This month marks the 85th anniversary of the Battle of Brunete. Fought west of Madrid, the Republicans were initially successful but, weakened by heat, fatigue, thirst and continual aerial bombardment, were unable to achieve their main objective, securing the heights overlooking Madrid. They suffered devastating casualties and loss of armaments. In the end, both sides claimed victory.
The following is an account of the Battle of Brunete given by a volunteer called MM. It comes from ‘The Book of the XV Brigade’ (1938), a collective work composed and edited by members of the 15th International Brigade over the course of the war.
It was fighting all day and marching all night. Everybody was all in. Everybody was all in. We slept a couple of hours near a bridge then moved into a hollow a couple of kilometers away. All night there was speculation what was going to be next. Some of the guys said it was a new military trick borrowed from the Red Army; we were to creep up behind the enemy and catch ‘em in the rear.
There we were in the hollow, lying there all day, just lying there, hanging around. The sun was beating down on us, it was hotter than a furnace, everybody was tired and miserable. We were in support and nobody knew whether we’d have to go back the lines to be withdrawn for a rest. We needed a rest bad, we’d been fighting without stop for two weeks. We made no effort to dig in; it was too hot and everything was too uncertain.
The guys in my group got into arguing, nothing serious, just chewing the rag. They were arguing who were the intellectuals and I paid no attention because I didn’t give a damn one way or another. We had quite a number of those guys all good comrades and good soldiers so why not leave them alone; let ‘em be intellectuals if they want to. Then one of the guys who is from Brooklyn and another fellow from Chicago started an argument over Al Capone – was he really a tough guy, but everybody said he was only a big stiff who got his break with prohibition; he was just a yellow rat who’d have turned tails here in the first half hour.
We were just talking sort of quiet like when all of a sudden a shell exploded about a hundred yards away. A couple of other shells followed right after. This sort of disturbed us but when we saw where they all landed nobody bothered much. We were right in a hollow, in a dead area and no shells could reach us.
We were watching the shells, nobody was talking now, and we saw a plane coming up. It was alone, flying very high, it looked like a small bird; we didn’t know whether it was our’s, or their’s. One of the comrades, a former soldier, yelled out; “Look out comrades, it’s an observation plane”, and so we ducked, but when she went away nobody thought about it much. We didn’t expect she could spot us in the hollow from high up.
Thirty minutes must have passed when we first heard a low hum. It was low but very strong and it was coming from the Fascist side. It was getting stronger by the second and we knew we were for it. It was a roar that filled the air you were breathing. It was a roar that almost lifted you up, shaking. It was getting stronger and stronger and, Christ, it was coming straight at you…
I was hugging the earth, pressing into it with my hands, with my feet, with my face, but the roar set the whole ground shaking and the ground was pushing you up, pushing you up higher and higher, shoving you over to them; here he is, don’t let’im get away from you…
And I felt that I was perched up high and knew that they could spot me from miles. I looked up and there they were, going around and around, the whole sky black with them, maneuvering into position, crooking their claws to swoop down on you…
Then they let loose. That awful whistle, scream and rush of the bombs, then the explosion. The whole earth was blasted into pieces. It heaved and rocked and swayed and roared and smoked, and the bombs kept coming down, and everytime you heard that whistle and scream you knew there was a shaft pointing to the small of your back and the bomb would hit you there and blow you to a million pieces.
The small of your back was bare and you knew they could see it and you knew t hey were pointing at it, and aiming their next bomb right there. Then there would be a pause to make sure their aim was right. Waiting for that next explosion everything in you would be wound up tighter and tighter till you couldn’t stand it any longer and felt like screaming; “Come on, you bastards, drop it, drop it!”
Then they’d begin bombing again and there you were lying naked. And where was our anti-aircraft, where were our planes, where we our guns to help us, to drive’em away? They were all killed, the Fascists had everything and we had nothing. There was Hitler, Franco and Mussolini riding those planes and killing off everyone of us till there was nobody left living on this earth. We never had a chance, we lost this war long ago.
Then the bombing stopped and you began strafing. Everything was smoke and dirt and dark and you knew the machine guns would see through the dark, and everybody around you was killed, and you were left here alone and the next burst would catch you square across the back and you would be killed, too.
Your ear was bursting, your head was splitting. Suddenly you didn’t hear the roar at all. The planes were going, they were going away. You sat up, you looked around to find everybody dead and you saw others sitting up and looking around – your whole group, your whole section, the whole Company, everybody alive, not a single hurt.
And Joe the group leader came along and said: “Come on, follow me.” And we went, still dazed, not knowing where, but Joe was a strong guy and we knew he’d take us to a safe place. And we were marching back to the lines, past the bridge, up a mountain and saw airplanes over the valley bombing and saw the flame of the explosions and we weren’t afraid at all; we knew it wasn’t real, they couldn’t hurt anybody.
We were climbing up the mountains, Joe in front with the Company following, and there was firing ahead and there was a trench with Spaniards in the trench, and they started singing the International when they saw us, pointing ahead and yelling: “Fascisti, Fascisti!”
And we heard the International and saw pointing to “Fascisti” and we grabbed the rifles off our shoulders and started singing and yelling and running up the slope. There were Fascists a couple of hundred yards away and coming, and we, alive, with a rifle in our hand, just in time to get even with them.
We were shooting and singing and shooting and yelling and the next fellow was shooting his rifle off right next to your ear but you didn’t mind; you just smiled at him and kept on shooting. They were Moors and Black Shirts and Falangists and there was Hitler and Franco and Mussolini right among them and we were shooting and dropping them, dropping them in their tracks.
And the Spaniards were yelling at them and we were yelling, too. “Come on you bastards! Come on you yellow rats! Come on and fight!” But they wouldn’t come; they ran back and it was hard to stay in the trenches and not to run after them. The Spaniards were yelling “Viva la Republica” and we were yelling it, too; we knew we had the Fascists licked, we knew they’d never win this war…
Posted on 22 July 2022.