This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 49/50: 19 June – 3 July 1937

June 21

Andreu Nin, the leader of the POUM is assassinated. After being held for four days in a secret Communist prison in Alcála de Henares and tortured, Soviet KNVD members kill Nin. Nin never gave the Soviets the information they interrogated him and his fellow members for, or never had the information.  The exact details of Nin’s killing will never be fully established. Nin had been the leader of the POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) for two years, and stood against fascism and Stalinism, and in favour of workers and peasants’ rights. Nin’s death by Soviet agents marked the demise of both the POUM and its revolutionary movement. Hundreds more are killed or imprisoned after Nin’s death. While Communists and anti-Stalinists are technically both anti-fascist and against Franco’s Nationalists, the constant fighting between leftist factions is a huge contributor to the Republicans being by Franco’s men.

June 24

Bilbao is now fully in the hands of the Nationalists and hundreds of thousands have fled either over the border into France or west towards Santander and the Galician coast. The total toll of the Bilbao battle is not established, but the defeated Republican/Basque fighters had started with 50,000 troops, the winning  Nationalists with 75,000 (including 15,000 Italians, which only around 105 killed). Nationalists give out food to some of the remaining women in the Basque region, those who were unable to flee the city. The strategic production factories of the Basque country are now in Nationalist hands.

June 27

The high point of Soviet intervention in the SCW is coming to a close. The Soviet Union has been sending regular shipments of military equipment to Spain to help the Republicans, in return for Spain sending its gold to the Soviets, who get the better end of the deal, grossly overcharging the Spanish government. At this stage, there are over 1000 Soviet tank crews on the ground in Spain and the bulk of trained pilots fighting for the Republicans are Soviet. The communist faction of the Republican clause is now strongest than ever and the diplomatic relations between the Spanish and Soviets remains strong in an effort to defeat fascism in Spain. But now shipments will become sparse and Soviet men will be withdrawn from Spain as the Nationalists continue to win and the Republicans suffer massive casualties and lose ground.

June 30

The front line around the Aragon region is a huge 450 kilometres stretch from the Pyrenees down to the city of Teruel. The Republicans have far more troops in the region and the Nationalists have not made the area a priority. The Republicans have already attacked Huesca and failed, and are yet to attack Teruel. As a large Brunete battle is being mounted west of Madrid, the Republicans decide to start planning an offensive of the historical village of Albarracín, 35 kilometres west of Teruel. That way, the Nationalists will be forced to keep troops in the Aragon region instead of attacking Brunete. The front lines on the east side of Madrid around Jarama and Guadalajara still have not moved since their offensives early in the year. The Albarracín offensive is prepared for early July.

XV International Brigades outside Brunete

July 2

The preparation for the battle of Brunete is almost complete. Brunete is 30 kilometres west of Madrid, and is chosen as it is on the Extremadura Road. The Nationalists hold the region of Extremadura and use the roads to supply troops circling Madrid. By cutting off supplies, the Republicans aim to save the city of Madrid from the Nationalists. Once Brunete is taken, then the Republicans plan to march 100 kilometres southwest to Talavera de la Reina, which has been held by the Nationalists for the whole war, nearing on one year. This will cut off Nationalist troops from the southern strongholds. Republican troops at Carabanchel, the southern suburbs of Madrid, will be launched at the same time to tie up Madrid-based Nationalists.

The Communists within the Spanish government have been pressing to take Brunete for months, and are pulling Soviet aid back at the same time, as Republican ports have been taken by Nationalists. Spanish Prime Minister Juan Negrín wants France to open its borders to allow arms shipments through, but first they must prove to the French they are capable of military action. The offensive has been well planned and with large-scale reorganisation of the Republican men and equipment. Experienced commanders are put in place and will operate a surprise attack, despite being planned for three months. Upwards of 85,000 men are placed ready to take the hilly terrain with new Soviet tanks, attacking the Nationalists who have 20,000 fewer troops in the region. The attack is planned for July 6.

