Ebro

In April 1938 the Nationalist Army broke through the Republican defences and reached the sea. General Francisco Franco now moved his troops towards Valencia with the objective of encircling Madrid and the central front.

Juan Negrin, in an attempt to relieve the pressure on the Spanish capital, ordered an attack across the fast-flowing Ebro. General Juan Modesto, a member of the Communist Party (PCE), was placed in charge of the offensive. Over 80,000 Republican troops, including the 15th International Brigade and the British Battalion, began crossing the river in boats on 25th July. The men then moved forward towards Corbera and Gandesa.

On 26th July the Republican Army attempted to capture Hill 481, a key position at Gandesa. Hill 481 was well protected with barbed wire, trenches and bunkers. The Republicans suffered heavy casualties and after six days was forced to retreat to Hill 666 on the Sierra Pandols. It successfully defended the hill from a Nationalist offensive in September but once again large numbers were killed.

On 23rd September, Juan Negrin, head of the Republican government, announced at the League of Nations in Geneva that the International Brigades would be unilaterally withdrawn from Spain. That night the 15th Brigade and the British Battalion moved back across the River Ebro and began their journey out of the country.

The rest of the Republican Army remained and had to endure continuous attacks from the Condor Legion. General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano also brought forward 500 cannon which fired an average of 13,500 rounds a day at the Republicans. By the middle of November, the Republicans were forced to retreat.

During the battle of Ebro the Nationalist Army had 6,500 killed and nearly 30,000 wounded. These were the worst casualties of the war but it finally destroyed the Republican Army as a fighting force.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Jack Jones, was with the International Brigades at Ebro. He wrote about his experiences in his autobiography, Union Man (1986)

People have asked me: "Did you kill anyone in Spain"? Frankly, I do not know, but it is possible. In that engagement I didn't think of death, yet people were being killed and wounded by my side. In battle, one experiences a numbness that is difficult to describe; one's first impulse is to protect oneself as much as possible and then to fire in the direction of the enemy. One tries to pinpoint a target, but almost in a frenzy. To keep cool and calm in such circumstances is an ideal not easily achieved. Nor did I have great confidence in the accuracy of my rifle. It was a Remington-type rifle, Russian made, and after firing a few rounds the bolt got very hot. All I do know is that some of my comrades were killed and wounded and men on the other side suffered the same fate. That is war.

There were many casualties and I became one of them. Once more I had clambered up the hill with my comrades, taking cover where we could and firing at the enemy wherever he appeared. The bullets of the snipers whizzed over, grenades and shells were striking the ground, throwing up earth and dust and showering us with shrapnel. Suddenly my shoulder and right arm went numb. Blood gushed from my shoulder and I couldn't lift my rifle. I could do nothing but lie where I was. Near me a comrade had been killed and I could hear the cries of others, complaining of their wounds. While I was lying there, to make things worse, a spray of shrapnel hit my right arm. The stretcher bearers were doing their best but could hardly keep up with the number of casualties. As night fell I made my own way, crawling to the bottom

of the hill. I was taken with other wounded men down the line to an emergency field hospital at Mora del Ebro where I was given an anti-tetanus injection. The place was like an abattoir; there was blood and the smell of blood everywhere.

(2) Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (1961)

A secret F.A.I. - Federacion Anarquista Iberica - circular of September 1938 pointed out that of 7,000 promotions in the Army since May 5,500 had been Communists. In the Army of the Ebro out of 27 brigades, 25 were commanded by Communists, while all 9 divisional commanders, 3 army corps commanders, and the supreme commander (Modesto) were Communists. This was the most extreme case of Communist control, but the proportions for the Anarchists were nearly as depressing elsewhere. In all six armies of Republican Spain the Anarchists believed the proportions to be 163 Communist brigade commanders to 33 Anarchists, 61 divisional commanders to 9 Anarchists, 15 army corps commanders to 2 Anarchists (with 4 Anarchist sympathizers), and 3 Communist army commanders, 2 sympathizers and one neutral.

(3) Tom Murray took part in the Ebro offensive. He wrote about his experience in Voices From the Spanish Civil War (1986)

The crossing of the Ebro at night was a remarkable performance. The pontoons consisted of narrow buoyant sections tied together and men would sit straddled across the junctions of these sections to hold them firm, because the Ebro was a very fast-flowing river. And then others went across in boats. The mules were swum across. We went across the pontoons carrying our weapons, our machine guns. We had light machine guns as well as the heavy ones. We had five machine gun groups in our Company. No two people had to be on one section at the same time. We got across all right, lined up and marched up to the top of the hill.

