January 1938: The Brigades defend Teruel

Post date: 10/01/2023

Here is a vivid account of the Battle of Teruel which took place 85 years ago this month. It is reproduced and translated from the website of the IBMT’s Spanish sister organisation AABI (Asociación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales).

After two months of reorganisation, training and relative rest, the International Brigades returned to action at the beginning of 1938. This was the case for the 11th and 15th Brigades, which formed the 35th International Division under the command of General Walter. The circumstances are well-known: on 15 December the Republican offensive on Teruel began. It was a well thought out and executed operation that allowed the city to be liberated in just over two weeks.

Defence positions of the 35th International Division. The 11th Brigade had occupied the positions of the 15th Brigade from 4-14 January.

But Franco was not willing to accept this defeat, albeit partial, and decided to suspend his prepared offensive on Madrid in order to dedicate all his military effort to the conquest of the city. Shortly after Christmas, on 29 December, he launched the first of the four harsh counter-offensives in order to recapture Teruel. To take it, he had to seize its two defensive bastions: La Muela, to the southwest, and El Muletón, to the northwest. With a very hard blizzard and temperatures of 22 degrees below zero, Franco's troops managed to take the western part of La Muela and the hills to the north and west of Muletón.

The city was threatened and the Republican command ordered the mobilisation of the two International Brigades present in Teruel. General Walter, head of the 35th International Division, arranged for the 11th Brigade to be located in front of Concud where, together with other Spanish brigades, it defended the front in the 'post of honour' from 4-14 January. Likewise the 15th Brigade was deployed at the beginning of January in the area between Argente and Celadas, which the North American volunteers called the 'North Pole'. On 14 January, General Walter ordered the 15th Brigade to replace the 11th Brigade battalions in 'the post of honour', the name that the head of the 15th International Brigade, the Yugoslavian Ćopić, had given to the positions defended by the 11th Brigade.

Troops of the 15th International Brigade in the area of Argente, Teruel, dubbed the 'North Pole' by the Lincoln volunteers.

The Brigade, after a brief rest of three days, returned to combat on 17 January to defend the crucial position of Muletón, the plateau that protected the Teruel bastion from the northwest. The same day that the 11th Brigade stationed its forces there, the Francoist command launched the third offensive (17-22 January), unleashing a storm of aerial and artillery fire that crumbled the fragile defences of the bastion. The 11th Brigade lost the Muletón heights on the morning of 17 January, but recovered them in the afternoon. On 20 January they lost them again and had to retreat towards the hills above the Alfambra valley, where they were relieved by Spanish forces. For five days the battalions held out in that difficult situation, losing two of the battalion leaders: the Swiss Max Doppler and the Berliner Max Schmidt (alias Fritz Klamm).

On the night of 13 January 1938, two battalions of the 15th Brigade relieved the 11th Brigade while the Lincoln Battalion remained in reserve in the city of Teruel and the British Battalion was positioned to the north of the city, in the area of the cemetery of Santa Barbara. The Spanish Battalion was located north of the La Muela cliffs, on both sides of the Turia or Guadalaviar river, while the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion positioned itself to the right, east of Concud. Faced with the enemy's attack, which seemed imminent, the commander of the 3rd Company, Lionel Edwards, sent thirty of his best riflemen and a section of machine gunners, under the command of Pablo Carbonell, to advanced positions on the hills in front of the enemy trenches.

It was an outpost on the right flank of the Mac-Paps. We occupied it with thirty men and four machine guns. The fascists smashed us to pieces with heavy artillery and, in between shelling, they sent waves of infantry on the attack… After two days of continuous shelling the end had to come… Our machine guns were blown to pieces, we were under crossfire and it was impossible to receive reinforcements. There were only five of us left armed with rifles and we had to retreat to escape, with one wounded. Finally, the wounded man and one of us died in the retreat.

Burial of German battalion leader Max Schmidt in El Muletón.

