A Brief History
of the British Battalion of the International Brigades
From the start
of the War Britons had been involved in defending the Spanish Republic.
Some were already in Spain, others travelled out in great haste. The first
British volunteer to die was the artist Felicia Browne, who was killed
attempting to blow up a munitions train on 28th August 1936. Britons served
in several of the hastily raised militia units. For example John Cornford
briefly served with the POUM in Huesca. Nat Cohen and Sam Masters turned
a cycling holiday in the Pyrenees into a raid on Mallorca. The Mallorcan
campaign was unsuccessful but on returning to Barcelona, the first British
unit, the ‘Tom Mann Centuria’ was raised. Centuria was the
label adopted by many of the early militia companies. Amongst the Britons
in Spain was Tom Winteringham. Winteringham lobbied the British Communist
party to support the Tom Mann Centuria. More volunteers came out and it
was decided to group all the International volunteers. The Tom Mann Centuria
was attached to the Thaelmann Battalion, a unit of German anti-fascists.
another group of Britons arrived. In all 12 men joined the Muerte es Maestro
centuria. This unit was used for internal security work and were used
as a firing squad on one occasion. As the Francoist forces entered the
outskirts of Madrid the Muerte es Maestro centuria were thrown into the
Casa de Campo to firm up the defences. Here they fought alongside the
recently formed International Brigades, including the Thaelmann Battalion.
The defence was successful but heavy casualties were suffered.
Creation Back to
government had not, unsurprisingly, planned for the rush of International
Recruits to Spain. For obvious reasons, French recruits came in large
numbers, with German volunteers being among these prompt anti-Fascists.
British volunteers had been fewer in number and scattered individually
amongst various Spanish militias or forming sections within other groups.
In early December 145 Britons were grouped into No. 1 Company of the La
Marseillaise [French] battalion. The company was sent to Madrigueras on
the Córdoba front. On 28th December the under trained unit was
sent to capture the town of Lopera with turn of the century Austrian rifles.
In the face of Fascist air superiority and attacking a defended hill position.
Three days of attack and counter attack did not shift the Fascists. In
early January the battalion was transferred back to Madrid, to help stem
a Fascist attack north of Madrid. The unit was sent to reopen the Madrid-Corunna
road. Heavy fighting on 15th around Las Rozas reduced the active ranks
While the La
Marseillaise battalion had been active hundreds of more British volunteers
had made it to Spain. No.1 Company was sent to join them. In all, 450
members of, what the few referred to as the ‘English-speaking battalion’,
were lodged in Madrigueras, 20 miles north of Albacete, the International
Brigades Headquarters. During this time the Irish contingent left to join
the American battalions. Given the fact that Ireland had gained some measure
of independence 12 years before this may be to be expected.
of the International Brigade tended to reflect nation icons, such as the
Abraham Lincoln or Paris Commune. The suggested name for the unit was
the ‘Saklatvala Battalion’, after Shapurji Saklatvala, the
British Indian who became the Communist party’s first M.P. An alternative
was the Clement Atlee battalion. It was felt the former would not have
a wider appeal in Britain, while Atlee was unacceptable to many Communists.
In the end, British Battalion – or for the Spanish el battalion
ingles – was chosen. The battalion had four companies. 1,3&4
were rifle companies, no. 2 was a machine gun company. The battalion was
part of the 15th International Brigade.
