Howard Keith Andrews was known affectionally as `Andy’ for most of his adult life; he was born in Kilburn, north-west London, on February 15 1907. His father was a soldier and his mother had taken on jobs during the First World War, as well as looking after the family, to help feed and clothe her four children. Edward, the eldest, joined the Royal Navy two years under age and was torpedoed twice on the Murmansk run before he was 17.
left Andy pictured in his old age - still fighting!
At 16, he young Howard used his older brother's name to sign up for the Royal Army Medical Corps where he became `Andy’ to all his friends. By 1925 found himself in Imperial India stationed at Quetta in Baluchistan. An off duty hour with his pal Dave Mundy at Bombay docks was a life-changing experience: “We saw these figures with lumps on their backs and heads in the distance moving slowly up a ship’s gangplank. When we got closer we were horrified to see scores of Indian women, their ragged clothes black from head to foot, some with babies strapped on their backs, carrying heavy baskets of coal from the wharf. We went over to the Indian foreman, who told us that it was not unusual for a pregnant woman to carry on working until she was due, go inside a warehouse, have the child and then carry on working.” Andy remembered telling his pal Dave Mundy: “Well if this is the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the empire they can keep it!”
Some years later, discharged from the army, a member of the Independent Labour Party, but with this memory burning still inside him during 1931 he spoke at street meetings in Kilburn telling people about the realities of the British Empire. He would knock on a stranger’s door, borrow a chair, stand in the middle of the street, and exclaim to passers-by the iniquities of Empire.
In 1926 Andy was posted with the Jhansi Brigade, an Indian regiment, to Shanghai to protect British "interests" in China, in the run up to the April 1927 massacres of Chinese communists and trades unionists by Chiang Kai-Shek's troops, which began China’s 21-year civil war that led to the eventual victory of the Communist Party led by Mao TseTung. Andy was witness to the aftermath of a massacre: “I got the order to take some Indian troops and go to a certain place where there was this small wooden shed with the door slightly open. It was wedged tight when we prized it open the sight, stench and sound were unbelievable. Twenty to thirty bodies, all badly wounded, had been thrown inside. We started the work of taking the wounded out from the top of the heap, but by the time we were getting towards the bottom, the rest had died, of suffocation, or their wounds….they looked like civilians to me.” Later in the same city, he saw a homeless mother and baby frozen to death in the snow.
Returning to London after leaving the army and getting a job in Queen Charlotte's Hospital, he first joined the Independent Labour Party and then, in 1931, the Communist Party and the Transport and General Workers Union. By 1932 Andy was active in Willesden’s Unemployed Workers Movement- and a trades unionist when he could get work-and had joined the local Communist Party. His memories of that time are of confronting Mosley’s English fascists: “They used to try and come into Kilburn: but we always got enough people and saw them off: chased them out of the area.”
He was to suffer a bad beating at the hands of both Blackshirt thugs and the police at the Albert Hall in March 1936: “We were scattered throughout the balcony, and at a given signal, stood up and threw anti-fascist leaflets onto the stalls below. There was immediate pandemonium! Blackshirt thugs came after us, and I was given one hell of a thump in the stomach, and thrown down two or three flights of stairs. When I crawled to the entrance, I was thumped again, except this time two policemen were standing nearby. One of them came over and kicked me himself, saying: ‘Serves you right!’ Despite being thrown down flights of stairs and beaten up in full view of the police, they stood by and smiled.
In August, just a few months later, Andy gave up his job as stoker in a London hospital, and volunteered for Spain by attending the London offices of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee as soon as it was formed. He travelled to Spain by SMAC ambulance to volunteer in the fight against Franco at the end of August 1936. Using his Royal Army Medical Corps training, Andy stayed in Spain for over two years, at Barcelona, Granen, and in field hospitals during some of the fiercest battles of the Civil War, including Tuerel and the Ebro. (Pictured right in Tuerel) He served as a front-line hospital worker for over two years as part of the BrogieEquipe military medical team, attached to the army of the Spanish republic. From August 1936 to October 1938, he was engaged in medical units attached to the International and other Brigades, working with both British and other International Brigades and medical doctors such as Alex Tudor-Hart and Sinclair Loutit.
