13-14 Septiembre Moise Sapir enters the fray to settle down the Battalion

September 13-14, 1937

Robert Merriman’s diary of September 13 and 14, 1937

Moise Sapir

Moise Sapir, John Gerlach, Bob Merriman, Rollin Dart, David Doran and Robbie Robinson, Almochuel, September 1937. ALBA PHOTO 11-0755, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman starts flowing his diary from page to page.  His last comment on September 12 was that he sat down to talk to Copic and he told him of our mistakes… emphasis “our”.  Copic doesn’t want to hear it.   Merriman repeats that the Americans held a protest meeting and Moise Micha Sapir (aka Majzesz Moshe “Michel” Safir/Sapir) will look into it.  Sapir was described as an Albacete paymaster, but here it looks as if he may be on the Division Staff in a more serious role.  Sapir will become a member of the Botwin Battalion in 1938 and be killed in the retreats.

Ivan Rujevcic (John Gerlach, photo above) was busy taking a census of all the men in the Lincoln and Washington Battalions.  Edwin Bee would be working on a similar list for the British.

Merriman meets with Bob Thompson who has come up with the Mac-Paps.   They have decided that Rollin Dart (also in the photo above) can’t do the job of leading the Mac-Paps and Merriman goes to Walter, presumably to get his agreement to replace Dart with Thompson.   Thompson will become Commander of the Mac-Paps and Joe Dallet will be his commissar.  Robbie Robinson is back from a severe illness and will be helping out in rebuilding the morale of the men.  Recall that Robinson was in the Maritime Sailors Union and would be a help against the railing of Seaman Oliver.

Merriman tells Walter that the Commanders need to think more about the care and feeding of the men.  Walter gave it back to Merriman.  Merriman comes back to tell Thompson what he heard.  The Mac-Paps are underarmed and it doesn’t appear that weapons are coming.

11_0718 Americans in 24th, Almochuel

David Doran, kneeling, Robbie Robinson, to Doran’s right, and Harry Poll, sitting in white camisa, hold a meeting with the Americans of the 24th Battalion in Almochuel in September 1937. ALBA Photo 11_0718 of the Harry Randall Collection, Tamiment Library, NYU.

Merriman gets Dave Doran to rally the troops against the disgruntled elements.  They hold a company meeting to discuss the grievances.  More meetings are held at the company and battalion level.   Merriman is still fighting with the Intendencia and this time it is about the taking of livestock to feed the troops.  Merriman doesn’t want the war to leave the peasants without their stock.

Basha Van Den Berghe complained about “secrets” and Sapir.  Merriman says that Gregorovitch, “Charley” and Van Den Berghe are to go to Albacete to resolve the issue over the Dimitrovs going to the 45th Division.  While Copic says no, Albacete says yes and it will take a Party decision to resolve this.   Gregorovitch is a nom-de-guerre for Gregory Shtern, also known as Sebastian.   Gregorovitch wrote to Colonel Pavel Ivanovich Shpilevsky in late June:

I have begun to worry a great deal about the state of the International Brigades.  There is a lot going on there: the attitude of Spaniards towards them and them toward the Spaniards; the questions about morale; the chauvinism of the nationalities (especially the French, Poles and Italians); the desire for repatriation; the presence of enemies in the ranks of the International Brigades.  It is crucial that a big man be dispatched quickly from the big house especially for the purpose of providing some leadership on this matter.  I talk about this a lot with our agents, go myself to the brigade, work through our people, but this is too little–we need a strong man on this job. ¹

Gregorovitch was with the Brigades as both an advisor and watcher. Merriman notes that Chapayev is on vacation, to get him out of the way from any decision which will be made with the Dimitrovs.

General Walter

General Walter examines a rifle in the XVth Brigade, December 1937

General Walter comes to talk to the Brigade and lays down a firm talk.  In photographs of Walter with the troops he is shown inspecting rifles and training soldiers.  Walter will write in his debrief at the end of the war that the Brigade could not keep their weapons clean, that men just tossed their cleaning rods, that there was only one rag in the whole Brigade and that the weapons were so worn the rifling was gone.   After Walter laid down the law, men still approached him with requests.