– February 1937 Back to Top
On 6th February
the Nationalists launched an offensive which aimed to cut Madrid off from
the new Republican capital of Valencia. The thrust moved into the Jarama
valley near San Martìn De La Vega. The British Battalion was hurried
by train [to Albacete] and hastened by truck to Chinchón. Several
rebel units had already crossed the Jarama by the morning on 12th. The
newly formed 15th Brigade was deposited between San Martìn De La
Vega and Morata De Tajuña at 5.30 a.m.
made its way up towards the plateau overlooking the Jarama, leaving the
cookhouse section behind in a farmhouse. Descending into the valley, the
companies, spread out in line, crossed a sunken road and came under fire
from the rebels, whose presence came as a bit of a surprise. Pulling back
to the top of the broken ridge – nicknamed ‘Suicide Hill’
– the battalion prepared to receive the attack. Tom Wintringham,
the battalion commander, planned to put 3 and 4 company forward, keeping
no. 1 in reserve and the machine gun company placed a little back to give
supporting fire. The pressure of the advance by the Nationalists, who
turned out to be Moors from the Army of Africa, the best part of the Spanish
military, forced no. 1 company to advance into the line.
received artillery fire, concentrated on no. 3 & 4 companies. With
mounting casualties, the battalion was forced to retire up Suicide Hill
and back on to the plateau. Throughout the day the machine gun company,
whose guns had received the wrong ammunition and spent a frustrating day
changing the rounds in their belts, could not cover the front. When the
swap was done, the Moroccan troops were caught in the open as they pursued
the retiring battalion and took heavy causalities. The Nationalist withdrew
and the battle fizzled out.
At the end
of its first day in action 125 out of 400 riflemen were fit for service.
The remnant gathered in the sunken road or back, behind the lines by the
cookhouse. Battalion Commissar George Aitkin rallied and cajoled stragglers
back into the line. The following morning revealed another advance by
the rebels. This was driven back by machine gun fire but as the day went
on the battalion found itself assailed on three sides as the Dimitrov
and Franco-Belege battalions were forced back. Under pressure, No.4 Company
retired, leaving the Machine Guns isolated. They were surrounded and many
of the volunteers were captured. One story has it that the Machine Gunners
were tricked by Nationalists singing ‘The Internationale’
and thought they were being relieved. Bert Overton, commander of No.4
Company tried to retake the position held by the Machine gunners, but
his charge was shot to pieces.
On the third
day of battle, with Jock Cunningham replacing the injured Tom Winteringham,
the Nationalists, supported by tanks, assaulted the British lines again.
Thrown back by the weight of the offensive, the surviving 140 volunteers
were rallied by Lieutenant-Colonel Gal, CO of the 15th Brigade. Led by
Jock Cunningham and singing ‘La Internationale’, the British
Battalion plus various stragglers, returned to battle. The rebels retired
to their position of the night of 14th/15th February. More Republican
units were rushed into the gap and both sides began to dig in.
two brief periods of leave, the Battalion would remain in the newly formed
Jarama trenches till 17th June 1937. Even when the battalion was withdrawn
it returned to the same position. An assault on the Fascist lines was
made on 27th February. It lacked the promised air cover and artillery
and the dozen British volunteers who were persuaded to go over the top
Brunete Back to Top
by new recruits and strengthened by returnees from hospital, like Walter
Gregory, the 331 fit and able members of the Battalion was put into the
Republic’s attempt to relieve its beleaguered northern forces, who
were being pounded by the Fascist offensive, supported by the Condor Legion.
The 15th Brigade now numbered 6 battalions and had its own Anti-Tank battery.
The offensive power of the Republic was thrown at a point 15 miles west
of Madrid. 50,000 men and 128 tanks, with the support of 136 pieces of
artillery and 150 aircraft, were going to break the Nationalists at their
weakest point and captured the high ground above Brunete.
On 6th July
the British were ordered to occupy the villages of Romanillos and Boadilla
del Monte. Following a march 15 miles, they came to the village of Villanueva
de la Canada, a few miles north of Brunete. A Spanish unit had tried to
occupy the settlement but had been repulsed. The 15th Brigade was then
sent in. The Washingtons were sent to attack the north end of the village,
the British and Dimitrov battalions, the south. Machine gun and rifle
fire repulsed the 15th Brigade through the day. As night fell, a group
of civilians seemed to flee Villanueva de la Canada. In fact a group of
Fascists were hidden behind them. The Fascists began to fire when they
got near the British lines. In the following tragic exchange some of the
civilians were killed. The village was captured by midnight.
