How a Basque refugee football team overcame tragedy to take Wales by storm
If you tolerate this your children will be next…
In 1998, Welsh music legends Manic Street Preachers achieved their first number one single with a song inspired by the Spanish Civil War.
Unbeknownst to many music fans, the title was taken from a haunting Spanish Republican propaganda poster showing the dead corpse of a young child killed by General Franco’s Nationalist party. The song’s theme was influenced by the nearly-200 Welsh volunteers who went to Spain to fight for the anti-fascist International Brigades. 35 would not return home.
2021 marks the 85th anniversary of these heroic volunteers arriving in Spain. Predominantly from the South Wales coalfields, they left their families and lives behind in the hope of defeating fascism and enabling peace, freedom and international solidarity.
Wales and Spain, and particularly the Basque Country, had a long history of reciprocal immigration. Basque workers came to industrial towns in Wales as early as the 1880s, whilst Welsh steelworkers went in the opposite direction to find employment in industrial Bilbao in the early 20th Century.
The Welsh historian Gwyn Alf Williams stated: “in a country which had plenty of working-class Spaniards and established links with Bilbao, the Civil War struck an even deeper chord than it did elsewhere.” Welsh internationalism was at play.
The bravery of these volunteers cannot be underestimated. They were not conscripted or supported by their government. Indeed, many had to lie or secretly cross the Pyrenees on foot in order to enter Spain to fight.
Back in Wales, domestic volunteers also joined the fight against fascism, helping to house and support child refugees who had been evacuated from their war-torn homeland. The barbarism taking place in Spain had forced desperate parents to send their children to the safety of other shores.
On 31st March 1937, around 250 civilians were brutally killed in a German and Italian air raid on the small Basque town of Durango. The slaughter was encouraged and welcomed by General Franco, the fascist military leader of a coup d’état against Spain’s democratically elected Republican Government. However, it was the destruction of Guernica, 35 kilometres from Bilbao, on 26th April that made shockwaves throughout the world.
An award-winning report in The Times by George Steer brought attention to the plight and horrors of the ancient and culturally important Basque town.
Hundreds of civilians perished that day (the exact number is still hotly disputed), targeted and struck down relentlessly by planes from Hitler’s Condor Legion. It was a sign of things to come internationally. The “terror bombings” had one aim, to petrify anybody who tried to resist Franco’s uprising. It worked. The citizens of Bilbao knew that they would be next.
Following the massacre at Guernica, Basque President José Antonio Aguirre (a former footballer with Basque giants Athletic Bilbao – winning the Copa del Rey in 1923) pleaded with the international community for help. Despite the British government’s stance on non-intervention in Spain, they finally allowed refugees to land on shore, though with no commitment of financial support.
On 23rd May 1937, almost 4000 children arrived in Southampton aboard the SS Habana following a treacherous crossing from Bilbao. Evacuated from their beloved Patria Euskadi Herria (Basque Country), the Basque children, or niños vascos, spent two weeks in a temporary camp in Southampton. Eventually, they were scattered around the UK, with around 230 children being sent to Wales.
On 10th July 1937, almost seven weeks since fleeing Spain, 56 young Basque children (with two interpreters and three teachers) arrived at Newport railway station. They were greeted by a number of eminent local people. Wales welcomed the children with open arms.
From the station, the children were put on a bus to nearby Caerleon, where they were initially housed at Cambria House. The young children settled in well, but unsurprisingly their mental and emotional well-being was of concern. One mournful sentence from the accounts of Cambria House states “to prevent sorrowful reminiscences and feelings of loneliness, the children must be entertained and amused constantly.” Football was an opiate.
Originally going by the moniker España Libre (Free Spain), the Cambria House football team consisted of boys between the ages of 11-15. The creation of the team gave the boys some much-needed escapism. It allowed them to bond and create an atmosphere of camaraderie and solidarity as a unique and distinctive group in enforced exile. Furthermore, it was a way of integrating and connecting with the local communities within South Wales. They began to make a name for themselves and gained many admirers. Indeed, the South Wales Argus newspaper labelled them “The Basque Wonder Team” and “The Basque Unbeatables.”
Settling on the name Basque Boys AFC, the team played a number of games throughout South Wales. In his book ‘Fleeing Franco’, Hwyel Davies states that in one month the boys played in Aberavon, Merthyr Tydfil, Tredegar and Maesteg.
The match at Maesteg was played against Caerau Boys on Wednesday 19th April 1938 and was a catalyst in raising much needed funds for the running of Cambria House.
Match reports were written by the boys (in Spanish and English) in the monthly magazine the Cambria House Journal (CHJ). The CHJ shows matches were also played in Risca, Neath, Caerphilly and Chepstow. Although Cambria House received some financial support from organisations such as the South Wales Miners’ Federation (SWMF), the CHJ helped raise further funds (it was sold for 2d), promoting what activities the youngsters were undertaking within the local community, whilst celebrating their successes. It is a fascinating historical document.
