Spanish Civil War - Oral History
Posted 06 June 2004 - 10:16 AM
Europe and the Spanish Civil War
The idea with this topic is to gather some of the many interviews that exists with volunteers from the Spanish Civil War. Several of these interviews has been conducted in other languages than English. Therefore I would like to encourage people to add translated interviews so more people can get access to them. I would also like to ask the contributors to add a photo of the person interviewed (maybe two photos - one from the time of the war and the other from the time of the interview...).
I will start this topic by adding 8 interviews with Swedish volunteers - conducted by Göte Nilsson in the 1970's. Over 500 Swedes went to Spain and nearly 200 never came back...
Posted 06 June 2004 - 10:19 AM
Conny Andersson was born in Örebro, in the middle of Southern Sweden. He was politically active, much against the will of his foster parents. In 1928 he joined the Social Democratic Youth Organization. Conny Andersson studied at a Folk High-school when the Spanish Civil War broke out. At New Year 1936/1937 he went to Spain. He participated in the battles at Jarama and Brunete. His ear drums were ruined at Brunete which made the army dismiss him before summer 1937. In Sweden Conny continued to work for the Republican side being very active in the Spanish Committees;
Conny Andersson describes himself as a Democrat and a revolutionary Marxist, adding the fact that he is skeptical to revolution. In 1934 he took part in the raising of the Red flag on a Swedish warship.
“I was doing my military service with the Navy. They would call us rookies “sunshine”. We were stationed on the old receiving ship Vanadis in Stockholm . At the same time the first German passenger ship with a swastika on its flag anchored in the harbor. So then we raised the Red flag.
I can’t remember where we got the piece of fabric from, but we raised it at night, so the commanding officer wouldn’t notice anything. Then later during the day, there was a big commotion, and Aftonbladet (the Evening Post) wrote a large moralizing article about the RED MARINE.
Most of the recruits on Vanadis were other Swedes from up north, just a year older than us. They were soon going to be demobbed, and all the officers figured they were the ones who had raised the flag. They made us “sunshine” stand on deck, the whole group at once, and asked if we had seen anything. Of course we hadn’t. And that was that. The poor Northerners became subject to the harsher interrogations. Their discharge was delayed for two whole days.”
It wasn’t Conny’s first demonstration. In 1928 he had joined the Social Democratic Youth Organization in his hometown, Örebro. He had done it as a way to spite his family, since they had forbidden him to take part in a parade on the First of May – which he had marched in anyway.
Conny’s father was a factory owner for Andersson & Dalman’s shoe factory in Örebro. He died 1919, when his son was five years old. Conny’s mother had died three years earlier.
“Then I was raised by a stepmother who wasn’t exactly the nicest person on earth…”
An uncle took care of the factory, but it went bankrupt. Conny had to start working when he was thirteen years old, after his six years at elementary school. He became an apprentice-groundskeeper at the Drott shoe factory. In 1931 he came to Stockholm and went to sea for a year. Then he applied to the so-called voluntary work-service that had been established for young people. Things worked out just the same after his military service. There were no jobs other than odd jobs. During the autumn of 1935 he went to study at Viskadalen’s folk high-school. In Stockholm he was active in the Social Democratic Youth Organization, and was part of the campaign that the Jansson-Mineur-committee was running to free the two Swedish sailors who had been arrested in Germany. Allegedly, they had gone ashore with Anti-Nazi propaganda material. The campaign was run first and foremost by the Communist Movement, but Conny was part of the committee as a delegate for Stockholm's Social Democratic Youth District. Ernst Thälmann, the leader for the German Communist Party, was doing time in the Gestapo prisons. There was an international campaign going on for his release. Conny was also a part of this. They handed out stenciled leaflets along all of Skeppsholmen. A few of the regular soldiers from the Navy helped out. They were discovered and fired. When Conny was studying his last term at the folk high-school a third campaign was started. It was aimed against the Olympic Games in Berlin, and was an exact thirties parallel to the campaign in 1969 against the European Track & Field Championships in Athens. Stockholm’s Social Democratic Youth Organization, alongside the Communist Youth Organization and the Communist Party, played a very active roll.
“Of course this played an important roll in the part I played in the Spanish Civil War. We were strongly influenced by the development out in Europe , by the French and Spanish Folk Front. We were in direct opposition towards the management of the Youth Organization. We believed we worked in a more radical and Marxist direction. It was a lot along the lines of Zeth Höglund. So we were called Höglunders. The Youth Club I was part of, Atlas, had a café on the corner of Kammakargatan - Drottninggatan (The Comb maker’s Street - The Queen’s Street) as a meeting place. The café was also used by the Youth Communist Folkdance Group Stjärnan (The Star). I joined the Dance Group. In that way I got to know a lot of the Young Communists on a personal basis. Our opposition… what it was aiming for? Well, we thought the development was going too slow. Per Albin and the People’s Home and Per Albin again… It was a bit idyllic. We were claiming an entirely different struggle against the high finances already back then. We also attacked the political horse-trading, the Social Democratic governmental coalition with the Farmer’s Union, and it’s consequences, even if we later had to admit to the fact that it may have been the only real thing for the time – because… while the blackest reaction was spreading in Europe, the Labor Movement could stay in it’s position back home.”
So maybe one could maintain that the political horse-trading was a sort of Swedish People’s Front?
“Maybe one could. We often marched with the slogan “workers and farmers”… that they ought to govern together. Then Branstorp brought the Farmer’s Union into a close connection with the Worker’s Movement, even if the Social Democracy had to make certain compromises for the sake of the cooperation. We were of the opinion that a number of social reforms weren’t being carried through quickly enough.”
One of the first days of August 1936, the committee of Stockholm ’s Social Democratic Youth Organization received a telegram. It was from Georg Branting, who was at a conference in Paris. The telegram was an exhortation:
Form Spain Committees!
Stockholm’s Spain Committee was the first in the country, Göteborg’s the second. When Branting came home the Swedish Help Committee for Spain was founded, and the role of chairman fell naturally to him. Then the Stockholm Committee automatically became a local branch, where Conny Andersson came to work with organizational tasks. The operation grew considerably. The 19th of December a young student from Uppsala fell during battle outside Madrid. It was Olle Meurling, the first officially verified Swede in the International Brigade. He had been part of a voluntary attack-force, whose mission already in advance had been dubbed “practically suicide”.
His death caused repercussions in Sweden. The memorial party in Uppsala was a joint arrangement by Social Democrats, Syndicalists and Communists. The death of Olle Meurling would come to influence Conny Andersson.
“He must have been an inspirational factor. The travel to Spain was organized by the Communist Party, all expenses paid. Special guys were running it, guys with contacts. It had to be done discretely. We never said that we were going to Spain, just that we were going away. What influenced me the most personally, was one of the ones who left just after Meurling… His name was Jörner, a regular Navy recruit… he was in the Folk Dance Group Stjärnan and left just days before Christmas. Georg Grönberg and I followed him to the Central Station. He said good-bye and then…
- We’ll come soon, we said.
On New Year’s Eve my group left Stockholm. Then we met the group from Göteborg, including Per Eriksson, Gösta “the Cuckoo” Andersson and Sixten Rogeby. Yes, it was no doubt that the big group of politically active people amongst us were Youth Communists. But I believe that the majority of those who left for Spain didn’t belong to any political party. The recruitment – if one should use such a word – took place so that guys from Söder ( Southern Stockholm ), as well as here and there amongst the sailors, started talking about Spain whenever they would meet. A lot of sailors would go ashore in Spanish ports. I’d say that we, the Scandinavians, consistently abode by the theory that we were, first and foremost, Anti-Fascists. We claimed, with certain right, that we were fighting in Spain for our country, our democracy, as well. At the same time we knew this could be the start of a new World War. And it was up to us to try to stop that from happening. This was so clear within the Radical Movement in Sweden. We could read it between the lines and we would hear it at the lectures – we were on the eve of a new War.”
Conny speaks about Albacete and the maneuver at Murcia.
“The battalions “Thälmann” and “Edgar Andre” were going to be reorganized. They had suffered heavy losses outside Madrid in November-December. In our Company, the Third, there were, alongside the Scandinavians, 75 Spaniards. Their problem was that they had no military education. Our joint training during these weeks, ten to fourteen days… whatever it could have been… was all they got. The Russian rifles were a bit of a pain in the ass, as they had been targeted with the bayonet on. We found this a bit uncomfortable. And if you removed the bayonet, you would have to aim pretty low. Other than that they were good rifles, though.
Then came Jarama.
“We were in Morata during the night. I think we were sleeping. But in the morning we were pretty nervous. We were to get in formation quite early. They had told us we’d be fighting the Moors and the Foreign Legion, and we weren’t exactly happy about it. We had to walk a few kilometers. It was a nice morning, and the birds were chirping. The French battalion had been there before us. We sort of fell into the battle unexpectedly. Suddenly we understood that we weren’t hearing chirping birds. The French had already pulled back. We never saw them. Maybe they had moved back on the flanks, so that we just came to fill up the empty space. We marched over the ground, in firing column, trying to act like we were on the front. The terrain was bushy and hilly, with forests. The Frenchmen had been able to dig a little on a hill. Skotte probably meant for us to lie there. But we were being fired at, mostly from rifles. We couldn’t see our assailants. So we figured we shouldn’t be lying there. It could have been nerves and it could have been something else. But we wanted to get in close, so to say.
Group after group sprang up and raged down. We all got caught up in the whole thing. We came down the hill, so we could see Jarama. That’s when we got into a little hell. We had concentrated machine-gun fire on us. There was straight firing, but there could have been indirect cross-fire too, from the flanks. Machine-guns can shoot a few thousand meters, so… You can map in an area so that you have indirect firing there. Those machine gunners who couldn’t see us… when they heard a certain gun start firing, they figured they ought to be shooting at the field we were attempting to cross. We had tree trunks to take cover behind. Once we had gotten that far, the machine guns couldn’t reach us anymore. But they were shooting with rifles from straight ahead. The shortest distance was thirty or forty meters, at least in the past where I was. The boys to the left may have come a little further.”
Do you remember shooting at anyone there?
“Yes, we were shooting at each other. And, you see, when you get to shoot your own gun, it kind of calms you down.”
Can you remember the first time you saw a guy through the crosshair and…
“I saw boys being shot down beside me, and boys being shot down on the other side. But if it was me who shot them, or one of the other guys, I couldn’t say. We had to get back to the trenches. But then we would have to run across the field, a distance of maybe one hundred meters. And there you had the barrage from the machine guns. You ran and you had a feeling of leaping hurdles over the machine-gun fire. The one who set my nerves straight was a sailor boy from Kalmar, Ivan Karlsson. Some of the fellows weren’t on their best behavior at the front, so to speak. They had been drinking. Ivar was a bit tipsy. He had brought along his canteen, filled with cognac. And he said:
-Here, have a sip. All you have to do is lay here and try to survive. Then you’ve got to run like hell for a bit, and then you get to lay down again, and then – then I’ll come.
A lot of boys were killed there, already the first day. But we got support from the machine-gun boys in “Edgar Andre”. They were on the right flank and saw how exposed we were, since they were situated higher than us. From there they could also see the indirectly firing machine guns that they opened fire on. But still… Our only chance was to leap hurdles. The battle continued all night long. Then we were lying in the trenches. We held them. They weren’t trenches in the classical sense. The ground was too hard. We tried to dig, working in shifts, and got as far down as was possible. During the maneuver we had been taught to make fairly soft sandbanks. A bullet from a rifle will go through a piece of rail, but a pillow, for example a feather pillow, will make the bullet spin. So we dug pits and put sandbanks all around. But it was damn hard dirt. I was at Jarama for three weeks. You could say that we basically, fought over a stretch of land approximately two to three kilometers, back and forth. It wasn’t even five kilometers from the big road. We didn’t have anything… There just wasn’t anything to choose from. Unless the road to Valencia would be cut off. Our weapons were rifle, bayonet, spade and knife. But one day the Cuckoo and I were sent to the battalion staff to fetch dynamite, the kind that the dynamiters up in Asturias used. The dynamite was the old kind from Asturias ; it had a sort of romantic atmosphere about it. The miners in Oviedo had used it superbly when they met Franco’s regular troops in the revolt of 1934. Armed with the same, they came during the summer of 1936, to help the militia against the tanks outside Toledo .”
The dynamite – did you know how to handle it?
“It was kind of a false version of a hand-grenade. Of course it took training. We were also a bit hesitant when we got the boxes that we were supposed to carry back. But they said:
- It’s just to light ‘em up and throw ‘em.
So there wasn’t any option. We handed them out to the boys. They were iron pipes with dynamite inside and a fuse. We used the Spanish cigarette-lighters, and long slow matches, to light them. Otherwise we didn’t stand much of a chance against the tanks. We didn’t have any anti-tank-ammo. Sometimes the tanks would drive out onto the No Man’s Land to let people out to scout the area more precisely. Sometimes we would have to lie quietly in the pit for hours and hours, when there was a tank just nearby. We knew that as soon as it left, we’d be getting grenades fired at us. There were small dynamite charges with short fuses and there were big ones with long fuses. A few times we tried to use the dynamite on the tanks. You should throw it so it explodes right by the treads. The same day we had picked up the dynamite, the Frenchmen on our right flank were attacked by three tanks. So a few of us boys crawled forwards towards the tank that stood the closest. We threw the dynamite, but it didn’t explode until long after the tank had passed. You were supposed to be thirty or forty metres away when you threw the charge. You could be a lot closer, though. It all depended on the situation of the terrain. Here we didn’t have any trenches, just the protection of a few trees.”
One afternoon a Spaniard came and sat down in the pit. He offered them cigarettes.
“After being at the front for a while, you don’t hate the boys on the other side. They said that’s the way it was in the First World War, and later, during the Second as well. And that’s how it was with us. He was a nice kid. He sat for quite a while, talked and asked us how we were. Then he left. A few minutes later a guy from the staff came and warned us: the kid with the cigarettes was from the other side. Then we wished that this kid would make it alright. Sort of a strange way of seeing it, but…”
The first Swede who fell at Jarama is thought to be one Torsten Holm from Sundbyberg. Two sailors from Göteborg, Henry Olsson and Rune Sebastian Eriksson, fell – according to Lise Lindbrek – when they were helping a wounded comrade out of the line of fire. Sebastian was the holder of a scholarship from the Brunnsvik Folk High-school, but hadn’t ever returned there after the Christmas vacation. Another Swede at Jarama was Robert “the Lapp” Lundström from Arjeplog. He had the characteristics of a professional revolutionary, with experience from South America .
“Now this story I’ve told many times before. In any case: the 24 hours before the 26th of February were so calm on our part of the front that the machine gunners could hold it all by themselves. So we got to go back to Morata, where we shaved and washed in a cabin. In the morning, when we were heading back the Lapp started talking about how he didn’t want to come back with us. But he came along anyway. We came to the front and then the Lapp said:
- I’ll be shot today. If I take it in the chest, I’ll be alright. If I take it in the back, I’ll be dead before we get to the road. He was referring to a little road just a short way from the front where we would take the wounded.
So we came to our pits. After some time there we had become more nonchalant. We could feel instinctively how to move. When the Lapp left someone called out to him:
- Come on, get a move on!
When he turned around to call back, we heard the first shot of the day. It hit the Lapp in the back. He was dead before we could get him to the road.
I also soon became aware that the day was going to be rough. Already before noon bullets would break through the sandbank. They hit the knife-sheath. There was a little pick, and it grazed one of my hands… During the afternoon we had a heavy attack. I was loading my rifle. Then I dropped the charges. It was a good thing, because when I bent down to pick them up a grenade hit the side of the trench. The steel helmet I wore was a French “cock”, with a crest straight across it. The grenade knocked the crest clear off. The shrapnel hit me in my left buttock. I also received a small wound in my arm. On my one side was a French boy, on the other a Belgian. They were both killed. The guys wrapped me up in a blanket and carried me down to the road. There the relieving forces were waiting. They had to be put in at several different places meanwhile, since we were surrounded something bad. They operated on me, at the field-hospital, some 10 kilometres from Jarama. There was a shortage of tranquillizers. Therefore the doc put a cigarette in my mouth. Looked at me. I couldn’t understand what he was saying. He was Polish or Yugoslavian, I think. Then he proceeded to just pick out the pieces of shrapnel. My convalescence was a long one – it lasted until May. The wound didn’t want to heal. It might have become infected. I lay with surgical fever in Oriella, a little village outside Murcia . They changed my sheets all the time. Then Johnny Fransson, an old friend from Kumla, whom I had spent a lot of time with while I was living in Örebro, came. We had traveled to Spain together. Now he belonged to the machine gun-groups of “Edgar Andre”. Later when he came home he became a construction worker.
- You can’t be lying around here, Johnny said.
He forced me up out of bed, and we went to a rundown little place where I downed a few glasses of wine. Then I collapsed. After he had lifted me over his shoulder, he found a guy with a mule and a wagon, who took me back to the hospital. The following day, he did the same. And then I could manage it. I probably would’ve been a goner otherwise, because several of the boys who died in the hospital, died under pretty much the same conditions as I was in. When you get surgical fever, you get totally exhausted. Your spark goes out. That’s when you really need… well, basically, a guy that forces you out of bed. Johnny saved me. I came to Albacete again, once I’d left the hospital. Then we’d received anti-tank cannon that they needed groups to. I reported for duty. Several of the Scandinavians did. You would hear rumors that lots of the boys had left to join the partisans or some other similar group. I didn’t know the people in Thälmann anymore. None of the old friends were left, except for Georg Grönberg, who had also been wounded. Later we reported to the same tank-division.”
Conny Andersson was sent to the Cordoba-front, where certain troops were fighting at an altitude of 3200 meters. Then came the Brunete-offensive in the beginning of July.
“For us it was a village, Villanueva de Canada. It’s on the plains. Heat: probably thirty five, forty degrees Celsius, and not a chance of shade. We had steel helmets and thick uniforms, as thick as the ones in the Swedish Veteran Reserve. The duties were quite heavy. The Italians had small tractors in front of their anti-tank cannon, but we had to drag ours with ropes. There were nine men on each cannon, since we had ammunition-carriers as well. 45 millimeter-piece, a pain to work, but effective. We took out tanks as well as machine-gun nests. A lot of times we would be situated in front of the infantry to manage the machine guns. We also had a few tanks that time, as it was an offensive. Under their protection we advanced as far as possible. There had been a big tank battle before us. We saw a lot of burnt out tanks. The Fascists had dug themselves into the ground around the houses, sometimes behind concrete defenses. There were mostly Moors there. They always left the Moors last. After a few days I was wounded for the second time. It occurred during an air strike… Italian aircrafts. I happened to get separated by some three hundred meters from my group. As soon as there’s an air raid alarm you all spread out and lie down by a tree. And you’re supposed to have a piece of wood in your mouth. I didn’t. And I wasn’t more than ten-twelve meters from the blast. The distance was enough for the shrapnel to fly above me, but the pressure wave took both my ear drums – since I had had my mouth closed. I lay unconscious almost an entire day before they found me. Then they drove me to Escorial , to Madrid and on down to Alcoy. At the Swedish-Norwegian hospital, they declared that nothing could be done about my ear drums. They had to send me home. So I was back in Stockholm by the end of the summer.
Conny saw some of the fraction within the Spanish Labor Movement. What were his views on the Anarco-Syndicalists?
“I can evaluate them only to a certain extent”, he says – and speaks of CNT’s union power. But then he goes on to criticize the separatism in Catalonia :
“When Durruti, with his column of 3000 anarchists from Barcelona marched to defend Madrid in November 1936, he tried to break these points of view and show that you couldn’t just sit at home, in your village, city or part of the countryside waiting for the Fascist troops, to fight only once they got there. You had to stand up against them at the existing fronts. It’s easy to like Anarchism. It’s easy to feel captivated by its passion for freedom. It’s indisputable. The slogans “against bureaucracy” and “against the Governmental Apparatus”… It fascinates. But Spain was at war, and military rulings are always a form of dictatorship. Someone has to give orders, and the others have to obey. Those few times I was in Barcelona there were a lot of young people there, just like in Aragon , in the district of Murcia as well as in other places. When we were traveling to the Cordoba-front I saw young boys out in the fields. They clasped their hands over their heads – the beautiful Anarchist greeting. We thought it was fancy – their way of greeting us, until one started reflecting upon it: There they stand, clasping their hands, and here I am, on my way to the front. But maybe they had to stay on the farms for the sake of the food supply in the country. And even if all able bodies had reported to the front, there weren’t enough weapons to go around anyway. As an interbrigadier I only once felt unwelcome. It was in a village named Jacila, nearby Alcoy . There were a bunch of guys at the bar, guys my own age, and they… they seemed to view me with distrust. Now, this district had a strong Anarco-Syndicalism influence. No, I didn’t see much of the socializing on the government-side. But one couldn’t help noticing the Women’s Liberation. They joined up in all sorts of situations, in the hospitals and in the industries. This was a sort of revolution in itself.”
Some claim, like the Dutch author Jeff Last, that it could be rough within the brigades for those who weren’t Communist. In regards to this Conny says:
“I wasn’t involved in any greater conflicts personally. Once, in Murcia , some union guys, who were Communists, crowded me, asking if I was a supporter of the Unified Front. I thought it was a pretty stupid question. I told them this, and I don’t think they liked it. In general though: I joined whole heartedly as an Anti-Fascist, the rest didn’t really interest me.”
Once he got back home, Conny Andersson continued his work, first in the Spain Committee. Then he went to Bommersvik. It was a Folk High-school-course, as well as some schooling within the Party. One day in January 1938 Erik Jonsson, then the secretary of Stockholm ’s Social Democratic Youth Organization, called and said that Carl Albert Andersson had fixed a job for Conny at Konsum. Right after Conny hung up and went to sit down, the phone rang again. This time Folke Tiderman from the Bricklayers, said that Conny could become a Bricklayer’s Apprentice. He would be taken on immediately, contract and everything. But Conny chose Konsum.
The Spain Committee continued its work. They would run ambulances and the hospital in Alcoy, together with the Norwegian Committee. When the refugees started coming from Spain, they organized 30-40 children’s homes in France. The Committee also tried to financially aid those refugees who wanted to go from France to South America. Conny worked for the Committee until May. He was also one of the ones behind the Support Fund for the Soldiers at the Frontline, a direct continuation of the movement in Spain. He came from the Spain Committee to the Bouillon Cube department at Konsum in Stockholm. Then he was moved to the supply depot, where he worked loading and unloading railway cars, and making sure that the canned goods-department at the meats and provisions-factory received all the cans they needed.
In 1956 he visited Tito. Former volunteers of the Spanish Civil War from several countries were invited to a conference in Beograd , twenty years after the general’s rebellion. Conny came from Sweden along with Gösta Andersson and Elis Frånberg. Tito served them all lunch in his castle. During this interview, Conny expresses his support for a unified Laborer’s Movement. “The Communist Party is so small. Maybe it is better to work for what you want from within the bigger party. I can say that, but I can’t be sure I’m right...”
Posted 06 June 2004 - 10:21 AM
Gösta "Göken" (the Cuckoo) Andersson was born in Masthugget, Gothenburg. He worked at a ship as a sailor when the Spanish Civil War broke out. Gösta went to Spain at New Year 1936/1937. After some initial battles he was put into a group of "Partisans". He describes several of the events in his own book called "Partisans". Gösta Andersson returned to Sweden in November 1938;
Gösta ”the Cuckoo” Andersson grew up in Masthugget in Göteborg.
”My old man worked as a turner in the Göteborg industry. I was born on Pölvägen, behind Gatenhielm’s House, up by Stigbergstorget. We lived on two kronor a month. Then, during the war, we moved to a school. We lived there… they had like screens… between the families. I was like Maria here (pointing at his grand-daughter), no more than three or four years old. Then we moved into a room in Vreta, no more than seven or eight square meters.”