day the British ordered to advance on Mosquito Ridge, a piece of high
ground which overlooked the Battalion’s original objectives. As
they left Villanueva de la Canada they were bombed by Junkers aircraft
and shelled by Fascist artillery. The two-hour barrage and aestivating
heat – and the delay taken in capturing Villanueva, prevented the
Battalion reaching Mosquito Ridge before the Fascists rushed reinforcements
to defend the position. The Battalion made no more progress.
to take Mosquito Ridge meant the failure of the Republican offensive.
Only 42 members of the battalion were left fit for service. The British
Battalion was withdrawn into a reserve position.
On 11th, the
Nationalists launched a massive counter attack, with units withdrawn from
the North, they had 300 artillery pieces and 300 aircraft to support the
infantry assault. Despite early failures, a renewed broad front attack
on the 24th July prized the Republicans from their recent advances. Bolstered
by new recruits and the lightly wounded, 100 members of the British Battalion
were put into the defence lines but were forced back, along with the Republican
Aragon Campaign Back to Top
The next Republican
offensive was to launched in Aragon. In Mid August the 35th Division –
including the 15th Brigade – was moved to east. The focus of the
campaign, apart from drawing off Fascist attacks on Santander, was the
capture of the strategic and symbolic city of Saragossa. The opening move
of this campaign was the assault on the strongpoint at Quinto. On 24th
most of the battalion were kept in back in a reserve position. The anti-tank
battery was deployed to aid the assault on various strong points around
the town. In the street fighting that followed Tom Wintringham was wounded
was taken the rifle companies were moved to Purburrel Hill to secure the
‘lightly held’ strategic position over looking the town. It
turned out to be a well-defended and well-prepared Nationalist strong
point. The assault on the 25th was repulsed by intense rifle and machine
gun fire. During the following night a Fascist patrol was captured. They
revealed that the garrison of Purburrel Hill was desperately short of
water. This did not help much. The urgency of the need to capture the
place meant that, on 26th, another attack was launch, this time supported
by the anti-tank battery. This time the assault succeeded.
had reduced the Battalion to 100 men. More Spanish recruits were drafted
in. It would not, in future, contain a majority from the British Isles.
The remnant of the rifle companies was moved to block the Nationalist
positions at Mediana, about six miles from Belchite on 27th August. The
British Battalion repulsed an attempt by the Fascists to leave the town
and then retired to a strong point on an adjacent hill to prevent further
Nationalist manoeuvres. The Anti-Tank battery had been detached to the
join the rest of the 15th Brigades assault on Belchite. In the following
two day assault the battery used 2,700 shells in two days. Belchite fell
on the 6th September.
On 23rd September
the Battalion was withdrawn from the line. The 15th Brigade was reorganised.
The Mackenzie-Papineau battalion replaced the Dimitrovs, who were sent
to the 129th Brigade. On 11th October the 15th Brigade was sent to assault
the town of Fuentes de Ebro, the next town on the road to Saragossa. The
assault was a failure. The preparatory artillery barrage was not strong
enough. An attempt to put the 24th Battalion of Spanish troops onto tanks,
in the mood of the Soviet Red Army, lacked practice. The infantry got
left behind as the tanks went forward unsupported. The attack ended with
Teruel Back to Top
After the failure
of the assault on Fuentes the Battalion was kept in the line for another
ten days before being withdrawn to Mondéjar and Ambite. In November
1937 the 15th Battalion was moved into reserve. The brigade was allocated
battalion numbers as part of a wider reorganisation. The British battalion
became the 57th Battalion of the Popular Army. It numbered about 150 men.
