his motivations for participating. A person of average intellect may have preconceived notions of an Ulster Protestant who was prepared to lay down his life in rural Spain in an episode that became known as the “Catholic Crusade”. One can say with certainty that despite his rooted Protestantism, Tom was indifferent about religion and spent little or no time thinking about it. He was an admirer of people of principle and conviction irrespective of their political views, religion or race. This goes some way to explain some of the strange friendships he maintained throughout his life. A Jesuit priest was a close friend when living in British Guiana, Norman Baillie Stewart (the original Lord Haw Haw); a British subject exiled in Ireland, a convicted Nazi conspirator also became a close friend.
Toms own Protestant convictions changed during the Great War through his admiration of Irish sacrifice and bravery. His favourite story he often shared was the sight of an Irish soldier, galloping at full speed past the trench where he was resting in the middle of an artillery battle at night.
Tom spent six months in Spain, four of those with an Irish Brigade in a brief and somewhat extraordinary encounter fighting the Spanish Nationalist cause. Some had mooted the group of 750 Irish who volunteered were probably doomed to fail from the outset. There is strong evidence to suggest that Tom indirectly contributed to this failure, however, with help from others.
The purpose of this chapter is not to retell the story of the Irish Brigade in Spain but to share Tom’s experience in the context and relevance of the circumstances he found himself in. I try to explore his reasoning to volunteer and attempt to shed some light on the circumstances behind his seemingly abrupt departure, previously authored with ambiguity by other historians.
To set the scene, this war was a major conflict that devastated Spain from July 1936 to April 1939. It was triggered by an attempted coup d’état by a group of Spanish Army generals against the government of the Second Spanish Republic. The coup was only partially successful but left Spain divided as supporters of the existing Republican government fought the forces of the new Nationalist government for control of the country. The war ended with the victory of the Nationalists, the overthrow of the Republican government, and the founding of fascist state led by General Francisco Franco.
Like most civil wars, it became notable for the passion and political division it inspired, as well as the atrocities committed. Apart from the combatants, many civilians were killed on both sides. Following the well-publicised murders of over 4,000 clerics in the first weeks of the war, the Irish Catholic Primate, Cardinal MacRory, suggested Eoin O’Duffy could help the cause, as his politics were supportive. In 1935 O’Duffy had formed the National Corporate Party (NCP), a small, but somewhat fascist group in Ireland, and hoped that getting involved in Spain would increase its popular vote. He traveled to Spain in 1936 to meet Franco, promising 5,000 volunteers would follow him. Irish Independent newspaper editorials endorsed this idea and published a letter from O’Duffy seeking assistance for an “anti-Red Crusade”. His quest was bolstered by the open support of the Irish Catholic Church and many local government County Councils.
By March 1936, Tom had become the Technical Director of the Electra Company with premises in Upper O’Connell Street, Christchurch Place, and Cope Street in Dublin. The company, founded in 1930 by TP Robinson specialised in audio visual cinematic equipment. It was a thriving business of the time when “talkies” had emerged and silent movies became a thing of the past. As principle Director Tom boasted to an Irish Independent reporter in April 1936
According to company records, a cinema in Middleton, County Cork had installed the Electra sound system in July 1936. It might be no coincidence that its proprietor Thomas Hyde would be on the same journey to Spain with Tom Smith four months later. Hyde, from Ballinacurra was educated at Rochestown College and had been a member of the IRA, Cork brigade from 1916. He joined the National Army in 1922, when he was promoted to Captain, narrowly escaping death at an ambush at Bruff. One can speculate that Hyde may have been influential in Tom’s decision to enlist during the course of their business dealings. Though this is circumstantial, there seems to be no other evidence that Tom was acquainted with others in the Irish Brigade prior to their departure for Spain.
During the summer and early autumn of 1936, the Irish Independent newspaper carried regular reports on the military uprising in Spain and readers were informed that in Barcelona “bodies of nuns were left on the pavements of the principle streets”. The perpetrators were anti-Franco communists. Such horror stories outraged Catholics in Ireland who had affection for Spain due to their historic support of Irish oppression at the hands of the English.
