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Claude Cockburn, the son of a diplomat, was born in China in 1904. After obtaining a degree from Oxford University he became a journalist with The Times. He worked as a foreign correspondent in Germany and the United States before resigning in 1933 to start up his own journal, The Week.
Using the name Frank Pitcairn, Cockburn also contributed to the Daily Worker. In 1936 Harry Pollitt, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, asked him to cover the Spanish Civil War for the newspaper. When he arrived in Spain he joined the Fifth Regiment so that he could report the war as an ordinary soldier. While in Spain he published Reporter in Spain.
Cockburn was attacked by George Orwell in his book Homage to Catalonia (1938). In the book he accused Cockburn of being under the control of the Communist Party. Orwell was particularly critical of the way Cockburn reported the May Riots in Barcelona.
In 1947 Cockburn moved to Ireland but continued to contribute to various newspapers and journals. This included a weekly column for the Irish Times. He also published several books including Aspects of English History (1957), The Devil's Decade (1973), Union Power (1976) and Cockburn Sums Up (1981).
(1) Claude Cockburn, In Time of Trouble (1956)
It was at about this time (September 1934) that Mr Pollitt, Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, whom I had never met, was suddenly announced on the telephone - would I, he asked, take the next train, in twenty minutes or half an hour, and report a mine disaster at Gresford, North Wales. Why? Because he had a feeling that there was a lot more in it than met the eye. But why I in particular? Well, because, it seemed, Mr Pollitt - who was worrying at the time about what he believed to be a lack of'reader appeal' in the Daily Worker - had been reading The Week and thought I might do a good job.
(2) Claude Cockburn, Reporter in Spain (1936)
On 12th July 1936 gunmen in a touring car nosed slowly through sparse traffic under the arc lamps of a Madrid street, opened fire with a sub-machine-gun at the defenceless back of a man standing chatting on his doorstep, and roared off among the tram-lines, leaving him dying in a puddle of his young blood on the pavement.
That in a manner of speaking was the Sarajevo of the Spanish war. The young man they killed was Jose Castillo, Lieutenant of Assault Guards. I never saw Castillo, but afterwards I heard all sorts of people speak of him with a kind of urgency and heartbreak, as though it were impossible that you too should not have known, and therefore loved, so fine a young man.
In a corps which in the five years of its existence had already acquired a high military reputation, Castillo was already
distinguished, and already loved, by men who are not very easy pleased nor easy fooled.
In the working-class districts of Madrid he was equally well known and liked. He was declared a gallant and patriotic young officer, as dauntless a defender of the Republic as you could wish to see, and a man - as a Madrid workman said to me afterwards - "who made the culture and the progress we were after seem more real to us".
(3) Claude Cockburn, The Daily Worker (21st November, 1936)
From the main streets you could already hear quite clearly the machine-gun and rifle fire at the front.
Already shells began to drop within the city itself. Already you could see that Madrid was after all going to be the first of the dozen or so big European capitals to learn that "the menace of Fascism and war" is not a phrase or a far-off threat, but a peril so near that you turn the corner of your own street and see the gaping bodies of a dozen innocent women lying among scattered milk cans and bits of Fascist bombs, turning the familiar pavement red with their gushing blood.
There were others besides the defenders of Madrid who realised that, too.
Men in Warsaw, in London, in Brussels, Belgrade, Berne, Paris, Lyons, Budapest, Bucharest, Amsterdam, Copenhagen. All over Europe men who understood that "the house next door is already on fire" were already on the way to put their experience of war, their enthusiasm and their understandings at the disposal of the Spanish people who themselves in the months and years before the Fascist attack had so often thrown all their energies into the cause of international solidarity on behalf of the oppressed and the prisoners of the Fascist dictatorships in Germany, Hungary and Yugoslavia.
It was no mere "gesture of solidarity" that these men - the future members of the International Brigade - were being called upon to carry out.