On the street, Copic argues with people about Belchite.  Mike Pappas apparently objected to Copic.   Merriman has to arrange an honor guard to go to a funeral in Valencia.   He also is supposed to pay the men but “Goodman” (perhaps Carroll Goodman of the Regiment du Tren) has not returned with the payroll.

Merriman says that the time in Albalate was interesting but short.   After only a couple of days there, the Brigade was moved back to near Almochuel.   Landis² says that this was part of training for the combined brigade but it seems that the Brigade needed rest more than training.   The issues with the British continue to revolve around their promised repatriation and with their previous commanders Aitken and Cunningham going back to England, others must have thought that this was policy.  They refuse to move further.  In a “P.W.” meeting, “Flam” (Emil Flam) and others calmed down.  Within the Lincolns, Seaman Oliver has backed off his protests and this may have been helped by better food.   Merriman feels that the Intendencia is now overfeeding the men.


¹   Radosh et al., Spain Betrayed, Document 48, ibid. page 240.

² Landis, Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid.

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.

9-10 Septiembre The XVth Brigade retires from Belchite to rest positions

September 9-10, 1937

Robert Merriman’s diary for September 9 and 10, 1937

Taking of Belchite

Article in La Vanguardia, Barcelona, from September 7, 1937. Source: http://http://hemeroteca-paginas.lavanguardia.com/

Merriman holds the fort while Copic goes to the Division Staff meeting and continues the battle of Belchite.  At that meeting, General Walter and Lieutenant Colonel Copic are faced with the claim that the XII Division of the Army of the East (which contained the 24th Brigade which contained the 153rd Battalion) entered Belchite on the 3rd of September and took the city.  They claimed that the XVth Brigade was pulled out of the battle because of looting.    This infuriated Walter and he made it one of his 30 traitorous actions that he documented in his departure assessments.¹  As a result of the meeting, the Chief of Staff of the XIIth Division was removed for claiming the victory in Belchite.  On September 7, Colonel Sanchez Plaza of the XII Division claimed the victory in La Vanguardia newspaper in Barcelona.  On the 5th of September, however, La Vanguardia had a banner headline that Belchite had fallen, quoting General Pozas who held a press conference on the 4th of September.   President Companys of Barcelona released a press release for the September 5th edition congratulating the Army of the East and General Pozas on his victory.  Given the timing of the Propaganda War versus the actual war, Merriman and Copic’s “Party Order” has additional urgency.  While it did force the taking of the town, it did so at the expense of many deaths and as we will see shortly, considerable loss of respect amongst the XVth Brigade troops.

Mac-Paps are sent up

Command Order #156 from Commander Belov in Albacete to the command of the XVth Brigade. RGASPI Fond 545/Opis 2/Delo 57/page 253. RGASPI online archives, Moscow, Russia.

Merriman moves the Brigade to Vinaceite which is on a parallel road from Belchite to Azaila.  A number of small villages are in this area including Almochuel where the Americans will ultimately end up.  Merriman runs into a severe dust storm on the way and puts his car into the ditch.   He finds Rollin Dart who is there to place the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion which has moved up from Tarazona.   Merriman is surprised that they are at the front already as he was not sure they were ready.  He would have also received the Order of the Day from Commander Belov at Albacete to the left.  In French, it says he is sending up the Mac-Paps on September 5 and they should be kept behind the lines because they were not ready.  As an indication:

Belov to Intendencia

Service Note 8242 pursuant to Command Order 156. Belov informs the Intendencia that 100 members of the Mac-Paps don’t have shoes on their feet. He says “It is mandatory that soldiers take shoes to the front”. 545/2/57/255 RGASPI.

Kitchen on a train

Kitchen on a train near Quinto, November 1937. ALBA Photo 11-1770, Tamiment Library, NYU

Van Der Bergh

Cuban Juan Corona (left), Captain Van Den Berghe (center) and Marty Hourihan (right), photo from the Paul Burns Collection and from the International Brigades in Spain website of our colleague, Kevin Buyers.

