Category Archives: Huesca Front

2 Octobre “I have been in a bad mood” and with good reason

 

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Oct 2, 1937

Four pages from Robert Merriman’s second diary for October 2, 1937

When the Brigade was to move up to the line, the rains come again.  September and October 1937 saw some terrific rainstorms which drenched the Brigade in Almochuel and the rains continue.  The Mac-Paps are not prepared for field bivouacking and they have no tents.  Merriman gets them housed indoors.   Art Landis finishes his story of the offensive:

The torrential rains that began at this point proved disastrous; whatever the intent of the Republican army of the east concerning the disposition of the 15th Brigade, it was automatically cancelled.   Instead the battle for Zaragoza was renewed.  Manuel Aznar, the Franco historian, remarks upon the Republican intentions and the Insurgent countermoves:

The attacks against Jaca beginning on the 24th of September and continuing through the 10th of October were a part of the general attacks unleashed all along the Aragon front to both bring to a halt the advance against Asturias, and to activated this front for further battles of either defense or offense.  Simultaneously  with the attacks on Jaca the 5th Army Corps of Modesto and Pozas attacked strongly again in the direction of Sillero on October 10th.  But now, not only was the full strength of the Barrón and Buruaga divisions committed to battle in the same area, but heavy re-enforcements had joined them.  These included, for the area of Fuentes del Ebro alone, the Mobile column of Zaragoza; a tabor of Tiradores de Ifni, and the 4th Bandera of the Tercios … There was one instance in which the Red forces in the line of attack were confronted by no less that the effectives of three Army Corps of the Nationalist Army.¹

The Aragon offensive around Zuera has been almost totally ignored by historians since little action was seen for the XVth Brigade.  The Book of the XVth Brigade only said “At the end of September, the Brigade was in reserve positions north of Saragossa.  The front was quiet; beyond occasion aviation raids, there was little activity.”²

Interesting sidelight here was that Leonard Lamb was said to be in charge of the Lincoln-Washington Battalion in the Huesca period.   This is from a tape made by Milton Wolff under questioning from Art Landis.³   Wolff recalls that Lamb shot himself in the leg in Huesca while cleaning his weapon and that Philip Detro took over as the Commander of the Lincoln Battalion.

Jim Bourne returns from the trip to Valencia and Merriman says he is a changed man.  Something significant happened in Valencia at this point and Bourne has become a good party man.  Perhaps he has become too good a party man.   He tells Merriman that decisions of the Party cannot be challenged.   This is likely regarding the decision to move the Dimitrovs out into the 45th Division and the decision to repatriate so many English comrades.  Merriman says that after he comes back Bourne and Copic become buddies.  That would have made Merriman very suspicious of him since there were rumors that Merriman was to be removed as Chief of Staff and Merriman may be suspicious that Bourne will replace him.   Merriman calls Bourne a political babe.

Supplies begin to come in.  A name we interpret as “Fields” brings up things from Valencia and the intendencia starts to work.  This could be either 59 year old Ralph Field or his son, John, at this point.   Since John Field was with the Mac-Paps, it may be that the senior Field was allowed to come up to be close to his son.

Merriman expects “Bert” {Williams} and Pete Hampkins to return with 600,000 pesetas for the payroll which is late.   In a few days, Merriman will write this name as “Buck” and it is possible that this is Canadian Communist Party leader Tim Buck.   Merriman says that Marion Merriman is sick in Albacete but he received goods from her.

Wally Sabatini

Wally Sabatini, Political Commissar of the 3rd Company of the Mac-Paps, ALBA PHOTO 11-0602, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman says that the staff holds a meeting and discusses getting the Brigade together to present a report from Bob Minor, but no details of that report are discussed in the diary.    Merriman says that Wally Sabatini is under discussion to be Mac-Pap Battalion secretary.

