21-22 Marzo “Happy to See My Sweet Girl”

21-22 March

Robert Merriman’s diary for the pages of March 21 and 22. Merriman wrote these pages on March 25, catching up on missed diary postings.

An earlier diary post noted that on the 16th of March, Marion Merriman arrived from Moscow.  She would be in Spain for the next seven months.  She related her reuniting with her husband:

Despite the war around us, being with Bob in Murcia made me happy.  We stayed together in his room in the Hospitale d’Internationale.  One morning as I awoke a wild wailing reached through the corridors into our room and terrified me.  Bob, too, was awakened.  He saw my fear, reached over to calm me, then broke into laughter.  Don’t be alarmed, he said.  It was only the maid out in the hall singing flamenco.  I’d never heard the eerie, wild Spanish music before.  But I grew quickly to love it.¹

Marion’s book is often personal but no passage so exceeds her own diary which she started to keep at Murcia.  She said:

But what do I know other than my feelings?  Rushing, exalting, changing in moments like these.  People.  Bob who made this possible for me, for whom nothing is  humdrum, routine or ordinary, who knows the reasons and facts better than I, who I follow joyfully because I love him and believe in him.¹

Merriman mentions a Jan Kurske.  Kurske was also in hospital in Murcia at this time (see the discussion on May 21-22).  He says Jan returns to Valencia to meet with “Kate”.  Kate is Kate Foster Kurske, a reporter in Valencia, and Kurske’s wife.  Kate later became Kate Mangan and she and Jan Kurske left an unpublished manuscript.²  Merriman mentions that Bob Thompson left for Albacete and then for “rest home”, perhaps for some “R&R” (rest and relaxation).

In the hospital, Jack Brent is still bad (we discussed him previously and he will live with this injury for the rest of his life).  The Avgherinos is Constantine (Costas) Avgherinos.   He was wounded in the leg on February 21, 1937, with the British Battalion.  Alan Warren (private communication) has provided a short bio:

Born in 1912, Constantine Avgherinos joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1934. He joined the British Battalion after his arrival on 10th of January 1937 ( British Battalion Identification Number 140). Wounded on the same day as his brother, Heracles/Hercules, Constantine Avgherinos was less fortunate; fever and complications set in during his convalescence although the wound was not that serious. He died in Pasionaria Hospital in Murcia, two months later on 30th April, 1937.

Obviously, by March 25, the wound was infected and his leg was removed.  Anti-biotics to stop gangrene in wounds were rudimentary in Spain.

American Robert Wolk had been placed in charge of the Irish and Cubans who had been combined into one company after the losses of the 27th of February.³  In the description of the fighting on the 14th of March, Landis says:

When word reached Captain Hourihan that the Spaniards were retreating, he, together with {David Everett} Jones, the Battalion Commissar, and Robert Wolk, Adjutant of the First Company, assembled a number of riflemen and went immediately to the threatened sector…Since the bulk of the assault had been directed farther south and around the side of a long hill, the Americans sought only to secure the area they had occupied.  Hourihan handled the deployment of his men skillfully, and casualties were held to a minimum.  Only one man is known to have been killed.  His loss, however, was felt strongly by the men.  He was Robert Wolk, the ex-Navy man and Adjutant of the First Company.³

Wolk came to the hospital with a shoulder wound.  He was talking when he came in but died overnight.  Merriman will describe his funeral in the next page….


¹ Marion Merriman Wachtel and Warren Lerude, American Commander in Spain, ibid., p 119.

² Jan Kurske and Kate Foster Kurske Mangan, The Jan Kurske Papers 1934, 1936-1937, 1998 “The Good Comrade”,  International Institute of Social History, Cruquiusweg 31 1019 AT Amsterdam The Netherlands, 2011.

³ Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid., p. 121.

19 Marzo Victory at Guadalajara!

March 18, 1937, was a turning point in the Spanish Civil War.  Up to that point, the Republic had been on its heels fighting one holding battle after another and losing several.

