Category Archives: Ambite

13-14 Agosto General Gal calls Ralph Bates a fascist and Ralph Bates calls General Gal a fool

August 13-14

Robert Merriman’s diary for August 13 and 14, 1937

Merriman is now fully ensconced in Brigade politics and he has a lot to tell his diary.  Apologies for the small font required to get all onto one printed page.   Merriman notes that Sidney Shostek is now in Ambite with the Brigade staff.  He says that he sent men two schools of what looks like “Rudeo and Enlace”.   Enlace is coordination and that would definitely require schooling.  Chris Brooks has suggested that the first word is actually “Radio” which would indeed need a school.

Three Officers

Unknown officer, Klaus Becker and George Aitken in the garden in Ambite Mill, probably July 25, 1937, ALBA Photos 177_175005, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman is left to pick up the pieces of the crushing of the British leadership.  Aitken and Cunningham were dismayed that their names were not mentioned at all in General Gal’s order brought back to Brigade by Copic.  Wally Tapsell would not speak to Merriman.  On searching Aitken’s room, four political orders (probably ignored or not acted on) were found.   Aitken was ordered to go take a walk in order to cool down.  Merriman was highly suspicious of George Wattis but uses him in this difficult situation to go talk to Aitken to settle things down.   Later Merriman tries to get Wattis promoted to Captain.

The situation deteriorates with some significant accusations: Gal calling Bates a fascist and Bates calling Gal a fool and not really a Bolshevik.  Gal counters that he was trained by Stalin himself.  This probably indicates that Gal attended the Lenin School in Moscow where Stalin was indeed an instructor of sorts, giving lectures at the Lenin School to many including Copic, Haywood and Steve Nelson.

Merriman seems to stay above the fray and makes Wattis “Coordination Officer” (see Enlace above).  Vanderberghe’s wife is leaving and he is seeing her off.  Lou Secundy starts work on the Brigade Staff, and Sidney Shostek and Phil Cooperman conduct an audit of the Brigade’s books.  When Merriman says he wants to clean up Albacete, he apparently means it.   Merriman again says Ralph Bates will leave because important cadres of the Communist Party are not to be sent to the front.  He says the “Tapsell affair is a real mess” .    Richard Baxell spends considerable time discussing the Tapsell affair in his book Unlikely Warriors.¹   A very brief synopsis of the issue was that both Fred Copeman and Wally Tapsell had suffered nervous breakdowns during the recent battle of Brunete.  Tapsell, like Marcovics, told Colonel Klaus that the British were in no shape to return to Brunete on July 28.  Aitken said that this was a “bloody terrible” decision and Tapsell went further and accused General Gal of gross incompetence.  He was quoted as saying that “Gal isn’t fit to command a troop of Brownies, let alone a People’s Army”¹.   Gal wanted Tapsell shot for insubordination.  Tapsell also accused Cunningham of “being out of his depth as regimental commander”.¹   Bert Williams related that Tapsell’s conduct was abnormal and on August 9, 1937, Tapsell sent a letter to the British Communist Party Secretariat  stating:

In plain fact, and it is hard to state this, on every occasion we were with Spanish troops in this engagement they let us down.  Their behavious on every occasion either resulted in serious casualties, or the immediate loss of positions won by us at heavy cost.  This is a fact.¹

In view of the disintegration of the leadership of the Scots, Irish and English and the “circular firing squad” set up by them, it is no wonder that Copic was able to use Brunete as an excuse to mobilize Gal and Klaus to get them all out.   Cunningham, Bert Williams, George Aitken, Wally Tapsell, and Fred Copeman would be ordered back to the British Isles before the end of August and Harry Pollitt, leader of the Communist Party in England, would enforce the decision to keep them there.  Only Tapsell and Copeman would return to Spain in November, further rousing the anger of Aitken and Cunningham who thought that this was a terrible decision.

Things quieted a bit on 14 August, and Merriman assigns Mirko Marcovics to check on the patrols (i.e. the brigade military police) and he goes off to visit the Spanish 24th battalion and the Eastern European Dimitroff Battalion.  He visits the British battalion (based in Mondejar) and finds them in disarray, with no welcome and no translators for the Spanish from Brigade.  Aitken and Cunningham suggest that the new Brigade leadership should speak instead of them and after Aitken was booed, it is apparent why.   Merriman and the staff leave to visit the Americans and to give the British time to get themselves corrected in camp.

Merriman makes a side note that Hans Amlie has come back.  Amlie was a Captain with the Americans at Brunete and was wounded and had to be dragged from the field of battle.   Merriman continues to criticize Jock Cunningham who attacked those who ran to the front and then sought to get out.  Perhaps Cunningham was referring to Harry Haywood who he had criticized for just this.   Merriman says he met up with Leo Gallagher, a Canadian from Toronto who would have been in training with the Mac-Paps.  He also meets again with the British anti-tank company.