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

 

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 44/45/46: 15 May – 5 June 1937

Sorry the delays over the Shakespeare season. Weekly posts will now return.
May 15

Prime Minister Largo Caballero resigns from his post, now having no alliance with either Anarchists, Socialists or Communists. A member of the centre-left PSOE, Juan Negrín, is appointment Prime Minister, and selects a group of ministers from all groups, Republicans, Communists, Socialists and Basque men to form the government. The CNT however are now cut out entirely from Spain’s government, despite having huge support around the country. The Anarchists are quickly losing strength and the POUM is about to be outlawed completely in Barcelona and around Spain.

May 20

The Nationalist offensive on the Basque Country is destroying the Republicans, who come up with a plan to divert Nationalist troops away from the north. Republican troops in Aragon start plans to take Huesca, and troops in Madrid decide to launch an offensive on Segovia, both to take place by the beginning of June. Bilbao in the north has not yet been taken by Nationalists, but the Republicans/Basque fighters have no reinforcements nor supplies getting into port, and need the Nationalists distracted.

May 27

The La Batalla newspaper, run by the Soviet anti-Stalin POUM ( Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) is banned in Spain by the new centre-left Negrín parliament. Other communist factions are destroying the POUM.

May 28

The temporary capital city of Valencia is bombed from the air by Nationalist planes, killing 200 people and destroying 50 buildings while attempting to bomb ships in Valencia’s large port. The bombing is done while the city is sleeping, and the Red Cross hospital is targeted during the attack.

NB: A separate post on the attack of Valencia will also be posted.

May 29

Madrid is still surrounded by Nationalist troops since the siege on the city in November 1936. Daily air raids continue to hammer the innocents civilians of the city, and Republican troops devise a plan to break out of the city and push back Nationalist front lines. Republican men, led by a Polish communist leader, use armoured vehicles to try to push back the Nationalists, but the plan is quickly beaten by strong Nationalist troops. The city has been surrounded by large battles in Jarama and Guadalajara, and now the Republicans begin plans to take Brunete, a town 25 kilometres west of the city, and Segovia 90 kilometres north, to push back front lines and relieve Madrid. In the meanwhile, the daily air raids continue from German Condor Legion planes, and Spanish men are taken to Russia to be trained in Russian planes to aid the Republicans against this onslaught.

Two Soviet bombers, on behalf of the Republican forces, bomb air bases at Ibiza, off the coast of Nationalist-held Mallorca. The planes, sent from Cartagena, bomb the German cruiser Deutschland, mistaking it for the Nationalist cruiser Canarias. The Deutschland was off the coast of Ibiza as part of the Non-Intervention Committee’s patrol. Both pilots misidentify the ship and drop bombs, killing 31 and wounding another 74.

May 31

Due to the bombing of the Deutschland, both Germany and Italy decide to leave the Non-Intervention Committee. (Pointless as both had defied the Committee from the very beginning and had been killing Spaniards throughout the entire war.) German forces fight back by attacking the port city of Almería, relatively safe during the war until now. The cruiser Admiral Scheer fires off 200 rounds, killing 19 and wounding another 55. Around 150 buildings are destroyed. All the German and Italian ships on the Mediterranean are all backing the Nationalists, not neutral at all.

Spanish prime Minister Juan Negrin defies calls to attack Germany for these killings, as he does not want open war with Germany. The League of Nations calls the attack on Almería justified for the accidental attack on the Deutschland, reminding Spain that Europe and the world do not care about their pain.

The Republican army have three divisions in the Sierra de Guadarrama, the mountains on the north side of Madrid. The 34th, 35th and 69th divisions are brought together under Colonel Domingo Moriones, and given artillery and T-26 tanks. The Guadarrama is held by Nationalist troops and the Republicans attack, and break through the front line at San Ildefonso, around 80 kilometres north of Madrid. the 69th division also take nearby Cruz de la Gallega. The XIV International Brigade head towards La Granja, which brings them close to the strategic Segovia Road and advance towards Cabeza Grande, but only through suffering serious casualties.

