William (Will) Paynter was born in Whitchurch, Cardiff, in December 1903. His father was farm labourer who later became an onsetter at the Cymmer Colliery. After being educated in Porth he left school at thirteen the work on a farm for five shillings a week.
In December 1917 Paynter began work as a collier's assistant at Coedely Colliery. He later recalled: "During one of his periods of absence I accidently caused my lamp to overturn and go out... It is hard to describe the darkness of the pit. It is absolute blackness, impenetrable and eerie. Sounds appear to be magnified, the creaks of roof movement sounding like cracks of doom."
In his autobiography, My Generation (1972), Paynter points out that he worked on the Rhondda No 3 seam, about 2ft 6in. thick. In 1919 Paynter moved to the same colliery as his father. Coedely "where the seams were much thicker and where it was possible to work in an upright position, so that the work was a little less strenuous."
Paynter became an active member National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). In 1924, Frank Hodges, general secretary of the NUM was forced to resign following his appointment as Civil Lord of the Admiralty in the Labour Government. A. J. Cook went on to secure the official South Wales nomination and subsequently won the national ballot by 217,664 votes to 202,297. Arthur Horner became Cook's deputy. Paynter was one of Cook's supporters but admitted that he "did not regard him as a good negotiator at pit level." However, like other South Wales miners he considered him a "master of his craft on the platform... I attended many of his meetings when he came to the Rhondda and he was undoubtedly a great orator, and had terrific support throughout the coalfields."
On 30th June 1925 the mine-owners announced that they intended to reduce the miner's wages. Paynter later commented: "The coal owners gave notice of their intention to end the wage agreement then operating, bad though it was, and proposed further wage reductions, the abolition of the minimum wage principle, shorter hours and a reversion to district agreements from the then existing national agreements. This was, without question, a monstrous package attack, and was seen as a further attempt to lower the position not only of miners but of all industrial workers."
The General Council of the Trade Union Congress responded to this news by promising to support the miners in their dispute with their employers. The Conservative Government, decided to intervene, and supplied the necessary money to bring the miners' wages back to their previous level. This event became known as Red Friday because it was seen as a victory for working class solidarity.
The Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, stated that this subsidy to the miners' wages would only last 9 months. In the meantime, the government set up a Royal Commission under the chairmanship of Sir Herbert Samuel, to look into the problems of the Mining Industry. The Samuel Commission published its report in March 1926. It recognised that the industry needed to be reorganised but rejected the suggestion of nationalization. The report also recommended that the Government subsidy should be withdrawn and the miners' wages should be reduced.
The month in which the report was issued also saw the mine-owners publishing new terms of employment. These new procedures included an extension of the seven-hour working day, district wage-agreements, and a reduction in the wages of all miners. Depending on a variety of factors, the wages would be cut by between 10% and 25%. The mine-owners announced that if the miners did not accept their new terms of employment then from the first day of May they would be locked out of the pits.
A Conference of Trade Union Congress met on 1st May 1926, and afterwards announced that a General Strike "in defence of miners' wages and hours" was to begin two days later. The leaders of both the Trade Union Council and the Labour Party were unhappy about the proposed General Strike, and during the next two days frantic efforts were made to reach an agreement with the Conservative Government and the mine-owners.
The Trade Union Congress called the General Strike on the understanding that they would then take over the negotiations from the Miners' Federation. The main figure involved in these negotiations was Jimmy Thomas. Talks went on until late on Sunday night, and according to Thomas, they were close to agreement when Stanley Baldwin broke off negotiations. The reason for his action was that printers at the Daily Mail had refused to print a leading article attacking the proposed strike. The TUC negotiators apologized for the printers' behaviour, but Baldwin refused to continue with the talks. The General Strike began the next day.
The Trade Union Congress adopted the following plan of action. To begin with they would bring out workers in the key industries - railwaymen, transport workers, dockers, printers, builders, iron and steel workers - a total of 3 million men (a fifth of the adult male population). Only later would other trade unionists, like the engineers and shipyard workers, be called out on strike.
On the 7th May, Sir Herbert Samuel, Chairman of the Royal Commission on the Coal Industry, approached the Trade Union Congress and offered to help bring the strike to an end. Without telling the miners, the TUC negotiating committee met Samuel and worked out a set of proposals to end the General Strike. These included: (1) a National Wages Board with an independent chairman; (2) a minimum wage for all colliery workers; (3) workers displaced by pit closures to be given alternative employment; (4) the wages subsidy to be renewed while negotiations continued. However, Samuel warned that subsequent negotiations would probably mean a reduction in wages. These terms were accepted by the TUC negotiating committee, but were rejected by the executive of the Miners' Federation.
On the 11th May, at a meeting of the Trade Union Congress General Committee, it was decided to accept the terms proposed by Herbert Samuel and to call off the General Strike. The following day, the TUC General Council visited 10 Downing Street to announce to the British Government that the General Strike was over. At the same meeting the TUC attempted to persuade the Government to support the Samuel proposals and to offer a guarantee that there would be no victimization of strikers. This the Government refused to do. As Lord Birkenhead, a member of the Government was to write later, the TUC's surrender was "so humiliating that some instinctive breeding made one unwilling even to look at them."
On 21st June 1926, the British Government introduced a Bill into the House of Commons that suspended the miners' Seven Hours Act for five years - thus permitting a return to an 8 hour day for miners. In July the mine-owners announced new terms of employment for miners based on the 8 hour day. The miners were furious about what had happened although the General Strike was over, the miners' strike continued.
