The Battle of Teruel. December 1937 to February 1938

21st September 2011. A Tour with two children of British Brigaders  from Teruel to the Ebro, 15th to 19th September 2011.

I have just returned from a tour to show various places to Mary Greening and Duncan Longstaff, whose fathers served with the British battalion at the Battle of the  River Ebro following the Great Retreats of March and April 1938 .

Leaving from Barcelona on Thursday afternoon, we took four hours to get to the Provincial capital of Teruel via the coast road and Valencia. A fast and pleasant journey. On Friday morning we visited the cliff face of Santa Barbarato the north of Teruel, where the British battalion attempted to send its companies down across the River Alfambra below to steady the front line below on the 19th January 1938.

Duncan Longstaff and Mary Greening with the gulley down which the British Battalion came down from the Hill of Santa Barbara to cross the River Alfambra and hold the valley.

View from the River Alfambra of the British battalion machine gun positions on Santa Barbara Hill.

The Alfambra River. it was close to here that Frank Zamorra of No 1 Company, a second generation Basque, born in Abercrave in Wales was killed as the companies crossed on January 19th 1938. He acted as the battalion interpreter and it was said that his English was so bad that the British could not understand him and his Spanish so bad that the Spanish troops could not understand his Spanish either! 

In the middle distance the two hills occupied by the British battalion on  January 19th 1938

Later in the month a wooden plaque was set up on this hill to commemorate the 21 members of the British battalion who died on the hills below.

The memorial from Volunteer for Liberty, Vol. 2, no 8.

We also visited the two hills held by the battalion and then later in the day to the earlier positions near Cuaevas Labradas in the stunning Alfambra valley to the north where they were based from January 1st to 15th.. On Saturday morning we met Alfonso Casas, the expert on the battle of Teruel and who kindly showed Mary and Duncan his magnificent collection of materiel connected to the battle. He also mentioned that a two day conference will be held in Teruel concerning the battle on October 24th and 25th with an exhibition and talks. I intend to visit the conference for the two days between the week long trip from Madrid to Barcelona to commemorate the International Brigades in Spain between October 20th and 29th2011. Anyone else want to come too?

Duncan Longstaff,  Alfonso Casas & Mary Greening in front of the Teruel Bullring

The same place in January 1938.

Members of the XI Thaelmann Brigade by the Escalinata in Teruel. The Civil Guard barracks behind.

The same place today

El Muleton, where 1600 of  the 2000 men of the German  XI Thaelmann Brigade fell in the freezing cold of January 1938

 There has been a rumour that 25 million euros had been earmarked to construct a museum on the Spanish Civil War in Teruel. There is a new building that was thought to be this new museum but turned out to be for Medieval Warfare, though interest is there but not possible in the present current economic downturn. However, we hope to raise awareness of this state of affairs by making a short report with Aragon Television on October 31st when a group of Americans and British come with me on a similar tour from 30th October to 7th November (See below for details of the trip. There are still some places available if you are interested. Contact Alan Warren on hill705@gmail.com for further information). I hope that we can persuade the Aragon Government and Teruel Ajuntamiento to eventually open the proposed museum, despite the turn to the right in recent elections and maybe more to come in the Spanish elections on 20th November this year. Perhaps it may encourage them to understand and learn about their recent past so as not to repeat it. There are many wounds still to heal but I hope that such a project does not only allow younger generations to understand this painful time, but also to encourage tourism to this beautiful, but quite remote, city.

The railway tunnel in the Alfambra valley where the XV  Brigade attempted to unsuccessfully shelter from the snow and freezing cold. 

Yet in, and close to this quiet, remote city there are traces of the International Brigades. North of Teruel, following the Alfambra valley north, on the west side of this valley there are fragments of an unfinished railway line which the Americans  called “The Great Teruel & Manyana Railway Line”! In one of the many unfinished and derelict stations there is a tiny fragment of the Lincoln Washington battalion. We will show our American visitors this unique piece of history in early November aswell as the railway tunnel where the XV Brigade tried to shelter from the freezing cold of January 1938, the coldest winter on record in Spain! In the meantime here are some photos of the graffiti left by American Brigaders. Alfonso Casas originally thought that it was British graffiti, but seeing as the Americans don’t know how to spell “Armoury” properly it was obvious to an English speaker that they were Yanks! (Sorry!). Does anyone know anything more about the Washington Com(m)onwealth Federation?  Especially about any American Brigaders connected with this organisation? One of them wrote this on the wall

!

