21-22 Enero Waiting to be in the Brigades

21-22 January
Robert Merriman’s diary for the 21st and 22nd of January 1937

Merriman spent several days in Albacete trying to get a decision if he was in the Brigades and to which unit he would be assigned.  Not all of the Brigades were at the Brigade headquarters in Albacete.  A few minutes of geography might help understand some of the names in the diary.  First, Albacete (A) is situated between Valencia and Madrid.

Map of Levante
Map of Spain in the Levante Region. Madrid is shown circled in the upper left and Valencia is on the right. Two other locations are show at the ends of the route. At the north is Albares where the Lincolns will end up near the end of the diary and at the south is Albacete. Also circled is Murcia which was the location of a major hospital. Recall the fighting in January was around Madrid. Credit: maps.google.com

For reference, the distance between Albacete and Albares is 220 km.  At  a finer scale, the training of the International Brigades was done around Albacete.

The region around Albacete, Spain. The tag “A” is Villaneuva de la Jara where the Lincolns will initially train (and where the French had trained), Tarazona de la Mancha is where the Lincoln and Washington Battalions will later train, Madrigueras was the home of the British Battalion, and Albacete was the Base of the International Brigades.  La Roda (also circled) was a center for training of other battalions and a gasoline and train depot which would be used to go to the front.  Credit: maps.google.com

Merriman is in Albacete on the 21-22nd of January but he says Alex Donaldson, who we met on the previous page, was off to Villanueva de {la} Jara which is shown on the smaller scale map to be about 30km north of Albacete and this was to become the initial training base of the Lincoln Brigade.  We point out other local towns: Tarazona de la Mancha (where the IB’s trained later), Madrigueras (where the British Battalion was based) and La Roda which was a stop on the way to Madrid.  Gas was often picked up at La Roda since it served all of the training bases on the way to the Front.

Merriman mentions American Phil Bard in this diary segment.  The reader will note that links are being made to biographies which are on the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade – Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (valb-alba.org) website.  Chris Brooks, who is helping this project with identifications, has a parallel project to upgrade the biographies of the Americans who went to Spain.  We hope to have photographs of all the Lincolns attached to those biographies this year.  We do not have a photograph of Phil Bard at this point.

On the 21st, Merriman says that he spoke with Vidal and received his instructions.  He obviously was being appointed as an officer since he was looking for a uniform and jacket.  We will see that Bob Merriman felt that officers needed to look like officers.  This ran at cross-currents to the “rank and file” attitudes of many of the volunteers who were in the proletariat and not in “management”.  This conflict is a thread that will run through the diary and pop up frequently.

On the 22nd, Merriman says he spoke with Steve and the name is spelled Raddick. There was no Steve Roddick or Radduch or Radduck in Spain at this point but shortly we will come across Steve Daduk who became the company commander of Lincoln Company #2¹.  It is believed that he is talking to Daduk.  Rickard Jorgensen sent the quote from Victor (Hoar) Howard’s excellent book on the Mackenzie-Papineau (Canadian) Battalion:

“Merriman drew up a table of organization which called for two infantry companies and one machine-gun company.  Commanding these were John Scott, an Englishman; Stephen Daduk, and American veteran of the air battles over Madrid the previous fall; and Douglas Seacord who was said to have been a civilian lecturer at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.”²

Marion Merriman Wachtel repeats the bawling out by Marty in her memoir of Merriman.  She said “Bob thought of Marty as a pompous little man, a martinet of the Communist party.  But Bob also knew Marty was dedicated in the fight against fascism…”¹  Marty repeatedly shows up in studies of the war as an increasingly unstable master of the Brigades.  Attribution of executions ordered by Marty in 1938 are still debated. Incontestable, however, are his writings in the Comintern archives about certain Lincolns that are unsympathetic at best and highly critical and derogatory at worse.  Many of the requests for repatriation of Brigaders back to the US went across Marty’s desk and denials were routine.

Merriman again mentions Stember and James Harris, the Brigade Commander.  We spoke of Stember on prior days and Harris will be the subject of discussion later.


¹ Merriman Wachtel and Lerude, ibid, p. 89.