Gösta hade five siblings, among them a sister. She died from pneumonia. His oldest brother drowned. The youngest brother, born in 1915, died from tuberculosis. Gösta was born in 1911. When the First World War started there were food supplies – more or less. But things got worse.
”I couldn’t have been older than four or five years the first time I stole something. I was out with my brothers and their friends. It was right where the statue of the Sailor’s Wife stands at Stigbergstorget, right across from the America Docks. Mom had sewn up an old coat for my old man. That kind of thick sailor’s fabric. I was wearing that. Then they’d have me sit on an empty sack, and it was COLD. After a while my brothers and the others would come and fill the sack with stolen stuff. It grew as I sat there. The customs officials would walk by, but couldn’t see what I was sitting on, since the coat was so long. Steal – that’s all we did, since we had no food. We were always after food, from the bakery – or from brewery wagons. We stole beer bottles. We’d steal anything we could get our hands on.”
Gösta Andersson tells me that if he hadn’t become interested in politics, he would have turned out a gangster. Then he starts describing the fights from when he was still a boy:
“When spring came, there would be general battles. There could be three hundred of us fighting at once. Block against block, even though the borders would vary. So we’d fight against Majorna and… well, basically: you fought. There was always some sort of struggle going on. If it wasn’t wooden swords, it’d be iron axes, bows and arrows, or crossbows. Down in Slaktarn, to the south of Masthugget’s church, they’d stand and watch the assailants come from Kikarn, the neighborhood in Slottsskogen above Masthugget. Big fellows, eighteen-nineteen years old, were fighting it out. Back then you could still buy little Colt guns without any license. They’d have those, loaded with live ammo. And they’d fight with sticks that they’d attach long barbs to. And canes. The old crones would throw buckets of piss over them from the windows above.
They really went at it there. It was a nasty sight. But… you were a part of it.”
Gösta Andersson became a sailor. He got to see the widespread poverty of the Orient, from Suez to Calcutta – reacted, studied. The same kind of experience Per Eriksson speaks of. Gösta joined the Red Union Opposition, and was forced to sign a declaration of loyalty to the Sailor’s Federation after the strike of 1933. He also became a member of the Communist Sailor’s Club. The 1st of August 1936 he saw Franco’s transport ships run between Morocco and the Spanish coast. He stood on the deck of the Swedish Lloyd’s s/s Bernicia. The ship was docked in Gibraltar .
“If we had laid anchor in Spain I would’ve taken off already then. But we only went to other Mediterranean ports – and then home. I signed off back home in Göteborg. After that I worked for about a month and a half at the Eriksberg shipyard. Then I was fired. At the end of the year, they’d fire most people, to save money, and then they’d take them on again. But that’s not the reason I left for Spain . I’ve been fired from a lot of jobs in my days. I met Sixten and Rolf Aronsson at Interclub, and international sailor’s club that existed over the entire world. We talked about Spain. Then we left.”
A month passed, then a week and a bit, and then Gösta Andersson was sitting wounded outside the field hospital just behind the Jarama-front, when he saw a gleaming silver Fascist-plane come diving out of the night (this part is described in his book “Partisans”). By the middle of March his wounds were healed and his convalescence was over. He was sent from Benicasim to Albacete, to re-enlist to the Brigades, Gösta describes this in his own book Partisans;
“In Albacete we meet Gunnar Johansson, the Cadre Chief.
- Well, boys, he says, you’re probably gonna have to wait for your transport. But then one night, when we’re sitting in “Mama’s Bar”, he comes in and tells us:
- Alright – I’ve got a job here that might interest you. Back then “we” were Karl Ernstedt, Gunnar Alm, Harald Norrman, Oskar Svensson and me.
- Come along to the Cadre. You’ll be meeting a comrade who wants to ask you boys a few questions. The comrade of which he spoke was thick set, and impressed us with his keen eyes in his robust face. He presented himself as Comrade Richard. After about one hour’s discussing, where he asked questions about what we might dare, like, for example, going behind enemy lines – he seemed satisfied, and said:
- You’re taken on. We meet tomorrow night at this time, and bring your gear along. The evening came. A truck parked at the place we were meeting at. Richard and some other guy were sitting in it. No-one said anything. Up into the truck, and away. We drove endless kilometers through the dark. We sat quite uncomfortably, straight on the floor, but maybe the idea was to toughen us up a bit. No-one spoke. We all sat with our own contemplations in mind. And there wasn’t anything to liven it up. We’d all forgotten to bring any, except for Oskar. His canteen was full of cognac.
- Have a drink, and don’t sit here looking glum! No-one’s going to blow overboard as long as I’m along. Thanks to him, and the help of his canteen, the grim atmosphere lightened up. I had got to know Oskar in Landskrona, when I was working at the Öresund shipyard. He was muscular, with lots of spirit, probably the perfect man for the job. Gunnar, from Skåne, was a great story-teller. Harald – hot-headed and with a thrill for life that no-one could break, but a missing index finger caused him lots of trouble. I looked at Kalle – a regular army-man, and definitely the unofficial leader of our outfit. And Viggo – the Dane, calmness personified. Yes, we were los guerillos. Around midnight the truck stopped. We got to get out and stretch out for a while. Richard offered us cigarettes, but was still quiet. The sun comes rolling as we enter the city. Which one? Richard laughs at us and says:
- We’re resting here for some hours. The name of the city is Almaden! Nice and clean. The houses are all whitewashed and lie beautifully on the hillside. Mining city, Gunnar proclaims. Water, food and rest. Once we sit down to eat, Richard becomes more open-hearted.
- You’re going to be the Third Company, he says. Six men plus guides, that’s it. Your task is to place explosives by country side roads and railways, where the damage will be the greatest. The work is dangerous! You’re going up to a little village right on the front. We’ve already lost one entire group doing this job. That’s why their places are free, boys. Your task is important. We don’t have enough planes, but people, rifles, pistols… And dynamite is a lot more exact than bombers. If anyone wants to back out, he may do so now. After this there is no return. Clever. Who wanted to turn back now? So we travel to the city of Don Benito , where we wait a few days for our equipment. Don Benito is on the salient, not far from the Guadiana River . Just a few kilometers to the lines. But the people there go about their lives like normal. We’re impatient to get started. Finally… when the equipment comes we travel along winding roads to the village we’ll be using as the basis for our operation, Valle de Serena. Our guides (guias) are standing outside a house, four men, in brown moleskin, with smiling faces and their fists raised in the air.
“Salud camradas”, they greet us. Richard gives us some good advice. His last name is Shenk, and he will later fall at Teruel as the Political Officer for the Eleventh Brigade. The village consists of a church, a plaza and some streets, a store, and a shaving hut, where an old man rips your beard off, so it still stings two weeks later. The Spaniards run us roughly out in the terrain. We shoot a lot. They go in at nights, and come back with horses. We urge them to let us go along, but they just laugh and say:
- No han terminado todavla. You’re not ready with your training yet. But then, one night, we go in. Close by Olivia de Merida there’s a tall mountain. It’s several kilometers there. We’re going to lie there all day, and then, at dusk, climb down and try to contact some farmers, or take some prisoners. We start off fine, and come nightfall we climb to the top. Los guias leave us in a well-protected place. They disappear to scout the area. They’re soon back, and lay down to sleep, like Viggo. The day proceeds calmly. We have plenty of water, and nice shade from the smallish trees. We lie, well hidden, with a good view of the landscape. Spanish land. Bleak, no sharp colors, brown and gray. All the other nuances kind of blend in unnoticed. The soft hazy colors make the landscape destitute and quiet. Has time really moved on here? At the foot of the mountain some farmers are working. Miguel points downwards, circling them with his finger.
- We’re taking them.
So we move down the slope, closing the circle after an hour. Juan goes up to them and gets some information, offers them cigarettes. And with a “hasta la vista”, we’ll meet again, we disappear into the terrain. The boys are out riding. I’m not feeling so good, but not so bad that I can’t move around, picking up a little Spanish here and there. The people are very helpful, but it’s not easy without a dictionary. When I reach the plaza a bus parks nearby. The Spanish guy, who’s started unloading some material, looks at me and nods:
- Foreigner? Si? Ruso?
- No, I answer.
Then he points at the church wall and waves his arm:
- Pielicula rusa.
Some hundred people have gathered in the dark when the projector shines its white light over the church wall. The film is “The boys from Kronstadt”. In it is the stuff we’ve been experiencing on our own at the front. I understand what an extremely strong propaganda effect it has on the Spaniards, fighting for their lives. Early one morning the telephone rings. Miguel picks it up, listens for a while, and then says:
- Si, si, preparese.
After he has hung up, he says:
_ Work for you, companeros. You’ll get different guides. The car picks us up around two, and we meet Richard in Don Benito. He presents us to a German fellow named Wilhelm. Gunnar and Harald have run into a strong gastric catarrh and are out of the game. Richard describes our mission. We’re headed for Merida . Seven or eight kilometers from the city we’re supposed to place explosives, on the road as well as the railway. Kalle and Wilhelm are going to carry the dynamite and place it, the rest of us protect the flanks. The guides know the terrain well. We’re to rest during the days and march at night. Our starting point is just north of Castel Rubio. The car takes us there, and around nine o’clock we disappear into the dark, followed by a whispered “good luck” from the soldiers. The oldest guide takes charge, leading us over farmland, where you can still see the furrows in the dirt since before the owners abandoned it, due to the war. It’s hard on your legs, especially in consideration to our heavy army boots. The Spaniards have an easier time: thick wool socks on their feet, and paragattas of old car-tires. We’re totally worn out when the guide finally signals that the long night-hike is over. Low bushes protect us from the sun. It’s sure to get hot later during the day. Kalle has warned us: No unnecessary chit-chat. Everyone is to lie still, to avoid being spotted. The heat is unbearable. Flies and insects irritate, and the lumps in the ground prevent us from sleeping that day. During the following night Kalle becomes ill, with a high fever. We want to turn back, but he says:
- Don’t give a damn about me!
We go on. He staggers after the guide all night long. His equipment hangs low, all except the binoculars. He tells us:
- In case I collapse, I don’t want them to be crushed, so you guys can’t use them. During the following day we live like kings in a big copse, with access to fresh water. The fever lets up, and Kalle is soon well again. The guide explains: The road is good up ahead. If we go at it hard, we should reach the city where his family lives. His wife and children are in there. And he really wants to see them. So we depart. When we reach the city, we hide behind a low stone-wall a few hundred meters up the slope. There are people all around us, all day long. The anxiety feels like a knife in your stomach, but Antonio is totally calm. He can see his family through a hole in the wall. The kids are out playing, and he follows them with his eyes. When his wife shouts at the kids, telling them to come in for supper, he shines, telling us:
- Did you hear that? They’re having supper.
We spend our time eating apples and looking up at the sky. Small bells ring down in the valley, all day long. They sound more distant towards the evening, when the herding boy brings the animals home. The sun goes down and a pleasant cool sweeps over our bodies. I lie dozing for a few hours, unable to completely fall asleep. The last night before the placing of the charges. Nothing special happens during the march, except for a persistent mutt from a farm close by, who follows us for about half an hour, barking. The next day, we are lying approximately three kilometers up on a low mountain, listening to the passing trains. Lively traffic. It’s sure to disappear by evening. We have been warned. Guards are patrolling the grounds around the railway embankment at all times. There had been a group here one month before us. They were all killed. Kalle and Wilhelm check to make sure all the explosives are in working order. We strategize. Viggo and I are on the right flank. Oskar and the guide on the left. The sun sets. We walk straight towards the railway. We’re just some ten metres from the road when a big spotlight comes around from the right. We hide behind a water tank on the side of the road. What dumb luck! A car saves us. A dimmed light shines, and we can see one of the guards. He waves his light. The car stops. We lie completely motionless. The guard checks the motorist’s papers, and with an ”Erriba Espana” he lets the car pass. He walks into his cabin, closes the door, and once again, everything is dark. Silence, not a sound from any of us. Then Kalle whispers:
- Let us take to the right, and attempt a crossing further down the road. To hell with the mines. If we succeed with the railway, that’ll do fine. Said and done. As quiet as ghosts we sneak along the road, cross it, and aim for the railway-embankment. We’re some twenty five meters away when a military train comes careering, fully lit. Some yelling is heard from the open windows. It comes to a stop. The railway embankment is three meters high. We take our positions. Meanwhile Kalle and Wilhelm have taken off their backpacks. Viggo is sitting with his back to the embankment. Oskar and he are armed with American rifles, the rest of us with ordinary Mausers. I see that Kalle is ready to climb the embankment. They dig a hole under the rails, to fit in two boxes of dynamite, and the detonator, which the train itself will activate. A warning from the left! Two guards come walking along the other side of the tracks, speaking with each other. But they pass calmly. The train had disturbed us. Now we start working more effectively. I climb the embankment, keeping my eyes to the right. I can see Kalle’s blond hair on the other side of the rails. Suddenly I hear footsteps, from my side, but manage to give a warning in time. I can’t get down though, so I remain silent, lying up on the embankment. I draw my gun underneath me. I chance a quick look, and see the legs coming closer. The guard stops. We have to try to bring him down as quietly as possible. He’s no more than half a meter away, when he passes. But nothing in the way he moves says that he is aware of us. He keeps walking, at the same pace and we make it. Just afterwards, Kalle sticks the cords in his mouth, to make sure there is no current. They close the circuit and everything is ready. Viggo gets up. He has sat totally immobile, with his rifle in his lap, the entire time. Strange – all of a sudden hunger stings. We haven’t eaten since the morning, a slice of bread and an orange. Kalle gives the signal and we start marching. There are two cities ahead of us, Villa Gonzalo and Zarza Alange, and we have to pass them tonight to reach the mountains. The next morning we find a decent place. All we have is water, but we fall asleep, despite our hunger, tired and worn out from all the marching in the dark. This is the fifth day. Around one o’clock Oskar comes running, shouting that the Fascists are coming up the mountain. We all get up with a start. Oskar explains how the old guide had gone to visit his brothers in the valley to get us food. He was discovered by a mounted Fascist. The rider had understood immediately, and turned back to Guarena. Kalle says that we have to cross the valley and hide on the other side. We run down the slope. Several houses have smoke coming out of their chimneys. The people are on their siesta, and they’re cooking. We’ve reached the bottom, and start climbing. At one house the two brothers of the guide make the People’s Front’s greeting. A little boy, no more than seven years old, runs after us, screaming:
- Pappa, pappa!
His father stops, tries to get the boy to turn back, but he clings to his father’s legs, screaming:
- I want to go with. I want to go with you!
- Just bring him along, says Kalle.
A few hundred meters from the house, we hide behind some bushes that protect well. We’re all sweaty, panting like crazy – fear is running through your head. We all keep our eyes glued on the valley for any sign of Fascists. Because come they will. We’re sure of it. One of the Spaniards draws a sharp breath and whispers:
- There they are!
They come into the valley, ten, twenty… soon there are hundreds of men on a firing-line, headed for the mountain we were on just earlier. They start yelling… the fox-hunt has begun. The youngest guide loses it, and starts running up the mountain side. His clothes blend into the terrain. One glimpse of him – then he’s gone. We keep our eyes on the Fascists through the binoculars. Now some thirty men come towards our side. Then we finally see who the bastards are. It’s Franco’s mercenaries – Moros! Two mounted Officer’s are in charge, always with their eyes on the mountain we were on before, to see if the soldiers manage to flush anyone out. Things are looking real bad. The guide with the son is on his knees in front of Kalle makes some stabbing motions towards his genitals.
- Moros, he grunts.
His face is gray under the beard and dirt. His eyes are alive with terror. He whispers to his little boy:
- Mi hijo, mi hijo.
He removes his coat, puts it over the shoulders of his son, and moves up the hill. They aren’t seen. Oskar moans:
- God damn it. Why didn’t I go to sea instead?!
Yes, indeed. Who wouldn’t rather want to be on a ship at a time like this. The anxiety is strapped across your chest. Kalle grabs my shoulder and whispers:
- Look to the right, by the house.
I move my binoculars to the area he has pointed out, and get a close-up of a moros. His head sticks up. He looks around. We’re well concealed, even though the distance is no greater than fifty meters. He makes no attempt to come our way. The others have already disappeared over the mountains. The officers have ridden back the way we came from the previous night. Do we stand a chance? It’s four o’clock . Viggo is still sitting with his rifle in his lap. What a spookily calm bastard! Kalle and the German also seem to take it lightly, quietly discussing the best way to get home. We have a map, but no compass. Kalle says:
- The problem is getting out of the valley. We’ll get out around ten tonight, and stay along the middle of the mountain. Once we’re out we can try to find the path we came in on. As long as we find the mountain where we lay with Miguel and Juan then… The tension has passed. One of us keeps guard. The rest of us stretch out on our backs and rest – it’s a beautiful evening. Then we leave, find the path, and follow it for a few hours. But we can’t find the mountain we’re looking for. Kalle suggests that we lay down and wait for daylight. Early the next morning he sneaks upwards, to figure out exactly where we are. He’s gone for a half-hour, and then returns with his face lit up. We get to know that the mountain is close by, and he can see the village of Olivia de Merida just a few kilometers away. But the best of all: his canteen is full of fresh water. We’ve stumbled onto a little stream, and all of a sudden our future looks much brighter. At four in the afternoon we start marching towards our encampment. We don’t give a damn about any Fascists anymore. Dusk comes creeping. We close in on the hill where our soldiers are positioned. Kalle tells me:
- Shout, Gösta. Let them know we’re partisans. So I start yelling:
- No en lires, somos guerilleros! Not a sound – no answer.
- Try again, says Kalle.
But I don’t care anymore. We walk up. We’re all tired, hungry, and in foul moods. The place gets closer. We discover a man. A voice says:
- Salud, camaradas!
It’s the old guide.
- Welcome, welcome…
He embraces us and tries to explain, but we just hug him back and say:
- “No inporta, companero”. The other guide was captured, and the place we had moved from had been bombed. We ask him where his son is.
- En su casa, he answers.
Good thing the kid made it. We enter the house. A big iron kettle is on the fire, full of mutton and potatoes, and next to it a big bottle of red wine. We sit on the floor, eat with our hands straight out of the kettle, like pigs, gulping it all down. Bread and wine. Then we all doze off on the stone floor and sleep long into the next day. Meanwhile the phone rings. Kalle tells Richard that the job is done. We leave the house around eleven the next day. We have to walk four kilometers to the village. We’re offered horses, or a mule-drawn carriage, but we all prefer to walk, except for Kalle – he rides. For the rest of us the road gets harder. But Kalle, on the other hand, is of high spirits, turning around, asking us how the seating is.
- What damn seating, I ask him. How do I sit on the horse?
- Straight across, like everyone else.
A look from next to me. Wilhelm chuckles, understanding Swedish better than me, when it comes to riding terms. Crazy guys! But it’ll definitely be nice to have that person in front of you on the next job!”
It seems like Gösta enjoyed his time with the Partisans.
“Yes. There was something there that you’d never find in any ordinary company. We lived together. We were given R. & R. whenever we had done a good job. It was amazing, going in behind the lines night-time. If the moon was up, if it was raining or snowing… it didn’t matter. But walking in these mountains… you would hear the farmers working. You would hear them singing, and you’d see mules and donkeys, goats and sheep. You’d hear the bells on the animals. All of that! It was something special. So once you had planted the charge and done the job… Oftentimes the job wasn’t the main thing. It was… you just had to do it. I mean, you couldn’t run into the damn Fascists just to listen to the bells. But… there was something fantastic about it, as opposed to the infantry. Because in the infantry – all you do is run and shoot, back and forth, digging and shooting, run, run, run… never any rest. That’s the part I liked the best: the night—time marches.”
In April 1938 Gösta Andersson travelled from a weapons-shop to the doctor in Albacete. At the same time, the order for retreat came: crowd into railway-cars and head for Barcelona. Franco’s troops were cutting off Spain. Then he came to the Ebro-front. He was there in the end of July, the same night the big offensive was going to take place, ready to be a part of it. He was picked up and sent to Catalonia . Another mission for the Partisans. But before he had a chance to go on any such mission, the order to disengage the Brigades came. He had to travel home alone. He didn’t have any passport, so he had to visit the Consulate to get his papers. Then he traveled to Göteborg, through Dunkerque and Esbjerg. One month before Christmas, in the middle of the night, he knocked on the door back in Masthugget. Dad was asleep. But mom was awake. She came and opened the door. Just previously the Worker’s Newspaper in Göteborg had reported that Gösta Andersson had fallen in battle. It was a mistake. There was another Spanish Volunteer from Borås with the same name. He was killed at Ebro .
“Don’t be afraid, mom,” said Gösta. ”It’s me.”
“Oh”, she answered.
Then she showed him the newspaper.
“I don’t know why I said that”, says Gösta. “I hadn’t read any newspapers. Besides, my mom has always been calm about things. We didn’t turn it into anything big. I don’t even think we shook hands. She just put on some coffee.”
So what does Gösta think of himself?
“The politics have made me a softer human.”
That may well be. And why was he called the “Cuckoo”?
Well, according to rumor, he would sing during the trip to Spain – songs like “The Pioneer” and “The Little Drummer Boy”, or anything else the comrades enjoyed. Someone else claims the name is from his clucking laughter. I forget to ask for the song. The laugh comes on it’s own...
Posted 06 June 2004 - 10:24 AM
Harry Ericsson was born in Gävle, north of Stockholm at the east coast in Sweden. When the Spanish Civil War broke out Harry was trying to find a job in Stockholm. At winter 1937 he took the train to Copenhagen and further down to Spain. He fought at in the Thälmann Battalion at Gudalajara and Brunete. For a short while he was sent on partisan missions. In January 1939 he came back to Sweden;
”You see, I never talk about all that”, says Harry Ericsson, a 60-year old general laborer in Skärholmen in Stockholm. He’s a stocky, stout man. For almost 25 years he has carried bricks. Nowadays they use wheelbarrows. Used to be that they would load 20-25 kilos on their backs, and hold it there with the help of heavy chains. The stairs on the scaffolding would run here and there, up the side of the buildings.
“ Spain”, he says. “There were people sitting in the cafés afterwards talking about it. They sounded like they were trying to seem important. I didn’t like it. Try to play hero… No.”
But he proceeds to take an old newspaper clipping from sometime in 1938 out of the closet in his bachelor’s lair. Gefle Dagblad – the Gefle Daily Post. The headline over a darkened photo reads:
“LOCAL BOY VOLUNTEERS IN SPANISH CIVIL WAR”
“Among the many Swedes who these days fight as volunteers in Spain, there is one young local boy, who seems to have been on the front for almost a whole year, where he has distinguished himself, so that he, just a few days ago, was chosen for Officer Schooling. He is the 23-year old Harry Ericsson, residing in Järvsta, but registered in Gävle. During the end of last year Ericsson left the home of his parents to look for a job in Stockholm. As you all know, an intense recruitment of volunteers to the Spanish Republican Troops was going on, and Ericsson was one of those who jumped at the chance.”
Jumped at the chance – Harry laughs. He claims that he has saved the clipping, because it can be viewed quite ironically. The text goes on:
“The members of his family knew nothing of the matter, until they one day received a letter from the adventurous son in Spain.”
Of course. Writing about the adventurous has always been part of it all. But Harry Ericsson… when he took the train to Copenhagen in the winter 1937 he was, I believe, probably more generally pissed off. He had been standing in queues for the unemployment fund. He had been walking around in Stockholm looking for a job, but never finding any.
Did you ever run into any Nazi-groups here during the thirties?
“Hell yes. Scabs and… I’d get in a lot of fights with them too. Maybe I was a little wild back then. I didn’t need much to get me started. But I can’t stand disloyal people. I’ll make myself heard. If I see any injustice, I’ll make myself heard”.
