31 Agosto “A really tough day”

August 31, 1937

Robert Merriman’s diary for August 31, 1937

Given that Belchite would be one of the toughest assignments that the XVth Brigade would face in 1937, Merriman did not write much over the next two days.  This indicates that he was very busy without much down time to put down his notes.   Merriman carries over his sentence from August 30, saying that the “next day” orders came to attack but did not do it.  So while the Americans were in position to assault Belchite, all that happened were small probes by some units, artillery assaults, tank approaches, and some “partisan tactics” employed by Chapayev and the Dimitrov Battalion.   Merriman may be reflecting the wishes of the Army Corps command that the action proceed with haste, but Belchite was a densely occupied town with only a few routes of access in.  The town was interweaved with above ground and below ground passageways within the houses.  An attack on a house would just have the defenders move to the next house down the street.

From the northern side of the town where the Americans were lined up, a road leading from between brick building (a “barn”) and a factory channelled into a square in front of the San Agustin Church.   Fascists had machine guns in each of the churches in town and it was nearly impossible to get into Belchite.

Belchite Map

A map of Belchite from a Polish edition of “El General Walter. Sirvio a tres Banderas: Republica Espanola, Polonia y la URSS. 35 división” by Fernando Martinez de Banos Carrillo and Agnieszka Szafran. editors.  Delsan Libros, 2011. DP is Divisional Estado Mayor, BM is Mixed Brigade and BP is battalion for their relevant positions.

In the above map of Belchite (thanks to Alan Warren for the source), the 58th Battalion is the position of the Lincolns, the 59th is the Spanish Battalion and the 60th is the Mac-Pap Battalion in the XVth Brigade.  The 57th is the British position up the Mediana Road protecting from reinforcements for the Fascists.   Getting an airborne image of the current Belchite is difficult as Google Maps is intentionally blurred.  Fortunately, Michelin provides maps and air photos of the current destroyed Belchite.   Much of the initial action of which Merriman speaks are in the small area below:

Belchite

Air Photo of the current Belchite. The historical town of Belchite is in the destroyed area at the bottom right of the image. The Church is San Agustin where the initial XVth Brigade battles occurred (photo courtesy Michelin Maps)

Merriman does not really know whether the Dimitrov Battalion has taken the Church (they had not).  When Merriman says “Occupied building across road” it is believed that he is referring to the Fabrica opposite the church, which could not be held because grenades kept getting lobbed into this building from the stronghold across the street.   Some Americans made it into Belchite early, including John Cookson, who set up transmissions from inside the city until Robbie Robinson ordered him out since he “was surrounded”.¹

Belchite Fabrica

Current day view of the Fabrica (yellow building) and San Agustin Church, Belchite (author’s photo)

 

Approach to Belchite

The road leading to the Fabrica with San Agustin on the left. Taken in 1937. ALBA PHOTO 11_1229, Tamiment Library, NYU

Dave Engels described some of the fighting around San Agustin and uses the term “barn” others have called these buildings a “mill” or a “Fabrica”.    Engels says that when the Americans tried to go into the alley between what is labelled “Fabrica” and “Barn” above, Fascists came pouring at them from the buildings behind the church.  The thick walls protected the Fascists from grenades, even though they were only a few meters from the alley.²

Again, the timeline on the attack on Belchite is clouded here.  Most historians place the American attack on Belchite as starting on the afternoon of September 1.  Yet here Merriman has already noted that Eric Nyberg and Wallace Burton had been killed on the August 31 diary pages (again, investigation by Milly Bennett on the death of Burton, her lover, places the date of his death as September 2 from a sniper who hit him between the eyes).  Merriman notes that Owen Smith and Canadian Jock Hoshooley had been wounded.   Merriman again chides Amlie for making up excuses that the losses were high.  Contemporary accounts say that of the “25” men who were mustered (the number was actually 22), only two made it back out uninjured when the retreat was ordered.   Some according to Landis (Gabby Klein and Saul Birnbaum in particular) were stuck near the ditch and could not get out until a tank approached the Church, took a couple of shots and while it was the target of the fire, the Americans backed out.³  Not to get too far ahead in the story of Belchite, Amlie places the main part of the action of his company on the 2nd and 3rd of September and we will include a transcript from his diary on the next Merriman diary page.

Merriman says that the tank actions were not effective, but maneuvering a tank into narrow alleys with no room to turn was suicidal for the tankers.   Merriman says that he spent his day in the trenches and when he called for a concentrated attack, nothing happened.  Merriman tried to move the 24th Battalion but communication was poor and contact was lost with them.  Amlie will note in his diary that they had no idea where the Lincolns were.