Paynter remained loyal to the strike although he knew they had no chance of winning. "The miners' lock-out dragged on through the months of 1926 and really was petering-out when the decision came to end it. We had fought on alone but in the end we had to accept defeat spelt out in further wage-cuts." By October 1926 hardship forced men to begin to drift back to the mines. By the end of November most miners had reported back to work. However, many were victimized and remained unemployed for many years. Those that were employed were forced to accept longer hours, lower wages and district agreement.
Will Paynter had been radicalized by the General Strike. Encouraged by his old friend Arthur Horner, he began reading books about politics. "Some can boast of being educated at Eton and Cambridge; for me it was elementary school and the Cymmer library. I read with the aid of an oil lamp - we had not yet risen to gas or electricity in our village - and a dictionary, and meandered indiscriminately through a wide range of subjects before anchoring to political philosophy. I read through a great deal of the available literature outlining the philosophy of socialism as presented by the Social Democrats and the Marxists and found most satisfaction with Marxism."
Paynter began attending meetings of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) but did not join until June 1929. Paynter recalled in My Generation that "I was a communist in outlook a considerable time before this" but did not join because he faced "strong family opposition". After helping Arthur Horner in his failed attempt to become the MP for Rhondda East he was elected secretary of the CPGB branch in Porth.
Paynter's support for Horner got him into trouble with the South Wales Miners' Federation. They supported D. Watts Morgan, a former miners' agent and the Labour Party candidate in the election. Paynter and the rest of the Mardy Lodge was expelled from the union. Paynter was arrested by the police during the demonstrations that followed this decision. "About a fortnight later, some fourteen of us received summonses to appear in court to answer over fifty charges in all. I had three, including one for indecent language which was a complete frame-up because I did not swear, still holding strongly to my chapel upbringing."
Paynter helped to organize a demonstration at the court on the day the men were due to appear to face charges. Paynter was arrested and according to his account in My Generation: "I fought and struggled, giving up only when my trousers were in danger of being dragged off me. I did not know that I was being punched in the kidneys. I was being carried, stomach facing the road, with a policeman's arm round my neck and under my throat, so that my mouth was open as I gasped for breadth. As we entered the police station, I was given a hefty punch in the mouth which smashed my upper dentures, scattering them to the floor as they dropped me." Paynter was found guilty of violent assault and was sentenced to four months' hard labour.
After leaving prison Paynter found it difficult to find work as a coalminer. Paynter remained active in the Communist Party of Great Britain and in December 1932 he was sent to Moscow. In June 1933 he volunteered to act a courier delivering money to the Communist Party of Germany, an organization that had been driven underground since Adolf Hitler had gained power in Nazi Germany.
Over the next six months Paynter made several more trips to various cities in Germany. Comintern supplied him with a "Paris tailor-made brown suit" to wear during his travels. Paynter explains: "When I left Moscow on what was my last assignment for the Comintern I was told to hand the suit back to Harry Pollitt in King Street and to request him to return it to them on his next visit."
Paynter along with Harry Pollitt helped to organize the Merthyr by-election campaign in 1934 when Wal Hannington stood as the Communist Party of Great Britain candidate. According to Paynter: "The campaign was fought on the issue of unemployment and the need for new industry, and although Hannington lost his deposit, the campaign of meetings undoubtedly had a tremendous effect."
On 21st March 1935 Paynter helped to organize a demonstration against the operation of the means test in Monmouthshire. The leaders were arrested and charged with "riotous assembly". D. N. Pritt represented the men in court but was unable to stop people like Phil Abrahams receiving a nine-month hard labour sentence.
Paynter was elected to the executive of the South Wales Miners' Federation in 1936. "As active leaders we were working harder and certainly for longer hours than when we were working in our respective trades. I used to leave Trebanog early in the morning for a two-and-a-half mile walk to the office in Tonypandy where I would remain all day except for meetings which might be anywhere in the Rhondda." Paynter also lectured in the evenings for the National Council of Labour Colleges.
In July 1936 Paynter was appointed as Communist Party of Great Britain organizer for Wales. One of his first jobs was to collect money to help support the Popular Front government against the forces led by Francisco Franco. He later recalled: "One of the outstanding features was the readiness of people to give what they could. we could go to the door of any unemployed family in the Rhondda and need only say that we were collecting for Spain and without question or exception we would be handed a tin of milk or a pound of sugar or whatever they had to give, and this week after week from the same homes."
It was later reported that there were "170 volunteers from Wales, and 116 of them came from the mining industry, around 25 per cent of them union officials at pit level... The average age was over thirty and 18 per cent of the Welsh volunteers were married." The South Wales miners provided the largest regional occupational group in the British Battalion.
Paynter was also involved in the recruitment of men to fight for the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. In March 1937 he was sent to Spain to look after the interests of the British Battalion. Paynter later recalled: "It was considered advisable to select someone with a trade union background and connections, and I was thought to have the necessary qualifications. I accepted but, I must confess, without any great enthusiasm as I had got married only a few weeks before."
Paynter's main task was to provide political and emotional support for those members of the Communist Party of Great Britain fighting in Spain. As he pointed out in My Generation (1972): "The penalty for desertion is harsh in any army, especially in wartime. Together with representatives of the American battalions, whose problems were similar to ours, we pressed the Brigade command to set up a centre where those whose morale had fallen could be rehabilitated. We emphasized, too, that military weakness in supporting organizations had contributed to the problem. Eventually the command agreed and a camp was created where men in the same plight were brought together from the various battalions in an effort to rehabilitate them." Soon after the camp was opened Paynter and Arthur Horner went to visit the men. He argued "most of these men rejoined the battalion refreshed and in good spirit."