In Spain he was eventually sent to the partisans. He didn’t stay there long but he met Gösta “the Cuckoo” Andersson. Later he was part of the illegal activities in Stockholm, which led to his arrest and sentence of penal servitude – one year, after all the additions. In the spring of 1945 he served with the Norwegian volunteers in Värmland.
He is born in Ovansjö. His father worked on peat bog.
“We lived in a crofter’s cottage and we lived in a washing room. We were four brothers. Cramped, poor and miserable. Pickled herring and potatoes, rutabagas.
After elementary school Harry worked as an errand boy, was a sailor for a while – and a vagabond. For a short time he also worked as a driver in Gävle.
“Politics… You were too young. There were two Communist parties back then, the Silléners and the Kilbomers. My oldest brother… he also went to sea… and he was a Silléner. I was invited along to a meeting. Sure, it was propaganda, but… I never understood what the big split was all about. But, you listened, made friends, got into the political jargon. And then there were the Sailor’s Clubs. I got into Interclub, where the Communists held the majority. I wasn’t exactly a member of the party. I mean, I still had my opinions, even if I didn’t organize them. That’s the way I am. I want to be free. But I had strong sympathy for the Communists, no doubt. Maybe I don’t have quite the same opinions today, but I’m still leftist…
Then we heard in the club that lots of chums from the last couple of years had gone down to Spain . So you walked around thinking about it until… Well, until you left. The group I left with was the first to walk over the Pyrenees , since the border had been shut. We were in Paris for four weeks. And then in a little village closer to the Spanish border. There we hid with a family for an entire week, one German and four Swedes. We weren’t allowed to go outdoors. Then one night, they came and fetched us and we could continue. Some kilometers from Perpignan we met a bunch of Americans. First we took a bus, until we were on the edge of Perpignan . Then a bunch of taxicabs came driving. We had to jump into them, just a few of us at a time. When we had almost reached the railway bridge there in Perpignan we had to jump out – while they drove slowly. Then we had to crawl over the bridge. We saw some border patrol guards when we’d reached the other side, but they disappeared. It seemed like some sort of cooperation. We were given a guide. I don’t know if he was a Frenchman or a Spaniard. But we walked all night over the mountains.
The first frontline I came to was Guadalajara . I had wanted to get to the fighting sooner, but had to obey my orders. There was some drilling first. I was put in the Thälmann Battalion - but not in the third Scandinavian company – in the eleventh company. There were Swedes, Germans and Danes there. Back then Herman Wohlin was kind of in charge of it all. You didn’t think so much. You were just there. And Herman, he was like everyone’s father. But the Company Commander was a Captain, Zeokila Anton.
When we came as rookies to Guadalajara, we were put in the reserves. We didn’t get to hold a rifle even once, as we lay in the olive tree groves. You had to wait for someone to be killed. Then you could take his gun. You had your uniform and steel helmet, though. The first few days… it was so exciting. You had dreamed… but could never have imagined what it would be like. The only rule was: Make it on your own. You could play hero, if you wanted, and definitely never show that you were scared. It was just to walk straight ahead.”
Can you remember your first day on the front?
“I got dysentery. Probably because of my nerves.”
So where did they have you go then?
“I just got a charcoal tablet. That was it. Keep going and take more tablets. And it was cold – like a late autumn day here, rainy, snow mush… and… if you could dig a place for yourself in the ground, you did. If you had time. And if you had something to dig with. You had to dig with whatever you found. The terrain was mixed… broken ground.
What happened when you met the Italians?
“Well, you’d see them. So you’d shout – and shoot. And you’d keep going until you could see their feet when they were running. And then it was just to run after. So you’d cheer and shout and pick things up. And then you were happy when you got to run back and rest a little. We were at Guadalajara for more than a month, before we went back – back to Albacete . Then, after a week or two, came our decampment orders. It was at night. I’ll never forget it. Anton had showed us on a diagram, we’d be making a nightly raid on a mountain. It was raining and it was pitch black. We’d get into the trucks, people were singing the International, and then we were driven to the Guadalajara Mountains .
It was pouring down rain. We didn’t know what was going on, except that we were attempting to take some mountain top. Then we had to get out of the trucks. They pulled out a long rope and told us to hold onto it, so we wouldn’t lose each other. We walked down the hill, through a valley, over a river and into a village, and then up the other side. The sun was starting to rise. We came up on a big damn plateau, you see. And we walked across it. And then it started exploding like hell. The shots seemed to be coming from behind us. So we hit the ground. But the thing was that they were firing dumdum bullets. And when they exploded… it sounded like they came from behind you. When we understood that, we stormed forwards and took the mountain top. And then we held basically the entire valley. But it all moved back and forth. Of course… some of the boys were wounded. But that didn’t ever cross your mind. It was just to storm back and forth. But then I saw people coming from further away. First I thought it was our boys. We could see them running over the plains. But then it turned out it was the Fascists. They had got reinforcements. We had to retreat. We had to leave the machine guns. We ran down the hill. Then I heard someone screaming in Swedish:
- “Help me, help me! I’m wounded.” So I stopped, ran over to the guy. I couldn’t remember his name. I was nervous – tired. I grabbed his arm. He couldn’t walk. He’d been shot in the legs. So I dragged him down the slope. As far as I could manage. We came down into a little hollow and there we lay. Then I said:
- “Damn, I can’t take you any further. How should we do this? You stay here, and I’ll try to reach the other side of the valley. Try to stay calm… until it gets dark later tonight, and then…” I crawled down the slope. I heard shots fired. The Fascists had already broken through up there. They would shoot as soon as I moved. But there was a grain-field down in the valley. I had to lie on my belly, pulling my way over, through the grain and then over the river. You were expecting a bullet to hit at any moment. I made, it, but by then I was exhausted, completely gone. Then the boys from back home had found me. I woke up, after I had got to rest for a while. Then I said:
- “There’s a Swede on the other side. He’s wounded in his legs.” Later I found out it was Erik Liljemark. He had crawled over on his own. The Fascists had come down the hill. He had heard them walking by, sticking their bayonets in all the wounded guys around him. But he managed to crawl away, even with his wounds. He got down to the village, and there some family helped him on over to us. Now he lives in Sumpan (Sundbyberg in Stockholm). He still walks with a limp.
- “Thanks to you”, he says, “I survived.” But you never know. Maybe he had survived anyway.
When we got back to Albacete , we got to know that a third of the boys were gone. Some of them, who had been captured, came home afterwards. I met four of them at the Central Station when they came home in 1939. We didn’t have much time to talk, though. And I haven’t ever seen them since then. They all live in different parts of the country.
There was a lot written about that nightly raid afterwards – in both Spanish and other newspapers. The Germans claimed it was the first time in the history of the world that a raid like that had been made. We held it from the morning until late in the afternoon. But by then the Fascists were too many.
So we came to the Guadalajara-front again. It turned into a positional war. We would dig trenches and shoot at each other every now and then. We’d also dig dugouts – to live in. Cairns with dirt on top. We were almost eaten alive by all the lice. If you had lice, you wouldn’t get fleas, and if you had fleas, you wouldn’t get lice. They don’t get along well. After a while you wouldn’t even feel them anymore. Even if they were crawling in rows over your neck.
Then we were supposed to go from Guadalajara to Brunet. We had to pull back and get ready to leave. But then we got a break, since they hadn’t supplied us with any cars. So we just lay around, tired and weary, you know. We had been fighting over positions day and night. And we knew we’d be sent on an offensive. We had to wait 24 hours for the transports.
Then they were going to start playing, like in the military service here in Sweden . We were supposed to storm a hill. We then had a Norwegian fellow as Company Commander. He was stuck-up. He had been to the Soviet. So we lined up. The Norwegian went to speak to the Germans. All the Commanding Officers were Germans. And there we stood. But as soon as he left, we lay down again. Later he came back. Then he got angry:
- “Are you sitting,” he said. “Are you lying down? What’s going on here? We’re going to storm that hill over there!”
- “No,” we said. “We’re not.” Here we’ve been lying, digging trenches in the damn rock and dirt. We’re going to the offensive. But now we’re tired. Now we want to rest. We’ll still have plenty of damn time to run and storm it later on. So he left again, to the German Officers. And they stood us up in a long line. So then one of the German Officers stepped forward, just like a Prussian, with his gun in his hand. He said that we were saboteurs. And when we were sent on the offensive, he’d make sure that this group was split up. We’d be mixed with the others. Since we couldn’t be trusted. But then Lise Lindbrek came – the Norwegian journalist. We explained to her:
- “We’re not Prussians. We’re not going to let them play around. We’ve played enough. We’re at war here, doing what we’re told to do. Go storming – we can do that as part of the offensive.” So Lise Lindbrek worked it out. But do you know what the Germans said? That they’d be keeping their eyes on us, see what kind of men the Swedes were. Imagine: Germans, hunted by Hitler in their home country – but still just as crazy! There were good Germans too… but the majority… When I came to the Officer’s School in Pozorubio, there were some Germans there. They were Captains.
- “What, they said. You’re only a Sergeant?!” They hadn’t been at the front yet. But they still had their marks.
At Brunete there were battles every single day. The worst ones I ever took part in. The hardest time. Villanueva de Canada had already been taken when we got there. So we drove on to Brunet itself. The battles were raging back and forth. We could have Brunet one morning, and then they’d have it in the evening, and the next morning it was ours again, and so on. A river ran across the plateau we were on. You had to get the food after the sun had set, and before it got light in the morning. And then you had to lie in those pits. I never fought any close-range battles. Only shooting. The sun shone. Not a single tree. And then we had to retreat. Helge Brännare and I had been transferred to an anti-tank division. He was from Kalix. Great kid. But we were just ammo carriers. The ones shooting the cannons were German. And then… We’d been out fetching ammo. We were walking down with one mortar shell each. And then the whole front came rolling. We thought: What the hell is this? We started running alongside the front. We were heading for our cannon. But we hadn’t run very far before more guys came running. So, we followed along. When we had run a few kilometers back… but we never heard anything, no shots fired or anything… then we stopped, lay down, and looked around. We didn’t see a living soul. So we said:
- “Hell of a party, here.”
We started crawling back. We still didn’t see anybody. But there were abandoned weapons and equipment all over. We kept crawling upwards, so we came closer to where the cannon was standing. And we looked again. There wasn’t more than one guy at the cannon. And that was Janne Svensson, from Borås. A Swede! We thought things over. We knew he was with the Infantry. But the Germans had taken off, and there stood the cannon, unguarded, without anybody working it. And Janne saw this. So he walked on over, he said. And started using it. He had been in the Artillery Division in the Swedish army. So, then we were three. And then we said:
- “We’re staying here.”
So we took charge of the cannon. Then they started coming back, the officers. And we were ordered to try to get the cannon with us, in case there would be an attack the next day. So we moved the cannon back during the night. A few hundred meters. The next day, the same thing. Then a Spaniard showed up, from the Cavalry. So he joined us. There we were, in No Man’s Land, with one cannon, just the four of us. But we said:
- “Oh no, we’re taking this cannon with us.” When the Fascists shot at us, it would rattle against the cannon’s shield. We pulled the ropes. As soon as the Fascists saw us moving, they’d start shooting. The bullets bounced like peas off the armor-plate. For two whole days we lugged that son of a bitch across No Man’s Land. It wasn’t so heavy. It was on rubber wheels, a little, light cannon. But that can still be hard on terrain, of course. But the Fascists never attempted any attack with their Infantry or anything. We were left to our heaving and pulling in peace and quiet, basically. And we had fun, until we got hold of our own men, tired and hungry. But when we came back to our own lines, we were afraid they’d shoot at us. But it worked out fine. After that we were promoted, Jonne Svensson and me. We got to put together a Swedish crew for the cannon. That’s how I became Sergeant. We reported the Germans for deserting. But they managed to talk their way out of it. Towards the start of autumn I was part of the offensive at Quinto in Aragonia. Jonne Svensson was promoted to Lieutenant and our commander. So we were supposed to sleep at this one place. I only had new recruits. You’d try to instruct them best you could. We lay down at night, and were going to continue the next day. I put one boy on guard-duty. He was also supposed to wake us. But the poor fellow fell asleep as well. When we woke up, all the others were gone. They had all left. So there we were again. And I had no idea where we were headed. But Jonne came back in a car. We had to hurry. When we reached the others, the offensive had already started. I heard the rattling and shooting.
- You’ll have to go place the cannon up there somewhere, they said. But place it so you’re not shot. Now it wasn’t an easy time, knowing exactly where to position the cannon. So we walked out and set it up right in the middle of the field. Which we got in trouble for, even though it worked out fine. I wasn’t an officer, and I was taking care of boys who’d never been out before. So you had to act brave. You couldn’t show that you were so terrified yourself that you were shaking. There you also saw the idiocy of Fascism – and Catholicism. We took Quinto in less than 24 hours. We’d never had it before. On a little hill, in the village, the church lay, like a fortress. All of a sudden a bullet came dancing from the top of the church tower. Our boys were trying to flush them out for hours, unsuccessfully. But then they put in the flame-throwers. And that took care of it. Then they got hold of the priests. Because that’s exactly what they were, the ones shooting. If you try to tell people that nowadays… they won’t believe you.”
After Quinto, Harry Ericsson was sent to the Officer’s School. And later he came to the partisans. Were you a Lieutenant by then?
Harry laughs, almost grimly.
“I never took any rank.”
But wasn’t it their opinion that you’d…
“No, I don’t believe much in that stuff.”
He was on three partisan missions.
“The easy kind. We’d blow up railways and something else. But – lying around for weeks and months behind the front, drinking and eating well, and then going out to do a raid for only three or four weeks… it just wasn’t for me.”
And then he got an inflammation in his eyes, and was sent to the hospital for a month. After that he was stationed with the Artillery. In a way it fit him perfectly. He had completed his Swedish military service with the Swedish Artillery Division in Östersund.
“They sent me down to Montreill, outside Granada. And that’s where we stayed until we got to go home. But nothing ever happened there. Not a thing. Some grenades every now and then. And that was it. It was madness – waiting, waiting… The cannon we were using were old blunderbusses. From the Russian Revolution, I believe. We’d build shacks of old boards and planks. We’d go up into empty villages, grab a door here, and another one there. But there wasn’t much happening… There was a Polish battery there as well. One day, or maybe night, a Pole jumped into the trench with our boys, shouting:
- Me no communista, me no communista.
He had maps with him of our cannon positions. He had been headed for the Fascists, but had misread his maps. So the boys sent him back to the other Poles, where he was shot. Then there was this German Political Officer. One morning he’d just up and vanished with all our money. And the strange thing was, later, when we were pulled back… all the passports were gone too. I wonder if he stole those as well. The last year we didn’t have anything to eat other than rice and beans, galvansas, those little brown beans. Cooked rice, fried rice… We were going crazy, cut off down there. We would see herds of sheep. But we couldn’t go snatch a sheep from the farmers. Sometimes, one of the animals would get injured during transport. Then we could always buy it, and have a grand feast.”
Did you ever discuss the risks of being caught and tortured?
“We had a discussion among the partisans. Since Franco had put a price on the heads of all the partisans. We talked about: was it brave or cowardly to shoot yourself? One kid from Stockholm, Jörner, said it was cowardly. I said it’d take a hell of a lot of courage to do it. But I was never put in that situation. But if I’d been – I think you’d wait until there was absolutely no hope whatsoever before you’d actually pull the trigger. You’d be thinking: maybe there’s still a chance to make it out alive. Of course: you wouldn’t let yourself get caught, since you knew how it’d turn out. But still. You’d hesitate, take any chance coming our way. I think so. Those who went out on the partisan missions after us disappeared. Not one single guy from the entire group came back. Then there was talk afterwards, as to whether they’d been ambushed, or shot themselves. You’d never know. But if you walked around thinking about it… Those who were shot or wounded were forgotten almost immediately. And the torture… there are so many stories about it. I haven’t actually seen anything with my own eyes, though. So I wouldn’t say I believed everything I heard. Mostly what you’d see, were women in the villages who’d been raped. The worst thing ever was when we walked passed Villanueva de Canada. There you’d see women – and children – who’d been killed. One woman had had a five pesetas-coin stuck between her legs. The Moors had done it. The Germans had sent out the Moors and said: - Take whatever you want. And then they’d see a beautiful woman. So they stuck a five pesetas-coin between her legs, and stand shooting, you know. Those… that… They’d use the coin as a target. She lay there with her clothes all ripped apart, half naked. That soldiers kill each other – that’s one thing. It’s so… Then… I speak only for myself now… I was so full of hate. You were thinking: You or me! It was in my head all the time. But to harass and torture… It’s just not a part of it.”
Harry picks out some photos. The long Russian bayonets are all pointed to the sky over Guadalajara. The soldiers are standing in the trenches with unexploded German bombshells in their hands. The Fascist plane looks like a mosquito on the sky above Brunet. Brick roofs, clay walls. Steel helmets, tents set up behind the shield of sandbags, the greeting of the People’s Front…
“Here’s Helge Brännare, Hasse from Lit and Deaf Blom from Hova down in Skåne. Nineteen years old and deaf. There’s Rulle Nilsson, a Stockholm boy, and a Göteborg boy… he was killed later… I can’t remember his name. Here’s a Dutchman. He had been in the Colonial Wars for thirty years before he’d come here, and he never ducked for a bullet. A bullet that you hear come whistling – it’s already gone past, he’d say. A bullet that hits – you don’t hear it. He was a fun old man. He always walked around perfectly straight. And there’s Nordahl Grieg. He was plucky. The last three weeks at Brunet he was with us the entire time. Then a Danish author came along, a completely different kind of guy. We couldn’t stand him. To him we weren’t more than an interview. But Nordahl Grieg was more like the rest of us – talked with us, ate with us and played cards, a nice guy.”
Once the International Control Committee started operating in autumn 1938, Harry Ericsson was sent to a village outside Valencia. He lay there waiting for his transport home. One night – after more than two month’s waiting – the departure finally came. The Interbrigadeers were put on the train to Valencia. Two boats waited in the harbor. They were headed for Barcelona .
“But then the Fascists chased us over the border. We had them up our ass the entire way. A railway car was waiting for us in Perpignan. I was back home in January. We weren’t more than twenty people that time, and we were the last, except for those who had been taken prisoner.
Posted 06 June 2004 - 10:28 AM
Per Eriksson was born i Kragenäs, Bohuslän (Swedish west coast - north of Gothenburg) 1907. He worked as a seaman when the Spanish Civil War broke out. At New Year 1936/1937 he left Sweden for Spain. He joined other Scandinavians in the Thälmann Battalion. He was wounded at the battle of Jarama. After some time he was sent to Officer's school. After Officer's school he trained new recruits and worked a while as a body guard for a Russian General and Dolores Ibarruri "La Pasionara". Per Eriksson left with the other International Brigades in October 1938. Around Christmas 1938 he returned to Sweden;
On Christmas Eve 1936 a few members from the Communistic Seamen’s Club came aboard on the ship - Sveadrott - where Per Eriksson worked. One of the persons was Sixten Olsson (later he changed his last name to Rogeby). He asked a direct question while they celebrated Christmas: How would it be if we went to Spain ?
”I had not previously considered going there and I felt one had to calm down and think first. As a matter of fact I thought all night and half the next day. It was clear to me that I hardly could do anything. I was not a speaker and not a writer. The only thing I could do against fascism was to sell magazines and so on. So I thought: “Okay. I might do more good if I go.” So on Christmas Day, when I met Sixten again, I said that my mind was made up.
I also remember something that hit me pretty hard emotionally. It was a poster where you could see a women’s foot with paragattas, these Spanish slippers, tied with cloth soles under. The foot was crushing a swastika against the pavement. It was the symbolic act of this that really got me. I can’t even remember the text on the poster. Of course it said ”Defeat Fascism” or something like that. But just the fact that they had shown a women’s foot, swastika, pavement... and then nothing else. I thought: If the women can fight against fascism... well, hell... then we also should be able to...”
Then we reported to one of the organizers for the Volunteer movement. It was Knut Björk. From him we received a ticket and instructions about our trip. We left already on New Years Day, 12 of us from Gothenburg. At the same time 13 came from Stockholm . There were only seamen in the group from Gothenburg. Most of the sailors during these years were anti-fascists, more aware then other people within the working-class. They had seen the suffering and the poverty, not only on their own ships but also out in the world in general. They had also been in contact with revolutionaries among the sailors from other countries. And they had sailed with foreigners on Swedish ships.
Military experience? I had done my obligatory service at the ”Telegraph Corps”. They sent me there when I was drafted since I worked extra at the local Telegraph Office digging ditches for cables.”
Train-ship-train: From Copenhagen to Esbjerg, to Antwerpen and Paris. The Swedes were now accompanied by 20 to 30 other Scandinavians. The rules of the non-intervention were not in practice yet. The volunteers could travel with no problems. But the French Spanish Committee, who took care of them in Paris, tried as much as possible keep their business secret. The guys were invited on a sightseeing tour. At the same time they were warned about strangers who might try to find out their final destination. They went to a special restaurant to eat. Then they had a physical check-up. They had to answer some questions. Why were they going to Spain? They did not want any common adventurers.
”Then we told them that we hated fascism and that we were of the opinion that democracy should reign. I remember that we did not get to say... we didn’t really understand it - but we did not get to say that we wanted to fight for some socialism in Spain. I might have thought that this probably was the beginning of socialism since we now fought against the fascism. We were prepared to receive the same kind of questions when we arrived in Spain .
The volunteers continued to Perpignan. Busses took them over the Pyrenees. On the surface, thinking about traveling: A very normal trip. It would be harder for the contingent that arrived later.
”Vi sat on the train and discussed. Sixten was quite pessimistic. We counted on not being alive that much longer. We would go straight to hell. But, we said, at least we will take some fascists with us when we die. That’s how we reasoned. Sometimes though we took it easy and joked. And we gave everybody names. There was the Cuckoo (Göken), the Lapp (Lappen), the Lever (Slejsen), the Corporal (Korpralen)... They called me the Coat (Rocken). When I signed off the ship I bought a new nice overcoat and a suit. I was concerned with my outfit.”
Figueras, the old fortress town in the Pyrenees , was the first gathering place for the international (recruits) on the Spanish side of the boarder. Germans, British waited there - ”The Germans started ordering us around immediately. It was not as cold there. It was dustier instead. We had to go out in our nice clothes and throw ourselves on the ground in the slush and dust without shooting and we had to spread out in a firing-line. They were going to teach us. It was rather senseless but it was the introduction to the experiences we would get as soldiers in Spain.”
The volunteers would travel farther - through Barcelona along the coast southward and then in towards Albacete, the Headquarters of the International Brigades. Women came with big baskets filled with oranges, which they handed to us through the train windows. They cheered and shouted in Valencia. Per Eriksson tells about his time in Albacete;
”The conditions were bad, especially the hygiene, but it got better later on. We were quartered in a bullfighting arena. In dressing-rooms, bull-pens... they had placed beds all over. We also used the old barracks of Guardia Civil. All the locations were equally bad. The worst thing was the latrine. You had to crowd, stand and shit in a drain. Sometimes you couldn’t help it but you stepped in the excrement and you got some on you. There were piles of it every morning. It was completely crowded when thousands of people wanted to get in and then... at ten-eleven o’clock somebody came and poured lime on top before they were going to take the crap away. But sometimes it was left several days. So it smelled bloody awful. And when it rained and so on and the slush... It was all under and around the bleachers. We were not used to the greasy food either. Some people seemed to have dysentery, as they ran all the time. Yes, it was awful before they got used to the wine, food and olive oil. You nearly throw up at first. But it went away. Then you ate anything as long as you were hungry.