The 700 men of the Mac-Paps actually got out of Tarazona del la Mancha at noon on September 8 by train. On the 10th, the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion arrives by rail to Azaila and they are met by the Lincoln and British Battalions who have marched back to Azaila.   The men were promised to get new arms.   Merriman gets the men placed, but is ordered to move to Albalate the next day.  Merriman expects “Basha” Van Den Berghe to have done some of the preparatory work but he is “apathetic”.     This is the first time we have seen this name attributed to Amandus or Armand Van Den Berghe.  Van Den Berghe is worried about the appropriation of land and buildings for billets.    They work on a policy on how to deal with the locals.  Merriman discusses the ability of Rollin Dart to lead the Mac-Paps and he, Joe Dallet and Bob Thompson believe he is not a strong enough leader.  The Mac-Pap command will change again before the next battle in October.


¹ Radosh et al., Spain Betrayed, pp 481-482.

7-8 Septiembre “Good evening in a dirty place”

September 7-8, 1937

Robert Merriman’s diary for September 7 and 8, 1937.

Merriman finds out on September 6 that his adjutant Sidney Shostek was shot.   Shostek was walking with a prisoner behind a tank and was killed by a sniper.  Marion Merriman fills in some details:

Only the square admitted enough light for Bob and me to read the Fascist posters still stuck to broken walls, posters depicting the horrors of Marxism rather than the horrors of the war that a small group of Fascists had started.  I noticed there were posted rules for the modesty of young women, rules requiring long skirts and long sleeves, saying sin is woman’s because she tempts man.  There were no posters promising a government for all of the people.

As we walked, the thought of Sidney Shosteck, so young and sincere and intelligent, who should have walked beside us, heightened my sense of tragedy of the ruined city.  Bob told me again how he had sent Sid into Belchite on a mission after most of the fighting was over, not believing his aide to be in any real danger.

Fascist Barracks

The Falangist barracks in Belchite. Near where Sidney Shostek was killed. ALBA PHOTO 11-1227, Tamiment Library, NYU

“Sidney was killed outright,” Bob said.  “I feel his loss more than any other person I’ve known here.”  Bob had kept Sid out of the street fighting as much as possible.  Then, in a crucial moment, he had sent him to direct a tank with a prisoner to show them where the military headquarters of the Fascists were.  The prisoner went to the front of the tank and Sidney behind.  But a second-story sniper shot Sid in the forehead.  He never knew what hit him, Bob, said shaking his head as we walked.   He added, quietly, “Sidney’s loss here is great.  It will be felt by all of us.”

As Bob talked, I held his arm.  I felt I had to support him….  Suddenly we heard piano music.  “Look,” Bob said, quietly, hushing me before I could respond.  There, across a street in half a house, the front walls blown away, the inside looking like a stage, sat a Spanish soldier at a grand piano, playing Beethoven.¹

Merriman is sorry that he cannot find the body but otherwise doesn’t reveal his true feelings.   He says that Wattis was injured as was Bill Wheeler and Sidney was killed “while I sang Russian songs”.  One wonders if Merriman was feeling guilt because he was with Copic instead of his men.   He and Steve Nelson will soon face criticism for having been with the men during the battle.  Merriman works on administrative duties on the 7th and hears the story about the 12th Army Corps (in which the Spanish 153rd Brigade resides) making claims of having taken Belchite on September 3.  This is the story that General Walter documented in his exit document in November 1938.   This story will ripple for days.

Constancia de la Mora, of the Foreign Press Office, and Milly Bennett are in Belchite but Merriman misses them.  They are with a reporter from what appears to be a Russian wire service or newspaper.  From Marion’s memoir, it is likely that she is with them as well.  Merriman was in Azaila on the road to Hijar where there was a field hospital.   Steve Nelson was there and Merriman talks to him and signs him up for more political duties.   Paul Block, who was the Commissar of Company 3, died in the hospital.   It appears that Dr. Irving Busch was the head of the hospital and looked in on Nelson.

