Category Archives: Almochuel

15-16 Septiembre Merriman’s health gives out in the stress of the aftermath

September 15-16

Robert Merriman’s diary for September 15 and 16, 1937

Merriman is flowing the diary from page to page at this point as he knows he needs to stop by 21 September and move to another diary.   The end of the previous page said “Next day the order came from Walter to move back where we came from.  Luckily it came after the storm had passed and so it was not too” difficult.

Merriman is listening to the troops (and perhaps to Dave Doran who has been speaking with the men) and more meetings are held where he explained the decisions about Belchite.   Merriman gave it to the “chronic beefers”.   He mentions either Leo (of the Mac-Paps) or Joe (Chauffer in the Brigade Commissariat) Hecht.  He does not name Louis Oliver, with whom he has been fighting since spring.   The men were put on notice that they may have to move again.

Merriman meets with the British as well and there is a core group of 18 Britons who still refuse to take orders.  He threatens arrest.  Copic is forced to come and speak with them and he explains how bad it would be for the Brigades if this early volunteer unit now quits.   He leaves open the option that he will just transfer them to Spanish Battalions.


Lieutenant Abad Garcia (left) and Jose Varela (right) of the 24th Battalion, ALBA Photo 11-1787, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman mentions a “Feny” or possibly “Ferry” from Army Corps who comes to explain the political situation.   The incorporation of secretaries in each unit is required and Lieutenant Abad Garcia of the 24th Battalion needs to be consulted frequently.   This has the flavor of paying more attention to learning Spanish and paying more attention to the Spanish-Internationals integration.

Merriman finishes his day with his second favorite sport… swimming in the moonlight.   His favorite sport involved tossing grenades.

Bill Wimmer from Transports arrives and brings a letter from Steve Nelson who is in Valencia.  Nelson is irate about the treatment of the Americans who are in the 24th Battalion and English Battalion who were removed to other units.   Merriman says that this is a party decision and only the party can reverse it, not the command structure.

Kibby Goodman returned from Albacete or Valencia without the payroll.  The issue was that the paylists were not correct.  Merriman says that this is related to the Dimitrov affair where Albacete wanted to move the Dimitrovs to the 45th Brigade and Copic wanted to keep them in the XVth Brigade.   Albacete was sending Copic a message. Every two weeks the paylists had to have each soldier listed by rank (since the pay was related to rank) and each soldier must sign for their pay.   The Brigade, being in battle, did not spend any time keeping the playlists current and might not have put that little “x” next to those soldiers who would no longer be drawing pay.   Merriman knows that they need to fix this but he has worn down and is now sick.   It appears that he has intestinal problems since he is not eating and can’t keep food down.  Typhoid became epidemic in the Brigades during October 1937.   Walter later said 1000 men in two Brigades got typhoid.  Other diseases such as “dirt fever”, a bacterial infection of the lungs which is common in agricultural regions, and yellow jaundice (hepatitis) were widespread amongst the troops.  Merriman realizes that the paylists are problem but he says “Dare” (name is questionable, could be “Bose”) is wrong not to send the money since they were in combat for this pay period (Sept 1 – Sept 10).

Mirko Markovics is in camp and is lobbying for movement of the Dimitrovs to the 45th.  Copic is infuriated by this and orders Markovics not to talk to troops in the XVth.   He says he will have him arrested.


Alfred Harvey Litwin, RGASPI photo Fond 545/Opus6/Delo935, Moscow

Bill Wimmer

Bella William (Bill) Wimmer, WWII photograph,

Merriman also is supposed to have completed the promotion lists to fill in behind those injured at Belchite.  His original suggestions appear to pass.   Alfred Litwin and Wimmer spend the day exchanging money.  This would indicate that the Brigade had resources in American dollars and needed to convert them to pesetas so that Merriman would not default on payroll for September 10.

Copic and Merriman are still deciding who should go to Albacete to make the case for keeping the Dimitrov Battalion.   Merriman stalls on the decision.   Copic writes a letter to “цика Party” and Moise Sapir will be the courier of the letter.  цика  is the name of the Central Executive Committee of the Communist Party in Moscow.  Copic is taking this question all the way to Stalin.


13-14 Septiembre Moise Sapir arrives to deal with the rebellion

September 13-14, 1937

Robert Merriman’s diary for 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.

Merriman meets with Bob Thompson who has come up with the Mac-Paps.   They have decided that Dart 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.

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.

Merriman gets Dave Doran to rally the troops against the disgruntled elements.  They hold a company meeting to discuss.  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 Vandenberg complained about “secrets” and Sapir.  Merriman says that Gregorovitch, “Charley” and Vandenberg 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 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” (potentially 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.


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

² Landis, Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid.

11-12 Septiembre The Battle of Belchite is over but continues to be refought.

September 11-12

Robert Merriman’s diary for the 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 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.

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.

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 Azalia, 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, Hern (or Herr) and Seaman Oliver, are again leading the revolt.   They hold a secret meeting without the officers.  The main complaints 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.

9-10 Septiembre The XVth Brigade retires to rest positions

September 9-10

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

Taking of Belchite

Article in La Vanguardia, Barcelona, from September 7, 1937. Source: http://

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.

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.

Kitchen on a train

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

Van Der Bergh

Unknown soldier (left), Captain Van Der Bergh (center) and Marty Hourihan (right), photo from the Paul Burns Collection and from the International Brigades in Spain website of our colleague, Kevin Buyers.

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 (it is transcribed as “army” but this is an error).   Merriman gets the men placed, but is ordered to move to Albalate the next day.  Merriman expects “Basha” Vandenberg to have done some of the preparatory work but he is “apathetic”.     This is the first time we have seen this name attributed to Vandenberg.  Vandenberg is worried about the appropriation of land and buildings for billets.   Vandenberg could actually be Van Der Bergh who is pictured in a photograph from the Paul Burns collection of photos.  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.