The controversy surrounding the death of a Lanarkshire political activist who fought in the Spanish civil war has been revisited in a new book. Bob Smillie, grandson of the county miners’ leader and Labour MP of the same name died in June 1937. Academic Daniel Gray devotes a chapter of his work Homage to Caledonia - which looks at the role Scots played in the conflict - to the 20-year-old from Larkhall.
A member of the anti-Stalinist Independent Labour Party, Bob had gone to Spain to help a cause he believed in passionately.
But when news of his death emerged, conspiracy theories started to build.
Some contemporaries believed he had been murdered by pro-Soviet communists because he had information they wanted kept secret.
One view circulating at the time was that he had been shot by the secret police and buried.
Another held that he had been violently assaulted during interrogation by secret police and died from horrific wounds in hospital.
Others, however, accepted the official version of events that Bob died of appendicitis following a lack of hospital care.
His friend David Murray from Motherwell, and fellow ILP member, told Bob’s father Alex in a letter:
I am convinced, and can confirm on oath, that Bob died a natural death.
All my observations and impressions lead me to this conclusion.
Judgement is a human thing and liable to error, but in spite of every curious and mysterious circumstance, I am convinced that Bob was never ill-treated, nor was he done to death.
Bob broke off from studying chemistry at Glasgow University in October 1936 to travel to Barcelona.
After arriving there he worked in an administrative capacity for the anti-Stalinist and ILP sister organisation, the POUM.
He also fought alongside fellow ILP volunteers on the Aragon front against Franco’s Nationalist forces.
But on his way home to Scotland in May 1937 he was detained and charged with possessing ‘war materials’ and not having the correct paperwork.
He later faced a further charge of rebellion against the authorities.
Bob was first imprisoned in a Valencia jail and, according to the official version, transferred to the city’s general hospital, where he died early on June 13.
One of those who believed he had been murdered paid tribute to him following his death.
POUM commander Georges Kopp from Belgium, in a letter to Smillie’s parents, said:
You have by this time heard of the sad and untimely fate of your son, Robert.
He was one of the most gallant soldiers in the regiment which I commanded.
It is a duty and a privilege to express to you my sympathy, and to assure you that Bob always carried himself bravely and courageously in and out of the firing line. You can be proud of him.
Homage to Caledonia author Daniel Gray this week described Bob Smillie’s death as a tragic waste.
He told the Advertiser:
“Alive, despite his young age, he achieved much. Dead, he could never fulfil a potential that left him ready to do his near-legendary grandfather proud.”