Philip Tammer (1915-2014)

September 10, 2014
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This article appeared in the 37th issue of the newsletter of the International Brigade Memorial Trust and is reprinted here with the IBMT’s permission.

TammerThe last known International Brigade veteran living in Britain, Philip Tammer, died in London on 28 January 2014, aged 98.

The IBMT was unaware of his existence until after his death, when family members contacted the trust.

Philip Diamond Tammer was born on 20 October 1915, the youngest of seven brothers and sisters in a Jewish family living in Bethnal Green in London’s East End. He won a scholarship to the local grammar school and later secured a place to study law at King’s College, London.

Like many young Jewish men of his generation, he was alarmed by the rise of fascism in Europe and saw an opportunity to fight it in Spain, where Hitler and Mussolini had sent troops, armour and warplanes to assist a fascist-backed rebellion against the elected gov- ernment of the Spanish Republic.

As soon as he was old enough to join the International Brigades Philip abandoned his studies and family home and took a ferry to Dunkirk on 28 January 1938. MI5 agents were monitoring young men travelling through Channel ports at the time, and next to his name in a list compiled by MI5 – now in the National Archives – is scrawled “Suspected recruit for Spain”.

He arrived at Albacete, the main base of the International Brigades, on 7 February. His official record card lists him as a member of the Young Communist League and the NUC (National Union of Clerks). After a brief spell at the nearby Tarazona de la Mancha training camp, he was sent to the front with the British Battalion on 9 March 1938 but was captured three weeks later in the Republican retreat though Aragon.

Backed by a massive concentration of Italian tanks and German air power, Franco had launched an offensive from the west through southern Aragon. The British Battalion, along with other Spanish Republican army units, was routed and fled down the Ebro valley towards the Mediterranean.

Many were ambushed and killed or captured as Franco’s forces raced eastwards. Philip is thought to have been one of the 140 battalion members taken prisoner early on 31 March outside Calaceite. A dozen others died in the attack.

He was held at the Francoist concentration camp of San Pedro de Cardeña, near Burgos, until repatriation in a prisoner exchange with Italian troops on 25 October 1938.

In her eulogy delivered at Philip Tammer’s funeral on 30 January this year, daughter Maxine Godley said of his time in Spain: “He was captured during this brutal and bloody conflict and the Spanish did not take prisoners. As I understand he would have perished at their hands, had not a reporter from the Daily Express arrived at the scene of the transport of the captives and enquired loudly if anyone spoke English. When Dad assented, he was informed that he was the reporter’s new assistant.

“His experience of this bloody conflict had a profound impact on him but he would never speak of this for ever after, which I now think was due to post traumatic stress. He never returned to his university place. I cannot imagine how his family felt on his return.”

During the Second World War II, Tammer served first in Egypt, where he translated letters sent to German prisoners of war. One of them boasted that the Allies had bombed only a dummy munitions factory, not the real one, the location of which the writer then revealed. He was afterwards posted to Kenya, where he trained recruits for the King’s African Rifles before they were sent to Burma.

After the war Philip married Deborah Platt (who died in 1990) and they settled in Kenton in north-west suburban London to raise a family. In the 1950s Tammer joined publisher André Deutsch as the company secretary and accountant. Affectionately known as “Prince Philip”, he was held in high esteem by authors and colleagues. In her memoir, novelist Diana Athill wrote that he was “the dearest, kindest, most long-suffering, most upright and most loyal accountant anyone ever had”. He retired in 1985.

As well as being one of the last living members of the British Battalion in Spain, Philip was also the last of the Tammer brothers and sisters.

Until notified of Tammer’s death, the IBMT believed that the distinction of being the last International Brigade veteran lay with David Lomon, who died in December 2012.

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