No evidence surfaced either, that Father John O’Doherty, a 26% stakeholder in the Electra Company and strong supporter of an Irish Brigade in Spain had directly influenced Tom’s decision to volunteer. Considering that Catholicism and the defense of their co-religionists was the mobilising factor for the majority of those Irish who volunteered to fight on the side of Franco, such religious enthusiasm could certainly not explain Tom’s participation. It can be speculated that Spain was a regular topic of conversation between Tom and O’Doherty with an agreement of job security if he decided to enlist. Unlike other volunteers who gave up their jobs, Tom could eventually return to his company.
To be pragmatic when analysing Tom’s motives for volunteering, we can eliminate him as a Catholic crusader and most definitely a mercenary, given his prosperous career packaged with a decent income. He certainly never had the ideals of a fascist, at least in our modern understanding of the term, however he was a conservative who had an aversion to communism. This was evident in the stories he recollected and shared with his friends many years later, using terms like “Reds” and “commies” always with an expression of antipathy. At the age of forty, Tom felt compelled to risk his life for this cause, compromising his career and marriage with every possibility of leaving his 7 year old daughter fatherless. In mid-September 1936, the Irish Times published a confidential circular that had been sent out by O’Duffy to the enlistee’s who committed themselves to Franco’s cause.
Applicants should note that, as this is entirely a volunteer brigade, no responsibility can be accepted for dependants. Ranks held in volunteers, National or British Armies are not being recognised. All volunteers to be of equal rank until appointments are made. Where possible, each volunteer should bring on small portmanteau or valise with essential requisition. Provide own expense, or raise locally, with help of your parish priest.Eoin O’Duffy - 1936
On Friday, 20 November 1936, Tom left North Wall in Dublin on the Lady Leinster with the advance guard of the Irish Brigade. They transferred to the SS Avoceta in Liverpool, before landing in Lisbon. The principle officers were selected from this small contingent whose details were published in the Irish Independent on 4th December 1936.
General Franco and O’Duffy (with some reluctance) had agreed the Irish volunteers would form part of the Spanish Army and would be recognised as the 15th Bandera (battalion) under the command of the Spanish Colonel Yagüe. Yagüe was an uncompromising perfectionist, obsessed with reputation and had little trust in the Irish. The Irish Officers crossed the Portuguese border via Elvas, before arriving at Badajoz. The following morning they made an early start for base camp allocated by Franco in the garrison town of Caceres (south of Salamanca).
Major Patrick Dalton, 2nd in command to O’Duffy, was given overall command of the Irish contingent having previously demonstrated his loyalty to O’Duffy. Dalton was well known in sporting circles, and reported to be one of the more popular men, having served with the Irish National Army both before and after the truce. He had been a Sein Fein Commandant during the Black and Tan troubles when he was badly wounded in the stomach by a British bullet which had never really healed properly. Dalton saw this Spanish adventure as a means of redemption after being reduced as a result of the partially successful Irish Army mutiny of 1924.
Dalton formed the volunteers into 4 companies (A to D), each given their own officer in charge ranked Captain. There is no evidence to suggest that Dalton had Tom’s acquaintance prior to the journey to Spain which leaves to speculation that Tom made hell of an impression on him in a short space of time. Dalton appointed Tom Captain of “B” Company and they would become lifelong friends. Nine years later, Tom would make his last will and testament and name Dalton as Executor.
Another officer of notoriety was Captain Dermot O’Sullivan, Commanding ‘A’ Company, who was born in Killarney in 1903. He had considerable military experience, having served in the Easter Week Rising in 1916, the Anglo-Irish war and the National Army. O’Sullivan had spent most of his youth in and out of prisons finally being released from Dartmoor when the Treaty was signed. He later became a leading light in O’Duffy’s pro-fascist National Corporate Party (NCP). The death sentence was passed against him at the age of 17, later commuted to penal servitude for life when arrested for his involvement in the Drumcondra ambush, an infamous attack by 10 IRA volunteers at Finglas Bridge.
As already noted Tom was commanding officer of Company “B”, Padraig Quinn (Kilkenny) Company C, and Captain Sean Cunningham Company D. Cunningham (a native of Falls Road, Belfast) had been the officer commanding the IRA in Ballymacarrett, East Belfast during the 1920s before taking up an officer’s post in the new Free State army.