Paynter's close friend, Harry Dobson, was killed on 28th July 1938. During the battle of Ebro the Nationalist Army had 6,500 killed and nearly 30,000 wounded. These were the worst casualties of the war and it finally destroyed the Republican Army as a fighting force.
Paynter now returned to Britain and spoke at the Trade Union Congress at Blackpool in September 1938 about his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. "It must be clear to every delegate in this Congress that the issue in Spain is one of which the outcome will not only determine the destinies of the people of Spain; it must be clear to everyone that the outcome of the conflict in Spain will involve the destinies of the people of all countries... The conquest of Spain can well mean the commencement of further attacks upon other European democracies."
The Communist Party of Great Britain joined forces with the Independent Labour Party to campaign on a broad programme of action against "fascism, reaction and war". Paynter toured the country making speeches with political figures such as Harry Pollitt, Stafford Cripps, Lewis Jones, James Maxton, D. N. Pritt, Arthur Horner, John Strachey and Aneurin Bevan. As Paynter pointed out: "It was a period of political revival created by this movement of left-wing unity."
This unity was destroyed by the decision of Joseph Stalin to sign the Soviet-Nazi Pact with Adolf Hitler. The Communist Party of Great Britain loyally supported the actions of Stalin. This resulted in the rest of the left turning against the CPGB. Douglas Hyde recalls in his autobiography, I Believed (1951): "We prepared ourselves for persecution and we got it. Sellers of the Daily Worker, women as well as men, were spat upon and assaulted on the streets; canvassing, they had doors slammed in their faces, even chamber-pots emptied on their heads from upstairs windows."
Harry Pollitt, the General Secretary of the CPGB, remained loyal to Joseph Stalin until September 1939 when he welcomed the British declaration of war on Nazi Germany. Pollitt was supported by John R. Campbell and William Gallacher, but Rajani Palme Dutt and William Rust followed the Soviet line. Pollitt was forced to resign as General Secretary and he was replaced by Dutt and Rust took over Campbell's job as editor of the Daily Worker.
Paynter, who had been elected as the miner's agent for Rhymney Valley in August 1939, did not get involved in this dispute and instead concentrated on union matters. "During the years that followed, I was preoccupied with the problems of the men in the pits in the area I had been elected to serve." Paynter also had other problems at this time: "I was too concerned with personal problems to become deeply involved in the controversy. My first wife was carrying our first child as we thought, until the actual birth in May 1940 when identical twins were born. Within a couple of hours of their birth, my wife died. Political controversy for me faded into insignificance against this sudden domestic calamity."
In his autobiography, My Generation (1972), Paynter reflected on CPGB policy during the Second World War: "The support of the Communist Party depended on whether the party considered it was just another imperialist war or a war against fascism. At first, the party supported it, then reversed to opposition following discussions in Moscow; later when Russia was attacked, the policy reverted to one of support. It seems obvious now that the party gave too much weight to the assessment of the Russian party leaders, a disposition that unfortunately did not end with that experience. However, this is a judgment based on hindsight."
Paynter remarried in 1943. "I first met her when dealing with a compensation claim arising from a fatal pit accident to the uncle who reared her, but it was not until some years later that we met again and married in 1943. To Betty must go the credit for having reared our family and of being a devoted mother to seven lusty sons."
Paynter's close friend, Arthur Horner, became president of the National Union of Mineworkers in 1946. Horner and Paynter were deeply involved with the Labour government in preparing the act of nationalization of the mines which became effective from 1st January 1947.
In October 1951 Paynter became President of the South Wales Miners' Federation. The following year he moved to Whitchurch, not far from the cottage where he was born. Paynter later pointed out: "The new house was semi-detached which as a child I had thought of as occupied by the rich."
During the 20th Party Congress in February, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev launched an attack on the rule of Joseph Stalin. He condemned the Great Purge and accused Joseph Stalin of abusing his power. He announced a change in policy and gave orders for the Soviet Union's political prisoners to be released. Khrushchev's de-Stalinzation policy encouraged people living in Eastern Europe to believe that he was willing to give them more independence from the Soviet Union. In Hungary the prime minister Imre Nagy removed state control of the mass media and encouraged public discussion on political and economic reform. Nagy also released anti-communists from prison and talked about holding free elections and withdrawing Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. Khrushchev became increasingly concerned about these developments and on 4th November 1956 he sent the Red Army into Hungary.
During the Hungarian Uprisingan estimated 20,000 people were killed. Imre Nagy was arrested and replaced by the Soviet loyalist, Janos Kadar. About a third of the CPGB's members resigned over this issue but Paynter remained in the party. He later recalled: "I was very often the subject of attack from newspapers, the medium through which so many people derive their opinions. The worst experience came during the Hungarian uprising, when it became risky for me to go into my local pub where I had been going for years because this hostility against me threatened to become violent."
In 1958, while leading a miners' delegation to the Soviet Union, the Divisional Coal Board announced that seven South Wales pits were to close. Paynter produced a pamphlet in which he set out the effects of these closures in terms of unemployment and hardship for men and communities. "It meant that over half the men displaced would immediately become unemployed, and as the pits selected were the sole means of employment for isolated villages these villages would become derelict." The National Union of Mineworkers considered strike action but as Paynter pointed out, "when we tested the coalfield on this through a delegate conference the reaction was against it, understandably, because there were many uneconomic pits whose miners feared that action of that kind could precipitate their own closure."
