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The Ebro offensive

The Ebro offensive

The British Battalion training before Ebro
The British Battalion training before the Ebro offensive of July 1938

Following a period of desperate reorganisation and training, the battalion was informed on 21 July 1938 that Republican forces were to cross the River Ebro in a huge offensive and that the battalion was charged with capturing Gandesa, through which they had retreated months earlier.

After crossing the river during the night of the 25th July 1938 the battalion made rapid progress, capturing the town of Corbera late that evening, and preparing to move on Gandesa the following day. However, as the rebels brought up reinforcements and intensified their bombing of the republican forces, the offensive began to get bogged down. Attempts by the battalion to capture the heavily fortified Hill 481, strategically overlooking Gandesa, proved to be as costly as they were fruitless. By 3rd August the republicans gave up their attempt to capture Gandesa, and the battalion was moved into reserve.

With the Republican forces back on the defensive, the rebels moved back into attack. On 24 August the British Battalion took over the exhausted American positions on Hill 666, the main height of the Sierra Pandols, near Gandesa. Here the volunteers endured a massive artillery bombardment and an attack by two rebel battalions. Two weeks later, the battalion moved up to Hill 356 in the nearby range of Sierra Caballs, which they managed to capture, despite overwhelming numbers of Nationalist soldiers and unrelenting artillery and aircraft bombardments.

On 21st September 1938, Juan Negrín ,the Spanish premier, announced the Republic’s intention to repatriate all foreign volunteers. But the battalion were called upon one last time and replaced the 13 (Dombrowski) Brigade which had suffered heavy losses at Sierra de Lavall de la Torre. After sustaining an immense five-hour artillery barrage, the battalion were caught in murderous rebel cross fire. Nevertheless, they remained in their positions right up until the trenches were overrun. When the battalion was withdrawn in the evening of 21st September 1938 the losses of the previous three days were realised: over two hundred members of the battalion were killed, wounded, or missing. It was a tragic and heartbreaking end to their role in Spain. The political commissar Peter Kerrigan described his shock at this terrible outcome of their last action:

I could give dozens of individual acts of heroism but what is the use. The list of citations which I enclose, tells in brief official terms of the acts of deathless glory which were played out against a background of the cutting to pieces of our very bravest. I saw what No. 1 Coy. came through at Córdoba and I will never forget when I was told what our casualties were in those first 3 days at Jarama. But nothing can compare with the end of our battalion.

FURTHER READING

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

Chris Henry, The Ebro 1938: The Death Knell of the Republic, Oxford: Osprey, 1999.

Matthew Hughes,  and Enriqueta Garrido, ‘Planning and Command: the Spanish Republican army and the battle of the Ebro, 1938’, International Journal of Iberian Studies 12:2, 1999, pp.107-115.

George Wheeler, edited by David Leach, To Make the People Smile Again, Newcastle: Zymurgy, 2003.