Today, Richard looks back at the 2017 ETC
Ok, so I pinched (and amended) the title from Laurie Lee, who let’s face it is a much better writer than me, but as the article is about going to Spain, fighting in a wargaming tournament, and visiting some iconic Spanish Civil War sites it seemed appropriate. Lee of course actually went to Spain to fight, so I make no claim to anything so courageous.
2017 was a Late War competition and as the venue was in Spain I took the opportunity to take a list based upon the Spanish Republican fighters who fought for the French Army whilst in exile. Having talked to a friend who was also attending who had a relative who fought on the Republican side during the Civil War we decided it would be a nice idea to visit a few Spanish Civil War sites whilst we were there, and one thing leading to another it also seemed like a good idea to write up an article on the whole thing, so here goes.
Salamanca is a beautiful old Castillian town which huddles around the magnificent Plaza Major, and the equally grandiose cathedral. Team Scotland chose to base ourselves in the centre of the city, and this proved to be an excellent decision as, for us, the social side of the ETC is as important as the gaming (hey we recognise our limitations 🙂 )
Salamanca isn’t the easiest place to get too in Spain, so many teams arrived a day early for the competition and used the extra day to visit some of the nearby historic sites. Team New Zealand, for example hired a car and drove out to Ciudad Rodrigo, a border fortress besieged by Wellington during the Peninsular War. Meanwhile, members of team England, Wales and Scotland visited a Peninsula site a bit closer to the city and spent a few hours walking across the Battlefield of Salamanca (or Los Arapiles as it’s known locally), scene of a crushing victory by Wellington as he drove the French northwards out of Spain (I’m sure many of us spent a bit of time trying to remember where we’d put our old Napoleonic armies).
The team plan was to use Greg’s US Infantry list as a tar pit army on the defensive to try and suck the life out of opposing tank or mechanized lists, Steve’s Hungarians and Martyns Light Self Propelled Artillery were our anti-infantry infantry lists, Roddy’s night attacking paras were designed to be pitted against enemy tank lists, Robin, known for his love of the offensive had Tankovy which we felt could be deployed against any list similar to my “swiss army knife” Spanish Republicans.
Game 1 – v Germany – Michael Willner – 29th Infantry Division (US) – Pincer – 0-1
This was something of a bloodbath; Michael had deployed two infantry platoons on the forward objective in a wood (one of 11 teams and one of 8, plus his HQ and Amtrac vehicle). and his two batteries of artillery (4 x 105mm and 2 x 155mm) along the board edge, whilst he deployed his Flail tanks in ambush.
I pushed forward down the side from which Michael’s reserves would arrive, hoping to catch them coming on, and moved to try and clear the wood with my infantry. I did manage to kill Michael’s Flail tanks and both his Anti Tank Gun Platoons, but took quite a few losses as well.
With half an hour to go, I had run out of infantry but was positioned with my recce and self-propelled mortars to take the objectives if I could root out Michael’s dwindling infantry; sadly for me despite making one of the platoons test 6 times and the other 5 times Michael was able to pass all his tests. Had one or the other platoon broke, his Company would have been on a Company test, and I would have been able to get at the objective.
A really fun, game against a great opponent
Game 2 – v Ireland – Brendan McGee – Peredovoye Otryad (Soviet) – Encounter – 0-0
Probably my favourite game of the weekend. Brendan started the game with his 10 x Matildas, 10 x Valentines, a platoon of 4 x SU122s and a mortar battery on board, with a further 4 x SU122s, 4 x SU100s, a tank rider platoon and Spetsnaz off the board. I responded with both the infantry platoons, my artillery and my anti-tank guns.
Not unexpectedly Brendan came at me from the start, His Valentines picking their way around a ruined village, his Matildas charging for the objective on my right and the SU’s trying to whittle down my guns. I lost a gun and the Matildas drove back my infantry outposts and I was hanging on a bit, but then my Tank Destroyers arrived and were able to break the Matildas whilst the Valentines had come to grief at the hands of bazooka teams and anti-tank guns hidden among the village.
