OCTOBER SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Petals and Bullets’ by Mark Derby

It was bright moonlight – good bombing light – and once we had to stop and put out our lights as a Fascist aeroplane flew over. They usually come swooping down with guns firing at cars, especially ambulances. Finally we arrived at a town among the hills about 12.30 p.m. Here there is a hospital of about 100 beds in a former convent . . . They expect an attack tonight. – New Zealand nurse Dorothy Morris’s description of her journey to a Republican medical unit of the Spanish Civil War in early 1937

Petals and Bullets is based on the vivid, detailed and evocative letters written by Dorothy Morris to her family in Christchurch, while she was serving in often dangerous circumstances in Spain and other European countries. The letters have been supplemented by wide-ranging research to record a life of outstanding professional dedication, resourcefulness and courage.

Dorothy Aroha Morris (1904–1998) volunteered to serve with Sir George Young’s University Ambulance Unit, and worked at an International Brigades base hospital and as head nurse to a renowned Catalan surgeon. She then headed a Quaker-funded children’s hospital in Murcia, southern Spain. As Franco’s forces advanced, she fled to France and directed Quaker relief services for tens of thousands of Spanish refugees. Nurse Morris spent the Second World War in London munitions factories, as welfare supervisor to their all-female workforces. She then joined the newly formed UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, working in the Middle East and Germany with those who had been displaced and made homeless and destitute as a result of the war.

Dorothy Morris’s remarkable and pioneering work in the fields of military medicine for civilian casualties, and large-scale humanitarian relief projects is told in this book for the first time.

cover and blurb via amazon


Spain veined with blood and metals, blue and victorious, proletariat of petals and bullets, alone, alive somnolent, resounding.

The quote from Pablo Neruda starts the book of the life of a woman no one knows, but made a huge difference to the lives of those struggling during the Spanish Civil War. Dorothy Morris was born in Cromwell, New Zealand in 1904, by the mid-thirties was working as a nurse. The book charts her early life in New Zealand, a life filled with change, war and strikes which would have moulded Morris’ plan to live a life of helping others. Gtowing up in Christchurch, Morris left New Zealand for London in 1935, with ideas considered ‘radical’, ready to take on Europe.

Morris spent 1936 in London, helping those who were preparing to leave for Spain as civil war broke out, and helped to raise funds for those in need. But by early 1937, she could stand aside no longer. She applied to go to Spain with Sir George Young, to send ambulances to Málaga in Spain’s south. As they set out for Spain, Franco’s forces destroyed Málaga and the killing reached catastrophic levels. Morris and a small group drove through Europe, managed to get over the border from France, and headed for Valencia. By February 1936, they were all sent to Almería to try save the few refugees that hadn’t been murdered on the roads out of Málaga.

Letters from Morris to her family tell of the horror and desperation in Almería, a small city now filled with traumatised refugees and the threat of Franco’s forces ever-present. Morris was charged with aiding the International Brigades, who were suffering from health problems, horrific injuries and starvation.

Morris was moved to Brunete as the huge battle broke out just a few months after her arrival in Spain. She survived to be moved on to Murcia, to aid starving refugees from Málaga, Cadíz and Seville. She called the place an abyss of misery, a city of just 60,000 which had another 60,000 refugees.

Letters and photos of Morris’ time in Spain are beautifully woven into a story through this book, before detailing how, by February 1939, long after International Brigades had left, Morris had to flee. Sadly, Morris had fallen in love with a Republican doctor, a lover whose name was never revealed. He was sent to the front lines along the Ebro in late 1938, and he disappeared. Morris would never hear from him again.

Morris left Spain via Alicante in February 1939, just before the mass killing of refugees, and went to France, where she would then help the 100,000 men in a refugee camp in Perpignan, and worked to send thousands of Spaniards to Latin America in June 1939.

Morris couldn’t bear to leave the area, and moved to the Pyrenees where she worked helping children in a village name La Coume. Morris served as a nurse throughout the entire WWII, enduring her brothers’ imprisonment in Europe, and was chosen to work for the United Nations from 1944. Morris’ letters tell the story of a strong woman, who truly cared about the plight of the working class, of equality and peace. Dorothy Morris is a woman to inspire everyone after 50 years of caring for the suffering of Europe.