The position of the armies on the Madrid fronts was such that it was obvious that the hopes of victory must to a large extent depend first on the amount of material that could be got to the front before the German and Italian war machines smashed their way through, and secondly, on the speed with which the defending force of the People's Army could be raised to the level of a modern infantry force, capable of fighting in the modern manner.
(4) Claude Cockburn, The Daily Worker (8th February, 1937)
When the church bells ring in Malaga that means the Italian and German aeroplanes are coming over. While I was there they came twice and three times a day. The horror of the civilian bombing is even worse in Malaga than in Madrid. The place is so small and so terribly exposed.
When the bells begin ringing and you see people who have been working in the harbour or in the market place, or elsewhere in the open, run in crowds, you know that they are literally running a race against death.
But the houses in Malaga are mostly low and rather flimsy, and without cellars. Where the cliffs come down to the edge of the town, the people make for the rocks and caves in which those who can reach them take refuge. Others rush bounding up the hillside above the town.
Those in the town, with an air of infinite weariness, wait behind the piles of sandbags which have been set up in front of
the doorways of the apartment blocks. Though they are not safe from bombs falling on the houses, they are relatively protected from an explosion in the street and from the bullets of the machine-guns.
Sometimes you can see the aeroplane machine-gunner working the gun as the plane swoops along above the street.
If you were to imagine, however, that this terribly hammered town is in a state of panic you would be wrong. Nothing I have seen in this war has impressed me more than the power of the Spanish people's resistance to attack than the attitude of the people as seen in Malaga.
(5) James Hopkins, Into the Heart of the Fire: The British in the Spanish Civil War (1998)
Claud Cockburn, the former Times reporter, editor of The Week, and Daily Worker correspondent (under the name of Frank Pitcairn) who had been one of the first to fight in Spain, contributed his own remarkable abilities to this campaign of propaganda and distortion. Willi Munzenberg's henchman, Otto Katz, suggested to Cockburn that the Republic needed news that would have "a clear psychological impact." The English journalist then proceeded to concoct a story of a revolt against Franco in Morocco. He wrote unapologetically, "In the end it emerged as one of the most factual, inspiring and yet sober pieces of war reporting I ever saw, and the night editors loved it."
Examples of this kind of travesty are numerous. Peter Kerrigan, himself reporting for the Daily Worker, took Harry Pollitt to task for a false story the British party leader had planted. According to the CPGB organ, Kerrigan heroically swam the Ebro bearing crucial reports. Kerrigan said Pollitt knew this was "a phony story," and, moreover, "there was already too much butter in [the Daily Worker]." On October 18, 1938, Pollitt again angered Kerrigan as arrangements were being made for welcoming the British Battalion home. He told Pollitt that the Daily Worker's report that the battalion was at the strength of 1,000 was "incredible." "This phony figure of 1,000 in the battalion... you must know [to be] wrong." And, more pragmatically, "The boys' reaction here was very bad when they saw it." Thinking of the Daily Worker, Orwell said, "I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed." Remembering his experience with the POUM, "I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories." He concluded by writing, "I saw... history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various party lines.
(6) Claude Cockburn, The Daily Worker (18th February, 1937)
"That is the stage on which the first act of the world war drama is being played," said a doctor of the militia to me today, pointing down to the Valley of the Jarama as we lay on a hill in long, thyme-scented grass.
I had driven out from Madrid along the Valencia road, turning off along a mule track about ten miles from the city. The track carried us into the heart of the hills, along whose seemingly deserted slopes reverberated the booming of guns.
At last we came to a little hollow in whose shelter stood two ambulance cars.
"This is the place," said the army doctor with me, and getting out he told us to follow. Imitating my guide, I crawled up the slope to the summit and there we lay prone with our nostrils buried in the thyme and our eyes fixed on the field of battle.
This was Valley of the Jarama, that stream whose name, beside that of the Manzanares, is now being written with letters of blood in imperishable annals of humanity's fight for liberty. Beyond the stream were our lines facing the long forbidding ridge of Redondo, now held by enemy.