At the end of the day, Copic and Merriman call in the Brigade commanders but not all of them come in.  Chapayev, for one, did not show up.  Hans Amlie takes the brunt of the criticism and the commanders are reminded that Mediana is expected to be counterattacked by the 150th Division of the Fascists.  It is important that the resources being expended at Belchite move north.   Merriman says that James Bourne is now the Political Commissar so Robbie Robinson was replaced during the battle.  Merriman says that he was sick.   Merriman says that “O’Daire {is} weak”.  Paddy O’Daire took over the British Battalion upon the death of Peter Daly.   “18 men expect to go home soon and are watching themselves”.  If you thought that you soon would be out, it is possible that they would not put themselves on the line.   It is likely that these men are in the 57th Battalion and have seen many leading British comrades (Aitken, Cunningham, Tapsell, etc.) repatriated and may have inferred that this is now Brigade policy.   They did not realize that these men were removed for coming into conflict with Copic and the Brigade leadership.

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¹ Eby, Comrades and Commissars, ibid, p 221.

² Dave Engels, Book of the XVth Brigade, ibid. pg 262.

³ Art Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid, pg 287.

29-30 Agosto “After all this is a war”

August 29-30

Robert Merriman’s diary for August 29 and 30, 1937

The next battle is only a day away and the International Brigades are moving from Quinto to Belchite down the Codo Road.  Belchite had been under assault by Spanish troops for several days at this point.  Cecil Eby¹ says there were 18 assaults on Belchite before the Americans arrive at the end of August.  Eby also asserts that Belchite was an unnecessary target as the Republican forces had moved several miles west of Belchite already and had it surrounded.   With a garrison originally of 2500 and at the time of the Battle of Belchite down to 534¹, Belchite still remained a usable outpost for the Fascists and they had promised the garrison that relief was being sent from Zaragoza to rescue the troops there.   The Brigades were not going to leave an outpost which could have numbered thousands of men behind their moving front lines.  Belchite had to be taken.

Luigi Longo

Luigi Longo, Photograph from RGASPI Archives, Moscow Fond 545 Op 6 Delo 129

Colonel Vladimir Copic, General Walter visited Belchite (or as close as they could get since it was still in Fascist control).   They are nearly killed by an aviation attack and apparently one of them came back with a torn shirt.  Merriman is visited at the Estado Mayor by Bob Thompson, Briton Will Paynter and Bill Lawrence from Albacete and Tarazona.  They bring up the payroll money which should be paid to the troops on August 31.   Luigi Gallo, from Madrid, is also in the region, as is Marion Greenspan, also from the Madrid IB Headquarters.   Merriman discusses with the Albacete base visitors about the decisions made about  the Brigade command and Copic is the unanimous choice to lead the Brigade.  Clearly, Copic’s politicking has solidified his support.  It should be noted that it would be unlikely that the Brigades would change leadership during an offensive, unless absolutely necessary.

Merriman is told about new men arriving at Albacete and the status of his previous battalion (the Mac-Paps).  He finds out that Marion Merriman is also ok.   Marion makes a notation in her own memoir:

On August 29 I received a note from Bob, assuring me all was well.  Despite his condense, however, I found little comfort in the assurance; there was also word that the Americans would get no real rest after the fighting at Quinto.  They were to move on to an even harder fight.  In the push to secure the vast Aragon and eventually Saragossa, the Americans were being put to the task of taking Belchite, a city that even Napoleon could not conquer.²

Bill Frame

William Frame, Intendencia, in November 1937. ALBA Photo 11-0118, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman finds that he will get three new trucks from Bill Frame in the Intendencia.  He gets the scuttlebutt on how Rollin Dart and Joe Dallet are doing back in training at Tarazona.

Merriman takes a break with Bob Thompson and goes to the top of Purburell Hill to show him the fortifications.  The visitors probably all went onto Purburell Hill at Quinto to see the fortifications taken during the Quinto offensive.  As the first battle decisively won since Guadalajara, Quinto clearly improved the morale of the Brigades who thought they now had the Fascists on the run.

Codo Groves

The current road from Codo to Belchite, showing the groves lining the road. Source: Google StreetView.

Towards the end of the day, people start loading into trucks and move forward to Codo, which smelled unpleasantly of death.  The Spanish forces of Juan Modesto had gone through Codo in the previous week and bombing of the town was furious.  “R.F.” reported:

Seated on the floor were three men.  Not a scratch on any of them.  A dried up trickle of blood from the nose and ears of one.  All killed by concussion.  Back on the street again, we signaled to the Sanitarios.  