June 1

The Republican forces reach La Granja north of Madrid on their way to Segovia, but  the Nationalists begin to fight back with air raids on advancing Republicans on the ground. The Republicans lose the town of Cabeza Grande and casualties begin to mount.

June 3

High ranking Nationalist General Emilio Mola y Vida is killed when his Airspeed Envoy twin-engined aircraft crashes in bad weather on route to Vitoria. Mola is head of the northern Nationalist army, which has been successfully attacking the Basque Country, while Franco is able to focus on Madrid and the south. The war began with Franco, Mola and Sanjurjo all in equal power, but Sanjurjo died in a light plane crash in July 1936. Now with Mola also dead in a light plane crash, Franco is able to assume total control and no one is capable of standing up to him. Rumours that Franco had the men killed swirled, but nothing to suggest more than accidents almost a year apart was ever found. In 1948, Mola will would posthumously named a Grandee of Spain and made a Duke, the title given to his son.

Fidel Dávila is named head of the Nationalist troops in the north to continue the assault on Bilbao.

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 40 and 41: 17 – 30 April 1937

April 19

Franco creates the Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional-Sindicalista (FET y de las JONS). This brings together the horrid Falange fascists and the hard-right Catholic Carlists into one big hate group. Franco appoints himself as leader, making him both a political and military leader, paving the way for dictatorship. The Falange has many of leaders killed during the war, more than any other group, and needs leadership. These groups together can go on to control all other parties and unions. Franco, with no real alliance to any group, told all what they wanted to hear, bending to suit to take over all parties he worked with, in order to slowly assume total control. This party can dominate enough to make Spain pro-Catholic, pro-monarchy, pro-fascism, pro-conservatism, pro-ultranationalism by combining their people. It allows the small fascist Falange group to swell to a peak of 900,000 (when combined together) and the women’s unit (needed because these groups were anti-women), Sección Femenina, grows to 500,000 during the war.

April 20

The Nationalist ‘government’ in Burgos has been battling the Basque ports now for two weeks. They launch a huge bombardment of Basque port towns to stop all flow of cargo entering to help the Republican cause, as British ships have defied blockades. The Nationalist 1st Navarrese bridge battle Basque troops at Elgeta, just 20 kilometres east of the newly destroyed town of Durango (see week 37).

Basque fighters must retreat to the Iron Ring, a series of tunnels built around Bilbao, which are simple and under-defended, but have no other option, as the German Condor Legion are bombing towns and forest areas through the region.

pro-Republic Basque fighters in Elgeta, Gipuzkoa, Basque Country

April 23

The Junta de defensa, Madrid defense council, is dissolved, in an effort to reshape the protection of the city. They have been active since the outbreak of war, but now have to change tactics. The Ministry of War, who control the command of the Republican army takes over the defense of Madrid, as fighting in the city has stabilised and the frontlines are outside Madrid itself.

April 26

The German Condor Legion launch their major terrorist offensive on the small Basque town of Guernica. After experimenting on several towns in previous weeks, the Condor Legion strike the unarmed Basques with airstrikes on civilians. The town of Guernica is bombed for three hours, and no military targets are identified; the bombing is purely to kill innocents. The Basque army in the area are forced to instantly retreat and bombed upon fleeing. They attack on a Monday, market day in Guernica, to maximise the civilian death toll. Military factories are spared, along with Gernikako Arbola, the Guernica Tree, symbolising freedom outside the old government building and the Casa de Juntas, the new location (and tree). These are spared as the Nationalist want the locations for themselves once they invade. The bombing shocks the world, and Nationalists have to hide and lie about what really happened at Guernica.

A separate post about Guernica will be posted.

April 30

Nationalist-supporting Italian troops take the port town of Bermeo, but the España, a 132 metre Nationalist battleship hits one of its own mines and sinks off the coast of Santander 150 kilometres away, and never reaches the port. The España was aiding fellow destroyer Velasco in stopping a British ship of getting into port when it hit its own mine. Five seaman die as Republican planes bomb the sinking ship, but all other men were rescued by the Velasco.

