Howard Andrews, known as Andy, is Britain’s oldest surviving veteran of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9. He spoke to Socialist Worker about his extraordinary life and a memorable visit to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the civil war
“I went to Spain three weeks ago for the anniversary of the beginning of the civil war,” says Andy. “It was the best week of my life.
“The reception we received was amazing - the road was blocked, there was cheering, singing and kissing. We had two days in Barcelona, two days in Madrid and two days in Zaragoza.”
Andy, who now lives in Taunton, Somerset, agreed to tell his story because he believes the struggle in Spain, which few now remember first hand, holds lessons for younger generations.
Andy became politicised in the 1920s and 1930s. Poverty and unemployment in Britain taught him about class, and his experiences in the Royal Army Medical Corps showed him the reality of the British empire.
Andy joined the army aged 16 years and four months, “but I got in as a man, on a man’s pay, by pretending to be 18,” he says. “After training I was posted to Quetta, which is now in Pakistan. The poverty there had to be seen to be believed.”
Before he arrived in Quetta, Andy stopped off in Bombay, now Mumbai. “We had a little free time and we walked along the docks,” he says. “We saw two steamers and they had planks running from the quayside to the deck. There were women running up and down with baskets on their head.
“We found out they were putting coal in the boats, some of them were carrying little babies on their backs while they did it.”
After six years in India, Andy returned home for Christmas in 1930. “Unemployment was as bad as when I left,” he says. “There were about seven and a half million out of work.”
Andy managed to get a job in Queen Charlotte hospital in London. He also became actively involved in politics during the 1930s.
Anti-fascism was a key issue for the left at the time. “Adolf Hilter was in power in Germany, General Franco in Spain was a fascist, and in Britain we had Oswald Mosley, who had to be stopped,” remembers Andy.
“We had a lot of antagonism from Mosley and his blackshirts. I lived in Kilburn, west London, and there was a fairly strong contingent of blackshirts there - we were constantly hounding them out.
“On one occasion Mosely had a big meeting in the Albert Hall and we produced leaflets to throw down into the audience. When we let the leaflets go the attendants all came and gave us a good thumping. They threw us down the steps while the police just stood there and did nothing.
“I joined the Communist Party in 1931. We used to carry out all sorts of local events, protecting people who were destitute and helping the trade unions in the area.”
Every Saturday Andy would take a pile of copies of the Daily Worker, the Communist Party’s newspaper, to Kilburn station. “I’d stay there till I sold them all - usually it would take two and a half or three hours,” he says.
When the call went out for people to go and fight against fascism in Spain, Andy responded. Besides, there was little to keep him in London. “I didn’t have a good job here - it was dirty and low paid,” says Andy. “I decided I could do much better in Spain.
“I had a chat with my brother who was a member of the Independent Labour Party at that time, and we agreed that I would just disappear and he would tell our mother after I had gone.”
Andy left in August 1936, following a huge rally in Trafalgar Square. The International Brigades were only getting off the ground and he went over with a body known as the Spanish Medical Aid Committee.
He was stationed near the Ebro river. “We would take in the wounded, patch them up and send them back out,” says Andy. “I had responsibilities for supplies, I did all the sterilising in the operating theatre and where necessary I assisted in the theatre.
“The local population used to join in and supply things, and we had very good relations with them.
“We were bombed quite often because we were so near the front. We were strafed several times by Italian fighter planes. It was terrifying, but you had to ride it out and carry on.”
Andy left Spain before Franco’s victory of 1939. In 1938 Andy became ill and was evacuated out of Spain. Although he has met with other veterans from Spain, he has never again met any of those he served alongside.
In 1939 he joined the army and fought in the Second World War. After the war he moved to Taunton. “It’s a quiet town, and I was out of politics for a while,” says Andy. However, he did manage to resurrect the trade union in the hospital where he worked.
Now aged 99, Andy has again become involved in left wing politics. “It’s only in the last six months that I’ve become really active,” he says.
He has been involved in the local peace group and is campaigning over pensioners’ rights, and he is still a committed anti-fascist. “Today you’ve got the British National Party - they’re a real menace,” says Andy.
He maintains a refreshingly positive attitude on politics in Britain and around the world. “The leadership of the Labour Party have set things back a long way - the sooner they are got rid of the better,” says Andy.
“But there’s still hope. When you see what’s happening now in countries such as Venezuela it gives you a great incentive to push on.”