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Renegades: the men of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion: fighting for the ideal of the Republic, the Mac-Paps battle facism in Spain.

SEVENTY YEARS AGO, a civil war in Spain pitted its democratically elected, left-leaning government, backed by the Soviet Union, against a military uprising led by General Francisco Franco and supported, with arms and men, by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Almost 1,700 Canadians defied their own government and volunteered to fight on the side of the Spanish Republic. More than 400 died. In the following excerpt from Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War, author Michael Petrou tells the story of the final days of the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion.


The Ebro offensive in the summer of 1938 was a last-ditch attempt to reverse what now appeared to be an inevitable nationalist victory. The campaign was designed to smash through Franco's corridor to the sea and reunite the divided Republic. It was hoped that such an assault might reverse the nationalists' momentum and allow the Republic to survive until the expected wider European war against fascism broke out. With republican war capabilities already weakened, it was a large risk. But the Republic had its back against the wall, and its leaders felt compelled to gamble. The Ebro offensive was its final hand.

The attack began on a hundred-kilometre front around midnight on the night of July 24, 1938. Thousands of republican troops slipped into wooden and inflatable boats and silently rowed to the far banks of the Ebro River. Floating cork footbridges were also positioned to allow soldiers to race across, in single file. Crucially, republican tanks and heavy artillery would be stranded until stronger bridges could be built. The plan was to bypass heavily defended areas, instead infiltrating deep into nationalist territory as quickly as possible.

Soldiers from the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion crossed the river between the villages of Asco and Flix. They quickly overran the defences on the far bank, though already nationalist artillery was causing casualties. Lionel Edwards was badly wounded but would survive. The Mac-Paps advanced rapidly but warily through a landscape they had previously fled. They lost contact with their flanks and with the other battalions in the brigade, which were making similarly successful but cautious progress.

Nationalist resistance stiffened, just as the attacking internationals began to feel the effects of advancing without proper support. They had crossed the Ebro travelling light, hoping to overrun nationalist territory before Franco's forces could regroup. Now the element of surprise was gone, and the Canadians west of the Ebro River found themselves behind nationalist lines with dwindling rations and no support or reinforcements. Their advance took them to the unoccupied town of Corbera d'Ebre. One of the first Canadians into Corbera was Jim Higgins. As he was walking through the town's stony streets, a nationalist bomber flew overhead and unloaded its bombs on Corbera's water reservoir. The resulting flash flood almost swept a young Spanish boy to his death, but Higgins waded into the water and carried the bleeding child to the safety of a makeshift first-aid post. Higgins repeated the only words of Spanish he knew in an effort to calm the boy down. "Soy Canadiense," he said, I am Canadian, and, "Me llamo Jim." The rest of the Canadians moved into the city, where they found an overflowing nationalist food depot and feasted on tinned octopus. They then moved on as part of a much larger offensive involving all the battalions of the 15th International Brigade against the stronghold of Gandesa. Here, in numerous assaults on the rocky hills surrounding the town, the Ebro offensive was stopped. The men of the 15th International Brigade were subjected to murderous fire in positions that offered little shelter. After ten days, the survivors were pulled back to a reserve position. According to an August 10th report, they had lost 878 casualties in the campaign thus far, including 92 dead.


The International Brigades tried to regroup in rear positions, but they knew that any respite would be temporary. On August 15, the battalions of the 15th International Brigade were sent into the soaring, hot, and barren Sierra de Pandols in an attempt to hold advances made in the recent offensive. Brigade battalions took up positions on adjoining hilltops--the Canadians on Hill 609, the Americans to their right on Hill 666, the 24th Battalion to their left, and the British in immediate reserve. There was no water, and many of the men still had no blankets or shoes. Relentless shelling burned off what little vegetation had clung to the heights, leaving hillsides with no cover and no protection from the oppressive sun. Digging in was also impossible. All they could do was fill sandbags with pebbles and loose rocks and use these for protection, but even sandbags were in short supply. Shells sent rock splinters careening across the Mac-Pap positions, augmenting the explosions' deadly effects. The dead, which could not be properly buried, bloated and stank in the sun. Requests for disinfectant to keep down the smell went unanswered. At night the wounded were carried down the mountain and water was brought up.

Among the Canadians still holding on Hill 609 were Ivor "Tiny" Anderson and Joe Schoen, the two men who had stuck together since setting off for Spain from Toronto more than a year earlier. Anderson was supposed to stay behind the lines because his eyes were bad, but he had hitched a ride to the front after dropping off casualties at a hospital and attached himself to a unit on Hill 609. Schoen was happy to see the friend who had saved his life when the Ciudad de Barcelona was torpedoed, and the two joked about what they'd do after the war. Anderson believed that none of them would leave Spain alive.

"Yeah, we will," Schoen told him. "I'11 see you on Hastings Street, crippled and selling shoelaces."