As Nationalist troops close in on Bilbao, the Basque government makes a plea, asking that 20,000 children be shipped out of Spain in temporary exile. The first ship leaves a month later, 4,000 Basque refugee children to Britain, while others are sent to France, Belgium, the Soviet Union and Mexico. Many never return home.

Basque children in the French Pyrenees. Children in western countries have to suffer the Second World War during their return home. Children in Communist countries could not return for nearly 20 years

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 38 and 39: 3 – 17 April 1937

April 3

The CNT (Anarchist workers’ unions) and the PCE (Spanish Communist Party) are constantly in opposition. The PCE are advocating against social revolution, while the CNT are convinced social revolution should continue. The CNT also do not wish to support pro-parliamentary democracy, unlike the PCE. To the CNT, fighting for social revolution is the same as fighting against fascism. The large province of Aragon is still controlled by the CNT, and many regions through Spain are also strong in CNT support.

April 8

The PCE and the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers) sign an agreement to work together in support of parliament democracy. This brings the PSOE in direct conflict with the CNT.

Nationalist troops outside Madrid attack the Casa del Campo and the town of Garabitas, which has been safe in Republicans since fighting ended in November. No progress is made on either side.

April 14

The Second Spanish Republic celebrates the sixth anniversary of the exile of the monarchy. There is little to celebrate with the war making little progress and social revolution in disarray. The government is not back in Madrid after fleeing during the siege of Madrid in November.

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

This Week in Spanish Civil War History Extra: 80 Years Since the Bombing of Durango

The Nationalists had tried everything to get into Madrid. Both the city and surroundings areas in all directions had already been bombarded by March 1937, eight months since the start of the SCW. Franco decided to turn his attention away from the broken yet defiant capital, and launched a new War on the North. General Emilio Mola y Vidal, who was named the leader of the north during the war while Franco commanded the south, decided to wipe out the Basque country. He already had launched offensives throughout the Basque region while basing himself in Burgos (160 kilometres south of the Basque city of Bilbao). Mola decided to deploy 50,000 troops and multiple German planes, but this time had a new plan – to launch ‘terror attacks’, where he would have his men attack civilians instead of military targets. This time, innocents were to be targeted, to inspire fear, to make the Republican held areas cower to the will of the Nationalists, or be hunted down and murdered.

The town of Durango was marked as the test target. Just 30 kilometres south of Bilbao, Durango was a small village, typical of the region and Spain as a whole. With 10,000 people, it was a rail stop between Bilbao and the front lines of the war. While it had no military operations, it was in Republican territory and ripe for attack. Mola wanted to burn the entire province of Vizcaya to the ground for being in Republican territory.

At 8.30am, inhabitants were at Mass at the Santa Maria basilica in the centre of town, and in the basilica arcade, where the local market was held. Five bombers, German Ju-52’s flown by the Condor Legion and Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.8’s flown by the  Aviazione Legionaria, set out and used the basilica as the focal point. A direct hit was scored from the very beginning; the priest and 26 worshippers were bombed to pieces. The nearby cloister was also destroyed, killed all 14 nuns inside. The market was also hit directly, killing all those looking for food, others killed by falling buildings and horrific injuries from which they could not recover. A total of 281 bombs were dropped on Durango, almost 15,000kg of explosives. Just over 200 buildings were destroyed, though some have been rebuilt and their shrapnel wounds are still visible today.

The initial bombing sent the people first into panic, followed by a desperate attempt to rescue those under rubble once the bombers disappeared again. Word spread outside the village; Bilbao received news of the bombings, and send ambulances, doctors and police to help the stricken people of Durango. The tiny village of Ellorrio, ten kilometres from Durango, with no military targets at all, and just a few thousand civilians, was also bombed, like a cruel parting shot at the region.

As help from Bilbao tried to get to Durango and people rushed around their village to save as many as they could, the worst was not over. By 5.30pm that same afternoon, the planes returned, this time accompanied by eight Heinkel He-51 fighter bombers, equipped with machine guns. Bombs were dropped to stop those from Bilbao getting to Durango, and the people of the town were machine-gunned down as they tried to help the injured and those trapped in rubble. By the end of the day 250 were dead, with another 100 to die of their injuries, and 200 homes reduced to rubble.

