On the 17th December 1937 the Republican Army captured the town of Teruel. Aware that the Nationalist Army would counter-attack, the 15th International Brigades were moved from Madrid to a salient on the 3,500 ft high Sierra Palomera overlooking Teruel. The soldiers had trouble with the weather with temperatures dropping to -20C at night. However, they were able to withstand continuous air attacks made by the Condor Legion and the Nationalists eventually abandoned the attempt to take Teruel by frontal assault.
At 6 p.m. the order for a general attack was given and a Republican force reached the first houses of the city. Another column simultaneously attacked Teruel from the east.
At 930 p.m. the attack was still continuing, carried out under the rays of Republican searchlights which lit up the city.
All the rebel counter-attacks were repulsed with enormous losses, and rebel aviation was unable to give much support.
The circle round Teruel, far from being broken, is drawn closer. The number of prisoners is enormous but not exactly known.
Republican aviation brilliantly co-operated in the fighting. Two Government planes were brought down by rebel anti-aircraft guns.
Teruel fell on 7 January. Its defenders fought desperately, but when the enemy seized building after building the colonel in command of the city ordered the outlying houses to be abandoned and finally expressed his willingness to parley. His opponents treated him disgracefully and a year later, as they fled from Barcelona to France, they riddled his body with bullets a few miles before reaching the French frontier and at the same time murdered the Bishop of Teruel, who like the
Colonel was their prisoner.
On 5 February, less than a month after the fall of Teruel, Franco moved forward on the Alfambra river and dealt his enemies a crushing blow. The battle of the Alfambra was one of the war's decisive encounters. It reversed the shape of the bulge which the Reds had driven into our front, with the southern end at Teruel and the northern tip near Vivel del Rio, forty-two miles away. Attacked at both ends and pushed back, the Red salient was obliterated. According to our estimates, which at best were only approximate, the Republicans suffered 14,000 dead, 20,000 wounded and 17,000 prisoners. They also lost 20 batteries, 40 tanks, and 500 machine-guns. One hundred of their planes were destroyed in air combat. Fifty pueblos and 620 square miles of land were captured, and a gap was opened in the enemy lines wide
enough for our troops to reach the Mediterranean shortly afterwards and split the Red front in two. Teruel was retaken on 18 February.
Colonel Rey Dancourt, who was the rebel military commander at Teruel, has surrendered with 1,500 men, it is claimed here. The Colonel is reported to have said that a small group of rebels remained in the Convent of Santa Clara, with whom he had been out of touch. His surrender would seem to mean that only a handful of rebels are now putting up resistance in the city.
Outside the city the battle still continues with unabated fury. The rebels are daily massing new troops in order to recapture the city. These troops are being withdrawn from other fronts.
The Republican Command declares that the rebels outside Teruel today employed the famous Italian 'Black Arrows' for the first time on this front.
Throughout yesterday, which saw the fiercest fighting since the rebel counter-offensive began, the rebels made repeated attacks from the village of Concud, north-west of Teruel. Preceded by intense artillery and aviation bombardments these attacks were supported by tanks and armoured-cars. The Republican infantry, it is claimed here, not only maintained their positions but forced the attackers to retire with heavy losses.
In the Muela de Teruel sector the Republicans took the offensive and occupied several positions, which they held under fire, on the Villastar-Teruel road.
The rebel Army is considered here a spent and weary force. During the last eight days it has suffered several set-backs and enormous casualties. It is felt that the rebel determination to recover Teruel is dictated by the knowledge that its presence in the hands of the Government must completely upset plans for any offensive on other fronts.
My opinion is that the Republican army is stronger than the rebel army. I said this three months ago, and now the capture of Teruel has proved it to the world. The northern front collapsed because it was technically impossible to defend, because it lacked unity of command, and because it was geographically inaccessible. In spite of his 80,000 Italians and 10,000 Germans, in spite of all the supplies provided by these two great nations, Franco is now being defeated because he has aroused the spirit of independence in the Spanish people.