The railway line was first conceived on 22nd January 1926 to run 275 kilometres from Teruel to Alcaniz through Tortajada, Villalba Baja, Cuevas Labradas, Peralejos, Alfambra, Perales del Alfambra, Orrios, Fuentes Calientes, Cañada Vellida, Mezquita de Jarque, Valdeconejos, Escucha, Palomar de Arroyos, Cstel de Cabra, Cañizar del Olivar, Gargallo, Los Olmos, La Mata de los Olmos, Alcorisa, Foz Calanda, Calanda, Castelserás and Alcaniz.  Bartolomé Esteban was the chief engineer. This barren area was important for coal from Utrillas and Escucha aswell as iron from Ojos Negros to the north. Work first stopped in 1930 and then restarted in 1932 after the election of the Republican government in April 1931. At one time over 2,000 workers were employed on the line’s construction, but  by 1935 the work was again stopped and the line was never completed. Various reasons for its failure included problems for the new government working with Belgian, French and English private businesses in its construction who, it seems, were not always sympathetic to the new Republic and its stated aims. As one drives north one comes across tunnels, stations, bridges (with one having a silhouette of a train and carriage with people inside entitled “The Dream”) at various locations parallel to the road. Quite charming and there has been a plan to open up part of the track as a “Green Route” for bicycles. I hope it succeeds. And don’t worry, I am not a train spotter!

Seguro de los  Banos

 We also visted Seguro de los Banos where the XV Brigade attempted to relieve Nationalist pressure on Teruel in mid February 1938. The Americans and Canadians attempted to take the hills of Atalaya and Pedregosa to the west of Seguro de los Banos whilst the British and Spanish battalions moved south down the valley to take the village of Vivel el Rio without success due to lack of resources

.

Vivel el Rio. Objective of the British battalion.

 Saturday night we ended up in the village of Fuendetodos just west of Belchite. We were able to drive up to a prominent hill called “El Lobo”, or “The Wolf” to the south west of the town with a magnificent view of the Aragon landscape and two tunnels which housed six artillery pieces to bombard Belchite during the September 1937. It was here that La Pasionaria observed the fight for Belchite in the summer of 1937 and as we left the hill, I discovered a rusted Nationalist cartridge clip from the ground as a souvenir. It was probably left here after the hill was overrun by advancing Nationalist troops from the direction of Fuendetodos on March 10th 1938 during the Second Battle of Belchite. And so on the Sunday morning we started to follow the route of the Great Retreats from Belchite to Cherta on the River Ebro. A long journey which, in 1938, was under constant attack by massive Nationalist forces in a prototype blitzkrieg using tanks, artillery and aircraft. Large numbers of Brigaders just disappeared in the barren landscape of Aragon, many executed once they had surrendered. Their remains still lie unknown and unrecorded in this bleak landscape. The stories from survivors are confused and varied, but some accounts coincide and allow the route of the men to be followed with some certainty. Both Mary Greening’s father, Edwin Greening, and Duncan Longstaff’s father, John, were involved in this event, but John Longstaff’s account written almost fifty years after the events is by force of necessity very brief and confused. On the evening of March 10th he lost contact with the battalion as a runner and then teamed up with a Spanish unit during the first part of the Retreats. The next firm location in his memoirs is him running across the bridge over the River Ebro at Mora del Ebro being chased by Moorish cavalry just before it was blown up! Edwin Greening’s account, published in From Aberdare to Albacete  (Warren & Pell Publishing, 2006), though based on his diaries written at the time, is also brief until after the initial period of the Retreat from Belchite to Hijar, then to Caspe and finally to Batea where the battalion was reformed, reinforced and rearmed from 17th to 30th March 1938.

“Going to the Botaja Front, April 1938”.

(Actually March 30th 1938 and going to the BATEA Front)

The 15th International Brigade Photographic Unit Photograph Collection ; ALBA Photo 011-0327.Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South, New York, NY10012, New York University Libraries

On the morning of Wednesday 30th March 1938, the battalion was ordered forward from Corbera  to reinforce the defensive lines held by Lister’s 11th Division. Edwin Greening  was detached from the main body and writes of his experiences: Then one day the rumble grew louder.  On 30th March, 1938, at about 10 pm, Lt. Morris Davies awakened his section.  He led us out of Corbera on what became a 10-mile march through a chilly starlit night. At dawn we were in the village of Villalba de los Arcos.  We ensconced ourselves in the strongly built, stone municipal weighing machine.  From it we could see down a long, straight, and slightly sloping road that ran between olive trees and vineyards into the distance.