Now it was my turn to press forward, and slowly I started to consume Brendan’s army. With 15 minutes to go, I had him whittled down to a Spetsnaz unit holding one objective and an SU122 unit holding the other. Brendan was taking Company tests, but again the dice gods weren’t with me as Brendan passed three Company tests as I ran out of Infantry to assault with.
Great game, real attack, counter attack stuff!
Game 3 – v Finland – Mikael Siirtola – Peredovoye Otryad (Soviet) – Breakthrough – 1-0
Another game against a Forward Detachment, this one was equipped with Sherman and Valentines (unlike Dermot’s), no artillery but two lots of 3 x SU100s and one of 3 x SU122, plus a infantry platoon and Spetsnaz.
This game involved a dice off to see which of the two “Always Attack” armies would attack; I was confident that if I was the attacker, with my spearhead moves, TDs and anti-tank elements I’d be able to clear Mikael off the objectives….of course, that meant I lost the dice roll and defended. To prevent Mikael infiltrating too far I dismounted my two spahi recce units and held a line across the board with my dismounted infantry.
Mikael came at me strongly, and had the better of the initial exchanges. Mikael was working along one board edge and in a couple of turns would have everything in place to launch a devastating 20+ tank assault onto the objective. So, realising I had to do something desperate, I launched a counter-attack at the rear of his column, and slowly chewed up his Spetsnaz and infantry, Su122s and a few Valentines. This desperate action cost me a platoon of infantry, however what it did do was distract Mikael from the objective, as he deflected units away from them to deal with the counter-attack. By the time he’d dealt with it I’d also broken his Valentines and been able to get my reserves (Self propelled mortars !) into cover by the objective, in addition to my depleted anti-tank platoon and company HQ.
So time ran out for Mikael before his remaining Shermans could clear me off the objective. Another really good game, to be fair to Mikael he wasn’t feeling very well and this probably affected him.
Plus he introduced me to Salmiakki. I thought I’d hate it, but how wrong I was.
Game 4 – v United Nations – Rifle Company 2nd Infantry (US) – Dust Up – 0-0
Dust up against an opponent with a large infantry army. The table for this game was dominated by a large walled industrial complex and my opponent, having won the set up dice roll, deployed with his army largely sheltered by this (2 x 11 team Infantry, 4 x 105mm, 4 x 155 mm and 4 x 3” AT guns). The walls as modeled were quite high, and when we discussed terrain I asked whether a bogging or skill test was appropriate and we agreed that it should be a bog test, the small number of gaps in the walls he covered with his guns.
My plan was to use an infantry platoon to hold my objective, race round to his arrival area with my other platoon, and two spahi platoons to kill his arriving reinforcements whilst using my artillery to try and attrite his on table forces, then to use my reinforcements to try and pick off one further platoon in the complex and force a company morale test. Attacking that amount of dug in veterans was just pointless.
Everything worked fine, as I killed off his reserves, and got myself in a position to lift gone to ground from his on table units and start to snipe them off, when we hit a bit of a snag. My opponent clearly believed that the walls around the complex blocked line of site (despite only needing bogging test to cross) and effectively he had deployed in what was to all intents and purposes a fort. My fault for not checking but this basically meant my plan was unworkable, I did assault into one of the buildings but his platoons were too large to effectively reduce and he skilfully interchanged them so the game petered out into a draw. My own fault for not checking properly.
Game 5 – v USA – Bryan Koches – Rifle Company 99th Division (US) – Hold the Line – 0-1
After four really good games, this was my least favorite; taking one for the team and attacking another large US infantry/artillery combination.
My opponent’s list was a good one with multiple platoons of tank destroyers and large infantry platoons on the objective. I got within 6 inches of one objective before the arriving reserves and weight of defensive fire stopped me and wiped me out.
