I have been working my way through the late Shaun Downey‘s telling of the Red Cushing story. We started at the end of the Spanish Civil War, with Thomas “Red” Cushing, veteran Irish Republican fighter, joining up with the Americans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Then, in the next installment, he got disillusioned with the Brigade’s Communist officers, and headed off to join the British Army to fight Hitler instead. Shaun then cut to Cushing as a POW alongside Stalin’s son, whose suicide he claims he played a bizarre part in.
Some months later, in 2009, Shaun went back to fill in the gaps.
It’s been a while since I wrote about Thomas “Red” Cushing. I promised to do so a lot earlier but hey ho! This is the first of a group of posts covering Red Cushing’s time between leaving Spain disillusioned and his time in Sachsenhausen with Yakov Stalin. This is taken from his autobiography “Soldier For Hire” (John Calder 1962)
After arriving in Victoria (stopping only to belt a Daily Worker seller in Paddington see Red Cushing and the Spanish Civil War Part III), he made his way to Cardiff to enlist in the Royal Iniskilling Fusiliers. After a relatively uneventful time (for Red that is!) involving a few boxing matches, and a fair bit of drinking, he was posted to Darlington and then Hereford to man a searchlight unit, he was sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force.
He spent four months digging fortifications until the Wehrmacht decided it wanted to spend its 1940 summer holiday at the French seaside. Like many other members of the BEF the next few weeks were a story of chaos, desperate fallbacks and futile attempts to regroup. Near Douai his unit did manage to blow a bridge taking several German armoured vehicles with it.
Caught behind the German lines Cushing and several other soldiers found shelter in a bistro cellar filled with an impressive range of drink. Building a bar out of a few crates Cushing and comrades embarked on what he described the greatest drinking bout of the century. Cushing was still resolved to do his duty. He was determined to fight out the war to the last bottle.
Alas things did not work out quite that way….
Shaun stopped here, and left us all for weeks before continuing:
After capture and several days of marching, Cushing and his comrades were herded into rails trucks and taken toStalag VIII(b) near Lamsdorf. In Silesia (now called Lambinowice). Not being an officer he was required to work so after fumigation and shaving and looking, as he put it, like a snooker ball he was drafted into a stone quarrying party.
Needless to say he found the food and lodgings rather below par and being a free spirit, he decided to escape. Obviously his attempts were unsuccessful or he wouldn’t have ended up in Sachsenhausen and got into a scrape with Yakov Stalin! During his third and final attempt he made it as far as the Carpathian Mountains. There he encountered a farm dog “about the size of the Hound of the Baskervilles”. To escape he tried to scale a high fence but his battle blouse got caught on a pointed picket post. It was in that ignominious position that he was recaptured. He was awarded 28 days solitary confinement for his troubles.
He was then sent to work in a coal mine where he was assigned as an assistant to a humourless but even tempered worker called Willi. Cushing found this mix a perfect opportunity for mischief.
One day Willi was engaged in making modification to roof supports. He called down to Cushing in guttural English “Thomas, the saw you will give Ja?”After weighing the request Cushing provided a hammer.
“Nein, Nein Thomas. The saw, Die Sage Verstehst?” Cushing responded “Ja ich verstehe” going through the motions of a man sawing, then promptly handed Willi some wood.Willi, with the patience of a saint, stopped his work and came down to show him what he wanted.
Cushing would do this time and time again. When Willi wanted nails, he would get a hammer and so on. The effect was that Willi spent more time explaining things to Red than actually doing any work.
Believing Red to be an utter idiot, Willi would spend a lot of time regaling him with the latest Nazi propaganda, particularly tales of hardship and starvation in England.. Nothing Red said in answer would change his view (and why would it when the Reich was on a roll at that time). Tiring of the Crapology, as he called it, Red found the perfect way of putting one over him, proving in the process that Britain’s larder was not quite as empty as it was portrayed.. He persuaded the other prisoners to let him have a complete Red Cross parcel.
When eating a lunch of ersatz coffee and black bread with a little Speck, Willi demanded “Thomas, this war how long it last, eh?
“Oh probably another 10 or 11 years Willi”
“Nein, nein In England everybody hungry is.. Doctor Goebbels says”
“Up Dr Goebbels lulu, have a look at this little lot” At this point he opened the parcel to display a treasure trove of goodies, including tea, sugar cocoa (and of course lots of span and bully beef).“One parcel a week Willi for every British POW in Europe”
Red’s trick had the desired result: Willi and the other workers realised that their propaganda was an exaggeration and was to be taken not with a pinch of salt but with a whole mine’s worth.