This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 32 and 33: 19 February – 5 March 1937

February 20

Republican General Asensio Torrado resigns his post as head of the Central front. Torrado is one of the few ‘Africanista’ Republicans who did not side with the Nationalists at the outbreak of war. Immediately after the initial coup, he led teams of soldiers in the Somosierra area just north of Madrid as well as the Battle of Talavera de la Reina. By October he was sub-secretary for war and leader of the Central Army by November, one of the leaders during the defense of Madrid. He created mixed brigades of men, both trained and those men new to fighting, to create stronger brigades. He was rejected by both anarchist ans communists due to his military-style control of the militias, and was forced to resign after the Republicans failure in Málaga.

February 21

The Non-Intervention Committee set up by the League of Nations officially bans all foreigners volunteering to fight in Spain, useless as thousands have now entered the country, defying their countries, or claiming statelessness. The Non-Intervention Committee is letting large countries such as England, France and the U.S sit on their hands, while individuals worldwide (even as far away as New Zealand) see the need to help Spain. German and Italy defy the ban daily by supporting Franco, and the Soviet Union aides the Republicans.

Captain Merriman prior to his injuries

February 23

The battle of Jarama is ongoing, but with the stalemate at the front line, snipers are killing on both sides, with no progress being made. The new Abraham Lincoln battalion are ordered to take Pingarrón (Suicide Hill) again, and send 450 Americans (supported by an Irish column) off to their first major offensive, one known already as a disaster thanks to previous battles. The men have no artillery or planes for support, but storm the Nationalists over four days, and are violently killed. The battle hears the immortal words of Irish poet Charles Donnelly – ‘even the olives are bleeding’, just before he is killed by machine gun. The Americans lose 127 men and another 200 are wounded, Captain Robert Merriman included, and mutiny ensues. Other Republican units catch those who mutiny to be court-martial, but the Soviets prevent them from being tried or punished. Naturally blame needs to be passed, and XV International Brigade Commander Vladimir Copic is named, who in turn blames wounded Captain Merriman. This marks the end of the battle of Jarama, as both sides are now totally exhausted and nothing can break the stalemate. The front line shall remain here for the rest of the war, a little over two years away.

March 4

The Battle of Cape Machichaco begins. The Basque Auxiliary navy, supporting the Republican navy, send four trawlers from France to Spain – the Bizcaia, Gipuzkoa, Donostia and Nabarra. They accompany the Galdame, carrying  people, machinery, weapons, mail supplies and 500 tonnes of nickel coins, all owned by the Basque government. The Nationalists send the Canarias from port in Ferrol to stop the Galdame reaching the Basque ports.

By the following morning, the Canarias was spotted by the Gipuzkoa only twenty miles from Bilbao. Shots were fired, hitting Gipuzkoa on the bridge. Returned fire kills a seaman on the Canarias, and wounds others, forcing them to retreat. The Nabarra and Donostia engage in battle with the Canarias for hours before they are forced to retreat. The Nabarra is hit at the boiler and 29 are killed, including their captain. Another twenty men are forced to abandon ship. All the men are picked up by the Nationalist Canarias and treated for their injuries.

The Galdame is also hit by the Canarias and is captured by the Nationalists, and four are killed in the carnage. Gipuzkoa manages to get to port in Portugalete and Bizcaia lands in Bermeo. Donostia lands in France. The twenty survivors of the Nabarra are sentenced to death by Franco, but the Canarias captains beg mercy, and the men are released in 1938. On board the Galdames, the passengers are let go, expect for politician Manuel Carrasco Formiguera from Catalonia, who is jailed before his execution a year later.

March 5

Trouble begins to mount as the PCE – Communist Part of Spain – holds its first council. They agree to favour democracy, against revolution and Trotskyism. The trouble is that this flies in the face of their allies, the Republican movement, the Spanish government and the powerful anarchist CNT. This decision will bring in-fighting among the Republicans in coming months, weakening the entire movement.

014guadalajaraAlso March 5

The Nationalists, fuelled with Spanish, Moorish and Italian soldiers, are preparing to attack Guadalajara, 60 kilometres north-east of Madrid. After all the failed attempts to take Madrid, and the collapse of battle at nearby Jarama, the Nationalists are keen to engage again. The Italians, fresh from taking Málaga, are ready to fight. The Nationalists have gathered 35,000 men, hundreds of artillery supplies over 100 tankettes, 32 armoured cars, 3,600 vehicles and 60 planes. Much of the tank, car and plane equipment comes from the Italians, as Mussolini strongly supports the offensive.

