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The retreat through Aragon

The retreat through Aragon

Welsh volunteers of the British Battalion
Welsh volunteers of the British Battalion

On 7 March 1938, Franco launched a massive and well-prepared attack on the Republican forces in Aragon. What began as a series of break-throughs for the Nationalists swiftly became outright retreat for the weary Republican forces, as their lines virtually collapsed. The battalion were forced to make a fighting retreat through, in turn, Belchite, Lecera, Vinaceite and Caspe. By the 15th March, Caspe too was surrendered, despite desperate fighting. Only when the battalion reached Batea and republican reinforcements were brought up was the rebel advance checked.

The respite was brief, for on 30 March, the rebels launched another offensive, this time in the south of Aragon. The battalion were marching from Belchite towards Calaceite, when disaster struck. Mistaking Italian tanks for those of General Lister's Communist 5th Regiment, the battalion was attacked and a large number of the Major Attlee Company were forced to surrender, with many others hit, including the battalion commissar, Walter Tapsell who was killed and George Fletcher, the temporary commander, who was badly injured. What was left of the battalion, only eighty volunteers, made their way back to Gandesa. Here they attempted to delay the rebels as best they could, before retreating back over the River Ebro at Cherta at the beginning of April. With the bridges across the river blown, the rebel advance was at last stemmed. Unfortunately many Republican soldiers were trapped the wrong side of the river and were captured or perished attempting to swim across the wide and fast-flowing River Ebro. However, to the surprise of many, Republican forces would soon return across the river, in perhaps the most audacious offensive of the entire war.

FURTHER READING

Bill Alexander, British Volunteers for Liberty, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1982.

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

Bill Rust, Britons in Spain, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1939.