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The Spanish Civil War

Page 4 – NZ combatants in Spain

The majority of the New Zealanders who fought in Spain did so because of political commitment. Most were strongly anti-fascist and a number were communists. Others spoke of fighting out of a 'sense of adventure' or in some cases because they were paid.

The idealists

Steve Yates and Griffith ‘Mac’ Maclaurin were the first New Zealanders to arrive in Spain. They marched into Madrid on 8 November 1936 with around 3000 other members of the International Column. Reporting on this event (and the next six weeks of fighting in the Spanish capital) for a London daily, the News Chronicle, was Geoffrey Cox from Palmerston North.

Fighting for the fascists

At least three New Zealanders joined the Nationalist forces in Spain. One was an unnamed Spanish Foreign Legion veteran, whom Geoffrey Cox later met in the NZ Division during the Second World War. An anaesthetist named Macintosh worked with Franco's medical services for two months in 1937; he may have been spying for the British Government. The third was Phillip Cross, the son of a doctor from Island Bay in Wellington. He had left New Zealand in 1928 to seek his fortune. He was shooting a film in a pro-Nationalist region of Spain in 1936 when the war broke out. Most of the men in the town joined the Nationalist army, as did those in the film company. Cross fought in the siege at Madrid and was captured at Boadilla shortly after. He was sentenced to death but was saved when the Nationalists recaptured the town. He was eventually wounded and invalided out of the war.

Yates, described as a 'good bloke', was a First World War veteran and member of the Communist Party. He was working as an electrician in London when the war broke out, and was well known for his involvement in anti-fascist protests. Maclaurin, a talented mathematician, had left New Zealand to study at Cambridge University. Both men were members of a small 'English' group in the Machine Gun Company of the French Battalion, First International Brigade. They were killed when their unit was overrun sometime on 10 November.

Tom Spiller, a leading New Zealand communist, and his friend Fred Robertson from Napier were reunited in Spain in early 1937. Both men were quickly thrown into action at Jarama. Robertson was killed during this fierce battle. Spiller himself was badly wounded in July during the Battle of Brunete.

Timaru-born Bert Bryan was another Kiwi communist determined to do his bit for the anti-fascist cause. He survived the horrors of the Battle of Ebro River (July-November 1938) before leaving the country shortly after when the decision was made to withdraw the International Brigades. Back home, he became involved in fundraising with SMAC.

A fellow survivor of Ebro was Charlie Riley, a Londoner who first arrived in New Zealand in 1913. He served with the British army and was wounded on the Western Front. He returned to New Zealand in 1917 and joined the Mounted Rifles in time to see further action in Palestine. During the Depression he became an active member of the Christchurch Unemployed Workers movement. A committed anti-fascist, he eventually made his way to Europe via Australia, joining the British Battalion of the International Brigades. He was severely wounded at the Battle of Ebro River and eventually invalided back to Australia. He returned to New Zealand in 1939 and campaigned for aid for Spanish war refugees. At the age of 46 (while claiming to be 39), Riley enlisted with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force when the Second World War broke out. Continuing his personal crusade against fascism, he was wounded for a third time in the Middle East.

The adventurers

John Horatio 'Jack' Kent of Eltham had always wanted to travel the world. As a semi-professional wrestler - known as the 'Taranaki Tiger' - he got his chance. He later joined the International Brigade, mainly (according to his sister) out of a 'sense of adventure'. He was one of an estimated 500 killed when an Italian submarine, the General Sanjurjo, torpedoed the troop ship Ciudad de Barcelona in May 1937.

Wellingtonian William Madigan, described as a 'larrikin, seaman, hobo and adventurer', was probably killed sometime during the Battle of Ebro River in 1938. He had arrived in Spain from the United States earlier that year and joined the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. Like many of the international volunteers, he adopted an assumed name as foreign nationals had been warned that they would be shot if captured. His adopted name was 'Martinez'.  

A fresh start

William ‘Murn’ McDonald, the son of a well-known Dunedin doctor, had left New Zealand in disgrace following a spell in prison for bank robbery. He arrived in Spain while delivering a military aircraft. Unable to serve as a pilot in the Republican air force, he joined the American Battalion of the International Brigade. He stressed that he was no communist but a member of the 'Spanish Government Army'. He was wounded at Jarama and eventually evacuated to Britain when the International Brigades withdrew in late 1938. During the Second World War he served in an elite British unit.

The mercenaries?

Bernard Gray from Masterton won fame as a 'tanquist', someone who destroyed an enemy tank. He was working as a chef in London and saw an opportunity to earn extra money fighting for the International Brigade, as he was saving for his wedding. Although he described himself as a mercenary, he later worked with Basque refugees and raised funds for the Republican government.

Eric Griffith from Eastbourne, near Wellington, served as a fighter pilot in the Republican air force and shot down several German and Italian planes. He signed a mercenary contract which included a £200 reward for each plane shot down. Every bit the ‘dashing aviator’, he had been part of an air circus in New Zealand, had flown in China, and served as a member of Admiral Richard Byrd’s Antarctic expeditions. He was badly wounded in Spain when shot through the shoulder but managed to land his plane in one piece. He was paid £1000 for his injury, as per his contract. After a spell training Spanish pilots, Griffith returned home to get married. As befitting this larger-than-life personality, he then headed for Hollywood in an unsuccessful bid to become a stunt man. He returned to New Zealand during the Second World War where he became a flight lieutenant in the RNZAF. He was killed in 1942 during an unauthorised joyride in an American air force plane.

How to cite this page

NZ combatants in Spain, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated