When visiting a Nazi Death camp at the end of the war it was Dwight Eisenhower who said something like, "Get it all on record now, get the witnesses and tell the story because somewhere down the road of history some bastard will say it never happened."
I get the same feeling as I sit in front of the old heroes from days gone by, men and women to whom we owe so much, men and women who have the courage and feel the need to tell the younger generation what they went through in order that they don't have to. I count myself lucky in that the subjects I've worked with eventually bared their entire soul to me and when they did there was no doubt a huge slice of closure on what was a brutal and traumatic period of their lives. But year after year their numbers are fewer and despite several appeals over the last year or two I have not managed to catch up with anyone with an untold tale from World War 2. I watch the Cenotaph Parades each year and my heart goes out to veterans still able to take part, many in wheelchairs and I can't help feeling that there must still be a tale or two to be told but I'm still waiting.
So it was somewhat of a surprise earlier this year when a close neighbour said he was going to introduce me to his father who fought in World War 2 AND The Spanish Civil War? And furthermore he was ready to tell his incredible tale of survival. Felipe Albero Gomez is ninety six years of age, (there is footage of us working together on my website and facebook) his memory is incredible and to use an old expression he still has all of his marbles. As always I am in awe of these men and women I sit with as they tell their horrific tales and I wonder how they not only survived during these terrible times but more so, how they picked up the pieces, put everything behind them and moved on to complete relatively normal lives.
I have entitled Felipe's book 'The Survivor' because he tells me that was his only concern as he was conscripted into the Spanish Republican Army at aged 19. No one asked him what side he wanted to fight on but if he had refused to go he would have been shot. By a quirk of fate his older brother had been told to fight too... for the opposite side. Felipe told me that no one could possibly know what that felt like, to be in conflict with your own brother. With no choice or say and the bullets of a firing squad the only alternative he found himself fighting the older brother he adored.
After two months basic training Felipe found himself fighting in one of the major conflicts of the Spanish Civil War, around Zaragoza and the River Ebro. Conditions were atrocious, there was no food, most of the rations handed to the International Brigades. The Spanish troops were fed on bowls of lentils and small stones and pebbles to fill their stomachs. He was captured by the Nationalists after only six weeks and thought it couldn't be any worse than how he had been treated by his own side. How wrong he was. They were taken to a POW camp in Northern Spain and fed one bowl of soup every 3 days, there were no plates, he had to cup his hands and accept the ladle of soup that way or starve to death. Survival was looking bleak for Felipe but he persuaded a camp official to allow him to write to his brother, a Nationalist soldier who was serving in Malaga. My brother will come to get me he told his fellow internees as they laughed at him. Fifteen days later his brother arrived at the camp and persuaded the camp commandant that Felipe was in fact, a Nationalist. So Felipe Albero Gomez, switched side and took the blue uniform of the Falange and he survived... just. He saw out the rest of the war in Granada in relative peace and shot at nothing more than a fox that strayed too close to the position he was guarding. He took a measure of pride that he never fired a single bullet at his fellow countrymen.
As the war ended Felipe could have been forgiven for thinking that his time as a fighting man had been served. It wasn't to be. Eighteen months into World War Two, General Franco decided to send several divisions of Spaniards to help his friend Mr Hitler. Felipe was one of the unlucky ones and once again was given a choice, fight or be shot. I won't spoil the story too much; the book should be published towards the middle of next year, publisher enquiries to my Literary Agent, Diane Banks in London. But again, Felipe survived, and again never fired a shot in anger, quite an achievement.
So once again I have managed to take down the incredible war story of an old soldier, albeit different to the other war stories I'd previously covered. Felipe wasn't fighting for a cause he believed in, he wasn't political at all, nor was he fighting against a dictator determined to take over the world committing genocide along the way. By his own admissions Felipe only had one battle, the battle to survive and to fill his belly with something other than lentils.