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The battle of the Jarama River

The battle of the Jarama River, 12-14 February 1937

British Batallion at Jarama
British Battalion officers at Jarama

Very early in the morning of the 12th February, the British Battalion, and other members of the 15th International Brigade, were moved up to the heights overlooking the Jarama River at Arganda. Facing the rebels' crack troops from the Army of Africa, the battalion's lack of training and equipment took its toll, with the number of casualties growing at an alarming rate. By early afternoon, the battalion was in a desperate position, its flank unprotected, the machine-gun company without ammunition, and numbers decreasing by the minute. The remaining volunteers were faced with little choice but to pull back to the battalion headquarters on the plateau behind them. Rebel forces rushed to occupy their positions, but were quickly forced to duck for cover by the machine-gun company which at last managed to load its guns with the correct ammunition. As the first day of the battle came to an end, the battalion found itself with less than half the number that had set out from Madrigueras. Day two was to be no less terrifying.

During the morning of the 13th, the battalion fought desperately to hold back the Rebel forces. As their flank once again came under attack, the commander of Number 4 Company pulled his soldiers back and the machine-gun company situated on a knoll to the battalion's right became isolated and were surrounded. Over thirty volunteers, including the company commander Harold Fry and adjutant Ted Dickenson, were captured and several of the battalion lost their lives in an ill-judged attempt to rescue them. Somehow, the remaining volunteers in the battalion held on until nightfall.

On day three, under a sustained attack from a hugely superior force supported by artillery and tanks, the line finally broke. In small disorganised groups, the exhausted volunteers drifted back to the cookhouse, where they were addressed by Lieutenant-Colonel Gal, the commander of the 15 International Brigade, who explained to them that they were now the only troops between the rebels and the Valencia Road. Despite their physical and mental exhaustion, one hundred and forty volunteers marched back with Jock Cunningham and Frank Ryan to try to recapture their lost positions. As Hugh Thomas admitted in the Spanish Civil War, ‘It was a brave performance’. The rebel soldiers, fooled into believing them to be fresh reinforcements, retreated back to their earlier positions and, during the night of 14 and 15 February, Republican units were brought up and the gap in the line was finally plugged. Both sides dug defensive fortifications and a stalemate ensued, which neither side was able to overcome. The positions remained virtually static for the rest of the war.

FURTHER READING

Jason Gurney, Crusade in Spain, London: Faber and Faber, 1974.

Frank Graham, ed., The Battle of Jarama, Newcastle: Frank Graham, 1987.

Walter Gregory, The Shallow Grave: A Memoir of the Spanish Civil War, London: Victor Gollancz, 1986.

Frank Ryan, ed., The Book of the XVth Brigade: Records of British, American, Canadian and Irish Volunteers in the XV International Brigade in Spain 1936-1938, Madrid: War Commissariat, 1938.

Tom Wintringham, English Captain, London: Faber and Faber, 1939.