Lt Fitzpatrick a former Irish Guard and Lt Nangle were mercenaries who had neither religious nor political motivation for being in Spain. When the Spanish Civil War broke out they were in the heart of Brazil together, hunting big game but immediately crossed the South Atlantic and joined the Spanish Foreign Legion. Both spoke a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese and had four months service in Spain before the arrival of the Irish Brigade. They were mentioned in Spanish dispatches for bravery, specifically Fitzpatrick who had saved the life of a Spanish General. Both men were transferred to the Irish Brigade under protest, one commenting that “O’Duffy’s officers knew nothing about war and were unfit even to be lance-corporals”.
Finally, Francis McCullagh was an ex-pat of some 40 years and an Irish War correspondent attached to the Irish Independent newspaper that in 1938 authored the book “In Franco’s Spain”. Famed by the Irish contingent for those influential press editorials that made their decision to enlist so easy, McCullagh was keen to point out in his book, that while he spent time with the Irish contingent, he was never invited to do so, and always paid his own way. In retrospect, his ploy to keep a safe distance allowed him to be highly critical of O’Duffy in his post war writings.
A month had passed when McCullagh met Tom who had arrived to Lisbon by car, in order to meet the shipload of Irishmen due to arrive the following morning. Although this was not the first time the two had met. McCullagh wrote about this encounter in his book.
On his experience waiting for the shipload of Irish enlistee’s arriving, McCullagh went on to write
When at length a British steamer came in sight, I concluded from what I saw and heard that it was the steamer we were waiting for. I saw row after row of Irish faces at the bulwarks. I heard the sound of Irish songs written by Protestants of English descent who did not care a straw about Rome, and of religious hymns written by English converts who did not care a straw about Ireland. One of the hymns was ‘ Faith of Our Fathers’ the work of a pious convert, whose father had lost the faith. This incongruity was increased by the inability of the singers to remember more than the first few lines of any song or hymn.
Meanwhile, we on the quay presented an unimposing spectacle, all of us being in civil dress, for though the Portuguese authorities liked to see the Nationalist uniform themselves, they did not like English tourists to see it. Smith had with him as interpreter a young Spanish airman who was on crutches, having been shot through both legs while flying over Madrid but to the enthusiastic crusaders he was rather an awful example of what might happen to themselves in a few weeks, than an inspiring spectacle. Despite his bowler hat, Smith was soon spotted by the volunteers as the man who was waiting for them, probably because of his great height, his soldierly appearance, and of the soiled trench-coat which the Sein Feiners always wore during the Black and Tan troubles.
They cheered him loudly, but though he was not moved, I was…. I went on board with Smith and the envoy of the Junta, who turned out to be a representative of the Spanish Consul, and who rapidly collected all the passports. The men were told that they must remain on-board till the evening, and, to prevent them coming ashore, the vessel pushed off a couple of yards from the jetty”.Francis McCullagh - In Franco's Spain (Page 109 -115)
Tom would later testify…
The volunteers were enthusiastically received by the locals in Caceres where their military parade was the highlight of the city’s 1937 New Year celebrations. Tom’s popularity with the Spanish high command is well documented in many publications including O’Duffy’s own biography “A Self Made Hero”his only mention. There is also evidence of his popularity with his own subordinates in the form of a silver inkwell inscribed…
In a short time the men mastered the foot drill, and were issued with firearms. Each rifleman received 200 rounds of ammunition, and, in addition, a gas mask, a haversack, a water bottle and a pair of blankets. A bayonet in a scabbard was also carried by all riflemen. You could forgive Tom a momentary sense of surrealism as the Spanish had procured German surplus from the Great War to be the uniform of the XV Bandera. Training progressed well and included drill, working with trench mortars, light machine guns, grenade handling and rifle practice with tools of varying degrees of antiquity. The sub machine-guns, with which one man in each platoon was armed were Browning automatics.