The Fascists got scared stiff. They had been about to celebrate Mass, some of them, down in the valley, and there were tons, great streams of white muslin, which had been part of the preparation for this mass. We used them as mosquito nets, as a matter of fact, later on.

But we crossed the Ebro and made a rapid advance towards Gandesa. The real fighting then began, because the Nazi German planes were sent back and they bombed us like the devil. However we got our machine guns set up and we defended ourselves. I think we maybe made a tactical mistake in not rushing down right past and round Gandcsa to prevent the Fascists fortifying it, which they did next day.

(4) Luis Bolin, Spain, the Vital Years (1967)

The Red onslaught on the Ebro was launched on 25 July. For some time we had known that our opponents were planning to cross the river, but so stealthily was the operation carried out and so well had it been rehearsed beforehand that part of our troops were taken by surprise. Hundreds of boats, built in Barcelona, had been stored near the river in preparation for the attack. The sluggish waters of the Ebro, wide in all places, deep in some, fordable at others, were crossed by the enemy at night. Bridges were rapidly set up. Some of our positions were overwhelmed; others were isolated and surrounded by the triumphant Republicans.

Our opponents fought well, at times outstandingly well, yet there were signs of demoralization in their ranks. Threats of drastic punishments were being circulated to deter their troops from giving way to negligence or cowardice. Any man who lost his rifle would be shot without trial and his name would be published; soldiers who abandoned their posts or inflicted wounds upon themselves would also be executed. Those who failed to hold their ground would be forced to recapture it with their officers marching in front. Though these threats were carried out, the Reds surrendered daily in greater numbers, trusting more in the treatment they hoped to receive from us than in the fate that awaited them should they return defeated and unscathed. Combatants were urged to write to the Government, declaring their will to win or die, but instead of doing this units on their way to the Front complained they were being led to a slaughter-house. Many preferred to desert and fight on our side, a tendency shared alike by raw recruits and hardened veterans, some of whom, at the outbreak of hostilities, had vociferously proclaimed their unshakable abhorrence of all that we stood for.

Including prisoners, the battle of the Ebro cost us 41,414 casualties, the enemy 70,000. The so-called 'Army of Catalonia' was destroyed, International Brigades faded from the picture, and on the enemy side the resultant shortage of manpower was such that convicts were freely pardoned provided they immediately enlisted. Out of a total of 19,653 men captured during this battle, 45 per cent were approximately the same age as our soldiers, 10 per cent were older, the remaining 45 per cent younger. The Reds were also promoting untrained men and threatening relatives of deserters with reprisals of the utmost severity.

(5) Lillian Urmston, was interviewed about her experiences at Ebro during the Spanish Civil War in October 1938.

We moved forward to just a few kilometres from the river Ebro. We took a huge cave - our first bomb-proof hospital, and installed 120 beds. For a few days the wounded poured in. Ambulances were continually arriving, day and night. Then rumours began to circulate that hundreds of wounded were lying on the other side of the river, and could not be brought across. The fascist aviators were bombing the pontoon bridges all day long, and all night long our fortification battalions were repairing them. Also, almost all the territory which we had taken was within range of the fascist artillery. We were all sick with horror at the thought of this unnecessary suffering, and begged our chiefs to send us across the river ...

The following morning, at 1 a.m., the Spanish Medical Director told me to pack equipment and be ready in 20 minutes to move across the river. I hurriedly issued orders, and in a very short time we were ready. I was to go, along with Dr Jolly, the Spanish doctors and sanitarios (medical auxiliaries), and set up as large a hospital as possible.

Just as dawn was breaking, we were crossing the newly-repaired pontoon bridges. We had just reached the other side, and our ambulances were toiling along the hastily prepared road, when we heard the familiar cry of 'Aviacion!' Ambulances were pulled up at the side of the road, under the shelter of the cliffs - and we lay in ditches, tense with expectation and apprehension. But it was only our usual early morning caller, the observation plane. We continued our journey for exactly 25 minutes, and then twelve huge bombers came into sight. We all pulled into an olive grove, just off the road, and hastily camouflaged our ambulances and autochir. Then, a brief whistle - no movement - and we all lay down under trees and bushes. The planes bombed all along the river banks, and roads and crossroads. Our anti-aircraft guns were going magnificently, and managed to bring down one bomber.

