The house we rented for the last week had a book collection frozen in time somewhere about 1970. There was a shelf of World Books from the early 60s, some of which I remembered from my mother's collection but had never read. So forty years on I read Adrian Hayter's story of navigating single-handed to New Zealand, Eric Ambler's gun-smuggling tale Passage Of Arms, and CE Lucas Phillips' The Spanish Pimpernel. This turned out to be a true (though I thought I detected a hint of embroidery) tale of a Brit banker in Madrid during the Civil War who devoted his energies to helping people escape from Republican Spain.
For those of us brought up on Orwell and Hemingway the book's something of a rude awakening. Democracy under the Republic was decaying to the point at which political assassination was a commonplace. Lucas Phillips describes the protests in Parliament of the Conservative Senor Sotelo, and the bitter response from lefty icon La Pasionara.
"You have just made your last speech" she spat at him. He was assassinated a few days later. At which point Franco raised the standard of revolt, and Republican Madrid started arresting and shooting without trial anyone suspected of right-wing views, sympathies or family connections. Tens of thousands were killed in Madrid alone. As Churchill put it, Franco's forces then repaid the Republicans 'with interest'.
But the story which stuck in my mind was the siege of the Alcazar, the Military College, at Toledo, fiercely defended by the young cadets until Franco's troops relieved them.
The Republicans had arrested the teenage son of the Alcazar's commander, General Moscardo, and put him on the phone to his father to tell him that unless the fortress surrendered his son would be shot.
They bred them hard in those days, though I wonder what Senora Moscardo thought - for according to Phillips, Moscardo replied as follows:
"My beloved son, I order you to die like a hero. May your last words be 'Long live Spain and Christ the King !'"
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