From Landis:

On March 18 the Republican forces under General José Miaja, the


Ernest Hemingway in Spain. Photo: ALBA PHOTO 11_1353, Tamiment Library, NYU

defender of Madrid, launched an attack along the entire front above Guadalajara.  The tanks of PavlovSpanish troops of Lister, of El Campesino {Valentín González}; and of the Anarchist, Cipriano Mera, the Volunteers of the 11th and 12th International Brigades; and the Republican air force under Hidalgo de Cisneros, swung to the offensive.  By the end of the day the entire Italian army was in wild retreat up the Aragon highway. …. Ernest Hemingway who was on the scene, spoke of “mountains” of ammunition, shells, grenades and provisions.¹

A Spanish History channel one hour video describing the battle is available on YouTube.  A clip from the film showing the Pavlov T-26 Tanks which supported the Garabaldi Brigade is here.


Russian T-26 Tank at Guadalajara taken from the YouTube video of the Spanish History Channel’s Battalla de Guadalajara.


General Enrique Lister with a captured Italian blackshirt flag. From the “Battalla de Guadalajara”

Landis assesses the damage to the Fascists:

Franco apologists say that only three hundred prisoners were taken and that there were but two thousand dead and three thousand wounded.  These figures appear in most of the pro-Franco dissertations on the Spanish War.  But, since the statistics do not agree with even the captured data from German and Italian archives during World War II, we will rely on the more consistently valid reports from the men on the scene.  It is quite indicative, for instance, that the Italian ambassador to Fascist Spain, Roberto Cantalupo, refers to the Italian dead in terms of “several thousands”.  A final consensus of the more conservative Republican figures lists the Italian losses as approximately 3,000 dead; 6,000 wounded, and upwards of 2,000 prisoners.¹

While the Republic did not have the strength to continue this advance in March 1937, Guadalajara gave the Republic the time to bring in more materiel from abroad while Internationals continued to arrive at Albacete.  It is said that the victory was short lived and the gains were minor.   But two years in the future, those Italians who were captured at Guadalajara, and were kept alive in Republican prisons, were traded on a 1:1 basis for International Brigade Prisoners.  The value of this asset should not be forgotten for the hundreds of Brigadistas who were spared execution after capture in 1938 because Franco and Mussolini had decided that they needed living prisoners to get the Italians back to Italy.  Some of those American prisoners have children alive today (and part of the Friends and Families of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade).  They owe homage to the thousands who fought at Guadalajara for this victory.

What Robert Merriman knew of these battles, he saw from the number of wounded coming into Murcia hospitals.


¹  Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid., p. 123-124.

17-20 Marzo “Harris returns but he is still bad”


March 17 and 18th pages of Robert Merriman’s diary. This was written about March 25.

Merriman continues to describe Murcia in his diary but notes that James Harris has returned and they talked.  Clearly, this episode affected Merriman significantly and he seems really to care about Harris’ welfare.  But Harris still shows signs that he is not really past the paranoia that affected him in Albacete and Jarama.  He makes statements about Harris “finding a big rich fascist in his mind’s eye” and we are to wonder if this was someone in town or Merriman himself.  “Harris bought stripes” means that he had purchased the insignia of a Captain for his uniform but he was uncertain if he still had his command.  Wearing stripes when you were busted would certainly put you in jail.

Jame Harris

Orders of the Day for the XIIIth battalion at Fuentes del Ebro. The first paragraph says that James Harris was executed for desertion in the face of the enemy. RGASPI Archives Fond 545/Opis3/Delo203 page 243. Moscow.

