Joe Larreta

Joe Larreta was born in April of 1916, in Loudoun Square, Tiger Bay, Cardiff. After his mother had turned ill, they had returned to Spain with their father. Joe had worked on a ferry boat during the summer holidays that his father ran from Laida to Mundaka on the Ria de Mundaka (or Ria de Gernika) in norther Vizcaya. However, Joe had the dreams and hopes of becoming an engineer while attending college in Bilbao. The death of his father had forced him to sacrifice his dreams in order to take care of his siblings. His father had been a strong believer in socialism which had influenced Joe’s thoughts and decisions of politics. The family had not been brought up to be religious. Joe had spoken Basque and Spanish, however he was disinterested in ‘national’ separatism. He had regarded himself as a supporter of the moderate wing of the socialist party.

In July 1936, Joe decided to answer to a party  call in San Sebastian, near where the rebel based was located in Navarre. The Basque people’s army was being assembled, and with him he took his father’s shotgun and sticks of dynamite.

Joe was assigned to a machine gun battalion, and later was assigned to overlook Vitoria, which was the capital of the Basque Provence of Alava. It was a nationalist stronghold. After six weeks he was relieved along with the rest of his comrades. Later on he was taking part in operation in the mountains against the town of San Roque de Riomiera. Along with working there, he had contracted typhoid fever, being evacuated to a hospital at Limpias.

As he had partially recovered, he was then moved to a hospital near Gijón. The town being republican was threatened. On the 21st October, Joe had again been evacuated onto a refugee boat after the enemy had entered the town. The rescue boat had unfortunately been intercepted by a nationalist warship. The boat was taken into Santoña. The Seven Sea Spray was impounded at this location, where Fifi Roberts had ‘marooned’ on the vessel.

While Larreta was in captivation, he came up with the genius plan to fake his nationality by calling himself British while being interrogated by the Nationalist side. Joe had no evidence to prove that he was British which is why the enemy were not entirely convinced. This claim prevented Larreta from entering Duero, where a prison was. Instead he was confined as a special prisoner in Santoña. His fate had hung in balance. Joe’s sister was interrogated by the Francoist police at the family home. One connection of the two siblings was an elite Navarrese regiment. He had interceded for Joe, whilst his sister had contacted the British embassy to Spain. This was now located on neutral territory across the French border. The Nationalist Foreign Ministry in Burgos had received a note from Sir Henry Chilton, the British Ambassador. The note stated that Larreta was in actual fact born in Cardiff and there was knowledge of him being kept as a prisoner in the Instituto de Manzanedo, Carcel del Dueso, Santoña. The ambassador had asked for intelligence as to what charges had been been against him.

Joe’s life had been saved by a highly respected figure to the Nationalist party. Instead of being released, Joe had been sent to a P.O.W. camp where 6,000 republican captives were held. late in 1937, Joe was sent to the Teruel front in the mountains. The republic had had launched an unexpected, yet first, successful attack. Special prisoners were allowed the privilege to work in this unit. The town of Teruel was recaptured by the Nationalists in early February by. Joe was ordered, along with others, to clear up the streets of the city, after a desperate struggle in the sub-zero temperatures.

Engaging in the rebuilding of the ruined town until the spring of 1938, Joe’s claim to British Nationality was accepted and was sent to the main centre for captured foreigners outside Burgos. The prison camp of San Pedro de Cardeña was a deconsecrated monastery. He was incarcerated with the remainder of prisoners from the International Brigades.

Joe’s name appears as number 38 on a list of British inmates at the prison (April 1938), which occurs next to another adoptive Cardiffian named Richard Jones. At the camp, Joe had met another prisoner who was in a similar situation to himself, only the prisoner was born to a Cuban family in Miami, who had later moved to Spain. The prisoner possessed an English-Spanish dictionary which allowed them to learn English together, along with the assistance of Jimmy Moon, who was a Reading Lab Technician who had recorded stories as a ‘camp-journalist’. The conditions at the prison were not idyllic whatsoever, however they had been far better than what International Brigade Victims had experienced. Eight-hundred prisoners were housed on two floors of the monastery, with every 200 men sharing three latrines and two taps. You can’t imagine the treatment or food being any better quality. French, North American and British prisoners were released in batches, whilst German prisoners had a different fate. By late May in 1939, two months after the war had ended, Joe had still not gained his rightful freedom. Joe had then been taken to a jail in Hondarreta. A week later, he was taken with other prisoners along the international bridge to France. Joe was 6’2 in height and had lost over two stone. As clothing, he was given an old suit which was much too small for him, and a pair of boots which were several sizes too big.

As Joe had arrived at Newhaven, he was questioned by immigration where he was passed through. When his train had got to London’s Victoria Station, the International Brigade Association representatives were waiting to welcome him. After two years of imprisonment, he rebelled against the confining discipline of the billet and was again in trouble. His sister had come to the rescue again, sending a letter to their old neighbours in Cardiff. One of them had the position to secure Larreta a job onboard a Liverpool Cruise Liner. His first voyage was to Buenos Aires, and as the liner was crossing the Atlantic, war had broke out in Europe. Joe had returned to Cardiff after a twenty-year absence and settled in the Mountstuart Dry Dock. Although Joe’s feelings and thoughts had never changed, he is not a bitter man. Joe had felt able to return to the Basque Country for a holiday well before Franco’s death, before 1962.

This story had informed our ideas in such a way as we saw it as a chance to create a series of memorabilia. To relate to the domesticity and the thoughts and stories that women had heard about their husbands or family members while they were fighting in the war, the group thought it would be a fantastic idea to create cushion covers which would feature simple line stitching to illustrate Joe’s story and the desperation and stress he had experienced while fighting for freedom. We had looked at tapestries and cushions used in churches as a source of story-telling inspiration. In most churches you would find relics, stained glass windows, tapestries, and statues to represent stories that have been told in the Bible. The group had decided to create four cushion covers that could be displayed in cabinets, up on a wall in a frame, or used generally around the house. To create the images, we thought of using pivotal moments and events in the story. First we thought of creating recreating the portrait taken of Larreta. Then we thought about the stressful travelling around Spain and using maps to illustrate this. Another was where we stitched images of a shotgun and grenade to represent him joining the army and his view on politics. To represent his weight loss we thought we could create an image of him looking like a clown, or a similar image to the iconic silhouette of Charlie Chaplin. Then we thought of a naval suit to represent his time spent on ships and boats travelling to places. Along with these cushion covers we also decided to create a poster which focused on typography. I came up with the idea of creating a map out of words that were told in the story.


Author: jennifertaylorgraphics

First year student studying Graphic Communication at the Cardiff School of Art and Design

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