George Aitken

George Aitken

George Sutherland Aitken fought in the First World War. He worked as an engineer before joining the Communist Party of Great Britain. In 1927 he attended the International Lenin School in Moscow.

Aitken also worked for the Comintern and was responsible for work within the armed forces and edited a newspaper called Soldier's Voice. In 1930 Aitken published a leaflet, We Must Not Murder the Workers and Peasants of India.

In 1931 Aitken became a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain. He was also district organiser of the party in the North-East of England.

On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the CPGB helped establish the Spanish Medical Aid Committee. According to Kenneth Sinclair-Loutit, who was chosen to head the British Medical Unit sent to Spain, describes being taken by Isobel Brown to be briefed by Harry Pollitt, the leader of the CPGB.

The leadership of CPGB was also involved in the creation of the International Brigades. In February 1937 Aitken was sent to Spain to replace Dave Springhill as political commissar of the British Battalion. He was also temporary commander of the battalion when Tom Wintringham was wounded later that month. The following month Aitken was promoted to Brigade Commissar. Jason Gurney claimed in his book, Crusade in Spain (1974): "George Aitken was a quiet, modest and conscientious man who was consistently zealous for the welfare and just treatment of every man in the Battalion. I think that he suffered many struggles between his loyalty to the Communist Party and his sense of justice to the men."

Aitken later admitted that desertion during battle was a major problem for the International Brigades. As the author of British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War (2007) points out: "Aitken cajoled them to return to the line but, as he freely admits, on occasions he forced some volunteers back to the front under threat of his pistol. However, Aitken never actually used it; like most of the other senior figures in the battalion, he was vehemently opposed to the shooting of deserters." Some senior officers, such as Wally Tapsell, disagreed with this strategy.

On 6th July 1937, the Popular Front government launched a major offensive in an attempt to relieve the threat to Madrid. General Vicente Rojo sent the International Brigades to Brunete, challenging Nationalist control of the western approaches to the capital. The 80,000 Republican soldiers made good early progress but they were brought to a halt when General Francisco Franco brought up his reserves. Fighting in hot summer weather, the Internationals suffered heavy losses. Three hundred were captured and they were later found dead with their legs cut off. All told, the Republic lost 25,000 men and the Nationalists 17,000. George Nathan, Oliver Law, Harry Dobson and Julian Bell were amongst those killed during the battle.

After the fighting at Brunete, George Aitken, Jock Cunningham, Wally Tapsell and Fred Copeman were called back to England. Tapsell was highly critical of Aitken, the commander of the British Battalion. He claimed that "Aitken's temperament has made him distrusted and disliked by the vast majority of the british battalion who regard him as being personally ambitious and unmindful of the interests of the battalion and the men."

It would seem that Harry Pollitt accepted this criticism of Aitken as he was kept back in London whereas Tapsell returned to the front-line and on 6th November 1937, he was appointed as political commissar of the British Battalion. As the author of Homage to Caledonia (2008) has pointed out: "At its conclusion, Pollitt told Aitken, Cunningham and Bert Williams (a political commissar with the Abraham Lincoln Battalion) to remain in Britain, while Fred Copeman (commander of the British Battalion) and Tapsell were to return to Spain."

Aitken remained loyal to Joseph Stalin until September 1939 when Neville Chamberlain declared war on Nazi Germany. The leader of the CPGB, Harry Pollitt, published a pamphlet entitled How to Win the War. It included the following passage: "The Communist Party supports the war, believing it to be a just war. To stand aside from this conflict, to contribute only revolutionary-sounding phrases while the fascist beasts ride roughshod over Europe, would be a betrayal of everything our forebears have fought to achieve in the course of long years of struggle against capitalism."

Joseph Stalinwas furious with Pollitt's pamphlet as the previous month he had signed the Soviet-Nazi Pact with Adolf Hitler. At a meeting of the Central Committee on 2nd October 1939, Rajani Palme Dutt demanded "acceptance of the (new Soviet line) by the members of the Central Committee on the basis of conviction". He added: "Every responsible position in the Party must be occupied by a determined fighter for the line." Bob Stewart disagreed and mocked "these sledgehammer demands for whole-hearted convictions and solid and hardened, tempered Bolshevism and all this bloody kind of stuff."

William Gallacher agreed with Stewart: "I have never... at this Central Committee listened to a more unscrupulous and opportunist speech than has been made by Comrade Dutt... and I have never had in all my experience in the Party such evidence of mean, despicable disloyalty to comrades." Harry Pollitt joined in the attack: "Please remember, Comrade Dutt, you won't intimidate me by that language. I was in the movement practically before you were born, and will be in the revolutionary movement a long time after some of you are forgotten."

