McKenna was born in Manchester into a desperately poor Irish-English family. The seventh child, he was the first to survive infancy. For most of his childhood his father was unemployed and his mother was a cleaner. He was the first boy from his school, St Wilfrid’s, to win a scholarship to St Gregory’s grammar school in Ardwick. At 14, he became a textile-mill clerk. He joined the Labour League of Youth, and then, at 17, the Young Communist League.
When the Spanish civil war broke out in 1936, Bernard McKenna began fund-raising for the republic. Then, in February 1937, he took a train to Paris and contacted the semi-clandestine International Brigade recruiting office. He had not told his family. After signals training, Bernard was wounded on his first day of action at Brunete in July 1937. Then, on the Aragon front, he was wounded by shrapnel, and then shell-shocked. He almost died in hospital but recovered, and fought again.
In spring 1938, he was captured by fascists on the German river Ebro and taken to an infamous camp in Burgos. There he was interrogated by the Nazi Gestapo and taken to the town’s outskirts – where he expected to be executed. "That was the fate of most International Brigaders caught by the fascists," he recalled. "It was the worst moment of my life." Then, randomly selected for prisoner exchange, he spent time in an Italian prisoner of war camp before being released in October 1938. He retained, and never paid, his £4 Foreign Office bill for "repatriation".
When the Second World War was declared, Bernard McKenna joined the RAF. He wanted, he said, another go at the fascists. He spent six and half years in North Africa, the Middle East and Italy. In 1946, McKenna undertook emergency teacher training, convinced that education was the lever to bring social justice. He specialised in the educationally disadvantaged, teaching hundreds, if not thousands, of children to read.
In his old age, almost daily, he declared: "I am buoyed up by the thought that I have outlasted that fucking Franco." He died, aged 92, in 2008.
Source: Neil McKenna – Guardian August 14th 2008