Ten thousand officers are graduating from the Republican academies each year. War production has been organised. The Republican command, which contains 6,000 officers belonging to the former Spanish army, has growing intelligence and technical services. But nothing is more tremendous than the spirit of resistance which has withstood all defeats. The war of the Republic is only now beginning. The Negrin Government has restored order in Republican Spain to such a degree that the percentage of crimes is lower than ever before. It has instituted full and normal constitutional law and respect for this law.
Franco had held Teruel for three years, a vulnerable line towards the coast, and when the Republicans recaptured it that Christmas it was thought that fortune had changed at last, that the days of retreat were over.
The worst was only beginning. The occupation of Teruel had been by Spanish troops only. No International Brigades were called on. Then Franco began his counterattack with an artillery barrage so heavy, they said, that it clipped off the tops of the hills and completely altered the landscape. Protected by the Condor Legion, and two Generals in a twelve-carriage train, the Army Corps of Castile and Galicia began to advance and the Republicans had to give up their brief-held prize.
As the weather worsened, the International Brigades were at last brought in. Fred Copeman, who commanded the British battalion, fell ill, and Bill Alexander took over. The 'Major Attlee' company received its christening, and thirteen men were killed the first day. Slowly the Republicans retreated outside the city, when the very war itself was halted by a four day blizzard, the worst in generations, during which men and their weapons froze together.
The rebels who abandoned Teruel at the end of December regained it completely yesterday. At eight o'clock in the morning, after eight days of bitter fighting, General Franco's forces were back in the ruins of the town.
Having broken through, the column joined the Republican forces outside Teruel and with them launched a strong counter-attack against the enemy. They are reported to have re-formed their line along the road to Valencia a short distance south of Teruel. This they intend to hold at all costs.
The plateau the Government holds is an important position and is a natural starting-place for a rebel push to the coast towards Valencia.
Reports of the last stages of the advance on Teruel and its final re-occupation received from rebel sources told of tremendous artillery and aerial bombardments, cavalry charges, street fighting, and the capture of quantities of supplies and prisoners.
Street fighting lasted for two hours after the occupation of Teruel yesterday morning, it was reported. One report claimed that 2,600 prisoners had been taken, as well as a large quantity of war material, including machine-guns, rifles, mortars and munitions.
The loss of Teruel was an episode of the war brought about by the enormous quantity of arms and men sent to the assistance of Franco by Italy and Germany. We need the aid of no one. With the men, material, and ideals at our disposal we are certain of ultimate victory, which has been so long postponed. The delay in victory is due solely to the intervention of foreign Powers and the injustice of the Non-Intervention Committee which hinders our purchase of armaments.
We believe that German and Italian superiority in armaments will not last long and that the Spanish Government with its resources will supply the Republican Army with all the aeroplanes and war material which are required, superior to the Fascists. The Spanish people have shown in history what they are capable of when their country and liberties are in danger and at stake. The country of so much suffering and of so great morale will win in the long run.
The capture of Teruel by the Government forces in December, 1937, was almost the only great action in which the 'English' could have taken part but were not called upon to do so. At the beginning of this year they were fighting in deep snow in the vain effort to hold Teruel. In the retreat of seventy miles that followed, from Alto Aragon to the coast, they were twice almost surrounded and got away by legs and luck. Twice they stood, at Caspe and Gandesa, to hold up for some days the drive to the sea; and near Gandesa they were ambushed by Italian tanks and Moorish cavalry. They lost a hundred captured, but fought so stiffly that the raiders withdrew.
At the Battle of Teruel, Teruel was captured and then lost again, following which the fascists split the Republican forces in two. It was a very hard battle, there were heavy losses. The terrain was very difficult; mountainous and muddy and snow bound, and most of the time very cold. Our patients were treated in all sorts of odd buildings and we were subjected to air attack and to snipers even, if you got anywhere near the enemy side of the town. We did acquire a lot of medical equipment, foreign equipment, which was in Teruel the time it was taken.
