27-28 Febrero The Commanders say “Attack!”

As we said for February 23, there are days which live in the memory of the International Brigades and February 27 is a very important one.  This week the 7th International March was held in Jarama by the Asociacíon de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales to celebrate the sacrifice of the XVth International Brigade.   A new plaque was added in Jarama to commemorate the Irish Brigadistas.  Thanks to AABI for the video.  The video gives a feeling for the battle of Jarama.    ¡Salud y presente!  Below is a hand drawn map of the Jarama that was from 1937 and in the Moscow Archives stored at the Tamiment Library Microfilm collection.


Hand drawn topographers map of the Jarama battlefield found in the Moscow Archives at Tamiment Library.  This was reproduced in the Book of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, pg 69.

A more difficult map to read from the action of February 23 is shown in a second figure.   The reader can get a feeling for the level of knowledge of the battlefield from these 1937 maps.

A more difficult map to see of the Jarama battlefield. The understanding that the Lincolns had of the positions and strength of the enemy is shown in this diagram. Source: NYU Tamiment Library Moscow Archives Fond 545 Opus 3.

1937 was not a leap year but the diary had a February 29th page.  The first page here (February 28) actually continues with Merriman revealing his impressions of February 23.  We include three pages here as they bring us through February 27, 1937, when the International Brigades counterattacked at Jarama.

First of three pages covering the events of February 27, 1937.
Second page from the February 27 assault by the Lincoln Battalion.
Third page covering the assault of February 27, 1937.

The attack of February 23rd revealed that the Nationalist positions were actually weaker than they appeared earlier in the month.  The lack of a Fascist counterattack after the losses of the 23rd by the Lincolns gave information that the ranks of the Fascists were not manned in depth and that a counterattack by the International Brigades could be successful in relieving the siege on the Valencia road.  Merriman says on the first page that captured Fascist soldiers gave information that strengthened the International Brigades’ resolve to counterattack again.  After the short rest of the 24-26th, a counterattack was planned for February 27.

Whole books have been written about this day and it is impossible here to give a comprehensive summary of the attack.  Merriman notes on the 28th of February page that the counterattack was to begin at 10 AM with artillery support.  The Spanish 24th Battalion was to attack the Fascist high ground on the Lincolns’ left flank.  On the 29th February page, the litany of failures of the plan are listed by Merriman — no artillery, no tank support, no advance by the 24th, no machine gun support, and most importantly no telephone communications.  When planes did arrive, only three Loyalist planes came and made a perfunctory pass, not the promised 20 or 30 airplanes.¹  The poor communication between Merriman and Colonels Copic and Klaus will be a crucial factor in how the day turned out.   What Merriman and the Americans saw was withering machine gun fire from the Fascist positions and none of the promised support.  The Americans did not attack on schedule.

Instead, Merriman says that “Wattis, the suspicious one, came forward to our trenches”.  Merriman’s distrust of the leadership was apparent and their orders to advance into an obviously hot fire area became an issue.  Klaus ordered the advance and then Wattis came forward to order the men over the parapets.  From Landis:

Merriman called Brigade headquarters and demand to speak with Copic immediately.  Edwin Rolfe describes the ensuing conversation: “There was a long debate actually, in the course of which Merriman maintained firmly that if the Lincoln Battalion was to go over it would draw ferocious and impassable fire, since the Spanish brigade was in no position now to provide covering fire, or to draw enemy fire away from the attackers.  The argument veered back and forth.  Finally Merriman was over-ruled.  The order remained: Attack!  It was then almost noon.¹

Marty Hourihan (left) and Mirko Marcovics (right), in the summer of 1937 in Ambite. Source: Photo ALBA 177_191043, Tamiment Library, NYU.
Robert Thompson
Robert Thompson Photo: ALBA photo 11-1841, Tamiment Library, NYU

Copic ordered Springhall and Wattis to go to the American lines and get them moving.    Copic was convinced that the Spanish were 700 meters ahead of the Americans and the Americans were not providing support when in fact the Spanish had attacked, were immediately repulsed with dramatic losses and were actually several hundred meters to the Lincolns’ rear.  Springhall and Wattis joined the Americans and took them over the top with covering fire given by the British and Dimitroff machine gun companies.  Within seconds of going over Springhall was shot in the face.  Merriman advanced several steps before taking a bullet which shattered his shoulder.  Douglas Seacord did not make it 50 meters before he was killed.  William Henry, who we just met in yesterday’s post, was killed almost immediately, his body riddled with bullets.  American Sid Levine, who was in Henry’s company, was told by his Corporal T. T. O’Brien to look over at a tree nearby.  Henry’s body was propped up against a tree and the top of his head was missing.  Levine said that was the first dead man he had ever seen.²   Next to Levine, John Lenthier of the Americans was also killed with a stomach wound as part of that Irish Company in the Lincolns.²

Within a short time, nearly half the Americans who went over were dead.  The Fascist positions had at least three positions with enfilading (crossing) machine gun fire.  There was nowhere to hide.  Only two officers, Marty Hourihan and Robert Thompson were not hit.  Lieutenant Bill Wheeler was hit and describes Wattis as walking up to him in the olive groves and tapping him with his swagger stick and ordered him on.  Wheeler described Wattis as “the perfect English officer”.  Milton Rappaport from New York made it to ten meters of the Fascist lines before he was cut down holding a Mills bomb (grenade) in his hand.

The courage of the Americans on the 27th could not be questioned.  The afternoon brought rain and the men that survived crawled back through thick mud.  Many of the dead and wounded would be brought back to the lines over the next few days.

Merriman says that Joe Streisand was killed putting out a “crossed T” airplane signal pointing to the Fascist positions.  Robert Pick was also shot trying to put down these guides to the aircraft.  Landis says:

The makeshift aviation signal was then hastily put together with pins, cords, anything that would hold it for the time needed to spread it on the road.  The signal was in T form and was to be so placed so the vertical line of the T pointed towards the Rebel Trenches… Streisand took one section of the T and Pick took the other, with the leg folded over.  Pick then dashed across the road, spreading out the base of the T-signal between the Lincoln and Spanish positions.  When that was done, he ran back across the road in an oblique direction, dragging out the length of the T-signal so that it pointed west, towards the Rebel trenches.  In the very act of laying it down he was shot through the chest and stomach.  Joseph Streisand ran to help him, and both of them became the immediate target of concentrated machine-gun fire.  They were shot down before the eyes of the men of the Second Company, and were literally cut to pieces where they lay by additional bursts of fire.¹

The attack of the 27th did not succeed in breaking the Fascist lines and both sides settled into a war of attrition where neither had the manpower or inclination to launch another assault for several weeks.  To the extent that these attacks proved to the Fascist leaders that the International Brigades intended to fight for every piece of ground and not to allow Madrid to be surrounded, the attack was important.  It also proved to the Loyalist military leaders that the Americans were willing to fight and die for Spain.  The cost was high and Merriman was one of the losses of the day.  He would spend the next month in hospital.   To his credit, he had his wounds dressed by “Muro” (possibly John Giuseppe Muso, who went to Spain in the first group on the Normandie).   Merriman tried to stay in the field to support his men, but he was removed by ambulance.

Cecil Eby³ notes that the Americans blamed Merriman for this attack and that William Herrick said that the men called Merriman “Murderman”.  The history above shows that Robert Merriman tried to resist making the attack of the 27th and Vladimir Copic was insistent about making the assault.


¹ Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid.

² ALBA Audio 66, Box 1, 66-6,  Sid Levine, George Foucek and Donald McLeod, 1962-5.

² Eby, Comrades and Commissars, ibid.

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