The Command must have felt Harris was ok if he was sent back to Murcia as a commissar, but it would have allowed him to serve while also being watched by medical staff.  “and to go on soon to Benicassim” would put Harris in the rear in a convalescent hospital on the Coast.  Merriman notes that Newman {Dr. Neumann — see March 13-16 posting} found Harris’ papers left in a café.   Clearly they were concerned about his stability.  We continue to the next two pages of the diary where we find that Harris was examined at Benicassim and the word was that he was going to be sent back to the US.   Later in the diary, however, Harris is still in Spain and he will be assigned to the XIIIth Dombroski Battalion.   We have found evidence (above from RGASPI) that Harris again panicked under fire at Fuentes del Ebro and he was executed by the command of the XIIIth Battalion on October 14, 1937.   It is quite sad that Newman did not carry out the order to repatriate Harris.  It could have saved him.

19-20 March

Robert Merriman’s diary on 19-20 March pages. This would have been written about March 25.

In Murcia, Merriman meets up again with Bert Overton, who was  a Company commander of the British at Jarama.   Overton’s story is here.  Merriman picks up on the problems with Overton, who is defensive of his record.  As the linked story points out, Overton was suspected of retreating at the front and leaving the Lincolns exposed.   James Carmody, scholar of the English Battalion, sent along the following notation:

Bert Overton was Company Commander of 4th Company.  Overton panicked and shouted the company was surrounded.  He led the charge to the rear and threw a grenade into the Battalion Ammo dump in order to make the Battalion retreat, since they would have no Ammo.   Albert ‘Bert’ Overton was a former Welsh Guardsman.¹

We find out on these pages that Merriman knew that Marion Merriman would soon arrive and he arranged for rooms for her at Radio Hospital in Murcia.   This hospital is said to be on the river.  Marion Merriman arrives in Murcia on March 16 and will hear much more in the coming days …..


¹ James Carmody, private communication, May 29, 2014.

15-16 Marzo Taking a short break from the diary

Merriman is still in the process of catching up on events at Murcia in his diary and several pages will be combined in an upcoming post here.  The last posting (13-14_Marzo) discussed the Fascist attack on the left flank of the Brigades lines by Italian Fiat tanks and Spanish troops on the 14th of March.  The context of this attack has not been discussed.

Starting in early February, Franco initiated his assault on Madrid designed to sweep around the southern end of the city and then up along the east side to meet up with his troops that had already advanced across the north side of the Madrid region.  Closing that trap would probably have ended the war with the taking of Madrid.  Jarama was a significant impediment to his plans.

As most people who understand the war know, but some new readers might not, Franco’s efforts to overthrow the government of Spain was underwritten by other Fascist powers in Europe: Portugal, Italy and Germany.  German infantry troops were available to Franco but it was German air power and artillery that empowered the Rebels.  Portugal contributed several divisions of infantry, but the most significant contribution of manpower came from Italy who could infiltrate boatload after boatload of troops into Spain now that the city of Malaga and the southern coast was clear for them.  Thus, the Italian tanks, infantry and artillery would be involved in all major fighting against the International Brigades until the very end.

There was a superior attitude of the Germans and Italians against this unknown Spanish General Franco.  When Jarama stalled, Mussolini was dismissive of Franco thinking that he was too careful and not daring enough in his offensive on Madrid.  On March 8, the Italians led a massive onslaught on Madrid from the north and south which was intended to show Spain and Europe that Italians could do in Spain what they had done in Ethiopia, quickly conquer a weaker power.  Landis analyzes this:

It would appear from the record that the ease of the almost all-Italian victory at Málaga had convinced the forces of the Italian CTV (Corpo Truppe Volontarie) that Madrid would fall in like manner.  Franco historians maintain that because of this Italian thinking, previous grandiose plans for the shifting of the center of operations from the Madrid front to the area of the Levante had been hastily abandoned.  Those plans, too, had called for the use of Italian divisions, using the fortress-city of Teruel as a base.  An armored wave of Italian and Spanish troops were to breach the Republican lines below Teruel, fan out along the Zaragoza-Sagunto road, to be met finally by an additional number of Blackshirt {Italian} divisions to be landed at Sagunto above Valencia under the protection of the Italian fleet.  Republican Spain would thus have been effectively cut in half and its doom sealed.¹