Arthur Horner retired as president of the National Union of Mineworkers in 1959. Paynter replaced Horner in the union's top job. In his autobiography, My Generation (1972), Paynter argued that: "The struggle to keep the pits open, to stop the run-down of the industry, to save the mining areas from desolation became the principal pre-occupation of the union during my whole period of office as its national secretary."
Paynter remained a loyal member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and unlike some leading figures in the party, refused to speak out against the Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Will Paynter retired from his post as president of the National Union of Mineworkers in 1969. He left the CPGB soon afterwards. However, this had nothing to do with what had happened during the Prague Spring: "This was not a sudden decision but was in accordance with a family understanding decided on many years before... Attempts to force me to take a decision provoke the opposite reaction in me. Nor could I take such a step either then or now, knowing that it would be used to support unprincipled attacks on the Communist Party. I despise ex-communists who lend themselves to such attacks."
In his autobiography published in 1972 Paynter reflected on the loyal support he gave the Communist Party of Great Britain. "It seems obvious now that the party gave too much weight to the assessment of the Russian party leaders, a disposition that unfortunately did not end with that experience. However, this is a judgment based on hindsight."
Will Paynter died in 1984.
My father started his working life as a farm labourer, but marriage and family responsibilities compelled him to seek work in the pits where the earning prospects were a little better... We lived then in a small cottage at the foot of the drive up to the Pentwyn farm. Father worked in the Cymmer colliery, Porth, and travelled by train each day from Taffs Well railway station, a distance of about two and a half miles from where we lived, which he walked to and fro each working shift. He always worked on the afternoon shift and the folk living in the village of Tangwynlais, through which he passed each day, used to say they could set their clocks by him, so punctual was he. He was an onsetter at the pit bottom, which, although a very busy job, was considered light employment. He had previously been a skilled miner but an accident had caused him to lose one of his eyes. I only knew him as a one-eyed man. Following the accident, the injured eye had to be removed, apparently to save the sight of the remaining eye, and this caused him great distress. Years later, mother told us that this period, when he feared he might go blind, produced in him such a nervous state that for years he suffered from chronic asthma, but as his fear subsided and his confidence returned so his asthma abated. He commuted his claim to compensation for the disability for a lump sum of £ 100, and this, together with another £80 or £90 he received from a collection by the men employed at the pit, he placed in the Post Office as a reserve against the possibility of going blind. Collections at the pit were a regular feature and were organized by the local lodge of the union and the proceeds distributed among miners who had been idle for long periods due to accidents sustained in the pit. His Post Office reserve was not touched - but was added to when my brother and I started work -until the lock-outs of 1921 and 1926, when it was drawn upon to help keep us. He lived until he was eighty years of age and retained quite good sight in his one eye to the end. Mother lived until she was past eighty-five years of age.
I worked for the first year in the Coedely colliery which was situated a little outside the actual Rhondda valley. The pits were then working a six-day week of eight hours plus one winding-time each shift. The average winding-time was then more than half an hour, which meant on average men being down the pit for eight and a half hours each day. There were no buses or other transport to take us the two and a half miles or so from Trebanog to the pit, neither were there pit-head baths. On the morning shift, we were roused from bed at about 4.20 am to dress and walk to the pit, collect the pit lamp, and be down into the pit before 6 am. This shift would start to ascend at 2 pm which meant, with the uphill walk we had, getting home at around 4 pm. By the time we had got out of our pit clothes and bathed, more than twelve hours would have passed since we put them on. It was a state of affairs in which we were living only to work, with little opportunity for any other interests. Anyone's first impressions of working in a coal-mine are unlikely to be favourable; mine certainly were not. There were even one or two occasions when tears fell. On one such occasion, the man with whom I was working at the coal-face was obliged by the custom of the pit to take charge of a pit pony to haul empty trams into and full trams out from the working places. At intervals, he contrived to come into the coal-face to help prepare coal for me to fill into the tram. During one of his periods of absence I accidentally caused my lamp to overturn and go out. I was `in the dark' as they say in the pit. It is hard to describe this darkness of the pit. It is absolute blackness, impenetrable and eerie. Sounds appear to be magnified, the creaks of roof movement sounding like cracks of doom and the falling of loose pieces of coal from the front of the coal-face becoming frightening crashes, noises that are normal to the pit, heard and ignored in the presence of some light or company. The man and boy in the next working place could not hear my shouts and the tears came as I had to crawl in the darkness, feeling my way as best I could until they were able to hear me. The tears were not just because of the darkness, but getting " in the dark" caused a delay in coal-getting for two sets of colliers, since a lamp had to be borrowed so that the one without light could be taken back to a depot, usually a good distance from the coal-face, to be re-lighted, and piecework earnings for both sets could be affected.
In the mining village of Trebanog, as in most mining communities, the people could be separated into two main streams - those who went to chapel and those who did not. Most of my friends during this period were "chapel boys", not because of any deep religious conviction but out of deference to our parents, in my case to mother, who was deeply religious. I went to chapel three times on Sunday, and Band of Hope prayer meetings and Young People's Guild on three nights a week. It was accepted as a duty and on more than one occasion my brother and I were called from cricket or football to attend such week-night religious occasions. In fact, a group of us young lads and girls became members of the chapel when we were about sixteen years old. We were pressured into this during a visit to the chapel of a "hellfire and damnation" revivalist a short time before the lock-out in 1921. I suppose the evangelist had to get results in some way and we became rather easy additions to the number of converts he could claim to have made, in order, I discovered later, to justify the high fee he was being paid.
