Fred Copeman was born in Wangford Union Workhouse in Suffolk, in 1907. His mother and his brother George were also in the workhouse. At the age of nine Copeman was employed on the workhouse farm but eventually he was transferred to a children's home in Beccles.
When Copeman was 14 years old he joined the Navy. Over the next few years he served on the Ganges before moving to the battleship Valiant, where he became the captain's runner. This was followed by service on the ships Stuart, Emperor of India and the Royal Oak.
In September 1931 the National Government led by Ramsay MacDonald announced a reduction in pay for sailors serving in the Royal Navy. The actual reductions were Admiral (7 per cent), Lieutenant Commander (3.7 per cent), Chief Petty Officer (11.8 per cent) and Able Seaman (23 per cent).
Copeman thought this was unfair and helped organize what became known as the Invergordon Mutiny. Copeman was a member of the strike committee that persuaded the sailors on 15 ships of the Atlantic Fleet not to obey orders until the pay cuts were reviewed. The strike lasted for two days and was called off when the wage cuts were withdrawn. As a leader of the revolt, Copeman was victimized, and was forced to leave the Royal Navy.
In November 1931 Copeman joined the Transport and General Workers Union and obtained work as a rigger in the London docks. He also became a member of the Communist Party and was active in the National Unemployed Workers' Movement. Later he joined the Constructional Engineering Union and became President of the Greenwich Branch.
On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Copeman decided to join the International Brigades in defence of the Popular Front government. On 26th November, 1936, Copeman took to boat train to France. He was wounded at Jarama but he recovered and later became commander of the British Battalion.
Copeman taken ill just before the offensive at Teruel in December 1937. He was suffering from a gangrenous appendix and a splinter from a bullet that had entered the lining of the stomach. After the operation he was sent back to England to recover.
Soon after arriving back in England he was elected to the Executive Committee of the Communist Party. In November 1938 Copeman was a member of an official delegation to Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union. He was disillusioned by the level of inequality in the Soviet Union and on his return he ceased to be a member of the Communist Party.
In the Second World War Copeman was placed in charge of public shelters in Westminster. He worked closed with Herbert Morrison and in November 1945 was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE). That year also saw him elected as Labour Party councillor in Lewisham.
Copeman's autobiography, Reason in Revolt, was published in 1948. Fred Copeman, who worked as a foreman in at the Ford Motor Company in Dagenham, died in 1983.
This life of mine started in the year 1907 at the Wangford Union, a Workhouse near Beccles, Suffolk. I can still vaguely remember the cold uncharitableness of the place and its inhuman poverty. Most of the two or three hundred inmates were very old, and many were treated as hospital patients. Looking back through memory's years, I see an atmosphere of hopelessness which gave me, surrounded as I was by the old, the infirm and even the insane, the feeling that all had come here to die. Life was a continuous repetition of work, sleep and funerals. I could never make out why so many people had to die.
All the ground floors, with the exception of the Master's quarters, were of stone. The upper walls and ceilings were a dirty cream, the lower part a monotonous battleship grey. The dining hall to me was a huge place. It had lines of well scrubbed tables and stools on the stone floor. There was one small, round, closed-in iron stove, with a long chimney reaching to the ceiling. The dormitories were on the first and second floors, with the infirm people in two wings, one for men and the other for women. There were buildings attached to either wing for the male and female tramps, who appeared to have a life of their own organised separately from the Workhouse itself. The tramps, curiously enough, were the envy of the inmates because of their freedom to leave at will.
My mother was a little old lady, thin and frail, and almost totally deaf. She seemed unhappy. She always seemed to be discussing what she would do when her ship came home. All the inmates had this habit and talked constantly of what they would do when they got out. Very few of them ever left, however.
I would often meet Mother, scrubbing the stone passages which, to me, were miles long. It seemed that she did all the work. She was perpetually on her knees, and her hands were rough and sore from being so much in cold and dirty water. Talk between us was difficult, and for that reason she seldom showed her feelings. Even at that age I felt pity for her, coupled with hatred for those who were better off. I compared her with the Master, the cooks or the women who worked in his quarters. They appeared well off in comparison.
