Brunete the Good and the Bad – by Leo Rosenberg

February 10, 2018
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This article was first published in The Volunteer, v. XI, n. 2, December 1989 and is a continuation of Rosenberg‘s The First Day. cb

Leo Rosenberg, Family photograph, undated.

Leo Rosenberg, Family photograph, undated.

It was the second day of the Brunete Offensive, and the Lincolns, the British, and the Washingtons, supposedly at rest, were busy burying their dead, replenishing their supplies, and doing their best to get ready for the next round of battle. The three battalions had struggled the whole previous day to break into and capture the town of Villanueva de la Canada. Unsuccessfully and completely exhausted, they had been sent back into action that same night. Together with the other three battalions in the 15th Brigade, they had engaged in a vicious and fiercely-fought attack that had broken through the town’s defenses and overcome any further resistance.

Besides learning very quickly that war is indeed hell, we in the Washington Battalion had discovered something else. The man who does the fighting on the ground, the foot-soldier, usually has very little chance of being told or finding out what is going on around him. He hears plenty of rumors, some of which turn out to be true, but the vast majority has no basis in fact whatsoever. One rumor, which filtered down from headquarters and proved to be painfully true, was that the original battle plan for the first day of the offensive was for the three English speaking battalions not to attack the town but go around it and advance across the open field s and capture all the territory which had been abandoned by a demoralized and fleeing enemy. Villanueva, and the other towns in the area, with their lines of communication and supply cut off, would have been forced to surrender with very little trouble and few, if any, casualties. Instead, we had not pushed forward and we had suffered severe casualties attacking a town that did not have to be taken by force. We had lost days of precious time and given the enemy the opportunity to reorganize and bring up his reinforcements.

Why had the original battle plan been changed and so many men and so much time been wasted? The whole purpose of the offensive was to push back the Fascists from their positions around Madrid which they used to menace and shell the city with impunity. The Republic had never been able to mount any kind of major offensive, and now, for the first time, it had massed almost 50,000 soldiers, together with some hundreds of planes, tanks, and artillery. Two prime elements necessary to the success of this attack, especially since the enemy had always managed to bring in reinforcements with amazing quickness when his positions were threatened, had to be surprise and speed. A deficiency in either or both of these factors could seriously hinder the progress of the offensive, weaken it and contribute to its possible failure.

We were asking ourselves why and by whom had a perfectly good strategy been changed? Was it stupidity or was it sabotage? We knew of and recalled another costly mistake—Jarama on the 27th of February. At that time it had been a case of a Commanding General’s stubbornness and disregard of the possible consequences that had sent the men of the Lincoln Battalion into an attack against an opponent solidly entrenched on top of a steep and rocky hill without the planes, tanks, and artillery which would have softened the enemy’s defenses and provided the cover and protection that would have resulted in a successful mission and the saving of many precious lives. What was even worse was the fact that the preparation and cover and protection had been promised, and the promise had been broken. Despite the lack of any of the expected help, the battalions had been ordered to attack, and had suffered the loss of 300 dead and wounded brave men in an assault that had no chance of succeeding. The rank and name of the man who had made the promise, broken it, and was responsible for the failure to take the hill and the unnecessary loss of so many lives was General Gal.

When we learned that the man who commanded the two International Brigades, the 13th and the 15th in our sector was the same General Gal of Jarama, we became more than a little anxious, worrying and wondering about our bad luck. If he was also responsible for our banging our heads against the walls of Villanueva when we should have been advancing and capturing territory that was ours for the taking, we were in and would continue to be in deep mierda, which is Spanish for a four-letter English word that should be familiar to all of you. The next morning, two days late, the Washington and the Lincolns began their advance into enemy territory. The British Battalion, which had been badly mauled in the first day’s fighting, stayed behind to reorganize and regain its strength. We made good progress, meeting only some scattered resistance which was light and ineffective and easily routed. We cleared out all the territory between our starting point and the Guadarrama River (which at that time of year was almost dry.) We crossed the river, still in pursuit of the enemy. The advance became more difficult because of the nature of the terrain began to change. It was no longer flat and had become hilly. The enemy troops were taking advantage of the hills and their crests to conceal themselves and fire down on us. We continued to advance against their defensive outposts but no sooner did we take one hill than we had to climb and take another. The ground was dry and hard, the marching up and down hills was exhausting, and the heat of the sun was hot enough to kill. We had advanced too fast and too far. We were miles ahead of our supply lines, so far ahead that they had lost contact with us.