We enter house after house.  These have not been hit by bomb or shell. Yet they are in terrible disorder…. The occupants of these houses, forced to evacuate with the retreating Fascists, had just a few minutes to take any valuables.³

Belchite Aug 29, 1937

Civil War edition of Spanish cartographic map of 1927. The red circle shows the location of the Brigade Headquarters mentioned by Merriman

From Codo, Merriman walked to their new position which was between 2 and 3 kilometers from Belchite on the highway.  This location was in an area of olive groves which would provide significant cover from being seen from Belchite and from aircraft.  Spanish troops had been bivouacked here for nearly a week as they attacked Belchite.  The Lincolns will reinforce them.  The Codo Road comes out north of Belchite on the road that runs to Mediana to the north.  The British Battalion at this point has gone north to Mediana and will hold off the Fascist reinforcements moving down from Zaragoza.  Some men moved south onto that road on the 29-30 evening.   At this point, they would be only a kilometer outside Belchite.

On this road, Merriman says they found the burnt bodies of 32 Moorish soldiers and they buried them.   Transport began catching up with the Brigade movement.   Merriman brought up the Spanish 24th Battalion (and recall that nearly 64 Americans were in the 2nd Company of the 24th and led by Hans Amlie) and tried to attach them to the 11th Brigade.   The concentration of troops was too large and would provide a considerable target for aircraft.   As the night of the 29th ends, the Brigade moves down towards Belchite.   Merriman appears to have difficulty managing the attack since they plan to follow the 24th into Belchite.

Amlie and Copic

Hans Amlie (left) and Vladimir Copic (right), attributed to being at Quinto or Codo, ALBA PHOTO 177-175016, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman clearly is dismissive of Amlie here since movement into Belchite was slow.  He uses the derisive Russian word “старик”  (the cursive Russian looks different than the printed version) which literally translated means “old man”   but is also more derogatorily translated as “graybeard” or “old fogey”.  Amlie’s courage is now under question.   Merriman orders him to move or be removed.  Amlie is under threat of being arrested for not following the orders to attack.   He finally moves the Lincolns but they are repulsed.   Over the next six days, the Lincolns will fight their way into Belchite, street by street and even ditch by ditch.   The machine gun fire from the Church in Belchite is again withering and causes many casualties.   Merriman suggests that many of these casualties were caused by not keeping close contact with the 24th Battalion and making the decision to move into Belchite.   He says “After all this is a war”.

There are dozens of stories on this first attack on Belchite.  Eby places the date as September 1¹, but clearly Merriman has written about Amlie’s weakness in forcing the attack on the August 30 page. The initial attack by 22 Americans was into withering machine gun fire and only 2 Americans survived it.   Over the next week, many assaults would be made on Belchite and Merriman will relate those stories in upcoming diary pages.

Hans Amlie’s notebooks (Hoover Institution, Milly Bennett collection) also place the first movement on Belchite on the morning of September 1.  Merriman is clearly using his diary after the fact and the dates cannot be trusted.  While Merriman accuses Amlie of dallying, Amlie says this (transcription of the free hand by RMH1):

About 2 {probably on the 31st August} Estado put a Span. company in charge of the city.  Quinto.  Moved on to Pina stat.  Af five we again found 24th Batt. waiting for further orders.  Our trucks moved to Codo.  In afternoon went about 2 kms.  Evening aero came over and observed.  Men slept in Belchite about one km.  That nite about 1 am batt. commander sent runner ask for volunteers for special bombing squad.  Our comp. needed an example.  We don’t know what’s up.  Must be like Quinto.  Charlie Regan, former soldier American army got up first – (4 also volunteered but turned down one because he machine gunner).

Garcia, Detro, Thompson, Aguila, and O'Daire

Photograph 177_191110 (reverse of 11_0731): Captain Abad Garcia, Commissars Phil Detro, Bob Thompson, Captains Aguila (Commander of the 24th Battalion) and Paddy O’Daire (Commander of the 57th Battalion), probably late fall 1937, Tamiment Library ALBA collections, NYU Bobst Library, New York.

Batt Commander Aguilar “Have you got volunteers?”

“Yes, four.” Towards Spaniards, “took four American Volunteers” –   Then some of Spanish stepped up.

