Jams O’Donnell: Red Cushing and the several deaths of Yakov Stalin Part I

Last week, I published the first installment of Shaun Downey’s series on the great Red Cushing, as a tribute to Shaun who died last month. Parts 2 and 3 were taken from Ciaran Crossey’s Ireland and the Spanish Civil War website, so I will not reproduce it in full.

Part 2 deals with Cushing joining the International Brigade (after hearing in a New York bar about “General O’Duffy’s Blue Shirts”, Catholic Irish Republicans fighting in Spain on the fascist side), becoming platoon leader in Number One Company, the Lincoln Washington Battalion, and his scrapes with the Communist Party commissars who sought to discipline the Brigadiers.

We had no idea what the overall situation was. Any information about the general course of the war was carefully withheld from us by the Party leaders. Gradually it dawned on these political panjandrums that what they needed in Spain was less tub-thumping and more military know-how, so at last they decided to ship me back to the States with a view to recruiting some young men with initiative and leadership qualities.

Part 3 sees Red’s disillusionment tempting him to join the French Foreign Legion, but deciding that war with fascist Germany was the enemy he should be fighting, leading him to return to Britain to sign up there:

I travelled to England by way of Paris and Dieppe, disembarking at Newhaven and proceeding to Victoria… As I was leaving Victoria, with a view to catching a ‘bus to Paddington. a slimy-looking character tried to sell me The Daily Worker. His smug references to the Spanish Civil War so incensed me that I hauled off and belted him one. I derived a great deal of personal satisfaction out of that blow, throwing into it all the anger and disgust I felt about Communist mismanagement in Spain. It symbolised for me my complete repudiation of the Party line…

Jams concludes, tempting us on to the next intallment:

Make of this what you will. Cushing was a larger than life character but think he should be read with a pinch of salt. His later adventures as a POW-cum-potential German spy are a mixture of comedy and tragedy.

However, it is at this point we jump forward to Jams’ real story, which unfolds after Red has been taken prisoner by the Germans. As before, I have edited punctuation and format, but no text, and added some hyperlinks for reference.

Red Cushing and the several deaths of Yakov Stalin Part I

 It was my good fortune to wander into the bookshop in the departure lounge at Cork Airport. Otherwise I would not have picked up a copy of Terence O’Reilly’s Hitler’s Irishmen.Hitler’s Irishmen is mainly concerned with the fortunes of “James Brady” (a pseudonym – we do not know his true identity) and Frank Stringer, two soldiers who were imprisoned in Jersey at the time of the German occupation and who became the only Irishmen to join the Waffen SS. It also provides a detailed account of the farcical attempt to raise an “Irish Brigade” from the POW population. Roger Casement had tried the same thing during WWI with little success – his Irish Brigade numbered just over 50 men. This attempt attracted a mere handful; and some of them had no intention of serving the Reich. Brady and Stinger and the Friesack Camp are for another day though.

By 1942 the Germans realised that four of the recruits (William Murphy, Patrick O’Brien, Andrew Walsh and our old friend Thomas “Red” Cushing) were not quite as loyal to the Reich as originally thought. The four were sent to a segregation unit in Saschenhausen concentration camp.

Born in 1907 Yakov Iosifovich Dzhugashvili (I will use Stalin rather than Dzhugashvili) was Joseph Stalin’s oldest child. An artillery lieutenant, he was taken prisoner by the Wehrmacht at Smolensk in July 1941. By 1942 he too was in Saschenhausen sharing accommodation [wiuth] Vasili Korkorin, the nephew of Vyacheslav Molotov , Murphy, O’Brian, Walsh and Red Cushing.

English: Yakov Dzhugashvili (1907-1943), the e...

English: Yakov Dzhugashvili (1907-1943), the eldest son of Joseph Stalin Polski: Jakow Dżugaszwili (1907-1943), najmłodszy syn Józefa Stalina (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yakov Stalin died in Saschenhausen in April 1943. The general consensus seems to be that he effectively committed suicide either with or without the help of a German bullet. However, more than one reason has been put forward for his suicide.

Cause 1: Abandonment

According to a Time article from 1 March 1968 Yakov, devastated by his father’s refusal of a German offer to exchange him for Field Marshall Von Paulus (who had surrendered at Stalingrad in January), picked his way through a maze of trip wires to the camp fence. He then called to a nearby SS guard: “Don’t be a coward. Shoot, shoot.” When the prisoner made a grab for the fence, the guard obliged, firing a single bullet which killed him in instantly.

Cause 2: Shame over the Katyn massacres

In June 2001, however, the Daily Telegraph carried an article which purported to provide the definitive answer to Yakov’s end. Already dispirited by his father’s rejection of an exchange for Von Paulus, Stalin was so overcome by shame at the news of his father’s massacre of 15,000 Poles at Katyn in 1940 that he committed suicide by flinging himself on to the camp’s electric fence.

