11-12 Febrero The Lincolns Ready to Move and the British are Baptized by Fire

February 11-12, 1937

Robert Merriman’s Diary for February 11 and 12, 1937

On the 9th and 10th, Merriman gathered supplies and suggested that the Lincolns would shortly be moving “to the forest”.  On the 11th, he says “to move soon maybe tomorrow”.  The diary does not say that this move will be to the front, but we know that from history.

Problems with John Scott and Merriman continue.  They talked on the 9th, but Merriman says that he spoke extensively with Stember about whether it was inevitable that Scott would have to be replaced as Company 1 commander.  Scott must have threatened resignation “Scott demanded to see them — resign”.

Merriman relates that the Intendent (head of the Intendencia or supply depot) was preparing a dinner for 1300 men (approximately two battalions).   In the Book of the XVth Brigade³ says “The day before we left Villaneuva de la Jara for the front a dance was held for the Americans in another old building [the church in the diary] adjacent to our barracks”.   “Wolf” above is not an American Volunteer.  There is a Lou Wolf mentioned in April but no connection to him or the Intendencia is made.  There also was a doctor named Wolf Jungermann.  At this point it is still a bit of a mystery who this man is.

On the 12th, Merriman again says “Scott trouble” and he was in the field with the Lincolns in training when Andre Marty  visited the troops on the 12th.

Herrick made the statement “Adjutant Commander Merriman was partial to the infantry commander, Scott, two WASPs on a hot tin roof”…¹   Clearly, Herrick had this mostly wrong, if we are to trust Merriman’s diary.  There was no love lost between the two of them.  Herrick’s recollections were often second (or third) hand and here probably incorrect.   John Scott would lead his men into an attack on February 23 and be shot in the attack.  Scott would lie wounded in the field for most of a day and men risked their lives to get him back to the lines and to the safety of the Health Service.  Merriman’s “Scott trouble” would be a short one as Scott dies on February 23.

Art Landis² says that Merriman received orders on the 12th that changed their destination from Pozo Rubio to the front.  As we will see shortly, he has the dates wrong by about two days.  As of February 12, Merriman still is in training mode.

The Book of the Brigade becomes very active on 11 and 12 of February.  “On February 11, at sunrise, the rebels succeeded in capturing Pintoca bridge by a surprise attack” (this bridge is near Vaciamadrid in the map of 9-10 Feb’s post).  On the night of February 11, nearly 10,000 enemy troops starting moving in the Jarama sector.  The night of February 12, the enemy made their first assault on Pingarron Hill which was to be the high ground in the Battle for Jarama.  H. Galli (perhaps Humberto or Umberto Galliani) with the Franco-Belge Battalion³ says “February 11.  We assemble to march to the front.”  Laza Wovicky of the Dimitrov Battalion says “February 12. Noon.  We marched towards the olive trees, where the enemy were.  The enemy saw us and opened out a violent machine gun fire against us.  We spread into fighting formation.  We advanced about 300 yards without firing a single shot”.³  The notes of the British Battalion staff say

” Early in the morning of February 12, we started out in lorries from Chinchón.  We knew the front was near….. Captain Tom Wintringham commanded the Battalion.  George Aitken was Commissar.  We had no maps, little knowledge of what was happening.  We knew that the Fascists had advanced during the previous six days, that they had crossed the river Jarama, and that they were attempting to cut the Valencia-Madrid road.  We believed there was a front somewhere ahead; we were reserve troops, we understood.  Actually, as we discovered a few hours later, troops that had been in front of us had been brushed aside.  The Fascist break-through was in reality a big push”.³

Richard Baxell describes the events of February 12 in detail.  The British moved up from Chinchon where they had left the rail transport that brought them to the front on the 11th and moved by trucks up to the San Martin de la Vega road.  Just before the road was a cookhouse where the men dismounted and climbed the ridge to the west.  Reaching the top with little trouble, they were fanned out along the ridge when they were given orders to move west into the Jarama Valley and to attack the fascist positions on the heights on the western side.  The Fascists were well entrenched and had enfilading machine gun fire and artillery that made the British lives hell.   This counterattack, which began in the late morning, had bogged down on “Suicide Hill” to the south of the line and the “conical hill” to the north side, both of which had machine gun protection.   By 1400, the British had stalled and lacked machine gun support of their own by Harry Fry’s machine gun company who found that their ammunition belts were loaded with the wrong size ammunition and were jamming the guns.

The British began their retreat later in the afternoon back up onto the plateau where they were silhouetted against the skyline and fell in dozens.  The Moroccan Moors who were part of the Spanish Fascist Tercera attacked and “with astonishing speed over nearly two thousand meters of uphill ground”4.   The Moors were experienced troops and knew how to attack with limited cover and the inexperienced British were unable to stop their advance.  A slaughter ensued and Tom Wintringham had difficulty constraining the situation from becoming a rout.   General Gal ordered the British to hold at all costs.  Wintringham did not know that Bill Briskey and Kit Conway, his field commanders were dead.   The Moors retook Suicide Hill with its white farm house.

The situation turned late in the afternoon when Fred Coleman and Harry Fry were able to reload by hand the machine gun belts for Fry’s Company and machine gun fire from Fry’s five machine guns were ready.   As the Moors assaulted the eastern ridge of the valley, Fry’s company opened up and put nearly 1000 rounds into them in 3 minutes.  Over half of the Moors fell in the barrage and the assault stopped.

The 600 men in the British battalion were down to 200 effectives by the end of February 12.  Another 100 returned to the lines over the following days.   Of the men who had left the hill, stories abound of those who where walking out to the east and had to be stopped under threat from General Gal and George Aitken and Jock Cunningham.   Baxell says:

 Another group of men was found hiding in wine vaults in the farmhouse behind the lines by Fred Copeman and André Diamant, an anglicised Egyptian now in command of No. 1 Company.  Copeman and Diamond threatened to throw grenades into the vaults and almost one hundred men who had been hiding promptly revealed themselves.4

The British inexperience would similarly be reflected in Merriman’s troops in a few days.  There was no lack of courage amongst these men but the shock of war was something for which they were unprepared.

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¹ W. Herrick, Jumping the Line, ibid.

² Art Landis, Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid.

³ Book of the XVth Brigade, ibid.

Richard Baxell, Unlikely Warriors: The British in the Spanish Civil War and the Struggle Against Fascism, Aurum Library, London, 2012. pp 149-150.