Scenario wise it wasn’t the best matc-up for me but you occasionally have to take one for the team. Unlike other games which were fun and stress-free this wasn’t…
Game 6 – v South Africa – Emil Schnackenberg – Tank Squadron (British) – Cauldron – 1-0
Again a matchup where my auto attack special rule was overcome, this time by Emils possession of a breaching group. Emil’s list also included 8 x 25pdrs, 8 x 5.5in, two platoons of Churchills and a small recce platoon.
The Churchills breaching group and a battery of 25pdrs went down for Emil, whilst I went with my infantry, the anti-tank guns and again dismounted my Spahis to provide additional bazookas. Emil came at me as quickly as his Churchills would allow and with his first successful reserve roll brought on a unit of 5.5in guns, again I was hanging on by my fingertips, and decided that I couldn’t allow the artillery park to consolidate so launched an attack with my anti-tank platoon, hosing down the 5.5s in the open and getting into a position where I could assault the 25pdrs without to much return fire. I managed to clear them off, but my infantry was under considerable pressure from the Churchills and Emil was contesting both objectives, my first reserve roll brought on nothing, but I was able to kill a couple of Churchills with lucky side armour shots and in the next turn I was saved by my special rule allowing me to re-roll counterattacks to keep Emil off the objectives but my infantry was really getting whittled away. Fortunately, the second reserve roll brought on both my Tank Destroyers and Artillery and I was able to snipe off enough tanks and the Churchills to put them both on tests, and my artillery took out one of the breaching group Crabs.
Unfortunately for Emil both his Churchill platoons failed their morale, and this left him without anything that could really assault my very relieved infantry. On the next turn I mopped up his breaching group and HQ and Emil’s company broke. Another really good game where I was clinging on by my fingertips and was aided by an aggressive defence. Emil was also feeling under the weather so I suspect he probably came at me a lot less circumspectly than he would normally have done.
All in all, I had 5 really great games, and one that wasn’t so good, 2 wins, 2 draws and 2 losses. Of that a draw and a loss could have been wins if my opponent had failed one morale roll, so I was more than happy with the performance of ‘la Nueve’. The team also did me the honour of electing me Captain for the 2018 ETC in Zagreb (we elect a captain every year, which is not how everyone does it).
I had a couple of people speak to me about my choice of the army, pretty much they were all both interested and supportive, though one warned me against wearing my team shirt with a Republican flag on in the evening as Salamanca is a mostly conservative city!
The Civil War Experience
Which bring us on to the next piece. The events of the Spanish Civil War are a long time passed, they remain politically charged, most particularly in Spain, understandably. I have tried to write up the events at the sites we visited without the use of politically charged language. Those of you who know me will know that has not been easy!
On the Monday after the event, we picked up a hire car and set off across the top of Spain to visit a number of Civil War battlefields. First up, the old town of Belchite, in Zaragoza province of Aragon. Belchite was fought over during the Civil War twice, firstly in 1937 during the Republican Aragon Offensive, and then again during the Republican Retreats in 1938.
In 1939 at the end of the war the Franco regime ordered that the ruins should be maintained as a war memorial, and a new village of Belchite was built adjacent to the ruins. Some readers may be familiar with the ruins as they have featured in a number of films, most notably Terry Gilliam’s “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” and more recently in Guillermo Del Toros excellent “Pans Labyrinth”
In 1937 the Government decided upon a further offensive to forestall Rebel plans for an offensive in the North. It was thought that by capturing the airfields around Zaragoza, from which German, Italian and Rebel bomber squadrons were able to attack Barcelona. then offensive action by Rebel forces in the north would be forestalled and the air threat to Barcelona reduced.
The Army of the East, supported by two International Brigades the XIth and XVth (containing the American Lincoln Washington Battalion and the British Saklatava Battalion) was sent into the attack, approximately 80,000 strong. On August 24th 1937 (almost 80 years to the day before our visit), the Government offensive opened.