The calibre of the men was varied and by O’Duffy’s own admission “there were a few doubtful characters”, but despite this when the men were on duty, the discipline remained strict, and training continued to progress well. With a few exceptions including Tom, Colonel Yagüe continued to be disappointed with the military expertise of the Irish and delayed the brigade’s departure to the front until 17th February. When the order finally came, on their approach to the village of Ciempozuelos the brigade suffered their first two casualties from disputed accounts of friendly fire. A Spanish Nationalist officer who may not have been told of an Irish Brigade had opened fire and then ordered his troops to attack. Lieutenant Tom Hyde (the cinema owner from Middleton referred to earlier) and Dan Chute were killed in the ensuing battle. Both bodies were later taken back to Caceres, where they were buried with full military honours by Spanish units. The Irish were later exonerated from blame for this unfortunate incident and the XV Bandera forged on with their objective to stop Republicans advancing towards Madrid.
Ciempozuelos had been the scene of recent fighting and the brigade’s first duty on arrival was to bury the many corpses scattered around the streets. It was noted in many accounts and publications that the now deserted village had been desecrated, with emphasised by Irish witnesses of the destruction of the sacred churches. Beyond the village the Irish dug in close by a German unit. To their left was the Jamara valley, to their right was the Cuesta de la Reina and the Tajuna valley. About 2 kilometres beyond the open terrain in front of them lay their objective, the Republican occupied, heavily fortified village of Titulcia. A strong strategic asset to the side that occupied it as it was positioned well, high above the Jamara valley with almost infinite visibility of the advancing enemy. Tom later recalled his assessment of the enormity and impossibility of the brigade’s objective without air support. In hindsight and recollections, Tom never spoke O’Duffy’s name, it was always “that clown” or “buffoon” and O’Duffy’s officers were his “performing seals, who had little military intellect”. To make matters worse, if the open terrain was not dangerous enough, there were 2 rivers to negotiate and “C Company had botched the job” referring to the ineffective mining of a railway track near Titulcia.
An armoured train (in the hands of the Republicans) with fixed guns on top would frequently occupy this track and would attack Irish positions, making an advance on foot impossible. “That damn thing had be taken out before any offensive”. While officers agreed to this principle, they were split on how to deal with this nuisance. Tom, one of the few officers with extensive experience of trench warfare, voiced his opinion which proved to be unpopular with Captain O’Sullivan and Padraig Quinn as arguments followed. It would be foolish to suggest the uneasy tensions in the officer camp did not become common knowledge to the ordinary foot soldier promoting uncertainty and apprehension. A course of action not supported Tom and few other officers was taken and executed with minimal success. Talk remained rife of the pending offensive throughout the Irish contingent.
In the cover of night on 11th March 1937, in a heavy downpour of rain, Tom and a Lieutenant from B Company (presumably Gilbert Nangle) took a small group on an unauthorized mission. Their purpose, to destroy the gauge on this armoured train and put it out of action. With the odds already stacked against them with the weather and poor light, sometime during the mission Tom had to draw his pistol, as one of the volunteers turned to flee back the Irish trenches. Sometime later the mission was abandoned. Tom often reflected his deep regret associated with the failure of this mission for it is well documented by other historians, that O’Duffy sent Tom home the following day. There is some ambiguity around these previous accounts because Tom did not leave Spain for Ireland until the 10th May, some 2 months later and there is an entry in O’Duffy’s diary that he visited Tom in Caceres on the 20th April. What is true however, is that Tom was replaced as Captain of Company B on the 12th March 1937? Whether he resigned his commission is still unclear.
When interviewing Tom’s daughter in 2010, no evidence surfaced of her claim that he went on to join the Spanish Foreign Legion. Her notion is only plausible, if you take into consideration the many accounts in the public domain of the high regard he held with the Spanish high command. Also supportive to her claim is a passenger list that states he traveled home, 1st class via Lisbon, on the cruise liner SS Vandyck arriving in Southampton on 10th May 1937. Two reliable sources, Éamon McEnery (Portumna, Galway) and Kieran Thompson (Newport, Mayo), both claim to have been shown personal correspondence from General Franco to Tom giving him free passage in Spain for life in the late 1950’s.
