Blast from the Past: At Teruel with the Czech AA Battery

September 1, 2015
By and
Sign outside Teruel, January 1938; 11-1366, D251.

Sign outside Teruel, January 1938; 11-1366, D251.

Editor’s note: At the initiative of ALBA board member Chris Brooks, who maintains the online biographical database of US volunteers in Spain, the ALBA blog will be regularly posting interesting articles from historical issues of The Volunteer, annotated by Chris.Over the next three months, Blast from the Past postings will showcase articles about the American volunteers who served in the Artillery. Many of these articles ran in The Volunteer during Ben Iceland’s tenure as editor. Iceland, who served in the Artillery, recruited several of his fellow artillerymen to document their experiences. Iceland also shared his own experiences in a series of articles he originally wrote in the early 1940s. Together these articles shine a light on some lesser known American volunteers.

At Teruel With the Czech AA Battery
Ben Iceland

[Originally published in The Volunteer, Volume 8, Number 1, April 1986]

We had been with the battery about an hour, smoking and talking, when we heard a loud metallic clang, the sound of metal against an empty shell case, and then the whistle. It was the alarm signal, and we scrambled out of our dugouts, and ran to the guns to which we had been assigned. All around us men were rushing out of their dugouts, and some were shouting, “avion, avion, ellos (planes, planes, theirs),” and pointing to the sky. The guns were already manned and shells were being thrust into the breeches. Men were peering into the instrument panels, and I heard shouts of command in Czech from our young commander who stood bareheaded in the square formed by our guns. I saw some specks in the western sky growing larger, and Crosby and I , both tougher started yelling “avion, avion” and pointing in the direction from which they were coming. My voice sounded so squeaky. My heart was beating violently, and my spittle became dry. More men were yelling “avion, avion,” and the gun barrels were being elevated and swiveled in the direction of the planes. Then the black spots in the sky became larger and more silvery, ever more silvery, and the faint drone of their motors became louder. There were six planes – tri-motored Heinkels – and the drone became a throbbing in the sky, louder, ever louder. It was difficult to think, and I was waiting for something to happen. I looked around at the men and they seemed so unafraid, so nonchalant almost, and I wondered how many men felt as I did, and I tried to appear unconcerned like the others.

And then there was a burst of flame above my head, and thunderous noise, and smoke, and I thought we were being bombed, and I saw Eliott make a dive for the ground, and Crosby and Schutt and I did likewise. I held my head with my hands, and I could feel Crosby’s body trembling beside mine, and we were both shaking and not trying to hide our fear. My head felt heavy and my ears as if they had been smashed in violently. The thunderous noises continued, and the ground shook, but nothing else happened, and I looked up at the sky and saw the planes, bigger now and circling and diving with white puffs appearing near them, as if by magic, and it dawned upon me that our own guns were firing, and death was not too immediate. We sheepishly stood up, withdrew some distance from the guns, and resumed yelling “avion, avion,” and watching the white puffs which were caused by our own shells exploding in the sky. The enemy planes were not interested in us, but circle and bombed the ridge to our west which our troops were holding. Then they flew away serenely. Our barrage was over. The air was thick with smoke, and there was the acrid smell of burnt gun powder. I did not see any enemy planes go down.

John, the Czech-American sergeant, came over to us. “Comrades,” he said, matter-of-factly, “you should not have been right under the barrel of the guns. You got all the concussion. But I should have told you what was going to happen.”

John Svorinich in Spain, RA Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 997.

John Svorinich in Spain, RA Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 997.

For many of us it was our first action, and those of us who had already been to the front had never even been near an antiaircraft battery. The he said in a heavy Czech accent: “When the bombs really fall you’ll god-damn well know it.” Ashamed we went back to our dugout.

There were many more raids that day and for days afterwards. We got used to the sound of our own guns and we didn’t duck anymore when they fired. Our fear and tension grew less, but never wholly left us, except on days when it snowed. And it did snow a good deal of the time. We welcomed the snow because it meant no enemy planes. But sometimes, even on a snowy day, the sun and blue sky would appear briefly, and then we knew the fascist planes would soon be back. Only twice in the weeks we were in Teruel did our own planes appear – the snub-nosed Moscas.[1] They circled and dived over the fascist lines, strafing, and the sky was filled with the black puffs of the fascist antiaircraft. Then our planes flew away. Once we watched a dogfight way up in the sky. One plane was shot down, but we couldn’t tell whether it was one of theirs or ours. We chose to believe it was one of theirs. And also when it snowed and there was a heavy overcast, we had a small fire going in our elongated dugout to keep warm and toast the soggy bread on which we would spread marmalade – the firm Spanish marmalade that came in tins. The Czechs would tell us stories about Bohemia and about their relatives back home, and they would show us dog-eared photographs of their loved ones. We would pass around the pictures we had, and we would try to awe them with tales of America. All of this in broken Spanish, and it was amazing how well we were able to communicate with one another. There was little talk about politics, and the same kind of griping about the lack of cigarettes, the poor quality of the food, and lack of mail, that we had experienced before in American outfits.