North, Merriman and Minor

Joe North, Bob Merriman, Lou Secundy, Earl Browder, Vladimir Copic, Bob Minor, David Doran and Briton David Kamy, Teruel, January 1938. ALBA Photo, 11_1865, Tamiment Library, NYU

The political staff from Albacete arrives:  Joe North of the Daily Worker, Bill Lawrence, Ed Bender, Bob Minor and Bob Kerr (not “Ken”) who was the Canadian responsible.   Merriman returns to the Brigade Headquarters north of Belchite.   He says that Minor and Steve Nelson  discussed things with a person (with an unreadable name) late into the night but Merriman went to sleep.  The order here is jumbled because it would have been impossible for Nelson to move with his injury.

On the morning of the 8th, North and Bender go into Belchite with Merriman.   Merriman sees looting going on and apparently does not try to stop it.   He, himself, picks up two bedspreads for Marion.   While the Americans might think this is the “spoils of war”, the conflict between the Spanish and Internationals over integration of the Brigades into the Spanish Army would be aggravated if the Spanish believed that the Americans were stealing from the people.

Fred Lutz

Abe Harris, two unknown soldiers, and Frederick Lutz at the Brigade Intendencia at Mondejar.   It is possible that one of the two unknown men in this photo is Ernesto Martinez.

Merriman fights with George Kaye and Ernesto Martinez over the operation of the Intendencia.   Ernesto Martinez and Frederick Lutz would lead the Intendencia into April, 1938² .  Food was missing for several days in Belchite and even water was in short supply at the beginning of the assault.   Copic thinks the Intendencia did ok, but Merriman disagrees and had to deal with the risk of rebellion in the ranks because supplies were slow to follow the troops in.  Merriman sends George Kaye back to Perales to get more supplies.   Merriman says that he has a tiff with British Political Commissar Mark Millman.

Merriman sees a copy of “Our Fight”, the newspaper published by the Brigades and talks to Frank Ryan who was the editor of the paper.   Merriman finishes the day noting that snipers are still around and killed two of the Brigade cavalry.


¹ Marion Merriman Wachtel and Warren Lerude, American Commander in Spain, ibid., pp 172-3.

² RGASPI Archives, Fond 545/Opus2/Delo 118/p130, Moscow.

5-6 Septiembre “Greatest Fun in Spain”

September 5-6, 1937

Robert Merriman’s diary for September 5 and 6, 1937

Merriman is pretty reserved in letting us have insight into his real feelings.  Today we get a peek into Bob Merriman’s psyche.  On the 5th of September, mopping up of Belchite continues after the Church and barricade has fallen.  Merriman says that he cannot find any of the leaders of the Lincoln Battalion so he, Sidney Shostek and George Wattis took initiative in working like soldiers.  Merriman says that this is the greatest “fun” he had in Spain.   After nine months in Spain and only a few hours truly on the line before being shot at Jarama, Merriman’s interest in fighting shows through.   The Dave Engels’ article in the Book of the XVth Brigade said that Merriman was everywhere throwing grenades and fire bombs.  The “fun” ended when a grenade dropped out of a building injuring George Wattis with about fifty pieces of shrapnel and Merriman was cut as well.

Merriman admits that he worked too much as a soldier and too little as a commander.  Copic sends out orders for him to report to the Estado Mayor and Copic and Merriman yell at each other for much of the day as they tour Belchite.   Merriman says that their advance in town is stopped at a barricade where a man got a bomb in the face.   Hans Amlie’s account for September 5 is in the notes below.