None of us had deep religious feelings, in fact we considered that Darwin offered a better explanation for man's existence on Earth than the Bible and as a class of young men in the Sunday School we were involved in many arguments with the resident minister on: the subject. At one time we had a Christian Socialist as a teacher and when the head deacon discovered this, he forcibly ejected him from the Sunday School! I renounced my membership of the chapel following the 1926 General Strike and miners' lock-out and this caused my mother a great deal of anguish. I remember coming home from the pit one afternoon to find the resident minister waiting for me. I was tired, hungry, in sweaty pit clothes, and certainly in no mood for a discussion on religion. He tried his best to get me to change my attitude and return to the chapel. Finally he got down on his knees, pulling my mother and me down with him, and prayed for my salvation. Mother started to cry and I became very angry, yanking the minister unceremoniously to his feet, telling him as best I could that I would never respond to such methods. He then told me the story of a similar experience he had had in another mining valley of a lad like me refusing God, and how on the day following his talk with him, while he was walking down the street, the minister saw men carrying a body from the pit. It was this young lad, who, in the minister's words, had "rejected his eleventh hour chance of salvation".
I recount this aspect of my background because, looking back, I feel it had an inhibiting influence on my personal involvement in the mining battles of the period. We were concerned with being considered respectable and well-behaved, not bad things in themselves, except for the snobbishness they created. To harass blacklegs or risk falling foul of the police was regarded as a blemish on the character. This artificial detachment from unpleasant events, plus a native shyness and reserve delayed, I am sure, my participation in the affairs of the trade union and in politics. I was intensely interested in both long before I plucked up sufficient courage to face family opposition and become publicly identified with activities that were not always popular.
I was in Moscow when Hitler came to power, having arrived there in December 1932. A little time previously I had attended a Communist Party school in Abbey Wood, Kent, which lasted for several weeks. It was at this school that I first came to know John Gollan, now the British national secretary of the Communist Party. He had arrived at the school straight from serving a prison sentence for distributing allegedly seditious literature to soldiers. After leaving the school he became the leader of the Young Communist League, and I was given the opportunity to continue my studies of political economy and social history in Moscow.
I left London on a Soviet ship in the company of a number of other students and we spent four or five days on a very interesting trip going through the Kiel Canal and up the Baltic Sea to Leningrad. It was especially interesting and exciting for me because it was my first sea voyage (unless one counts day trips on a paddle steamer from Cardiff to Weston-super-Mare as a sea voyage) and I was going to a socialist country...
The Communist International, or Comintern as it was called, operated as a central coordinating organization for the national Communist parties. The Communist Party of Germany had been driven underground by Hitler and the Nazis and its leadership imprisoned or dispersed. The Comintern was anxious to do everything it could to assist not only the German communists but the anti-fascist movement as a whole. I was one among those who, following discussions with the Comintern, volunteered to act as a courier for financial and other assistance. I left Moscow for Berlin early in June 1933, proceeding by a somewhat devious route.
The first stage of my journey took me via Finland to Stockholm where I was to meet someone who would advise me upon the next stage. In the train journey through Finland, I had a rather interesting experience. At the Russo-Finnish border, a number of Finnish soldiers boarded the train and one young officer seemed to take notice of me, and was obviously interested in some copies of The Listener which had been sent out to me and which I was reading. He came over to sit by me and it turned out that he spoke very good English. He was interested in radio and explained that he was a radio "ham" and had a regular contact with a radio enthusiast in Britain. He was aggressively anti-communist and pro-Hitler and I got the impression that he was a member of a Finnish fascist organization. He was curious to know what I had been doing in the Soviet Union and I pitched the tale that I was a mining engineer working for a British firm with a contract to install mining machinery, returning to Britain for a short holiday. He was very kind and took me to his flat in Helsinki, gave me breakfast and showed me his radio transmitting equipment. I have often wondered since whether this and other similar encounters during my travels were as innocent as they then appeared. When I finally arrived back in Britain, the Special Branch seemed to be well-informed about my movements.
Stockholm, where I had to stay for some weeks before I could move on, is a beautiful city and I spent my time wandering around it or lazing near the sea, enjoying a glorious summer holiday. But the time came for me to leave for Berlin and this was the part of the job that could be dangerous. I went from Sweden by ferry across to Stettin and from there by train down to Berlin. I booked into Lloyds Hotel, to find to my extreme dismay that the proprietor spoke fluent English and was an ardent supporter of Hitler. He claimed that a new equality between workers and their employers was being encouraged, and that in his establishment the servant girls now had their meals at the same table as he and his family!
I had been given an address at which I was expected to call and identify myself. The means of identification was a small piece of notepaper torn in half. I assumed that whoever I was going to meet would have the other half. Of course, this all appears highly conspiratorial but precautions were necessary, since Germany, and Berlin in particular, were at that time anything but a haven of peace and rest for communists, and I was one, engaged in anti-Nazi activity. Berlin was a frightening experience with brownshirts and stormtroopers everywhere. The people seemed in the grip of a hysteria which is hard to explain. In the streets, children and adults of all ages wore the swastika arm-bands, and lifted their arms in the Nazi salute on passing anyone, so that, in the busy streets in the centre of the city arm-raising was an almost constant motion. This salute was a must if one wanted to avoid being stopped and questioned, and I saluted like a robot - being anxious to avoid questioning. Almost every day one could read in the English newspapers of a foreigner being beaten up by fanatics for failing to observe some rite or other. I took no such risks for obvious reasons and spent heavily from my daily subsistence allowance in buying pamphlets whenever I was stopped by those selling them.
