13 Octobre The International Brigades attack Fuentes del Ebro

 

13 October 1

October 13 1937

Two pages from Robert Merriman’s second diary covering the attack on Fuentes del Ebro of October 13, 1937

Dallet

Joseph Dallet, Quinto, September 1937. ALBA Photo 11_0639, Tamiment Library, NYU

Dougher and Bradley

Joe Dougher and Carl Bradley, October 1937,
ALBA PHOTO 11-0726, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman doesn’t write much about the initial assault of the 13th of October at Fuentes.  He says that the Lincolns and Mac-Paps moved into line late and were held up.  The attack of the Tanks stalled and was not effective.  The Mac-Paps were congratulated by Walter for making the assault on Fuentes and the British were chastised for not advancing on the town.   Merriman says the losses were not too great although Joe Dallet (left) was killed, Bill Neure, Joe Dougher (right) and Rubin Kaufman were injured.   He doesn’t mention other leading comrades such as Milton Herndon who also fell.  He then starts to talk about the evening of the first day when the British and Americans returned to the jump off positions and Merriman says he had to send them back to the lines.

Copic and Merriman

Vladimir Copic (left) and Robert Merriman (right) at the Estado Mayor viewing post, Fuentes de Ebro, ALBA PHOTO 11-0258, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman’s diary really should be read with the American aphorism “Putting lipstick on a pig”.   The day was a total disaster and nothing worked as planned.  There are hundreds of pages written in Brigade literature about this day and a few excerpts give a more realistic appraisal of the Fuentes attack.  In a favorite photo of mine, the body language of Vladimir Copic and Bob Merriman make you wonder who would take the blame for this mess.

Richard Baxell relates the morning from the British viewpoint:

Hugh Sloan, Bill Alexander’s runner, saw the disaster unfold.  When the operation was launched in the early morning of 13 October, he counted forty-seven Republican tanks and watched as they sped forward full tilt, throwing off the troops who were trying to cling on and leaving them far behind to be shot to pieces.   The tanks themselves fared little better, for ‘the Fascists were ready for them — they’d got bottles of petrol and a number of the Russian tanks were set alight’.   Timing was vital, but ‘the Fascists were alerted, the planes bombed too early, the artillery bombed too early and the tanks were late’.  Insufficient Republican artillery and air supper trade matters immeasurably worse.  It was, thought Sloan, ‘[a] ridiculous charge like the charge of the Light Brigade — a gallant effort but a stupid effort’.¹

The British Battalion was on the very right flank.  An image of the positions from Landis is shown below.²   The current approximate positions are superimposed on a Google Earth image.

Fuentes de Ebro

Positions at Fuentes de Ebro, Source: Landis.

Fuentes de Ebro

Current approximate positions of the Mac-Pacs companies 1, 2, 3 (in red), the Lincolns on the railroad (dark blue) and the British (light blue).

While the British reached their trenches before dawn on the 13th, a massive traffic jam on the Quinto – Fuentes road kept the Americans and Canadians from getting into position before daylight.   Many Americans were pinned down immediately after leaving the staging positions at Km 28-29 on the road.   Company 3 (in which my Father had just been assigned four days previously) was pinned down by machine gun fire and those who were not shot spent much of the day face down short of the trenches.   Milt Wolff recalled³ that his machine gun company (#4) did set up enfilading and supporting fire for the Mac-Paps, but most of the guys were just cut up trying to make the trenches.  Philip Detro showed significant bravery going back and guiding the Lincolns into their position on the railway line.

The British were in soft soil in the fields and with heavy rain on October 11-12 night.  Movement was difficult.   Wolff³ said at least 10 of the tanks went over the top of the Lincoln trenches, nearly crushing the men under them.   Many of the 24th Battalion, riding on the tanks, saw the Lincolns in the trenches and thinking they were Fascists, fired on them.

Niilo Makela

Niilo Makela, as Commissar of the Mac-Paps, 1938. ALBA Photo 11-1281, Tamiment Library, NYU

Niilo (Milo) Makela, commander of the Mac-Pap machine gun company, wrote of the Mac-Pap experience that day:

We received our first taste of fire at dawn, while entering a shallow communication trench leading us to our position.  The enemy machine gunners spotted our movements, and in the fire one man was killed and a few wounded, including our comrade Hitchcock {Robert Colver}, our Battalion Secretary.  He was hit in the leg while cutting a strand of barbed wire at the mouth of the communication trench….

The attack started at 1:40 pm.  When our tanks went over and the order was given to advance, the Battalion, including its Staff, went over the top like one man.  Joe Dallet, Battalion Commissar went over with No. 1 Company on the left flank, where the fire was heaviest.  He was leading the advance when he fell, mortally wounded.  He behaved heroically until the very end, refusing to permit the First Aid men to come over to him in his exposed position. {Dallet was killed while on the ground wounded, when a machine gun opened up on him}.

Volumes could be written about acts of individual heroism, acts performed by men in the ranks as well by men high in leadership.  Space will not allow for that.  I want to mention, however, comrades like Bill Neure, Commander of No. 1 Company, who was fatally wounded; “Izzie” Schrenzel, who was seriously wounded, died later; that outstanding Negro comrade, Milton Herndon, leader of the Third Section of the Machine Gun Company who was killed together with Ben Smith, when they were trying to assist the wounded on the field.4

Dr. Julius Hene called out for valor Sergeant James V. Black and Earl Rose, two First Aid men in No. 1 company.4

Ron Liversedge of Vancouver was there that day:

… But our journey to Fuentes was behind schedule.  The road seemed to be clogged with traffic, and there was some confusion.  It was already daylight as we started to file into a series of very narrow, very dirty, and not overly deep trenches, leading off from each side of the road.  It seemed uncanny that we were being allowed to file into the trenches unmolested.  I had a mental picture of the enemy unhurriedly finishing their coffee and then flexing their muscles.