A week ago, in the most powerful drive since the battle for Madrid began, the rebels advanced along the ridge, and now from the bluff at the northern end their fire commands the Valencia road and compels the convoys of lorries carrying precious food to Madrid to make a detour to the north.
But the mercenary troops of international Fascism, despite repeated attempts, have not yet set their feet on the road; between them and their goal stand the men of the young Republican Army, determined that just as the Manzanares defied Franco when he tried to storm Madrid, so shall the Jarama defy him as he tries to starve it.
Through field-glasses we could see bands of rebel troops move along the ridge.
"This morning we saw a priest among them," said the doctor. "He was carrying a machine-gun, but as soon as our men opened fire he scurried off and took cover behind a boulder. Most of his companions over there seem to be Moors.
"At night the Moors steal down the hillside and crawl towards our lines. Then, when they are quite near, they jump up, and uttering fiendish cries to frighten our men, rush forward. But our lads are not frightened, and in many cases those wild cries of the Moors have been their last."
A mule with two stretchers strapped to its saddle was grazing in the hollow. "That's how we bring in our wounded," the doctor explained. "Two men at a time. They have to be carried across the bridge which spans the Jarama and up this side of the valley to where we are, all under enemy fire. Today we have brought in between sixty and seventy. Ten were dead."
Seriously wounded men, if they survive that nightmare ride on the mule across the valley of death, are treated in one of the ambulances which are equipped with an operating-table.
(7) Claude Cockburn, The Daily Worker (11th May, 1937)
Thousands of loudspeakers, set up in every public place in the towns and villages of Republican Spain, in the trenches all along the battlefront of the Republic, brought the message of the Communist Party at this fateful hour, straight to the soldiers and the struggling people of this hard-pressed hard-fighting Republic.
The speakers were Valdes, former Councillor of Public Works in the Catalan government, Uribe, Minister of Agriculture in the government of Spain, Diaz, Secretary of the Communist Party of Spain, Pasionaria, and Hemandez, Minister of Education.
Then, as now, in the forefront of everything stand the Fascist menace to Bilbao and Catalonia.
There is a specially dangerous feature about the situation in Catalonia. We know now that the German and Italian agents, who poured into Barcelona ostensibly in order to "prepare" the notorious 'Congress of the Fourth International', had one big task. It was this:
They were - in co-operation with the local Trotskyists - to prepare a situation of disorder and bloodshed, in which it would be possible for the Germans and Italians to declare that they were "unable to exercise naval control on the Catalan coasts effectively" because of "the disorder prevailing in Barcelona", and were, therefore, "unable to do otherwise" than land forces in Barcelona.
In other words, what was being prepared was a situation in which the Italian and German governments could land troops or marines quite openly on the Catalan coasts, declaring that they were doing so "in order to preserve order".
That was the aim. Probably that is still the aim. The instrument for all this lay ready to hand for the Germans and Italians in the shape of the Trotskyist organisation known as the POUM.
The POUM, acting in cooperation with well-known criminal elements, and with certain other deluded persons in the anarchist organisations, planned, organised and led the attack in the rearguard, accurately timed to coincide with the attack on the front at Bilbao.
In the past, the leaders of the POUM have frequently sought to deny their complicity as agents of a Fascist cause against the People's Front. This time they are convicted out of their own mouths as clearly as their allies, operating in the Soviet Union, who confessed to the crimes of espionage, sabotage, and attempted murder against the government of the Soviet Union.
Copies of La Batalla, issued on and after 2 May, and the leaflets issued by the POUM before and during the killings in Barcelona, set down the position in cold print.
In the plainest terms the POUM declares it is the enemy of the People's Government. In the plainest terms it calls upon its followers to turn their arms in the same direction as the Fascists, namely, against the government of the People's Front and the anti-fascist fighters.
900 dead and 2,500 wounded is the figure officially given by Diaz as the total in terms of human slaughter of the POUM attack in Barcelona.