 

 

545/3/2/70  RGASPI

RGASPI File Fond 545 Opis 3 Delo 2 page 70. The highly marked up promotion list for the XVth Brigade. Image from the RGASPI Archives, Moscow

Merriman lets his hair down again to reveal how irritated he is with Copic about the way promotions are being handed out.  “Hans”, probably Merriman’s adjutant Hans Kalbschmidt, got a stripe added (i.e. moved up in rank and pay to Captain) on the Paylists, even though there are no orders from the Army Corps approving the promotions.  On the document on the right, Merriman himself is marked still as a captain on the list which has been highly scribbled on and this is probably the offending document at this point.   The scribbles in pencil are probably Copic’s vetoing of the typed promotion plan and the writing in pen is Arturo Denis’ hand.  Merriman goes nuts over this and calls them on the promotions.   One feels that Merriman is far more irate in his diary than he was in Copic’s quarters.  “I should have told him…..”

Deserter List

List of the 13 deserters who were returned to the XVth Brigade from Albacete’s Camp Lukacs after they were caught (RGASPI Fond 545 Opis 2 Delo 58 pg 561, RGASPI Archives, Moscow).

At the end of October 2nd’s diary entry we see that Merriman has another issue arising.  14 deserters are returned to the front and they need to deal with them.  Among them is Nelson Fishnelson,  William McCarthy, Otto Lemke, Benjamin Kasinap, William Cantor, Henry Plotnick, John Hunter, Murray Krangel, Sol Feldman, Richard Brown, Robert Isenberg, Henry Shapiro, Ben Sacher (Lasher)  and Gene Augustin.  Of these men, the disciplinary action of the Brigade was leveled at Shapiro, Isenberg and Fishnelson.  More on this on October 3.

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¹ Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid. ,pp 313-314.

²  Book of the XVth Brigade, ibid., pg 289.

³ Milton Wolff to Art Landis, ALBA AUDIO 66-14, Tamiment Library, NYU.

 

1 Octobre The 35th Division plans an attack for October 2 towards Zuera

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Oct 1, 1937

Two pages from Robert Merriman’s second diary covering October 1, 1937

Senes-Zuera

Google Maps topographic display of the area between Senes and Zuera covered by the Brigade on October 1

Bombed out road

International Brigades repairing a bombed out roadway

On October 1, the men move up from Senes to a point near Zuera where the road from Huesca to Zaragoza was cut by the Fascists.   Merriman says that this position is important to retake since they can dominate the Zaragoza railroad from this position and they can stop reinforcements coming up the highway from Zaragoza.   He mentions that they lost the heights above Zuera and that is on the north side of town so it is likely that of the two routes to get from Senes to Zuera, the Brigade may have just gotten to the top of the ridge overlooking Zuera on the north or approached the town from the south having gone through Alcubierre.   Merriman mentions that the road is cut south of them  (perhaps the photo on the right).   Merriman says that the ground was lost in a tank assault by the Fascists that even used some Republican tanks (along with Italian tanks) against them.

Organizationally, the new 5th Army Corps has been formed and General Walter is now in charge of a Corps and not just the 35th Division.  This means that General Pozas would have been moved out.  Merriman notes that Tedeusz (a.k.a. Thaddée and François) Oppman is now the Chief of Operations for the Army Corps.   Merriman gives the strategy of the operation being planned for October 2:  they are to be in reserve on the attack on Zuera and if necessary run back to Mediana and Fuentes if a counterattack ensues there.

Merriman says that Radomir Smrcka is performing well.  He reveals that Copic is ranting about everyone, including Fred Lutz and Ernesto Martinez of the Intendencia and Lou Secundy of the Autopark.  Copic is perpetually mad at Merriman and is bitching because it is now October 1 and he has missed another payday.  Merriman says he is bitching about 3 pesetas a day from Albacete, but Copic would have been getting 30 pesetas a day as a Lieutenant Colonel.  Perhaps he was out of Coñac.   Merriman is less than sympathetic and the hostility between these men continues to fester.