John R. Campbell, the editor of the Daily Worker, thought the Comintern was placing the CPGB in an absurd position. "We started by saying we had an interest in the defeat of the Nazis, we must now recognise that our prime interest in the defeat of France and Great Britain... We have to eat everything we have said."

Harry Pollitt then made a passionate speech about his unwillingness to change his views on the invasion of Poland: "I believe in the long run it will do this Party very great harm... I don't envy the comrades who can so lightly in the space of a week... go from one political conviction to another... I am ashamed of the lack of feeling, the lack of response that this struggle of the Polish people has aroused in our leadership."

However, when the vote was taken, only Harry Pollitt, William Gallacher and John R. Campbell voted against. Pollitt was forced to resign as General Secretary and he was replaced by Rajani Palme Dutt and William Rust took over Campbell's job as editor of the Daily Worker. Over the next few weeks the newspaper demanded that Neville Chamberlain respond to Hitler's peace overtures.

Aitken and his wife, Agnes Lachlan Aitken, could not go along with this change of policy and resigned from the Communist Party of Great Britain. Aitken now became heavily involved in the Labour Party in Hornsey. His son, Ian Aitken (born 1927), is a political journalist.

Primary Sources

(1) James Hopkins, Into the Heart of the Fire: The British in the Spanish Civil War (1998)

On the second day, the survivors were cheered by the efficiency of Aitken, "the only Political Commissar who was effective without becoming sanctimonious," who brought up to the front not only stragglers but food and hot coffee. Disaster struck, however, when Harry Fry's machine-gun company, lying about 100 yards in front of the sunken road, was infiltrated and captured by the Moors. Upon the orders of General Gal, the arrogant and inept commander of the XVth Brigade, Wintringham was forced to make an assault. As "the English Captain" stood up to lead his men, he immediately was felled by a bullet. George Aitken succeeded him in command.

(2) Richard Baxell, British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War (2007)

During the night about 30 stragglers from No. 3 Company were found at the cookhouse by the battalion political commissar, George Aitken. Where possible, Aitken cajoled them to return to the line but, as he freely admits, on occasions he forced some volunteers back to the front under threat of his pistol. However, Aitken never actually used it; like most of the other senior figures in the battalion, he was vehemently opposed to the shooting of deserters. Aitken claims that he was approached at Jarama by higher officers, "and a civilian", with the idea of trying, and possibly shooting, some of the deserters. Aitken resisted it and states that he remained totally opposed to the idea of shooting men who had volunteered. He later stated categorically that "there was nothing of the kind while I was there." However, coerced or not, the volunteers were a desperately needed addition to the front line.

(3) Maurice Levine, Heroic Voices of the Spanish Civil War (2009)

As commissar I approached George Aitken, who was the brigade commissar on that front, and told him that a man in my opinion was no use and should be taken to the rear, away from frontline duty. To my surprise Aitken agreed. He was very understanding. He had been in World War I himself and been wounded. I thought it was very good of him because you have to be very hard during a war. You can't just fit everybody in who might feel that they can't carry on, otherwise you would have nobody left.

(4) John Bosco Jones, Heroic Voices of the Spanish Civil War (2009)

After about the third day at Jarama when we went into action, there was very little defence. We were out in the open and people were standing up when they should have been taking cover. They were being shot down and we were losing quite a number of men and right to the front of us, about 500 yards away, there was a big white house. We were hoping to capture that white house but we never got near it. Our commander, Bert Overton, came over to me and said: "I have forgotten my binoculars." I was a runner then, a messenger, and I said I would go back for them. He said, "No, I will go". I said you can't go and leave the company, but before I said anything else he walked off and he was gone. I didn't think too much more about it. I thought that maybe he had been killed. So many people got killed, especially officers, at that time.

It was about six months later, at Mondejar, that I met Peter Kerrigan, the commissar, who was a very stern and severe but good commissar. He did things for everyone's good. He says to me, "There is a battalion trial, go and get the prisoner". So I went in and there was this bloke sitting there. It was Overton. I looked at him, sort of remembered his face, told him to come along and marched him in. I remember Kerrigan and a fellow called George Aitken were sitting there. Overton was asked about this and he told them the same story as he had to me: that he had left his binoculars and he went back to fetch them. He was accused of cowardice, taken in front of the battalion, stripped of his officer epaulettes and was dishonoured. That was the last I saw of him. I was told he went off to another front and died there. After the trial I did say to Peter Kerrigan that because Overton had given my name as a witness I should have been allowed to step forward. I couldn't have made any difference. I would have told the same story, but it seemed a bit unfair to me. Kerrigan said he was a coward and that men had died.