We positioned ourselves that night, tired and thirsty and hungry, at the base of a high steep hill and readied ourselves for a full-scale assault the next morning against the fortifications on its top which had been reinforced to a point where it was almost impregnable. We had no way of knowing that at the time but we found out just a few hours later that we were in for a very rough session.

The next day started out badly and became even worse as the hours rolled on. We were in serious trouble from the moment we started our attack. A squadron of tanks arrived to help us and, passing through our lines, started to climb the hill at a speed that was too fast for us to follow. We tried to stay behind them but we could not keep up with them. We were only a short distance from our lines when the tanks reached the summit of the hill and disappeared from sight. We never saw them again, but the enemy had no trouble seeing us. We were scattered on the sides of the hill, completely exposed, and the enemy’s machine-guns were looking down our throats and having no trouble finding targets. We tried to move forward toward the top of the hill, and we did manage to gain some ground, but as we got closer to the enemy’s guns it became increasingly difficult, and then impossible, to continue going forward. Our casualties were almost 140 dead and wounded. We were losing too many men and we had no replacements. That night we positioned ourselves at the bottom of the hill, still exposed to the fire coming from its crest: and we had to dig in and build breastworks to protect us from incoming fire or a possible counterattack. Our orders were to stay where we were and hold our positions, but this was a difficult assignment.

The enemy tried one attack which we repulsed, and we lost no time strengthening our hastily dug fortifications. They were the only protection we had from the murderous fire coming down at us from the hill-top, but they were very little help against the enemy planes that never stopped bombing us. It was almost impossible for supplies to reach us during daylight, and even at night it was extremely risky to get to us with food and water and ammunition. The days and nights we stayed and suffered on this field of battle became for us one hell on earth. The heat was terrible, food and water were scarce and tasted like nothing we had ever known before, we were tired and dirty and hurting, and our uniforms and bodies held the smell of death. No wonder, as the ground around us and as far back as the hills behind us was heavy with the odor of putrefying bodies of the men and mules who had been killed by artillery and machine gun fire while trying to bring supplies to us under the cover of night.

We held this position for three, maybe four days, but this ordinarily short span of time seemed much longer because of the burning heat and our terrible thirst, the incessant and never ending shelling and bombing, and the sights and smells of the swollen bodies lying all around us. It was impossible to relax and rest, and we had so much to think about what we had done since our first day in battle, and we thought and spoke of the heavy losses we had suffered. Our dead and wounded were not strangers, were not just numbers in some new item about a tragedy hundreds or thousands of miles away involving people we did not know. Our casualties were our friends, our comrades, our buddies. We may have had our differences and disagreements before our entry into the war zone, but everything of that nature was forgotten once the fighting began. Now we depended on each other and we cared and worried about each other’s well-being. You may have heard it said that there are no atheists in fox-holes. Well, I can tell you that there are no politics or politicians in fox-holes either. Here facing death together, we had become one large family, a family that seemed to be getting smaller with each passing day. The death or wounding of any one of our membership had become something very personal, and we felt each loss as one feels the loss of a very close friend or relative.

We also thought about and talked about how well supplied the Fascists seemed to be in comparison to the Army of the Republic. In just a few days the government’s offensive that had started out so promising of victory had slowed to almost a standstill. We were fighting an enemy that already owned the skies, because his vast number of fighters and bombers had had chased our pitifully few planes out of the fight, and enemy whose enormous quantity of the newest rapid-firing artillery pieces seemed to be hurling an inexhaustible supply of shells, and whose soldiers were provided with the finest and best equipment. For every shortage of ours, the enemy seemed to have a surplus. A thought that began during the first days and grew into solemn truth in the months that followed told us that whatever we had now or would obtain later would constantly decrease, while the enemy would continually increase his already tremendous stock of supplies, equipment, manpower, and whatever else was necessary to win a war.