According to professor John Erickson (an authority on the Great Patriotic War who died in 2002), “It is clear that Yakov, who had become close friends with the Poles and had made two abortive escape attempts with them, was so distraught when goaded with the news of his father’s massacre of the Polish officers, which was revealed in German newspapers in 1943, that he took his life. Driven to despair by the horrific conditions in the camp – he was emaciated and on the point of starvation – and the strain of the propaganda campaign the Germans had involved him in, the news that his father had sanctioned the Poles’ murder was the final straw.”

To be continued

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Jams O’Donnell: Red Cushing and the Spanish Civil War

Red Cushing - Solider for Hire

[Update: Ireland and the Spanish Civil War has moved. The extract from Soldier for Hire is now here.]

On Monday, I posted that my friend Shaun Downey – described by Francis Sedgemore as ” Gentleman and Blogger of the Parish of Romford” – has died. Shaun was what I have called before a “citizen scholar”, a polymath, who rigorously researched and shared his passions. Among his interests were military history, anti-fascist partisans and Irish Republicanism.

When blogs are not attended, there is a terrible tendency for them to be hacked and become fonts for spam, which is a shameful fate for someone who has passed. Mindful of that, and in tribute to him, I have decided to re-post over time a long series he wrote on an extraordinary figure, Red Cushing. Here is the first installment, from August 2008. Shaun italicised his quotes rather than indenting them, so I have indented the whole post to make its authorship as clear as possible. I have added a couple of hyperlinks and two pieces of punctuation.

This post was inspired by recent posts by two of my favourite bloggers: Roland Dodds on the vandalising of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion memorial and Bob from Brockley’s Spanish Civil War in San Fransisco.

Irishman Thomas “Red” Cushing is almost certainly resting in his grave now (if he were still alive he would be in his late 90s) but he definitely had a life less ordinary. In the first 35 years of his life he was an IRA member, had a yoyo career in the US army with a sideline of training Sandino’s forces; served in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (his sobriquet refers to his hair not his political allegiance, he has bolshie, not a Bolshevik!), joined the British army, taken prisoner during the fall of France…. and then his adventures really began!

I first came across his name in “Renegades: Hitler’s Englishmen”, Adrian Weale’s excellent account of the Britisches Freikorps (the BFC) and other British traitors of WWII Cushing was mentioned in respect of the Reich’s farcical attempt to raise an Irish legion. He also appears in Mark Hull’s “Irish Secrets: Espionage in Wartime Ireland” and Terrence O’ Reilly’s “Hitler’s Irishmen”. However, he was no traitor himself and he continued his career in the British Army into the 1960s

Cushing wrote an account of his rollercoaster life in the book “Soldier For Hire”. It is long out of print but fortunately it is not hard to track down a reasonably inexpensive copy. The chapter “No Castles in Spain” which covers his time in Spain is very handily reproduced on Ciaran Crossey’s superb Ireland and the Spanish Civil War website. Plagiarism is not intended but I have a damaged wrist and anything that will cut down my typing is a godsend at the moment!

… While on demob leave, I stayed at the Army and Navy Club in Lexington Avenue, New York. I took the opportunity of visiting all the army posts where I had friends. To keep myself solvent I boxed a few times. Then, one morning in 1936, I wandered as far as the Army Base in Brooklyn, hoping to bump into somebody I knew…

My luck was out… I finished up in a saloon bar, sitting at the same table as five or six young fellows, listening to their conversation and occasionally chipping in when the talk became general. Somehow we had got on to the subject of soldiering abroad. During a lull in the discussion, an unmistakably military figure detached itself from the bar and slid easily into the seat next to mine.

‘I’m recruiting for the Lincoln Washington Battalion, now serving in Spain,’ he announced without preamble. ‘Any of you guys interested?’ ‘What are the prospects?’ I asked him. He shrugged. ‘Well, I guess that depends on what you can do. Have you soldiered before?’

I fished from my wallet the army documents I carried around with me and dropped them on the table in front of him. He scrutinised them in silence, lingering especially over an impressive list of courses I had passed. At last he looked up and eyed me appraisingly. ‘Seems to me you’re the type we want, brother. Can’t guarantee it, but with these qualifications you should swing a commission.’

‘Never mind the commission. My interests are tipple and bananas.’

… First we went to a building on the Grand Concourse, where I was medically examined and pronounced physically fit. Then, we proceeded to a dingy office not far from Union Square. There I completed a sort of application form, signed on the dotted line and was duly inducted. I received a cash advance of fifty dollars and was warned to hold myself in readiness… A day or two later, my instructions arrived. I was ordered to report to an address on Eighth Avenue and Sixteenth Street… I was introduced to a number of curious characters, all belonging to the school of thought that condemns soap and water as capitalist luxuries. Even before they opened their mouths, I knew what I had let myself in for. I had stepped into a gathering of Communist Party members.

Although I had no time for such crapology, I decided to ride along with them and find out how they ticked. I therefore listened patiently to my long-haired friend’s appreciation of the situation. .. I had been appointed conducting officer and was responsible for shepherding forty volunteers from New York to the Spanish front.

