13-14 Febrero Loading the Trucks for Jarama

13-14_Febrero

Robert Merriman’s diary for the 13th and 14th of February 1937, just before leaving for the Front.

Adjustments continued to be made to the manpower in the three Lincoln Companies.  Here Merriman says that Company 2 was left in charge of the Cuban named Corona who is described in an article in the Volunteer magazine at the link.    Merriman meets with Steve Daduk later in the day, probably to tell him he is out as commander of the second company.   Merriman then attends the dance which he was organizing on the previous days with the Intendencia.

His disagreements with James Harris continue to worsen and he accuses Harris of showing up at the meeting  in the evening in a drunken state.  The underlined “He” may indicate that Harris was accusing Merriman of drinking earlier.  Marion Merriman Wachtel clarifies what the dispute was about: “Harris returned to the camp with a crazy story about the men plotting secretly to have him removed from command.  Bob checked out the story and determined it wasn’t true.”¹

On the 14th Stember and Merriman decided Harris was to be removed, yet nothing formally happened before the orders came to move up to Albacete to go to the Front.  Stember may have decided to make a change but Vidal who was second in command for the Brigade obviously was not part of that decision since both Harris and Merriman were “given stripes” and called Captains.   In the Bullring at Albacete, the Lincolns were spoken to by Marty, Vidal, Peter Kerrigan and Stember. Boxes of “Mexican rifles”, nicknamed Mexicanskis, were distributed to the companies.   As mentioned before, these rifles were of Remington manufacture, stamped with the Imperial Russian insignia from WWI vintage and came to Spain from a purchase made by the Mexican government.  The rifles were packed in cosmoline grease and the vets of Jarama remember being told by Merriman “You have shirts, wipe them off”.

Marion Merriman Wachtel fills in some details:

Harris was drunk when the heavy trucks rolled into the town’s plaza.  The men climbed aboard for the short ride to Albacete.  There the Americans were told to assemble in the bullring.  They shuffled about on the hard brown sand, talking, smoking, some sitting, others leaning against the wooden fence designed to separate the bull from the ring’s spectators.  Harris and Bob were called to the nearby International Brigade headquarters, where they were issued field glasses, compasses, and revolvers.  When the officers entered the bullring, the men could guess that they were about to be told of their mission.

Marty, the base commander, Peter Kerrigan, a British commissar, and Vidal inspected the battalion and told the Americans in emotional speeches about their new combat responsibility.  There was talk of a Fascist breakthrough a few hours northwest of Albacete in the Jarama Valley, just south of Madrid.

 ….  Then, in the late afternoon, something happened there in the bullring to Harris.  The stories vary.  {Sandor} Voros, after interviewing Bob, wrote that “Harris became extremely unnerved and excited.  He told Merriman that he was equally responsible with him for leading the battalion… Harris became more and more unnerved– he grabbed rifles out of the men’s hands saying he was a rifle inspector.  It was obvious something was wrong with him and the men began to murmur that Harris was drunk.  Battalion Commissar Stember, in consequence, ordered Harris to bed.  Harris went away but came back after a while and fired his pistol off in the Guardian Nacional, then disappeared again.”¹

Nearing midnight,  the Battalion moved and “Harris was not in sight”.   Merriman held out that Harris was drunk and slept through the departure.  Harris accused Merriman of locking him in his room and leaving without him.   What actually happened may be true in both cases.  Clearly, Merriman did not want Harris in command at this point and for a unit going into combat, the stability of the leadership did not bode well for a successful first venture into combat.  Now the Lincolns were on the move.

Over these two days, however, the British were deep in trouble.  Their assault of February 12 on Suicide Hill at Jarama was repulsed and only machine gun fire held off the attacking Moorish troops that afternoon.   On the 13th, the fascist assault continued on the British, Slavs and French.   Tom Wintringham, forced into developing strategy with a greatly weakened British force, put Harold Fry’s machine gun company up front and backed them up with Company 1 on the left and Company 4 on the right and further out, what was left of Company 3.²    At daylight, two fascist Brigades attacked the XVth Brigade.  While most of their attack focussed on the Slavic units of the XVth north of the San Martin road, artillery pounded the British all day.  In the afternoon, Burt Overton panicked and withdrew his company exposing the British flank.  In short order, Fry’s machine gun company was surrounded and 30 men were taken captive.  The stories of the capture vary between claims that the Fascists fooled the British by singing the Internationale to just an error in the British expected to be relieved by Spanish troops.

Overton, realizing the position he had left the machine gun company, charged to try to save their colleagues but the British machine guns were turned on them and only six of the 40 man company at that point survived.  Wintringham was shot by the same machine guns.  Overton’s actions that day would lead to his ultimate demise in the Brigade as he fell into “a very nervous state”.    Charges were made that Overton threw a grenade into the Brigade armory to force a withdrawal.  These actions would lead to a court martial on Overton later in the Spring.

On the evening of the 13th, Jock Cunningham returned from hospital where he had been ill.  He was able to rally about sixty British to hold the line.   By the 14th, however, tanks were thrown into action by the Fascists and the withdrawal of the British was needed to save the men who were left.  As they fell back, some men just kept going.  A famous story of the British Battalion was the action of Jock Cunningham and Frank Ryan turning the retreating men and marching them back to Jarama singing the Internationale.²  This became known as “the great rally”.

By the night of the 14th, Spanish reinforcements arrived and would soon be followed by the American Lincoln Battalion.  The lines held.  By this point, 10,000 men had been lost by the Republic and 6,000 Fascists also fell.

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¹ Marion Merriman Wachtel and Warren Lerude, An American Commander in Spain, ibid. pg 91.

² Richard Baxell, Unlikely Warriors: The British in the Spanish Civil War and the Struggle Against Fascism, ibid., pp 150-155.

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