The Non-Intervention Agreement was denying the Republic the assistance it needed so badly to survive and win, while the rebels and their supplies and equipment which the Soviet Union and Mexico were sending to Spain to help the Republic were stopped at the French border, or were lost because of the shelling and torpedoing of ships which tried to pass through the Fascist naval blockade. The difference between the manner in which the Loyalists and the enemy was being treated was so blatantly unfair and outrageous that I strengthened rather than weakened our resolve to keep on fighting.

I believe that we talked most of all about our performance and our observations since the morning of July 6th when the offensive first started. We had never attended a military academy or a war college, but we of the George Washington Battalion and the men of the Lincoln Battalion had participated in real and bloody combat and were qualified to speak about what we had seen and learned. The Lincolns at Jarama and we and the Lincolns here at Brunete had taken part in the several attacks that were note-worthy for their ineffectiveness and heavy casualties. We discussed what had happened and had come to certain conclusions.

We had been told while in training that it was much easier to defend a position than to attack it. The chances for a successful assault could be improved immeasurably if the defenders were bombed and shelled or the defense ripped apart by tanks before the final storming of the position by the infantry. What we had not been told, was that it became much more difficult to attack successfully if the enemy occupied a defensive position atop a steep hill, at Villanueva there had been a church steeple, and here we could see directly in front of us the hill top fortification which had hurt us so badly during our attack and had succeeded in making our lives so miserable afterwards. It helped somewhat if the ground between you and the enemy provided some cover, such as trees or rocks or an uneven surface. Without cover, and completely exposed, and with nothing but your rifle and with no help from our planes or our artillery or our tanks, your assault was doomed to failure and heavy losses.

We had learned two valuable lessons. The first on was that it is almost suicidal to attack a high and well-defended position without preparatory and cover fire before and even during the advance. The second lesson that we had learned was that a strongly fortified defensive position, especially if it was high above ground level, was worth its weight in gold. Even though we had not yet had the experience of occupying so advantageous a position, we based our estimate of its value on the enemy’s success in beating back our attacks. It is true that the only weapons we carried and used were our rifles, and these alone were never enough to reach and take our objectives. We had no doubt that we would have done much better with the help of our heavy guns, tanks and planes with their additional fire power could have given us. The trouble was that those weapons were so few in number and were required in so many different places that they never seemed to be available to us when we needed them.

We were finally relieved, and none too soon. We were in bad shape, and we staggered rather than marched back across the river which was even drier than we had last seen it.  Resting, we learned something of how the offensive was progressing. We had gained a considerable amount of territory, but we were short of supplies and men, while the enemy had brought in thousands of fresh troops and massive amounts of supplies and weapons. For the moment things were still fairly quiet and there was not too much movement on either side of the lines. We were licking our wounds, and all we had to do was look around us and see how much one week’s fighting had cost us. Half of the Washington s were wounded or dead, and the Lincolns, who were in reserve with us, had lost almost as many, but there were enough of us till around, if both outfits were merged, to form one full-strength battalion.  We did just that, and became the Lincoln-Washington Battalion. It was only a short time before we dropped the Washington, and began to call ourselves and to become known as the Lincolns. It was nice to be in reserve, if only for a little while, and to be able to lie back and relax, and enjoy the fact that for once we had enough food and water. What was not so nice was learning too soon that this period of peace and quiet had to end because we were needed once again at the front.

The enemy, who had bided his time until he had amassed a force which he thought was sufficient to overrun our defenses, had begun to attack our forward positions, probing for weak spots which he could exploit. Our new battalion was sent to an area where the enemy had almost succeeded in his attempts to break through our lines. For two days we held our positions and denied him the opening that he wanted, even though the sky was black with his planes which bombed and strafed us continuously. When we were relieved we were able to turn over our sector with our front lines still intact, but the real trouble was still ahead of us.