…The ‘Commissar’, as I had mentally labelled him, next led me into a dance hall, where I passed on his information to my comrades… When I first saw them, my heart sank. There were intellectuals, students from Columbia University and a generous sprinkling of Bowery bums and dead-beats, who had evidently espoused the Communist cause in order to be issued with meal tickets…. When I had finished, the Commissar gave them a long political speech, loaded with the usual Communist clichés. The workers of the world had to unite, fight for freedom, win a lasting peace and had nothing to lose but their chains. The students and the self-styled intelligentsia lapped it all up, but the talk made little impression on the bums. The squad was then dismissed and the Party members gathered round me, eager to give me a propaganda injection.

‘Gentlemen,’ I said to the shower of nanny goats, ‘I’m a professional soldier, not a politician. I’ve volunteered to go to Spain simply for the experience. As far as I’m concerned, you can stick your Communist racket up your jaxies! So cheerio, comrades! I’ll be seeing you at nine o’clock to-morrow morning.’ With an ironic bow to the Commissar, I made a quick exit…

To be continued

There are a couple of interesting comments on the post:

Anonymous Joseph Conlon said…

My dad met Red Cushing. We have a photo of him on our bathroom wall at home. I’m just reading the book ‘Soldier For Hire’ and its great so far.

I asked my dad today – Red’s dad seems like a bit of a nutter to which her replied “yes but Red’s daughter was even worse”… guess I have got more to find out…

Peter said…

I was Red Cushing’s platoon commander 9n Germany (Berlin) and Korea in the 1950’s. I have many stories about him – most of which revolved around his problem with “the drink” (he really loved his beer!). He was truly a one of a kind character, and I’m pleased to see that people are still interested in his exploits.

(more…)

Today in 1939: Returning from Spain

From Getty Images:

01 Jan 1939
Irish volunteers injured during the Spanish Civil War arrive back in Dublin. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
By: Keystone
Collection: Hulton Archive

Spanish Civil War: British volunteers lists available for the first time

Via Shiraz, I see this. Some snippets:

Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) KV5/118

Eric Blair is better known as George Orwell, author and journalist. Orwell’s work includes 1984, Animal Farm and Homage to Catalonia, his personal account of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. [At Poumista]

image 1

John Cornford KV5/119

John Cornford was a Cambridge–educated poet. He fought initially with the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM) and saw action at Perdiguera and Aragon in 1936 before falling ill and returning to England. He quickly returned, having recruited several friends, to join the English Battalion of the International Brigades, and was badly wounded at the Battle of Madrid in November 1936. He was killed at the battle of Lopera on 27 December 1936, shortly after returning to the front. [At Poumista]

Robert ‘Bob’ Doyle KV5/120

Bob Doyle was an Irish member of the International Brigades. He was captured in 1938 at Calaceite, near the Aragon front, along with Irish Brigade leader Frank Ryan. After spending 11 months in a concentration camp he was among those exchanged for Italian prisoners of war. He died at the age of 92 on 22 January 2009. [At Poumista]

Frank Ryan KV5/130

Frank Ryan, a prominent member of the IRA, led a group of Irish volunteers to fight with the International Brigades in Spain. He fought at the Battle of Jarama and was seriously wounded in March 1937. He was later captured and imprisoned by Nationalist forces before being released to the Germans in 1940. [At Poumista]

Historical and archival notes

Yes, I know there are more important things going on in the world today, but here are some tidbits from the history of struggle. From the archive of struggle, no.9.

Many via Entdinlichung.

Contradictions

‘Frank Ryan brought you whiskey in a brothel in Madrid
And you decked some fucking blackshirt who was cursing all the Yids…’

From The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn by The Pogues

That’s how Principia Dialectica kick off their tribute to Bob Doyle, the last of the Irish to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, who died on Valentine’s Day. Will Rubbish and Shiraz Socialist have also paid tribute.

Eamonn McDonagh notes that Frank Ryan was a man who spent the last four years of his life actively collaborating with Nazi Germany. Terry Glavin adds: “Aye. The same way Christy Moore ruined a perfectly good song.” He’s referring to “Viva La Quinta Brigada“:

Ten years before I saw the light of morning
A comradeship of heroes was laid.
From every corner of the world came sailing
The Fifteenth International Brigade.
They came to stand beside the Spanish people.
To try and stem the rising Fascist tide
Franco’s allies were the powerful and wealthy,
Frank Ryan’s men came from the other side.
Even the olives were bleeding
As the battle for Madrid it thundered on.
Truth and love against the force af evil,
Brotherhood against the Fascist clan.

Apparently, it was written while he was in Spain, reading from a book by Michael O’Riordan, The Connolly Column.

There is no doubt that Bob Doyle was a heroic man, but it is also worth thinking about the fact that he carried his Stalinism to his grave, and that the International Brigades helped crush the Spanish revolution and were responsible for the deaths of many non-Stalinist anti-fascists. As Bob commented, on the passing of Moe Fishman, another veteran of the Brigades,

As a child, the “International Brigade” conjured up the noblest form of heroism. As I got older, and developed politically, I came to see the ignoble side of the International Brigade, its use by Moscow to destroy dissident forms of anti-fascism in Spain. I realised things were not as black and white as fascism versus anti-fascism. So the passing of people like Fishman touches me in another way too: the tragedy of noble impulses used so wrongly.