At night it was bitterly cold, very often below freezing. There were not enough blankets and we would lie on a thin mattress of pine leaves that covered the cold, frozen ground in our dugout, huddling close to one another, spoon fashion, unable and unwilling to move. Every night we would change position, shifting so that there would be somebody different every night at the end positions, where there was more room for maneuver, but colder. It was even worse in the middle, where one couldn’t move without upsetting the whole formation. It was so cold, we never removed our clothing or shoes – nor was it wise to do so in case we had to move in a hurry. And the lice multiplied upon us, and there was no way to get rid of them. Day and night we scratched and killed them, but to no avail. Our bodies were covered with bites. There was no place to wash and no facilities for shaving. Our bodies stank, and our faces were covered with scrubby beard. But strangely enough, we got used to it. And so long as the snow fell, and the sky was clear of planes, and the sticky rice came up hot, and with a bit of dried codfish in it, we were reasonably content. But when the sky cleared for a while, the planes would come and then our muscles would tighten, and the tension would grip us, and there would be the smell of burnt gunpowder and the shattering noise of our guns. We would groan when the first light of winter’s dawn would awaken us, and all day long we would wait for the sun to set, and watch it sink behind the hills, counting the seconds till it would disappear, treasuring the darkness that settled over the hills. For darkness brought a few hours rest and sleep on the frozen ground.

One afternoon on a cloudy day when there were no planes in the sky, and while I was on duty, two soldiers came trudging up the hill where we were positioned. They approached me, and in halting, broken Spanish, asked where the Americans were. I told them I was American, and I recognized that they were Americans. They were with the French battery, and Norman Schmidt, one of them, had come expressly to see me. He was from Chicago, and had arrived in Spain only a short while ago. As luck would have it, he had been assigned to the French battery, and learning that I was with the Czechs, he had gotten permission on this quiet day to visit me. He brought greeting and a message of love from my wife whom he had only seen seven short weeks ago. In Chicago he had worked with my wife in a union organizing drive. There on a hill near Teruel, thousands of miles from home, he told me what my wife had said, and how she sent her love, and asked me to “take care not to catch cold.” I never saw Norman Schmidt again.

In our battery there were numerous Hungarians. They all worked either in the cook house, or on the ammunition detail. There seemed to be a good deal of hostility between the Czechs and the Hungarians. We wondered at this hostility between men who had come so far to fight the fascists, and when we once spoke about it with some Czechs, some of them seemed ashamed and apologetic; others described the Hungarians as “lazy,” or “ignorant” or “politically backward.” The Hungarians complained about being given the hardest, most disagreeable jobs, and they especially resented the fact that most of them were concentrated in the cookhouse or assigned to back-breaking ammunition details or to the ever-present digging chores. John, our sergeant, explained that only Czechs could be on the gun crews, because the commands were given in that language. There was even a meeting one day when the sky was overcast and there was little danger of planes. The Czech commander made a plea for international solidarity and understanding, and the usual gripes about the mail and the food were aired. But nothing really changed; the mail hardly ever arrived, there were few cigarettes, and the food was just as awful. There was the rice almost every day, a sticky gelatinous mass that was usually served when it grew dark, and sometimes, for a change, lentils mixed with bits of tough burro meat or salty bacalao[2]. You had to be careful with the lentils, for they contained many stones; Irving Peters lost half a tooth one day biting into lentils.

Early in February it stopped snowing. The fascists, who were on most of the hills surrounding Teruel were counter-attacking. All day long the bombers and fighters were in the sky. Our battery was firing continually. A few kilometers away, we could see Teruel gleaming in the sun. It was already almost a no-man’s land and being battered by the artillery from both sides.  With our glasses we could watch the shells exploding. For days now, we too had occasionally been under bomb attack. It was only by a miracle that no one was hurt. We used to fire until the order was given to duck, and then we would huddle in our dugouts, waiting for the bombs to fall. We would listen for their scream, and then the bomb would explode and shake the earth with a crunch as if a giant steam shovel was biting into its bowels – and it seemed as if each bomb was nearer and the next one would surely fall right into the small of one’s back. Then the roar of the retreating plane, and when we got up, the air was so thick with smoke, one couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead.