Other significant events that preceded Tom’s departure have been documented with varying degrees of ambiguity that the reader comes to expect in the confusion of war. On the 6th March, 3 weeks after the brigade suffered their first casualties, Major Patrick Dalton was wounded on the hand and hospitalised. O’Duffy, now forced to restructure the order of command, replaced Dalton with Dermot O’Sullivan, a decision the Spanish demanded reversing, but ignored by O’Duffy. Neither Gilbert Nangle (one of Tom’s lieutenants) or Lt Fitzpatrick ever wanted to be part of the Irish setup in the first instance. On numerous occasions they made unsuccessful requests to return to their Spanish Foreign Legion units but at the same time Tom departed, both refused to serve under the new command and were subsequently sent home. The rows between the officers intensified about the new command as well as the fact their men had been sent over the top that very day. During army council meetings held on 13th March. Some officers asked to be repatriated, while others like Captain Tom Cahill resigned their commission. In O’Duffy’s own biography “Self Made Hero” author, Fearghal McGarry wrote:
When reading McGarry’s text carefully, one can conclude, that Tom was one of the discontented officers who had ambitions of leadership. An additional plausible reason to support his daughter’s claim that he joined the Spanish Foreign Legion.
Major Dalton did not arrive back in Ireland as abruptly as claimed by previous historians. After visiting a few weeks after he was incapacitated, McCullagh, wrote in his book;
Passenger records for a merchant ship named “Hilary” sailing from Manaus in Portugal arriving in Liverpool on the 30th March lists Patrick Dalton on board. This is supported by a short article about him in the Irish press on 1st April entitled “Wounded Officer Returns from Spain”. Tom remained his close friend until he died in a private nursing home in Monkstown on 14th February 1956. After Mass in Donnybrook Dalton was interned in Ferrybank in Waterford. Former Taoiseach John Costello attended with many of his senior shadow cabinet ministers. The Spanish Ambassador for Ireland laid a wreath and many of his surviving men from Spain were also in attendance including Tom, Padraig Quinn and Tom Hyde’s brother from Cork.
The final blow for O’Duffy would arrive on 24th March 1937 in the form of Colonel Yagüe. In the absence of Dalton, Smith, Hyde, Nangle and Fitzpatrick, (5 officers notably respected by the Spanish), Yagüe inspected a restructured Irish brigade and demanded an immediate change in its leadership. He reported insubordination, drunkenness and low morale and blamed the newly appointed Irish officers rather the volunteers for the unit’s deficiencies. Furthermore he refused to recognise O’Duffy’s appointment of O’Sullivan as commander and insisted a Spanish officer should lead the XV Bandera. The Irish Brigade were removed from their position at the front to a less challenging role at La Manosa
Mixed with anger and humiliation, O’Duffy was in no mood to accept the Spanish proposal and began to make arrangements take the Irish home. One might consider it plausible that Tom Smith conspired with the Spanish to undermine O’Duffy. What is clear, coincidentally or not, is the Spanish and some of the respected Irish Officers refused to accept O’Duffy’s new command. These brave volunteers, used as pawns in a bigger game, came from all over Ireland to serve with integrity. The majority were prepared to sacrifice their lives, material comforts, jobs and some, even in secrecy from their families. O’Duffy’s attempt to censure those officers respected by the Spanish had back fired on and justifiably he alone, was the culpable party. Some blame however, must be attributed to the press propaganda of the day. Additionally and more regrettably, this game had no winners.
From Tom’s perspective, in more ways than one, this was certainly a costly personal adventure. He received news while in Spain that his company back home was in trouble, needing attention he was not in a position to provide. On 19th February 1937 in his absence the company board of Directors had doubled the nominal capital to attract additional investment. Shortly after Tom’s return to Dublin, the board resigned and he was left alone to work with receivers to dissolve the company.
While Tom lived with his wife Evelyn for the remainder of their lives, this Spanish expedition had proved the final straw for their marriage as they became legally separated shortly after. It is maybe no coincidence; there was a strange arson attack on his property just four days after his departure for Spain. An early morning fire broke out at his garage at the rear of his house in Elgin Road. The fire brigade succeeded in quelling the blaze saving a portion of the garage however, Tom’s motor car, motorbike and two cycles were destroyed.
In 1944 at the age of 53, Eoin O’Duffy died, his reputation tainted by what he described as his ‘Crusade in Spain”. He was given a full military funeral then was laid to rest alongside his friend and ally, Michael Collins at Glasnevin Cemetery. Tom was by no means finished with the military as he enlisted and served throughout World War 2 in India and the Middle East.