There was a limited success for the Northern and Central sections of the offensive, but in the South good progress was made; the British Battalion cleared the village of Quinto, and the Government forces were optimistic that motorised forces could be pushed along the road network toward Zaragoza.
However the town of Fuentes del Ebro could not be secured, despite the use of a number of BT5 tanks, and so the Government commander, Juan Modesto, switched the attack to Belchite to attempt to unhinge the rebel position and free up the road network.
On 1st September Republican artillery opened fire on the town and the assault was led by troops from the Lincoln Washington Battalion, supported by the XVth Brigades anti-tank battery who’s troops were mainly British volunteers who used their anti-tank guns to assist with the suppression of rebel pillboxes and machine gun positions. By the time of the assault the Trallero, the Rebel commander had realised the importance of the town and there were several thousand troops stationed in and around Belchite.
As you can see from the photos the town was left entirely in ruins, many of the building still show visible shell holes (such as the one visible halfway down the tower of the Iglesia de San Martin), mostly these are artillery rounds but also visible are smaller through and through holes from anti-tank rounds. The town fell on September 6th, but Government forces exhausted by the resistance at Fuentes and Belchite called off further offensive action and the offensive was ended on September 6th.
The unfortunate town was again to be the site of further fighting in 1938. Rebel forces, taking advantage of the weakened state of the Government army following the winter campaigns around Teruel, launched their Aragon Offensive on 7th March 1938. The Government front collapsed, units had still not been brought up to strength after the winter fighting and the actions of the Non-Intervention patrols at sea had limited Soviet supplies (given that the German and Italian Navies were part of the Non-Intervention patrols along with the Royal Navy, whilst at the same time German and Italian combat units were fighting with the rebels, gives some idea of the issues faced by the Spanish Government) and the Catalonian arms industry, which was under anarchist control, had singularly failed to meet production targets.
Belchite saw more heavy fighting, once again it was the Lincoln Washington Battalion that was engaged here, and the town was captured on March 10th. My friend believes his uncle, a machine gunner with the Lincolns was wounded here as the Lincolns sought to cover the retreating Government army.
The Rebel army supported by Luftwaffe air units of the Condor Legion and the Italian Black Arrows Division equipped with CV Tankettes advanced rapidly, held up only by sporadic Government resistance. On 16th March at Caspe, the 35th Division, comprising the XIth (mostly comprising German and Italian anti-fascist volunteers) and XVth International Brigades (now comprising the British, Lincoln, and Canadian (Mackenzine- Papineau) Battalions) and the Spanish 32 Mixed Brigade were ordered to hold the rebel offensive for as long as they could.
Using fortifications prepared in 1936 by the Catalan Government and facing three divisions of the rebel army, the Internationals were able to delay the advance for only 2 days; the XIth Brigade holding the bunker complex we visited were finally driven out by Italian troops using flamethrowers
We visited the trenches and machine gun positions still visible today on the hills above Caspe as we drove from Belchite toward the Ebro River following the path of the Government retreat.
After leaving Caspe, we headed up into the Terra Alta, the highlands of Catalonia through which the Ebro River runs. It was on the Ebro River that the rebel offensive was finally halted, having reached the sea at Vinaros, cutting off Barcelona from the rest of Government controlled Spain. At Gandesa on the Ebro on 3rd April 1938 the tired volunteers of the XVth Brigade, turned once again to cover the Government army retreat across the river. On 2nd April the Battalion Commander of the Lincolns, Robert Merriman, and a large number of other American volunteers were captured and executed by the pursuing rebels. Gandesa was captured by Italian forces on 3rd April and the last Government troops retreated across the Ebro
We stayed for the night in the hill village of La Fatarella (next to Cuatro Caminos), famous for it’s Templar gargoyles, for a night of contemplation, televised football and beer in the local hostelry. La Fatarella is a lovely village built like a fortress (as many of the Terra Alta villages are) with narrow streets, huddled around its church on a prominent ridge above the Ebro River
Thanks to some local contacts we’d managed to arrange for the excellent Battle of the Ebro museum at Fayon to be open for us to visit the next morning. I can’t recommend a visit here enough, run by volunteers, many of whom are also active in the local Spanish Civil War re-enactment group who re-enact the battle of the Ebro each year on the anniversary. Obviously, as a volunteer-run museum English is very much a secondary language, but even with my rudimentary Spanish, there is enough information to make any visit worthwhile.