Big Jim Ruskin

James Ruskin, RGASPI Photo Fond 545/Opus 6/Delo 978, Moscow

Merriman speaks with two reporters and then rushed back for a dinner at the Division level honoring a Major Costelli who was 71 years old.  Costelli made a curious speech about worthless people seeking stripes … likely to arouse Merriman’s suspicion since he just added a stripe of his own by becoming Chief of Staff.  He meets “big Jim Ruskin”, a Briton who was a Captain in Transmissions.  Ruskin was born Dovmont Sergeevich Zubchaninov².

Merriman says that General Gal is trying to recover from the mistakes he made with the orders given to Copic.   He wants David Abraham Zaret to become a “Mexican” citizen, i.e a Russian citizen, because he has become a good Bolshevik.   Zaret (a.k.a Jarrett) was an aide to Gal and thus probably was being looked after by his boss.   Merriman notes that  Bill Skinner has returned from the Mac-Paps and will be on his staff.   He says in a side note (“Tapsel [sic] talked”), which probably refers back to the discussion above.

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¹ Richard Baxell, Unlikely Warriors: the British in the Spanish Civil War and the Struggle Against Fascism, ibid, pp. 269-278.

² Kevin Buyers, The International Brigades in Spain.

11-12 Agosto “Hello, 15th Brigade!” and the “English out”

August 11-12

Robert Merriman’s diary from August 11 and 12, 1937

Merriman continues to document the shake up of the 15th Brigade and records that Ralph Bates and Steve Nelson came to the Battalion to tell the men that Merriman will be moving up to the Brigade level as Chief of Staff.  Rollin Dart would move back from Albares where he headed the Lincolns and would take Merriman’s place as commander in training.   Merriman will take Bill Skinner and Sidney Shostek with him to Brigade as his aides.

Owen Smith

Captain Owen Smith, Operations, Tamiment Photo 177_188024, Tamiment Library, NYU

In the farewell, Marion Merriman spoke.   The August 9-10 posting has Marion’s description of the event and it seems that she mixed up Merriman’s accompanying the Mac-Paps to Albares and then his return to Tarazona to announce his movement up to the Brigade level.  But she missed by only one or two days in these events.  Merriman also spoke briefly and there were songs.  Merriman says Owen (Owen Smith, probably) wanted more on the reorganization and said that the leaders were hiding something.   When Steve Nelson and Ralph Bates arrived, Merriman accompanied them to Albacete.

William Rowe

Photograph from a pamphlet published by the Communist Party of Great Britain, thanks to Stuart Walsh for providing the image.

Copic-Gall

Vladimir Copic and General Gal in a tete-a-tete at Ambite, believed to be July 25, 1937. Tamiment Photo 177-175018

The next morning (after having the perks of command allowing him to sleep on grain sacks), Steve Nelson starts to reveal to Merriman how upset the British are about these adjustments.  Merriman met with Will Paynter, William Rowe, Aitken and Jock Cunningham.  Thanks to comrades doing photo research on the Brigades for the identification of William Rowe (1905-1948).  Rowe arrived in Spain in April of 1937 would be invalided home for tuberculosis , returning 19 September 1937.¹  The British suggested that if Cunningham was not going to be Brigade Commander, perhaps Cunningham and Merriman could share the role.  This is a very strange suggestion and one which was being preempted by Vladimir Copic’s trip to see General Gal (Janos Galicz).  Copic was getting orders ready for the reassignments and Copic would lead the Brigade and Merriman would be his Chief of Staff.

Mirko Markovics continued the battle with Cunningham which started with the commands given at Brunete.  The British and Americans were at loggerheads over the leadership question and Merriman met with Robbie Robinson,  Rollin Dart and George Kaye to develop an American position.   Ralph Bates would be leaving before the upcoming offensive (Quinto) but he must have given Merriman the quote that “Cunningham leaving would be more of a loss than Copic”.   Copic, however, maneuvered his way to the leadership and arrived back at Albacete with Gal’s orders that Merriman would be Chief and Aitken and Cunningham were to go.  Merriman says “English out.  Feel sorry for them.”   Merriman’s notes leave us to conclude that the exclusion of the English, Scots and Irish was Copic’s doing.   (One should reread Copic’s comments to Haywood about the British in the July 19-20 entry here).  Mirko Markovich (another Slav, although American) survived the housecleaning and will become information officer.

Gordon and Begelman

Joe Gordon (left) and Elias Begelman (right), ALBA Photo 11_0098, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman finished the day reminiscing with Phil Cooperman.  He also gave Markovics a warning, apparently that Steve Nelson was not going to be his ally and that Markovics needed to shape up.  Elias Begelman was also in the discussions and apparently was too garrulous for Merriman.

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¹  Thanks to Stuart Walsh and Kevin Buyers for the research on Rowe, private communication.