In 1993 Esther Silverstein, an American university lecturer who had been a nurse in the Spanish Civil War, was asked by Jim Fryth and Sally Alexander what she remembered of her time in Spain. These were her first thoughts: “Even though my knowledge of English custom was derived from 19th Century fiction, I seemed to adapt well to the English members of the 35th International Division Sanitary Corps of the Spanish Republican Army. One of the group, Howard Andrews, is memorable. He provided all the surgical teams with necessities for the maintenance of sterile technique and accomplished this by very hard work and the most constant attention to detail. Had he not done so we would all have been blown away. He operated five or six primus stoves at once, all filled with gasoline, on top of these sat pressure cookers and in each pressure cooker lay a metal drum containing supplies being sterilized. From this unit Howard Andrews supplied us with laparotomy sheets, sponges, towels, dressing, gloves, gowns and masks. He had one primus stove which always had a tea kettle ‘on the boil’, and from him I learned to drink strong tea with milk in it. Andy was working whenever we were and if I came to get fresh supplies I was given tea and told: ‘Sit down and have your tea. They can do without you for a few minutes.’ He was a serious person and his work was of the highest importance.”
RosaleenSmythe was from Leicester, and worked in Spain as a hospital secretary in the same 35th Division as Andy and Esther. Fryth and Alexander quote from her diary: “It has been raining for days and days. This prevents attacks. The river is rising hourly; it has reached the door of the hospital, which is only a wooden hut. The cases are increasing. We have no clean water, no fires no heating, no lavatories or sanitation of any kind. The village has been bombed, the hospital, garage, and one or two houses. We had fourteen patients in the hospitals. One of them dies. A cavalry man had to have his leg amputated. They have been bringing his horse to the door of the ward to see him. We had one pregnant woman hit in the leg. We took in patients from the infirmary and the day after it was evacuated it was bombed to pieces. Existence is a misery. Rain is coming in. Rats run across the floor. Our rations are tinned meat, chick peas and five almonds each. We are afraid to undress night or day because of the bombing. We have no milk, eggs or potatoes for the typhoid patients, yet owing to good nursing only 8 per cent died.”
“Andy is a jewel. He has organised the stretcher-bearers and sees to the sanitation, the little there is. Dr Saxton has started a canteen in which we sell mouldy bread and jam, cognac and Malaga wine. In the evenings, by the light of a few candles we put on a gramophone. The records we have are Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, one movement of Schubert’s Unfinished and one Haydn. We play them over and over again to the drip, drip, drip of the incessant rain. We put on extra pullovers to go to bed in, we have given our blankets to the patients. A bitter cold wind and a frost have set in. Those poor chicas have to clean the few bed-pans in the icy river water. Today the lorries tried to get down: we could have cried when they returned empty. Yet everyone is being very brave. The nurses are splendid. The bombing has begun again.”
Andy served at field hospitals during some of the toughest battles of the war, including Teruel and the Ebro. When the final great battle of the war, the Ebro, was lost, Andy and other medical staff had to be ordered by a senior officer to retreat across the river. After becoming ill, he was invalided out of Spain in 1938.
The next year, even before World War Two, Andy joined the Royal Artillery, and drove armoured vehicles across Northern France, until the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force to Dunkirk: “One time I remember my mate and I were sat in this armoured car inside a barn somewhere. There was this almighty crash, and we suffered a direct hit from (a German) shell. The heavy vehicle was blown right up through the roof, and came down again with a hell of a crash. I was still sat in the driver’s seat uninjured; my mate was thrown out and broke an arm. On Dunkirk beach I was in the water waist-high for what seemed ages waiting for my boat, and when I was rescued by a British destroyer, it was bombed and sank, so I had to be rescued again!” He remembered the peculiar sound of machine-gun bullets hitting the water around him for another twenty minutes before a trawler found him.