Bombers never called down & we 1 1/2 kms from Belchite.  — established crude French position on right hand side road.  Avion came up with dawn & dropped bombs all around us.  Several hours later batt. ordered to take another flank.   While in movement enemy machine gun fire.  That morning we had us breakfast!  300-400 meters from walls of Belchite.  Artillery and tanks gave fire.  Was there enough?  What is enough?

Busied ourselves whole day playing lite machine guns.  Putting up observations posts. Studied terrain.  Distributed our section in organized manner.  Noisy day.  Machine gun – felt like a war was going on.  Avion sunup & sundown where shadow on terrain and able to detect our positions.  Haze – from heat.   Obvious that in attacks from across they had free rein.  No … air craft of ours.   At Mediana, we told comrades  high command must have had more serious position.

Our men for 1st time subjected strain fire without sufficient protection.  Enemy machine guns and snipers.

Amlie, of course, never mentions the questioning of his courage or leadership of the men.  In his view, his Company went as far as they could with the support they had.   Logistically, keeping close contact between the front line troops and supplies is impossible and food and water again become an issue for the troops.  Merriman suggests that there is discussion of rebellion.  Merriman sets up a guard for the night of the 30th and works on getting a supply line forward.   John Quigley “Robbie” Robertson, the Lincoln Commissar, is out sick at this point and was unable to coordinate these needs.

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¹ Cecil Eby, Comrades and Commissars, ibid., p 219-220.

² Marion Merriman Wachtel and Warren Lerude, American Commander in Spain, ibid., p. 166.

³ R. F., Book of the XVth Brigade, ibid, p 257.

27-28 Agosto The International Brigades move north without food

August 27-28, 1937

Robert Merriman’s diary for August 27 and 28, 1937

Codo

Panorama of Codo. ALBA PHOTO 11-1266, Tamiment Library, NYU

With Quinto behind the Brigade, there is a short breather to try to explain the overall ambitious plan for the Aragon offensive.   Attacks took place from the Republican army on the Fascists all the way from the Basque region to Teruel.  The XVth Brigade was about in the midpoint of the attacks.  Kleber’s army division advanced to within six kilometers of Zaragoza.  Lister’s  motorized troops made an attack on Fuentes del Ebro but were not able to get closer than 1.8 km.   The XVth is being readied for another push where they will solidify the left flank and head to Belchite.   From Quinto this means going through the already taken town of Codo, between Belchite and Quinto.   A description of the order of battle can be found on this website.

Aragon

A map of the Aragon region under attack. The northern salient has approached Zaragoza and Quinto is taken. The front needs to be pushed westward.

Art Landis¹ makes the point that this whole offensive was to turn the Nationalist forces away from Bilbao, but on 25 August, Bilbao and the Euskadi fell.   Only parts of the Asturian region remained in Loyalist hands.   And, Franco had sufficient forces at this point to fight on several fronts so they were not diverted from the Basque region until they were no longer needed.  Shortly hundreds of airplanes and thousands of Italians would be available to move south to counter the Loyalist push.  The window of opportunity where the Fascist troops would not be reinforced was closing rapidly.

Merriman heads north to find the Dimitrov Battalion and realizes that the Brigade is outrunning its supply lines.  They managed to bring up a hospital train to remove the wounded, but they were without food and without trucks to move.  The whole Brigade had only 20 trucks.   Merriman went with Bill Skinner, Sid Shostek and “Morry”.   Morry could be Maurice Stamm or Maury Colow or any one of a number of Morris’s or Maurices.   It likely could be Maurice Constant who was on staff and who was slightly injured in Quinto.  They come under attack by artillery and machine guns and then they come under bombardment by brand new shiny Italian Caproni bombers.   Merriman returns to Quinto and ends up taking a bath in a ditch filled with “very fine water”.   The Brigade Headquarters are in a culvert under the road and Merriman has trouble keeping people out of the HQ because it probably is one of the safer places to be.  In a curious sentence, Merriman combines “Much food and fear” with what looks to be “spoon bent” .   One wonders if Merriman had an engraved spoon from Marion Greenspan with this phrase.  We may never know what this is about.

The next day does not bring better news about food.  While the Brigade is resting and not moving, they are not eating either.  Merriman says this has to be cured of there will be a riot.  Lou Secundy moves up to the front from the Autopark to help with logistics.  Secundy promises another 30 trucks for the Brigade.  Logistics are costing the Brigade the element of momentum.  They have the concentration of troops for attacks (Merriman says “several”) but they are not fed and cannot move, except on foot.