I think that more than three-quarters of the Brigade were off the road, and sidling up the narrow trenches to their positions, when the fascists opened up.  There was no warming up, but in a split second, dozens of machine-guns started a terrific crescendo of firing.  We received our first casualties amongst the men who were still on the road.

…. Our Company commander (I’ve forgotten his name {Neure}) was a young German American.  The second in command was Bill Whitehead {Whitehead does not appear on the Canadian muster roles and his editor David Yorke thinks Liversedge’s memory is at fault here.}, a Canadian, and Joe Dallet, the Battalion’s political commissar was going over with our company.  With our Company also were Ed Rolfe, the American writer who was our historian, and Irving Weissmann, another American.  The rest of our company were Canadians.

…  At one thirty we heard the tanks roaring towards us from behind; they were coming at a good lick, seventy-five of them {actually, 42 tanks took the field that day}.  They roared over the top of our trenches, nearly crushing one of our men who, thinking the tanks would break down the trench walls and bury us, jumped out onto the parapet and was pulled back in, just a split second before the tanks rolled over.

We were amazed to see twelve men of the 24th Spanish Battalion riding on the top of each tank.  It was said afterwards that somebody on Brigade staff had seen this stunt in a film, but unfortunately this wasn’t Hollywood.  There were very very few of the 24th who came back.

The Mac-Paps scrambled out of the trenches to follow behind the tanks.  The Lincoln were on our right, and the British on their right: the whole Brigade spread in a long line right across the plain.  The tanks spread out in line and started for the town at about forty miles an hour; at the same time, the fascists opened up with hundreds of machine-guns and mortars and artillery.

Of course we could not keep up with the tanks, and immediately we ran into murderous fire.  There was no cover.  Men started to drop all around.  In less than fifteen minutes our company strength was reduced by half.  Our company commander was down.  Just to my right, Joe Dallet, walking along, smoking his curved pipe, a little smile on his face, was hit.  I heard the bullet smack into him; he gave a little grunt and I knew he was dead before he hit the ground.  Then three of the ammunition carriers in my machine-gun squad went down.  To the right and ahead a little I saw Milt Herndon, a negro and his pal Smithy, both of the second company, go down.  One of our stretcher bearers, Issac Schatz from Toronto, crawled over to see if he could help, and as he rolled Herndon over, Schatz got one through the shoulder.

….Ahead of us we saw our tanks grinding to a halt close to the ravine in front of the town.  Twenty-five of them on fire; we could see the tank men jumping out of the burning tanks and being shot as they jumped out  Bill Kardash from Winnipeg was one of them, and he received the wound there that cost him one leg.   We could also see what men were left of the 24th, trying to hide behind the burning tanks.5

Bill Kardash of Winnipeg, mentioned above, was quoted by Michael Petrou:

“Things did not go as planned,” Kardash recalled years later.  They received orders to attack late in the morning and knew nothing about the terrain the tanks were expected to cross.  Some got stuck in gullies on the approach to Fuentes de Ebro.  Kardash’s tank rolled towards the nationalist trenches very slowly.  Any Spaniards clinging to the sides of his tank were shot and fell to the ground.  They cross the first line of nationalist trenches and almost immediately Kardash and his crew were hit by a Molotov cocktail.  “The first thing, the motor stopped.  The wires burnt .. So we couldn’t move.  So long as we had ammunition, we kept firing,” Kardash said “I gave orders for the driver to get out because the fire began to get closer to the turret”.

Kardash watched as his driver and gunner fled the burning tank and were gunned down.  Kardash looked certain to meet the same fate if he ran, but flames inside the tank were spreading and left him with little choice.  He bolted from the tank while shots rang out all around him.  As he ran towards a highway that linked Quinto and Fuentes de Ebro, a grenade knocked him down and filled his legs with shrapnel.  He looked up and saw that another tank had broken through the nationalist defenses and was still operational.  Kardash waved the tank over to where he lay and climbed on top.  Somehow he managed to cling to the tank while it sped back over the nationalist lines to the safety of republican positions.

Kardash would spend until May 1938 in a Madrid hospital with gangrene in both legs.  One was amputated right away.  The thigh of his other leg was almost blown off and the pain was so bad that Kardash begged doctors to remove it as well.  His remaining limb was saved, however, and Kardash eventually made it safely back home to Canada.6

Bill Kardash can be heard speaking at the 1:15 mark of part IV of Los Canadianses, a Canadian National Film Board six part documentary on the Mac-Paps.

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¹ Richard Baxell, Unlikely Warriors, ibid. , p 315-316.

² Art Landis, Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid.,

³ Milt Wolff to Art Landis, ALBA AUDIO 66.

4 Niilo (Milo) Makela, The Book of the XVth Brigade, “The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion in Action”, ibid, p. 291-2.

5 Ron Liversedge,Mac-Pap: Memoirs of a Canadian in the Spanish Civil War, ibid., pp 88-92.

6 Michael Petrou, Renegades, ibid., pg 76.