² Victor Hoar ( Victor Howard in later editions) with Mac Reynolds, The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion: Canadian Participation in the Spanish Civil War, Copp Clark Publishing, 1969.

19-20 Enero Settling in at Albacete

January 19-20
Robert Merriman’s diary from January 19 and 20, 1937
Klaus Becker and Henry Winkler
Becker (l) and Henry Winkler(r), summer 1937 (Photograph 177_175028 of the ALBA 177 Photo collection, NYU Tamiment Collection Digital Library, dlib.nyu.edu/alba-moscow/photos/177_175028
Photograph from Croatian text
Photograph from Croatian text

Bob Merriman clearly was accepted into the Brigades between the last diary post and these two days.  He mentions meeting Peter Kerrigan who was Commissar of the British Battalion at this point.  He also mentions meeting “Winkler” who is a difficult person to track down.  It is believed that this was Peter Winkler who was the personnel officer for the Brigades.  Some photos exist of him and the one on the left from the Tamiment shows him on the right of the photo.   However, this person is also identified as Vital Gajman (Vidal) in another photo in a Jugoslavian text “Španija”.¹  We are currently of the opinion that the Jugoslavian text is correct and Vidal is the man with the glasses.  If so, the man in the beret on the left could be Peter Winkler.

Kitty Bowler has been mentioned on previous days as has Greenspan.  This passage works against the identification being Celia Greenspan since Merriman says that he found a room for Greenspan, a “he”.  Greenspan is believed to be Marion Greenspan (aka George Marion, a reporter).  George Marion was married to Celia Greenspan and used her last name in Spain.

Photography of Alex Donaldson from the RGASPI archives. Courtesy: Kev Buyers

Donaldson is also mentioned as an initial contact for Bob Merriman. I would like to thank researchers Kevin Buyers of Scotland and Barry McLoughlin for information on him.  From Barry:

Alec Donaldson, Scotland, arrived in Spain 25.12.1936, sent to Cadres Office by Kerrigan. His request to go to the front turned down by Will Paynter. Donaldson then worked in the Brigades Commissariat in Madrid. Said later to have been demoralized, stationed in Barcelona from April 1938. (RGASPI 545/6/125/61)

The last name on the list is spelled Stembel  but Merriman is clearly referring here to Samuel Stember, an American who Marion Merriman Wachtel referred to as “a somewhat minor functionary who was supposed to be the political leader of the American volunteers”².  Stember was said “to lack the charisma to rally the men”¹.  While that criticism might seem damning, other studies of the Lincolns are no less harsh.  Carroll³ calls Stember “a weak man” incapable of challenging Andre Marty and the other French who were leading the training base.  Landis says that Merriman and Stember came up to Albacete together, Merriman as Adjutant to James Harris, Commander of the Lincolns (we will hear much of him in weeks to come) and Stember as Commissar.  Landis characterizes him as “a very uninspiring personality”, quoting “Consensus”.4  And Cecil Eby, who many Lincolns came to distrust for his strong anti-Communist leanings in his writing, was characteristically nasty about Stember, calling him “a loser”, a “smaller-than-life figure” and “The Jello”.5

It may not be surprising that immediately after arrival at Albacete and Tarrazona for training, Bob Merriman was thrust into the leadership of the American contingent.  His ROTC training made him one of the few early arrivals who had any kind of military experience.


¹ Öedo Kapor, Španija 1936-1939, Zbornik sećanja jugoslovenskih dobrovoljaca u s̆panskom ratu, Ratna prol̆ost nas̆ih naroda, knj. 130-134, Inicijativni odbor-Udruz̆enje s̆panskih boraca; Vojnoizdavac̆ki zavod, Beograd, 1971.

² Marion Merriman Wachtel and Warren Lerude, American Commander in Spain, ibid, p. 86.

³Peter Carroll, ibid, p 97.

4 Art Landis, ibid, p. 33.

5 Cecil Eby, ibid, p. 39.




17-18 Enero Arrival at Albacete

January 17-18, 1937
Robert Merriman’s diary from January 17 and 18, 1937

Edward Arthur Burroughs, the Bishop of Ripon in England, quoted a British seaman on war in Fight for the Future (1916):

“Months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror” : such is a description of life in the Navy which a naval lieutenant quotes as exactly fitting the facts.