Per Eriksson remembers how many of the Scandinavians would speak of the glorious German battalion “Thälmann”, which had received a lot of publicity after having distinguished themselves in the battles to the north-west of Madrid during December and January. So Thälmann is where most Scandinavians went. They were given uniforms in green wool – with big slacks that had to be tied around the ankles, and laced boots. They were told that the equipment was Belgian. Then they were given Russian guns á la Mauser. The bayonets had four corners. As opposed to the Swedish bayonets, they couldn’t be used as knives, but well as screwdrivers. They were also good for opening canned goods. The Scandinavians had chosen the syndicalist Ragnar Skotte, from Stockholm, as their military leader. He was a Lieutenant in the Swedish Veteran Reserve and became the first officer for the Scandinavian Company, the third company in the Thälmann Battalion. Then they were sent down to the area around Murcia, where they were drilled pretty hard, although they only got to shoot three shots over a period of ten days. Things would be different at Jarama. The Thälmann Battalion came from Murcia, riding trucks, to be pitted against General Valera’s well-drilled Marockans. The 12th of February the Scandinavians were given their acid test. By then the road to Valencia was already cut off.
“Since I had received a General Certificate of Education, I spoke a little German. Therefore I was placed as an orderly in the Battalion Staff, to keep contact with the Scandinavian Company. We came to Morata de Tajuna at night. It was a little city just behind the frontline. But we had some problems with the communication. My German wasn’t quite good enough. Next morning, when the company marched towards the frontline, they forgot me at the Staff Headquarters. Suddenly I was all alone with the Sergeant Major, Herman Wohlin from Gävle. Then came a bomb attack that destroyed Morata. Windows, walls… it was all blown to smithereens. We had had enough time to run down into a cellar. Our kitchen was bombed as well, but the truck, the cooking wagon, was still usable. But later we drove it out to the front. We came to the Brigade Staff Office. There we asked where we could find Battalion Thälmann. They told us to go left. I walked that way, amongst hills and olive trees. But I couldn’t find our boys. Instead I ran into Battalion Dimitroff, with guys from The Balkan countries. I followed the Bulgarians and Rumanians when they advanced. That’s when I heard the first noises from the front. It sounded as though someone was hammering on a roof, or like the noise from a carpenter’s workshop. There was consistent hammering. They said that Thälmann was out on their right flank. So I moved right, and finally reached Thälmann’s left flank. The first person I saw was a German Battalion Officer. I think he was in charge of the First Company. His name was Willi, and he was walking straight through the rain of bullets. He never threw himself to the ground, just walked around, straight and tall, pointing with a stick and commandeering his men forward. It seemed like he didn’t even notice all the bullets flying around him. He was used to it, as he had fought in the First World War. But later he was killed. He told me to continue out to the Battalion’s right flank, because that’s where the Scandinavians were. And that’s where I found Skotte, seven or eight Swedes and some Danes. They were sitting in a ditch, and had lost everyone else. They were very sombre, since they were thinking:
- We’re done for! But to see someone else from the Company… it cheered them up a bit. They asked:
- How have you been? And I told them that I hadn’t been given any orders. But after a while the boys started coming back. We started putting our company together again. The more that showed up, the more the courage of those who were there already grew. I think, that before sunset, Skotte had gathered some twenty Scandinavians from the original Battalion. Then a bunch of Spaniards joined us as well. We were almost fifty men.”
Next day the company attacked again. They were aiming for a hill, between the lines, to get a more favourable position. Per had, in all haste, been appointed Platoon Officer.
“Everything seemed to be going well. But when we climbed the hill the Fascist tanks came driving. They shot with tracer bullets. It looked like we had swarms of glowing fireballs coming towards us. We had to retreat – run, throw yourself to the ground… run. I got closed into an olive tree grove, with no more than ten of the Scandinavians. Rune Sebastian Eriksson, Henry Olsson and some other Swedes were there. We had to lie, hiding, amongst the olive trees all day long. We couldn’t get in contact with anyone. But when the sun set, the shooting stopped, so we just up and walked across the field, to the next grove of trees, where we knew the rest of our group was. But they were Frenchmen. We had wandered into Battalion Dumont. The Frenchmen were good fellows. They gave us food and cognac. And what food they had… we never got that kind of stuff in Thälmann. The Germans seemed to believe that all you needed to keep morale up was one hot plate of food per day. And it was always soup. Meat, potatoes and carrots, cooked together into a soup. Soup, soup, soup… No variation whatsoever. The cigarettes we used to get were the Spanish kind, like tobacco packages , rolled into sausages. They were called “bombas”, and they cracked and spilled easily. It was damn hard trying to smoke them. The Frenchmen could grill steaks and… cook anything. They also showed us their fancy, deeply dug trenches.
- “You can stay here tonight,” they said. But there was this Dane… he was Assistant to the Platoon Officer, but not in my platoon. We had several Danes with us, among them our Political Officer. But the Assistant said:
- “We’re going to go find the other Scandinavians when night falls.” I said:
- “It’s impossible when we don’t know where they are. We could walk straight into the Fascist camps.” But the Dane convinced his fellow country-men, the Political Officer, and said:
- ”I’m in command here.” I said the same, that I was in command. There was a heated discussion.
- “We’re staying here until we get contact,” I said. The Swedes stayed. But the Political Officer and three or four other Danes went with the Assistant when he left. They walked straight into the Fascist camps. No-one ever found out if they had done it on purpose or not. But I know that that Dane got a real fancy job when he came home to Denmark later. The Political Officer and the other Danes disappeared. All of us who had stayed with the Frenchmen made it. In the morning the French Commanding Officer took out his map and showed us where our battalion must be situated, unless they all had been scattered. So we walked over there. It was only a few hundred metres from the Frenchmen. Skotte had reached a location where they had dug themselves into the ground, and stabilized their position. As a matter of fact, the whole frontline was more stabilized. The Fascists would attempt violent attacks, but didn’t make it through. We had received backup – our own artillery and tanks. And we saw our boys in the sky as well. The Fascists had to give up their grip on the road to Valencia .
The 21st of February Ragnar Skotte was killed. It took place during a false attack.
“We were going to advance, to get all the fire concentrated on us. At the same time, the other companies would move forward on the flanks and win new ground. It succeeded, but our company was very exposed. We had an open field in front of us. We could never get over it. So we stopped on the edge of the woods, while the machine guns were firing like crazy over the field. Skotte climbed a tree, to find out where the machine gun nests were situated. He was basically unprotected. But he had to localize the machine guns, so as his entire company wouldn’t be killed during the advance. He lifted his binoculars. Maybe the sun reflected off them. The bullet went straight through his heart.”
“He was very popular with the boys”, says Per Eriksson. “The strange thing was that he was a syndicalist, while most of us were communists. Of course there were a few Social Democrats and some without party. But I’d say Skotte was a communist in his mind, seeing as he was regular army. We were together a lot. He would always ask me about the general mood in the group. I went with him to the Staff, where he would give his opinions, which I translated. He was well liked within the Staff too.”
Per was hit by a bullet at Jarama. It happened during an advance. The bullet hit the front rim of his steel helmet. If it had hit just a few millimeters higher, the angle of impact would have been different, and the bullet would have gone through the helmet, into his head. If it had hit just a few millimeters lower, it would have gone straight into his nasal bone. Now all it did, was dent the rim of the helmet. Then it continued up over the top, ripping a little furrow in the metal. It hit exactly where it should have hit, so as not to be lethal.
“It was a little blow to the head, nothing more. It hit me on that field we couldn’t get across… where you had to throw yourself to the ground and lay flat. I know that one kid, whom we called “the Recoil” – his real name was Helge Gerhardsson – got wounded lying on his belly. It hit him in the buttock. He was so extremely embarrassed by the fact that it hit him just there. If he had got it from in front of him, that wouldn’t have been any problem. But here he was, lying on the ground, like an infantry-man does when he advances bit by bit, and they took the chance to shoot him. That boy was actually quite brave at the front.”
At Jarama the recently organized Republican Army, with the International Brigades serving as models, could, for the first time, hold Franco’s forces back on open ground. This was a big source of enthusiasm, not just in Spain , and strengthened the Republican morale considerably. Jarama became a symbol, like Madrid earlier. In the Brigade’s official newspaper “Pasaremos”, the Hungarian author Ludwig Detsinyi dreamed of an apocalyptic future, with a Jarama-front stretching across the entire world. In a poem by Gunnar Eklöf the cannon at Jarama would pound “like the beating of our heart after it has stopped”. Four International Brigades held the frontline north of Morata. In the south Lister held ground with his Communists from the earlier Fifth Regiment. The 23rd and 27th of February the Republican forces attacked the area where the Fascists were the strongest – between Pingarrón and San Martin. The attack was beaten down. 120 Americans were among the fallen. The Abraham Lincoln Battalion hade fought its first battle. In one aspect this battalion was unique within the Brigades: the majority of the boys were students. But the second largest group among the Americans was still the sailors. The Republic lost 25,000 men at Jarama. After 27 days there weren’t more than five Scandinavians left in the trenches of Battalion Thälmann, but the wounded and sick were more than the fallen.
Eventually Per Eriksson was sent to Officer’s School, and after that on a shorter vacation. He traveled by bus to Benicasim, the seaside resort on the Mediterranean Sea where the recovering patients were sent. On his way there he visited the Swedish-Norwegian hospital in Alcoy, built with money from the Scandinavian Labor Movement. The goal had been one ambulance. But the collection reached such large proportions that there was enough money for a hospital with 500 beds. The local civilians as well as the wounded from the front were treated there. Per was sent from Benicasim to Valencia, to train guerrilla troops. He went on to become a body guard – sometime for a Russian general, and some time for Dolores Ibarruri, “La Pasionaria”, the most famous women in Spain. In October 1938 the Spanish people took leave of the foreign voluntaries. “Most of Barcelona’s population were gathered around the big street Diagonal. I think there were a million people there. The city had been bombed every single hour for months. But this time the Republican airplanes were up in the air, patrolling. There was a troop-parade. There were “carabineros” in their green uniforms, Guardia Nacional and different fractions from the army, tank-troops… while the Air Force was roaring by above. Then the International troops came, straight from the front, in their shabby army-pants and shirts, not at all as well groomed as the others from the frontline. But then the crowd went wild. People were cheering and shouting. The women brought their children and handed them over to the soldiers in the International Brigade. They wanted to give them the best thing they had. It was a fantastic sight.”
The day after Christmas Per Eriksson came home to Sweden . He traveled with some twenty comrades to Göteborg via Antwerpen. On the docks a delegation lead by the City Council’s Social Democratic Chairman stood waiting. There was a speech:
“You have fought for Democracy. Now that you have returned home, we are going to make sure work is provided for you.”
But the promised work didn’t exactly show up right away…
Edited by Anders, 06 June 2004 - 10:31 AM.
Posted 06 June 2004 - 10:30 AM
Elis Frånberg was born in the northern part of Sweden in 1904. After some time in the Swedish military service (Royal Field Telegrapher Corps) he was fired during the cut-downs in the middle of the 1920's (1925 Defence Reform). He couldn't find any long-lasting jobs so he decided to emigrate to Canada. When the Spanish Civil War broke out Elis wanted to volunteer. Elis Frånberg belonged to the Canadian Communist Party. They usually urged people to volunteer, but in this case they wanted Elis to stay. The Party had just started a union among the Scandinavian lumberjacks and they needed Elis. He went anyway. Outside the Spanish coast the ship was sunk by an Italian submarine and several of the passengers died. In Spain Elis Frånberg fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade at Brunet and Belchite. In Teruel he was with an English Battallion. When the International Brigades were disbanded Elis Frånberg went back to Sweden:
Elis Frånberg’s mother was a teacher at the local elementary school in Elis first childhood village Markitta. She taught in three different languages – Swedish, Finnish and Lappish. Nobody in the village except she and her husband could speak Swedish. She died in 1911 while she was giving birth to her second son. Elis father, who was a certified forest officer in the Gällivare territory, sent the eldest son, five years old at the time, to live with his parents in Jämtland – Alsen’s parish. Then he remarried and got a job in the Sollefteå territory. Elis went back to him. But his stepmother died as well. His father married for the third time. When Elis had turned sixteen his last mother said to her husband:
“Either you’re sending that boy away, or I’m leaving.” So his father sent him to Stockholm .
“I was given a letter of recommendation to people my father had helped. Ticket inspectors and trams and the likes. My father figured they could get me started with some work. But this was during the twenties. They said:
- There is no work here. So all they did was to take me to a recruiting office for the army that wanted permanently appointed lower officers. I was lucky. I got into the then so-called Royal Field Telegrapher Corps, situated in Marieberg in Kungsholmen. There the practice wasn’t as rigidly disciplined as at other places within the army. I learned a great deal about the telephone and the telegraph. But after three years – in 1925 – came the Defence Reform. We were kicked – a bunch of non-commissioned officers. I was a sergeant. When I was fired I travelled up to west Vålådalen and visited my relatives. There I was given a job guiding tourists in the mountains for a while. Then I went down to Stockholm again – to walk around starving. I wasn’t the only one. One time the Swedish Radio was looking for a janitor. I went there early in the morning. We were three hundred people standing in line. Finally they opened the door. We only got to hear one line:
- The job has already been filled!
And so it went. You would take whatever jobs you could find – washing dishes in restaurants… I emigrated. I worked hard and had never had any vacation. But I got more and more involved in Spain . I decided to volunteer together with several others. After a lot of hassle I was finally allowed to go. The Party ( Canada ’s Communist Party) wanted me to stay, because we had just started a union among Scandinavian lumberjacks. It was meant for me to work within that union. But other than that there was nothing stopping me. The authorities, in the States as well as in Canada , were just happy that some of the radicals left for Spain . They reasoned:
- Then we’re rid of them, and if they’re foreigners they won’t get to come back. We left, four men, from Vancouver .”
It was a night in the middle of May in 1937. At the docks in Marseilles lay the Spanish passenger ship Ciudad de Barcelona. Quiet travellers would sneak aboard, two or three at a time, with long or short intervals between them. It took twenty-four hours before the entire ship was full. The passengers were all going to Spain to join the International Brigades. They were very careful for a reason – and not just because the trip was illegal. Right next to the ship lay the Italian luxury cruiser Savoya. Nobody knew what kind of prying eyes were watching the embarking. Most of the passengers were Englishmen or Americans. But 32-year old Elis Frånberg, born in Gällivare parish, was there as well. He had come from Vancouver , Canada . They would never reach Barcelona. Outside the shore of Catalonia an Italian submarine was waiting.
“ A new Commanding General had been put in charge of the border patrols”, says Elis Frånberg. “When he took over the surveillance in the Pyrennes was improved. I guess he had some Nazi connections. We were given some military education already before we had left France . It took place in a small city near Switzerland . Then we were transported to Marseilles . I think we were there for a fortnight before we finally boarded the ship. The ship kept pretty close to land. We could, when the weather was clear, see the land glimmering. When we reached Spanish waters we were given an escort by three airplanes. They sent a warning to the Commander on board. There was a submarine in the area.
So they told us we weren’t allowed to spend our time up on the decks. It was hardly befitting for us to run around up top. The torpedo came… a full hit to the stern. All the lights went out. Most people ran up to the deck and got in the lifeboats. I had met an Irishman who had already spent time in Spain . He was going back to Spain after his vacation in England . Unless I’m mistaken he and I were the last ones to come up, as I had wanted to be sure that everyone had made it out of the big cabin where we had slept. We saw that the lifeboats were full. The ship was beginning to heel over. We ran up to the top of the bridge, where we found an empty lifeboat. We hopped in. It was incredibly hot. You were supposed to lower the lifeboats with ropes, but we had no idea how to operate the machinery. There were no instructions. And lowering a big lifeboat. All we could do was sit thinking about how to do it. And you have to be far away from a sinking ship that weighs fifteen or sixteen thousand tons or you will be sucked down with it. The Irishman was standing in the stern of the lifeboat. There was an axe there. He grabbed it and said:
- I’m chopping it off back here. He thought there was an axe in the bow as well. But there wasn’t. I stood there with empty hands. It was a thick rope.
- But I don’t have anything to chop with, I said. Maybe he misunderstood me. Possibly he thought I was still trying to get the lowering mechanism to work, because he said:
- There’s no time for that.
And then he chopped off the rope. It wasn’t more than a few metres down to the surface. We fell. But the bow of the lifeboat was still hanging. We fell into the water. Then we started swimming away. There were still comrades on board. They stood on the deck singing the International while the ship was sinking. We tried to sing along. The officers had thrown down life buoys. But I didn’t take any, since I could swim. I knew that there were many boys there who couldn’t. A lot of the crew had been wounded, shocked. They were dangerous, because if they got close to anyone else they would grab hold of them. Then both of them would drown. I saw it happen. The airplanes came diving in circles. The submarine had fired from under the surface. So the airplanes started dropping bombs, and I thought: We’re done for!
But they were trying to hit the submarine of course. It all happened during the day. If it had taken place at night it would have been terrible. I clambered onto a piece of wreckage, a long log. There were several of us hanging on to it, among them my Irish friend. I said to him:
- You’ll have to be careful here. I usually get cramp when I’m in water too long. Just make sure my arms are still around the log! Those who tried to swim ashore all drowned. Motorboats and other boats came out to pick us up, hanging there in our wreckage. The airplanes were hydroplanes. They landed on the water, and several people climbed onto the pontoons. I hung on to the log for a good fifteen minutes. We were rescued close to a little village on the coast. Several of us were almost unconscious. There wasn’t anything the matter with me, but I got sent to the hospital just as well. There the reaction came, the shock. Then they filled us with booze. I don’t know if it was brandy or whiskey. We had to lie there for a few hours before we started grouping up those who weren’t injured. I went around to gather my entire group. There were supposed to be twenty-four of us, mostly Americans. We had been put into groups back in Paris , where I had been put in charge of my lot. I kept on searching until nightfall. Then the Governor of Catalonia , Luis Companys, who was in Barcelona , wanted a report. I was forced to say:
- They’re missing, they aren’t here.
Later I was told that some three hundred men, maybe even more, had drowned. Fifteen French pilots had been sitting in the stern, playing cards or something. And since that’s where the torpedo hit… they all drowned.
An extra train took us into Barcelona . There we were quartered on the outskirts of the city. We heard explosions inside Barcelona and we thought: Is the war really this close? The train took us to the Karl Marx Barracks. There we met our Commander. A Lieutenant, an Englishman, held a speech to his fellow countrymen and to us Canadians and Yankees. He said that the halcyon days were over. Now we were fighting for the Republic, the Spanish Labourers.
- So if there are any of you who are here only because you are looking for adventure… that’s not going to work out, he said.
We were fed. But we weren’t allowed to go out in the evenings, because of the hassle in Barcelona – with the Anarchists and POUM. Other than that the Anarchists fought bravely in the war – when Durutti brought an entire regiment to Madrid . They were killed, almost to the last man. Then we were just about ready, in new groups. We went to Albacete.”
The groups Elis Frånberg was a part of lay a few days from Albacete . A Political Officer from the Thälmann Battalion, a Swede, came up to him at the bull-fighting arena.
“You’re a Swede”, he said. “Then you should be with the Swedes.”
“No”, said Frånberg. “I’ll stick with my new mates here and I speak fluent English. I am no longer from Sweden . If you take me to Thälmann… I’ll be among Germans and Swedes. I doubt if I know a single person there.”
The Officer accepted the arguments. Elis Frånberg asked for a post where he could put his skills from the Swedish Telegraph Corps to use. He was given it. But then he was replaced to a French company, and he couldn’t speak any French. Nobody seemed to care. Before his post at the front he was, on the other hand, transferred to the Abraham Lincoln Battalion.
“We travelled to a training camp. There we ran with wire and instruments. We had been given French Field Telephones and they were actually quite good. I was supposed to teach the boys the basics, so they could use the phones and run wires. The wires were mostly underground. We couldn’t be bothered raising telephone poles. But we didn’t have any insulating tape. I told an officer. He answered:
- The Fascists have that kind of stuff. You’ll have to steal some from them. In the beginning there we had officers from different nations. There was a Bulgarian captain, a Russian instructor, an Italian… Then, as time wore on, they were all replaced by American officers. I was a sergeant. If the Bulgarian and Russian had stayed with us I would have been promoted, because they wanted me to lead a company of my own.
We went up to Brunet. There one of the boys came up to me and said there was a Swede in the unit who couldn’t speak any English. I had to take care of him. His name was Asplund.
- I’ve been out running wires with a reel like this on my back before, he said.
- Well, in that case, I said. I’ll make sure you get settled in right. We lay there on the mountain slopes while the Republic was getting ready for the Brunet Offensive. The Scandinavians in the Eleventh Brigade were only a few kilometres away. One evening the order to march came. I didn’t have time to bring all the gear along. Among other things I had to leave our insulating material behind. It was unbearably hot. If it rained, water would run down into the splices. There could be short circuits. I told this to the Bulgarian captain, but he said there was nothing to do about it. We had to get moving.
We went far enough to see Villanueva de Canada, a little city. I thought it was quite peculiar. I came from Canada , and this would be the location of my first battle. We had to lie in the olive tree groves. Between the city and us lay the plain. Early in the morning a captain came and asked me if I had all my gear ready, because now I needed to run wires between the Battalions. But first the tanks had to move forward. But before that there was a huge bang. I jumped high in my surprise and fear. I thought it was bombs striking. But it was our own artillery. They were positioned right behind us, so well covered that we couldn’t see them at all. They started one hell of a cannonade.
After a few minutes they sent out three tanks. And the things I saw…
One of the tanks burst into flames. The temperature was well over forty degrees Celsius, maybe up towards fifty. You know: The gasoline catches on fire. Then the tanks explode. Or perhaps they had hit it bulls-eye. It was left standing there. This went on all day. Then came the advance.
The captain came. He told me:
- Time to run the wires.
They were going out – this way and that way… I tried to follow the company. And I had my boys. I think we were fifteen telephone operators. I said:
- Now we’re going to take it easy and carry out these reels… and those of you who have phones… I had a phone myself. We crept along behind them. It was probably a good kilometre to the Fascist positions, so we didn’t have to worry about snipers. But they gave up before we even reached them. Then our forces tried to surround the city. I had to lie behind a hill and run wires from there. They were going to have some sort of telephone station there. We stayed behind the hill for the rest of the day. Some people were shot here and some there. The ambulances couldn’t go so far forward. They stayed in the groves, where the stretcher carriers had to take the wounded. I continued, trying to run wires to an officer situated somewhere. Suddenly they stopped working. The smallest tank driving over the wires would destroy them. Then all you could do was run around trying to find the place and fix it. Our signal service might not have been first-rate, but it worked most of them time anyway. We continued. Night fell. Then things got a little calmer.
The heat was indescribable. But the Spaniards had taught me how to control my thirst. You were supposed to have oranges. They don’t eat oranges like we do, they suck out the juice. I heard of people who drank wine all the time. That won’t quench your thirst. It’s madness – like drinking lager on a hot day. It’ll just make you thirstier. I also managed quite well since I never took off any of my clothes. I saw the Moors. They would catch Moors. The Spaniards were scared to death of the Moors, since they were renowned for their brutal torture methods. But they were excellent shots! And can you imagine: They wore large hoods and slouch hats. And thick clothes. That’s the method. That’s the way to do it. That way you are well protected from the sun. I would find yanks who had ripped their shirts off. They had sunstroke and were usually beyond help. They would drink water like never before. I never drank water.
The Lincoln Battalion lost a great deal of men that day. The first aid station was in a small abandoned house behind the groves. During the day they had raised Red Cross flags. I was told that there were half a dozen doctors there as well.
When night fell the battalion’s Commander, Colonel Merriman, a professor at the University of Los Angeles , came. He told me to grab some of the telephone boys and go fetch a man who had been lying wounded and screaming all day – some hundred metres in front of us on the plain. We lay in a little depression by a road. But it was hard getting anybody to go with me.
