Recollections of Frank Cato – Spanish Civil War 1936

Spanish Civil War 1936

After school at Caterham 1919-1925 I joined my father and brothers, Will and Ted, in Cato’s (the family firm). In 1927 my wife-to-be, June, came to Branch 1 at Chiswick and so began our companionship, which lasted, unbroken except for my army period 1941-1946, until her death in 1992. An unbroken bond for 65 years of complete trust and loving happiness. My younger brother Percy left Caterham School in 1933 and also became a member of the family firm. He eventually became manager of Eastcote branch until 1939 when he volunteered for the RAF. He qualified as a bomber pilot and in 1942 was shot down and killed while attacking the German Submarine pens at Flensburg.

He and I were great pals and each year spent our holidays, on our Sunbeam 500 cc motorcycles, touring Britain or the continent of Europe. In 1936 we decided to visit France and Spain and so made our way to Gibraltar. In those days the cross channel ferries were not of the drive-on type, each vehicle was loaded by crane. Our journey through France was uneventful. The travelling down Spain was very hot and we found it difficult to get anything to drink during the day. We were troubled by many punctures, which we would mend while under the shade of a tree. On our journey we ran into a cloud of locusts, they covered the road completely and, as we drove through them, they rose like the bow wave of a ship and hammered our legs. We also saw a colony of cave dwellers who inhabited the numerous caves on the hillside. I should think they made comfortable homes. I wonder if this community still exists?

The route we had chosen from France was via Pau, and the Pyrenees then Zeragoza, Cordoba, Seville to Gibraltar. It was in the Moorish market in Seville that I had my pocket picked thus losing my travellers cheques. Fortunately we had shared our cheques between us, so we could journey on while using the other half. It was in this Seville market that we bought for our nieces, Rossie and Peggy , some Toledo jewellery. These pieces they have up to this day.

We found Gibraltar very interesting particularly the naval docks. One feature intrigued us, the policemen. These were dressed in the uniform similar to our familiar English police, but somehow, they looked, to us, different. From Gibraltar we made our way homeward along the Mediterranean coast, Malaga, Valencia until we reached Barcelona. At our hotel one morning we awoke, we thought, to the sound of thunder and went to the window to view the sky. What we did see was a line of crouching soldiers creeping along the wall opposite. On seeing us at the window, and presumably fearing snipers, one soldier immediately fired his rifle in our direction causing us to flee back into the room for shelter.

After fierce street fighting the Franco soldiers in the city were defeated, making their last stand in the telephone exchange building in Catelonia Square. The city fell into the hands of the revolutionaries, who did not maintain order, and chaos reigned with wanton damage and looting everywhere. Churches were vandalised, bibles and hymnbooks burned in heaps on the pavement and priests murdered and left in the street. Our hotel was commandeered by the successful soldiers and snipers posted at the upper windows. We were lined up in the dining room and told that they were in control but no harm was intended to us. Food was not available except for some bread rolls. Normal city activities completely ceased.

On the second day, Percy and I ventured out, each waving a white handkerchief, as was the custom of anyone braving the streets. These streets were littered with the debris of fighting which included the bloated bodies of dead horses. From the shelter of moving from tree to tree we made our way down to the harbour where we found further evidence of wanton destruction. Damage was everywhere; boats and yachts burned down to water level.

On the way down to the harbour we had learned a basic lesson. As each stolen car passed along the road the horn was sounded three times. These cars were protected by mattresses fastened along each side leaving slits through which rifles protruded. At the sound of these horn blasts, anyone on the street raised a clenched fist. Being British and foolish we did not act in the prescribed manner, but the immediate screech of brakes and the pointing of menacing rifles immediately changed our minds and, from then afterwards, at the order of ‘toot, toot, toot’ we quickly gave the required signal of clenched fists.

Frank Cato on Motor Bike

Frank Cato on Motor Bike

The next day we again made our way down to the harbour where we watched the slow entry of a warship. On the top deck of which we could see smartly dressed officers in white tropical dress. It was HMS London. How cheered we were to see a British vessel amongst all this confusion. As we waited and watched, a boat put off from this ship and came alongside the jetty. Swiftly the sailors landed and, without shouting or fuss, just cleared the crowd back to form a clear uncluttered square on the harbour. We could have cheered and felt extremely proud to be British. This state of order was maintained so that any ‘Brit’, who so wished, could be safely taken home. Percy and I enquired but were told we would have to leave our machines behind. This we were reluctant to do and decided to get home again over the Pyrenees.

Accordingly the next morning, Percy and I mounted our bikes and set off. We had only reached the edge of the city when we were stopped at the first checkpoint. We were to meet many of these during our ride homeward. Here after a suitable delay we were allowed to proceed. Perhaps the Union Jacks on the handlebars helped. So in this manner we proceeded, roadblock to road block, until we reached an area of fighting. There the road check point was deserted, we waited and soon a little man came out from the shelter of trees and decided we could go on, but, before doing so, he tied, for our protection from opposing combatants, a band of red cloth round our arms. After we had travelled a little further we stopped. What a kind gesture these arm bands were, but what would happen if we found a band of his opponents round the next bend of the road? We thought it wiser to drive on unbanded. Before long we had to consider getting a further supply of petrol, so when we were next stopped we made clear our request for a refill. Leaving our bikes behind we were led into a large shed. Seated or squatting round the walls of which were a number of men filling bandoliers with ammunition. At the top end of the room was a large table at which were seated one woman and several men, each wore a red scarf tied round their heads. We stood in front of this table and made our requests known. English? The man said. English good! Germans no good, and in so saying he ran his hand across his throat in a cutting action. At that moment we were glad we were English. (Germany had entered the war on Franco’s side and Hitler was trying out his air bombing experiments on Spanish towns and villages.) We were each given an escort who rode on our pillions and directed us to the petrol pumps. Here we were given a small amount but enough to get us into France.

Thus, we resumed our journey and met no more checkpoints. As we neared the Pyrenees the roads became very rough. The holes were so frequent that the front springs on both machines fractured and had to be bound up with insulation tape. Darkness began to fall and before long we were making the journey over the mountain range by our headlights. Eventually, to our great relief, we reached the frontier and passed into France. Our first thoughts and wishes were to put up for the night but for some while no one would answer to our knocks. Presumably they were nervous of who might be fleeing from Spain. Eventually a kind hotelier took us in. We were very grateful. Can you imagine our relief to wake up in the morning without the sound of gunfire? Instead, we had the peace of the countryside and the sound of bird song.

So ended our escape from Spain. We called into a French post office and sent a telegram to Dad, who at our request forwarded a further supply of money for collection at a pre-arranged post office some way en-route home. So to Calais and the cross channel ferry to England.

One morning soon after reaching home it began to rain. This we had not experienced for some weeks but had endured hours of driving under a blazing sun. The result was that we enjoyed and revelled in walking in the rain and feeling the pleasure of rain running from our un-hatted heads down over our faces.

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