We take up October 2 in the next entry and get filled in on more of the Merriman-Copic battle.

30 Septiembre The XVth Brigade moves to the Huesca Front

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Sept 30

3 Pages of Robert Merriman’s second diary covering September 30, 1937

Merriman finished his thoughts on September 29 by saying that the Lincolns and the Mac-Paps were coming along nicely now but that the British still remained a problem.  Jim Bourne and Pete Hampkins were still in Valencia at the gathering there and Merriman was worried about when they would get back.  He had noticed that the Fascists had broken the hold of the Brigades on the road between Huesca and Zaragosa and that they would soon move up to counterattack and try to take back the road.  He gives us the route that they would take from Almochuel to Torralba de Aragón which was a distance of 135 kilometers (See the map below).

Sept 30 Move (planned)

The planned move of the XVth Brigade to Robres as mentioned by Merriman in his September 30, 1937, diary entry (Map created with Google Maps®)

The plan was to move in 32 trucks on this route which circled the Aragon front at the end of September.  Merriman says that the drivers took a day and a half to get to them and when they arrived,  the drivers were beat.  They wanted to start out but the trucks were out of gas and the ones that had mechanical problems had no mechanics to fix them.  “No nothing”.

On the 30th of September, they started out with Merriman in Dave Doran’s car.  Because the Fascists had counterattacked north of Zaragosa, they had to swing further east and the route is shown in the next Google Maps® image.

Actual route

The actual route followed by the XVth International Brigade on September 30.

Merriman meets with, we believe, Arturo Denis, the Chief of Staff of the 35th Division, who explained the transportation situation to him.  They were waiting on more trucks and Denis wondered where the trucks that Merriman had came from.  It should be noted that in the last two weeks in September, the Ministry of Defense was critically reviewing the number of cars in the field and reassigning vehicles to the officers who needed them.  When the Dimitrov Battalion was separated from the XVth, Copic demanded that they be stripped of their weapons and Merriman fought that as he did not want to leave them defenseless.  However, there is a command order of the 35th Division in late September which removed 14 vehicles from the Dimitrovs.  This is probably the source of Merriman’s trucks.  Denis told him to hold the trucks and don’t give them up because the XVth Brigade was going into reserve positions and might have to run back to Mediana (retracing the steps they just took) if the fighting there degraded.

Senes

Plaza Monegros, Senes de Alcubierre, Spain. It is likely that one of these homes on the main square housed Merriman. (Google Streetview)

Merriman places the men in Senes which is a few kilometers southwest of Robres and awaits orders.   He finds a headquarters on the second floor of a building.  There are not many homes in Senes and fewer with two floors.  It is likely that it was one of the ones on the right.   Copic is sick and is out of action.   The Brigade was bombed on the 30th but had support from a Czechoslovakian anti-aircraft battery (probably the Gottwald battery which had been based in Caspe).

Art Landis gives an overview of the next week:

On September 24, while Modesto fought before Fuentes and Sillero, the mixed Italian-Spanish Flechas (Arrows) Division, under the Italian colonel Isasi, attacked strongly in the direction of Zuera.  Isasi had the use of five squadrons of planes, many artillery batteries, and a complete company of tanks.  His objective was the Republican bridgehead across the Gallego River, which had severed the rail and road connections between Zaragoza and Huesca.  By September 29, since no attempt was made to re-enforce the exhausted men of Trueba’s 27th Division, most of Isasi’s objectives were realized.

…..  At the same time, a sweeping Republican victory was in the act of being won by a well-coordinated Catalan effort in the vicinity of the border city of Jaca.  …. But the Catalans not only held; they also began additional attacks to the south of Jaca and above Huesca.