- They’ll have to shoot us before we go out there, they said. We’re exhausted!
- Well, you have to, I told them.
Finally I got two boys with me. We went out and carried the wounded man back. They carried the stretcher very unsteadily, as they were utterly worn out. Then a doctor came up to us. I think the kid had some six or seven bullet wounds in him. The Moors were situated behind entrenchments in the city, and would shoot at anything that moved. Maybe the kid had been waving his arms every now and then.
I was helping the doctor. We couldn’t have any light, because they would start shooting at us at once. But I had a little flashlight the kind that was quite hard to get hold of. I used that to shine some light on the man. When the beam hit him he said:
- Imagine if I had a cigarette.
There was a whole packet of cigarettes in his pocket. But it was soaked in blood. I didn’t have any smokes, so I took some gauze from the doctor’s equipment. Then I picked a little stick off the ground. I wrapped the gauze around the gauze and put it in the mouth of the kid.
- I’ve lit it, I said.
- Ah, that feels great, he said, practically unconscious.
Later during the night, when it was starting to get a little lighter, we were going to take him to the first aid station. It was one kilometre away. Then I took along two other boys. And I helped carry the wounded man. We walked and walked. And by then we knew that we were outside the range of fire. Then we saw a bunch of white sheets sticking up outside the house we were headed for. But not a single human being. And I thought: What the hell…?
We were so tired that we lay down. At the same I took a look… You know: To tell whether a person is dead or not you open their eyelids and look at their eyes. And the eyes didn’t move at all on the kid. He was dead – an Irishman.
We fell asleep there. When we woke up reinforcements had come. They were Spaniards. They were standing making the sign of the cross over us when we started moving. They had thought that we were dead, as well. Some of them walked over and lifted the sheets. There were only dead people there. I told the Spaniards to calm down. They had still never been in battle. They continued marching. We walked back. There was nothing else to do.
By then the city was ours, and I had one hell of a job trying to find my big group in there. You would walk between the dead Franco-soldiers, thick and bloated in the sun. It was horrible. And during all this misery, the Fascist bombers attacked. We all thought it was the end of us.
But no… We managed. Before the Offensive was stopped we had run wires to the positions at the very front. We were never given any real chance to sleep. At last… I’ll never forget it: We were ordered to retreat. It was at night. But we weren’t supposed to pull back until the morning.
My God, wouldn’t it be better to pull back while it was still dark. If we retreat in full daylight we’ll get the planes over us.
That day… We marched – back. We passed a field kitchen, full of food, ready for eating. There wasn’t anyone around. I stepped out of formation, walked over to the kitchen and had a look. There lay a big ham. I lifted it onto my shoulder and carried it with me. Boys with knives would cut big pieces out of it while we were walking. Then someone else took it. They cut and ate and finally threw away the little that was left. We were some kilometre from a mountain range. Then we heard Franco’s planes. We recognised the sound. They sounded different than the Republic’s machines.
We ran and made it to the range. There was a church just nearby. And a road. We would always run away from any roads when the planes came. But here the boys turned and crawled into a ditch, a bridge foundation under the road. I also tried to crawl down there, but there wasn’t enough room for me. So I threw myself behind the churchyard wall.
He planes were right above us, three of them. And behind them were three more. Then I got to see our own planes for the first time. They hit a bulls-eye on the middle machine. All the three planes exploded. They hadn’t had any time to drop any bombs. We didn’t see anything on its way down. The other planes turned around, dropping their bombs at random, and disappeared.
We got up. Our reserves marched up along the road. They were Asturian miners. We tried to keep them at a bit of a distance, as they were, in general, very reckless with their weapons. This kind of recklessness was quite common with other Spaniards as well. The miners were pulling their machine-guns, set on wheels. There was nothing special about that. But they also had their homemade hand grenades hanging in their belts. Meanwhile they were smoking fat cigars. It was a risky combination.
Maybe they viewed us with a little contempt, but they didn’t say anything. They walked on. They were advancing. But in the afternoon they came back as well, in full retreat. The battle would soon be over. By then… seventeen or eighteen days had passed since we had forced our way across the plain at Villanueva de Canada, and we had been working practically the entire time. We were exhausted. What happened after that is kind of a blur. There were people all over.
A lot of boys were killed while they were running with the reels on their backs. The switchboard we had with us was from LM Ericsson’s factory in Madrid . That factory was later blown to bits. The switchboard was the most modern kind I had seen up until then. It didn’t weigh more than four kilos. You carried it at your side. It had little lights, so you could see and connect for up to twelve different companies in the dark. All you had to do was hit the button, switch over. And then it was put through. A very useful piece of equipment.
I thought about that later when I was drafted back home. Then we had to set up an old telephone cabinet. It was big and complicated with cords and bits. You could never have moved it around in any trenches.
After Brunet we were pulled back to rest in a little village. There were hardly any air raids threatening us there. The village was far away from the front. And Franco’s pilots didn’t waste their time attacking small villages. They would, on the other hand, try to destroy larger villages.
In August we were sent on another offensive – through Aragonia. We took Belchite. A tough city.
By then some of my fifteen telephonists had been moved to other units, and some had fallen ill. Asplund was wounded at Belchite. We were moving up to an artillery piece located in a little depression in front of the foremost trench. It couldn’t have been more than some fifty metres away. Asplund was pulling the wire. It was an excellent trench, dug for Franco’s troops under the supervision of German engineers.
- Right, let’s start reeling it out, I said. I walked ahead and we were some three metres apart. We sneaked through the trenches as fast as we could to reach the cannon. We heard bullets. Like this… ssch… sssch… like they sound. Suddenly he let out a shout. He was right behind me. The bullet had gone right past me but hit him in the shoulder. He could still walk. We took him to a hospital. But he never recovered completely. I didn’t see him until we were headed home. He was very nervous. The Fascists still had control of the church in Belchite. There were probably underground passages there, because some of our boys would suddenly fall over, shot, while they were walking down streets several hundred metres from the church. It seemed as though the Fascists had crawled out through the passages. Also, there was a company of Franco’s surrounded on a hill. I don’t know if the Fascists had any positions in the mountains themselves, because I never went to take a closer look. But there were armoured trenches running all around that they had dug. I was given orders by Merriman to run a wire, one and a half or maybe two kilometres long. There was hardly enough cable. We had to run the wire via some trenches the Fascists had abandoned. There I was supposed to set up an observation post. We crept into the trench, set up the phone and spoke with the colonel. He said:
- Now the tanks are going to attack. But first we are going to shoot with our artillery at the hill.
- All ready here, I said. The trenches we lay in were no more than two hundred metres from the earthworks around the hill, or cliff or whatever you would call it. I had a periscope. When I looked through it I would sometimes see the heads and arms of the boys on the other side. The first grenade from our artillery hit the very top of the hill. They asked me on the phone about the impact.
- You have to lower your aim, I said. The next grenade exploded ten metres behind me.
- This is nuts, I said. You have to raise it again.
- We’ll be done in a minute, they said.
I saw tanks advancing from two different directions. The sound of the firing was deafening. Then I saw a white flag being raised from the Fascist trenches, and I called immediately.
- Now they’re… they’re giving up, I said. So you can stop now. With the bombing.
But the hard part was that – my boys had left me. I was alone. There was no infantry there, or anything else for that matter. The whole Fascist gang came up out of their trenches. They walked down the hill, coming straight my way. I was unarmed. I had one revolver, but it was a revolver I had taken from a dead Italian Officer. There was no ammo in it, even though it hung there in its holster. I had to leave the pit, go up and meet the Fascists. They could see that my holster wasn’t empty.
I pointed at the ground and showed them how to lay their guns in a pile. There was… There was a young boy. More than half of his hand had been shot off. There were no fingers left. Some of the things…
Outside of the trenches lay two tanks of wine. The prisoners threw themselves over these wooden barrels, broke them and drank it all. Because of their thirst for water… which had almost killed them then. Three officers came last. They shouted commands and the troop stood in formation. I pointed at the church. That’s the way they were supposed to go. But at the same time our patrols came and marched away with them. It was some fifteen or twenty men I had dealt with. I don’t know. They could have shot me any time.
My boys came running. They started for the hill where the Fascists had been, running to look for souvenirs. There were lots of dead people over there. Plundering of the dead… I said:
- Goddammit, don’t…
But it didn’t help. They kept right on. Then they came back. They claimed:
- We didn’t have any smokes. We were trying to find some.
- But, I said, you got cigarettes from the canteen.
- They were out, they said. We had smoked every last one of them. We stayed out there, but the wire didn’t work. Some tank had gone over it. I sent out three boys.
- Now follow this wire here, I said. See where the problem is so we can patch it up. Then I heard heavy gunfire from up by the church. What the hell, I thought. Have the Fascists advanced all the way to there? Then we were pulled back from the trench. I went to Merriman.
- This went fine, he said, even though the wire stopped working.
- The way the tanks drive around here, I said, no normal wire could hold.
- No, but it worked out alright anyway. Then I told him that I had heard a lot of shooting.
- Yes, that was an execution squad, he said.
- These were the prisoners. The ones who came over and surrendered. They had been lined up. All the officers were placed in front of the line. And there were interpreters, but Merriman knew Spanish quite well. The officers had sworn an oath to the Republic. Their joining the rebel side was a crime. So they held a court martial. They were found guilty. One of my friends had seen it. He told us that one young boy had jumped out of line. The youth said: He had been promoted to lieutenant but just hadn’t got his stripes yet. He was supposed to have got them the very same day. That boy was found guilty too. Then came the question of setting up an execution squad. Nobody was given the orders. They wanted volunteers, but no foreigners. Only Spaniards. They shot the prisoners from behind. I walked past the pile of dead. It was horrid. I thought about it for weeks afterwards. The officers were pomaded and dressed in fine clothes. All you could smell was pomade and perfumes. Right through the summer heat. But some officers were also sent to prison camps. At Quinto – during the same offensive in Aragonia – one group of officers broke out of the surrounding at night. They started throwing hand grenades and shooting randomly. Nobody understood what was going on in the pitch dark. But the next day an investigation was put to work. They lay hidden in a pit. They hadn’t got very far. The infantry took them prisoners and they were sent to a camp. I also know how they would try to re-school Moors who were taken prisoners. The Republic went out of their way to send them back to Morocco , to propagate against Franco’s recruitment among their fellow countrymen. It was tragic with the Moors as well. I heard guys tell us what they had found in the clothes of dead Moots – German inflation Marks, worthless bundles of paper.
But they were deadly shots, that’s for sure. I was running wires nearby Quinto with three other guys. Then I felt a burning sensation over my chest. A bullet had ripped the button off my coat and the fabric had caught fire. That’s the closest I ever came to any bullet.
You always had to look at the trees in the olive groves. The Moors wore white paragattas. You can’t sit with your legs crossed on a tree branch without changing your position every now and then. You have to lift your right leg off your left knee and lift your left leg instead, or the other way around. Now I never got hold of any binoculars. But there were guys who sat for hours gazing at the crowns of the trees. If they found anything white they would keep an eye on it to see if there was a human there, since you have to move your legs after approximately one half hour. If they saw any movement… then the tree would be blown to bits by a machine gun. Often someone dead would fall out of the tree.
In the autumn of 1937 we were behind the front to reorganise. That might have been the time I heard someone swearing violently in Swedish one night. Then a guy came and told me to go with him to the Staff Office. They had taken some kid but didn’t know his nationality. I went up to and laid eyes on the kid who was swearing. And I asked:
- What’s your problem? He said:
- Goddammit! These officers are nuts. They think I’m some sort of Fascist. We were supposed to wear a three-pointed start on our uniforms. But not everybody bothered to wear it. This was Sigge Blom, a Stockholmer who later went on to become a surveyor. He was somewhere from the Eleventh Brigade. But he had come driving in a truck. There was a shortage of good trucks in Spain at this time. So if you could kidnap anybody with a truck, you would. They were needed for shipping material. The major said:
- Keep the man, because his truck looks alright. And he can drive your equipment. So that’s what he did. I gave him a package of cigarettes. But he wanted to get back, not to his unit, but to Albacete . He said he was sick. I took care of it for him. Then we didn’t meet until here in Stockholm . That’s the way it was. We would have needed more automobiles. Guys who had not done any military service did not know how to take care of their feet during long marches. I helped an Irishman. It was during the big retreat. I said:
- If I find a place, and I do all the time – where there is water – then I take off my paragattas and socks. Then I wash my feet. And I always try to keep one pair of reserve socks. He was quite older than me, somewhere around fifty years, and… he didn’t even have the strength to walk down to the river. That’s how bad his feet were.
I came to Teruel with an English Battalion. It was during Christmas and they had taken the city. We met Lister’s Brigade, who had carried out the main attack. They were elite, specially chosen people from the Spanish Communist Party, feared by Franco’s troops. I saw Lister at the front several times. Modesto as well. They were skilled soldiers. Sure they would run their companies quite roughly. But they never backed out either. At one place I saw a colonel on horseback out at the first line where they were shooting like crazy. I said:
- What kind of a crazy colonel is it out there like that? It was Modesto . He didn’t get hit. Lister is usually here at most of the First of May demonstrations. Then he walks with us Volunteers. He knows Stockholm as well as I do.
Teruel… there wasn’t much snow, but it was cold. They said that almost three hundred men had got frozen feet during the advance. I froze like crazy, despite the fact that I was wearing socks. No, I’ve never frozen like that time.
The Englishmen were stationed in concrete buildings. The German engineers had helped Franco here as well. Railway tracks had been placed over the concrete, then sandbags, and then railway tracks again. If a bomb hit – there was no risk it would break through. The place was full of Englishmen. Then I made my way to a pit or hole a little behind the building. It was dug in sand. Using a pit like that was dangerous. I knew that. But the Spaniards didn’t mind it. A bombardment from the air will cause vibrations in the terrain. A hole in the sand will collapse. We had one guy, a coloured boy from the States, good kid. But – the first time he was going to be in a battle… It wasn’t at Teruel. It was at some other, smaller place. Then I said:
- Now we throw ourselves to the ground and hide our faces! Because your face shows like a little white dot from a plane. He went for the nearest sandpit. The bombs fell, maybe ten metres from there. There was nothing left of the pit after that. The kid suffocated to death down there. But at Teruel I went into the pit, since it was small enough to run out. And you had become more keen to sounds. If Franco’s planes were coming – you’d hear it right away. Besides, you would know at approximately what time the planes usually came. Early in the day, right around lunch time, that’s when they’d take their chances.
I got a Christmas package from Canada . A women’s organisation had collected money for it. At the same time I got a letter. I read in it that all the different Scandinavian organisations had formed a united front for Spain with a large committee where a friend of mine sat as the leader. And they had collected enough money to give the Republic an ambulance from British Columbia . I walked into town to pick up the package. It was no more than a kilometre. My survival instincts told me not to lie inside the town – in one of the tightly packed houses that were great bomb targets. Rather outside somewhere, a little behind or in front. But I saw… there was a house that had been some sort of liquor store. I thought: There’s probably nothing left… Since Lister’s Brigade was here before us. I went in and followed a staircase down to a liquor storage. It wasn’t empty. I took several bottles of Málaga wine and put them in my pockets. And then I had the package. It was quite big. So I was quite over-burdened when I came back to the boys and starting sharing the stuff. Since we always shared all our packages. There were smokes and English pyramid cakes. We had a party.
There was one kid… he wasn’t part of our unit. Nobody knew where he came from. I asked him but he didn’t answer me. He probably was in shock badly. He sat in a little tower the Germans had used before. From there he could see down over a slope behind Teruel. Below that was, well, it wasn’t really swampy, but there wasn’t much sand. There were little cabins that some Fascist patrols were situated in. We had no guard duty whatsoever. They could have come and taken us at nighttime.
The kid would fire a shot every now and then from his tower. I climbed up and asked who he was shooting at.
- I’m shooting at the Fascists, he said. Don’t you get it?
- Can you see them?
- Yeah – look here, he said.
Then he had a paper where he’d been drawing… He had shot eleven of them. I’m not sure what the case was with him. We didn’t care. He sat shooting. After four or five days we were relieved. Meanwhile Franco was moving his troops. There was a constant move through all of Spain . Franco troops here and Fanco troops there… back and forth and take your chance. We heard gunfire when we left.
I remember later when we were going up north in Catalonia . We were given special orders from Merriman, sat for hours listening while he told us about the different organisations: POUM, the Anarchists… We were, he said, supposed to be friendly. If people said things we didn’t like we were in no way allowed to irritate them, because this was very sensitive in Catalonia – with their striving for separatism and fighting for their own language. One evening up there I met some boys in uniform on the streets. They had water bottles and I was thirsty. I knew the water in the bottles was sterilised. So I thought I would try to ask for some from them. I said something about agua, agua…
They just stopped and looked at me. Then they continued. Sure: They saw my three-pointed star and understood that I was an Interbrigadeer. Strangely enough they were better equipped than us. They had taken care of that. Often, when we went on retreat, we would come to their quarters. What equipment! I don’t know if they were ever put into battle.”
When the Brigade had been disbanded Elis Frånberg went along to Sweden . It would take until the summer of 1939 before he got a job.
Posted 06 June 2004 - 10:32 AM
Gösta Hjärpe came from Löa a small place among the mining fields of Västmanland in the south-centre part of Sweden. He worked as a sailor when the Spanish Civil War broke out. At summer 1937 he went to Spain. Gösta Hjärpe fought at the battles of Teruel and Ebro:
Gösta Hjärpe took part in the crossing over of Ebro the night of the 25th of July 1938 and spent the two following months fighting in the heavy-casualty battles in the bare, ghostlike mountains of Catalonia . He discusses the possibilities the offensive could have opened if the Supreme Commander Juan Modesto of the Ebro Army had used a different strategy with great energy. Why was it so necessary to take Gandesa?
Hjärpe was twenty-four when he left for Spain . He comes from Västmanland, in the southern centre of Sweden . His hometown Löa lies among all the mining fields – Stråssa, Grängesberg, Stripa.
"Dad was a farm labourer. After elementary school I was given a job at the farmers. I came to the forest with a charcoal-burner who had been a sailor. During the winter nights he would sit and tell of his adventures. Of course, you would listen, captivated. Then another guy came along too. He… well, I wouldn’t want to claim that he tricked me to Stockholm , but… yeah, I was probably very willing to go on my own, anyhow. So we went. That was in 1931. Through that guy I came in contact with the radical groups of Stockholm . He had fairly Anarchistic or Syndicalistic sympathies. I met the boys in Inter Club, the "Red Union Opposition" (the Communist Union for Sailors). There were several athletes among them. And they had sports activities on their agenda. I was never technically part of their organisation. But I was very into sports and took part in a trial game to the Spartakiad. We ran three thousand metres through the Ingenting Forest towards Huvudsta. But I only came in second. The guy who placed first got to go to Moscow . My prize was sandwiches and milk.
One of the guys helped me get a job on a ketch. We would transport limestone between Gotland and the Southern Mälarstrand . Then it was AK-work (Government funded work during the depression). I got in even closer contact with the Syndicalist groups, which accelerated your views even further – that things in society were not the way they ought to be. We would hold big demonstrations. I was in one where we were around five thousand people who marched up to the Parliament, demanding work, bread and living quarters for the sailors. Because they had nothing while they walked around waiting for the next ship in Stockholm , unless they were registered here. I remember especially… There was this parliament politician, a very fat man, standing on one of the balconies of the building. They said he was from up north. I didn’t like the look on his face at all. He seemed very indifferent to us demonstrators. We kept walking down Fredsgatan. Then we were going to go over Tegelbacken to the City Hall. But we couldn’t get through – not at all. Mounted policemen had closed off the street. They sat on the horses with their long leather whips. Also, there was a long row of policemen on foot. Then they charged. I fell over a wire fence in front of a grass lawn and received burning hard blows from the batons to my back. These kinds of events gave you a bad picture of the society. I sympathised with the Syndicalists, but never joined their union. I was never part of any political organisation. I never have been. I like to think of myself as a little freer. If you can’t behave according to the rules and regulations of a party, then I don’t see any point in joining either – you just have to take the best stuff from wherever you find it.
In 1934 I really went to sea – as a stoker. I came to South America , and saw all the misery there. The work on that boat, a Broströmer named Färnebo, a steam engine boat, was heavy. We had worthless charcoal. When you’d burn it you’d just get cinders and ashes. No effect whatsoever. You had to shovel and shovel. On the way home I didn’t manage further than to Pernambuco. I left the ship. After a while I got a job on a Swedish tanker, Castor from Trelleborg. In Curacao we loaded oil for Hamburg in Germany . When we got there we were all fired, the entire crew. The skipper was from Skillinge, and he only wanted other people from there, if possible. We came to Hamburg , where I stayed for some weeks. It was 1936. Hitler’s birthday was being celebrated. The Nazis were marching. We didn’t want to watch their demonstrations as we were walking down the street. So we turned our backs to them, and stood looking in through shop windows. Then the so-called authorities came and turned us around. If we didn't want to, they'd hit us with their batons.
I boarded other Swedish ships and read all about Spain . In the spring of 1937 I was lying in England with the s/s Groveland from Råå. Then I received a letter from Holger Ekström that I had met in Göteborg. He wrote:
- If you want to make a difference then come!”
That was basically the only thing important in the letter. Later when we came to Norway – I think it was Sarpsborg – I went ashore and travelled to Göteborg. When I reached it I got in contact with the boys at the Sailor’s Club. They were going to see if it was possible for me to go. After a few days I was sent to a customs official. They told me he was going to give me an address in France . But when I came there… He didn’t have any address. He looked through his drawers without finding anything. Then he said:
- When you you get to Paris , go up to Humanite. They’ll take care of it for you. I can’t remember if I was given any greetings to send along. But the trip worked out. This was in the end of the summer of 1937. I travelled with a Norwegian. We needed an official reason for the trip. So we said we were going to visit the World Fair that was going on just then in Paris . We took the train through Germany . It stopped for a few hours in Hamburg . So I figured we might as well go visit a restaurant owner who had been my landlord the previous year. He was letting rooms on the bottom floor of his house. He entertained us so well with food and drink that we missed the train completely. We didn’t reach Paris until the next evening. Just as it was getting dark. We took a cab from Gare du Nord, even though we were low on money. I don’t speak French. The Norwegian kid said he could though. I have no idea what language he was speaking. But sooner or later we wound up at the French Spain Committee. It was working receiving those who came from Spain . The Frenchmen started undressing us, to see if we were wounded. The Norwegian couldn’t explain to them, and neither could I. Once we had got dressed and come out into the night, he disappeared. I never saw him again. In the morning I took a cab to Humanite. It was an old house that the Communist newspaper owned. Somehow I managed to ask my way up to the top floor. There was a girl there who spoke German. She helped me to a hotel, where I stayed until they would contact me. Maybe you’ve heard of a bureau called Number Five or Number Seven. I came there and was examined by a doctor. Then it wasn’t many days before I was on my way south. I travelled with Frenchmen, Czechs, Poles and Germans. Except for me there were no Scandinavians in the group. Somewhere in the South of France we got off the train. We continued on busses. The trip took… maybe three days… since it was supposed to be carried out in secrecy. But the farmers in the fields obviously knew what was up. They would wave to us, and greet us with their clenched fists.
We wandered, one hundred hundred and fifty men, over the Pyrenees by night. We waded for hundreds of metres down the rivers, climbed the slopes of the mountains and sneaked along the outer rims of the villages. Every time a dog barked we would have to lay down on the grass, so the group leader could find out exactly what might be happening. By eight o’clock the next morning we were in Spain , by lunchtime we were in Figueras. We stayed there for some days. Then more Swedes came. The first one was named Fritz Karlsson. He was from Stärnö in Blekinge, and had gone ashore off a boat in France . There were Danes too. And then there was Lars Berggren from Gävle. He was later captured at Teruel, but came home in 1939.