(5) Jim Prendergast, Heroic Voices of the Spanish Civil War (2009)

For several days I remained with Frank Ryan, whose duties kept him just in the wake of the gruelling advance. Along the road from Villanueva to Brunete we came across rows and rows of bodies, many with their names pinned on slips of paper. Many of them were British lads. I remember one, who had been a Labour councillor at home, clutching, of all things, a dead rabbit. Frank told me that Will Paynter was in the very front position with the lads. The next day Frank took me over to the 15th Brigade HQ located in a huge pantechnicon. George Aitken, the brigade commissar, was seated on an upturned box, banging grimly away at a typewriter; from time to time the pantechnicon shuddered as bombs dropped nearby. Frank told George to give me a safe conduct back to Albacete, explaining his reasons. After much grumbling George gave me the precious slip of paper with the brigade stamp.

(6) Daniel Gray, Homage to Caledonia (2008)

The dispute began when Battalion political commissar Walter Tapsell claimed that the promotions of Scots George Aitken (to Brigade Commissar) and Jock Cunningham (to Battalion commander) had left the two men isolated from regular Brigaders. Tapsell wrote that, "Aitken's temperament has made him distrusted and disliked by the vast majority of the British Battalion who regard him as being personally ambitious and unmindful of the interests of the Battalion and the men." Meanwhile, Cunningham, "fluctuates violently between hysterical bursts of passion and is openly accused by Aitken of lazing about the Brigade headquarters doing nothing." Assistant Brigade Commissar at Albacete, Dave Springhall, weighed in, claiming that the Battalion's entire leadership structure had collapsed under the pressures brought on by defeat at Brunete.

With an amicable resolution impossible in Spain, all parties involved were summoned back to London for a meeting with CPGB leader Harry Pollitt. At its conclusion, Pollitt told Aitken, Cunningham and Bert Williams (a political commissar with the Abraham Lincoln Battalion) to remain in Britain, while Fred Copeman (commander of the British Battalion) and Tapsell were to return to Spain. Aitken and Cunningham, though barely on speaking terms themselves, were apoplectic at the decision, and the former wrote a 10-page letter of "emphatic protest" to the CPGB, in response to this monstrous injustice".

Within a matter of months, both had resigned from the Party, and the leadership of the British Battalion had been radically reshaped. As part of its restructuring, the Battalion became an official part of the republican army, meaning popular six month terms of service were now prohibited. Disputes at the top of the hierarchy had undermined soldier morale and damaged the reputation of the Brigades on a level that the smattering of desertions at the bottom never could.

(7) Walter Greenhalgh, Heroic Voices of the Spanish Civil War (2009)

The people who were there in Spain representing the communist leadership in my view made a hash of things. Tapsell definitely made a hash of things. I know for a fact that he caused a tremendous amount of despair among those who survived the Battle of Brunete. I was present at the meeting and I told George Aitken lots of these lads had arrived after the main part of the battle was over and so we suffered a defeat.

In fact we hadn't achieved our objective, we had to fall back and things had been bad, but it wasn't any different from anything that had ever happened before. We always got so far but we never had that little extra which enabled us to make anything out of it, because we didn't have the weapons and so on. Their [fascists'] aeroplanes used to come over and just stand out of range, our anti-aircraft would fire at them perhaps for an hour and then we would run out of shells. So then planes would come, they would bomb and they would strafe. It was nobody's fault that we weren't an organized army, we couldn't possibly be and therefore we were bound to have defeats.

After the battle we were exhausted. A lot of the men were new and just arrived and there was Tapsell telling them that the reason for the whole of this is because the military command was useless; that they weren't revolutionary enough and what we must do is demand that there should be full cooperation between all ranks so that there was full discussion of all tactics, rather than having orders given to you from above, and so on. And that if we had this revolutionary strategy running right through all the forces in the army then these defeats would not occur. I went to George Aitken and said the way things are going on, every lad in the battalion will go home because he was telling them that their officers were useless and that they are being driven to the slaughter like cattle. So Tapsell was arrested and of course the next thing there was a political struggle, because Tapsell was representing the Communist Party.

At base we had Peter Kerrigan, who was a similar thing to Tapsell, and it would have been too politically dangerous for Tapsell to have been put on a proper charge for disaffecting the troops, although there was a 30 percent desertion after his speech and the morale in the unit went right down to zero. What happened was that Tapsell and George Aitken went back to England.

After that I was with the battalion and was then an old timer. I was one of the few remaining from the first English company. Aitken lost his battle in England so Tapsell came back and I was asked to make a speech of welcome, to welcome Tapsell back into the battalion. Of course, I couldn't, and at the same time not only could I not do that but I couldn't say why because then I would be just as bad as Tapsell. So for the first time in my life I went out and got drunk. I just sat in a cafe and drank a bottle of rum (I have never touched rum since). So I avoided that. It could be that Tapsell was a different person later on, because instead of being an observer he became a company commander in the battalion and was killed on the Ebro front.