Killings and executions were common by now in Spain; Durango itself had previously carried out executions on Nationalist sympathisers for earlier bombings of Republicans in their small town. Between this ugliness and the front line deaths, Spain was growing used to fear. But now Mola had ushered in a whole new era. Durango became the first place in Europe to be targeted to kill civilians and not military targets. A whole new world of death was born that day in Durango.

Nationalists denied their role entirely. Mola, and Franco henchman General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano said that the Republicans attacked and killed the priest, nuns and the churches of the village, as had happened in other places. They claimed their planes were looking for military targets and it was Cocialists and Communists who came out and used the opportunity to murder innocents.

By April 28, Nationalists soldier had entered Durango and taken over the area. By then, Mola and his killers had stepped up their missions and bombed Guernica (which needs a long post on its own on its commemoration date).

Where the bombs hit in the centre of the Durango old town is now a site for historical memory, and commemorated every 31 March.

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos are screencaps of the video and linked to source for credit.

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 30: 5 – 12 February 1937

February 5

The Nationalist offensive begins on the west bank of the Jarama River, catching the Republicans by surprise after heavy rain. The Nationalists have highly trained men who advance with whole brigades in columns, meaning the Republicans are simply overwhelmed. While the Nationalists have a good first day, they did not gain the total control as planned, and thus begins the now-infamous battle lasting three bloody weeks.

jarama_mapThanks, Richard, for all your great maps. Visit Richard Baxell’s site for detailed Jarama info

February 6

The Nationalists ramp up the offensive of the Jarama valley. With 40,000 troops, of Moroccan soldiers and Spanish Legionnaires, with the German Condor Legion and their machine guns and anti-tank artillery, attack to cut off the Madrid-Valencia road. Alongside them is 600 Irish Blueshirts, ultra right-wing fanatics joining the fight.

Because the Republicans were already planning an offensive against the onslaught coming at them, they are not yet prepared and do not have any high ground safely covered in case of attack. The Nationalists swarm in and take the two main bridges over the  Jarama. The town of Ciempozuelos in the Jarama valley is attacked by the Nationalists and 1,300 men are killed. The Moroccans sneak in under darkness, killing all the Republican bridge guards and taking the area easily. La Marañosa hill, 700 metres high, which overlooks both sides of the Jarama River, is attacked, with the Republicans on top killed.

February 7

Meanwhile, after the Nationalists and Italian Blackshirts swarming the southern area of Málaga in southern Spain, the civilians try to flee then city towards north-eastern Almería. The sole road to take them to safety is filled with the injured and dying as they go on foot, or by slow trucks, to escape being murdered. The road is devoid of all cover and safety fleeing innocents are bombed from the air as soldiers on foot march after them to shoot them down. German planes are bombing the public, as the Navy stands by doing nothing to help the on land civilians. Skeletons will be found along the road for another thirty years.

A separate post on the road massacre will be posted on February 7

February 8

Málaga is now totally in the hands of the Nationalists. Republicans held off rifle and grenade attack, but have nothing to protect them from tanks. Those left in the city are rounded up and executions begin. Those punished with execution are for ambiguous ‘crimes’ for which are put before firing squads.  Torture and mutilation is enjoyed by the Moroccan troops, horrifying the Italian military. Mass rape is instructed by Generals, and women are raped to death, then mutilated.

You can find picture online of women, stripped, raped to death and their bodies left exposed during the SCW. I am not going to post that. Their horrific pain and humiliation is more than enough, let alone sharing images. If you wish to view that, get the fuck off my site. Seriously. Don’t come here again.

The Nationalists outside Madrid take more of the Jarama valley, the west bank of the river now in their control. The Republicans have Soviet tanks to help them hold back the enemy, but sheer numbers and ammunition are on the Nationalists’ side. The Republicans also have no air support, and are left to be bombed constantly by the Germans.