I was given number 72493 in the Eleventh Brigade, which was supposed to be motorised by this time. The enlistment took place in Madrigueras near Albacete , where I met Holger Ekström again. He asked if any of us could ski. I thought the question sounded strange in the Spanish sunshine. But I could ski. And I told him.
- Good, he said, because we need a group that can ski. Later on I would get to see the Aragonian winter. But then Holger’s question sounded highly unnatural. But we never used any skis. I was placed in a Company called “Divisionaria”. It came to be a guarding company for the staff of the 35th Division. Much later, when I was visiting Yugoslavia , I heard there had also been a battalion called Divisionaria. But it didn’t exist until during the Ebro days. The Commander of the 35th Division was the Pole “Walter”, who’s real name was Karal Swierczewski, a big bald man. After the Second World War he was murdered by Anti-Communist Partisans back in Poland.
We got our departure orders in the autumn. First we came to Lerida , then Alcaniz. The Division moved slowly through Aragonia up towards Teruel. We were in Caspe over Christmas. There we met Lise Lindbrek and Nordahl Grieg. Lise stayed with us in an old windmill. We were completely infested with lice by then. So we warned her about it. We said that she ought to chain her mattress to the ground. Because otherwise she ran the risk of being carried away by all the lice. At the same time something very nasty occurred. A kid from Gotland had been put in the arrest. He had been into some shady business up in the city. But he broke out. The Chief Commander had had a lot of patience with him before. I can see why his patience was all used up this time. He drew his pistol and shot the kid.
We were five Swedes and one or two Danes in the Company. The rest were Spaniards. There were no Germans there. We would guard the intendencia – in other words the food storage, ammo storage and kitchen. The battalions would pick up their necessities from us. Early in the autumn we heard rumours of a Typhus epidemic up north. We also had reports about the death of several Danes, but we managed fine in our company. I don’t think any other Swedes died during the epidemic either. The Republic took Teruel. Then came the Fascist counter-offensive. That’s when the 35th Division was put in. We had moved ever closer to the front. It was getting colder, and the wind was horrible up on the mountains. We dug pits for ourselves. We had no living quarters, except for at a few places. I remember staying in a barn once. One of us must have lit a cigarette. There was plenty of hay in the barn, and it all caught on fire. The whole thing burned to the ground. The farmer wanted reimbursement. Our Spaniards got away but Fritz Karlsson, the Dane Möller and I had to pay him four hundred pesetas each. Around this time I got scabies. It was damned uncomfortable, especially in the cold. I had to use ointment on my thighs to get rid of the damned stuff. The 20th of January we were going to go in as replacements for some Scandinavians on Muleton, the mountain to the north west of Teruel. That day Birger Dahlström, a boy from Värmland, was killed. I especially remember this event, as there was but one Swede left in the Company, except for me. Birger was going to show him how to lay down. While he was doing that the bullet came. I never found out where it hit him, but he died instantly. There were no real positions there. We just lay straight on the mountain – or sometimes among the rocks. There was hardly any soil, no more than some twenty or thirty centimetres. We had no possibilities of making positions in the cold. We were right up on the peak. The Fascists shot at us with howitzers, grenade launchers and rifles. I was wounded the 21st. The experts say it was the shrapnel from a howitzer grenade that hit me. It exploded up in the air and the metal rained over us. It felt a bit like someone had knocked me in the head. You were a bit confused. The pain came later on. First all you could feel was the warm stream of blood. Which woke you up. Then came the shock. I had a stinging sensation in my head, my leg and my arm. I had been wounded at three different places. Well, there were some little wounds too. Now I had to get off the mountain as fast as possible. I had to drop my rifle as I walked alone down the slope. Otherwise I couldn’t hold tightly around my arm where it was bleeding. I thought I was hurt bad, so I wanted to keep the blood from pouring out. There was supposed to be a sanatario down in the valley. I wasn’t having a hard time walking. But I couldn’t find any medic. I had to walk for several hundred metres before I found an ambulance. It was parked on a little side-road. By the ambulance there just happened to be a Swede-Norwegian named Andersen. He drove me to the village where the first-aid centre was located.
Maybe it sounds irreverent to say it, but when you got there and stepped in… it was a cave, fifteen times twenty metres around… it all felt like a relief. You were wounded. You had got in from the cold. The cave was warm, cosy – and they’d given you a shot against surgical fever. The Fascists took the mountain top on the 22nd or 23rd. No one could say what might have happened if you’d still been up there.
We, , the wounded, were sent to Benicasim. There were a lot of us. But once at the Mediterranean coast we saw nothing of the winter at Teruel. We were quartered into villas. The dining room, a glass veranda, was out in the sea. We would hear the water splashing under the floorboards when we ate, a pleasant sound. My wounds weren’t all that bad, even if there were a few complications before I was completely recovered. I was sent from Benicasim to a hospital in Murcia . But then we were evacuated up north, as many of us as they could possibly transfer. That was in the beginning of April. You realised that the Fascists were about to cut the area of the Republic in two. The 15th of April the split was a fact. Franco’s troops reached the Mediterranean at Vinaroz, but by then we were already up north.
We were were lying a little here and there, spread out over most places where you could find a hospital. Towards the end of April we were formed into little groups and sent down to Tarragona . There a camp awaited. I built a little hut of reeds together with a Swedish legionary and youth novelist. That was our lodgings. In the camp three Finnish Canadians were executed by a firing squad for some crime. Those with alcohol problems were ordered to witness the execution. You run into these kinds of executions in all wars I suppose, especially civil wars. You should also keep in mind that no more than sixty percent of the volunteers in Spain were there for ideological reasons. The others had more or less no idea what they were getting themselves into. That’s why you would run into these sorts of situations. But I don’t think it happened very often. I mean… I would hear rumours about one thing after the other, but personally, I didn’t come in contact with it more than these two times – when the kid from Gotland was shot in Caspe and then this execution."
When the Fascists had reached the sea south of Ebro the Republic was in a very precarious situation. The General Staff was reorganised and the unity between the labour organisations was made stronger due to the impending defeat. Also, on the 17th of March the French Parliament had opened the border. Big trucks with Russian air planes on their platforms rolled through the south of France , where they had to cut down alleys of trees several kilometres long so the wings of the planes could get through. But the border was closed again on the 13th of June, and the Mediterranean route from the Soviet Union was under blockade. The Fascists started an offensive towards Valencia . Everything was calm at Ebro . The People’s Army lay to the north of the river, seemingly without activity during these summer months. Gösta Hjärpe:
“We called it the holiday front. The piece of land we were patrolling was straight across from Flix. We spent most of our spare time fetching wine from a maturing cellar by the river. There were specialists for that too. One of them was named Gottfrid Olsson, another one Ernst Matsson. The Fascists seemed to have some aversion to the wine fetching. They tried to hit the jugs the boys carried with their rifles. But they wouldn’t aim at the boys. This may be because the soldiers on the Fascist side were new recruits. They didn’t seem so keen on fighting. It seemed more like they were kidding with us. They would often shout through the loudspeakers, trying to get us to come over. Because they had food and girls. We had propaganda of our own as well. I know that we lay in the bushes at Ebro with old fashioned gramophone horns (His Master’s Voice) shouting. We explained how there was freedom with us, even for Franco’s recruits, to develop the right way. But I can’t remember ever getting any defectors at that place.”
The Republic prepared its Ebro Offensive. Three army corps were going to be dispatched, with Modesto the Chief Commander. Several of the Republic’s elite units were part of this Ebro Army. There were the Spanish divisions “Lister” and “El Campesino” as well as the 35th and 45th International Division. The Eleventh Brigade with, among others, the Scandinavian Battalion, were a part of the 35th Division. That main force would be aimed at the city of Gandesa within the so called Ebro Arch. The attack had to be carried out, despite a total lack of artillery and air planes. They transported fishing boats up from the coast, built temporary ferries and pontoons. They ran an intensive education for the recruits. The holiday front by Ebro really was a holiday – but also a sort of false front. They would practice river crossings. Some of the men were sent to the Officer School in Cambrils, among them Gösta Hjärpe. One of the teachers there was the German author Ludwig Renn (Arnold Vieth von Golssenau). He had been en officer during the First World War, become a pacifist and socialist, endured three years in a Nazi prison camp and led the Thälmann Battalion at Madrid in 1936. On the southern side of their corridor between Catalonia and the Levant the Fascists lost 20,000 men when their offensive towards Valencia culminated the days after the 18th of July. The 23rd they seemed to be stuck. The next day the preparations at Ebro were finished – 150 kilometres behind them.
“Before this”, says Gösta Hjärpe, “the Tumanov Bureau had done a god job getting information on the Fascist dispositions of troops, materials and connections. I was now part of the Georg Branting Company. The education to become a non-commissioned officer turned out to be a good investment in reserve officers, as the Company and Section Commanders seemed to die all the time.”
The attack over Ebro took place along a 100 kilometre wide frontline. Neutral trades-unionists expressed their – as it is referred to – full recognition of the way in which the operation was carried out technically. They especially congratulated the engineering troops’ bridge-building in the dark. One other thing was that these wooden bridges were fragile, laying on their makeshift pontoons, and Franco’s bombers went at them non-stop during the following weeks. All the supplies were cut off. But, on the other hand, the pilots were up against a hard task. The targets were too small. A calculation was made in Barcelona : Before the Fascists could destroy one single little pontoon bridge, they would have to drop some 500 bombs. Besides; the engineering troops defied the bombers, repairing constantly. Was the Georg Branting Company the first unit to cross Ebro ?
“No”, says Gösta Hjärpe. “On the night of the 25th of July, a half hour after midnight , the first of us were supposed to cross. The boys in the Lister Division did, but the 35th was delayed, especially the 42nd Battalion, the Scandinavian one. We had to march further.”
Others have spoken of the delay. The Swedish Defence Staff’s War History Department claims that the attack from the Eleventh Brigade over Ebro was delayed 24 hours “for unknown reasons” in their essay “The Spanish Civil War”.
“That’s also wrong”, says Hjärpe. “We were on the river bank at four in the morning.” Hjärpe is sitting with a stack of hand written notes in his lap. He reads from them, as long as they last, then goes on telling freely. I will try to summarise:
“That night must have been extremely rough for most of the Scandinavians, physically as well as mentally. The summer night was warm, and the silence among the boys total. All you would hear was some metal jangling every now and then. Near Mora la Nueva we went to the right, and by then we already knew the crossing would take place to the south of Asco. When we came there we took a short break while the orders to the different groups and sections was passed silently from man to man. The rowers were in place –Herbert Blom was in charge of the team that was taking us. They were dragging the heavy lifeboats down to the sandy bank. But the Fascists still hadn’t discovered us. There was cold fog over the dirty yellow water of Ebro . We couldn’t be seen through it. But it was, at the same time, to the Fascists advantage, in case they were grouped so as to meet us with crossfire. Because we were expecting crossfire. The atmosphere was so tense that even the lice in your clothes were affected, keeping still. We climbed down to the bank, where the first boat was in the water, rowers ready. The water level was low. We had to wade out to the boats. Our group, including a light machine-gun, got into the second boat. Gösta Andersson was with the machine-gun, Gusten Forsman, Sven Winberg, three or four Spaniards and me. Gusten and Sven were both from Kramfors. The Spaniards were serving as ammunition carriers. Gusten… he was the one who had hauled out scabs from Milos in Ådalen in 1931. Gösta Andersson was from Borås. We had been given orders to spread out to the left towards Garcia. Asco was to our right. Then we were going to continue straight up towards Fatarella. The Fascists woke up. Single bullets whizzed by as the rowers rowed with all their might to reach the other side as quickly as possible. The first boat had already reached the other bank, but we had some twenty-five metres left. Gösta Andersson lay in the stem of our boat, machine-gun ready. The rest of us sat hunched over behind him, listening to the men of the first boat and their grenades. Suddenly everything got quiet. The boat hit the bottom of the river. With incredible speed we jumped down into the water and rushed madly towards an oat field – or a barley field, that we could see in the distance. Your heart was beating like a tilthammer. After five minutes we regrouped and continued over the field. Then all of a sudden I no longer had solid ground under my feet. Neither did Gösta. We had stepped through a tank grave that the Fascists had dug. But to get past, everyone had to go down through it. Everyone was swearing in Swedish and Spanish. We had to take the bayonets off our rifles, and use them to climb up the other side. Dawn was still a ways away. We could just barely make out the railway embankment we were going to cross. To the right, where the embankment was a bit higher, we heard the swearing of the men from the first boat, who were trying to get over. This was where Kalle Ernstedt was mortally wounded. He was standing on the embankment and was going to help one of his mates up. The guy reached out with his rifle. Kalle Ernstedt grabbed it to help pull him up. But the rifle’s safety wasn’t on. The guy happened to touch the trigger. The shot went off, and the bullet hit at an angle through the chest of the Company Commander. But we, the boys in my little machine-gun group, didn’t know anything about it at the time. We found out later, late in the morning. We were also told that a Finnish Lieutenant had taken temporary command of the Company. Kalle Ernstedt hadn’t been on the first boat, but in the third or fourth. We continued our advance. Our orders were to not get involved in any fighting that could be avoided. We were supposed to move around the stationed posts. To our right we could see the others climbing the hills. We had a little vale with olive trees to walk through. This was the first place we were fired at. It came from a white house. We took cover behind a stone wall and waited. More groups came. The new Company Commander was in one of them. He told us what had happened to Ernstedt.
We hadn’t come more than a few kilometres from the river. The heat was unbearable – as was the thirst. We hadn’t seen a sign of the Fascist Air Force. But we heard the bombing to the left in the distance. It was all aimed at the Lister Brigades, who had come over several hours before us. So they had the fascist planes all over them. But we were still fairly well protected. We had advanced so far that we expected to meet the troops from Ribarroja and Flix on their way to Batea, Campesino’s men. But this was all on the assumption that the other battalions of the Eleventh Brigade had taken Asco and Fatareila. But we knew nothing of what was going on there. Therefore we had no way of knowing if the people in the white house were friends or foes. After an hour or two our group was ordered to try to pass the house on the left, while the others stayed behind, covering us. We crept along the ground to the end of the stone wall. Then we ran zigzag across an open field, where the bullets from the house exploded like whip-cracks on the ground, until we reached the cover of some olive trees. We kept going from tree to tree until we had passed the house. Then Gösta lay down with the machine-gun and fired at the house until it was reduced to smouldering rubble. Then the firing from then house ceased. We never found out who had been in the house. The important thing was that we weren’t being shot at.
By now it was late in the afternoon on the 25th of July. We hadn’t been given any food. There was no water. All we could think about was food and water. And the lice started annoying you again. We took off our uniform coats and shirts. In the armpits of them we would crush louse after louse with our thumbnails. We called them “Tre motores”, since they usually sat in groups of three. We heard firing from grenade launchers and machine-guns to our right – and to our left. The Spaniards muttered:
- We can’t sit here… So we decided to keep on going. So we advanced without any general direction. We spread out along a line with Gösta and me in the middle, and the others on the sides, ten metres apart. They carried their ammunition boxes, which weren’t as heavy after we had been shooting at the house. But you still had your grenades, untouched, jumping in your belt with every step you took. A lone man came walking through a grape field from our right. He bent over every now and then to pick grapes and place them in a cloth bag, made of a handkerchief or something like that. He had his rifle across his back, as if there were no Fascists to be found. I was thinking: He’s out of his mind! Then I recognised him. It was Kalle Bystedt, a strange man in every aspect. He yelled at us with his croaking voice:
- Have you had any food? I’m on my way down to the river to see if the chow has got over here yet. Just then we noticed cavalry further away in the valley. We threw ourselves to the ground immediately, with our rifles ready. We lay that way for a long time, looking. But for some strange reason we saw no riders – just horses and mules. At last we started crawling closer. Upon which we discovered that it was no more than mules grazing peacefully. The animals had machine-gun frames of leather on their backs, but no machine guns. The frames were combined saddles. Bystedt, who always had good advice, came with the suggestion:
- Let’s slaughter one of them, and we’ll have food for the entire Company. But the mules were to be viewed as prisoners, and we were supposed to treat our prisoners well. So I recommended he borrow one of the mules and ride down to the river to see if there was any food, like he had been planning on doing previously. He agreed. We helped him up, and he tried to get the animal to move with Swedish commands. It was practically impossible. She probably had to hear Spanish words to get moving. Besides, I remembered:
A riding sailor is an abomination in the eyes of God. Kalle Bystedt, an old seaman and boatswain… it was bound to fail. The night closed in. We decided to go a bit further. Then one of the Spaniards found a telephone wire running along the ground. We followed it up a hill. When we had come halfway up we were fired at again. We had to run for cover. Gösta aimed the machine-gun. As I lay next to him, loading cartridges, the others shot with their rifles, round after round, at some rocks and bushes a little further up the hill. Someone got sand in his bolt and couldn’t reload. He swore long and hard, in Swedish, and it echoed upwards. Then, just as Gösta was going to start firing the machine-gun, we heard a Swedish voice the crown:
- What the hell are you doing? Are you gonna shoot at your friends! It was Elis Eliasson, dubbed the Lapp, who was lying up there. We quit firing immediately, and ran up to him. He had lost his troop and found an empty Battery Staff office full of stuff – clothes, shoes, cigarettes, canned foods and photographs. And that’s how the 25th of July ended for our group – as far as I remember. There were a few smaller advances during the night. We came in contact with smaller groups. But we had no idea where the main body of our company was situated. In the morning more groups came along. We met our new Company Commander, Hans Beier, probably Austrian, a quiet and considerate man. After he had arrived we reorganised. I was put in charge of the Second Section. Also, the new Commander had brought maps and compasses. We could figure out where we were. It turned out we were standing at the top of the triangle Asco – Fatarella – Venta de Camposinos. We had to march at great haste back to the river. The Austrians had stormed Asco the previous day, but there could still be Fascists there. We were supposed to clear it up. During the march the Fascist planes came on strong. The sky was full of them. The bombs wounded two men. One of them was named Fritiof Andersson, most likely from the North of Sweden . After that day, the second day of the offensive, we were bombed constantly. Our clearing operation had no effect whatsoever. What I mean is: Some of the boys couldn’t keep their fingers in check. For example, there was one kid called the Dalecarlian. He had quite a peculiar interest in little carpets. I have no idea if they were real or not, and I never understood what he was going to use them for. They made him dig latrines as a punishment.
The Fascists had been in a hurry when they left the town. We had ample evidence for that suspicion. In a bakery there were big vats with dough that was rising over the edges. All you had to do, if you wanted, was to start the dough machine, a cross situated inside the vat. You were supposed to crank the cross around to give the dough the right consistency, mix water, yeast and flour. And then you baked it. The dough hadn’t had time to go hard.
In the evening we went back towards the front to patrol around the road between Fatarella and Venta de Camposinos. For several days after that our company had to act as a fire department and close the breaches where the Fascists had broken through. The lines weren’t solid. Basically, they resembled a saw blade, and some of the teeth were open. The Fascist Scouts had probably found some of the openings. Then they’d advance at those points, and our Company was called in to close off the lines. It was trying, especially as it was done at night. On the 28th to the 29th of July we were in the area to the northwest of Corbera. The offensive had been stopped. We could understand this, as we weren’t getting anywhere. Corbera had been taken earlier by Camposino’s militia. But we got stuck outside Gandesa. There was a lock there, that the Georg Branting Company was going to break open. This lock was referred to as the Hill of Death, a hill covered with machine-guns, defended mostly by Moroccans and members of the Foreign Legion.
It seemed pointless to storm it. But we tried anyway. We were lying at the same altitude as the Fascists, at a two hundred metre distance, running our machine-guns like crazy at their trenches, to keep them down while our boys stormed it. But they never got more than halfway up the hill. They fell and rolled back down. Many Swedes were wounded here. So many that the Company had to be reorganised yet again. According to my data the Political Commissioner Bengt Segersson, from Göteborg, the two boys Gusten Forssman and Sven Wiberg from Kramfors, along with Gösta Nilsson from Trelleborg and Börje Eriksson from Sundsvall were all wounded on the 28th and 29th July. There were several others too, but I can’t remember their hometowns: Henry Pettersson, Axel Håkansson, Gustaf Mård, Tage Andersson, Rolf Strand, Wilhelm Andersson… It goes on. There was only one single section of the Company left. During the days at the Hill of Death, the Company Commander Hans disappeared. There were rumours of his suicide, and I could understand if he didn’t have any more strength to carry out the pointless orders. His successor was named Fritz Wogge. We also had a replenishment of the troops. There were several Danes and Norwegians, but also Icelanders and Finns, as well as a group of young Spaniards. Among the Swedes was the lively Åke Richter, the Stockholmers Pysen Söderström and Åke Mossfelt, Uppsala-Jerker, Oskarshamn-Lasse, Kurt Svärd from Göteborg and Baum, a kid from Landskrona.
The Company was ready for more attacks, this time at night. The Fascists had moved their positions forwards a little by Gandesa, and we were going to reclaim some lost terrain in one sector. This was during the first half of August. When the night had fallen we grouped along a line, to advance down through the olive trees. The Fascists shot sporadically the entire time. We moved from tree to tree, getting all the closer to a stone wall below a grape field. There was a hill above us. We conferred:
Were there Fascists on the top of the hill or not? We hadn’t received any fire from there. We finally agreed that the hill was unoccupied. The Company Commander, Lieutenant Wogge, ordered an advance. But in the dark it was very hard to see if everyone was moving forwards. This was often doubtful – if you’d really get the entire line on the way, seeing as everyone was walking under the same conditions. Most of the time, someone would stay behind, hiding in the bushes. That was the biggest drawback of nightly raids. You had no idea what was really going on, seeing as you couldn’t come together in bigger groups either. Just as my closest comrades started climbing the hill, I felt a great need to pass water. So I was left some twenty-five metres behind. Once I had got halfway up the hill the Fascist machine-guns started tearing through the grape bushes, making the leaves fall like snow all around me. At the same time somebody cried:
- Teniente prisionero! Lieutenant captured. With a speed I never would have thought I possessed I whirled around, running in great leaps like a hare, down to the protection of the stone wall. In a minute it got quiet again. All my comrades were gone, my throat as dry as parchment. There was no water to be found. Then I heard someone whisper:
- Come over here. The sound came from a tree to the right. I slowly crawled over. Behind the tree were two men. A Norwegian and a Dane. They had a cantim plora, the canteens we usually carried our water in. They gave me a sip. I accepted gladly, to their pleasure, but alas! It was raw cognac. Immediately I saw two dead men in front of me. It wasn’t just the cognac, but also the fact that they had stayed behind, defying orders. I managed to hold my temper. But in my anger I walked away through the olive trees – back to the first line. In the dark, I took the wrong way, and wound up by a well, the ground around it scattered with dead bodies. It seemed to me that they were dark of skin – probably Moroccans. The stench was unbearable. Our offensive ended that night. The defence started. It was horrible. During the advancements the Spaniards, especially the Lister Brigades, had done the most, not counting those brigades who had landed furthest to the south – Frenchmen and others. The Eleventh Brigade had stormed the fortified Fatareila and marched over terrain from the north towards Gandesa. The city was surrounded from three directions. There was only one small road open to the west. So why did we necessarily have to take the city? Why wasn’t the effort put into cutting off the westward road. Then we could have sent out forces with the possibility to break further into the Fascist’s areas. In Modesto … when we were discussing… I can’t really remember what he said, but he obviously found it necessary, out of a propaganda point of view, to take the place. Maybe it would give some international exchanges. What do I know? I’m not a strategist. But I still think… It’s my personal opinion that we could have come much further than we did. After we had lost Fritz Wogge we were given a Company Commander named Otto. We were reorganised again. I told you earlier about Elis Eliasson, the Lapp, who shot at us, and was shot at by us, after he had occupied an empty staff office. During the time of the defence he was made a pole-vaulter. That’s what we called the stretcher carriers, the sanitarians. Since they carried poles, with a canvas cloth in between, and a first aid kit. We had another stretcher carrier named Oskar Ståhl – from Norrköping. And one named Henriksson. We were put on patrol duty in Sierra Caballs outside Gandesa. The tension between Otto and us was quite intense several times, since my section was chosen a little too often – if you ask me – to do “volunteer” missions. One time we were supposed to go up to the Dutch positions after a nightly patrol of No Man’s Land. We were given a password when we left. But in the morning, when we drew closer to the Dutchmen, they didn’t have the corresponding password. They fired at us, and there was nothing for us to do but shoot back. It took a long time before we could convince them that we were part of the Government Troops. The Dutchmen had fought back an attack, and the cadavers of Franco’s soldiers were rotting out in the terrain as the sun went up. It got hotter. The smell of the dead thickened all around us. The mountains were high, the valleys small. You can’t describe the terrain. You have to see it to understand – a moonlike landscape. Sometimes the valleys would hold grape plantations, otherwise they would be completely void of vegetation. We had trenches in the mountain passes. That was also where I finally got to see one of our tanks. It stood on a little road between two mountains. I was working really hard all this time. There were problems everywhere. The boys were heavily opposed to the patrol duty. Many of them thought it to be pointless. One time they were so angry I couldn’t get them to come with me. We had to lay down some hundred metres from our positions. We lay there for hours, without moving. Maybe we didn’t see the whole picture behind the patrolling. We thought it was better to lay in the trenches and wait for whatever was coming. But the missions had to be done. That’s why it was so hard. It was also a pain when we had the possibility to just lay in the trenches. We were supposed to assign a pre-post twenty-five or thirty metres in front of the trenches. I had the orders to place one or two men there, depending on how many men were available. They were supposed to lie there, sometimes with a light machine-gun and sometimes with no more than their ordinary rifles. Then there was a string running to the trenches, attached to some old cans. You’d pull the string. The cans would rattle. That’s how you’d warn the men in the trenches. But it was almost impossible to get one of the boys to do the job, and rather than report my own men to a superior officer, I’d just go out there myself. The Fascists took Corbera. Then we had to retreat to Sierra Pandols. The positions we held there would be our last.
