In 1936 civil war erupted in Spain. Right-wing generals tried to overthrow a leftist government and the violence quickly turned into a symbolic battle between fascism and communism. The fighting dragged in foreigners from many different countries.
The left-wing volunteers who came from around the world to fight for the Spanish government are well known, but foreigners also joined the other side. I wrote a book about it.
More information about Franco’s foreigners is coming to light every day. The niece of a British volunteer got in touch about her uncle, who deserted the Royal Navy at Gibraltar to join the Foreign Legion. An aristocratic Belgian pilot is commemorated on a memorial in the centre of Brussels. Now a new book is out about South African Pieter Krueler, a far-right Boer embittered by the deaths of his family in the Anglo-Boer War. In June 1937, already in his fifties, he offered his services to Franco.
The experience disillusioned Krueler so badly that he joined the other side. So he claimed.
Hard as granite, the Boers were self-reliant racists transplanted from Holland to southern Africa. In 1899 their strained coexistence with the British Empire broke down. Three years of guerrilla warfare across the veldt killed 4,000 Boer soldiers and 20,000 women and children. Krueler’s mother, sister and younger brother died in a British concentration camp, his father passed away as a prisoner of war, and his elder brother was killed in battle. Krueler saw action in the early months of 1900 as a teenage messenger and had his horse shot out from under him at the battle of Kimberley. At the end of the war he was a fifteen-year-old orphan.
He moved to Hoachanas in German South-West Africa (now Namibia) and became a policeman. When the First World War began he offered his services to Britain’s enemy and served in a German scout unit. Under the command of Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck the scouts waged hit-and-run warfare against the Allies through Africa’s malarial river tributaries. Krueler saw action in Northern Rhodesia and the Congo, and was decorated for his part in holding back the British at Mgela in German East Africa.
He was still standing, having fought off disease, ambush, and snake bite, when von Lettow-Vorbeck ceased operations on 17 November 1918, a week after the armistice in Europe.
Between Peace and War
By the 1930s Krueler was married and working in the South African mines as a demolitions expert. In 1936 a miscalculation with a stick of dynamite put him in a hospital bed. He spent the time reading about Spain.
‘I remember trying to work out who was on the side of right, General Francisco Franco Bahamonde or the Republicans,’ he said. ‘I then heard there was a good deal of money to be made as a mercenary, so I volunteered’.
Few Nationalist volunteers made any money out of the war and Krueler was no exception. From June 1937 he fought with mountain fighters loyal to Franco from the Basque region. Krueler’s unit saw action in skirmishes with Republican border police in the Pyrenees. The South African thought his men ‘incredible and very brave’.
That, at least, was the thumbnail sketch he gave of his war to the American magazine Military History in 2003. Krueler was close-mouthed type, careful with information and even photographs of himself (the picture above is the only known one, taken when he was 12-years-old) so it’s surprise to discover the South African had given a lengthy interview about Spain and other wars before his death. He talked desertion, changing sides, and the glories of Basque culture. There’s a whole mess of contradictions between the two versions.
Loyalty to the Truth
In the expanded version of his Spanish war, Krueler arrives in Seville some time in June 1937 under mysterious circumstances with a letter of introduction to German officers serving there with the Condor Legion, a Nazi expeditionary force helping Franco. The letter was written by someone called Schallmann. Presumably Krueler used his wartime connections with the von Lettow-Vorbeck to arrange this.
The German pilots are glad to see him and fascinated by his stories of fighting in Africa in the last war. He makes friends with Günther Lützow and Adolf Galland, and is introduced to senior officers including General Wolfram von Richthofen, the Condor Legion chief-of-staff. He explains he is here to make money.
‘When they figured out that I was there as a mercenary, and with my guerrilla experience in Africa, I was offered a job,’ he said. ‘They asked me what I had been paid by the Germans in Africa, and I told them. I also told them what I made in the mines. They offered me 1,200 Reichsmarks per month if I would work with the irregulars they deemed friendly to Franco, and work as an instructor. I thought that was a great deal, so I agreed. I had no idea that they would be so receptive.’