Mirsky, a Ukrainian from Canada, had been acting strangely for some days. He would talk incoherently to no one in particular of his farm and wife and children in Manitoba. Once, in a more lucid moment, he sat down with me near the guns, and told me a little of his life before he had left the Ukraine for Canada.  He had loved working in the forest, and his eyes lighted up with joy when he described how he had felled the tall trees in the woods near his home. He would imitate the sound of the axe cutting at the truck, and how way up in the leafy branches quivered, and then the crash as the tree was felled. “That was good life,” he said, “That was good life.” One night he was on guard, and the morning his body was found some distance from the battery. He had shot himself with his rifle. We buried him in a shallow trench and Elliot said: “The poor bastard – he won’t suffer anymore.”

One morning, before any planes had appeared and while we were lining up for coffee and bread, the air was torn by a shell rushing toward us. We all dropped to the ground, and after the shell exploded some distance from us, we ran for our dugouts. Artillery had us within range. It was light artillery – 75s – and some of the shells were duds. In our dugouts we were reasonably secure and it was even a welcome relief from the bombings. We lay back in the dugouts, smoking and counting the shells and trying to guess which would not explode. So long as we were under fire, our battery could not function, and we knew we would have to move. When the shelling stopped, the order was given to pack the guns and instruments. We had just about finished hitching the guns to the trucks, when we saw three Fiats circling way above us. Then they power-dived and strafed. The bullets rattled on the ground and on the steel bodies of our trucks. Irving Peters and I and some Czechs huddled underneath a truck, grateful that these were only fighter planes and did not carry bombs. After circling teasingly a few times and spraying the ground with bullets, they disappeared .  The trucks were already loaded and the nervous drivers recklessly speeded away through the town we had first come through and then along the road that skirted the mountain. The road was filled with troops going in both directions and trucks grinding their gears and honking their horns. Then the bombers came, higher over the mountains, searching for the winding road they knew was choked with men and materials. And when they came, the trucks stopped and the men jumped off the steep embankment at the side of the road, and where there was still some snow that lay untouched on the mountainside. Because the road was in a narrow defile, the exploding bombs sounded like the hollow cracks of huge whips.

There was a lot of noise and confusion, but few casualties. Eliott bruised his knee jumping down the embankment. B. I. (Basic Industry) Hawkins was all atremble, as he usually was when not behind his Oerlikon gun. Crosby lost one of his canteens that was filled with the sour wine. “Wowie,” he exclaimed. “I’ll have to get me another one; I’ll have to tell the folks back home about that.” He soon found another canteen, and soon enough had it filled with wine.  Irving Peters smiling foolishly, examined himself to see if he was all of a piece, and quickly scrambled on to the truck to get the most comfortable spot – which he usually did. Then we resumed our journey, and in a little while, we turned off onto a dirt road, and set up the guns at the top of a ridge that was interlaced with abandoned trenches.  The trenches were deep enough, and seemed safe, and we quickly settled into them. But they were filthy, and filled with excrement.  They were also crawling with lice. We had much time to scratch ourselves, because for the three days we stayed there, there were no planes to fire at. Sometimes we saw them, but they were too far away for us to fire at them. We could hear the distant sound of artillery. To the east of us, there was a battery of heavy artillery firing its frequent shells in the direction of Teruel. When it was growing dark, we could see the flash from its guns, and then we would count till we heard its shells exploding. We wondered whether it was our old battery from Almansa, and we rather suspected it was, because of the long time between shots. “God damn the lousy French keeping their border closed,” said Louie Roberts. “We have to fire those lousy guns that were old during the Crimean war—and look at the stuff the fascists get. Listen to their guns – one, two, three, bang – in rapid succession.” We did not know where we were and no one volunteered any information. We did know, however that we were farther from Teruel than when we had joined the battery, and from the information gleaned from a bulletin which we occasionally received, it was pretty obvious that we were no longer in Teruel, and that the fascist had retaken the ground they had lost at the beginning of our offensive.

We kept moving a lot after that – sometimes two or three times a day – back and forth along the paved mountain road, looking for positions where we would be safe from artillery fire and where we could fire at the fascist planes. None of us knew where we actually were, and no one ever tried to explain why we chose one position in preference to another. We secretly hoped we could get out of these freezing mountains around Teruel, and at night when there was respite from the guns, wrapped in our threadbare blankets or ponchos, scratching lice, we would longingly talk about the magical cities of Valencia and Barcelona on the coast. Louie had been in a hospital at Denia, which was a small city near Alicante. He told us about its cafes and its whores and its food, and each time he told us about it, the whores became more beautiful and the food more delicious and plentiful. And usually in the middle of his story, Hawkins, who was cynical and loved to bait Louie, would interrupt with: “You can keep your lousy Spanish food and your whores; all I want is a dirty old hamburger.” How many times did I hear guys when they were hungry speak longingly of that “dirty old hamburger.”

Iceland’s Irving Peters is Irving Peskin in Spain, RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 962.