To get the address where I was to meet a representative of the German underground movement, I had to pass alongside the Alt Moabit prison where it was reported Thaelman and other leaders of the Communist Party were imprisoned. It was an ugly and depressing sight, with machine guns mounted on its high walls, and manned by stormtroopers, and a scene that did nothing to boost my confidence. However, I eventually reached the address which turned out to be a tobacconist's shop. I waited until the shop was empty before going in. Inside was an elderly woman and a young man, whom I assumed were mother and son. I handed them my piece of paper and they seemed startled and started a whispered consultation. The young man then came to me and ushered me into a small room behind the counter speaking to me in German, of which I was unable to understand a single word. He locked the door behind him as he left and I could only sit there and wait. Although I could not be sure, I had a feeling that these were the people I had to meet and that I was not being locked in to await a stormtrooper. When the door did eventually open, it was to admit a tall young man who came in with extended hand and saying genossen which I interpreted to mean "comrade". To say I was relieved would be an understatement. I was both relieved and delighted that I had succeeded in my mission of providing some aid to this representative of the underground anti-fascist movement. I was conscious, too, that any risks I was taking were as nothing compared to those he and those like him were taking every day. I could not then have known that the aid we hoped would help rebuild the anti-Hitler movement would not achieve this.
The South Wales District of the CPGB was asked in March to choose a suitable member of their Committee with a thorough trade union background as a political commissar to look after the British Battalion's interests at the International Brigades' headquarters at Albacete and also to handle personal and other related problems." It appears however that the major task was to sort out the problems existing in the Battalion leadership and to make recommendations for the reorganisation of the Battalion. The CPGB in particular was disturbed by reports of disobedience and desertion among the British volunteers, some of whom were captured and imprisoned at the Albacete base."
In the District Committee discussion, a number of candidates were considered although no great enthusiasm appears to have been shown by any of them except Lewis Jones, but he was physically unfit and was indispensable as a propagandist... Len Jefferies was almost chosen, but in common with Phil Abrahams (imprisoned in 1935), it was probably considered unfair to ask for a further personal sacrifice when he had only been released from jail in June 1935 after three years of penal servitude. It was ultimately considered that Will Paynter had the "necessary qualifications". He was a former Cymmer Colliery checkweighman, political prisoner in 1931, three times a Hunger Marcher, trained in Moscow's Lenin School and elected the first unemployed miner to the SWMF rank-and-file executive in 1936, he appeared to be the obvious choice. He did however accept "without any great enthusiasm", as he had only recently married. His wife was nevertheless a deeply committed Communist, and had been involved in the anti-fascist disturbance in Tonypandy in June 1936. He stayed for some time in London where he was more thoroughly briefed on his tasks in the Battalion." He arrived at the front with Ted Bramley of the London District of the CPGB early in May.
You have probably been expecting to hear from me before now, but the fact is, as you can well imagine, the state of things out here keeps a fellow pretty well occupied. The full story of what is happening to and with our lads out here will probably not be fully told until it is all over. This war, I suppose, has the same scenes of devastation, desolation, misery and suffering, that are characteristic of all wars. To those who are close to it, it is real and moving, and it appears more clearly not merely as a conflict of armies, but as a conflict in which masses of men, women and children take part.
To read the newspapers in England, one gets the mental picture of uniformed soldiers, the rattle of machine-gun fire, the hum of aeroplanes and the crash of bombs. Such is a very incomplete picture. The real picture is seen more in the drab scenes, in the less inspiring and less terrifying aspects. To see twenty or thirty little children in a small peaceful railway station, fatherless and motherless, awaiting transportation to a centre where they can be better cared for, is to get a picture of misery. To see middle-aged and old women with their worldly belongings tied within the four corners of a blanket, seeking refuge from a town or village that has been bombed, is to get a picture of havoc and desolation. To see long queues of women and children outside the shops patiently waiting to get perhaps half a pound of soap or a bit of butter, is to get a picture of the privation and suffering entailed.
Yet even this is not complete, because despite this, and as a result of it, you see the quiet courage and determination of the people as a whole. Is is a common sight to see the peasant farmer working in the olive groves or the ploughed field within the range of rifle or machine-gun fire; to see gangs of men right behind the lines who are tirelessly working to build new roads; to see men and women who remain behind in villages under fascist artillery fire in order to care for the wounded. Everywhere you see a people who by courage, self-sacrifice and ceaseless labour, are welded together by the common aim of maintaining freedom and liberty from fascist barbarism.
Havoc and ruin caused by Franco and the combined fascist Powers, but over and above it, the unconquerable loyalty and devotion of the Spanish people to the cause of democracy. This is crystalized vividly in the events in Spain today. There is a section who would promote disloyalty and disunity, but they are substantially uninfluential and futile. The vast support for the new Government is proof of this. This section will be crushed, not merely in the formal sense by the Government, but by the invincible loyalty of the whole people....
It is here that you realize that a battle is in progress not merely to defend a people from a savage aggressor, but to destroy something that if allowed to advance will eventually crush the people of all democratic countries....
