Jarama Series: Garibaldis
In the Jarama Series, The Volunteer Blog will present a series of articles examining the experiences of volunteers in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion from its formation to the Brunete Offensive in July 1937. Articles will focus both on the battalion’s formation as well as on the individuals who served. These articles are intended to provide the reader with a better appreciation of the men and women who made up the first American combat formation in Spain. The series is compiled and curated by ALBA Board Member Chris Brooks.
General Janos Galicz, General Gal, the commander of the 35th Division designed an operation with the ultimate goal of driving the Nationalists back across the Jarama River.[i] The plan of attack for April 5, 1937 entailed a coordinated all-arms assault. The attack would commence with an aerial bombardment at 0630 followed by artillery at 0635. At 0700 twenty T-26 tanks would cross the trenches to lead the Garibaldi and Dombrowski Battalions of the XIIth International Brigade (IB) across no-man’s-land. The XVth IB and the Spanish 66th BDE would provide supportive covering fire and were prepared to advance and cover the flanks once the Nationalist front lines were pierced.[ii]
The actual battle failed to follow the plan. Only the bombers made their timeline, unfortunately their bombing run only served to alert the Nationalists of the impending attack. The tanks arrived at 0800 and almost immediately one driver got his tank stuck in a shell hole. The crew bailed out of the stranded tank just before a Nationalist anti-tank gun set the stricken tank afire. The remaining tanks fired a few desultory rounds and fell back.[iii] The Nationalists maintained heavy artillery and mortar fire. The first wave of the Garibaldis crossed the top at 1000 and quickly recovered the trench line lost during the March 14 Nationalist attack. The Lincolns kept up a heavy volume of fire from their trenches in support of the attack. The second wave of the Garibaldis and the Dombrowski Battalion refused to leave their trenches and the attack stalled. Several Italian casualties resulted when they got caught in Republican wire.[iv]
Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Copic the XVth BDE commander ordered the Lincoln Battalion to attack in an effort to relieve pressure on the Garibaldis. Captain Martin Hourihan, the Lincoln commander, requested permission to have his men resupplied with ammunition before attacking. The battalion had expended almost all of its ammunition supporting the Garibaldi’s assault. Copic pressed the issue going as far as calling the Lincolns “cowards.” The Lincolns finally went over the top at 1300. Unlike the assaults in February, the Americans utilized every element of available cover. The weight of enemy fire quickly forced the Lincolns to ground and Hourihan ordered the unit to hold in place. At nightfall the Lincolns quietly pulled back to their trenches. [v] Despite the obstacles and failure to adhere to the attack plan, casualties were comparatively light.[vi]
Volunteer John Tisa’s eyewitness account of the event was more positive. His entry for April 5th stated:
The battalion again went over the top supporting an advance movement on the flank. The Garibaldi Battalion of antifascist Italians, fresh from their victories over Mussolini’s Italian regular troops at Guadalajara, led the attack. The Dabrowski Battalion of Polish volunteers, to the right of the Garibaldi, charged next; then came the Spanish units, followed by the Lincoln Battalion. The enemy bombarded our lines intensively with hundreds of trench mortars, heavy artillery, and rifle grenade bombs. A sweeping machine-gun and rifle fire ripped open our sandbags. One of our tanks charging clumsily ahead of our thrust was incapacitated by antitank shells. By a few bold encircling maneuvers, the indefatigable Garibaldi Battalion recaptured the trenches lost to the fascists on 14 March and rounded up some 150 prisoners.
Davey Jones, acting Lincoln Battalion political commissar, was wounded in the upper right arm while rescuing a wounded comrade. Casualties, painful even when lose even one man, were comparably slight.[vii]
Figure 1. John Tisa’s sketch of the positions provides the only visual representation of the disposition of the units, Recalling the Good Fight, p.61.
The assault received little contemporary press coverage even though it was larger in scale than either the February 23 or 27 attack both of which are better known. The coverage is echoed in most histories of American volunteers which provide only a brief account of the action.[viii] Cecil Eby’s Comrades and Commissars provides the most comprehensive account drawing from Copic’s diary and Hourihan’s reports.[ix] Minimal coverage likely results from poor performance of the forces involved and the failure of the attack to drive the Nationalist off Pingarrón.