Suddenly came the familiar rat-tat-tat of machine guns - they were strafing the helpless people who happened to be anywhere in view. At last came a number, six I think, of our pursuit planes, and engaged in a glorious dog fight. It is a most stimulating sight,this, to see our small planes tackling these gigantic bombers. After an hour of this the bombers soared higher, and disappeared. We were all relieved. And weren't we hungry! Rations of bully beef and bread were issued, then we again moved off. At 2 p.m. we reached Santa Magdalena, a huge white hermitage set high on the hills. Rather a landmark - but the only available habitation. We cheerfully acted as charwomen, then quickly set up a hospital. We were again interrupted by a heavy bombardment - luckily the bombs did not fall too near. By 11 p.m. our hospital was complete, and a steady stream of ambulances started to arrive. We only received the more severely wounded cases and our beds were quickly filled.

(6) Gösta Karlsson was born in Hällefors, Västmanland in 1915. In March 1937 Gösta Karlsson went to Spain. He fought at Ebro and was wounded in his face.

I had never been in any battle before the offensive at Ebro. I shot a few shots at Ebro in May, but that hardly counts. Then, on the night of the 25th of July, we rowed over the river in boats. When we reached the other side, we were fired at. I jumped out of the boat. I could stand on the bottom. I was going to shoot, but I had got water in the rifle, and had to quickly remove the bolt to dry it out. Then I shot some rounds and threw a grenade up the slope. But by then the Swedish company had already broken through. We rushed forwards. There were no Fascists left in the positions on the riverside, but they had left a lot of stuff, like ammunition girdles and leather bags. We didn't have anything like that. I carried my ammunition in a trouser leg that had been sewn together. We had used Russian guns first, but they were later exchanged for Czech carbines. The Poles were given the Russian guns, so that each company would have uniform equipment. The offensive continued. You can't remember everything. But I do remember the Scandinavian Death-hill at Corbera.

One morning we were going to storm. We advanced towards the Fascist positions, but met heavy defence from the side. We received contra-orders. We had to retreat to our original positions. I was in charge of a light machine-gun together with a Danish guy. When we reached our positions he got a ricochet in his back. It ripped off a little piece of meat. He gave me the machine-gun and said: "Goodbye, comrade! I'm done for."

I pulled up his shirt to take a look. It wasn't that bad. The wound was bleeding a lot, but we managed to bandage it. Maybe he had gone into shock. It was a Czech machine-gun. We took care of it for a long time, the Dane and me - until he was wounded. After that I was alone among the Spaniards. They had never received any military training. At times, when there wasn't much fighting, I would sit and train them, taking my weapon apart and putting it back together. During my time as a conscript back in Sweden you'd got used to that kind of stuff. But I wasn't licensed to use any machine-gun when I left home. You had to learn it all down there."

Yes, if you compare it to the conscript days. To go from shooting with a wooden plug to the real thing… it can turn out that way. But I saw it more as a job, actually. You went to Spain to help, and part of that help, when you were on the font, was to try and eliminate the enemy. Before we came to Ebro I was already used to it, having to take aim at people and shoot. What you remember… is mostly how people around you would get killed or wounded. I saw eight or nine Scandinavians killed in one single artillery-explosion. We were going to relieve the others out on the front. We marched in column, advancing through a grove, but were discovered by enemy planes, and got all hellfire over us from the artillery. That's when they died. We were headed over a hill. In front of it was another hill, lower than the first. That's where we were going. But we found a cave we could take cover in. There they couldn't reach us with the artillery fire, and we waited in there until it calmed down, before we headed for the positions. If you can really call them positions. There were no trenches. We had to dig little by little. It wasn't easy. You'd start out with a little pit, and make it bigger with time… until we had trenches with connections backwards as well. I was wounded three or four days before we were going to be pulled off the front. It took place at Sierra Caballs. I was temporarily outside of the trenches that evening, behind them. They were shooting with grenade launchers in the dark. I heard the hum - sort of like birds, when the grenades go by high above you. But if they hit anywhere close by you don't have any time to hear anything.

You just hear a sizzle and then it's over. The grenade hit close to me. I had a burning sensation in my cheek. I had blood in my eyes and couldn't see anything. I called for the medics. They came, but couldn't see the wound in the dark. I took his hand - and took it to my cheek so he could feel the wound. He bandaged my entire head. The medic… a Catalan… led me some kilometres backwards to the stretcher carriers. They carried me into a first-aid tent. I was given a shot. Then they lifted me into an ambulance. I fell asleep there and woke up in a hospital. I can't remember where it was situated. I said to a friend: "I think I've gone blind." But then I pulled down the bandage and noticed that I could see perfectly clearly. I had been bleeding a lot, but I hadn't been in much pain. It got worse later on. The piece of shrapnel was stuck in my right cheek. The wound got infected. My whole face swelled up, and then I was in a lot of pain. I was in a convalescent home when they removed it fifteen days later. They were missing material there. So they took the piece out without any anaesthetic.