Soldiers, Belchite

View down the Calle Mayor towards the Plaza Republica, Belchite. Soldiers hold masks because of the smell of death. ALBA Photo 11_1226, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman says that Chapayev performed well and must have captured the Fascist hospital, staffed with nuns in their robes.  Merriman says that the dead were stacked like cordwood.  He said that there were sniper holes in the hospital and that women in the hospital served to bring supplies, apparently, to the soldiers.  The barricade at the end of town was in the vicinity of San Martin de Tours Church.  Like the San Agustin church, many fascist soldiers had holed up there and another standoff occurred with many injuries.   Merriman planned to flank the barricade overnight by breaking through the neighboring buildings.  Overnight, however, a grenade attack over the barricade injured Tom Hyde, who got shrapnel in his ankle.   Hyde’s son said that this injury effectively ended his father’s front line service and he was repatriated on the Ausonia in December 1938 (Richard Hyde, personal communication).   Overnight, guard was set up around the town although Merriman infers that some of the Fascists actually managed to escape.

Sound Truck

International Brigade Sound Truck at Codo. ALBA PHOTO 11-1335, Tamiment Library, NYU

On the morning of the sixth, the Republican sound truck arrived and David Doran (Assistant Brigade Commissar) and a Spanish soldier made an announcement to the troops on the other side of the barricade.


Steve Nelson recalls the events of the day:

Dave Doran

Dave Doran (near Huesca), ALBA Photo 177-177009, Tamiment Library, NYU

Dave Doran, who was my assistant up to this time, got hold of a propaganda truck, fitted with a phonograph, microphone, and loudspeaker.  Never mind how he got it.  He brought it up to the church, where the fascist resistance was centered.  Hastily, he wrote out a speech.  A Spanish boy read it into the microphone; the words went bellowing across the fascist lines.  “Fascist soldiers, those of you who are Spaniards, listen!” the loudspeaker thundered.  “Your leaders are lying to you.  Quinto is in Republican hands.  You will get no reinforcements.  The relief column sent from Saragossa has been smashed at Mediana.  There is no relief for you in Belchite, there is only death!” ….. “Come over to us and live.  If you don’t you will all be wiped out in our first assault.  We have you surrounded on all sides, so none of you can escape.  Our guns are trained on you this minute, to blow you to a million pieces.  …. Drop your arms and come over the barricades one by one.   All who come over will live.”¹

Then silence.  Doran’s emphasis on death brought the first soldier over the barricade.

“What’s the morale like?” Dave demanded. 

“Not good.  That speech on the loudspeaker — they are talking it over. The men are desperate, and only fear of the officers holds them;  the officers are shooting them on the least provocation.  But many have been killed or wounded.  and the church and basement are nearly full of wounded.  Many have had tourniquets on their arms or legs for three or four days, so gangrene has set in.  No operations are possible.  Ah, things are bad in there!”

“If this is true, could you go back and bring a group of them to our lines?”.   

The prisoner didn’t like the idea at all.  It was a risky business, going back. “If your men don’t shoot me, the others will.  And if the officers find out–“

“I know all that, but it’s the only choice we’re giving you.  Come back by way of this building, and slip your rifles across the sandbags”.¹

Fascist Prisoners

Fascists taken prisoner at Belchite, ALBA PHOTO 11-1146, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman says that this single artillery soldier started an avalanche of soldiers pushing their rifles over the barricade.  Amlie (notes below) tells an identical story. The assault on Belchite was over and the town that would not surrender to Napoleon surrendered to Doran.

Not all of the Fascists surrender peaceably.  Two or three hundred of the garrison tried to make a break for the fascist lines.   The story told by Lieutenant Hernández y Alcalá:

Afraid of the soldiers (those who wished to surrender) the officers stole away by one of the underground passages and took refuge in another strongly fortified building.  We realized that there was more hard fighting in front of us….  Acting on orders, we moved closer to the building.  Suddenly a few yards in front of us, we heard voices and distinguished a mass of people coming toward us.  Some were women.  There were shouts of “Camaradas!”   We thought they were more of the people that had been liberated.  But we always had orders to challenge all people coming from town and establish their identity before we let them pass.  Then one commander shouted, and we realized what was happening.  These were fascists who had escaped through one of the underground passages with which the town was honeycombed, and they were driving civilians before them in order to prevent us firing effectively.