From it all emerges one thing at least, and that is that the International Brigade and the British Battalion as part of it, is not some noble and gallant band of crusaders come to succour a helpless people from an injustice, it is the logical expression of the conscious urge of democratic peoples for self-preservation. No-one would deny that the Brigade has had a tremendous and inspiring effect upon the morale and fighting capacity of the Spanish people. Yet no-one would claim that it was done out of pity, or as a chivalrous gesture of an advanced democratic people. The Brigade is the historic answer of democratic people to protect their democracy, and the urgency of the need for that protection would warrant an even greater response.
The British government was the main instigator of the non-intervention policy and it used political pressure on other European countries to join the Non-Intervention Committee of European Powers. I can recall some of the main arguments used at the time by those who supported non-intervention. Support for the legal government of Spain, it was said, could incite the fascist powers to attack other European countries and could result in large-scale war. As events proved, their policy led to a world war. There were others who held that it was a war between fascism and communism and why not let them destroy each other? Then there were those who believed that by non-intervention on the part of Britain and other countries, Germany and Italy would feel bound to honour a similar policy toward Franco. There were those of us, on the other hand, who saw this war as the opening shots in the fascist powers' attempt to conquer the world. These arguments, dressed up to meet modern circumstances, are in essence similar to arguments now being advanced to justify the hydrogen bomb, the war in Vietnam, wage restraint or anti-trade union legislation, and the contention that opposition on these issues if successful could give rise to something even worse.
It was against this political background - indeed, because of it - that thousands of anti-fascist fighters from all over the world went into Spain to fight alongside the loyal Spaniards. It was from this spontaneous surge of volunteers that the International Brigade was established and became the basis on which the British battalion was built. The government of this country really descended to the lowest of political depths in their efforts to stop recruitment to the International Brigade. Early in January 1937 they amended the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870 so that it would apply to volunteers to fight in Spain. The Act provided penalties of up to two years imprisonment and heavy fines upon those who breached its provisions. Not only did they take action in Britain but they used their influence to get the powers in the European Non-Intervention Committee to follow their lead. Any kind of aid to the legally elected government was denied, and this was at a time when the press of the country was carrying stories of the build-up of thousands of soldiers and officers, tanks, heavy artillery, aeroplanes and other modern military equipment by Hitler and Mussolini. But recruitment, although now less open, continued and a steady flow of volunteers crossed the channel en route for Spain, erasing at least some of the shame that was Britain's, caused by the actions of its government...
In March 1937, following the battles in defence of Madrid with the British battalion in the thick of them, the need was discussed in South Wales for a representative to go out to look after the battalion's interests at the International Brigade's headquarters, and to deal with individual and other problems. It was considered advisable to select someone with a trade union background and connections, and I was thought to have the necessary qualifications. I accepted but, I must confess, without any great enthusiasm as I had got married only a few weeks before. However, once the decision was taken I proceeded to London where I was more fully briefed on the situation of the battalion and from there embarked for Spain...
During the months I spent in Spain, both Arthur Horner and Harry Pollitt visited the battalion. Both were popular with the men and were welcomed warmly. They came loaded with messages from home and information on what was taking place in the campaign for aid to Spain and other news that was not reported in the Spanish newspapers. Not only were these visits important for the men at the front but they were even more important for the wounded in hospital, as well as for the British nurses and doctors there.
Before leaving this brief account of the British battalion in Spain let me give a short description of the type of men who volunteered and whom I found good to know. There was Steve Nelson of the American battalion, who served through the whole campaign, and who, when he returned to America, wrote his account of the Spanish Civil War, published in 1953, just as he was sentenced to a twenty year stretch of imprisonment for possessing seditious literature, then Bob Thompson, who went back from Spain later to serve with the American army in the world war and to win their highest award, the Purple Heart, only to be refused a grave with the war heroes of America when he died prematurely. There was also Peter Daly to whom I was personally attracted both because he was Irish, and because he had worked for a short spell in the pits around Gorseinon, near Swansea. When only fourteen years old Peter joined the IRA and soon
became a lieutenant. In 1922 he was wounded and taken prisoner by the Irish Free State Army. He lay in goal for seventeen months and was only released after maintaining a hunger strike for eighteen days. He later joined a Welsh regiment but he was discovered smuggling arms back to Ireland and had to flee there for safety. He died of wounds in the fighting at Belchite on the Aragon front. Fred Copeman, battalion commander through the Jarama battles, was one of the leaders of the Invergodon mutiny in 1931, when the sailors' pay was cut. Jack Jones of the Rhondda, who was forty years old when he climbed over the Pyrenees into Spain, was captured and imprisoned in Burgos gaol before being released after the war had ended; and Harry Dobson, with whom I had worked closely in the Rhondda, quiet and unassuming but a great comrade, who died of wounds on the Ebro in 1938. These are only some of the men whose background I knew personally, but they were typical of the quality of the men who volunteered from Britain.
A young friend of mine has made a study of the volunteers from South Wales.' There were altogether 170 volunteers from Wales, and 116 of them came from the mining industry, around 25 per cent of them union officials at pit level. Amongst them were leaders of hunger marches and three of them had led stay-down strikes against company unionism, the industrial form of fascism which raised its head in certain pits in the South Wales coalfield following the 1926 lock-out. The average age was over thirty and 18 per cent of the Welsh volunteers were married. The South Wales miners provided the largest regional occupational group in the whole battalion.