Iceland’s Irving Peters is Irving Peskin in Spain, RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 962.

Once when we were making one of our many moves to a new position, we got caught in a traffic jam on the road. Trucks filled with soldiers, going in different directions were stalled, and nobody wanted to give way, and back up a bit. The drivers were cursing and the soldiers were egging them on. Everybody seemed to enjoy being in a rage. Then suddenly there was the shout, “Avion, Avion,” and everybody scrambled for the ditches at the side of the road. The men from my truck ducked into a narrow culvert under the road. There were many soldiers there before us, and many crowded in after us. The culvert was about three feet high, and very narrow. More soldiers continued crowding and pushing as if to the core of the earth. It was hard to breathe. The men were all cursing in their own language. I wanted to get out of that culvert, but I couldn’t move. The bombs did not fall near us, but I heard their distant crunch. I could also hear the sound of the cartridges from the strafing planes as they hit the concrete of the road above us; also an anguished scream seemed far away. The planes flew away, and we finally crawled out into the air. I vowed never again to seek shelter in a culvert. It was better to die alone on the field, but at least with some room to move and air to breathe. There were casualties, but none from our battery. One truck, filled with Spanish soldiers, had been riddled with bullets from a strafing plane, and the road near it was running with blood. Some dead soldiers, covered with blankets, were in the ditch at the side of the road. One Russian truck, its wooden sides caved in, had been overturned. It took some time to get the rest of the trucks moving again, and we watched the sky, fearful that the planes would come back. They never did that day.

We were very grateful when darkness came. Our truck rolled slowly many kilometers through the night, and then we stopped at a stone hut that looked as if it had recently been occupied by a peasant family. We built a fire in the fireplace, and toasted some bread and fried some bully beef which had been distributed that day. There was plenty of wine at hand, and we all became pleasantly drunk, and began to sing. We didn’t understand the Czech songs but they sounded good. And what feeling we put into “Wagon Wheels,” “Ther’s A Long, Long, Trail A-winding,” “Red Sails in the Sunset,” and other sentimental songs of that nature! It was good to be away from the front for even a little while. There was a huge pile of straw in one corner of the hut, and for the first time since we had been at Teruel, we didn’t have to sleep on the ground. Before falling asleep we talked about women, and our folks back home, and the lousy French for not opening the border, and what we were going to do if we ever went on leave. And although our bodies were weary, we didn’t wish to sleep and lose this marvelous luxury of straw and a roof overhead – to nothingness. The thought of the next day filled us with only a faint dread, and though sleep forced itself to our eyelids, we fought it – but to no avail.

Then, on the morrow, we took a dirt road to another hill and set up our guns again.  We were digging gun emplacements and dugouts all morning, and with no interruptions form any planes, or even any sight of them. There was no more snow on the ground, and towards noon it even became hot. There was a breath of spring in the air. There was not even the sound of a shot in the distance. A small European car approached us, and stopped right in the middle of our guns. Out of it stepped a tall blond man with a pockmarked face, another short squarish man, and a woman. The men wore vague-looking military outfits, with no insignia. The woman wore a woolen skirt and a military tunic. She had her hair in a half bob. We stopped digging and stared at them, especially at the woman.  We started at her so intently, that she must have become uncomfortable. We noticed she had shapely legs, and we could see through her tunic that she was full-breasted. A woman at the front! We hadn’t seen a woman for so long. They were talking with our commander, the young Czech. He must have mentioned that we were staring, because she suddenly turned, took a few steps toward us, and then smiled. We noticed she had one gleaming golden tooth, that made the rest of her teeth look even more regular and perfect. We even smelled a faint whiff of perfume. She spoke in Russian to some of the Czechs, and then rejoined her companions and the Czech commander. We continued eyeing her legs and her generous bosom. Then the Russians got back in the care and drove off. Later we learned that these were Russian advisers to the antiaircraft outfits. Was the woman an adviser, I wondered, or the wife of one of the Russians? But that bosom behind the tunic and those legs! Long after they were gone I could still see them.

As soon as they had left, we were ordered to stop digging and load the trucks. We were on the move again. But this time it was to the coast and the blue Mediterranean. The battle for Teruel was over. The fascists had retaken that city and some more ground besides. We knew that things looked bad, but nevertheless, we were glad to be leaving those cold mountains. Hope was expressed that we would be assigned to defend some city on the coast – Valencia or Barcelona, but in our hearts we knew that was not to be. “Stop dreaming about Valencia, and its whores, Louie” said Elliott. “If I know this war, the next place will be worse than Teruel.”

March 1938.

[1] The Soviet made Polikarpov I-16 Soviet monoplane fighter was nicknamed Mosca or “Fly.”

[2] Salted dried cod fish.


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