While several issues contribute to the failure of the attack, exhaustion is the most glaring. Pushed to meet an extremely aggressive attack plan, there was insufficient time for the 35th Division staff to coordinate with the identified units and for the participating units to rehearse their actions. This likely accounts for the failure of the artillery barrage and the late arrival of the tanks. Failure of the tanks to press the attack was likely the result of exhaustion of both the tanks and crews. The Republic’s Russian made T-26s were in almost continuous action from October to April. Most tanks were well past their proscribed hours for complete overhauls (depot-level maintenance). The crews were equally exhausted from the operational tempo and resulting heavy casualties. This exhaustion resulted in crews that did not trust their vehicles and commanders who did not trust their crews.[x] Exhaustion was also a factor among the troops. The XVth BDE’s units saw action throughout the winter and were understrength.[xi] The XIIth BDE was in combat even longer and had lost 70% of its original cadre since entering combat in November.[xii] The XIIth BDE went into reserve after the close of the Battle of Guadalajara on March 23. They had less than twelve days to rest and reorganize before the April 5 attack.[xiii]
The rectification of the lines did little to alter the course of the war. Among the Lincolns David Jones, the acting Battalion Commissar, was hit in the upper arm and spent the remainder of his time in Spain in hospital. Captain Hourihan and Captain Alan Johnson serving on the brigade staff also received slight wounds.[xiv] The names of the Lincoln volunteers who were killed in the action are not recorded. The battalion suffered additional losses because several Italian American Lincolns deserted to the Garibaldi BN.[xv] The Jarama Front remained static.
Carroll, Peter N. The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1994.
Eby, Cecil, Comrades and Commissars, The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, University of Pennsylvania: University Park, Pennsylvania, 2007.
Johnson, Verle B., Legions of Babel, The International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1967.
Landis, Arthur. The Lincoln Brigade, New York: Citadel, 1968.
Rolfe, Edwin. The Lincoln Battalion, New York: Stratford Press, 1939.
Rosenstone, Robert A. Crusade of the Left, The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, New York: Pegasus, 1969.
Tisa, John. Recalling the Good Fight, An Autobiography of the Spanish Civil War; Massachusetts: Bergin and Garvey Publishers, 1985.
[i] General Gal was the nom de guerre of the Hungarian Comintern officer Janos Galicz in Spain. Galicz was an Austro-Hungarian officer during WWI. He was captured by the Russians and freed during the Revolution. He serve in the Red Army and later took part in the Soviet regime in Hungary in 1919. Initially the commander of the XVth BDE he was promoted to Division Command. He was recalled to the Soviet Union in 1939 and perished in the Purges.
[ii] Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI), Fond 545, Opis 3, Delo 467, ll. 15-16 Copic Diaries, April 5, 1937 entry (Spanish); Cecil Eby, Comrades and Commissars, The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, (University Park, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania, 2007), 105. Eby calls the Garibaldi and Dombrowski BNs Brigades in error. The two Battalions gave their names to XIIth and XIIIth BDEs respectively during the reorganization of the International Brigades that occurred later in April.
[iii] Eby, Comrades and Commissars, 105-06.
[iv] Landis, The Lincoln Brigade, (New York: Citadel, 1968), 161. Landis cites Charles Nusser, who stated that “some of the Garibaldis, either going over or returning to their lines, found themselves in front of the Lincoln’s trenches, got caught in the Lincoln barbed wire, and were badly shot up.”
[v] Eby. Comrades and Commissars, 105.
[vi] Edwin Rolfe, The Lincoln Battalion, (New York, Stratford Press, 1939), 63; Arthur Landis, The Lincoln Brigade, 161; Eby. Comrades and Commissars, 106; Both Rolfe and Landis state that there were 20 casualties. Eby cites five killed and one wounded within the Lincoln Battalion. The names of those killed in action remain unidentified.
[vii] John Tisa, Recalling the Good Fight, An Autobiography of the Spanish Civil War; (Massachusetts: Bergin and Garvey Publishers, 1985), 60.
[viii] Robert A. Rosenstone, Crusade of the Left, (New York: Pegasus, 1969), 149; states only the following “On March 14 there was a small action when the enemy seized some trenches to the left of the Lincolns, and on April 5 the Americans helped to recapture them.”
[ix] Eby cites Copic Diary with a date of March 1, 1937, and Hourihan interview, Adelphi University. I was unable to find the citation (there are multiple transcription in various languages of the diary and Eby does not cite the document number). RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 3, Delo 467, ll. 26, Copic diaries, April 5, 1937 (longer version of the entry giving a full breakdown of the plan) and Interview with Martin Hourihan, Commander of the Lincoln Battalion from March 9 to July 4 (by Sandor Voros), August 26, 1937, Sandor Voros Spanish Civil War Collection, Box 1, Folder 2, Adelphi University Archives and Special Collections, Garden City, NY.
[x] Steven J. Zalozga, Spanish Civil War Tanks, The proving ground for Blitzkreig, (Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2010), 18 (on maintenance) and 26 (crew training).
[xi] Even with the addition of the 21st and 24th Spanish Battalions to the XVth BDE on March 3 the Brigade was still significantly understrength.
[xii] Johnston, Verle B., Legions of Babel, The International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1967), 82, 84.
[xiii] RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 145, ll. 37-38. Order a La XIIeme Brigade No. 51 order.(undated). “3º Le 5 Avril, exercice simultané de deux bataillons; Attaque de deuz bataillons contre les positions de 1’ennemi défendues par un bataillon.”
[xiv] Landis The Lincoln Brigade pp 161-62.
[xv] Veteran Charles Nusser conversation with the author.