Our commander called on them to halt.  The answer was a shower of grenades.  Women, children, men and Fascists were so mixed up and running in all directions that it was impossible in the bad light to distinguish anything clearly.  We noticed that some of the civilians were firing at us.  They were officers in disguise, and we found them out afterwards.  ….. It was terrible for the time it lasted.  But every one of the officers met his fate.”²

Dave Doran would become Commissar of the Brigade shortly.   Nelson tells why:

“Belchite was ours.  I went back to the factory. I was feeling good.  I hadn’t slept for a hell of a while but I felt good.  Everything was going fine.  

Inside the mill, I saw Dave Doran.  Dave shouted something and I started towards him.

‘Steve, look out for Cris’ake!’.   From the corner of my eye, I saw the window high in the factory wall and the church tower above the window, and it the same instant, something hit me hard on the cheek, and an terrible, fiery pain struck inside my thigh, and ran up into my stomach, a pain so fierce that I doubled up on the floor;  in spite of the pain I rolled toward the brick walls to keep from being hit again”.¹

Steve Nelson would survive, but never again see action.  Nelson would shortly be sent to Valencia to meet visitors and then ordered back to the US where he would go on a fund raising effort in speaking about Spain.

Merriman went into town after hearing of the surrender.   His first thoughts were to get his transportation out of town before it was grabbed by the 153rd Anarchist Battalion.  Merriman says that he “organized” some good stuff and later Karl Sverchevsky (General “Walter”) would complain that the 153rd Battalion sabotaged the reputation of the XVth Brigade:

17.  During the siege of Belchite, the fascist like command of the 12th Corps deluged the eastern front with lying and slanderous telegrams about the robbery and shootings that, supposedly the 15th International Brigade was engaged in, and about the impossibility of “bringing it up to the front line.”  At the same time, they provoked clashes between the anarchist elements and the internationalists and advised the commander of the 153rd Spanish Brigade to sabotage my orders.  This lie was so insolent and obvious that it even drove the command of the 5th Corps, which is not usually prone to put itself out for us, crazy, and Modesto then started a real row with Gen. Pozas, the front commander, over this and sent a very sharply worded telegram to Gen. Rojo demanding that the culprits be called to account.³

Fascist Posters

Fascist posters on the square in Belchite, September 1937. ALBA PHOTO 11-0596, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman says that he lost some trucks in the confusion over who “owned” the town and that he wanted to get his troops out as soon as possible onto the Mediana Road to move north, presumably to move to support the 57th British Battalion against an expected counterattack.   But the Brigade had time to collect souvenirs and Merriman appears to warn the troops that this is a religious town and the women are conservative so restraint is necessary.

Merriman says “Defensive war a great one”.   It seems that he is showing admiration for his enemy.   He says they were persistent until the end.   Merriman cannot find Sidney Shostek (more on this in the next posting).   Merriman gets promoted to Major for taking Belchite and the award was for his personal intervention on September 3rd which got the Americans moving into Belchite.   Recall, however, that he was under a “Party Order” and had little choice.


¹  Steve Nelson, The Volunteers, ibid, p 186-7.

² Lieutenant Hernández y Alcalá, The Book of the XVth Brigade, ibid., pp 283-286.

³ Ronald Radosh, Mary R. Habeck, and Grigory Sevostianov, Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2001, p.481-2.

‡  Milly Bennett’s notes of her interview with Hans Amlie when he was in hospital.  From Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California.   Transcription by RMH1 and many difficult and fuzzy sections in text:

Sept 5th
We’d went approx. one block together jointly with Span comrades. 5 or 6 men bust down door – Penetration every place. 9 am. Then Span one street & our little company with a few Spanish who wanted to be with us. Put up barricades. Parapets. Sandbags. Why did fascist concentrate main forces in plaza? Why not small details in outlying points? Our opinion was fascist officers saw that demoralization set in and didn’t trust small groups! Thus able to maintain iron control over men. Officers knew their fate if caught. If us, we’d make them fight every step of way.