Merriman and Copic are busy with some administrivia on nominations for promotions.  Copic makes decisions on the grades leaders of various size groups should have.   Merriman says that the 102a Brigada Mixta, which was the XVth Brigade’s side of the Ebro and ahead of them, is very inexperienced and that he appreciates the help of the 11th Brigade under Lister who are helping out in field movements and organization.

 

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¹ Art Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid, pp 261-280.

 

25-26 Agosto “Need to clean up city. Not so easy”

August 25-26, 1937

Robert Merriman’s diary of August 25 and 26, 1937

Merriman’s diary for these days has to be read in tandem with the 23-24 Agosto pages.  He straightens out some of the time line that his excitement and enthusiasm of the 24th has clouded for  us.   On the 25th, it was clear that while Quinto was in the hands of the International Brigades, they held many trapped Fascists troops in the town, in the church, and on the heights of Purburell.   Merriman went into town with a group of troops and Maurice Constant’s memory of the event was given in yesterday’s post.  In the fighting to take the church, Milo Domjonovic  was killed and “Gibson” was wounded.   This is likely Canadian Patrick Gibson since there is no Gibson in the Lincoln Brigade.  “Estevez” is likely a Spanish or Cuban comrade.

Quinto Church

The Church at Quinto after the battle. ALBA Photo 11-1218, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman reports briefly on the street to street fighting.  Many IB were killed going from house to house as the basements had been linked in town and when a house was attacked, the defenders would move to another.  The church was a particular problem since it held the high ground above the town and from the steeple, one had a field of fire on the cemetery and town.  The photo on the right shows the church after the IB’s finished with it and took their prisoners.  Yesterday’s post shows it as it stands today.

Merriman says “Guerin next to me hit in the head”.  From Maurice Constant’s story given yesterday makes us wonder if Merriman got the name wrong and confused his Canadians.  Constant was the one who was shot in the head.  Another Staff member, “Gede¹” was killed and perhaps this is the name Merriman was searching for.  In trying to take the church, Tom Wintringham is also shot and this wound will finally send him back to England.

Merriman went to the cemetery after noon and ordered the British who were in reserve to take Purburell Hill.  He admits to his diary that it was worse than it looked.   No covering artillery or tank fire was available since it was expected that the hill was only lightly defended³. Peter Daly, the British Commander, led the charge and was shot almost immediately in the stomach by a machine gun.  He would die on September 5, 1937, in Benicassim Hospital.  The Canadian section leader, Tommy Lyons, was wounded in the head.³  The Irishman Paddy O’Daire took over command. The Book of the XVth Brigade¹ relates the story that the Fascist aviation actually bombed their own troops on Purburell Hill.  The British go up on the 25th and get pinned down in trenches as the sun is going down.       The British make the trenches on the hill but light runs out and they have to stay the night in the trenches.   Merriman sets out a complicated sentry scheme to keep the Fascists on the hill and tells the British not to snipe at them (which would give their positions away).

Merriman says that a number of men made a sortie to raid water and that the Sergeant in charge of the maneuver was a “Good little fellow”.   Landis attributes this to Larry O’Toole and Melvin Anderson of the Americans who cut the pipeline feeding the water supplies to Purburell Hill.  This could be the most significant attack of the entire battle.   In the attempt to get water overnight on the 25th and 26th, about a dozen fascists were captured who were also out trying to obtain water.  These are  the men that Merriman spent the night of the 25th interrogating.   At this time, the Brigade knew that a large number of men were on the hill, but that they were in a desperate state because of the lack of water.

Steve Nelson tells the story:

That same evening, the guards brought in a little Fascist sergeant, who was grinning and happy to be a prisoner.  He stood before Bob Merriman.  “Him and twenty-nine others”, said the guard.  “They come in with their hands up just now”.

“They sent us for water, to the river”, the sergeant offered.  “I was leader. So I led them here”.

“What were you doing with the fascists?”

“I was an observer and mapper”

“How did it happen that they sent you for water?”

“I volunteered.  I figured this was my chance to get away”.

“Why were you with the fascists?”

“Conscripted.  What would you?  It was enlist or be shot.”

“I see … How many men on the hill?”

“About a thousand.  Two hundred are wounded, forty-five dead.  The airplanes yesterday killed all the artillery crew, and put the guns out of commission… Tell me, were they your planes?”

“No. They bombed you because they thought we had already taken the hill.  Look, we’ll ask the questions.  How’s the morale?”