The Republicans are the 12th division of the Republican army with only 10,000 men, but only 5,900 rifles, 85 machine guns and 15 artillery pieces. They do have a few light tanks on their side. Guadalajara, until now has been peaceful, so no trenches, road blocks or defensive have been set up, but the Republicans know (assume), a Nationalist attack from the south is imminent. Meanwhile, the Nationalists are preparing to attack the 25 kilometre stretch of the Guadalajara-Alcalá de Henares road, south of Guadalajara, which will cut off the main road, and five other roads which stem from the area. The enormous offensive is planned for March 8.


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 Málaga-Almería Massacre

‘The Moors are coming’

By January 1937, the Spanish Civil War already six months old, and the southern region of Andalucía had already been through its fair share of horrors. With much of the area sided with the Republicans, the Nationalists, led by fascist Franco (and his German and Italian allies) were hot on ripping through Andalucía and ruling the area, and were having great success. In January, General Queipo de Lllano, who had already enjoyed mass executions through Andalucía, was named head of the Army of the South, a division of 15,000 troops, made up of Spanish soldiers and Moorish fighters from Morocco, based in Seville. They were aided by Italian men brought in from Cadiz, 10,000 ‘Blackshirts’, and were ordered to take Málaga on the southern coast, picking up Granada, Marbella and Ronda on the way, along with the surrounding rural areas.


The city of Málaga, population 250,000, plus another 90,000 who had fled there from the countryside, saw no immediate reason to worry, and their 12,000 Republican militia (only 8,000 armed) did not take up any training, dug in no trenches, set up no road blocks and manned no hilltop lookouts. They simply did not have the manpower or supplies to defend themselves. The Nationalists were battle-hardened men who had no problem killing brutally, particularly the Moorish soldiers, who had committed horrid crimes elsewhere in Spain.

The attack began on February 3, 1937 when Ronda was defeated by Nationalist troops, leading them right to Málaga, coming from the west. The Italian troops, who had entered the region from the northern hills, arrived on February 6. At that point, all the people of the city could either fight or flee. Through the day on February 7, the Republican fighters were torn apart by the onslaught of the Nationalists, and executions began. It mattered little whether you were a militiaman or not, you were executed. Women were raped brutally, and then shot if the rape didn’t kill them. Children were killed in the crossfire or just killed as collateral damage. February 8 marked the official fall of Málaga, completely swamped with Nationalist soldiers and bombed from the air by German and Italian planes. Boats offshore also bombarded the city. Around 4,000 people were killed in the initial executions alone, though exact numbers are not possible.

The people of Málaga had only one way to go; east along the coast towards the haven of Almería, an area relatively safe at this point in the war. But Almería was 220km (135 miles) along the N-340. It is unknown precisely how many people tried to flee, either on foot, donkey or by truck (until petrol ran out anyway), though an estimate by Contemporary History professors Encarnación Barranquero and Lucia Prieto is 100,000 now-refugees.

By dawn on February 8, the city was Nationalist territory, and many of the people who fled were around 30 kilometres east in Torre del Mar, walking the sparse road. Trucks that ambled past were loaded with children, parents eager to get them to safety any way possible, begging the trucks to take children from their arms as they walked. They had to walk with everything they owned, clothes, bedding, sewing machines, tools, water, anything they had, strapped and carried by their bodies or donkeys. But the walk was not their only problem. General Queipo de Llano was not content with taking the city and executing those who didn’t flee. The refugees would be chased.

As people trekked the winding, hilly, unsealed road, the troops were making their way behind them, swift and trained for marching. Then bombing from the air along the road began. People had nowhere to hide – caves, ditches, rocks, anything had to be used for defense as the Nationalists looked to wipe out the lot. The 16-kilometre stretch between Nerja (55 kilometres east of Málaga) and La Herradura suffered a terrible fate as the first wave of civilians were attacked, bodies littering the road as they were defenseless from the air. Parents were forced to dig with their hands and bury their children. People pressed themselves against cliff-faces in the hope of safety and died on the spot. Gutters filled with bodies as they fell from the roadside. Whole extended families were found lying together, all dead, and some with children left alive, picked up by other people strong enough to carry an extra person. The bridge over the Guadalfeo River, 90 kilometres from Málaga, was bombed, sending innocent refugees into the water and drowned at nightfall.

