Winifred taught in the East End in the early 1920s until she married Ralph Bates. Both became members of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1923. The couple spent the next few years travelling around Europe. He did a variety of different jobs, including seaman, electrician and a repairer of church organs, but his main ambition was to become a full-time writer.
In 1930 they spent time in the Pyrenees. Ralph Bates published his first work, Sierra, a collection of short stories, in 1933. This was followed by the novels, Lean Men: An Episode in a Life (1934), Franz Schubert (1935) and his best known work, The Olive Field (1936).
On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Bates enlisted with the government forces and helped to organize the International Brigades whereas Winifred Bates worked in Barcelona as a journalist and broadcaster for the Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya (PSUC).
Bates spied on members of the International Brigades on behalf of the Communist Party of Great Britain. He even sent a critical report in 1936 on Tom Wintringham, the commander of the British Battalion, to Harry Pollitt about his relationship with Kitty Bowler. "Everyone here was very disappointed with Comrade Wintringham. He showed levity in taking a non-Party woman in whom neither the PSUC nor the CPGB comrades have any confidence to the Aragon front. We understand this person was entrusted with verbal messages to the Party in London. We are asked to send messages to Wintringham through this person rather than the Party headquarters here. The Party has punished members for far less serious examples of levity than this."
Ralph Bates confessed to Stephen Spender that he sent man who was considered politically unreliable "into a sector of the fighting in which he was certain to be killed". Spender added that Bates was "an example of a good writer and a good man whom the Communist Party turned into a killer." Later he blamed Winifred for providing him with false information on the anti-Communists in Barcelona.
Bates later she became the personnel officer for the British Medical Aid Unit in Spain. "The personnel of the British Medical Unit was scattered about Spain from Murcia to Aragon. My first problem was transport... I reached the Teruel Front in January by ambulance, truck and car. The roads were so deep in snow that at one hill we had to get out and, roping the ambulance, six of us let it clown the hill while the driver tried to guide it straight."
During the Ebro offensive Winifred Bates visited a hospital set up in a cave near the village of La Bisbal de Falset: "Men died as I stood beside them. It was summer time and they had been in long training before they crossed the Ebro. Their bodies were brown and beautiful. We would bend over to take their last whispers and the message was always the same: We are doing well. Tell them to fight on ... till the final victory... It is so hard to make a man, and so easy to blast him into death. I shall never forget the Ebro. If one went for a walk away from the cave there was the smell of death.
Ralph Bates and Winifred remained in the country until the International Brigades were withdrawn at the end of 1938. The couple initially moved to Mexico but eventually settled in the United States. He broke with the Communist Party after the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed in 1939. After the Soviet invasion of Finland in November, 1939, Bates publicly condemned the Communists in an article for The New Republic.
After the break-up of their marriage, Winifred returned to England and taught Esperanto.
In July 1937 I got in touch with the committee in England that was sending medical supplies and personnel to work in the hospitals. I agreed to write news for them, to visit the hospitals and find out what the personnel needed in their work, deliver supplies to them and take photographs.
Then began for me a time of hard work, intense living and an education in the wonders of the human mind and behaviour. The personnel of the British Medical Unit was scattered about Spain from Murcia to Aragon. My first problem was transport... Many a time I waited on the Madrid road and begged a ride. Once I made the mistake of thinking that telegraph wire would make a good seat. I sat at the back of the truck and every time it went over a bump I went up in the air and came down hard on my coil of wire. For days afterwards I could not sit down in comfort. Another time I put up an umbrella to keep off the driving rain; that was the last of the umbrella. On these journeys I used to carry a blue flannel dressing gown which I wrapped round my shoulders and head in the manner of a shawl, until the happy day when I bought a real sheepskin jacket with the wool inside. It probably looked just as funny but I kept warm. I reached the Teruel Front in January by ambulance, truck and car.' The roads were so deep in snow that at one hill we had to get out and, roping the ambulance, six of us let it clown the hill while the driver tried to guide it straight....
When the famous Ebro offensive of 1938 began I went up to that front. I found our people working in a large cave in the side of a mountain. It was not far from the river and only the worst cases were brought in there. Men died as I stood beside them. It was summer time and they had been in long training before they crossed the Ebro. Their bodies were brown and beautiful. We would bend over to take their last whispers and the message was always the same: "We are doing well. Tell them to fight on ... till the final victory."
It is so hard to make a man, and so easy to blast him into death. I shall never forget the Ebro. If one went for a walk away from the cave there was the smell of death.