As you can see there are plenty of exhibits, including Nataliya, a BA6 in full working order, and also Peggy a battle damaged Soviet Anti-Tank gun as used by the British Anti-Tank battery of the 35th Division, as well as their 88mm (which competes with Nataliya as being their prize exhibit)
Following the Aragon Offensive and the isolation of Barcelona things were not looking good for the Government. However the political situation in Europe was also looking decidedly unstable, the Sudeten Crisis was ongoing and, to some, it appeared that Europe would face a war between the fascist German – Italian Axis and a coalition of other nations led by Britain and France.
With this backdrop, the Republican command decided to launch an offensive designed to show the viability of the Republic, and it’s value as an ally in any upcoming anti-fascist struggle. Moreover, it was hoped that by attacking in Catalonia the rebel forces would be distracted away from the Government capital in Valencia.
On the night of 24th-25th July 1938, the Governments Army of the Ebro comprising four corps launched the Ebro Offensive. Whilst initially successful in some parts of the front, the offensive quickly ran into difficulties in others; Republican troops were quickly isolated in their bridgehead near Fayon (where the excellent museum is), and La Fatarella, site of our overnight stay, became the point of furthest penetration on that sector with fighting continuing in and around the village for the whole battle.
Spanish and International Brigade troops were, however, able to liberate Gandesa and the high ground around it, and on our last day we visited the summit of Hill 666, a key summit in the Sierra Pandols, with commanding views over the Ebro valley. Just how commanding it is can be seen in the photo taken at the Los Camposines memorial.
It was held at various times by members of the Lincoln- Washington Battalion and the British Battalion, both sides made repeated attacks and counter attacks across the sharp, steep-sided ridge that we climbed upon, and one cannot really contemplate how truly hideous that fighting must have been. Eventually, on 16th October, the Republicans were forced off the summits and this meant they could no longer hold Gandesa or the West bank of the Ebro.
Fighting as a rearguard the British Battalion was practically wiped out close to Los Camposines, but they enabled the remains of the 35th Division to retreat across the Ebro on 16th November. Withdrawn from the front lines, shortly afterwards the International Brigades were withdrawn completely from combat and left Spain in a vain attempt to encourage the withdrawal of German and Italian forces fighting with Franco.
Sadly the memorial to the Brigades on Hill 666 has been subjected to vandalism, but the ossuary at Los Camposines stands as a memorial to the dead of both sides, including my friend’s Uncle who fought with the Lincolns and died a long way from home somewhere between Belchite and Gandesa. The Ebro didn’t alter the course of the war, the Government eventually capitulated to the rebels and Franco remained in power until his death in November 1975
Whilst the Spanish Civil War remains a fairly inaccessible add on the Flames of War, I can say that the Ebro battlefield and ruins of Belchite are well worth a visit, after all the war was a precursor to the global conflict that followed shortly, and many of the weapons and tactics of the 39-45 conflict were tested under the Spanish sun.
“Comrades of the International Brigades! Political reasons, reasons of state, the good of that same cause for which you offered your blood with limitless generosity, send some of you back to your countries and some to forced exile. You can go with pride. You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of the solidarity and the universality of democracy. We will not forget you; and, when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves, entwined with the laurels of the Spanish Republic’s victory, come back! Come back to us and here you will find a homeland.“
– Dolores Ibarruri. 1st November 1938 at the disbanding of the International Brigades