“The officers shot six men yesterday.  Does that tell you?… Today we heard many broadcasts that a relief column was approaching, to hold out all all costs.  But there is no water.  That’s the main trouble–no water.”

“Is that the chief worry of the officers?”

“Yes. That, and your tanks and planes; they have no anti-tank or anti-aircraft left.”

“You say you’re a mapper.  Draw a sketch of the whole position on the hill.  Mark in the ammunition dump, radio post, command, machine gun nests, everything.”

When the map was finished, he sent the sergeant out, and had another prisoner brought in.  With him, he checked the information supplied by the sergeant.  Everything jibed.  Merriman phoned the tank and artillery commands and other units, giving the men orders.”²

From Merriman’s diary, it appears that the tank, antitank, and artillery barrage on the hill started on the 26th of August.  This softening up was followed by an assault which did not succeed.  Merriman brought the Americans up on another flank of the hill to assist in the assault.  This group was led by Charlie Nusser, #1 Company commander, Sam Gonshak, his adjutant, and David “Mooch” Engels, the commissar.  The battle for Purburell Hill lasted about five hours and was not without drama.   At one point, Italian Caproni aircraft flew over and bombed their own lines on the hill.   Thinking that this was Republican aircraft, white flags went up and the Brigades advanced thinking they had taken the hill.   When the Fascists realized that these were their aircraft and that they were returning for other strafing runs, they hauled down the flags and began firing again.  In the meantime, however, the Brigades significantly advanced up the hill without fire.

After a late afternoon precision artillery and anti-tank barrage led by Hugh Slater’s Britons, again white flags went up.   As Merriman relates in the diary, however, some fascists fired on Van der Bergh and the white flags again came down and shooting commenced again.   Paddy O’Daire’s British battalion had reached the Fascist trenches by that point and yelling “Charge the trench”, the Brigadistas saw hands go up and the Fascists yelled “Agua.  Agua”.  Clearly without water in the August sun, they were dying of thirst.

Felix Kusman

John Weldon (left) and Felix Kusman of the Lincoln-Battalion in Spring of 1938. ALBA PHOTO 11-0352, Tamiment Library, NYU

The Fascist troops surrendered.  One German and one White Russian killed themselves.  Felix Kusman related to Art Landis in his taped interview 30 years later:

The sun is going down.  The first couple of positions we occupy with no opposition–lots of wounded — lots of dead — lots of prisoners.  We ordered the prisoners to put their arms down and to take the wounded to the center of the hill.  And, at the center we find a command post for the officers and Falangists.  There had been women there too, officers’ wives and others.  The place was surrounded by machine-gun nests, but they are empty now, as is the command bunker itself.  The officers have retreated to the northeast section of the hill and are putting up a last resistance against the Spaniards of the 24th Battalion.  They are wiped out.  We continue.  At one point we see a White Russian officer.   Larry O’Toole and I approach him.  He is screaming in Russian: “Red Pigs! Red Pigs!”  Then in Spanish : “If you come any closer I’ll shoot!”.  O’Toole yells back: “Go ahead and shoot, you bastard.  If you don’t, I will!”  He has his gun in his hand and he blows his brains out,  I take his gun and a sword and a Russian Bible from his body”.¹

Fascist Officers

Print of Fascist officers from a negative captured during the attack on Purburell Hill. ALBA PHOTO 11-1196, Tamiment Library, NYU

The photo on the left is of the Fascist officers in the bunkers planning the defense.   Most were killed and many of those who were captured were executed.   Merriman says in excess of 500 prisoners were taken.   It is hard to believe that all were shot, although taking of prisoners did not guarantee them Geneva Convention rights.     Merriman says the number of prisoners exceeded the number of International Brigades attackers.

Major Modesto

Major Juan Modesto. ALBA PHOTO 11-1080, Tamiment Library, NYU.

Merriman relates the dirtier side of war in this passage.  Prisoners were shot.  A German Brigader taunted a Spanish officer and then shot him.  The Brigade looted the town.   Marion Greenspan came up to Quinto and after that the men had their weapons taken from them, perhaps to cut down on retribution or attacks on civilians.  Juan Modesto, head of the Division, comes to Quinto to observe the victory and everyone is justifiably proud of their accomplishments.  While they were given a hint that they could rest for a while, the need to get quickly to Zaragoza means that the victory celebration would be short lived.  The element of surprise is now gone and the Fascists will be countering the assault so the XVth Brigade needs to keep moving northward.   They gather on the edge of town and are told they need to move up.  The Dimitrovs will lead the protection units on the move and Merriman is told that the 102nd Brigade is retreating.  The 102nd Brigada Mixta crossed the Ebro at Pina del Ebro (between Quinto and Fuentes del Ebro) and took the town (thanks to Alan Warren for the history).  If they were retreating south towards Quinto this would slow the advance towards Zaragoza.