(7) Reginald Saxton, Heroic Voices of the Spanish Civil War (2009)

At the Ebro I was actually there with my mobile laboratory. The frontline was along the Ebro, along the two sides of the river. It was a very well-planned offensive from our side from Catalonia, and it was supposed to have been coordinated with the corresponding attack from the other side, and there were the fascist forces in the middle. We set up a hospital in some caves on our side of the river to receive casualties at the beginning of the attack. We had this hospital in this cave and the cave was on two levels inside. It had been levelled up inside and was very nicely protected by this enormous hill over the top of it. It was lit up with electric lighting, which an American engineer did for us. On one level there was a ward and an operating theatre, and on another level another ward. In the end we found that we were using one ward for Republican soldiers and the other ward for prisoners of war, and in the valley just below the caves were canteens and feeding arrangements, ambulance parks and a tent or two. It was quite well arranged.

Then we had the first casualties brought back across the river to us in this cave. Our transfusion and laboratory was there. It was quite a temporary affair, and as soon as some territory had been cleared on the other side of the river we took this laboratory and mobile service and went across a pontoon bridge. It was very exciting in a way, going across the pontoon bridge, which the Spanish engineers had organized so well across the River Ebro. They had spare pontoons concealed in various places not far away, where there was vegetation or something to hide them from the aviation because there were a lot of planes. Every day the Italian planes would come over and try to destroy this pontoon bridge, and indeed they hit it on numerous occasions. But since it was all in sections, all standard-sized boats, when one was sunk, that evening a similar pontoon was floated into position. The next morning things would be going across again.

We went across it at night and there were planes all around even then. We got across and drove up to a farmhouse along very narrow roads. We had to stop every now and then to cut down a tree because the road was not wide enough for this very wide vehicle. Then we set up our little hospital in the farmhouse. We were digging ourselves shelter there and our driver was digging a trench beside a car. He was a very energetic, strong young man. He dug us a nice shelter, a trench beside the vehicle and he also cut down lots of branches from the trees to camouflage it for when the wounded came in.

(8) Patience Darton, quoted in Women's Voices in the Spanish Civil War (1991)

The Ebro was where we attacked again; a really big formal attack, not just a holding thing; its doing the attacking. We were right up on the side of the Ebro, in a cave on the south side of the river. The fighting had crossed the Ebro so we didn't get the people back until it was dark, because the bombing and the shelling were so extreme, that you couldn't get them back until it was dark. Then they all streamed in, terribly bad, much worse than we usually had - ever so much worse. The cave was very uncomfortable; it was very dark, very low and all uneven. The metal beds were all higgledy-piggledy over the floor and you could barely see - we hadn't got lights. We had lights for the theatre, run off of one of our ambulances, but we hadn't got lights in the cave, and we had to do our work by little tiny oil lamps, cans - ordinary tin cans with wick in them with oil. It isn't much light; a miserable little fickle light, and you couldn't see across the cave, and you kept banging yourself on those iron beds.

(9) Reginald Saxton, quoted in We Cannot Park on Both Sides (2000)

The front line was along the... river. I The left hand bank I was in Republican hands, right hand in Fascist. It was a very well planned offensive ... very well organised. As soon as some territory had been cleared on the other side of the river... we ... went across a pontoon bridge. It was very exciting in a way, going across a pontoon bridge which the Spanish engineers had organised so well. They had spare pontoons camouflaged in various places not far away to hide them from the aviation. Every day Italian planes would come over and try and destroy the pontoon bridge. Indeed they hit it on numerous occasions, but since it was all sections standard size boats... the same evening an exactly similar pontoon was floated into position and things were got going again.

(10) John Gates, The Story of an American Communist (1959)

I was now with a group of three. We ran into a fascist foot patrol but got away successfully into the brush. Deciding now that it was unsafe to move by daylight, we hid and went to sleep, and moved only under cover of the dark. That night we reached the river near the town of Mora del Ebro. We could find no boats, no materials with which to build a raft. Coming upon a small house, we decided to go in. I was leading the way, grenade in hand, when from inside came a call: "Who's there?" My impulse was to throw the grenade and run, but I was suddenly struck by the realization that the words had been spoken in English and the voice sounded like George Watt, who had been in the rear of our column the previous night. I answered "It's me." Sure enough out came George and several other of our men. They had bedded down for the night-very foolishly, I thought, in view of how close they had come to being killed by their own men. Watt told me later that his group had come just as close to opening fire on us. It made a good story to tell afterwards, and a never-settled debate on which of us had been more unwise.