The plan to take Madrid, however, was quicker and the Italians and Germans prevailed on Franco to make an assault of the city. This would become the Battle of Guadalajara.  Landis outlines what international forces (remember that strict non-intervention was being non-applied, or at least, ignored, by the European Non-Intervention Committee):

The Italian general, Roatta Mancini, commanded the main forces, which consisted of four complete Italian divisions {approximately 40,000 men}.  They were the Blackshirts of General Rossi, the Black Flames of General Coppi, the Black Arrows of General Novalari, and the Littorio Division under General Bergonzoli.  This Italian corps alone had the armored support of 250 tanks and 180 varied piece of mobile artillery.  There was also a chemical warfare company, a flame-thrower company, and an auto-pool with a disposition of seventy trucks per battalion.  In addition, the Fifth Division (the Black and Blue Arrows) composed a mixed brigade of Italian-German infantry, a complete Brigade of German infantry, and four companies of motorized machine-gunners {the Italian Fiat Ansaldo L3 two-man tanks}, was placed at the disposal of General Mancini.  

The air force directly under Mancini’s control consisted of three groups of Italian planes and three groups of German, with twelve planes each.¹

The attack began on March 8 and surprised the Republican forces.  General Rojo’s  forces were routed above Madrid with the fall of Almadrones, Alaminos, Brihuea and Trijueque.  The Republican 11th (Lister’s), 14th, 12th Divisions and the 72nd Brigade were involved in the fighting.   On March 11, the International Brigades of France, German and Italy (the Commune de Paris, Thaelmann’s, and Garabaldis) became firmly involved in the battle to hold that sector.  By the 14th of March, when Spanish Rebel General Orgaz had attacked in Jarama, the overall assault was stalling against the Republican resistance and weather did not help the Fascist cause.  Mixed cold rain, sleet and snow occurred through the period and made going more difficult.   From March 15-17, a pause in the fighting occurred.

General Rojo and the Internationals had a few plans of their own to greet the Italians at this time…


¹ Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid., pp 112-118.

13-14 Marzo Waiting for Marion and Milly


Robert Merriman’s diaries from the 13th and 14th of March. He wrote this material on March 25


15-16 March

Robert Merriman’s diary from 15-16 March.

March 14 arrives and Merriman is isolated from Jarama.  He spends time with Bob Thompson and Thomas Bennett, who leaves for Albacete from Murcia.   He speaks of Newman, but we have previously seen this spelled Neuman.¹  But the war had not stopped to wait for Merriman.  On the 14th of March, the Fascists, led by Italian two-man tanks attacked the left flank of the Brigades’ lines at Jarama.  The attack hit first some relatively raw Spanish recruits who could not hold their trenches.

Allan Johnson

David Mates (left) and Major Allan Johnson (right). This photograph was taken at Fuentes de la Venta at Morata de Tejuña just east of the Jarama lines. Source: Moscow Archive Photo 177_191047. Tamiment Library, NYU

But first, we should introduce a new Lincoln, James Allan Donald McNeil (Allan Johnson) arrived in Spain and took over command of the XVth Brigade operations in the field.  Johnson had a strong military background (a graduate of the United States War College, General Staff School and a regular Captain in the Massachusetts National Guard.²  Johnson was an excellent strategist and wrote several articles in the 1937 Volunteer for Liberty on how to protect troops from aircraft and how to build effective fortifications.  His arrival was crucial given the decimation of the Brigade leadership on February 27th.  The Brigade “found” Johnson in Figueras on the evening of the 27th and rushed a car across Spain to pick him up and bring him to the front.  Johnson immediately assessed the state of the Brigade and personally made trips back to Albacete to replace the worn Maxim machine gun barrels with usable equipment.²   He improved the Brigade trenches so that they could be defended.

