Fernandez Montes and the Spanish Civil War

For many of us older comrades who were politically active in the Labour Party Young Socialists in Coventry in the late 1960s and 1970s, Fernandez Montes was the living embodiment of the Spanish Civil War.

We were, and many of us still are, very serious about the tasks facing us as socialists who saw that capitalism could not guarantee decent standards for all so society had to be changed. We had to build a socialist society. But where and how should we start? We got our inspiration from learning the lessons of past attempts by the working class to change society, not only in Britain but all over the world.

The Spanish Civil War was always high on the agenda. When Franco rose up on July 18th 1936 to overthrow with military power the elected Second Republic government, the issue was posed as to how Franco could be stopped and the republican government defended. Also high on the agenda were the demands of working people on the land and in the cities for land distribution, jobs and decent wages.

On the one side stood the forces of Spanish Fascism, the Falange, supported by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, the landed oligarchy, the capitalists in Spain and internationally, as well as the shock troops from the Rif area of North Africa. On the other side stood workers, landless labourers, the trade unions and the workers’ parties, the overwhelming majority of the Spanish population. How was it then that Franco won?

That was a question that we discussed in detail, always aided by a comrade who had actually fought in the Spanish Civil War. Our discussions were theoretical, but always linked to the reality of the struggle and it was Fernandez Montes who provided the link to real life. He had been there and had fought!

Only in later life did we learn that his full name was Frutos Manuel Fernandez-Montes, although many knew him as Monty or even Freddie Montes, while his family called him Manuel. He was born in 1920 in Santibañez de la Fuente, a tiny hamlet outside the town of Collanzo, in Asturias, northern Spain. This is a region of mountains and coal mines between the Basque lands and Galicia. He was the only son of the village inn-keeper – a hard taskmaster. His mother died shortly after his birth and he was brought up by his stepmother whom he adored, but who died with one of his older sisters when he was about 12.

He received a basic education and showed promise as a pupil, but in 1936 the Spanish Civil War started and he joined the majority of those in Asturias in opposing Franco and fighting for the Republican cause. He was a member of the UGT, General Workers Union, that was allied to the Spanish Workers’ Socialist Party, the PSOE. He was supposed to go to Guernica to train to become a pilot, but because of the fighting he couldn’t get there and became a guerrilla in the mountains. He was eventually captured and summarily tried. He often remarked in an almost off the cuff way that while he was in prison he was taken out twice to face a firing squad. Each time this happened a game was played with him. He was lined up and prepared to meet his death, only for the would-be executioners to laugh and take him back to his cell.

The death sentence he faced was commuted to life imprisonment because of his age. He was imprisoned in Alcalá de Henares, where he suffered considerable hardship – principally lack of food, but he did learn a trade – printing, and a pleasure that would interest him throughout his life: chess. This was played with pieces moulded out of chewed bread.

After suffering three brutal years of Franco’s prisons, he was offered the opportunity of release if he joined the Spanish Foreign Legion serving in Morocco. Due to a change in command personnel, however, he decided to abscond along with some others – he never confirmed exactly how, but it is thought that papers may have been provided for them by the Red Cross. If he had been caught, he would have been shot without a trial. He managed to cross North Africa and joined the British army. This is how he eventually arrived in England.

After being demobbed he worked for Parbury’s the printers, where his left-wing tendencies and active support for the printing union meant that he didn't last long. He then worked as a compositor for another Coventry printing company H. A. Smith and in 1945 he met and married Mary Goodhall who gave him a daughter, Anita, early in 1946 and a son, Paul, in 1962. In 1951 he moved to a new job as a wages clerk at the Morris Engines factory where he eventually served for 29 years.

His background meant that he was always a committed Socialist and he extended his support for the Labour Party into trade union activities, becoming active in what was the Clerical and Administrative Workers Union, later APEX, as branch secretary, chairman, plant convenor and up to the regional executive, regularly going to the annual conference. He represented the union in many different forums: the Coventry Trades Union Council, Amnesty International and latterly as a governor of a number of schools and FE colleges. In 1982 he was rewarded with the APEX gold badge and in 1984 the TUC also honoured him with their gold badge for services to trade unionism.

Through his union interests he was acquainted with many well-known socialist figures throughout his life, meeting Jack Jones on a number of occasions, and was once invited to Downing Street as a long-standing Labour Party member.

Fernandez, however, was not a one-dimensional man. He played sports, was a skilled snooker player, a very good chess player and a very combative crown green bowls player, winning many trophies. He also became a very skilled football referee who knew the laws inside out. If you crossed him and committed a foul that warranted a sanction, it gave rise to one of his famous quips, “Han’ if you don like it, AFF!”  He achieved a Grade One referee qualification, and in 1971 when Coventry City played Bayern Munich in the UEFA Cup he was appointed as an interpreter for the match referees.

As if these achievements weren’t enough, he taught Spanish evening classes at the Coventry Technical College – bringing the language alive for a huge number of English tourists keen to dabble. Additionally for many years he was the senior vice-president of the “Sociedad Española de los Midlands” – the Spanish expatriates organization supported by the Spanish Government – whose annual dinner and “Dia de la Tortilla” – a mass picnic usually held at Drayton Manor Park, with competitions including football matches – which Frutos played in until he was well over 60, were simply indescribable events peopled by larger than life characters.

Because of his desertion he was unable to return to Spain until after 1970 – a friend of his was shot in the 1960s for doing just this, but after this he was a regular visitor – initially to his relations (his father having died in 1968), but in later years to Tenerife and the Costa Blanca. The pleasure he took from Spanish food never stopping him from enjoying his “Breffas” – a full English breakfast of bacon sausage and egg, which kept him going until his illness prevented him from looking after himself.

When he was allowed to return to Spain, he managed on one occasion to achieve a life-long ambition – to dance on Franco’s grave. He died on Boxing Day 2011 at the age of 91, after a long deterioration from Alzheimer's disease.

Many of us will treasure the long hours that we spent in LPYS meetings in discussions with Fernandez, as we knew him. Often we did not see eye to eye on how the Civil War could have been won. As Fascism was capitalist reaction to protect and preserve the wealth and power of the landlords and capitalists, we saw the need to take over the land, factories and centres of finance and involve the working class in all areas in the democratic ownership and planning so that wealth was shared amongst all. For Fernandez the task had been by any means to win the War and defeat Franco. At each stage however we were all comrades in arms involved in serious yet fraternal and friendly discussions on how to put an end to capitalism and build a socialist society.

All serious socialists will continue the task of learning from past the defeats and past victories of our class. As George Santayana once said, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

And as we learn we also remember the stalwarts of our movement such as Fernandez, who experienced such hardship and such trauma in his life as he participated in the struggle to free our class, the working class, from the misery of capitalism.