Donald Gabriel Hutchison Douglas

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Donald Gabriel Hutchison, later Donald Gabriel Hutchison Douglas, (1915-1981) was a British volunteer in the British Battalion, 15th International Brigade in Spain during the civil war.

Most of his life is uncertain(3), and stories told by those who remember him do not always agree. It seems likely that he told different people different versions of his life. This article reflects that confusion. He was variously described as good looking, brave, talented, imprudent; personable with a good-natured aspect to his character, feisty and uncompromising and a most extraordinary character.

Born in 1915, the son of Robert Langton Douglas (5) and Grace Hutchison (Grace Hutchison, was not married to Douglas, but Donald initially used her surname).  He attended Stowe School, where he was apparently asked to leave.

In 1933, he was arrested during a demonstration outside the German embassy, probably in an anti-fascist protest since Hitler had come to power in that year, for obstructing and assaulting one policeman and assaulting another. Despite his plea of not guilty, he went to Wormwood Scrubs.

Subsequently, he was a librarian in Hampstead Public Library.

In 1935, he went to Peterhouse College, Cambridge University, where he read Moral Sciences.  Here again he was reportedly asked to leave 'even though he was an exceptional student'. Whilst there, he joined the Officer Training Corps and the University Aero Club where he learned to fly the Gypsy Moth. It is said that he bought his own aircraft for £100, which must have been 'a terrible old crate'.

The next year, he was in Spain.(1)

Donald did not have sufficient flying hours to enter the Spanish war as a pilot, so, until the ammunition ran out, he flew in Spain as a machine-gunner. He was posted to the Communist Militia where he joined a platoon of men from the Canary Islands. At some point, he transferred to the Fifth Regiment before the Battle of Madrid and then briefly to the Thälmann Battalion. At Madrid, he was wounded by a bullet through the right wrist and was taken to San Carlos, a former monastery in Madrid that was used as a hospital, in December 1936.

Although the injury was not serious at first, the wound became infected and subsequently life threatening. He was evacuated to Alicante by the Scottish Ambulance Unit and then to Paris, where he recovered. He then returned to England, but went back to Spain in July 1937. He asked to be allowed to fly, but this was rejected (his hand was partly paralysed) and he was assigned as a research clerk and mail censor with the British Battalion.

He was later made secretary at the hospital in Espluga de Francoli in Catalonia, but quickly became bored. He deserted to the front where he joined the Signal section where he served til he was repatriated with the wounded to England in May 1938.

Donald joined the RAF, as an air-gunner at the beginning of the Second World War, but was forced by the Air Ministry to leave after three months(4) and was prevented from enlisting in any capacity thereafter for “no apparent reason”, although his Communist Party membership may have contributed. Then he served as a steward on a cargo vessel.

In 1943, he was teaching at Stancliffe Hall, a preparatory school in Derbyshire.

In August 1946, while living in Warsaw working as the Reuters correspondent, he was arrested for travelling to Berlin without authorisation. Apparently, when Donald was arrested, he told the military police that his half-brother(2) was their boss! This would not have gone down well with the Air Marshall, who would never be seen favouring his own brother.

Sometime after the Second World War, Donald settled in Geneva, where he worked as an interpreter for the United Nations.

In addition to the Marshall of the Royal Air Force, Donald had a full brother, Terence Wilmot Hutchison, a world-famous economist.

His first wife, Anita Bild(6), was a Jewish refugee from Vienna whom he married five days before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Donald Gabriel Hutchison Douglas died in 1981.

1. The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) was a brutal conflict in which more than 500,000 people lost their lives. It was in many respects a dress rehearsal for the far larger confrontation which was to envelop the world soon afterwards. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the military uprising which started the war. Despite the British government’s official policy of non-intervention, thousands of British and Irish volunteers travelled to Spain to join the International Brigades which were formed in defence of the elected government of the Spanish Second Republic. The brigades were involved in some of the war’s most critical engagements, including the Battle of Jarama in February 1937, but were eventually sent home in October of the following year. General Francisco Franco, with the support of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, eventually led the Nationalist forces to victory and remained leader of Spain until his death in 1975. Journalists and writers such as George Orwell brought news of the conflict to the outside world and, partly as a result of books like Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, the International Brigaders have lived on in the popular imagination. The surviving veterans have since been conferred with honorary Spanish citizenship.

The British Security Service, sometimes known as MI5, was interested in which British volunteers were fighting in Spain, particularly as many of them were also members of the Communist Party. Records compiled by the Security Service between January 1936 and December 1954 are held on more than 4,000 British and Irish International Brigaders.

2. Marshal of the Royal Air Force William Sholto Douglas, 1st Baron Douglas of Kirtleside. Douglas having been confirmed in the rank of air chief marshal on 6 June 1945, had become Commander in Chief, British Air Forces of Occupation in July 1945. In 1963, in answer to questions concerning his book, “Years of Command”, he referred to the “Berlin incident when Gabriel (Donald’s middle and childhood name) was clapped into gaol”.

3.  I am told that more detail of his life is now known - but not by me!

4.  Different sources give different versions; he appears to have been serving through to August 1944, but was only an air gunner for three months, and seems to have had an interlude as a school teacher.

5.  Tony McLean believed him to be the son of a 'famous art dealer', Hector Douglas.  Donald's father, Robert Langton Douglas (1864-1951), known professionally as R. Langton Douglas, was a well-known British art critic, lecturer, and author, and director of the National Gallery of Ireland.

6.  The Viennese dancer Anita Bild fled to England in early 1939 on a housemaid visa, where she was able to perform again thanks to a sham marriage. She organized the emigration of her parents to London, who were accommodated in a refugee home whose manager Fritz Bild she later married. She became known as »Anita Douglas – The Viennese Nightingale« and later on the BBC. Anita Bild wrote her memoirs for her family in 1991. The memoirs are accompanied by scientific articles by renowned experts. They contextualize the dance career before and in exile, the situation of domestic workers in England and Anita Bild's marriage of convenience and draw biographical sketches of Anita's father, the lawyer Georg Lelewer, the musician Franz Eugen Klein and her fake husband Donald Douglas.



Sources for this article include:

•  International Brigades Memorial Trust newsletter Issue 35 of February 2013; Katharine Campbell
•  Oral history by Tony McLean, held by Imperial War Museum

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