It was at this time that the 15th Brigade was rushed to Grañen, in the area below Huesca.  It was supposed that it would be used either to implement and further the advance of the Catalans or to aid the troops of Trueba against the mixed Spanish-Italian division pushing from recaptured Zuera.¹

Irving Busch

Dr. Irving Busch, Volunteer for Liberty, Vol 1, No. 11, pg 5

Merriman finishes off the entry for September 30 with the note that the old woman whose house they were using in Senes complained that things were quiet there and now that the Brigade has arrived, they will be bombed and killed.   Merriman confirms that the 35th Division hospital is now in Grañén and that Doctor Irving Busch is in charge of that hospital.  Busch, a long timer now in Spain, was influential in the International Brigades and could get things done politically as well.

(More to follow in future posts).

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¹Landis, The Abraham-Lincoln Brigade, ibid. pp 312-3.

 

29 Septiembre Merriman begins his second diary

On the September 19 and 20 diary page, Merriman ran out of room in his first diary.  He sent the first diary off with Marion to protect it and he started a new diary.  The first date in the new diary is September 29th in Almochuel and Merriman has a lot to get off his chest.   Diary #2 was transcribed by Alan Warren and thanks go to him for the effort in doing so.

We play these 12 pages back as a group and will discuss them below.

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Sept 29, 1937

Robert Merriman’s diary for September 29, 1937, catching up since September 19.

Merriman starts his replay of the days since September 19 in rather routine order and most of it is self-explanatory.  But as he writes he gets more and more worked up about the events in Belchite and how he did not get the respect that he felt he deserved for that Battle.  He mentions that Bill Lawrence came to Almochuel to encourage more Party work with the Brigade.  Merriman says that he and Dave Doran were already started on that.  He mentions that Company secretaries are to be appointed and that a Brigade Secretary would also be appointed.   The latter role was assigned to Jim Bourne.

Merriman revisits the “English question” which revolved around repatriation of the longest serving comrades.  Vladimir Copic has a different recollection of previous decisions than does Merriman.  Merriman says that many good comrades are being removed for repatriation.  Steve Nelson was one of them.  On the way out, Nelson made a speech in Valencia where he took Hans Amlie to task for his behavior at Belchite and comments he made there.  Robbie Robinson will stay with the Brigade and Merriman says that Carl Bradley is to go.   Bradley returns to the US in November 1937.   Copic does not agree with the repatriation of Nelson but is obviously overruled by Valencia.

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

Marion Merriman’s short visit to the Brigade ends and she went back to Albacete (with Merriman’s first diary).  She had news that they were invited to go to Valencia but because of orders, they deferred the visit and sent Jim Bourne instead.   Bourne was to get the pay money for the end of September but by the 29th, he had not returned with the money or Pete Hampkins or the car.  Merriman’s irritation shows through.  Finally, Moises Sapir shows up with 500,000 pesetas to pay the Brigade.  This is clearly the point where the smiling Merriman is seen with Sapir in Almochuel.

Kaltschmidt

Hans Kaltschmidt, Adjutant to the Chief of Brigade (Merriman), September 1937, Almochuel. ALBA PHOTO 11-0643, Tamiment Library, NYU

Sapir tells Merriman “the dope about Schmidt in Madrid”.  We have not tracked down this story at this point.  Interestingly, there is a photo of Hans Kaltschmidt who is listed as being the Adjutant to the Chief of the Brigade (that would be Merriman).  One wonders if Merriman called him Schmidt or if that is the name he went under.  There also will be an upcoming discussion on “Hans” who promotes himself without permission.

Will Paynter, Bob Kerr, and Malcolm Dunbar wrecked their car in a place that looks like Cambronette (although this is not a Spanish location.  It may be the model of a type of car.  A Cambronetta was a type of carriage in the 1800’s.  Camionette is the name used for Citroen and other French small vans).   Paynter discusses the Aitken/Cunningham affair where they were removed and sent back to England.  Paynter seems to now criticize Cunningham, but perhaps because he is in Merriman and Copic’s camp at this point.   Paynter felt that George Aitken did the best he could.  Wally Tapsell, however, has burned his bridges with criticism of the Soviet Union.    Paynter brings in 42 new British comrades and takes out 20.   Vladimir Copic apparently makes no objection now and Merriman and Doran feel that this is the solution that they had originally suggested…. just let them go.   Merriman suggests that this rotation out of troops has greatly helped morale.

