11-12 Septiembre The Battle of Belchite continues to be fought by the Brigade

September 11-12, 1937
Robert Merriman’s diary for September 11 and 12, 1937

Merriman is told to move the men to Albalate and they move out in a howling windstorm.   The weather is the worst Merriman has seen in Spain.   Rain and wind will make the new camp into a swamp.   Merriman tries to borrow more trucks from the 24th Battalion but is told that they are busy so these worn out troops will be marched miles to get to new quarters.  Merriman needs spots for 900 men and only finds room for 250.    He meets with a “Dennis” who we interpret to be A. Denis who worked as an adjutant to the Chief of the 35th Division under General Walter.  He learns that 5 million litres of gasoline have been destroyed in the rear.  No petrol is available for the trucks.   Discussions are held where it is suggested that maybe they should just stay put in Azaila.   When they arrive at Albalate there is no room for all the troops so the Mac-Pap Battalion is put into the field.  The Mac-Paps have not been in battle so they pull the short straw for accommodation.  The orders of the 35th Battalion reveal that the 11th Brigade have been given accommodation in Albalate proper.

It was late on the afternoon of the 11th that the men had moved from Azaila.  If the men went to Albalate, that would be about a 12 mile march, through Hijar.   If they went to Almochuel, that was a 3 mile march west.  Marion Merriman will note that they toured Albalate together, so it is possible that the Brigade was marched that far south.   The orders of the 35th note that the XVth Brigade was in Almochuel and Vinaceite on the 12th of September.

Copic and wife
Vladimir Copic and Sonia Copic with officers touring Belchite, ALBA PHOTO 177_177045, Tamiment Library, NYU

In the midst of the cold, rain and mud, General Kleber (Manfred Stern) rolled in with Mirko Marcovics and again made his claim for the Dimitrov Battalion to be pulled out of the XVth and sent to the 45th Division.   Copic is not at the Brigade Headquarters as he is touring around with a Czech delegation (and perhaps with his own wife in tow).   Kleber asks Chapayev for his opinion on moving out of the XVth.   The indication here is that Chapayev may have wanted to move but Copic will get him out of the way on leave to Valencia so that he cannot sway the decision.  Copic will not give the Dimitrovs up.

Merriman says that there are previous issues with Kleber and that there have been charges made against him.  At this point, General Walter starts to coin the epithet “Kleberism” which will be equated with Fascism by the end of the war.  Kleber wrote a long epistle on his time in Spain and his judgment of this situation is certainly biased and verges on paranoia about how he continually was defeated in his decisions in Spain.   Kleber describes the attack on Zaragoza which was under the supervision of Comrade Leonidov, a senior Russian advisor.   Kleber’s proposed attack on Zaragoza went through Villamayor de Gallego and Kleber maintained his 13th Brigade made it to that location (although he said Villamayor de Gelaro).   The 12th Brigade of the 45th led by Italian Penchienati went in the opposite direction, turning right, away from the approach to Zaragoza, instead of left and approaching the city from the east.   The 45th Division, thus split, and an open middle with two unprotected flanks put them in a very bad position which stopped their attack.   Kleber maintained that he had gotten to Villamayor when a counterattack of Fascist tanks pushed the Polish troops back out of the town.   At the staff meeting with Walter present, Kleber was told by General Rojo that they never got near Villamayor.   Kleber said that his Dzhuro Dzhakovich Battalion had captured five forts but had to give them up in the counteroffensive.  Kleber said:

Not wanting to belittle the accomplishments of the division that General Walter commanded, I must say that in taking Quinto and Belchite, about fifty guns and an entire group of tanks participated, under cover of our entire air force.  If my group had had even one-third of those forces, we would have held onto the forts that we had captured and Villamayor de Galero [sic].  By the way, we must offer thanks for the taking of Quinto and Belchite primarily to the Dimitrov Battalion, that very battalion which in fact had belonged to my Division.¹

Luigi Longo, “El Gallo” (the Rooster), came from Madrid and heard the accusations against Kleber.  Gallo ensured Penchienati that Kleber would soon be removed.   Kleber’s days were numbered, not because he made enemies of Copic and Walter over the Dimitrov Battalion, but because he disagreed with General Rojo over the dissolution of the XIIIth Dombrowski Brigade and the loss of his battalions to other units.¹

Copic has relayed back to Merriman that Kleber has been removed and they will keep the Dimitrovs.   He tells Merriman that Kleber got to 4km from Zaragoza (the Villamayor de Gallego claim).

Rain Almochuel
Rain in Camp in Almochuel, September 1937. ALBA PHOTO 11_0833, Tamiment Library, NYU
Rain in Camp
Rain in Camp, Almochuel ALBA PHOTO 11_0831, Tamiment Library, NYU

With the men marched out of Azaila, Leonard Lamb wants to get them down and placed and doesn’t want to waste time looking for locations.  A word which is undecipherable is no help in interpreting what happened next.  Philip Detro gets the men placed.   A rebellion amongst the Americans starts over the bivouac, many men just sleep in the field.   An epithet is tossed at Merriman.  Men are revolting against him, Copic, Lamb, and Doran.  The leaders are accused of sending them into the meat grinder of Belchite.   They feel deceived about their orders.   The town is a “mad wild place” and the revolt makes things worse.  Men say they will take no more orders and fight no more.  Men who have been in battle only at Belchite are asking to be let go home.   Two men, Emyl Flam and Seaman Louis Oliver, are again leading the revolt.   They hold a secret meeting without the officers.  Flam will not survive the war and Oliver will be pulled out of the Lincolns by November, ending his tour as the thorn in Merriman’s side.   Ben Findlay‘s review of Seaman Oliver says “Political record is worse.  Organized a rump meeting in Albalate to try and force the removal of battalion leadership.  Admits to organizing of meeting and makes it look like someone else did it”.²   Louis Oliver will continue to drink and while being dried out in Albacete, he fell off the wagon again.   He would end up being assigned to the Labor Battalion of the 45th Division and finally, emprisoned in Casteldefels near Barcelona.   He would come out of Spain, however, with the group on the Ausonia in December 1938.

The main complaints of the men are poor food and the leadership of the Comintern.   Merriman has to agree with the complaints of the men about the food.


¹M. Fred (Manfred Stern or General Kleber) in Radosh et al., Spain Betrayed, ibid, p 357-8.

²  RGASPI Fond 545/Opis 6/Delo 957/page 78.