Our Sundays were never the happy time they might have been, sitting at the table in the bare dining hall separated from the others, because her deafness made us shout, causing much noise. This drew attention to us, making us feel we were the joke of the crowd. George often cried. How I hated all of them for it. Looking back, I realise that Mother had a real deep love for us. Though she never displayed it openly, I sensed it all the same. Often I saw her crying, but could not get to know the reason. I never knew a father, and if he existed she seldom mentioned him.
Very early in life I began to see and rebel against the inequalities and injustices in human society. I saw the difference between the life of the Master and that of the inmates; to me, a lad of ten, the lavish meals served to him and his family in their private dining-room, the ease and comfort of their surroundings, was a contrast to the poor food, scanty and badly cooked, the stone floors, drab, bare walls and corridors, and the plain hard furniture and tiny metal beds considered suitable for the inmates.
So long as we are agreed that the cuts in their present form are unjust, there remains the problem of what to do about it. It seems to me that it's time we expressed our opinions in a more organised way, and I propose that you return to your ships and see that the Port Watch act with us. It will be foolish for us to do anything here without the other half of the men knowing what it is all about. Sleeping in the canteen is daft, and to try to march down to Glasgow is even madder. We are sailors, not soldiers, and our strength is in the Fleet itself. Whatever we do, everybody must be in it. There must be no question of splitting one section from another. The Marines must enter this fight with us at the beginning.
The loyal subjects of His Majesty the King, do hereby present to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty our earnest representations to them to revise the drastic cuts in pay that have been inflicted upon the lowest paid men of the lower deck. It is evident to all concerned that these cuts are the forerunner of tragedy, poverty, and immorality amongst the families of the men of the lower deck. The men are quite willing to accept a cut, which they, the men, think within reason, and unless this is done, we must remain as one unit refusing to serve under the new rates of pay.
The Communist party headquarters at King Street made all arrangements. This was on 26th November, 1936. A party of us took the normal boat train to France, arrived in Paris in the evening, and left later the same night for Perpignan, a town in the south-west comer of France. It is interesting to note that Shapayev, now known as Tito, was in charge of this place at that time. The following day we arrived at this small town, which had become the focal point of all those wishing to serve the Republican Government. I found myself one of some three hundred volunteers from Britain.
In the late evening of the third day we travelled in lorries over the Pyrenees, and early the next morning reached Figueras, the rallying point for all volunteers, just inside the Spanish border. When we arrived there were already five or six hundred people there - a moving population - people coming and going every day. We stayed a day ourselves.
At Figueras I was elected to take charge of the British contingent, now some four hundred strong. The plan was to go through Barcelona to Albacete, General Franco's home town, which had become the headquarters of the International Brigade. It was a journey of some two hundred and fifty miles. No sign of fighting was seen on the roads. The Spanish villages, with their small clusters of single-storey buildings around the church, looked peaceful in comparison to the news which at that time was going out to the world from Spain.
Stretcher bearers were going back now in long lines. Kit Conway had got one in the stomach and was obviously not going to live long. Ken Stalker, the Commander of No. 2 Section had been wounded. In fact, most of the leadership had gone. I decided to find out where this machine-gun that was making it hot for us was stationed. Turning round to look for its exact location, I felt a burning in my hand, and looking down saw that the inside of my watch had gone. There were two holes in my sleeve, and a piece of bullet protruded from my hand. Within seconds the burning became almost intolerable. I grasped hold of the bullet and pulled. It must have been well embedded, it wouldn't move. I cursed everybody and everything I could think of, but the wound was not bleeding so I decided to wrap it up in the field dressing and go back later.