Merriman has been slaving over the paylists and the promotion lists and Copic keeps bouncing the suggestions back.  Apparently after six days, Copic agreed with Merriman and Doran’s original suggestions.  Merriman’s blood begins to start boiling at this point and he will work himself up over the next few pages.   He mentions that the policy that 2% of the Battalion should be on leave at any one time has been put into effect and that Jose Amano (or so the name looks) has been made Copic’s Adjutant.  Merriman says that Amano’s prestige has been lifted and this should have been done for more Spanish colleagues.  Merriman says that in the paper shuffling, many opportunities to send the Brigaders on leave were lost.

One wonders about Copic’s leadership style throughout these diaries.  One pictures a manipulative leader who will play groups of his staff off against one another.  He doesn’t seem to concentrate on the day-to-day issues but rather creates make-work while he himself entertains guests and travels about.   During this period, Copic’s wife was seen with him in photos of Codo and Belchite and Copic spent considerable time in his Benicassim villa.   Merriman says that one of these days he will blow his top and tell Copic and Walter what he thinks.  But he doesn’t.  Up until his death in April, 1938, Merriman continued to serve these men.   He mentions again that Walter promised promotions during the fight if Merriman could get people moving, which he did.   The promises of new ratings are not forthcoming.

Galliani

Brigade Officers: Ambite June 1937: L-R Elias Begelman, Dave Doran, Vladimir Copic, “Max” (Russian, probably Maximoff who was in Ambite), Humberto Galliani, Radomir Smrcka, Malcolm Dunbar, ALBA PHOTO 177-177028, Tamiment Library, NYU

Dart, as a special operations officer, Malcolm Dunbar and Radomir Smrcka are mentioned as coming to the staff of the Brigade.  These men will be with the Brigade leadership until the end of the war.  Two of the three are seen on the right of the photo on the left.  This photo was believed to have been taken in Ambite.

Smrcka and Chapayev

“Four soldiers in combat gear” – (l-r) Unk, Radomir Smrcka, Chapayev and unknown. ALBA PHOTO 177-178022, Tamiment Library, NYU

In a small section of the diary, we realize that the war continues on the Aragon front.  The 11th and 32nd Brigades move up to the second lines, probably in the area of Mediana.  Copic is off showing a Jugoslav delegation the sites and the XVth Brigade is caught with the order that the 11th Dimitrov Battalion is now to move over to the 45th Brigade.   Copic has fought this and he has even written letters to the party central committee to protest, but while he is away, they are moved.   Copic left orders that they have to leave their weapons with the XVth.   Merriman implies here that they cannot be just left defenseless and the weapons will go with them, on the order of the Albacete Base who bawl out Copic.   Merriman says that the men of the 11th don’t want to leave the XVth, except for Chapayev (who Copic sent off to Valencia to get out of the decision-making process for the Dimitrovs).   Given Merriman’s displeasure with Copic, it would be very interesting to find Chapayev’s views on this move and his relationship with Copic.   Copic replaces Chapayev with a Schuster and what looks like Kagan as political commissar.  Paul Schuster was listed as an Australian comrade by Martin Sugarman, but this is unlikely.  He perhaps is an Austrian comrade which would make more sense for him being in the Thaelmann Battalion as listed by Sugarman.¹

Orders come down for promotions of the heroes of Quinto and Belchite and Carl Bradley and Phil Detro  make Captain, Canadian Bill Skinner makes Lieutenant, John Tsanakas makes Lieutenant.   Steve Nelson is singled out for great valor and make Lieutenant Colonel.  This would make Nelson equal in rank to Copic and jump him over Merriman who is a  Major. Nelson’s photo on the ALBA page, linked above,  shows him with Lieutenant Colonel stripes.  Three more brigadistas make Captain, an Andre Kobel, J. C. Wattis, and David Kamy.