Mary Greening in front of the weighing machine in Vilalba dels Arcs (Catalan spelling)

Jock McLean and I were ordered to go forward into the distance and take up a position about 600 yards ahead.  We lay behind a rock, talked quietly about what we should do, and kept alert for the enemy. All the morning, refugees came up the road, their mule-carts piled with their possessions.  Across to the west we heard the artillery and tanks firing. Lt. Morris Davies came down with two men.  They stayed and we went back with him to the weighing machine.  There, 10 men rested while the others were scattered in pairs among the trees. About midday, Lt. Davies ordered two Scots, Lever and Brown, to go back to Corbera to ask for orders about our position in this village.  These two young men darted off at a cracking pace. Lt. Morris Davies ordered Jock McLean and me to follow him.  We went amid the trees and he told us, “If we get no orders from Corbera, we leave here by dark”.  Lt. Davies, always smiling, walked about and among the men under the trees with McLean and me.  He told them, “If you are fired on, come back opposite the weighing machine.  We are going back to Corbera at dusk.  Be ready!” The long, anxious morning and afternoon passed away, but about an hour before dusk Lt. Walter Gregory and a pillion passenger arrived.  He told us that the British Battalion had been ambushed and severely battered that morning at Calaceite, about 10 miles south-west of us.  We had to get back to Corbera at once. We ran around the olive trees shouting for the men.  They came at the double and we marched at a steady pace towards Corbera.  At a crossroads, Lt. Davies met 15th Brigade officers he knew well.  They directed us to the town of Gandesa that was 4 miles south-west of the village of Corbera.  At Gandesa we descended into a well-lit air raid shelter, which was crowded with military and refugees.  We were fed and we slept until nearly dawn.

Mary at the crossroads

(I think it was Duncan who forced Mary to march all the way to Gandesa as her father did?)

At dawn the military paraded outside the air raid shelter.  We were a mixed bunch of the 15th Brigade, about 80 men including officers, I reckoned.  We were each given a small loaf and a small tin of corned beef. We boarded four Russian lorries and drove off towards the sound of battle.  A signpost pointed to a place called Batea. About three miles from Gandesa, at an unposted crossroads, they stopped and the lorries  went back.  A Spanish major was in charge.  He spoke to Lt. Davies and Lt. Fred Morris of Richards Terrace, Maerdy, Rhondda.  He had joined us at Gandesa. Lt. Davies placed his 26 men on a wooded ridge overlooking a shallow, olive-groved vineyard valley of terraced walls. I was posted with Tom Howell Jones, Jock McLean and Bill Thompson. Lts. Morris Davies and Fred Morris came down the terrace wall crouching low, pistols in hands, giving firing orders: “Keep alert.  Don’t fire until we tell you.  There may be Canadians coming back from Batea.” Some Canadians did come back in the late afternoon of an exhausting nerve-wracking, weary day.  Then a massive artillery barrage fell on our ridge. Up the road and among the trees came tanks.  We were ordered to fire on the infantry that took cover whilst the tanks continued to fire their machine guns.  After about a half-hour of this, Lt. Morris Davies came running, and said “Everybody back! Follow me!” Keeping low we ran back among the vines and olive trees down the terraced valley until we came to a stone barn. We were now only Lts. Davies and Morris, Tom Howell Jones and I. I said, “What about the others, Morris?”  He answered, “They must have gone with Lt. Gregory.” Suddenly around the barn came two soldiers with rifles.  On being challenged they were Jim Skinner, a Welsh Canadian, and John Oliver of Blackwood, Gwent. Then a tank shell hit the barn followed by the sound of approaching tanks. Lt. Morris Davies said, “Let’s get back to Gandesa.”  ……..On being told that Gandesa had fallen, we all turned off the road and followed a goat-path that led over a mountain range called the Sierra Pandols.  We struggled along pathways over precipitous mountains of grey limestone, keeping below the skyline.  We drank water at bubbling rivulets.  We left the Italians and made our way down a valley, very narrow like a gorge.  Suddenly, shells burst on this little valley with a deafening roar.  We trotted down the little valley and met an old peasant and two little children cowering under a ledge of rock.  He directed us to an abandoned railway, about a mile down this gorge-like valley.  We crossed a crystal clear, meandering stream and came struggling up a high embankment and there was the railway, no sleepers, no rails, just the rail bed.  We marched smartly along the rail bed walking through many short tunnels where we could see the daylight shining at the furthest end.