The river was very wide at this point and the current swift. Some of the men were not sure they could make it, so fatigued were we all, but we decided to join forces and swim across at dawn. We stripped naked, threw away all our belongings, and made for the opposite bank. Three of us got across safely just as the day was beginning to break. The bodies of two other men were washed up on the shore several days later. Besides myself, those who made it were Watt and Joseph Hecht, who was later killed in World War II. In the excitement I had kept my hat on.

Between the river and the road stretched a field of cockleburrs which we now crossed on our bare, bruised feet. This was the last straw: naked (except for my hat), hungry and exhausted, I felt I could not take another step. I had sworn never to surrender to the fascists but I told Watt that if they came along just then, I would give up (actually, we would not have had much choice, having no arms).

We lay down on the side of the road, with no idea of who might come along, too beat to care much. Suddenly a car drove up, stopped and out stepped two men. Nobody ever looked better to me in all my life-they were Ernest Hemingway and New York Times correspondent Herbert Matthews. We hugged one another, and shook hands. They told us everything they knew - Hemingway, tall and husky, speaking in explosions; Matthews, just as tall but thin, and talking in his reserved way. The main body of the Loyalist army, it seems, had crossed the Ebro, and was now regrouping to make a stand on this side of the river. The writers gave us the good news of the many friends who were safe, and we told them the bad news of some who were not. Facing the other side of the river, Hemingway shook his burly fist. "You fascist bastards haven't won yet," he shouted. "We'll show you!"

We rejoined the 15th Brigade, or rather the pitiful remnants of it. Many were definitely known to be dead, others missing. Men kept trickling across the Ebro, straggling in for weeks afterwards, but scores had been captured by the fascists. During the first few days, I took charge of what was left of the Lincoln Battalion; we were dazed and still tense from our experience. Meanwhile, the enemy conducted air raids daily against our new positions, but we were well scattered and the raids caused more fear than damage.

(11) Alvah Bessie, Men in Battle (1939)

At Ebro... the country was so mountainous it looked as though a few machine-guns could have held off a million men. We came back down, went up side roads, crossroads, through small towns, and on a hillside near Rasquera we found three of our men: George Watt and John Gates (then adjutant Brigade Commissar), Joe Hecht. They were lying on the ground wrapped in blankets; under the blankets they were naked. They told us they had swum the Ebro early that morning; that other men had swum and drowned; that they did not know anything of Merriman or Doran, thought they had been captured. They had been to Gandesa, had been cut off there, had fought their way out, travelled at night, been sniped at by artillery. You could see they were reluctant to talk, and so we just sat down with them. Joe looked dead.

Below us there were hundreds of men from the British, the Canadian Battalions; a food truck had come up, and they were being fed. A new Matford roadster drove around the hill and stopped near us, and two men got out we recognized. One was tall, thin, dressed in brown corduroy, wearing horn-shelled glasses. He had a long, ascetic face, firm lips, a gloomy look about him. The other was taller, heavy, red-faced, one of the largest men you will ever see; he wore steel-rimmed glasses and a bushy mustache. These were Herbert Matthews of The New York Times and Ernest Hemingway, and they were just as relieved to see us as we were to see them. We introducd ourselves and they asked questions. They had cigarettes; they gave us Lucky Strikes and Chesterfields. Matthews seemed to be bitter; permanently so.

Hemingway was eager as a child, and I smiled remembering the first time I had seen him, at a Writers' Congress in New York. He was making his maiden public speech, and when it didn't read right, he got mad at it, repeating the sentences he had fumbled, with exceptional vehemence. Now he was like a big kid, and you liked him. He asked questions like a kid: "What then? What happened then? And what did you do? And what did he say? And then what did you do?" Matthews said nothing, but he took notes on a folded sheet of paper. "What's your name?" said Hemingway; I told him. "Oh," he said, "I'm awful glad to see you; I've read your stuff." I knew he was glad to see me; it made me feel good, and I felt sorry about the times I had lambasted him in print; I hoped he had forgotten them, or never read them. "Here," he said, reaching in his pocket. "I've got more." He handed me a full pack of Lucky Strikes.