"I'd rather die," Anderson said.

The next day a mortar blew off both of Anderson's legs. A runner was sent to find Schoen. Anderson meanwhile begged Henry Mack, a Finnish Canadian with the unit, to finish him off: Mack refused and sent for a stretcher. Anderson then asked Fred Kostyk, who was standing beside him in the trench, for his rifle: "He asks me: 'Give me my rifle.' I said, 'Come on, you're not going to ...' But he says, 'Give me my rifle!' So I figure, all right. So I gave him his rifle. So he pulls the trigger, and he almost hit another guy. You know, he missed himself and nearly hit another guy. But the next one he really put it up." Schoen arrived to find his friend dead. It was impossible to bury Anderson properly. They could only cover him with rocks.


The only redeeming feature of the Sierra de Pandols was that its barren and empty landscape offered no protection for attacking soldiers either. Moors who tried to push the internationals off the hills were beaten back with heavy losses. Their bodies littered the sierra slopes and rotted in the sun. After 11 days, the Mac-Paps were ordered to withdraw from the Sierra de Pandols. Its soldiers passed their Spanish replacements climbing the mountains as they descended, and the two groups gave each other a cheer in the darkness.

However, the 15th Brigade would be sent to the front twice more in the following weeks--both times in the Sierra de Cavalls cast of Gandesa. The Mac-Paps were deployed for about a week in early September before being pulled back once again to reserve positions. During a skirmish, members of the battalion broke and ran for the rear. "The commander of the 1st Company ... shot one of them and they went back to their positions," John Gates, the 15th Brigade commissar, noted in a terse report on the action.

Among the dead was 21-year-old Charles Bartolotta, a student from Hamilton. Bartolotta had spent much of the previous few months writing earnest and shyly heartfelt letters to a girl in Canada named Florence. "It all amounts to a beautiful sight, which I can't explain on paper," he wrote in a June letter from Marca, describing the surrounding mountains and pine forests. "All this the fascists will have to pass through if they try again to get to Barcelona." Bartolotta was killed when an anti-tank shell took off his head. Florence kept his letter for more than forty years.

Earlier that year, Bartolotta's brother, William, had written to Friends of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion's representative in Spain, Jack Taylor, begging him to send Charles home. "My mother's health has not been too good and she has been very worried all along. She is now getting to the point where she can hardly sleep at nights, or get him out of her mind," he wrote. "She is very upset and I know that if he stays in Spain much longer my mother will come to a breakdown."

Charles Bartolotta came within weeks of seeing both Florence and his mother again. On September 21, Spanish prime minister Juan Negrin stood before the League of Nations in Geneva and confirmed the rumour that had been circulating with increasing urgency for weeks among the Canadians and other foreigners in Spain. He pledged that all international volunteers in the Republic would be withdrawn from the front immediately. Negrin hoped his gesture would force Franco to likewise send home his German and Italian allies--or at least expose that the nationalist forces were dependent on foreigners. The International Brigades were also no longer the effective fighting force they once had been. They had suffered appalling casualties over the past two years, and their ranks were now filled with Spaniards. Sending them home was a gesture Negrin could afford to make, but it did not make a difference. The Germans and Italians remained in Spain.

Despite the best efforts of brigade command, word leaked back to the Canadians, Britons, and Americans in Spain, who had just been ordered to the front. "So every man knew that whatever he was going to be doing in the next few days, if he got through it, he would live--probably," the American Gerald Cook recalled years later. "An awful lot of guys got killed in those last few days."

The Mac-Paps were told to hold the lines for one more day. Then reinforcements would arrive, and they could go home. The morning began with a nationalist artillery barrage, followed by an attack against the entire section of front held by the International Brigades. The units flanking the Mac-Paps were forced back, leaving them exposed. They held their ground for a while but were the focus of a ferocious assault as squads of nationalists stormed their forward trenches under a volley of grenades.

Mac-Paps in the first line of trenches and foxholes struggled against their attackers and were overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Expecting capture or death, Henry Mack bellowed at his men to destroy their personal documents and retreat. In such close quarters, slow-loading rifles were almost useless; anyone with a sidearm was now firing madly and scrambling toward the battalion's second lilac as nationalist poured into their trenches. Those who reached this line alive found comparative safety. The soldiers here managed to defend their positions for the rest of the day--though they too lost men to nationalist planes, which flew over and bombed them. At one o'clock in the morning, the surviving members of the Mac-Paps who were still able to walk filed down from the hills. There were 35 of them on their feet.

From Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War, published by UBC Press in association with the Canadian War Museum. Copyright UBC Press 2008. All rights reserved. Please see wwww.ubcpress. ca/renegades for more information and ordering details.
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Title Annotation:SPANISH CIVIL WAR
Author:Petrou, Michael
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Article Type:Excerpt
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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