We were back in action just two days later. The enemy’s recent activity had been no more than a preamble to the massive offensive which he was now waging, throwing everything he had against the entire length of our front lines. Our defenses were being so heavily battered  that some of our more thinly-manned positions were beginning to weaken under the intense pressure. This time we did not stay in one fixed position. Holes were beginning to open in too many places and we were needed everywhere, so we kept moving about to cover as many weak spots as we could. This was the toughest and most exhaustive fighting of the whole offensive. The enemy gave us no rest, and we had very little left in men or equipment to keep him from pushing us back to where we had started on July 6th. Slowly but surely, he was recovering the territory we had taken from him in the early days of our offensive. By the time the fighting stopped on the 25th he had managed to bring his front lines very close to their original pre-offensive locations. It was not until the fighting was almost over that the Lincolns were finally relieved, and even then, they were still not out of the action. During the whole of their march back to their reserve position, the enemy’s planes pursued them, stretching what should have been a fairly short hike into a six-hour nerve-tearing ordeal.

I was not with them during their last long march of the offensive. Shortly before they left the frontlines an enemy shell tried to occupy the same space which I was defending.  I was lucky and escaped with only minor damage, but my career as an infantryman was ended. I did not see the Lincolns again until six months later when I, now and artilleryman and part of a group of eight, consisting of one Australian and seven Americans, was called up to the snow and ice of Teruel. Our mission was to join a Czech anti-aircraft battery as replacements for the men it had lost to illness and enemy action. The Lincolns were included in the ranks of our troops who were fighting to hold onto what they had won earlier. We were on the heights overlooking the action and trying as hard as we could to keep the enemy planes off their backs.

This was a bad time for me. I was seeing for a second time an offensive that had started brilliantly and successfully end in frustration and deep disappointment. I had seen the same thing happen six months earlier at Brunete, where the Government had managed to bring together a sizable attack force of infantry, together with as many planes, tanks, and artillery as were available. For the first few days we were able to advance and push back the enemy. The problem was that we never had enough to keep going and achieve a real solid victory. We ran out of men and supplies, and equipment, and when the enemy counterattacked with his wealth of everything that we lacked, we had nothing left to stop him from taking back whatever ground he had lost.

The depressing end of the Brunete Offensive had given us a look into the future. The Republic had only a small part of what it needed to win its struggle against its enemies, and if it continued to lose more and more of what little it did have, sooner or later there would come a time when only courage, and conviction and commitment would be left, and those would not be enough to stave off defeat.

The Republic was fighting a host of enemies, those whom it faced on Spanish soil and those others in London and Paris and Washington who were responsible for its desperate struggle. Had all things been equal it would have won at Brunete, and sooner or later it would have won the war. Instead, it lost, and its supporters were forced to pay for the defeat with years of extreme pain and misery.

For most of us in the Lincoln and Washington Battalions the Brunete Offensive was school which gave us a crash course in soldiering. It was a short course and was completed in only nineteen days. We learned quickly and we learned well, but the cost of tuition was high, and on one passed through the course without paying some kind of price. For many or us the cost was too high, and it was paid with injuries, with wounds, and with lives. Our losses saddened us, but they hardened us, also. We became knowledgeable and experienced, and this helped us make important contributions to the war effort, not only at Brunete, but in all the other actions in which we participated later. We went wherever we were sent, sometimes attacking, sometimes defending, doing as much as we could and whatever we could to help the Spanish people keep their Republic and its better way of life. Unfortunately, we failed.

We were told that we had inspired the Spanish people and earned their respect and admiration for the way we had conducted ourselves since our arrival in their country, and we replied that we felt they were the ones who deserved the plaudits for the sacrifices that they had made and the courage that they had displayed all through the war. We were told that we had performed heroic deeds, and yet we never thought of ourselves as heroes. We were proud because we felt that we had kept faith with ourselves and with the people we had come to Spain to help, and we were grateful to the Republic for giving us the opportunity to fight for a cause, which, because of our unassailable belief in its worth and importance, had given us in return the passion, the drive and the capacity to accomplish what sometimes must have seemed like miracles in its behalf.

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One Response to “ Brunete the Good and the Bad – by Leo Rosenberg ”

  1. Ray Giff on February 11, 2018 at 11:46 pm

    Thanks for the Blast from the Past. Reading this was painful and by the end of Brunete was obvious to most of the Americans. But after regrouping and bringing up another 200 men, the XVth Brigade did take Quinto and Belchite before being stopped at Fuentes del Ebro.

    It is notable that for these last three battles, General Gal had been removed and replaced by General Walter who was a more experienced soldier. As was noted American Allan Johnson, General Gal was nothing more than an amateur.

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