When we had recovered from this battle and came out of Teruel, we had done what we could with the wounded. It was a very trying time. The situation was very unpredictable and so cold and so miserable. At that time I acqdired a very large vehicle. I think it was specially built according to my specifications. The body was a laboratory with benches on two sides with a refrigerator in one corner and a sterilizer in another, and across the width of this wide vehicle were a couple of bunks for me and my assistant (between the driving part of the front of the vehicle and the laboratory part at the back). So we were more or less a self-sufficient organization. We had cupboards and a refrigerator where we could store blood. I never intended to get down to actually drawing blood for storage because this required rather more facilities and sterile conditions, and required donors being examined beforehand, and actually taking blood for storage. This was done in Barcelona and Madrid.
So this was my laboratory and blood transfusion vehicle which I took with me and a driver. There was one other permanent assistant, who slept on the front seat. Anyway myself, my driver and assistant were always with this vehicle, and occasionally when we stopped for a length of time we did accumulate three other laboratory assistants, one Italian and two Americans. This laboratory when we were stationed long enough took on jobs of ordinary laboratory work....
In this laboratory we had blood donors and I used to do blood grouping. We gathered quite a lot of volunteers to be blood donors. We were a medical unit working for the army and were insulated very much from the civilian troubles that existed. Just occasionally, civilian difficulties would overflow into our work. Getting together volunteer blood donors meant contact with the various civilian organizations that might help or provide us with these donors. There was a little bit of antagonism between them. The Socialist Party would be a bit edgy about the Communist Party or the Republican Party, i.e. who is really going to organize it, who is the more important of these three organizations? Feelings of resentment between these groups interfered to a large extent with the welfare side of the hospital.
In December of 1938, the Republican army headquarters received an intelligence report of an impending large-scale enemy attack on the Guadalajara sector that, if successful, would open the way for Franco to realize his prime goal of seizing Madrid. To divert this action, our high command quickly planned an assault of their own far to the north, with the idea of drawing rebel troops and materiel as far away from Madrid as possible. The focus of our attack was to capture Teruel, the capital of the bleak, rocky province of Aragon.
Action started on December 8 with heavy snow falling. Teruel, in a mountainous region at an altitude of over three thousand feet, was reputed to be the coldest city of the country, and that winter didn't jeopardize its reputation. By New Year's day it was minus i8 degrees F. with winds blowing as high as fifty miles per hour, producing the lowest recorded temperatures of the century. The wind swirled the heavy snowfall so ferociously that at times there was near zero visibility.
The success of the Republican forces in the Teruel operation was due to a combination of surprise, excellent planning, superior troop execution, and the fact that the cold and snow prevented the Franco forces from bringing up their reinforcements quickly or allowing their planes to fly. It was a harsh and bloody operation. The frozen ground defied our attempts to dig in and create adequate defensive positions. Both sides sent patrols out at dawn to cut down telephone poles, which became the prime source of firewood. Coffee froze in cups and blankets were often hard as boards. Many died from exposure.
Six hundred of our supply trucks coming from Valencia were stalled outside of Teruel, unable to enter the city because of the cold and snow. Nevertheless, because we were the attackers, most of our initial supplies were in place, and surprise was on our side. So we not only took the city but made major advances as well. But when the weather moderated, the rebels were able to bring in their heavy artillery and reinforcements, and their planes began to fly sorties. All too soon they dominated the sky, and their big guns could fire with impunity.
By the end of this operation, about fifty thousand enemy troops and more than sixty thousand government soldiers had fallen. As Franco's forces established their superiority in materiel and numbers, they mounted successful counterattacks. Gradually, the Republican troops were forced to retreat to avoid encirclement. It wasn't long before the city was lost once again to the fascists. But the action had achieved its goal of saving Madrid - a costly and bitter victory, as the capital was lost forever a year later.
At the beginning of the war, the International Brigades had acted as a shield against the onslaught of the enemy. Teruel had been the first big Republican victory without us, with the Brigades remaining in reserve positions. The action by the Republican army at Teruel, without the Internationals, proved that it had finally grown from unformed, although heroic, militia units into a disciplined and effective force.