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McKenna was born in 1916 in Manchester into a desperately poor family, from Irish-English stock. The seventh child, he was the first to survive infancy. For most of his childhood his father was unemployed; his mother was a cleaner. But he was the first boy from his school, St Wilfrids, to win a scholarship to St Gregory's grammar school in Ardwick.
At 14, Bernard became a warehouse clerk in a small Manchester textile mill. He joined the Labour League of Youth first, but then, at the age of 17, the Young Communist League because of the fact that the Communists clearly saw the danger of fascism. When the Spanish civil war broke out in 1936, he was involved in fund-raising for the Republic. But, having served in the local unit of the Territorial Army as a cadet when he was around 15, in February 1937, without telling his family. Having got as far as London, he posted a letter from there announcing that he was going and for his family not to worry.
He took a train to Paris, where he contacted the International Brigade recruiting office and was sent to France. After signals training, he was wounded on his first day of action at Brunete in July 1937. Then, on the Aragon front, he was wounded by shrapnel, and then shell-shocked. He almost died in hospital but recovered enough to be sent back to the front to fight again, as most Brigaders and all Communists did.
In March spring 1938, he was captured by fascists on the banks of the Ebro and taken to an infamous POW camp in Burgos. There, he was interrogated by the Gestapo; when he was taken to the town's outskirts, he expected to be executed. But he had been randomly selected for prisoner exchange and spent some time in an Italian prisoner of war camp before being released in October 1938. He retained, but never paid, his £4 Foreign Office bill for "repatriation".
In later years, McKenna recalled: "Even in those days we were approached by reporters from the Daily Mail who were chasing up the families of volunteers. they tried to make out that it was a wicked conspiracy in which innocent young youths were talked into going. I don't think they got much satisfaction, but I remember when I came back seeing a very bad picture of myself in the Daily Mail with a very prejudiced report calling us deluded youth."
During the Second World War, McKenna was in the RAF, spending six-and-a-half years in north Africa, the Middle East and Italy, having “another go at the fascists”, as he put it.
In 1946, he went through the forces’ leaving programme for teacher training, and became a teacher, eventually specialising in the educationally disadvantaged.
In the final stages of life, before he died aged 92, apparently he declared almost daily that he was "buoyed up by the thought that I have outlasted that fucking Franco."
Sources: Guardian 14th August 2008; Mike Walker (for quote)