I feel that in seconding this resolution on behalf of the Mineworkers Federation I have a special capacity to do so, first because I happen to be one who has served with the International Brigade, and secondly, because I am a representative of the organization to which the General Secretary a few moments ago paid a very glowing tribute for its work on behalf of the Spanish people.
It must be clear to every delegate in this Congress that the issue in Spain is one of which the outcome will not only determine the destinies of the people of Spain; it must be clear to everyone that the outcome of the conflict in Spain will involve the destinies of the people of all countries.... The conquest of Spain can well mean the commencement of further attacks upon other European democracies, and therefore I am pleading with this Congress that we should regard this matter not merely as one of solidarity, but as an issue of self-preservation for our trade unions in this country.
In this Congress this week we have been facing the problems that arise in our factories and our industries. May I tell you that one of the biggest problems in the Spanish factories today is the problem of fainting. Working men and women are fainting at the lathes, at the point of production, because of hunger. That hunger is the consequence not merely of the attack that is being made by the combined fascist powers; it is the consequence of the encouragement and support that those fascist powers have received from the Government of our country. While we can pay our tribute to the heroism and self-sacrifice of the Spanish people, while we are confident that they will not give up without resistance one inch of their territory, or one inch of their rights, let us appreciate, too, that we cannot expect the people of Spain to fight a combination that includes the Government of this country. That is our responsibility.
I want to tell you of one experience which happened almost twelve months ago this week. I was returning from the front to a little town called Tortosa - a town that today has been completely demolished by aerial bombardment. On that summer afternoon as we entered the town we were confronted with the spectacle of women and children fleeing from it. Out of the air had swept a squadron of fascist planes. Their objective was to bomb a certain railway bridge across the river. The river was dry, and we were astounded to see some women with a terrible look of anguish on their faces rushing towards the river bed beneath the course of the aeroplanes. We were to learn the reason for their anguish. There in the dry river bed, playing in the sand, were between twenty and thirty little children and in less time than it takes me to repeat this story in this Congress twenty to thirty little children were blown to fragments on that summer afternoon. In the town of Tortosa there was not one anti-aircraft gun that the military forces could use to keep away those aeroplanes. The protection of that anti-aircraft gun was denied to those little children, not because there is an absence of self-sacrifice or heroism on the part of the Spanish people, but because there is too great a timidity inside the working class movement of this country in its actions against the National Government, upon whom must be placed the responsibility for the deaths of those little children.
The Spanish people are facing terrific odds. I have served with them as a member of the British battalion, and let us not forget in this Congress that in the British battalion are many hundreds who are members of the trade unions represented at this Congress. Many of them have realized that the war in Spain is a war that will eventually determine the destinies of their own kith and kin in this country. I want to plead with all the earnestness at my command, as one who has seen the terrible suffering in Spain as a consequence of the arms embargo, who has seen helpless people being murdered and mutilated without the means of defending themselves, as one who has lain on his stomach and seen the Italian aeroplanes above, seen the silvery bombs being released, heard them screaming as they descended to the earth, and wondered whether it was his last moment on earth, and has deliberated upon the virtues of a supposed so-called non-intervention for which this Government has been responsible.
In conclusion, I plead with the General Council and with the delegations of the various trade unions, that they will identify themselves in the localities, nationally and internationally, with any and every movement that gives us the chance to exert the maximum pressure upon this Government in order to bring about a reversal of its policy and greater succour and aid to the distressed people of Spain.
I must frankly confess that I did not look forward to retirement with any relish. I was afraid of the effect of both physical and mental idleness. I gave some consideration to a post I had been offered before my actual retirement early in December, as a part-time member of a nationalized industry, but could not accept it, for to do so would have been to repudiate policies with which I had been identified for most of my life...
At this point I should explain that when I retired from my job in the union I also retired from the Communist Party. In fact I informed the Edgware branch dues collector of my decision early in December, long before I was approached to take a full-time job. This was not a sudden decision but was in accordance with a family understanding decided on many years before. There is, I suppose, an advantage in having a relatively unusual name during ballots or elections because it is easily remembered, but when one is on the receiving end of public hostility, as I was from time to time, this can be a handicap and was the cause of some unpleasantness not only for me but for members of my family. I was very often the subject of attack from newspapers, the medium through which so many people derive their opinions. The worst experience came during the Hungarian uprising, when it became risky for me to go into my local pub where I had been going for years because this hostility against me threatened to become violent. I was fortunate in having some good hefty friends. But the position became extremely difficult for my older sons who were then attending grammar school. I did not know of it until later, but they had a bad time until their headmaster got to hear of it and intervened to stop it. Feelings against me and my family had been incited by an open letter published in the South Wales edition of the Empire News, a Sunday paper being published in Cardiff during 1956. The letter, written by Mr David Llewellyn, then Member of Parliament for Cardiff North, associated me as a communist with the bloodshed in Budapest, the murder of little children and the other terrible things that were happening there. In the family discussions about this situation I had to make my position clear. It was not possible for me to leave the Communist Party just because such intimidation was being directed against me; it would be cowardly and unprincipled to leave in such circumstances. At the time, however, it would have been easy to take such a decision and I almost did at one point during this harrowing experience, but found that I just could not. Attempts to force me to take a decision provoke the opposite reaction in me. Nor could I take such a step either then or now, knowing that it would be used to support unprincipled attacks on the Communist Party. I despise ex-communists who lend themselves to such attacks.