13-14 Agosto General Gal calls Ralph Bates a Fascist and Ralph Bates Reciprocates

August 13-14, 1937

Captain Robert Merriman’s diary for the first day as Chief of Staff, August 13 and 14, 1937

Merriman is now fully ensconced in Brigade politics and he has a lot to tell his diary.  Apologies for the small font required to get all onto one printed page.   Merriman is believed to be at the Brigade Estado Mayor in Ambite Mill at this point.   Merriman notes that Sidney Shostek is now in Ambite with the Brigade staff.  He says that he sent men two schools, “Radio and Enlace”.   Enlace is coordination (this is the school for the Brigade Runners who must give oral orders from Command to front line troops and vice-versa). That would definitely require schooling.

Three Officers

Unknown officer, Klaus Becker and George Aitken in the garden in Ambite Mill, probably July 25, 1937, ALBA Photos 177_175005, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman is left to pick up the pieces of the crushing of the British leadership.  Aitken and Cunningham were dismayed that their names were not mentioned at all in General Gal’s order brought back to Brigade by Copic.  Wally Tapsell would not speak to Merriman.  On searching Aitken’s room, four political orders (probably ignored or not acted on) were found.   Aitken was ordered to go take a walk in order to cool down.

Merriman was highly suspicious of George Wattis but uses him in this difficult situation to go talk to Aitken to settle things down.   Later Merriman tries to get Wattis promoted to Captain.  Tapsell, Aitken and Coleman would shortly leave for Britain to discuss the disarray amongst the British Battalion with William Rust of the CPGB.  Aitken would not return to Spain as he was judged to be untrusted by the men.  Aitken wrote memoranda at this point trying to get many of the British repatriated and it may be that this was seen as misleading the men into believing that they would or could go home.  The Spanish Army policy was that no one was to be released if they could fight.

The situation deteriorates with some significant accusations: Gal calling Bates a fascist and Bates calling Gal a fool and not really a Bolshevik.  Gal counters that he was trained by Stalin himself.  This probably indicates that Gal attended the Lenin School in Moscow where Stalin was indeed an instructor of sorts, giving lectures at the Lenin School to many including Copic, Haywood and Steve Nelson.  But this “I am a better Communist than you are” argument is leading nowhere.   Merriman mentions that Gal holds council in the garden at Ambite

General Gal

Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Copic and General Janos Galicz (Gal).

and Tapsell has been sent there to cool off.  Another photo of Copic and Gal shows this garden.

Merriman seems to stay above the fray and makes Wattis “Coordination Officer” (see Enlace above).  Van den Berghe’s wife (Marguarite) is leaving and he is seeing her off.  Lou Secundy starts work on the Brigade Staff, and Sidney Shostek and Phil Cooperman conduct an audit of the Brigade’s books.  When Merriman says he wants to clean up Albacete, he apparently means it.   Merriman again says Ralph Bates will leave because important cadres of the Communist Party are not to be sent to the front.  He says the “Tapsell affair is a real mess” .    Richard Baxell spends considerable time discussing the Tapsell affair in his book Unlikely Warriors.¹   A very brief synopsis of the issue was that both Fred Copeman and Wally Tapsell had suffered nervous breakdowns during the recent battle of Brunete.  Tapsell, like Marcovics, told Colonel Klaus that the British were in no shape to return to Brunete on July 28.  Aitken said that this was a “bloody terrible” decision and Tapsell went further and accused General Gal of gross incompetence.

Spartacus International’s biography of Tapsell reveals his state of mind on this day:

Tapsell caused considerable political controversy when he criticised Colonel Janos Galicz, the commander of 15th Brigade. He reported that “only stupidity or a deliberate disregard for life would keep men in such an exposed position (on Mosquito Ridge). Galicz isn’t fit to command a troop of Brownies, let alone a People’s Army.” Galicz responded by demanding that Tapsell be shot for insubordination. However, Tapsell was protected by Fred Copeman, the commander of the battalion.

Tapsell also accused Cunningham of “being out of his depth as regimental commander”.¹   Bert Williams related that Tapsell’s conduct was abnormal and on August 9, 1937, Tapsell sent a letter to the British Communist Party Secretariat  stating:

In plain fact, and it is hard to state this, on every occasion we were with Spanish troops in this engagement they let us down.  Their behaviour on every occasion either resulted in serious casualties, or the immediate loss of positions won by us at heavy cost.  This is a fact.¹

In view of the disintegration of the leadership of the Scots, Irish and English and the “circular firing squad” set up by them, it is no wonder that Copic was able to use Brunete as an excuse to mobilize Gal and Klaus to get them all out.   Cunningham, Bert Williams, George Aitken, Wally Tapsell, and Fred Copeman would be ordered back to the British Isles before the end of August and Harry Pollitt, leader of the Communist Party in England, would enforce the decision to keep some of them there.  Only Tapsell and Copeman would return to Spain in November, further rousing the anger of Aitken and Cunningham who thought that this was a terrible decision.  In any case, Merriman reveals that “all are off the line”.

Things quieted a bit on 14 August, and Merriman assigns Mirko Marcovics to check on the patrols (i.e. the brigade military police) and he goes off to visit the Spanish 24th battalion and the Eastern European Dimitroff Battalion.  He visits the British battalion (based in Mondejar) and finds them in disarray, with no welcome and no translators for the Spanish from Brigade.  Aitken and Cunningham suggest that the new Brigade leadership should speak instead of them and after Aitken was booed, it is apparent why.   Merriman and the staff leave to visit the Americans and to give the British time to get themselves corrected in camp.

Merriman makes a side note that Hans Amlie has come back.  Amlie was a Captain with the Americans at Brunete and was wounded and had to be dragged from the field of battle.   Merriman continues to criticize Jock Cunningham who attacked those who ran to the front and then sought to get out.  Perhaps Cunningham was referring to Harry Haywood who he had criticized for just this.   Merriman says he met up with Leo Gallagher, a Canadian from Toronto who would have been in training with the Mac-Paps.  He also meets again with the British anti-tank company.

Big Jim Ruskin

James Ruskin, RGASPI Photo Fond 545/Opus 6/Delo 978, Moscow

Merriman speaks with two reporters and then rushed back for a dinner at the Division level honoring a Major Costelli who was 71 years old. Costelli is not found in the Italian lists in RGASPI and so the name may be misspelled by Merriman.  Costelli made a curious speech about worthless people seeking stripes … likely to arouse Merriman’s suspicion since he just added a stripe of his own by becoming Chief of Staff.  He meets “big Jim Ruskin”, a Briton who was a Captain in Transmissions.  Ruskin was born Dovmont Sergeevich Zubchaninov².

Merriman says that General Gal is trying to recover from the mistakes he made with the orders given to Copic.   He wants David Abraham Zaret to become a “Mexican” citizen, i.e a Russian citizen, because he has become a good Bolshevik.   Zaret (a.k.a Jarrett) was an aide to Gal and thus probably was being looked after by his boss.   Merriman notes that  Bill Skinner has returned from the Mac-Paps and will be on his staff.   He says in a side note (“Tapsel [sic] talked”), which probably refers back to the discussion above.

________________________________

¹ Richard Baxell, Unlikely Warriors: the British in the Spanish Civil War and the Struggle Against Fascism, ibid, pp. 269-278.

² Kevin Buyers, The International Brigades in Spain.