February 9

Nationalist troops win the high ground by the town of Vaciamadrid. They are quickly gaining the outskirts but the Republicans hold onto the centre of the valley. They hold on to the towns of Gozquez de Abajo and San Martin de la Vega. Republican reinforcements arrive on the east banks of the Jarama, meaning the Nationalists cannot cross the water. Heavy rain arrives again, halting the Nationalists further.

February 10

The International Brigades, the XIV and XV battalions, flood in and stop the Nationalists advancing across the Jarama valley. But the Nationalists capture 30 British volunteers at their machine gun location and sent them to the front line, and half are killed by their own side’s shots.

February 11

Moroccan soldiers cross the river and silently cut the throats of the XI International Brigade guards around their camp. More Nationalist men then cross the river and attack the fleeing volunteers. The Nationalists then also charge the Arganda bridge under heavy fire and succeed in their crossing. Republicans have laid mines along the bridge and detonate, but the bridge does not collapse. The Nationalists also attack San Martin de la Vega and cut the throats of all in the way.

The eastern banks of the river is towered over by Pingarrón hill and the Republican continue to hold the strategic point. The Garabaldi battalion hold off the Nationalists and the XI International Brigade hold off Nationalists on the Arganda-Colmenar road, who are then attacked by Soviet tanks. This holds up further Nationalist advance. Republican planes, 40 Chatos provided by the Soviets, arrive and then shoot down German Condor Legion bombers over the valley.

spanish-civilBritish battalions included New Zealand, Australian, South African and Irish volunteers

February 12

The Soviet planes are giving the Republicans power in the area and the German Condor Legion planes have to retreat. The Nationalists still have to cut off the Madrid-Valencia road. International Brigades, British and Polish men, with Spanish men making up their numbers, try to hold these last few key locations to save the road and keep it open. The volunteers are hacked into pieces by the Nationalists.

The Nationalists have fresh troops in reserve and bring them into the valley to attack the town of Morata. They also take the Pingarrón and Pajares hills in the north the valley. The XI International Brigades are caught on the hills and surrounded, with slaughter resulting. The Republicans hold Pingarrón hill but only just, and the XV International Brigade, three battalions of British, Balkan, German, French/Belgian and Irish battalions banded together, holding the San Martin-Morata road. The British battalion loses 375 men, out of a total of only 600, killed on a hillside now nicknamed Suicide Hill. The French/Belgians have to flee to survive, leaving the British men exposed and outnumbered. The Balkan and German Thaelmann battalions hold off the Nationalists with machine guns. The Nationalists have to turn back, but the Republican lines are now severely broken. The battle still has another two weeks to go.

A separate post on the killings on Suicide Hill will be posted on February 12.

bb_at_jarama~~

This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos are linked to source for credit.

JANUARY SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Boadilla’ by Esmond Romilly

In 1936 Esmond Romilly, nephew of Great Britain’s ‘War Chancellor’ Winston Churchill and outspoken pacifist, went to fight with the International Brigades for the democratically elected Spanish government against the insurgent fascist general Francisco Franco. This is the unheroic, unsentimental account he wrote immediately after the fighting, fresh and personal like no other, spiced with dry English humor.

There have been other records of the part played by the British members of the International Brigade at the siege of Madrid. But Mr. Romilly’s is the most full. He is one of the two survivors of the original ten British volunteers attached to the Thaelmann Battalion in the early days of the war. So his book has its place in the annals of the contemporary struggle for liberty. He writes easily and simply. There are occasional breaths of Hemingway, but in the later chapters especially he displays a detached casualness—unusual in so young a writer (Mr. Romilly is nineteen)—that is genuinely dramatic and moving. Without heroics he conveys the feelings of those untrained enthusiasts (the author’s military experience was confined to refusing to join his school O.T.C.) suddenly plunged into a battle fought apparently at random. Caught between a cross-fire, the little group was almost wiped out. Their bodies were never found.

cover art and blurb via amazon and spectator

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As mentioned a few weeks in ago in This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 25: 1 -7 January 1937, the battles for Corunna Road and the fight to take the town of Boadilla del Monte, just outside Madrid, were chronicled by 19-year-old English volunteer Esmond Romilly.

