This article appeared in the Cambridge United programme for the match against Plymouth Argyle on Saturday, 4 February 2017.
Refugees, and a certain president’s unlawful measures to prevent some finding sanctuary in his country, are in the news. Let’s examine, then, the welcome extended 80 years ago to terrified people fleeing deadly warplanes.
When peace returned, some refugees from that 1930s outrage went home. Others stayed in their adoptive countries and made priceless contributions to their new communities. Perhaps nowhere in Britain benefited more than Cambridge from their presence. It’s safe to say our football club gained as much as any other from their contribution.
The bombs that forced our refugees to leave their homes did not fall from Russian or Syrian aircraft. The warplanes were those of Hitler’s Condor Legion, formed by members of the Luftwaffe, and they flew in support of the fascist Francisco Franco’s Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. The carpet-bombing of civilians in the Basque town of Guernica on 26 April 1937 was the Legion’s most infamous act.
One of its victims was a Republican fighter by the name of Gallego. Two of his sons, José and Antonio, and three other siblings escaped Franco’s lethal attentions when their mother placed them in a Bilbao orphanage. Soon the Gallego children, with nearly 4,000 other youthful refugees, were on their way to Britain, despite prime minister Stanley Baldwin’s ludicrous claim that the climate wouldn’t suit them.
The children were welcomed in various ‘colonies’ throughout the country, and the Gallegos spent time at the two in our area – at Pampisford rectory and in Station Road, Cambridge. The kids didn’t see their mother again for ten years, but they settled well thanks to the warm-hearted people they met, and to football.
‘Football meant everything to us; it was the only thing we knew about,’ Antonio told the Spanish paper El Pais in 2012. ‘We got attached to Cambridge and made a lot of friends here through playing football.’
Goalkeeper Antonio (quickly dubbed Tony) and winger José (Joe) signed for Cambridge Town as teenagers. Tony switched to Abbey United in 1943 before rejoining Joe at Milton Road the following year. Then he entered the professional ranks with Norwich City, where he played with former Town teammate Fred Mansfield. His spell at Carrow Road was brief, and he returned to Cambridge to become United’s first-choice keeper at the start of the 1947/48 season, as the club moved boldly into the semi-professional United Counties League.
Joe left Town for Brentford in 1947, signed for Southampton the following year and featured in Colchester’s first Football League season, but returned to play for the newly renamed Cambridge United when they joined the Eastern Counties League in 1951/52.
Tony remained first choice that season but in 1955 signed for Biggleswade; Joe stayed at the U's for another season before being united with his brother again. The Gallegos stayed in Cambridge for the rest of their lives, Joe dying in 2006 aged 82 and 90-year-old Tony passing away two years ago. I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts rang out loud and proud at the funeral.
The Gallegos are legends at United, as are Emilio Aldecoa at Coventry and Wolves and other fugitive children who made a mark in British football. We have cause to thank the Cambridge people who said ‘refugees welcome’ in 1937.