After the end of World War II, a veteran of the fight against fascism turned up at an Auckland Anzac Day parade to march with the RSA. He was told he couldn't.

He could, though, tag along at the end, by himself.

His name was Tom Spiller. He was, in that American jumping-the-gun designation, a "premature anti-fascist".

Tom Spiller was born in Napier in 1910. He was an apprentice on the railways when the Depression hit. He was laid off, went to work on government schemes and in 1932, convinced that capitalism was a dead loss, joined the Communist Party.

By 1936, he was ready to leave Napier and see the world. He was on the waterfront at the time, and took the opportunity to sign on an English ship and work his passage to London.

He arrived in time to take part in demonstrations against Oswald Mosley's fascist Blackshirts. He was one of those who blocked Mosley's attempt to march through the Jewish East End and was batoned by police for his trouble.

By 1937 he was in Madrid. It was a logical step for him. Having confronted and defeated the fascists in London, it was time to do the same in Spain.

Spain was a feudal country in the grip of aristocrats, landlords, business-owners and the church. A republican government, bent on reform, had been elected by workers and peasants.

The Spanish Army officer corps rose up against this government and with the backing of the German and Italian fascist powers and local leagues, started a vicious civil war.

The League of Nations declared itself neutral, and Britain and France announced an embargo on any assistance to the besieged government.

"International Brigades" were immediately formed around the world, volunteers signing up to go to Spain and fight the attempted coup. Tom Spiller joined the English Brigade.

He was posted straight to the Jarama front in February as part of a 10-man machine gun unit. There'd been no time for proper training. The first bullet he fired was at the enemy.

But he could look after himself _ he had been at cadet school in Trentham and at territorial camps.

On the first day his unit was hit by a shell. Eight of the unit were killed.

Spiller survived.

Jarama was near Madrid, a bloody battlefield, the biggest trench battle since World War I as the insurgents fought to take the capital and the republican forces, backed by the International Brigades, to hold it.

Spiller described it as "like some thing out of Dante's Inferno".

A day could end with the burial of 80 comrades in a single grave.

One dawn, violent shelling of the front-line trenches was followed by a panic among the Republican forces.

Moors, fighting with the fascists, had broken through.

Figures were running past Spiller in a chaotic retreat. He saw a bipod-mounted machine gun lying on its side.

He crouched low and ran to it. Moors were running toward him, right in front of him with their flowerpot hats and "screaming blue murder". He let them have it until a mortar exploded in front of him and bowled him.

He'd lost his gas mask and his helmet, but still had his rifle.

He ran back to a field of grapevines and olive trees.

Injured comrades were lying under each tree. Moors were everywhere, yelling and shouting.

He put the sights of his rifle on zero and let the Moors have it. Five rounds, load, five rounds, load. Then he'd fall back, tree by tree.

As he continued his retreat, he saw Moors rushing up and shouting to each other as they found a wounded brigader. A wounded man reached up to desperately grab the bayonet of a Moor and wrestle with it. Other Moors swarmed up and speared the man from all sides.

At one olive tree he took cover behind, a wounded man reached up and clutched at Spiller, pleading, "Don't leave me behind!" Spiller figured if he stayed, they'd both be goners. He forced the wounded man off and fired and ran and fired and ran. He could hear the screaming behind him as the wounded were bayoneted to death.

Through the fighting at Jarama he'd had a pal with him, a seaman, also from Napier. His pal survived the retreat, but he didn't survive the counter-attack to regain the lost positions.

"I felt a little like crying when I found out about it," Spiller wrote to a friend in Napier.

But Spiller had learnt to live with death and his letter home, without pausing for breath or tears or even a new paragraph, went straight on to address more immediate problems: "A German machine-gunner [is] belting hell out of this dug-out at the moment, curse the bloody skink a thousand times."

Spiller moved on from the Jarama front and fought in the ferocious and disastrous Republican counter-attack at Brunette, west of Madrid. He recalled being met by brigaders who would say to him, "Are you still alive?"

Sometimes, he felt lonely. His cobber was dead and Australians he'd got to know were also dead or wounded.

Finally he copped one ... well, three _ two in the leg and one in the shoulder. He recuperated and was preparing to return to the front when he was offered command of a brigade, the 15th.

Then, before he could accept, he was asked to do something else instead. It was a lucky change _ all those in command of the 15th brigade in Spain were later killed in action or executed.

Spiller's new task was to go to Australia and sign up more volunteers.

He spoke at meetings in Australia, and helped form Spanish Aid committees.

From Australia he came back to New Zealand where he was greeted by special branch police and asked how long he intended to stay. "As long as it bloody suits me," he replied.

He did a nationwide tour for the Spanish Medical Aid Committee, living out of a small truck.

He intended returning to Spain. He had written, "I'm only on leave from the brigade, although of course I could not be forced to go back. Personally speaking I've had a bellyful of fighting and all that goes with it, but I know that I wouldn't be playing the game not to go back again, most of my pals and comrades are now dead."|

But he didn't return. The war in Spain was lost. Twenty-three thousand members of the International Brigades remained there forever, under Spanish soil.

The Germans and Italians had tested their weapons in war and tested the parliamentary democracies' resolve to fight fascism. When the former were found unexcelled and the latter non-existent, the two powers pushed ahead with territorial expansion and the Spanish Civil War became the overture to full-blown war in Europe.

Again Tom Spiller offered his services for combat, this time to the regular New Zealand Army. He was found unfit.

At the end of the war, fascism defeated, he turned up for the Anzac Day parade.

He was told his Spanish service didn't make him a real war veteran, so he wasn't allowed to march with the RSA. But he could march by himself, at the back.

He declined.

He remained a life-long communist and was an official of the Tramways Union for 25 years, including time as its president. He retired in 1977 and in 1983 returned to Spain, visited Jarama and laid a wreath for his dead Napier comrade.

He died in December, 1984 _ just as the Labour Government was setting about its task of transforming New Zealand in the interests of everything he had fought against.


* Tom Spiller's story appears in Kiwi Companeros _ New Zealand and the Spanish Civil War, edited by Mark Derby and on sale next month.
KIWIS IN THE SPANISH WAR

A handful of New Zealanders joined Republican forces in Spain. Like Tom Spiller they fought with the international brigades or tended the casualties of conflict.

Battlefield surgeon Doug Jolly served on all the major fronts and operated on thousands of wounded troops. The Cromwell-born doctor helped set up field hospitals in railway tunnels, caves and abandoned buildings to cope with the flood of casualties from relentless air and ground attacks.

In World War II, Jolly served with British forces and put his Spanish lessons to work by writing Field Surgery in Total War. His textbook became a standard guide to treating conflict injuries.

Several nurses went to Spain. Three - Rene Shadbolt, Isobel Dodds and Millicent Sharples - were sent after fundraising by a New Zealand Spanish Medical Aid Committee. Shadbolt and her companions struggled in appalling conditions as truckloads of casualties arrived and amputations went on round the clock.

Palmerston North-born reporter Geoffrey Cox was an eyewitness to the conflict, dispatched when London News Chronicle's Madrid correspondent Denis Weaver was captured by Franco's forces. Though there for barely three months, Cox's vivid account, Defence of Madrid, written on his return to London, has become one of the classic books of the civil war.

At least six New Zealanders died fighting for the republic.