By now we had reached September. But when we were marching towards these positions, we were fired at by artillery. We had stopped. I can’t remember why. The First Section was sitting on a slope and the Second Section, of which I was a part, was standing in an olive grove a little further behind. We saw how the artillery fire got the First Section. The Finn Uno Jakobsson was hit. He died. His brains were running down the slope. Karl Severin was also killed, and Per Hörnfelt was wounded. Nowadays he’s dead as well. I stood with my shoulder to a tree. Some shrapnel hit the tree but I remained unharmed. You’d get thoughts in your head that may seem a bit strange when looked back upon. It obviously wasn’t meant for me to be hit, since everything had proceeded fine before, I thought. It kind of gradually turned you into a fatalist. We continued out to the positions we believed to be ours. But when we came there we realised that nobody knew if we were in…the first or second line. After a little while we were ordered to advance. We thought we would be attacking. We advanced in the middle of the day, even though the Fascists were only a few hundred metres away. We had to run down a slope, down into a valley, and then up again to occupy a very small hill in between two high mountains. Actually there were three high mountains in the area, all under the control of the Fascists. We later called them Tres Piedras de Pico – The Three Stone Tops. Might be that our Spanish wasn’t all that correct. But that’s what we named them anyway. But there was no attack. We were just moving to a position that the Labour Company had made ready for us during the night. We never quite understood the situation due to the language barrier. The crazy thing – as far as I’m concerned – was to have us running down that slope in broad daylight. Because we drew fire. One guy from Småland in the south of Sweden named Larsson got a bullet through his thigh, and was left lying on the ground. Nobody could pick him up where he lay. He bled to death. This, I feel, was an utter waste. We might as well just have waited until the evening. The Spanish September nights are fairly dark. We were at that position until the 25th of September. We ran lots of propaganda. The Political Commissioner of the brigade or battalion was out to us, speaking through loud speakers. We had a lot of defectors joining us. Several Scandinavians were wounded right here. Others were killed. I know two Norwegians… Together with this boy, Björk… maybe his name was Erik Björk… I had to pick up the remains of both the Norwegians, gather them onto a blanket and carry them out of the trenches. You’d look down in the latrines and think you saw something moving among the bowels we had felt forced to throw there. We tried doing some patrolling. But it was almost impossible to leave the trenches here. The Fascists were too close. They’d observe you right away. Then came their firing assaults, and then you could never tell for sure whether they were really attacking or not. Experience had taught us that they would fire at our sandbags and trenches to hold us down as they advanced. It was nervous. We had a bad view and couldn’t always see them. So we would fire back at them, just to be safe, and maybe there was some unnecessary grenade throwing. But we also had to let them know that we were still awake. They never launched any real attacks at our positions. On the other hand… The last day we saw them coming, down in the valley, no more than a few hundred metres away. They had a flag and two stretcher carriers with them. It was approximately one section, some twenty-five or thirty men. Then Åke Mossfelt said:
- But that’s our boys. Don’t you see that that’s our flag they’re carrying! But that wasn’t the case. In all the commotion nobody was thinking of how our own flag actually looked. It was red, yellow and purple, while the Fascist’s was red, yellow and red. We were a little unsure. Finally, when they had come even closer, we decided to let Uppsala-Jerker – Erik Johansson – shoot at them with the machine-gun. Which he also did. But then the mechanism filled with sand, so the gun wouldn’t work. We tried to stop them with our rifles. It didn’t work. They walked straight up to the positions of the Fourth Company, the Austrians. They were on our right side. That’s why there was no good aim at them. We had no idea if the Austrians were still in their position or not… that was beyond our knowledge. But that they were Fascists soon became clear to us. They shot at us from there, from the right. So then we were being fired at from three different directions. We had to report that we could no longer hold our position. Normally we would have turned to the Company Commander. But he couldn’t be found. It seemed as though he had disappeared some time before noon . So we reported back to the Battalion Staff Office. We requested a retreat. They declined. We were ordered to stay. If we pulled back now, there would be acts of reprisal. The fire picked up towards the evening – from our right, from straight ahead, and at an angle a little from the left, in other words from Tres Piedras. We had a real hard time protecting ourselves. We hadn’t been given any food. We were thirsty, and our ammo was running out. We still had our hand grenades, but we weren’t given that which we needed the very most, rifle ammunition. When the situation started getting critical we decided to pull back from the position, despite the orders. The exit ran backwards, at a right angle to the trench. But at the end it was so shallow that it gave no protection. So you had to get out really fast. So we decided to run out, one at a time. Then we had the slope down to our own valley. From here there was a hill, maybe seventy-five or one hundred metres high, that you had to cross to reach the second line. Not everyone made it. During the hectic retreat from our impossible position the Borås-born Gösta Andersson was killed, alongside the Stockholmer Åke Mossfelt and the Göteborger Ernst Mattsson. A young Club-member from Göteborg also fell, a red-haired, friendly chap. Several Spaniards were killed as well. Uppsala-Jerker, on the other hand, made it out ok. I managed – along with a Dane named Nielsen. Later in Denmark , during the occupation, he was called the Slayer and was captured and taken to a concentration camp in Germany . The Lasse also made it back. To be a Lasse, meant that you would run with the commands from the Commander of the company or section. In this case it was supposed to be a company, but we weren’t even a section anymore. Among the survivors was our food carrier as well, Jönsson. The strange thing was that somehow he had, on that same day, found marmalade for us. Just before we retreated from the trenches he was sitting cutting the marmalade into pieces to share with us all. We hadn’t had marmalade for weeks, but this, the last day we finally got some. We didn’t know he had been sitting cutting it up. In the valley we found the Commander of the other company, a Spaniard. He said:
- You can’t stay here. You have to go on. No International recruits are allowed to stay, because the Fascists will be here any minute now. And he said:
- Don’t turn to the left, because they have taken the hill and shoot anyone going through the valley you would have to use to get out that way. So Nielsen, the Lasse and I went to the right. The mountain slope was high, but we were protected during the climb, at least until we came up some fifty metres from our own positions. We did the same as earlier: We had to run over one at a time. Both the Dane and our little Lasse made it up to the trenches. I ran last. The soles of my boots were hard as iron from being worn down, and in that terrain… You slipped. I had to grab the grass on the slope with my hands to keep from falling. But I made it up. Otto, our Company Commander, was lying in the trenches. He had been there for hours. A bullet had hit him in the buttocks and gone out through his groin. He must have gone from our position – the very same road we took, that the other company’s Commander had told us to take – some time during the day, maybe even before noon . Uppsala-Jerker took the other way. I have no idea how he managed, but he made it out safe, although not until night. We carried the Commander down to the Battalion Staff Office. Then we waited, expecting to be shot by an execution squad, for retreating against orders. But the Battalion Commander, Miralles, didn’t say anything about it. We were allowed to pull back to wherever we thought it best, to the caves that were situated there. Then I walked up to this guy, Torsten Noren. He was on the observation duty in one of the caves. Furthest up stood Pysen Söderström. He had a hole through which he could see between two rocks or sandbags. I tapped him on the back. Then he collapsed. He had got a bullet straight through his neck. We knew there were snipers among the Fascists. They had their rifles in wood frames. At night they would aim them at the exact places our boys were firing from. Then they’d screw them tight in position. Then during the days they would look through binoculars at the exact places where they had seen the fire coming from. As soon as they saw any movement they would shoot. But obviously Pysen had been unaware of this. He had stood with his head right by the hole, to look through. He had probably been watching us running down the slope when we were pulling back. We were to be sent home. I was ordered back across Ebro , to the place we had started from. When you came there you expected to find someone from the Company. But no one was there except for Nielsen and the food carrier Jönsson. The others… the entire company… were dead or wounded. We, the three men of the Georg Branting Company, were moved to a place closer to Barcelona . There they created a battalion of those Scandinavians who were left, along with other nationalities. I was put in charge of the entire battalion temporarily, even though I was no more than a sergeant. They were waiting for qualified officers. But there were none to be found. All who lived were in the hospitals. Meanwhile, farewell parties were organised. I was one of the invited. Why… I never found out. I came to a casino near Barcelona , where Negrin and others from the government were, as well. I had beer for the first time in months. Then there were pastries. My stomach couldn’t take it. Everything went in one way and straight out the other.
The first boat I worked on after Spain was the Swedish Lloyds Britannia. I was, with the exception of only short interludes, on the sea during the entire Second World War, but never outside the designated area.
Posted 06 June 2004 - 10:34 AM
Gösta Karlsson was born in Hällefors, Västmanland, 1915. He was one of nine children in a tenants family. Already at the age of 16 he joined the Communist Youth Club in Hällefors. When the Spanish Civil War broke out Gösta Karlsson worked at the rolling-mill of Hällefors Bruks AB. In March 1937 Gösta Karlsson went to Spain. He fought at Ebro and was wounded in his face. Gösta was sent home with the others by the end of the year when the International Brigades were dismissed:
”I was completely aware of what the struggle was all about. When you came home from Spain , a lot of people would ask if you’d been there because of the adventurous aspects of it. But I believe that I’ve given a convincing answer, now thirty years afterwards, by still being politically active. You could say that the Socialist Revolution was a secondary matter in Spain . In other words: you were fighting for the survival of the Republic. But at the same time I was completely aware of the fact that Spain – because of the general atmosphere there – would probably develop into a Socialistic Democracy. You counted on the Leftist groups to stick together in the struggle, develop a program and get some Socialist reforms going. I never thought that the Communists would be able to carry out a social revolution on their own. I mean, they had a lot of influence, but it is well known that the Anarcho-Syndicalists, CNT, were a strong organisation too, as well as UGT, the Reformist National Organisation. The bourgeois democracy in Spain was so very compromised, tied up with the big landowners and Capitalism. To fight for the upholding of that system – that was probably pretty unthinkable.”
Those are the words of Gösta Karlsson: He describes a program for the People’s Front, but a program including more than just the Anti-Fascist Defence. He has a scar under his left eye and a piece of shrapnel, the size of a sugar cube, in his chest of drawers. The piece of shrapnel came from a Fascist grenade launcher just south of Ebro , the 20th of September 1938 . It went in under his left eye and stopped in his right cheek. It was stuck for fifteen days before surgeons could finally reach it and remove it.
Gösta Karlsson is from Västmanland, born in Hällefors in 1915, one of nine children in a tenant farmer’s family. He became an ironworker early on. He worked at the rolling-mill of Hällefors Bruks AB, an ironworks now run by Svenska Kullager (the Swedish Ball-Bearings Industry).
“I joined the Communist Youth Club already in 1931. I was a member of the Committee – working as the Group Treasurer. Political organisations have always been strong in Hällefors, the farming society that grew into a market town. We had some eighty members in the Club. The Social Democrats had about two hundred members in their youth club. But we were more active than they were. Our clubroom was in a café. It was a great movement. We agitated against the behaviour of the authorities at Ådalen in 1931 and against the Berlin Olympics. Then the collection drive of the Spain Committee got rolling. We would help out, and there was probably a lot of generosity within the working class, but people didn’t have much to spare. When I started working at the works unemployment was high. The older men would work no more than one week per month. There were more jobs for us younger boys, easier jobs. We only made forty five öre an hour. But then the market went up in 1934, when the works received orders from Japan and Germany . The rearmament was getting started. We had one huge order from Japan for control-wire, as they called it, a little seven or eight millimetre wire. I have no idea what they were going to use it for, but we would say that it probably served some military function.”
Didn’t you see it as a problem – you getting it better, thanks to the rearmament of the Fascist countries?
“Yeah, better… We had jobs. But we were working for starvation wages. I don’t see how we managed to exist at all. You had to give up most things. Our Spain Committee was excellent. Social Democrats, Syndicalists and Communists working together. Today you see how scattered the work for Vietnam is. That wasn’t the case with Spain . The supervisor of the local Konsum store in Hällefors let them use an office where you could account for the funds collected and where you’d meet every Sunday. But I was gone by then. I had left. First I tried to go with a friend, Knut Jansson, from back home. That was in 1938. You had to think of something, so we said we were going to Paris . The Swedish Police were questioning us already up in Stockholm after we had got on the train to Trelleborg. We were travelling with a sailor, Erik Karlsson. They stopped us in Trelleborg. We had to sit in their office all day, being interrogated. It was all in connection to legal proceedings against the newspaper “Hamn och Sjö” (“Harbour and Ocean”), which was going on at the same time in Stockholm . The newspaper was accused of working as a recruiting agency. In Trelleborg they asked us what we’d be doing in Paris .
- I’m going there to look around, I said.
- But, they said, you don’t have enough money to get back home. All you could do was answer:
- Well, I guess the consulate will have to give us a lift back then.
The police had their doubts. But when the newspaper in Stockholm was acquitted they let us go. Then we boarded the ferry to Sassnitz. Then some Swedish customs officials or whatever they were shouted:
- Here come the three Spain Travellers!
There were Germans on the ferry. They probably understood. They could most likely understand that much Swedish. Because I heard them sitting talking about Spain later on. Besides; Trelleborg was considered to be a real Nazi centre, so they could contact the German police from there as well. But at first everything seemed to go fine. We came to Sassnitz in the evening and went through customs. Then we stood waiting for the train going south, through Hamburg and Kiel . We heard it coming at a distance. Then two men rushed out of the Customs office. They were in uniform, with swastikas on their arms. We were taken back to the office. They were going o search us. I had a Parisian address on a note in my breast pocket. I figured it was probably a good idea to dispose of it. So I rolled up the piece of paper and swallowed it as I pretended to dry my mouth. We were questioned. I figure these men were customs officials. One of them spoke Swedish. I had a little flashlight.
- This, they said, is good to have at the front, isn’t it? The interrogation was short. But we were sent away. We had to get on the ferry again and wait for it to take us back to Sweden the next morning. Erik Karlsson had a real motive for his trip though. He was headed for Rouen to enlist on a boat. They couldn’t get anywhere with him. But they sent him away anyway. Before we got on board the customs official who spoke Swedish came over to me and asked:
- Do you have any Communist magazines? It sounded like he really wanted to read some. But right away I thought it might be a provocation. He seemed friendly, ingratiating and nervous all at once. I thought: this is a dangerous guy, who it’s best not to get involved in that sort of reasoning with. The Germans never got any evidence that we were headed for Spain . They sent us away on pure suspicion. Fourteen days later I travelled through Göteborg and Antwerpen. Then I had a stamp in my passport that said: “DEPORTED FROM GERMANY ”. I came to Paris the 17th of March. I showed my little note with the address to the cabdriver. I couldn’t speak with him, so… He took me to a hotel in Montmartre , where they took on Spain Volunteers both day and night. Right across the street was the bureau, the meeting point before the train trip to the south of France .”
Gösta Karlsson came to Albacete and Madrigueras. But soon he was sent north again – to Catalonia . The big Aragon Retreat was under way. He was sent from the training camp in Catalonia to a guard duty at Ebro . He was part of the Danish Andersen-Nexö Company. There weren’t quite as many Scandinavians there as in the Georg Branting Company. He was a private infantryman, but served for a few weeks as corporal while the regular corporal was on a course.
“We were moved from Ebro to take part in an offensive up towards Huesca. But the defence was too strong. We couldn’t break through. The Scandinavians were never even put in. I had never been in any battle before the offensive at Ebro . I shot a few shots at Ebro in May, but that hardly counts. Then, on the night of the 25th of July, we rowed over the river in boats. When we reached the other side, we were fired at. I jumped out of the boat. I could stand on the bottom. I was going to shoot, but I had got water in the rifle, and had to quickly remove the bolt to dry it out. Then I shot some rounds and threw a grenade up the slope. But by then the Swedish company had already broken through. We rushed forwards. There were no Fascists left in the positions on the riverside, but they had left a lot of stuff, like ammunition girdles and leather bags. We didn’t have anything like that. I carried my ammunition in a trouser leg that had been sewn together. We had used Russian guns first, but they were later exchanged for Czech carbines. The Poles were given the Russian guns, so that each company would have uniform equipment. The offensive continued. You can’t remember everything. But I do remember the Scandinavian Death-hill at Corbera.
One morning we were going to storm. We advanced towards the Fascist positions, but met heavy defence from the side. We received contra-orders. We had to retreat to our original positions. I was in charge of a light machine-gun together with a Danish guy. When we reached our positions he got a ricochet in his back. It ripped off a little piece of meat. He gave me the machine-gun and said:
- Goodbye, comrade! I’m done for. I pulled up his shirt to take a look. It wasn’t that bad. The wound was bleeding a lot, but we managed to bandage it. Maybe he had gone into shock. It was a Czech machine-gun. We took care of it for a long time, the Dane and me – until he was wounded. After that I was alone among the Spaniards. They had never received any military training. At times, when there wasn’t much fighting, I would sit and train them, taking my weapon apart and putting it back together. During my time as a conscript back in Sweden you‘d got used to that kind of stuff. But I wasn’t licensed to use any machine-gun when I left home. You had to learn it all down there.”
Is it difficult, the first time you’re going to be shooting at someone?
“Yes, if you compare it to the conscript days. To go from shooting with a wooden plug to the real thing… it can turn out that way. But I saw it more as a job, actually. You went to Spain to help, and part of that help, when you were on the font, was to try and eliminate the enemy. Before we came to Ebro I was already used to it, having to take aim at people and shoot. What you remember… is mostly how people around you would get killed or wounded. I saw eight or nine Scandinavians killed in one single artillery-explosion. We were going to relieve the others out on the front. We marched in column, advancing through a grove, but were discovered by enemy planes, and got all hellfire over us from the artillery. That’s when they died. We were headed over a hill. In front of it was another hill, lower than the first. That’s where we were going. But we found a cave we could take cover in. There they couldn’t reach us with the artillery fire, and we waited in there until it calmed down, before we headed for the positions. If you can really call them positions. There were no trenches. We had to dig little by little. It wasn’t easy. You’d start out with a little pit, and make it bigger with time… until we had trenches with connections backwards as well. I was wounded three or four days before we were going to be pulled off the front. It took place at Sierra Caballs. I was temporarily outside of the trenches that evening, behind them. They were shooting with grenade launchers in the dark. I heard the hum – sort of like birds, when the grenades go by high above you. But if they hit anywhere close by you don’t have any time to hear anything. You just hear a sizzle and then it’s over. The grenade hit close to me. I had a burning sensation in my cheek. I had blood in my eyes and couldn’t see anything. I called for the medics. They came, but couldn’t see the wound in the dark. I took his hand – and took it to my cheek so he could feel the wound. He bandaged my entire head. The medic… a Catalan… led me some kilometres backwards to the stretcher carriers. They carried me into a first-aid tent. I was given a shot. Then they lifted me into an ambulance. I fell asleep there and woke up in a hospital. I can’t remember where it was situated. I said to a friend:
- I think I’ve gone blind. But then I pulled down the bandage and noticed that I could see perfectly clearly. I had been bleeding a lot, but I hadn’t been in much pain. It got worse later on. The piece of shrapnel was stuck in my right cheek. The wound got infected. My whole face swelled up, and then I was in a lot of pain. I was in a convalescent home when they removed it fifteen days later. They were missing material there. So they took the piece out without any anaesthetic. I was in several hospitals, among them one outside of Tarragona and one in Reus . The International Commission for the evacuation of Volunteers was travelling around, to see how many of us there were at the hospitals. The Swedish lieutenant-colonel Olof Ribbing was part of the Commission. He told us there were very few Scandinavians who hadn’t been wounded at least once. The International Brigades had been run down hard.
I came to Stockholm along with the great group of boys coming home from Spain . But I didn’t go straight to Hällefors. Instead I contacted the senior lecturer Nils Silfverskiöld. He was going to help me find a doctor for a plastic transplantation. It turned out to be Doctor Allan Dragnell, one of the most skilled. But I had to wait an entire year before I got a place at the Seraphim Hospital in Stockholm . I didn’t get in there for the operation until sometime in September 1939. Then I travelled home to start working.”
Posted 06 June 2004 - 10:36 AM
Sixten Rogeby (Olsson) was born in Vollsjö, southern Sweden in 1910. He grew up in Värmland (a province in the middle of Sweden). When the Spanish Civil War broke out he worked as a sailor. He went to Spain at New Year 1936/1937. After the battles of Jarama, Guadalajara and Brunete, where Sixten was wounded, he was sent to Sweden on leave. After some time he returned to Spain - as a journalist. He wrote many articles and several books about his experiences during the Civil War. In 1938 he left Spain with the International Brigades;
Gösta ”the Cuckoo” Andersson writes a few lines about Sixten Rogeby in his manuscript: “Often he has a very thoughtful expression on his face, his words come slowly and quietly – well thought through.” Sixten was also given a nickname during his journey down to Spain . He was called “the Philosopher”. It could be because of his way of speaking, but also because of what he actually said, like, for example:
“More than two thousand years ago the Slaves, led by Spartacus, fought for their freedom down on the Mediterranean . They almost beat the Romans. And they were also international. All different races were represented there.”
On the other hand, his friends most definitely didn’t call him “the Philosopher” because they saw him as an impractical dreamer. He would speak of cannon as well – practically and with great knowledge. A few years earlier he had been stationed with the Swedish Navy, where he had worked as a weapon smith and completed Corporal’s School. In the Spanish People’s Army he quickly advanced to Lieutenant. He also proved, soon afterwards, that he was truly a master of words. The same year as the Interbrigades were disbanded his first book was published by the Publishers of Laborer’s Culture. It is called “Memories from the Spanish Front”, a series of intensively captured moments from Jarama, Guadalajara, Brunete… His next book, the novel “This Is Just the Beginning”, came in 1946. It was quite unusual for its time – a socialistic, optimistic look at the future, right in the middle of the very pessimistic Forties. Besides all this, Sixten Rogeby has also worked quite a bit as a journalist.