I turned to the hill, and almost immediately received one in the head. It was a curious feeling, rather like receiving morphia. Everything went warm and I felt sleepy. All that I looked at had a red tinge about it, and yet I could still see to move around. By this tune the pain in the hand had gone, and I almost forgot that the bullet was there.
The casualties were continuing to come back now very thick. Only a couple of dozen men with Sam Wilde were left on the white house hill. I suddenly realised that the pinkness was from blood running from my eye. I started back with Danny Gibson towards the dressing station. I was convinced that half my head had disappeared, when in actual fact the wound was not too bad. Danny's was pretty awful. Blood was pouring out of him. By now we were on all fours crawling. Somebody passed on a stretcher and was immediately killed from a hail of bullets that spattered around us. I woke up in a front-line dressing station somewhere near Marata.
It was here I met Kit Conway, who was obviously dying. The simple sincerity of people like Kit makes the struggle for social justice the inspiring thing it is. Kit was in terrible agony, and yet his one concern was that he may have been responsible for the slaughter that had taken place. Six hundred and thirty men had entered the line and there were not more than eighty left unwounded, and the percentage of killed was very high. It was hard to convince him that our fighting had taken place in the toughest, bloodiest battle of the whole Spanish campaign, and that it had been decisive in the defence of the Madrid-Valencia road.
When Jason Gurney, the Chelsea sculptor, arrived at the training base at Madrigueras, he found himself thoroughly repulsed by Copeman and quickly came to loathe him. None of the working-class volunteers appeared to share his sentiments. According to Gurney, however, everyone was frightened of Copeman because of his fighting prowess. "He charged around the place threatening to beat everybody's brains out, and looking as if he was quite capable of doing it."
Gurney's judgment of Copeman speaks as much to the difficulties of integrating men from very different worlds into one fighting unit as it does to Copeman's boorish bellicosity. A Chelsea artist accustomed to sophisticated company and a London steel erector with a truculent attitude were not likely to get on. But it was a question of temperament, not class prejudice. For, by contrast, Gurney came to admire Harry Fry, a Glasgow shoemaker with little formal education, but who possessed a "natural genius for organization." Similarly, Gurney held in high regard William Briskey, a London bus driver, who also commanded one of the battalion's companies."
Now, Copeman the "natural rebel " was in the strange position of seeing that discipline was respected and orders obeyed. His advice to his troops on the eve of battle did not spare the more delicate sensibilities, and could have hardly come from the mouth of a regular British officer. He cautioned his men that if they were preparing to go "over the top and you are messing around with your bloody self or going to Madrid and having it off, then you will find it is harder to get over the bloody parapet." But there was a quality of compassion that cemented his relationship with the rank and file of the battalion. If a patrol returned without completing its mission because of the danger, Copeman would tell his comrades he would have been as frightened as they were; nevertheless, the job had to be done, and he explained that he would have to send them out again. This empathy helped establish an essential democracy in the battalion, despite the hierarchy that developed.
The relationship with the battalion commissar was understandably crucial for the commander. Copeman decided to challenge his power immediately. He told Wally Tapsell, the quick-tongued Cockney commissar," that he would no longer accept his authority. "This was revolutionary, as the party commissars had the power," Copeman said. But Tapsell, who had been an important YCL leader and a member of the party's Central Committee, accepted Copeman's point, obtained a weapon, and took up the duties of an ordinary rifleman. He told Copeman, "I'm not going to be hanging around like these other blokes." Nor did he. At Calaceite, Walter Gregory's last sight of Tapsell was firing at enemy tanks. In his view, Tapsell was "surely the greatest of all those who served as political commissars in Spain." To many he epitomized the slogan of the commissars, "I was first to advance and last to retreat."
Although some may have obeyed Copernan out of fear, most followed him willingly. Charlotte Haldane visited Copeman when he was hospitalized on the eve of the battle of Teruel in December 1937. She had worked clandestinely in Paris, taking on the critical party responsibility of reporting on the personal and political reliability of British volunteers as well as arranging their transit to Spain. She had heard much about the former naval rating, great stories "of his physical and moral courage, and his devotion to the men under his leadership, which they reciprocated." Haldane, who had personally interviewed more than 150 of the British volunteers in Paris on their way to Spain, and stayed in close contact with those veterans who returned to Britain, said, "I did not want to leave Spain without having brought him the affectionate greetings of his comrades at home."