Merriman’s diary is not difficult at all to understand for these two days in January but his diary is rarely filled by boredom.  Even when not in battle, Merriman kept extremely busy and we will have few breaks over the year with as little to explain as in these two days.

At the time of his arrival in Albacete, the base of the International Brigades, Merriman was not officially in the International Brigades and was trying to sign up.   Bob Merriman will spend a considerable amount of his next year in this area, leading the training base.  The “Cadres” office, mentioned in the Diary, was the Communist Party office in Albacete and the point of contact for those who were either sent by the Communist Party or who had a party card.  At this time, the Brigade Training was led by André Marty, Commander of the Base at Albacete,  and  Lucien Vidal of France¹, who was later to lead at Albacete.

Molly Murphy
Mrs. J. T. (Molly) Murphy

Mrs. J.T. Murphy was named Molly and there is a short biography here.  She served as a nurse in Spain.

We have not figured out who “e. R” is (although it is nearly certain that it is not Elizabeth Regina).

A tremendous resource for untangling these diaries should be mentioned here.  Marion Merriman Wachtel and Warren Lerude wrote a memoir about Robert Merriman in 1985, American Commander in Spain¹.  Mrs. Wachtel’s reminiscences of the time are touching and give much greater insight into Merriman’s state of mind in going to Spain than does the diary.   Marion did not accompany Bob on his entry to Spain and they had had quite a row over his leaving to volunteer to fight in the Spanish Civil War.  Marion subsequently was ordered to leave Russia after Bob’s departure.  And we can see that Merriman let his emotion of the moment sneak into the diary with the line interposed between the paragraphs “Lonesome – fear!!”   His wife’s memoir fills in a lot of the true emotion he felt about himself and his comrades at the time.  It should be read along with this diary.

¹ Marion Merriman Wachtel and Warren Lerude, American Commander in Spain, University of Nevada Press, Reno, 1986.

15-16 Enero – In Valencia

January 15 1937
Robert Merriman’s diary from January 15, 1937

To travel from your posting to another required a “salvo conducto” or a safe-conduct pass.  Frequent references will be made to these important passes throughout the diary and many IB soldiers generated a lot of trouble for themselves when they did not have one.  Desertion could be the charge and the penalties severe.

Merriman met several people on these two days in Valencia.  “Met M. Greenspan at M.” could be “Marion Greenspan at Milly’s”.   We believe that M. Greenspan is George Marion (a.k.a. Marion Greenspan husband of Celia Greenspan).  Celia Greenspan was the subject, along with Martha Gellhorn, of the documentary, “Into the Fire: American Women in the Spanish Civil War”.

Celia Greenspan clip from promotional materials on “Into the Fire” (Credit: Intothefirefilm.com)

The New York University’s Tamiment Library has excellent holdings on the Spanish Civil War from the Abraham Lincoln Brigades Archives.  We are pleased that Tamiment is supporting us in this discussion of Merriman’s Diary and we will shortly be providing a link on the left sidebar for donations to the library to keep the holdings active and available.  Tamiment’s finding aid on the George Marion papers discusses Celia Greenspan and her role as a nurse with Norman Bethune and later in Murcia hospital. 

Adrienne Clarkson, the previous Governor General of Canada, mentions Celia Seborer Greenspan in her book “Norman Bethune”.¹

Merriman says he met L.O. who was the Liston Oak with whom he shared a room with the previous night.  He also says he met with writers for Der Tag.

Cober is an homophone of Cockburn (pronounced Coburn), who was a writer for the Daily Worker (DW) in London (thanks to Alan Warren for this brilliant association of names).  Claud Cockburn (aka Frank Pitcairn) reported throughout the war and there is a Gerda Taro photograph of him and Fred Copeman (we will meet him later) at Brunete.