Due to circumstance, every game for Basque Boys AFC was an away game. On Saturday 26th November 1938, the boys played Pontypridd Boys Club at Ynysangharad Park. Sponsored by the Aid for Spain Committee, Pontypridd Council and the Labour Party, the match attracted much attention. “We set out from Cambria House in high spirits, and the weather was good. We believed we were going to win,” wrote one of the boys in the CHJ. “We enjoyed the journey, singing and telling stories. When we got there, there were a great many Welsh people waiting for us.” The visiting team went 1-0 down in the first half, but this did not detract them from selling “many copies” of their magazine at half time, thus making “a lot of money for the house.”
The positivity of the match report, despite being on the end of a 1-0 loss, shines through. The togetherness is evident, with the author reporting “several members of the team distinguished themselves during the game: Fedo, Antonio, who nearly succeeded in scoring a goal by hitting the ball with his head, the ball striking the bar. Also, Gabriel and Manolo, who made some fine passes.” After the game, the boys joined their opposition to play billiards, ping-pong and eat. They got on the bus back to Caerleon with full bellies “singing merrily.”
Boxing Day 1938 saw the boys take on Kitchener Road School in Cardiff, where after being given morning refreshments to help warm them up, the game was kicked-off by Welshman and two-time British heavyweight boxing champion Jack Peterson. In what was an exciting match on a sodden and muddy field, several of the Basque boys impressed – “Gabriel with his fine passes, and Juan and Enrique by very neatly trapping the ball.” However, it was not enough to avoid a narrow 2-1 defeat. The best was yet to come, when after dispersing to different houses to have hot baths, the boys were taken to Ninian Park to watch Cardiff City win 2-0.
After the match the boys from Kitchener presented their opponents with a large basket of fruit, which according to the CHJ “pleased us very much.” Following their escapades, the boys often had to creep into bed back at Cambria house, where the other children were already fast asleep.
A visit to Tylorstown on 11th February 1939 saw the boys chalk up a 3-2 win against the odds. The Basque spirit and grit were seemingly spurred on by one supercilious spectator who before the match “told us that we were going lose, and that for every goal we scored they would score five.”
The boys were causing quite a stir in South Wales, with crowds getting larger and photographs being requested before matches. This was evident in their match at Port Talbot on 14th April 1939, where the Mayor was present for a snap on the pitch before kick-off. The game finished 3-2 to the Basques from Caerleon. Welsh conviviality saw the opposition take the boys to “the seaside” following the game.
The apotheosis of the incredible story of Basque Boys AFC was played out in front of thousands of spectators at Cardiff City’s Ninian Park on Wednesday 10th May 1939. The game was against Moorland Road School, the reigning league and Seagre Cup winners. Their team included two schoolboy internationals and three who played for the Cardiff youth team (one of these, Ron Stitfall, went on to make 402 appearances for Cardiff City and gain two Welsh international caps). A comprehensive defeat was expected for the Basques.
The match programme shows the two captains (A. Colley and Juan Antonio Hernandez) standing proudly, arms around each other in a moving show of solidarity. This was soon forgotten during a closely fought match, where the Basques were again provoked by a show of haughtiness from the opposing centre-forward who declared “we shall beat these chaps easily.”
Unaware of the determination of a Basque scorned, the team from Cardiff struggled with the ensuing attacking onslaught. Emilio Espiga opened the scoring, carried shoulder-high in celebration by teammates Juan Antonio Hernandez and Gabriel Parron. Soon after, Jose Luis Acha doubled the lead to finish the game off as the “congratulations of thousands of people were pouring upon us.”
Somewhat amusingly, Julio Andres, who played right back and wrote the match report for the CHJ, was aghast that he was down as a substitute in the programme, as well as in the following days’ news reports.
Overcoming adversity was second nature to these boys. They had seen the horrors of war first-hand and witnessed their families being torn apart. Their football journey brought some normality and joy back to their lives. They enthralled the people of South Wales, whilst promoting an anti-fascist and anti-war stance.
Basque Boys AFC is a story of compassion, the human spirit and triumph. It is also a reminder of the horrors and consequences of war.
It resonates now more than ever, when refugees are so often falsely blamed for society’s ills, rather than seen as the victims who are escaping unimaginable atrocities and tragedy.
Eventually, all of the boys returned to their homeland.
And fittingly one would forge his own notable football career thanks to those formative games in south Wales.
Talented goalkeeper Enrique Garatea Bello would go on to play football at the highest level in Spain, turning out for Atlético Mardrid, Huesca, Gimnástica de Torrelavega, Tenerife and Cádiz.
A Basque Boy with a little piece of Wales in his heart.
This story has been brought to life with the help of images from The Richard Burton Archives at Swansea University. Explore Your Archive Week (November 20th-28th) is organised by the UK Archives and Records Association and supported in Wales by the Archives and Records Council Wales. The annual week-long campaign encourages people across Wales to discover something new and exciting within the nation’s archives, whether that’s delving into your own family history or finding out the stories about the people and places at the heart of Welsh communities.