The wounded man who died in the withdrawal was the machine gun commander Pablo Carbonell. The photographer Harry Randall immortalised the moment in which the sanitarium loaded Pablo, already a corpse. Víctor (the youngest of the three Carbonell brothers and the only one who returned to Puerto Rico alive) recalled his last words of encouragement for him and for the cause he defended:

On 13 [17] January I saw my brother fall; I helped pick up his body, his heart had been pierced by a bullet. He had time to say a few words to me, a farewell message for my mother, a memory for the homeland, and a phrase of encouragement for me to continue in defence of this ideal... My brother died as a hero, in my arms... His mortal remains rest in the sector known as La Muela [el Muletón]... in a cold, lost tomb (there is no cross or stone to mark the place where the remains rest)... and there they sleep their last sleep. Thank God they buried him. Many times there is no time to deal with the dead, and we continue our attack. It is now that I understand the French saying of 'C'est la guerre’.

That day the left wing of the Mac-Paps Battalion, located on the Masía del Chantre, was attacked by the enemy cavalry, and resisted successfully. Meanwhile strong artillery bombardments continued on the city that wounded the commander of the Lincoln Battalion, the Texan Phil Detro, who died shortly after in a hospital in Murcia. The following day the British Battalion left its positions in Santa Bárbara and launched a furious counter-attack up the Barranco del Rubio towards elevation 942 involving the Major Attlee Company (suffering 21 dead), the 3rd Company of Sam Wild, and the 4th Spanish. This was a  futile effort; they were forced to abandon this height. Bill Alexander, commander of the British Battalion, planted on top – before giving the order to withdraw – a table with the following inscription: ‘In the memory of the twenty-one of the 57th battalion of the 15th International Brigade who gave their lives around this area in defence of Teruel’.

Machine gun commander Pablo Carbonell, injured at Teruel and taken by stretcher bearers.

On 21 January the 2nd Mac-Paps company, which had fought the final battles in front of the Alfambra valley, was destroyed. But, despite their small advances, the Francoists could not take Teruel. The resistance encountered in this direct attack convinced them that they would have to try to take it indirectly: what was called the Alfambra operation or battle. So on 22 January the third counteroffensive ceased and on 3 February the internationals were relieved of the ‘post of honour’ and sent to recover at Puerto Escandón. Fighter losses had been enormous, mainly those of the 11th Brigade. The 15th Brigade had fewer casualties, but the Mac-Paps had 250 dead, the British Battalion 150 and 80 from the Lincoln Battalion.

During that month the 14th Brigade continued in the sector located to the south of El Escorial, combining the defence of the frontline with preparations for new military operations. That month they also began a profound internal reorganisation, abandoning the idea – fostered by their commander Dumont – of forming a new Division. The lack of troops and the controversies that the commander aroused led to the suppression of the project and to the dismissal of Dumont, who returned to France. In his place Marcel Sagnier was chosen, a painter-worker who had shown courage and leadership skills in the previous months. The battalions were reduced to four: Paris Commune (9th), Domingo Germinal (10th), André Marty (12th) and Henry Barbusse (13th); the Ralph Fox, Henri Vuillemin and Pierre Brachet battalions were no more.

The war commissar, François Vittori, in turn proposed an improvement in political work with Spanish courses, literacy classes for Spanish soldiers and cultural activities. All of this made it possible to transform a unit that had behaved irregularly in the previous months into one that knew how to face the challenges of the Battle of Caspe, fought in March 1938, and the Battle of the Ebro, in July-September.

As regards the 12th and 13th International Brigades, their activity continued in the Huesca region of La Litera. The chronology written by the Garibaldi Brigade mentions the visit that a delegation made to Barcelona to thank the workers of the war factories for their contribution to the defence of the Republic, a visit during which they paid homage to Guido Picelli, Battistelli and Mario Angeloni, buried in Montjuic. The text of their account ended like this: ‘The soldiers help the peasants in all the tasks and in the construction of roads, shelters against air raids... in addition to improving themselves militarily and politically.’

The 13th Brigade, after returning from the Zuera front at the end of December to Binaced (in La Litera), marched on 13 January to Puebla de Híjar, where they carried out ‘night manoeuvres and olive collection’. On 25 January, the command ordered their transfer to Albalate and on 27 January to Andorra (‘theatre, baths…’, says the chronology) and from there, on 4 February, to Calanda. They were already preparing for this trip, together with the 12th International Brigade, in order to take part in an operation to the south of Extremadura, which was intended to distract Franco's forces from their offensive on Teruel.

Posted on 10 January 2023.

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