The book starts off by promising to account the battle of Boadilla in a straight-forward fashion, as that it does. It tells a very simple story of what happened, all written while fresh in the author’s mind in 1937, as he holidays on honeymoon in France. Romilly came from a rich family, married in another rich family, but for a few months in late 1936 and early 1937, he fought to make ‘Madrid the grave of fascism.’ He had little stamina for the war, but he was an excellent example of unprepared men thrown into a poorly planned battle, so typical of volunteers in Spain.

The book starts with a background of all the main characters that Romilly met on the trip – Joe Gough, Harry Audley, Aussie Whateley, Jerry Fontana, Lorimer Birch, Arnold Jeans, Bill Scott, Tom Mann and Martin Messer. It seems in this short time, Romilly got to know these men very well. After the battle to claim Boadilla, he would go home alone.

The early chapters show him working to get by in France as he makes his way south, arriving in Spain by ship at Valencia. The Albacete training bases had been set up by this time. Romilly describes this as playing at soldiers. He had no idea how to use a rifle, couldn’t speak any Spanish and was constantly suffering dysentery. He met many Germans, Latvians and French men, as well as his fellow Englishmen, and the story tells of the usual difficulties marching with supplies and being hot, of the whole thing having a ‘field day’ atmosphere while away from the front. Romilly has given some people assumed names, most those who were German or went to Germany after the war (it was illegal for Germans to aid the Republicans. Those returning home were jailed).

One thing that stood out was Romilly being told by French communist André Marty that the Republicans needed three things to win the war – political unity, military leaders with experience, and discipline. They had none of these.

Romilly uses assumed names for the towns of his initial battles. Battle starts in chapter 5 when out of nowhere, Romilly finds himself under fire, his first reality in the civil war just south of Madrid. As soon as they hit the front at ‘Noreno’, Romilly gets lost under darkness, and ends up walking miles the wrong way, meeting up with others, and eventually making their way to ‘Melilla’ (thought to be Villaconejos. No one know why Romilly changed the town names). Though as dawn air raids strike, the men are lucky to have gotten lost and in the wrong town.

Romilly seems to run around, never really having a clue what is going on, where they are heading or what to do. Dysentery is the one thing everyone shares, and the bitter cold of being up on the plain around Madrid really hits home, with only those prepped by anarchists in Barcelona are ready for it, as the rest of the Thaelmann Battalion have to struggle on.

The battalion team up with the Garibaldi battalion and thrown into fighting in University City on the northern tip of Madrid. Romilly recalls seeing Moorish soldiers shooting into trenches were his comrades were, their bayonets slashing at those trapped but not killed. He details his time fighting in University City very well, saying the night smelled night ‘dead men, crackling flames and drizzle’.

Romilly soon is in Madrid at the Ritz, swirling brandy and bathing again. He gets eight days’ training in the town (now suburb) of Fuencarral north of Madrid, before heading back to Majadahonda, a village (now suburb) west of Madrid. Now the battles for Corunna Road and the surrounding towns are all on, and Romilly is sent to hold the tiny town of Boadilla. Under the air raids and against the well-prepped Nationalists, the whole battle falls into total chaos, of watching close friends die and running away in blind panic. One by one, as they retreat, Romilly’s friends are killed, not by the Moorish soldiers that anticipated, but by uniformed Spaniards.

Romilly is one of only a couple who survived Boadilla. He speaks of meeting English poet John Cornford along the way, another young Englishman, with his head bandaged. Cornford never made it out alive either. The few remaining living foreigners (just over a dozen volunteers from a combined Spanish and volunteer group of 15,000 at Corunna Road battles) made it to El Pardo (just outside Madrid) where they came to grips with the brutal losses.

Romilly was diagnosed with neuralgia, damaging nerves causing excessive pain, and was sent home, where he married Jessica Mitford, and then wrote the fresh accounts of the men left in the mud at Boadilla. Romilly went on to fight in WWII but died in 1941.