Tom Wintringham had no hesitation in saying, "Fred Copeman is one of the strongest men, physically and morally, that I know." But although Copeman may have had a warm place in the hearts of many under his command, he was indeed a "rough diamond." A confidential assessment of Copeman in his file in Moscow reported that "he had both good and weak points," noting particularly, "he had little military knowledge." But "when he wants, he is able to command."
Copeman's philosophy of leadership was both effective and simple. Meeting with each company commander, "My job was to tell him what I wanted done and then he had to do it. And he was the same with his section leaders. And it was the same with the machine gun crews." Ultimately, Copeman said, "The discipline came from individuals who themselves were leaders in their own way." He also knew that a commander's words had to be backed by action. "They take advantage of somebody that's not what [he] should be. They don't take advantage of a fellow that's all fire and bloody go and not just bluff." He said, "There's a vast difference with a fellow who gets among them when the bullets are flying and gets on with it. And they want to be with him."
Franco had held Teruel for three years, a vulnerable line towards the coast, and when the Republicans recaptured it that Christmas it was thought that fortune had changed at last, that the days of retreat were over.
The worst was only beginning. The occupation of Teruel had been by Spanish troops only. No International Brigades were called on. Then Franco began his counterattack with an artillery barrage so heavy, they said, that it clipped off the tops of the hills and completely altered the landscape. Protected by the Condor Legion, and two Generals in a twelve-carriage train, the Army Corps of Castile and Galicia began to advance and the Republicans had to give up their brief-held prize.
As the weather worsened, the International Brigades were at last brought in. Fred Copeman, who commanded the British battalion, fell ill, and Bill Alexander took over. The 'Major Attlee' company received its christening, and thirteen men were killed the first day. Slowly the Republicans retreated outside the city, when the very war itself was halted by a four day blizzard, the worst in generations, during which men and their weapons froze together.
The original leadership under Wilfred Macartney, Peter Kerrigan and Dave Springhall had evaporated before the Battalion went into action, and now most of the leadership at company and platoon level had been killed. The Battalion HQ remained intact but it was obvious that the command was hopelessly confused by events and did not know what orders to give. This situation was further disturbed by a self-appointed commander who charged around all over the place, giving orders to everyone on every subject.
Fred Copeman, that great bull of a man, clearly visualized himself as a divinely-appointed leader by virtue of his immense strength - he had been a heavy-weight boxer in the Navy - although he was almost illiterate. Throughout his life he had used his fists to put himself in charge of any group of men he found himself among. He was completely without physical fear and seemed almost entirely indifferent to physical injury. On this occasion he was nominally in command of a machine-gun section over on the right flank, but had left them to their own devices, having received at least two wounds, one in the hand and the other in the head, which had been roughly tied up with field dressings. By this time he was more or less insane, giving completely inconsequential orders to everybody in sight, and offering to bash their faces in if they did not comply. Fortunately, he passed out at this stage and was carted away to the rear. Some days later he returned to the front and appointed himself unofficial joint Battalion Commander with Cunningham. When the latter was wounded later on, Copeman became the official Commander.
Nearly a thousand survivors of the British battalion of the International Brigade will shortly be returning to this country in accordance with the decision of the Spanish Government to evacuate all foreign volunteers of whatever category serving in the Republican Army. The story of the International Column, as it was then called, dates back to November, 1936, when the arrival of the first contingent of volunteers from all parts of the globe coincided with a stiffening of the defence of Madrid and the halt of Fascism at the very gates of the city. The British battalion was founded as a separate unit in the following February and underwent its baptism of fire in the valley of Jarama, when it took a prominent part in repelling the Fascist onslaught on the Madrid-Valencia road, thus preserving essential communications between Madrid and the rest of Republican Spain. From that day, February 12, 1937, until the latest Ebro offensive the British battalion has blazed a path of glory. Many of this band of heroic Britons have fallen in the struggle for the freedom of Spain and for democracy the world over. They will never rise again, but the cause of liberty and justice which moved them to offer their services to the Spanish people will live for ever.
