The Spanish Civil War

Page 3 – Attitudes in New Zealand

Those New Zealanders who fought in the Spanish Civil War did not have the support of New Zealand’s first Labour government. Despite Labour’s strong socialist origins, the government didn’t want to antagonise its many Catholic supporters.

The Vatican had recognised Franco’s Nationalist regime in 1937. New Zealand Catholic newspapers like the Zealandia portrayed the war as a communist and anarchist attack on the Church. Reports of atrocities committed by the Nationalists such as the bombing of Guernica by their German allies were dismissed as the work of communist saboteurs. In 1939 Zealandia editor Father (later Cardinal) Peter McKeefry met Franco in Spain at a special mass in dedication to the fallen Nationalist General Emilio Mola.

Labour was also reluctant to be seen aligning itself with the New Zealand Communist Party. The government’s representative at the League of Nations, Bill Jordan, was sympathetic to Republican cause but overall the government was content to allow its policy on Spain to be determined by Britain.

The deaths of at least six New Zealanders in Spain went largely unnoticed at home. But some groups within New Zealand saw Spain as more than a ‘far away side issue’. The Spanish Medical Aid Committee (SMAC), the Communist Party, and a number of trade unions raised enough funds through raffles, exhibitions, film screenings and public talks from civil war veterans to send three nurses – René Shadbolt, Isobel Dodds and Millicent Sharples – directly from New Zealand to Spain.

Money was also raised to buy a field laundry truck and ambulance for the Republican army, as well as medical supplies for the refugee camps established across the French border.

SMAC had developed from the work of Alex MacLure, a Canadian studying at Otago University. A communist, he helped establish an organisation to raise money for medical and humanitarian aid for Spain which eventually spread its activities nationwide. After a brief trip home to Canada, he sailed for Spain in March 1937 and was killed in his first action at Fuentes de Ebro. His death inspired an Otago classmate, the writer Dan Davin, who had become a Rhodes scholar and studied at Oxford. In his short story, The Hydra, a character called McGregor was killed fighting in Spain. Davin wrote how ‘Spain was a place you got killed in, for something. Oxford you just went on dying in, for nothing.’

How to cite this page

'Attitudes in New Zealand', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012