Sixten was born in Vollsjö in 1910, in the province of Malmöhus, where his father worked as a carpenter – as long as there were any jobs available. But Sixten wasn’t more than a few years old when his family moved to Karlstad. So he came to grow up in Värmland.
“From when I was nine until I was fifteen, I lived with a farmer’s family in the north-west of Värmland. I had a very good relationship to my foster-mother, a warm, pious woman. She gave me everything a kid needs. But then her husband died and she moved to Gräsmark, in Hedås. That was 1925, the same year I was confirmed in the Church. Once you had been confirmed, you were expected to take care of yourself. That’s the way it was. But I got to stay anyway, live with her over winter. I started working as a band holder in a timber crew for two fifty a day. The work was thirty to forty kilometers from home. There were two of us band holder boys. The other one was named Bror. Every Sunday, we’d travel up to the desolate grounds in the area around Bogen, to work. We’d live with a shopkeeper. As part of the deal, we’d get a cup of coffee and some hard biscuits. For this we would pay seventy five öre per night. So we’d have about two crowns a day left over. And we had to buy our own food. Then, once you started smoking, most of those two crowns was all used up. One package of Tigerbrand would last for fourteen days, but cost eighty öre. It was expensive. One day when I was helping to mark the timber, trying to hold some branches out of the way, I chopped myself in the foot. I found out later, that this was a lucky thing. I was shipped to the sick house in Sunne. There they sewed up the wound, and I came into full benefit of the insurance. It was no less than three fifty a day, if I remember correctly. So I managed to save as much as sixty bucks by the time I left the work. I bought a pair of shoes for fifteen and a Cheviot suit for forty five. So I came out even. Then I traveled from there to Gävle, where my father was working as a supervisor within the prison. I tried to find some sort of income. But there wasn’t a chance of finding anything. Since I didn’t know anything. I only had one option left. I had read in books that it was possible to just step aboard a ship and ask for a job. Which I did – until I noticed that I had got company. Some guys were following me everywhere. Finally they grabbed me in some small sideways alley. They said:
- Oh, it’s you, you little bastard, trying to sign up behind our backs. I had no idea what they were talking about. And I told them that.
- But I follow the rules, I said.
- Well, then you have to go via the Union, and sign up at the labor exchange, they said. So I went to the labor exchange to sign up. But there was a guy in the door. He said:
- Are you in the Union ?
- No, I said.
- Well, you’ve got to be in the Union before you can get any job, before we’ll sign you up.
- So where’s the Union, I asked. He gave me the address. I walked over and said I wanted to join the Sailor’s Union .
- Alright, they said. What ship are you on?
- I’m not on any ship, I said, because to be able to get a job on a ship, I have to be part of the Union .
- Well, we’re not taking on any new members, they said, not others than those already on ships.
So: I wasn’t allowed onto the ships until I was in the Union , and I couldn’t get into the Union until I was listed on a ship. That’s when I understood that everything was wrong. Who’s fault? That was something I’d have to sort out. Socialists, syndicalists, communists and all the other “ists” were a bunch of hooligans, my foster-father had taught me. He was a right-wing farmer, who gladly would tell how he had worked as a strike-breaker during the big strike of 1905, somewhere in the area around Sundsvall . I thought:
- Well. I guess I’ll have to enlist behind their backs then. Late in the afternoon I approached a little ship, loading Falu Red Paint, at the end of the dock. I asked if they needed a man. The skipper came. He asked me:
- What papers do you have?
- I have my grades from Elementary School.
- We need a doctor’s certificate. Get it, said the skipper, and meet me at seven tonight outside the Seamen’s House. I managed to get the certificate in all haste, along with my guardian’s permission, as that was also required. So I went to meet the skipper, and enlisted on Klara, from Hille, a three-rigged schooner. My monthly rent was twenty one crowns. I sailed on that ship all summer, and was terribly sea-sick most of the time. Then, for some reason, I had decided to join the Navy Youth. My father said no. But I managed to get in anyway, and was there from 1926 to 1929. During the summer of 1928 I had suppuration in my one ear. It was operated at the hospital of Mölndal , in Göteborg. Then I got suppuration in my other ear. They operated that as well, but when they tied up the blood vessels, a piece of silken string came down into my throat, which caused a third suppuration. My throat was operated on. It went well. But the piece of string continued into one of my lungs and caused pleurisy, which also had to be operated. Then I had been lying down for such a long time that I got Bright’s disease. So I had to stay in bed to get well from that, too. The whole was pretty silly. But I was in the hospital for nine whole months and missed the Chapman trip, which I sorely regretted. When I came back to the corps, they said I was to be rejected, since they had got the idea that I couldn’t hear anything. But I heard perfectly. And I wanted to stay. I already knew of the hardships of the labor-market. To go out, trying to find a job again… I knew how hard it’d be. I could count on a bit of money from my insurance, but the amount was insignificant, according to what I’d heard. Besides that, I enjoyed the corps. I had finished my Rookie year, as well as my second. All I had left was my third year, the nicest time, as a Senior. So they decided that I could stay, to be Supply Man. Not much future in that, for one who had an interest in working with the big cannon. But I had to take it until something better came along. As soon as I was feeling tip-top again, I requested a transfer to the Artillery, to become a “wood-cutter”. That’s what they were called, since the Artillery emblem showed two crossed cannons, which looked like a saw-horse in profile. I was transferred. Everything seemed to be going fine. I managed to catch up on my studies. But when we were going to be “man-drafted”, they established that my sight was bad, only 0.8 on both eyes. So I was rejected again, and had to become a craftsman. So I chose weapon smith, so as to still be around the big pieces. During spring 1929 I came to Skeppsholmen in Stockholm and was “man-drafted”. This meant that you would pass over from the Navy Youth to the Navy. You were a man – not a boy anymore. I stayed there for two years, completing Corporal’s School. It was a good time. At the same time, I had become more interested in politics. But in 1931 I got appendicitis, and had to be written in to the hospital again, to be operated on. Meanwhile, they discovered that I had a bunch of flyers in my locker in Skeppsholmen. Communist flyers. It was a big scandal. I was called upon to leave the military service – FORCED OUT. Otherwise, I would have been there for nine years, and I was happy there. But I wasn’t keeping my political ideals a secret. It was a time of many violent oppositions. Just when I left Skeppsholmen, the incidents in Ådalen occurred, which also led to clashes in the city. And I took part in them whole-heartedly. I had a construction job for some weeks. Then I became a sailor again, and was on the sea until 1936, mostly with Göteborg ships, Lloyd ships. I made one trip with Kungsholm (a passenger ship between Sweden and the US) as well – and a few ships from Helsingborg . When the Spain-thing got started I went ashore. We had our Sailor’s Club in Göteborg. It meant a lot. From there we started pressuring them to let us go to Spain , and help out. It was very unsatisfactory, just watching while all this was going on. The least you could do was try to help. Eventually we got our chance.”
Sixten has written about his train trip to the Spanish border. You find the text on the first page of his book:
“Most of the Scandinavians are sleeping, worn out from the long journey. “The Lever” (Slejsen) is telling us monotonously about a ship-wreck during one of his countless sails around the world, and “Frasse” Dahlström is listening, half asleep. His pleasant, reddened face is shining a little in the gloom, right above the indistinct outline of ”the Levers” giant hands. “The Cuckoo” laughs a little in his sleep, while Christer’s finely chiseled face carries a strange pained expression. Kastrup, the Dane, walks back and forth in the corridor, thoughtfully. I like him the best, for his calm, reassuring smile, for his unspoken, shining enthusiasm, steady on the ground, but with enough strength to charge you with crackling activeness whenever he wishes. Perpignan , the end-station. Just a few hours until we’re on Spanish territory. Someone already thinks he can hear the low rumbling of the cannon, but the harsh taunting of Hasse quickly dismisses all such fantasies.”
“So there we came”, says Sixten Rogeby. “We probably expected to get into the Navy in one way or another, since that’s what we knew best. But we soon realized that it would be impossible to have a bunch of different nationalities together under those circumstances. So it was off to the infantry. And my God, we had no conditions whatsoever. We engaged in whatever we could help with. But it felt a little strange, starting out with infantry drills when you’d… well, when you’d been five years with the Navy already… In the Navy we’d deal with easily accessible guns, with huge fire-power, mounted on the ship decks. You would fetch the missiles from the stores. And they were easy to transport to the guns. Here we had to run around in a bunch of damn terrain, pulling a ridiculous little wagon behind you. On it stood a machine-gun that was, to say the least, erratic. But afterwards we were said to have done well at Jarama. I wondered how come the war was so unorganized. You would have the portrayals from the books about the First World War in your head, and think: We ought to dig real trenches, and take the blows there, whether it went well or not. But instead, they had us flapping around like blankets with our piece – digging at night, working and shooting at day. There was no order to the war whatsoever, you’d think. But afterwards you understand it better. There were no options. To stop the assailants there, what with all their material – planes, tanks… then you had to use a more mobile strategy. If you have insufficiencies in material, you’re bound to lose manpower instead. We were four Swedes on the machine-guns in the Edgar Andre Battalion. Besides me, there was John Fransson, Krister Reuterswärd, Helmer Hansson. To get into the heavier company, you had to have previous weapons education – preferably on machine-guns. Helmer Hansson, a lumberjack from Sveg, had been regular army for a few years in Svea Livgarde (the Svea Life Guards), and he knew the job. He knew how to dig, and be careful whilst firing, so as to not expose himself unnecessarily. He was the biggest asset in the group. I got the idea, that perhaps Swedish Infantry Education was something quite qualified, after all. I still think so, I believe. The two others also had good qualifications to be placed on the machine-guns. And me… maybe they thought a weapon smith from the Navy could handle an infantry position such as this. Reuterswärd was the Commander of our group. By the way, he was the son of the boss of TT (the biggest News Bureau in Sweden) in Stockholm, at that time. He had been to Moscow, as a secretary for Theodor Plievier. First, we would organize it so that we were three men on the gun – one to aim, one to shoot, and one to hold the ammo. But then we realized that the direct hits on those guns were just plain too many. So we should decrease the manpower on each gun, to just the absolutely essential. It was enough with two men. So Helmer lay shooting, while I held the ammo. It was kind of funny, since I had been band holder in the woods as well. The gun wasn’t working well, it was old and worn out. But Helmer figured out that if you stuck a little stick underneath the loading frame, where the ammo went in, the gun would work. When the stick had been all worn down, the gun would stop. So you’d have to stick in another little stick. So we had to make sure that we always had those little sticks around. We were eleven nationalities on twelve machine-guns in the company. By the evening on the fourth day, every group except for ours had lost one or more men, dead and wounded. The Swiss boys had the worst luck. Before they’d had time to dig more than a foot into the ground, a grenade came, and turned them into a pile of bloody flesh and torn clothes. Five young boys. That day we hadn’t been given any instructions as to where to go. So, basically, we spent the day running around in the terrain, setting up at new positions every time an officer in need of a machine-gun came along. Finally an aide de camp found us. We were sent to the position of the fallen Swiss boys. We dug almost all night long, just to regroup the next morning. We were sent to the Third Company. The guys there told us, that during the night they had chased away an entire Moroccan company with only their rifles. The Moroccans were good on horseback, but they didn’t like meeting the rifles, once off their horses. A little group of boys had advanced on a line, forcing them away. No-one even got hit. That’s where we were supposed to dig into the ground. We were deadly tired. I remember thinking:
- Jesus Christ, we’re going to dig until the morning, just to be moved again! So what the hell is the purpose of working all night? But Helmer said:
We’re going to dig. Remember what happened to the Swiss boys! The ground was rock hard. We dug until we fell asleep. But by then we had decent protection. We were supposed to lie quietly. It was smartly done, because next morning, we had a big attack from a Moroccan troop, and surprised them. They had no idea we were there. Many of the assailants were left, dead, on the ground in front of us that day. Then, of course, we were supposed to move. That’s the basic rules. When a machine-gun has been working all day, the enemy will know exactly where it’s situated. So they’ll send out a tank to shut it down. But we didn’t have any alternative positions. So we had to stay there, which was a bad idea. The tank came. The grenade hit the base of the little earthwork in front of the machine-gun. That threw it far up into the air. At the same time a fragment of twisted metal soar passed us, right above our heads. If the pit had been just a little less deep, it would have been an extremely effective decapitation. But the gun was destroyed – spring box was knocked off, the handles blown to bits, and the barrel knocked off at the middle… Unfortunately, most of the company’s machine-guns had faced more or less the same destiny. While we remained unharmed in our pit, we had sustained heavy losses. By the evening, the breakthrough seemed inevitable. We had to gather our people. We had to fight with the equipment we had. But we had a shortage of ammo and a shortage of grenades. We advanced, sixty men, in a desperate attempt to try to drive back the wave coming towards us; mostly Germans and Moroccans, from what we could make out. You would recognize the shape of the helmets. That’s when Krister Reuterswärd got hit in the chest. It might have been a dumdum. The entry hole was small. But the bullet passed out through his spine, which was totally blown to pieces. He died instantly. That was the first loss in our little group, and it reduced the group by 25 percent. We were relieved the next morning. We rested for a few days on the second line. There were so many new Scandinavians that we got to form our own platoon, with one Danish and one Swedish machine-gun crew. You became a veteran quickly there. Since I spoke some German, and could communicate with the Staff, I was suddenly made Platoon Commander. We returned to the first line. In March we traveled to the failing frontline at Guadalajara . But we didn’t get there until after it had been broken through. We had stopped to rest. But suddenly we had to form a line where we were. Most of the terrain was entirely open with some woods to one side, and at night they sent out a working patrol, to dig trenches. To not have to do the digging ourselves was like luxury. We had an ammo-wagon with us, but the Italians managed to hit it bulls-eye, so it rattled away all night long. We didn’t have much use for it. We had some hand grenades and, to a certain extent, some anti-tank ammo, but my group didn’t get any of that. Helmer Hansson, our greatest asset, wasn’t with us. He had been wounded in some way. And since we had practically no infantry training, we hardly knew what to do there. So all you could do was lay there, hold them off with whatever you could. Heavy fire from some big grenade launchers totally destroyed the terrain around us. But we held out for… I think it was three whole days. Then the Italians noticed that we had big holes on the flanks. They could move in and get us from behind. And we had no artillery of our own. We had two tanks hidden in the woods, but they were just there as a final reserve. Another drawback, was that we were on lower ground than the Italians.”
During these March days in 1937, the Edgar Andre Battalion suffered heavy losses. The Scandinavian Company in Thälmann, that had been so badly bruised at Jarama, made it fairly well on the other hand. Sixten Rogeby writes about the sights he saw in his “Memories from the Spanish Front”. There you find a depiction of when Bruno Franzen was wounded. It took place the second day at Guadalajara:
“I have just finished a fruitless begging raid to the other groups, in a last attempt to find some anti-tank ammo, when I see the first grenades hit just on the edge of the forest, and rush over. The Fascists have realized our dilemma, lined up a row of tanks on the road and shot easily straight into our pits. As through a daze, I hear Thunström’s lament: “My God, the whole machine-gun is shot to hell”, and reach him in only three giant leaps. The pit is a terrible sight. The grenade hit the machine-gun straight on, ripping off the mechanism and most of Bruno’s hands, as he was holding the handles. The second gunner, Karl Dahlström, has been turned into an indefinable mass, of which you recognize no more than his thin face and part of a hand, still holding on to what used to be the ammunition belt. Something starts moving and groaning in the pile – it’s Bruno, waking up. He pokes, confused, in what’s left of his mate, trying to wake him. With a little trouble, I manage to get him on his feet, and the two Swedish sanitarians trip towards us over tree-stumps and grenade-holes to help him. He looks terrible… the blood is running down his face and pumping out of the remains of his hands – big, strong and calloused just a few moments earlier. But he walks on his own, with almost no help at all, over to the sanitary pit, lays down calmly, and lets them bandage him as well as they can, considering the circumstances.”
The blood transfusions are what saved Bruno Franzen’s life. But one of his hands had been ripped off, and the other mutilated. One of his eyes was gone and his ear-drums were blown out. After Bruno received first aid and had been sent back, his comrades retreated to a reserve position with the only remaining machine-gun in the entire platoon. Sixten Rogeby tells the story:
”I tried to get the men out of the dangerous pits that had been dug there. They would dig them under trees, to hide from the planes. But some of them didn’t want to move. Some Spanish brothers, I think their names were Caravaca – thought they had found a good pit, the empty sanity pit. The projectile from a grenade launcher exploded in the tree above the pit, sending every splinter from it straight down. One of them survived. We gathered him up in a blanket and carried him to the bandaging place of the First Company. His right arm had been torn off, one splinter had punctured a lung, one had ripped open his belly, one had made a nasty head wound, one had gone through his left thigh and two through his right foot.”
Sixten talks about the Company’s Commanding Officer. A Berliner everyone called Emil.
“I don’t know his real name. But he was the greatest guy, the greatest old man. Well, that’s what he was to us, seeing as he was around forty years old, grumpy most of the time. But at the front… there you need people who know their job. And he did.”
In his book, Sixten has written one scene where Emil holds the main roll. It’s a festive sight, amongst all the brutalities:
“For a long time we’re not left alone. The damned line of tanks up on the road starts filling the forest with shrapnel and noise, but now Emil loses his patience, runs over to our tanks and half begs, half forces one of them into action. We’re very careful of them, but now we have no choice. The sight is fantastic. Our Commanding Officer hardly looks like an officer at all, in his dirty, deformed coat, with the ridiculous hat on his head. He stands tall on the tank, shouting his orders at the driver, with shrapnel flying all around him. The first shot hits too far away. Emil goes mad with rage.
- Damned saboteur, you damn hillbilly… haven’t you ever seen a cannon before? Well shoot, you blubbering idiot!!! Bulls-eye! Emil goes mad again, but for the opposite reason this time. “Ombri, beloved ombri… ona mas… bueno… bueno!”
Not far enough. In an instant he changes temper again, showering the unfortunate Spaniard in the worst verbal abuse of five different languages imaginable… Another bulls-eye! Emil has lost every sense of civilized behavior, dancing a wild war-dance up on the roof, while one ball of fire after the other points out the idiocy of the Italian boldness. No less than five tanks and an ammo-wagon are turned into piles of smoldering rubble in just a few minutes. That night we cheered for Emil, in ether cognac or black wine, and never before has a Company Commander been so celebrated in such an unconventional way…"
“The next day,” says Sixten, “we were attacked from behind. The Italians had broken through the break to the right of the Battalion. So all we could do was form a new line towards them. But we hadn’t dug trenches. It was an easy time getting us out of the way. We had to retreat, and we all thought that it was all over… You get those kinds of thoughts easily when there’s a break-through and you can’t see more than five hundred meters, sometimes up to a kilometer or so, of the front. You imagine there are innumerable troops in front of you, but none behind you.
- We’re the only ones who exist, you think. Since they broke through at our place, it’s over. We never would have thought there was a second line behind us. The First Company was down to some seventy men, the Second and Third down to some thirty. In my section, there were two of us left. The Company Commander had been killed by a dumdum to his head. So we moved backwards, those of us who could move. I tried to gather up abandoned weapons – a light machine-gun, two rifles and three heavy hand grenades. Then I felt a blow to my hip. A bullet had gone clean through, just a few decimeters in from the widest part of my body. But it didn’t break any bones. If it had smashed my pelvis, I couldn’t have walked today. I could walk, barely. After a while I had to drop the grenades, then the rifles. It was too heavy, carrying it all. I saw a big German walking there. That’s the picture I remember the most clearly. He wasn’t carrying anything, which I thought was wrong. You should make use of everything you can. So I asked him if he couldn’t help carry something. Then he lifted his shirt, and I saw the blood pulsating from a hole in his chest. Someone else took care of the machine-gun. Some Spaniards gave me a hand, so I could limp on. Then suddenly we saw the second line. It was there, after all. Fresh recruits from the Interbrigades lay ready to fight, well equipped, and let us through. They were the ones who forced the Italians back.”
Sixten was given medical assistance at a hospital. Then he was sent to the convalescent home in Benicasim, which was quite a paradise for most of the sick recruits. But sometime towards the end of April he was back in Albacete . The armory, the workshop there, had good use for a Swedish weapon smith. At the same time, though, they started picking out volunteers for an anti-tank company. The Russian anti-tank cannons had come, brand new, model of 1936.
“It was an absolutely monstrous weapon”, says Sixten Rogeby. “If they’d been equipped with a telescopic sight, you could have hit bulls-eye with the 45-millimetre grenade every single time, at no less than one hundred, one hundred fifty, even two hundred metres distance. So I figured it was worth another go. We came to the southern front for a while – and then to Brunete. I was in the Thirtieth Brigade then. Yeah, Conny Andersson was there too. The cannons had three kinds of ammo – one for the tanks, one that hit wide, against the infantry, and one normal grenade-kind to be used for example, against, machine-gun nests and trucks. We were going to free the University City in Madrid , where the Fascists had broken in. But we moved too slowly, since their Artillery was placed outside the city. According to what I heard later, we lost six hours there. Franco had time to pull together reinforcements. We were assailed hard by haubitses that would tear up pits in the ground, three to four meters wide and deep. But as long as you weren’t right where the grenades hit, there wasn’t any real danger. There wasn’t much shrapnel. They were just for breakthrough. But they messed up the terrain something terrible. There weren’t many casualties, and we could pull the cannon back with us, when it proved that we were, once again, running the risk of getting closed in from the flanks, and therefore couldn’t hold the line.”
After the battle of Brunete Sixten went home on leave. On leave to do some work. He had sent contributions to the Worker’s Paper in Göteborg. Now he was going to work on something bigger about his experience in Spain. He had been encouraged to write a brochure about the war, which grew into an entire book. And he was out speaking at Spain-meetings. He traveled back down to Spain again, but this time as a journalist, writing articles for the paper and visiting his comrades on the front, whenever there was any possibility to get there.
After returning to Sweden in 1938 he worked a while for the newspaper Ny Dag (New Day). During the Autumn of 1939 he was called home for emergency service. He was sent from Skeppsholmen to the destroyer Hugin and was – after a break of nine years – once again a weapon smith in the Swedish Navy.
“On the destroyer I met a boy whom I had got to know in the beginning of the thirties. He had taken his Higher School Certificate by correspondence. See, before I was fired from Skeppsholmen, I had begun studying at Hermods; English, German and Math. But my education was stopped when I was forced to leave the service in ’31. Then I had seen this boy at a Nazi meeting, where he was the standard bearer. Now I recognized him. He was an organized National Socialist, a secretary for The Swedish. And here we met on Hugin. This was during the days of the German-Soviet Pact. He had gone through the War Academy, and become a Second Lieutenant. Later he blabbed to the Germans about which Norwegian ships were stationed along the west coast. When the Germans were given the information they could easily board the Norwegian ships as soon as they left the harbor. He was arrested, given three years. But before that, he had the full confidence of the Swedish Defense. That’s how well they would treat Nazis. Communists on the other hand…”
I heard you met Nordahl Grieg in Barcelona .
“Yeah, a great huge blond guy. He looked down upon us shorter boys, who had been out getting something done… looked down upon us with some respect… No that’s all wrong. You can’t say like that. Nordahl Grieg had no respect for anyone, but he could express an appreciation and… it’s hard to explain. I was walking around in Barcelona in an old, torn uniform, and it was raining. I was soaked. So he let me borrow his woolen sweater. It came down to his waist, but down to my knees. I looked incredibly ridiculous. He spoke simply and friendly, and was on a higher spiritual level than most guys. I thought it was unfair that he was shot down over Berlin …”
Sixten says that’s what happened to lots of people he met, and liked: “They died long before their time.”
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