Another relabelling came in December, when the 1st company named itself
the ‘Major Atlee Company’, after the visit of the Labour leader.
in the mountains, commanding several major communication routes from the
east to the centre of Spain. On 15th December General Lister’s Republican
army surrounded the city. By Christmas Day the Republicans entered the
city and by the 8th January 1938 the city surrendered. The conditions
the battle was fought in were appalling. Troops froze to death in the
sub zero temperatures.
to the Republican success by throwing troops at the city. With a vast
material advantage the Nationalists began to win back lost territory.
On 17th January the International Brigades were committed to the struggle.
Amid a metre of snow, the British Battalion was placed in Santa Bárbara,
straight in front of the Nationalist advance. The Mac-Paps had occupied
an advance position and were increasingly threatened by Nationalist artillery
fire. The rifle companies were sent across the Alfambra River, protecting
the Mac-Paps right flank. The Machine Gun Company was left behind the
river. On 19th the Battalion resisted a massive Fascist artillery bombardment
with such determination that the rebel assault was abandoned. Eventually
the Battalion withdrew towards Teurel, but had suffered about a third
of its strength as causalities. The battalion was, briefly, withdrawn
from the lines.
As the Nationalist
assault gained strength the 15th Brigade was thrown back into battle.
On 6th February the British Battalion was sent 40 miles north of Teruel,
to Segura de los Banos. A night attack, designed to divert the Fascists
from Teruel, was launched on 16th. It ground to a halt in the face of
superior Nationalist weaponry. The Republicans were finally forced to
retire from Teruel. On 21st February, the British were moved into a reserve
position at Lecera. They remained there for a fortnight.
Retreat to the Ebro Back to Top
Spring Offensive, designed to divide the Republican strongholds of Valencia
and Barcelona, began on 7th March. The exhausted Republican forces faced
the Nationalists, renewed with fresh Italian equipment and manpower. The
15th Brigade were ordered to Belchite. The British Battalion was ordered
northwards, on the road to Mediana. It met retreating Republicans and
came under an assault by artillery; aircraft and machine guns, forcing
it back into Belchite. Belchite was defended for a day before it was evacuated.
Fascist air superiority was total. The Anti-Tank battery was forced to
destroy its guns to prevent capture. The town fell to Navarrese troops
on the 10th.
from Belchite was conducted in the face of overwhelming air attacks and
a pursuit, which was well supplied with fuel and ammunition. Moving from
Leccera to Vinaceite, the British were briefly united with other units
from the 15th Brigade before continuing a desperate series of forced marches
through Hijar and Alcaniz. On 15th March the Battalion arrived at Caspe.
Here they fought a fierce hand-to-hand rearguard action against the Spanish
Foreign Legion, described by one British volunteer for the Fascists, Peter
Kemp, as the “bitterest engagement of the war.” With Caspe
all but surrounded the Battalion withdrew again.
On 17th March
the 15th Brigade arrived at Batea. Here, reinforcements arrived and the
Nationalist assault was temporarily halted. The Albacete training base
was emptied and new recruits, like Robert Wardle, were sent to the front.
On 30th March a fresh Nationalist assault began again. The Battalion was
ordered to take up a defensive position. Woken before dawn and amid heavy
rain, the British marched towards Calaceite. Ordered to dig in, they were
then ordered to move forward with all possible speed. At this point a
column of tanks got in amongst the column. A first thought to be Republican,
moving from what had been Republican held Calaceite, the tanks turned
out to be Italian. In the ensuing chaos many were killed and captured.
of the Battalion continued to retire towards the Ebro. On 2nd April the
British took up position a mile south of Gandesa. Reinforced by 50 Spaniards
and a small tank they repulsed a Nationalist attack. That evening, covered
by a dozen volunteers commanded by Walter Gregory, the Battalion continued
to retreat and escaped, over the Ebro.