Those who have survived and who will be returning home shortly will come back with their heads held high. They have done something to redeem the honour of the British people, as a people that loves freedom and fair play. Many will be disabled, others wounded, and all will have a tale to tell of dangers braved and hardships undergone. Shell-fire and aerial bombardment were only a part of the tests which these men have faced. Beneath the burning Spanish sun, in the snow of Teruel, without food for days at a time in periods of heavy action, undergoing operations for the extraction of shrapnel often without anaesthetic, spending sleepless nights in digging trenches, dirty, lousy, weary, and hungry, these men have kept alive that fierce spirit of determination that democracy shall triumph over Fascism. They have known all the exigencies and perils of war plus extremes of privation and want, some of them due the policy of non-intervention which prevents the Spanish people from obtaining adequate food and medical supplies.
It is our duty to see that when they come home they shall have clothes, food, and other necessities to tide them over the period until they are able to obtain work. It is doubly our duty because these men, who have been steeled in the heat and fires of battle, have a leading role to play in the struggles that lie ahead of democracy in this country. We appeal, therefore, to your readers to help us immediately in collecting 3000 pairs of boots, overcoats, and suits. They can be sent direct to me, or if money is sent we can buy them at wholesale prices.
Our visit to the Stalin Auto Plant gave me a shock. We passed through an avenue, banked on either side with scrap metal - it looked like the walls of a canyon. This was made up, the interpreter told us, of the cars which had been unable to start when they left the belt. They were picked up by a crane and dumped on to this scrap heap. As this had been going on for some years there was enough scrap to keep the place going for some time. The factory itself was a colossal organisation after the style of Ford's at Dagenham, producing tractors, lorries and cars, on the moving belt system. It was on reaching the large workshop with the hundreds of engineers, each at his own lathe, that I received a most unpleasant surprise. I was well aware of the Stakhanovite Movement, which is the Russian equivalent of our piece-
work system. I remembered, and had taken part in, the protest against "Bedaux" and was therefore quite shocked when the interpreter started to explain the meaning of the hundreds of small red flags, each attached to a wire on every lathe.
Here and there a flag would be at the top of the mast, but in the main they all remained at the same level. As a trade unionist I needed no more explanation. The mass of workers were deciding just how fast they intended to go, and the efforts of the Stakhanovites were being treated in exactly the same way as those of our own speed merchants in any British factory - with mistrust and resentment. I noticed the glances of the majority of the engineers when our deputation was taken over to one of these speed boys. I had understood that communism won the goodwill of the workers because of the righteousness of its case. Here a system of coercion was being used, and it looked as though the mass of the workers had little time for it.
My general impression of the standard of life of the Russian people was that it was far below that of even the lowest-paid workers in Great Britain. It is true there was no unemployment and that many things were being done for the Russian workers which were outside present possibilities for the British worker. Yet somewhere, something very important was missing. Everything seemed to be organised from the top. Our own accommodation and meals were lavish compared with those of the ordinary people. A visit to the Soviet, which I had hoped would give me renewed inspiration, was making me, if anything, cynical, and certainly doubtful of the final success of the Party's tremendous economic experiment.
I have always had a rather extreme attitude to this question of sharing the riches of the world, and have found it hard to accept a principle which lets some live lavishly while others starve. I realised that there could never be complete equality, but had always hoped that extremes of squalor and luxury side by side would not be possible under Communist rule. My own refusal to wear an officer's uniform during the Spanish War after all others had accepted it, was a natural expression of the deep-rooted feelings I had about this question.