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.