Krueler also makes the strange claim he had actually been looking to hook up with the Republicans because he admired the Americans fighting in the International Brigades – which makes little sense if he bought a ticket for Seville. More confusion.
In September he moved on to Salamanca where the Nationalists gave him safe conduct papers and sent him into Basque territory. Krueler was to discover if the fiercely independent Basque groups would join the Nationalists, then arrange an air drop of weapons. Late in the month he reached Zaragoza, along with his young interpreter Miguel.
He soon discovered the Basques didn’t want to fight for either side but would accept weapons if allowed to defend their own villages from outsiders. Krueler sent back the message by carrier pigeon and was disgusted when the Nationalists ordered the Basques to enlist or be regarded as enemies.
‘This was a very unwise decision in my opinion,’ Krueler said. ‘This forced them into the Republican camp, and as I empathised with these people, I decided to work with them. It was not about politics. It was simple survival for these people who became my friends. It was at this point that I decided that I could not support Franco, or the Germans. I may not have liked the communist ideals, but I was not concerned about that issue at the time. I was concerned with these people who had harmed no one, and simply wanted freedom.’
When the Basques joined the Republicans, Krueler went along with them, according to the version in this interview. He trained them and assisted in fortifying positions. No fights with Republican border guards, no rallying to the Nationalist cause.
The Living End
Both versions of Krueler’s story emphasis the quietness of his war. He was a 53-year-old man by this time and the Basques around him preferred prepping for guerrilla warfare to the front line. The only action he remembers is a firefight with a small group of men dressed in Nationalist uniforms.
‘We went through their pockets and packs,’ he said, ‘collecting weapons, ammunition and personal items, such as letters and even a French passport, taken from its owner. Then we felt ill. We had just killed members of one of the International Brigades, friendly troops, and they were one of the groups wearing Nationalist uniforms. This was obviously the deception group that was to try and control the road traffic‘.
There was a younger Basque girlfriend to keep him occupied, and an encounter with a village chiropractor that cracked his spine and left him an inch taller. He built a public shower for the village.
Krueler was still living quietly with his Basques in April 1939 when the Nationalists won the war. He crossed the border into France for the start of a long journey home.
Death Before Dishonour
Krueler sat out the Second World War in South Africa, numbed by the death of his wife in childbirth. He spent the first few years training commandos then took a leave of absence to become a coast watcher.
There was some post-war farming then more adventures. He was in Katanga organising security for the diamond mining companies when the Congo gained its independence and the province seceded under Moise Tshombe. Krueler claimed to have trained some of Tshombe’s troops and to have played a role in evacuating the Katangese leader from the country in the summer of 1961 when UN troops tried to occupy Elisabethville.
‘I helped the guy get out; throwing him on a plane, and then had to figure out if I still had a job. In some weird way it looked like I was the de facto leader of some five thousand black Congolese, and let me tell you, being the only white face in that crowd made me feel about as secure as a man staked out in front of a firing squad‘.
It’s a good story that ignores the fact all the Congo’s diamond mines were in Kasai province, not Katanga. Either Krueler’s memory was slipping at the time of the interview or the truth was getting embroidered. And if that’s the case then how many of his other stories should we believe? Whatever the truth, Krueler claimed to have finally left Katanga in late 1964, after the secession was over and Tshombe had bounced back to become prime minister of the country. He overlapped briefly with Mike Hoare and his 5 Commando mercenary unit at the start of the fight against the Simba rebellion, but was never a member or an instructor.
In the remainder of the 1960s he joined the South African army as an instructor before serving in Rhodesia during the fight against nationalist guerrillas. Krueler retired for good in the 1970s and was still running two miles a day at the age of ninety-nine.
‘I would rather die in a hail of bullets or in a high speed crash,’ he said, ‘leaving a positive impression upon my friends and others, as opposed to dying in my bed, obscure, anonymous and alone’.
He died in 1986 at the age of 101.
Check out Franco’s International Brigades: Adventurers, Fascists, and Christian Crusaders in the Spanish Civil War [or amazon.com] for more about foreigners who joined the Nationalists. And buy Four War Boer: The Century and Life of Pieter Arnoldus Krueler to find out more about Krueler’s life.
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