Fred Pitcairn (left, aka Claud Cockburn) of the Daily Worker and Fred Copeman (photo by Gerda Taro with attribution in the image)

Griffiths who wrote for the Associated Press is still a bit of a mystery.   Later in the year, Merriman will speak of Eric “Pinky” Griffiths, a New Zealander who worked as a pilot.

Alan Warren was able to pin down the other two other names which were mentioned. Rubio Hildalgo (Luis Rubio Hildalgo) was Chief of the Foreign Press and Mikael Kolstov (Koltsov) was an advisor to Stalin.

At the end of the 16th, Merriman has caught a train for Albacete.  Albacete was the training base of the International Brigades.  The diary flows over onto the next page and we will pick it up in two days.


¹ Adrienne Clarkson, Norman Bethune, Penguin Canada, 2009.

13-14 Enero Barcelona to Valencia

January 13-14, 1937
Robert Merriman’s diary from January 13 and 14, 1937

As we can see from the diary, Merriman remained in Barcelona until his train left for Valencia on the afternoon of the 13th.  Yellow notations in the text indicate words that still need research (confusion on the spelling of names and places).   The one marked Secord is believed to be his spelling of the name of American Volunteer Douglas Seacord but it would need confirmation that Seacord was in Barcelona at that time.

As a bit of background for those who don’t know the timeline of the war, between 13 and 16 July 1936, a number of Generals of the Spanish Army, including General Emilio Mola Vidal and Francisco Franco organized the Spanish Foreign Legion in Morocco to lead an “invasion” of Spain.  We cannot reproduce that history here but there are many excellent books on this uprising against the elected Republican Government of Spain.  We can recommend Hugh Thomas¹ , Anthony Beevor², and Paul Preston³ as three additional sources of the background and history of the war (we will be building up a reading list as we go along).  Preston’s book is particularly good to understand the major leaders of the Second Republic as well as the “forces of the invasion” as the Spanish called the Fascists. By late fall, International units from all over Europe had been mobilized to help the endangered Republic.  By November 1936, Franco had built two assaults on Madrid, one from the south and the other from the north by way of the Asturian coast.  The division of Spain is seen in a map from Thomas’ book.

Map 7 from Thomas1, showing the division of Spain at the uprising. Burgos became Franco’s capital during the war.

Madrid held in November 1936 with the mobilization of the Madrileños, fortifications on the west of Madrid and a major battle at University city in the northern suburbs.  Famous in IB history was the arrival of the German Thaelman Battalion to help.  The first group of 96 Americans to travel to Spain left New York the day after Christmas in 1936.  Douglas Seacord was one of that group.   “C.H.” and “Liston Oak” were baffling.  Alan Warren explained Liston Oak in a comment attached to this post.

Merriman talks of the bombing of a hospital in Barcelona in January with 10 dead.  We have yet to find the details of that event but there is an article by Laia Balcells in Reis from October-December 2011 (reference included in pdf) which describes the air war on Catalonia by the Franquistas.  La Vanguardia now allows access to their archive and we could find no record of a bombing of a ship in the harbor killing 10 people in that week’s papers.  There was a torpedo attack on the Ciudad de Barcelona reported on January 10 (it survived this attack) and the bombing of the English Embassy on January 15.

Jan 10 Bombing
Torpedo attack on two Spanish vessels including the Ciudad de Barcelona, which survived the attack.
British Embassy Bombing
Bombing of the British Embassy January 15, 1937 (La Vanguardia.com)



Merriman also speaks of meeting Tom Wintringham, a commander of the British Battalion.  Wintringham is shown below and his book4 describes his exploits in Spain.   We will come across him several times in the next six months.

Tom Winteringham (credit: www.marxists.org)

And thanks to Chris Brooks’ comment where he points out that Kitty B.  is Kitty Bowler and Chris provided a link to her story with Wintringham.

¹ Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, Harper, New York, 1961

² Anthony Beevor, The Battle for Spain, Orbis Publishing, London, 2006

³ Paul Preston,  ¡Comrades! Portraits from the Spanish Civil War. London, UK: HarperCollins, 1999.

Tom Wintringham, English Captain, Faber, 1939

Robert Merriman's Diary from 1937 and a day-by-day transcription. Spend a year as Robert Merriman did.