By the time the refugees arrived in Motril, 95 kilometres from Málaga, the International Brigades were there to help defend them against the Nationalists, but many refugees were now injured, starving and exhausted, and still had a long way to go, with family members left dead on the roadside. None would return until the end of the war, some remained in exile for life. Reports state that skeletons of the people killed on that dusty stretch were still to be found on the roadside until the mid-1960’s. No one wanted to go home along the N-340, and the whole incident was silenced.

One man became well-known in the mess, a Canadian named Norman Bethune. A doctor and ambulance driver, he was in Spain to fight fascism as an international volunteer. His ambulance raced back and forth along this road, trying to save all he could. To read about Bethune, try ‘The Ambulance Man and the Spanish Civil War’ by Paul Read. It’s a shame the locals who suffered this event were not so well-known, their stories limited to tales told between generations until recently.

Professors at the University of Málaga estimate over 5,000 people died on the road, based on oral histories collected, plus burial records in Salamanca, and Málaga archives. Bodies were not properly buried or treated, so the exact figure can never be established. Those killed and buried along the roadside are still left there today. Ten years ago, the Diputación de Málaga opened its archives for professors to complete historical memory works on the massacre in the area, to accompany the stories of 400 people who came forward with their personal accounts of the event.

The Malaga-Almeria massacre is commemorated at Torre del Mar, considered a halfway point along the road where the massacre took place, on February 7, the date people began to flee their homes in Málaga. This attack was almost a practice, a prelude to many atrocities that would go on to occur in WWII. The damage done to the people of Málaga, the towns that were in the firing line towards Almeria, and the whole rural region itself is unimaginable, and how it shaped and changed the lives and lifestyle of following generation in the area has been largely ignored until recent times.

If you are interested and can read Spanish, the book by professors Encarnación Barranquero and Lucia Prieto from the University of Malaga is Poblacion y Guerra Civil en Málaga: Caido Exodo y Refugio, an excellent book, well researched, with powerful personal recollections.

A first person account written is 1937 is Norman Bethune’s The crime on the road Malaga-Almeria : narrative with graphic documents revealing fascist cruelty (if you can get a copy – I can’t!)


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 auto-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.


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.

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 29: 29 January – 5 February 1937

February 2

Preparations for the Battle of Jarama, east of Madrid, are complete. The aim is to cross the Jarama river and cut off communications between Madrid and the temporary capital, Valencia, to the east. The Nationalists have 15,000 men ready, along with support of the German Condor Legion, along with tanks and machine guns. The Republicans have 30,000 men including international volunteers and are spread out ready to hold steady.

February 3

The Army of the South decides it is time to attack the city of Málaga from the west, starting from the already fallen town of Ronda. The Nationalists have 15,000 troops, and the accompanying Italian Blackshirts have another 10,000 men and plenty of supplies. The Republicans holding Málaga have around 12,000 men, only 8,000 armed. None have been trained in battle.


February 4

The Málaga Republicans are not ready to take on the Italians, who are prepared for armoured warfare, and have tanks ready while the Republicans do not even have enough bullets for their guns. The Italians make a huge gain in territory in one day and many Republicans are killed around the outskirts of the city.

February 5

The Republicans have 600 right-wing hostages kept on a ship at the port, and many are killed in revenge for air raids which are unleashed on the city. Republicans have no air defense or planes of their own. No roadblocks have been set up and no trenches have been dug. The CNT and the Communists have been running the area, but have difficulty working together. Colonel Villalba who runs the Republicans, has no ammunition to hand out and no guns to place in strategic locations for defense.  Over the days of fighting, 4,000 innocents will be killed in Málaga. There is no way Málaga can hold off the Nationalists and people prepare to flee, in what shall soon be known as the Málaga-Almería road massacre, where between 3,000-5,000 will die.

NB: A special post on the massacres of Málaga will be posted on February 7.

February 5

The Nationalist offensive begin 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 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. (All daily events will be posted from next week)


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.