On the 14th of March in a state of dying interest on the Madrid front, the Fascists took one last attempt to cut the Chinchon-Morata -Titulcia road.  Using Italian two-man Fiat tanks, they rolled up a section of line on the left flank of the Brigade and chased out the Spanish troops holding that flank.   Eby says:


Jock Cunningham of the British Battalion, Photo: 177_179053 of the Moscow Archive ALBA 177, Tamiment Library, New York University

Chapayev (Yugoslav Commander) and Fred Copeman of the British Battalion.  Source: Moscow Archive Photo 177_177024.  Tamiment Library, NYU

Chapayev (Yugoslav Commander) and Fred Copeman of the British Battalion. Source: Moscow Archive Photo 177_177024. Tamiment Library, NYU

In the afternoon of March 14 the front suddenly erupted again as Moors, proceeded by Fiat tanks, stormed the trenches south of the XVth Brigade, an episode recorded in brigade lore as “the Battle of Dead Mule Trench”.  That section was lightly held by skittish quintos (conscripts) of the La Passionaria Battalion, who panicked and fled.  The contagion spread to the next sector, occupied by the British Battalion… {the Brigade leadership was in a meeting with Copic in the rear and the labor battalion held the Moors} …. Within minutes Captain Jock Cunningham, the ferocious, bushy-browed commander of the British, came dashing up the hill shouting, “You bloody Yanks! Goddamn you — we won’t leave you in the lurch!”…Close behind came Fred Copeman…. Grabbing handfuls of Mills bombs, a mixed force of Americans and British stormed down the length of the trench, flushing out the Moors in fine style.  One man would toss a grenade into a blind corner of the trench zigzag, and the others would quail-shoot the Moors who tried to scramble out.  The enemy ran out of grenades in the nearly subterranean fighting and never caught on that their opponents were only a patched-up raiding party, and not a full battalion.  The counterattack ended when Cunningham found the trench blocked by a dead mule and scrambled up on the parapet in full view of the enemy, where he caught a machine-gun burst that somersaulted him into the trench, his chest and arms spurting blood like a pump.³

Copeman took Cunningham back for help and Lieutenant Wattis continued to pick off Moors who piled up in the no-man’s-land as they retreated.  The Moors continued to hold that section of trench for some time, but proceeded no further into the Brigade lines.  The Brigades Russian T-26 tanks overmatched the small Fiats and dispatched them.  The Russians, according to Eby, called the Fiats “patrol cars” and their two man crews the “riot police”.³

Eby describes an incident which was to become famous over the next year: Robert Raven to Philip Cooperman….

Lini Fuhr, Frank Ayres and Robert Raven

Nurse Lini Fuhr, Frank Ayres tending to Robert Raven in Hospital. Frederika Martin Photo  1:1:108:2, Tamiment Library, NYU.

Suddenly we ran into four soldiers who we thought were our own, but their helmets and clothes proved them to be fascists.  They tried to capture us.  We tore away and ran back thirty meters and grabbed some grenades.  My Canadian comrade opened the lever of his grenade and handed it to me, which he should not have done.  However, I crawled up towards the fascists under cover and was about to toss the grenade when there was a terrific concussion in front of me and I felt my face torn off.  Naturally, I dropped the grenade [which] exploded at my feet filling my legs with shrapnel.  My comrades must have retreated again and I kept crawling blindly, dragging my body through those trenches calling “Comrade, Comrade”.³

Robert Raven would recover.  He was, however, blinded in both eyes.  Raven would return to the US to lead appeals for support for the Internationals.

Jarama was not the only front of this war and, in two days, we will focus on the front at Guadalajara in early March 1937.


¹  There is only one Newman or Neuman in the Lincolns in March.  Sol Newman became a member of the Regiment de Tren and it is curious that he would be at Murcia.  His papers are filed in Tamiment as Collection ALBA 081 and would need to be consulted to see if this is the correct Newman.   There is also, however, a Dr. Neumann who was Austrian and who said to have helped start the International Brigades in Spain.  Being a doctor, Murcia would be a logical place for him to be.

² Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid., p 120.

³ Eby, Comrades and Commissars, ibid, pp 94-96.