WORLD APRIL 27, 1938
Barcelona—It was a lovely false spring day when we started for the front this morning. Last night, coming in to Barcelona, it had been gray, foggy, dirty and sad, but today it was bright and warm, and pink almond blossoms colored the gray hills and brightened the dusty green rows of olive trees.
Then, outside of Reus, on a straight smooth highway with olive orchards on each side, the chauffeur from the rumble seat shouted, “planes, planes!” and, rubber screeching, we stopped the car under the tree.
“They’re right over us,” the chauffeur said, and, as this correspondent dove headforward into a ditch, he looked up sideways, watching a monoplane come down and wing over and evidently decide a single car was not worth turning his eight machine guns loose on.
But, as we watched, came a sudden egg-dropping explosion of bombs, and ahead, Reus, silhouetted against hills a half-mile away, disappeared in a brick-dust-colored cloud of smoke. We made our way through the town, the main street blocked by broken houses and a smashed water main, and, stopping, tried to get a policeman to shoot a wounded horse, but the owner thought it was still possibly worth saving and we went on up toward the mountain pass that leads to the little Catalan city of Falset. Soon we began passing carts loaded with refugees. An old woman was driving one, crying and sobbing while she swung a whip. She was the only woman I saw crying all day. There were eight children following another cart and one little boy pushed on a wheel as they came up a difficult grade. Bedding, sewing machines, blankets, cooking utensils and mattresses wrapped in mats, sacks of grain for the horses and mules were piled in the carts and goats and sheep were tethered to the tailboards. There was no panic, they were just plodding along.
On a mule piled high with bedding road ea woman holding a still freshly red-faced baby that could not have been two days old. The mother’s head swung steadily up and down with the motion of the beast she rode, and the baby’s jet-black hair was drifted gray with the dust. A man led the mule forward, looking back over his shoulder and then looking forward at the road.
“When was the baby born?” I asked him, as our car swung alongside. “Yesterday,” he said proudly, and the car was past. But all these people, no matter where else they looked as they walked or rode, all looked up to watch the sky.
Then we began to see soldiers straggling along. Some carried their rifles by the muzzles, some had no arms. At first there were only a few troops, then finally there was a steady stream, with whole units intact. Then there were troops in trucks, troops marching, trucks with guns, with tanks, with anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, and always a line of people walking.
As we went on, the road choked and swelled with this migration, until finally, it was not just the road, but streaming alongside the road by the old paths for driving cattle came the civilian population and the troops. There was no panic at all, only a steady movement, and many of the people seemed cheerful. But perhaps it was the day. The day was so lovely that it seemed ridiculous that anyone should ever die.
For two days, this correspondent ahs been doing the most dangerous thing you can do in this war. That is, keep close behind an unstabilized line where the enemy is attacking with mechanized forces. It’s the most dangerous because the first thing you see is the tanks, and the tanks don’t take prisoners; they don’t give orders to halt, and they use incendiary bullets on your car. And the only way you know they’re there is when you see them.
We had been checking the front and trying to locate the Lincoln-Washington Battalion, from which no word had been heard since Gandesa was captured two days ago. The last time they had been seen, they were holding out on top of a hill outside Gandesa. On their right, the British battalion of the same brigade was holding up the Fascist advance all that day with them, and, after darkness came and both battalions had been surrounded, nobody had heard anything from the Lincoln-Washington outfit.
There were 450 men when they stood on that hill. Today we found eight of them and learned that probably 150 more had cut their way through. . . . Three of the eight, Jon Gates, Joseph Hecht and George Watts, had swum the Ebro River opposite Miravet. When we saw them at noon they were barefoot and had just been given clothes. They had been naked since they had crossed the river at daylight. The Ebro, they said was a fast-flowing, very cold river, and six others who had tried to swim it, four of whom were wounded, drowned.
Standing in the dusty brush beside a very nervous-making road, already well up behind the Fascist advance down the Ebro, we listened to the story of their break through after the battalion had been surrounded. Of their stand before Gandesa, with the mechanized columns and tanks already past them. Of the wild night when the battalion was split into two parts, one going south, one east, and, from the scout officer who led one group which included the chief of staff, the brigade commissar and the battalion commissar, slightly wounded at Gandesa, and thirty-five others, of the possible capture of this group at Corbera, just north of Gandesa.
Of adventures through the Fascist lines, how, in wandering into the enemy lines at night, when challenged, they asked in Spanish, “What outfit are you?” and a sleepy voice answered in German, “We’re the Eighth Division.” Creeping through another camp, stepping on a sleeping man’s hand, hearing him say in German, “Get off my head.” Of having to break across an open field toward the bank of the Ebro and being sniped at by artillery controlled by an observation plane overhead. Finally, the desperate swimming of the Ebro and wandering down the road, not to desert, not to try to reach the frontier, but looking for the remainder of the battalion so they could reform and join the brigade.
The scout officer, telling of the possible loss of the chief of staff, said “I was ahead, going through an orchard just north of Corbera, when someone in the dark challenged. I covered him with my pistol and he called for the corporal of the guard. As the guard came, I shouted to those behind, “This way, this way!” and ran through the orchard to pass north of the town. But no one followed. I could hear them running toward the town. Then I could hear commands of ‘Hands up! Hands up!’ and it sounded as though they had been surrounded. Perhaps they got away, but it sounded as though some were captured.”
The British battalion, led by Waters, found boats further north on the Ebro and crossed successfully. Three hundred men, commanded by Waters, were marching down the road toward us, but we could not wait as we were due at Tortosa to check the situation there.
Driving carefully between the boxes of dynamite set to mine the small stone bridges on the narrow road, we worked our way up the Ebro Valley. . . . Stopping to ask a soldier who was walking leisurely in the direction of the front where headquarters was located, we heard machine-gun fire hammering on ahead and the noise of shells bursting. Then, above these reassuring sounds that meant the front was located, came the drone of planes and the bung, bung, bung of bombs.
Leaving the car in the shade made by the steep left bank, we climbed to the top of a sheer, terraced ridge where we could see the planes. Below us was the river, the little town of Cherta in a bend between the river and the road, and, beyond, the planes were bombing where a road cut between mountains that looked as though they had been molded in gray papier-mache for some fantastic stage-set.
Black puffs of anti-aircraft bursts blossomed around them and showed they were government planes. Government anti-aircraft bursts are white. Then, with a noise as though the sky was being hammered to pieces, more bombers came over. Crouched against a stone wall on the ridge-top, taking advantage of the shadow cast, you saw from the red wing-tips they were government, too.
As the droning faded, the machine-gun firing intensified ahead, and, as the shelling increased, you knew there was an attack a little way up the road. . . .
Beside the car was an Andalusian soldier from a division holding a line up the river. He was tall and gaunt and very cool and very tired.
“You can go on past the town, but there had has to be a little retirement today, so I wouldn’t go too far,” he said.
He said his brigade had been surrounded three times since the drive toward the sea had started, had cut its way out and drifted through at night and now had rejoined the division.
“We’ve held them here three days now,” he said. “The Italian infantry is no good and we drive them back whenever we counter-attack, but they’ve got so much artillery and planes and we’ve been fighting three weeks now with no rest. The men are all very tired.”
Follow @tnr on Twitter.