Mary following in her father’s footsteps….

One of the many railway tunnels…

 Eventually, we came to a broader valley, with a good tarmac road.  This road was crowded with retreating troops and some refugees.  We joined the moving throng.  Suddenly, from the air there burst a rain of machine gun bullets. The bombs and the roar of planes above made a terrifying scene.  I lay stiffly down.  The planes went.  I found near me a thick, woollen poncho, the pockets of which were full of nuts.  Nobody claimed it so it was a welcome addition to my scanty wardrobe.  We four, Lts. Davies and Morris and Tom Howell Jones and I, managed to get across the dust-covered valley and marched along with the retreating troops toward the sea and the town of Tortosa at the mouth of the River Ebro.  It was thirty miles from Batea to Tortosa,  thirty miles of precipitous mountains with no food except for a dixie of soup and a slice of bread given to us by a retreating Spanish unit on the 3rd April 1938.  Then, on the 5th April, in the river town of Cherta, we met organized resistance by the Spanish Republican Army. There were tanks, artillery and masses of infantry.  Military police stopped us and we told them who we were.  We were given food, and an old man ferried us across the River Ebro to the town of Tuvisia (Tivissa).  The ferryman kept asking us for tobacco, tobacco. (Greening, 2006, p. 72)

The River Ebro at Cherta

 Edwin Greening was not present with the battalion when it was bussed up from Corbera to the XV Brigade Estado Mayor near the junction to Batea just west of Gandesa. The battalion had then marched 17 kilometres during the night towards Calaceite on the main road to Alcaniz. It was here, in the early dawn of April 1st that the battalion met a flying column of CTV  Italian whippet tanks and infantry just outside the village to the west and over 140 men were

captured.

The site at Calaceite where the British battalion was ambushed. Note the stone to the right on the ridge….

Duncan with the British battalion badge fixed to the stone visible in the previous photograph.

The survivors of the battalion retreated in small groups back to Gandesa where they briefly held a position for a day and a night before retiring and eventually crossing over the River Ebro at Cherta to safety on April 3rd. Out of the 650 men who marched out of Corbera on the morning of March 30th, Edwin Greening writes after reforming at Darmos: One morning about the 10th April, before we went to our “foxholes” to sleep, we were paraded for photographs. At that time, about 10 days after the massacre of the battalion at Calaceite on the 31st of March, there were no more than sixty to eighty men with the HQ of the battalion; the rest were dead,  prisoners,  wounded or scattered over Catalonia  (ibid. p. 77).

Right. Darmos, April 10th, 1938.Domingo Morales Garcia, Holding flag, Morris Davies, with glasses behind the flag, Edwin Greening; holding flag on the right, Glyn “Taff” Evans.

 And so we ended this journey by the Ebro in relative comfort. How the Brigaders felt as they reached the other side of the Ebroone dares not think about. Each individual story of escape and if they were lucky, capture and imprisonment at San Pedro de Cardena, are epic tales in themselves. But to actually follow the route through the vast expanse of the Aragon and the hills of Catalonia one can get a glimpse of the horrors that occurred here and appreciate their adventures and survival to eventually face the horrific Battle of the Ebro on 25th July 1938.

____________________________________________________________

 17th January 2011

PdlH hits Teruel!

Today Diario de Teruel reported on the visit organised by PdlH for three Americans in search of their relations who fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in November 2010. The link to the blog is http://pdlhlincolnbrigadetour2010.wordpress.com/the-blog/

The newspaper article appeared with a large number of photos related to the Battle of Teruel. There is a long term plan to invest 25 million euros to make a museum at Teruel on the Spanish Civil War, and hopefully the more visitors to this unknown part of Spain the greater chance of this coming true. I have been asked to give an interview by the editor of Diario de Teruel to explore possibilities and the hidden history in this beautiful, but relatively unknown region for foreign visitors.

Lincoln Washington headquarters kitchen, near Teruel, January 1938 (ALBA)

The same place in November 2010

The newspaper article (in Spanish) can be found here: http://www.diariodeteruel.es/teruel/9024-de-vuelta-al-polo-norte-de-celadas.html

One comment on “The Battle of Teruel. December 1937 to February 1938

  1. Marcus A Zayjac says:

    This is a fascinating article about one of the most interesting battles in the Spanish Civil War.

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