The next three pages of the diary are a fascinating glimpse into Merriman’s real feelings about Copic.  They can easily be read without comment or interpretation.

Finally, Merriman says that a “Burt” (likely to be Bert Williams) and what looks like “Vorhees” came to talk with Merriman and Doran about what happened in Valencia.   Merriman seems like the last two work well together.

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¹  Martin Sugarman, Against Fascism – Jews who served in The International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, ibid., page 17.

7 Octobre Preparing to move back to Quinto

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7 October

Three pages from Merriman’s second diary from approximately the 7th of October, 1937

Merriman loses count of his days and enters “6th” for the second time.  We will assume it is the seventh or eighth but must have been before the 9th as he says that they will be moving out on a following day.  The XVth Brigade moved to Quinto on the 10th of October.

Merriman begins setting up positions and meets with his Battalion commanders to lay out the lines.   Assuming that he has gone back to Senes on the 7th as he said on a prior page, it is likely that these positions are in the hills to the west of Senes and towards Zuera.   Ironically, this on the Sierra du Alcubierre where George Orwell was first posted in the Fall on 1936 and were lines held by the POUM and Anarchist Divisions.   Merriman does mention seeing FAI symbols written on the walls of his HQ in Senes.   If one looks carefully at the photograph of the trial held in Senes on previous days, one can see slogans painted on the walls of that room and painted over later, presumably by the Republicans.

Merriman says that the HQ was bombed during the meeting and Copic cut it short because he was afraid of the planes.   Merriman and Dart get horses and ride out to look at “Santa Elena”.  We are not sure of this location but are trying to pin it down.  It is high ground and as the sun goes down, Merriman and Dart get lost and have to lead their horses out on foot as they make their way down the hills in the dark.

When they get back they find that orders have come for the Brigade to move out to Quinto, in preparation for the offensive which will come in a few days at Fuentes del Ebro.   All the planning of positions in the Huesca Front come to naught.  Merriman says “Rest of Brigade to remain” so only part of the Brigade is to move although the Americans, British and Canadians all were on the front lines of Fuentes del Ebro.

Dallet

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

They don’t move (and this could be as late as October 9) because the trucks don’t come.  Overnight, Merriman has a discussion with Bob Thompson, Dave Doran and Joe Dallet about Joe Dallet and the dislike of the men for his leadership.  Dallet will become a controversial figure about this time because of the continued questions on his leadership style.   Born to a middle class family (his father owned a lumber mill in New England) and raised in a non-proletarian setting, Dallet developed a working class manner in his union organizing in Chicago.   Many, including Merriman, found his style forced.  Steve Nelson recalled that when Dallet was in jail in Perpignan in Spain waiting to get over the Pyranees, he charmed his captors by playing classical piano (Chopin) extremely well.

Copic must have left the meeting when the planes came over but Merriman also must have continued the meeting.  Copic was pissed off.   He gave trivial reasons for being mad.  Bourne is solicitous to Copic which again irritates Merriman.

Trucks show up on the following morning (9th or 10th;  Landis places it as the 10th¹).  Copic is not woken and starts the day irritated.  His adjutant, Hans, takes the brunt of that irritation, apparently.

Bombing of Granen

Article in La Vanguardia, Barcelona, on October 12 describing the bombing of Grañen.

The town of Grañen was bombed with a railroad car destroyed, several dead and injured.  The October 11th issue of LaVanguardia in Barcelona makes the damage more deliberate:   the hospital was destroyed.  The planes were empty when they flew back over the XVth Brigade.   Merriman admires their accuracy.

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¹ Landis, Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid. pg 314.