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¹ Art Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid.  pp 261-280.

² Steve Nelson, The Volunteers, ibid, p 179.

³ Book of the XVth Brigade, ibid., pp 247-256.

23-24 Agosto “Quinto is ours – Almost”

August 23-24, 1937

Robert Merriman’s diary of August 23 and 24, 1937 describing the start of the Battle of Quinto

Fascist Blockhouse

Fascist Blockhouse on Purberell Hill, ALBA PHOTO 11-1121, Tamiment Library, NYU

Fascist Blockhouse

The Fascist Blockhouse where British Commander Peter Daly was killed. Purburell heights, Quinto. ALBA Photo 11-1211, Tamiment Library, NYU

On the early morning of the 23rd of August, Merriman learns what the objective is and within hours they are supposed to be in motion.  “Tremendous confusion” says Merriman.  A World War II phrase would be SNAFU, “situation normal all fouled up”.  Merriman is told that they would attack the hill overlooking the town of Quinto, Purburell Hill, where supposedly the Republicans had trenches.  Although the Brigades did not know it at the time, Purburell Hill was held by a nearly 800 well fortified Fascist troops and there were a series of significant block houses on the hill from which machine gun fire could sweep up any attackers.  Vladimir Copic told the troops, “There are only thirteen men on that hill.  Go ahead and take it”. ¹ One Lincoln said that you could roll a grenade down that hill to attack any troops coming up and the grenade would roll forever.   The plan changed rapidly with the plan to encircle the town and take the cemetery which was on the far side of Quinto.  As the attack is being organized, Merriman finds that ten machine guns are missing.  Robert Rinaldo appears to be the person who was to provide arms and he is doing a poor job so Copic wants him removed.

Merriman-Quinto

Robert Merriman (left) at the observation post above Quinto on the morning of the 24th. 4

As sunlight approached on the 24th of August, General Walter briefed the troops and said that this would be a hard fight.  Merriman leaves to go up on a hill which becomes the observer post for the attack on Quinto.  Merriman sends up 40 of the British Battalion but realizes that he needs to first get the Dimitrov Battalion forward as they were to lead off the attack at 7 AM.   The 24th Spanish battalion was split up to cover the Division staff and the second company to start the attack on Purburell with the British.   The maps in Art Landis’ book are very helpful in understanding the events of the next three days.

Quinto

The situation at Quinto on August 24. The photograph at the end of today’s diary post was taken from the road running from the Cemetery to the Church.5

The 24th was to be in place by 10 AM but no trucks showed up to transport them to the front.   Merriman takes off on a motorcycle to ask the 11th Brigade for trucks and has no luck.  Copic promises him 20 trucks would come but they don’t.  The road to Quinto became a parking lot, blocking transportation and even the Artillery which was to soften up Quinto and the heights.

Merriman says he spent the most discouraging night of his life.  He admits that he and Copic were both demoralized by how badly the plans were failing.  Copic, however, would never show his feelings to the men and kept up a brave front.  Finally, Merriman requisitioned every truck that made it through the traffic jam.  He sent the trucks and materiel to Marcovics and moved them to the front.   By daybreak on the 24th,  the XVth Brigade was still in its reserve positions outside of Quinto.   Merriman arrives several hours later at 8 AM after a flat tire and missing the first assault of the Dimitrovs.    The Artillery barrage appears to go off as planned but the Dimitrovs were not in position to take advantage of the rolling barrage.  The Dimitrovs, with Chapayev at their head, changed the plan to attack Quinto from the north and cut off any lines of retreat of the troops in the town.  Chapayev’s experience was in guerrilla fighting and the fluidity of his commands appear to have confused the Americans.  Merriman says he decides to reinforce the Dimitrovs.   Hans Amlie, the commander of Company 2 of the 58th (American) Battalion at this point, has a different story in his unpublished notebooks from Spain² (pardon the choppiness of the text but it is verbatim):

Com of company 2 – an American co. in the 24th Battalion – the only American co. – 63 Americans – the whole thing experiment – formerly Spanish co in American battalion – this was the reverse.   Gave us some Spanish but sent whole bunch of officers – so let them run the show.

At Quinto 24th took French posit{ions} on the Quinto side of the Ebro.  