In 1955, after the break-up of his marriage, Andy moved to Taunton, Somerset, and found work in the pharmacy department of the local hospital. Soon he had started to build up the local COHSE Branch, and became Branch Secretary. Together with fellow Communist and nurse Angela Sneddon, Andy built the branch up from 4 to over 100 in a year, later receiving an award from his union for the work; from 1955 to 1972, he was COHSE branch secretary and secretary of the Taunton Communist Party. He remained thus, also attending the Taunton Trades Union Council until he retired aged 65 in 1972.
For many years afterwards, he lived in relative obscurity in his Council-owned bungalow, and in reasonable health, Andy resumed a life of political activism by re-joining the Communist Party on his 99th birthday! He even became chairman of the Somerset branch of the Communist Party. Having joined the Taunton Peace Group, he attended all its meetings and town centre demonstrations, and leafleted door to door on his own against the renewal of Trident. He took an active part in the local battle to stop the sell-off of Taunton’s Council Houses, a campaign organised by the successor trade union to COHSE, SomersetCounty and TauntonDeane Branches of UNISON. He attended local trades council meetings, and even memorably confronted the Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset Police during the South West TUC Pensioners Conference.
Delegate after delegate had asked one soft unpolitical question after another, and this Chief Constable was lapping it all up. Then Andy rose slowly to speak: “Chief Constable, when I went on Unemployed Demonstrations in the early 1930s it was the police, your men, who showed us no mercy and batoned us to the ground. You were under the control of the Government then, and as far as I can see, under Labour or Tory Governments, that has continued. And when I read what is happening to poor Mr Brain Haw outside parliament today, I can only ask you: when will it all end?” Long silence, interrupted by a subdued police voice: “I admit that we have got it wrong with the unions in the past….” Conference was never quite the same after that!
In October 2006, then by four years the oldest of the 32 then-surviving International Brigaders, Andy was able to return to Spain, with Dave Chapple as his carer, for a week-long 70th Anniversary Homage. Mr Andy continued campaigning until the end of his life, becoming the oldest person to attend Glastonbury festival where he gave an anti-racism speech in the Leftfield, and even taking to the streets of Taunton in his mobility buggy to sell copies of the Morning Star. Naturally, as a staunch Republican, he turned down the offer of congratulations from the Queen on his 100th birthday when a civil servant called to let him know a telegram was on its way. Andy’s comment was “Me and the Royal family haven't been friends for ages.”
Dave Chapple of the Communications Workers Union and Taunton Trades Council co-ordinated events to celebrate both Andy's 100th and 101st birthdays but Howard 'Andy' Andrews died on May 7 2008 after a short illness at the age of 101. At the time, he was both the oldest British International Brigader and oldest member of the Communist Party. A celebration of his action-packed life was organised by the International Brigade Memorial Trust. Over a hundred friends, admirers and comrades came together in Taunton, many wearing red, to remember the remarkable man. The flag which was draped over Andy's coffin was the standard of the British Battalion, which back in the 1930s had been made overnight and rushed to Spain after the original one had been lost in battle. It has been used at most of the funerals of Brigaders. The local TUC secretary, Dave Chapple, announced at the service that there would be a campaign for Andy to be given the Freedom of the Borough of TauntonDeane.
Morning Star 15th February 2006; “Tribute to a remarkable centenarian: Howard Andrews of Taunton” by Dave Chapple, Somerset Association of Trades Union Councils; Comments Ken Keable, Secretary, Somerset Branch, Communist Party of Britain, Stoke-sub-Hamdon, and Marlene Sidaway, Secretary, International Brigade Memorial Trust, 23 May 2008; Funeral tribute for Howard Andrews, Taunton, Somerset, 22nd May 2008; Pauline Fraser - obituary in Morning Star 2 June 2008.