We penetrated (our company) to a point where small bend in the street – we called it “deadman’s point” We were now about half a block from the fascists – Charlie Regan, 45, World War, Irish Catholic; Gave Regan instructions not to go down there – only about 10 feet away. Stick close to the wall. Fascists had a barricade just above the bend. He went down & was killed. Collected about 40 bags of grain. Most houses had animals – stretched em across with portholes. All of us were novices at street fighting. I had some general knowledge and some theories gathered from reading. Knew that barricade places at that posit. if properly manned & tenaciously held & an eternal vigilance that fascists would never get beyond that point. An hour or so later we saw the possible. of taking the sacks on the extreme right side and advancing them piecemeal to a position that would give us a greater advantage over any advance that the fascists might dare to make.

Our men were designated for guard at the barricade with one relief guard retiring 15 feet in the rear. Relieved every half hr. Too much strain on these fellows. 6 on the barricades 6 with to go on watch. Remaining given instructions to go top floors of houses we’d cleaned and to 1- see what surroundings looked like 2- begin break through walls found picks & crowbars to houses forward of our position —

House on right hand side toward plaza – on lower floor needed that house badly than any on street. Busted hole made two sniper holes. Comrade Merriman had an opportune moment use his skill with the rifle – All afternoon our men sniped fascists. Ephraim Bartlett, 49, I think Denver Col. old soldier coal miner, party comrade; sergeant crack shot. Able to afford his Communist visit. Such as never had before. On left hand side of street 3 houses nearer plaza – got range on back part of plaza.
Houses between us and plaza. Watch enemy movements. It was nice weather. After we built barrier went another street & recommended batt. off. this barricade building be done on other streets.

Later on they placed five bags on street and men wounded & attempted project given up.

Only protection or fighting power they had was few soldiers who stood around the corner – 2 blocks from fasc. barric. which meant any time the fascists tried to break down – our resistance would have been reduced.

There was not a full use of the houses upper floors. During whole day our artillery & tanks with remarkable precision exacting heavy ….. tolls from the fascists at Commander’s & plaza.

About four o’clock our comp given the assignment to leave our barricade to prepare for an attack on the fascist barricade went came into small alley. Where I came to that pt. question not standing but engaging immediate battle with fascists. Our plan was to assault their barricade and go into the plaza. Sent four men dash across. Four to advance up the str. with bombs in hands. Advanced from one door to another up towards barricades then our task to advance up the street door by door – old baseball technique – filling up street with smoke – well ahead of us. Covering screen for our advance. Most of our men advanced under cover of this. Lost no men. Louis Goslin killed before barricades.

7 killed 30. But after reaching the barricade, xxxx down several sacks began advancing down street toward plaza. Only few men of our company went along (10-12) beyond barricade led by Bradley. Met with serious fire working toward plaza. Without proper coordination in street

Has Sporty Sperry killed, 38, world war, killed 6 wounded – I dragged back — 2 killed, six seriously wounded Wounded had all they could do to get back. Bombs revolve fire; Immediate task forced us was to hold this fascist barricate. Went 15-20 feet up street had to go back & hard task build out in a full barricade so have range up & down the street.

Other comrades threw up sacks of wheat and grain – we build up a regular fortress. Rest struggling to more bombs—

Camarada! {unreadable} on many occasions fascists st. formed!{unreadable}

Learned later had barricades midst important fascist positions, hospitals, etc. Worried about … across fear they’d drop bombs. Threw bombs into windows houses across street. Had charlie horse for 2 days. Many times fasc. tried to get us from plaza but they were at a decided disadvantage. Our bombs and rifles persistent vigil. Drove em back. Made every man stay awake. I was just demanding keep your eyes open. Our barricade separated fascists & they were hogtied in there.

Half hour later first noises from basement house right had side barricade. Hollered down from cellar window. Who is there? Soldiers and civilians. Went down & found about 150. We’d only investigated upper floors. Came up through front way of house. Ripped down few bags of our barricade to let them thru. All morning long hundreds of civilians and soldiers passed through our barricades …..