Morning of the 24th given job with – coming around on road most miraculous thing happened in Spain — ran smack into food wagon – hot coffee – chocolate – bread – marmalade (no jelly real jelly) – this incident probably stands out in the minds of people beyond graves — empty containers, wind our way with full bellies — I was still co. commander of a good situation — given taking reserve French position, not in rear but in far distance.  Comrades, we have no right to eat supper while our comrades are out there fighting.  Comrade, one of the greatest into war to have reserves & they also have to eat.

Many of our new men new.  Good that they were able to sit and watch.  I didn’t have any go thru.  1st skeptical about sticking heads out — then they climbed up on parapets — began registered shots — towards night, felt cool — Now had more than theoretical knowledge – more honed feeling about going into fight.

Landis’s map gives a slightly different picture, but the concept is the same.  The Dimitrovs swung around the town to attack from the North, the Americans fell in behind them to cover the hole left by the Dimitrovs overrunning the western flank and the Spanish 24th, while in reserve, firing into town from the eastern side of Quinto.

The Block House on Purburell causes problems until Merriman remembers he has the precision antitank guns and sends them to the Dimitrovs to help out.  This will put the British anti-tank unit into furious action on the 25th.

For one time in Spain, the Republicans have air superiority and support which put the Fascists at a disadvantage.   Merriman sends Marcovics to the Dimitrovs to help Chapayev on his command.  As the day unfolds, Merriman decides to split the Americans and send half to the left flank, sweeping around both Quinto and the church and cemetery and half to shore up the middle of the Dimitrov lines.  Merriman decides to take them in himself.   He gets a bit lost working his way through the olive groves.   Canadian Maurice Constant was on the Brigade Staff and recalled3:

… in the fighting at Quinto … we had to cross an open space and get down in the ditch, run across the road, get back into the ditch, crawl along it and run across the road again before we got behind the Fabrica {the Cement Plant}.

There were three of us.  There was Merriman, some other fellow I can’t remember, and me.  Now, the fellow who was first was the lucky one because the sniper in the tower would have his first clue that people were coming.

Merriman made a dash across the road, got into the ditch, and that was fine.  Then the next guy.  By this time the sniper was waiting for him.  He shot and missed.  The guy got into the ditch, crawled along it an, although the sniper was waiting for him to emerge, he got out behind the Fabrica before the sniper could get him.

Then it was my turn.  I knew the sniper was waiting for me.  I dashed across the road and got into the ditch.  I heard the snap of the bullet. …I thought, “Thank God! He didn’t get me.”  It was only after I got out on the road and in the Fabrica that someone said “You know, Constant, you’re bleeding.  He got you.”  I asked him where and he said “He got you in the head” because my face was covered in blood. 

It turned out he got me through the lobe of the ear. 

Merriman says that at 6 o’clock the artillery took up a barrage on Purburell and tanks were sent in (Victor Howard4, Richard Baxell5, Book of the Brigade 6 and Landis7 place this barrage as the morning of the 26th).   Merriman’s diary is not authoritative here since he flowed the whole battle over four days in the diary.  Merriman himself waded into the action throwing grenades and nitroglycerin bombs.)

Merriman says “Quinto is ours Almost!”.   If he wrote this on the 24th, he was overenthusiastic.  On the afternoon of the 24th at 3:00pm the Americans turned and with artillery and tank support rolling over the barbed wire that ringed the town, the Americans had taken the cemetery and surrounded the church.    There were Americans and Canadians on three sides of the town and the Dimitrovs were coming into the town from the north.

Quinto

The restored Church at Quinto.   The cemetery would be behind the position from where the photograph was taken.  (Author’s photo)

Merriman says that Copic was able to secure the cemetery and placed the battalion within and under the cover of its walls.   In fact, there are many stories of the taking of Quinto and door to door fighting to clean out snipers took several days.  The Church at Quinto was particularly troubling as snipers held up within and holding hostages stopped a direct assault.  More on this on August 25.

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¹  Cecil Eby, Comrades and Commissars, ibid, pg 214.

² Hans Amlie, his notes found in the Milly Bennett Collection in the Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University.

³ William C. Beeching, The Canadian Volunteers: Spain, 1936-1939. Ibid, pg 62.

4 Victor (Hoar) Howard, The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, ibid, p. 132.

5 Richard Baxell, Unlikely Warriors, ibid., pg 312.

6 Book of the XVth Brigade, Warren and Pell Publishing, London, p 246.

7 Art Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade , ibid, pp 261-280.