The formation of the 'British' Battalion
Leading figures of the British Battalion in early 1937. From left to right: Battalion commander Wilf McCartney, Commissars Dave Springhall and Peter Kerrigan, Tom Wintringham and the Irish leader, Frank Ryan.
By January 1937 the English speaking contingent at Madrigueras numbered around 450, enough to form a battalion. However, plans received a setback when many of the Irish volunteers, who had an IRA background, unhappy about taking orders from ex-members of the British army as members of the 'British' Battalion, elected instead to fight with the American volunteers.
Nevertheless, the remainder were formed into the British Battalion, under the command of Wilf McCartney, who had been imprisoned for spying for the USSR, assisted by Dave Springhall the battalion political commissar. However, in early February 1937 McCartney was injured whilst cleaning his pistol with Peter Kerrigan, the political commissar at the International Brigade base at Albacete. Rumours of foul play persist, despite the lack of any hard evidence. McCartney was replaced by Tom Wintringham, the veteran of the Tom Mann Centuria, and Dave Springhall was replaced as battalion commissar by George Aitken, a Communist Party organiser.
On 9 February the five hundred odd members of the battalion left Madrigueras and were transferred to Chinchón, about fifteen miles from Madrid to the south. Here they would confront facing Franco’s crack troops, the Moorish Regulares, in a desperate battle at the Jarama Valley, to prevent the rebels from cutting of the vital road between Madrid and Valencia.