Ebro Offensive Back to Top
Almost at once
the Battalion began to rebuild. New recruits from Britain, like George
Wheeler, were drafted in. A number of high profile visitors, such as Harry
Pollitt, [General Secretary of the Communist Party], and two future Prime
Ministers, Pandit Nehru and Ted Heath. The 15th Brigade was being prepared
for the great Ebro Offensive.
of the Ebro offensive was, immediately, to draw off Nationalists from
their assault on the Republic’s capital of Valencia. Following a
surprise assault across the river, the Republicans aimed to capture the
important communications routes at Gandesa. On the night of 23rd/24th
July the forces of General Modesto began the assault.
The 15th Brigade
were not part of the initial attack. On 25th July, and under constant
attack by Fascist aircraft, the British Battalion crossed the river and
advanced to within a mile of Corbera. This town occupied a tactically
important hill in the wider valley of the Republican advance. The British
Battalion acted as a reserve as the 13th [Spanish] Brigade secured the
continued towards Gandesa. Outside of the town was Hill 481, known as
the ‘The Pimple.’ It was a well defended natural position,
vital to the defence of Gandesa. Lacking artillery, tank or aerial support,
attacks on the sheer rise in front of them cost many casualties among
No. 1 Company. Reinforced, on 30th, by No. 2 Company, the renewed attacks
just resulted in more dead and wounded, including company commander John
Angus and his three replacements. On the 3rd August a last assault on
The Pimple failed. After that the Republican armies took up defensive
positions. On 6th August the British were withdrawn from the line.
Once the Republican
Offensive had ground to a halt the Nationalists could begin their own
attack. On 11th August the Fascists advanced in the mountains to the south
of the Sierra Pandols. The 15th Brigade was moved to defend Hill 666.
Positioned in a hard rocky terrain, which made digging defences problematic,
the British repulsed an attack by two Fascist battalions. Night fighting
and Fascist artillery fire ensured a continual trickle of casualties.
On 8th September
the British were moved Hill 356, near Sandesco, this time to take part
in an attack on this strategic position. Despite continual Fascist artillery
fire and air attack the British captured the rebel positions. Despite
this success, the Republicans were suffering a continual attrition of
irreplaceable men and material. Slowly, the Ebro advances were being retaken.
The International component of the Brigades was a dwindling resource.
The British were a minority in their own Battalion. On 21st September
the Republican government decided to withdraw the International Brigades,
in the forlorn hope that Nationalists would withdraw the tens of thousands
of Italian and German troops on their side.
The 337 members
of the British Battalion were moved up to the Front on 23rd September
for one last action. The 15th Brigade was replacing the 13th, which had
suffered heavy loses at Sierra de Lavall de la Torre. The Battalion endured
a five hour artillery barrage. No 1 company was at the sharp end of the
Nationalist attack and were overrun. The remnant of the Battalion was
withdrawn, having suffered about 200 casualties.
Farewell Back to Top
Battalion was withdrawn into a reserved position. On 17th October it took
part in the Farewell Parade through Barcelona. President Azana and Prime
Minister Negrín joined the thousands who took part in one of the
last great Republican celebrations. Almost 70 years on, Dan Bessie remembered,
with emotion, his father’s recollection of that event. It took an
hour an a half for the parade to make its way to the platform for speeches.
volunteers left Spain. They arrived at Victoria Station on 7th December,
to be met by a huge crowd, including Clem Atlee, Stafford Cripps, Willie
Gallagher and Will Lawther. From there they dispersed to different receptions
across the British Isles.
- Richard Baxell, British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War: The British
Battalion in the International Brigades, 1936-1939, London, Routledge/Cañada
Blanch Studies on Contemporary Spain, 2004
- Walter Gregory, The Shallow Grave: A Memoir of the Spanish Civil War,
London: Victor Gollancz, 1986
- Paul Preston, A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War, London:
- William Rust, Britons in Spain, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1939
- Chris Henry, The Ebro 1938: The Death Knell of the Republic, Oxford:
- George Wheeler, edited by David Leach, To Make the People SmileAgain,
Newcastle: Zymurgy, 2003.
- "From the Rhondda to the Ebro" by Alun Menai Williams, Warren
& Pell , 2004