It was not, by any means, Diaz pointed out, the first of such attacks. Why was it, for instance, that at the moment of the big Italian drive at Guadalajara, the Trotskyists and their deluded anarchist friends attempted a similar rising in another district? Why was it that the same thing happened two months before at the time of the heavy Fascist attack at Jarama, when, while Spaniards and Englishmen, and honest anti-fascists of every nation in Europe, were being killed holding Arganda Bridge the Trotskyist swine suddenly produced their arms 200 kilometres from the front, and attacked in the rear?
(8) Claude Cockburn, The Daily Worker (17th May, 1937)
Tomorrow the antifascist forces of the Republic will start rounding up all those scores of concealed weapons which ought to be at the front and are not.
The decree ordering this action affects the whole of the Republic. It is, however, in Catalonia that its effects are likely to be the most interesting and important.
With it, the struggle to "put Catalonia on a war footing", which has been going on for months and was resisted with open violence by the POUM and its friends in the first week of May, enters a new phase.
This weekend may well be a turning-point. If the decree is successfully carried out it means:
First: That the groups led by the POUM who rose against the government last week will lose their main source of strength, namely, their arms.
Second: That, as a result of this, their ability to hamper by terrorism the efforts of the antifascist workers to get the war factories on to a satisfactory basis will be sharply reduced.
Third: That the arms at present hidden will be available for use on the front, where they are badly needed.
Fourth: That in future those who steal arms from the front or steal arms in transit to the front will be liable to immediate arrest and trial as ally of the fascist enemy.
Included in the weapons which have to be turned in are rifles, carbines, machine-guns, machine-pistols, trench mortars, field guns, armoured cars, hand-grenades, and all other sorts of bombs.
The list gives you an idea of the sort of armaments accumulated by the Fascist conspirators and brought into the open for the first time last week.
(9) George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938)
A tremendous dust was kicked up in the foreign antifascist press, but, as usual only one side of the case has had anything like a hearing. As a result the Barcelona fighting has been represented as an insurrection by disloyal Anarchists and Trotskyists who were "stabbing the Spanish Government in the back" and so forth. The issue was not quite so simple as that. Undoubtedly when you are at war with a deadly enemy it is better not to begin fighting among yourselves - but it is worth remembering that it takes two to make a quarrel and that people do not begin building barricades unless they have received samething that they regard as a provocation.
In the Communist and pro-Communist press the entire blame for the Barcelona fighting was laid upon the P.O.U.M. The affair was represented not as a spontaneous outbreak, but as a deliberate, planned insurrection against the Government, engineered solely by the P.O.U.M. with the aid of a few misguided 'uncontrollables'. More than this, it was definitely a Fascist plot, carried out under Fascist orders with the idea of starting civil war in the rear and thus paralysing the Government. The P.O.U.M. was 'Franco's Fifth Column' - a 'Trotskyist' organization working in league with the Fascists.
(10) Jessica Mitford, A Fine Old Conflict (1977)
in the early thirties Claud Cockburn founded and wrote a mimeographed political muckraking journal called The Week which, in the period immediately preceding the war, had become extraordinarily influential. The Week was packed with riveting inside stories garnered from undercover sources throughout Europe - at one time, Claud's principal informant in Berlin (his Deep Throat, so to speak) was secretary to Herr von Papen, a member of Hitler's cabinet. Claud had coined the phrase 'Cliveden Set' to describe the powerful clique of Nazi appeasers whose frequent meeting place was Cliveden, Lady Astor's house, a sobriquet that first appeared in The Week and subsequently became a catchword used in the English and American press from the Daily Express to Time magazine.
(11) Graham Greene wrote about Claude Cockburn on his death in 1981.
If I were asked who are the two greatest journalists of the twentieth century, my answer would be G.K. Chesterton and Claud Cockbum. Both are more than journalists: both produced at least one novel which will be rediscovered with delight, I believe, in every generation - The Man who was Thursday and Ballantyne's Folly. Both are manic characters, writing with what some sad fellows may find even an excess of high spirits. Perhaps Claud Cockbum will prove to have been more influential, for he discovered the influence that can be wielded by a mimeographed news-sheet.