Military History

Jakob Polukhina’s Combat Diary (Battle of Ebro, 1937)

Translated from Russian, the source can be found here.

September 1st

Arrived in the village of Conti: a dozen and a half shabby peasant houses, and a church in the center, apparently built during the reign of Tsar Gorokh. It was drizzling with rain…

We went into one of the houses, it was in terribly poor condition. In my opinion, it is even worse here than back in Russia. We decided to spend the night in the yard (the air in the house was very stale). We covered ourselves in two pieces of tarpaulin, backs pressed against one another. Sanchez gathered some wood chips and made a fire. The Spaniards can’t fight without coffee, and here, neither can we – so we put a battered kettle up to the improvised hearth.

As the smoke rose, memories immediately swept over me (as they always do, when the setting changes, or when I’m moving around) of my stepfather in Livny – I was set up in a secluded corner of a huge neglected park. Rain dripping from above, drops hitting the foliage, but unable to pass through the trees. Me, curled up close, fascinated by the licking flames, devouring thin branches and yellowed leaves…

But Sanchez couldn’t drink his coffee in peace. Captain Svintsov entered the courtyard. He gave our “unit” a task: To do some digging on the outskirts of the village, and look carefully for the possible approach of the Reds (as everyone here calls the Republicans and their supporters).

There are five people in our “unit” – Myself, Lieutenant Cheremushkin, Sergey Ivanov (a civilian), Sanchez, and von Dietrich (a German from Estonia). Cheremushkin and I have been through hard times in Russia (Myself, as part of the Kornilov regiment, and Cheremushkin in the ranks of Admiral Kolchak). Von Dietrich says he fought with Yudenich, but that is doubtful: He’s a bad shot, not disciplined, and in general, has his head in the clouds. Likely an adventurer. I don’t know much about Ivanov, says he graduated high school in 1917, fled with his parents to Crimea, was drawn to the army, but his father didn’t let him join. In November of 1920, he took a ship to Turkey, and lived in Constantinople, where he lost his mother and father (died of typhoid, as he says). With what money he had (made by selling his family pearls), he was able to get into Bulgaria illegally, and move from there to Prague, where he studied in one of the émigré institutions. In the early 1930s, in Paris, he kept busy working odd jobs, while closely following the lives of his compatriots and global events. Now he’s in Spain. He wants, as he says, to find himself. Which parts are true, and which are not – who knows… Sanchez – the only Spaniard among us, is a volunteer. His father – once the owner of a large estate – was brutally killed back in 1935, and raging peasants haunted his land. Sanchez himself was saved thanks to pure chance; what happened to his mother and three sisters, he does not know. (I once again remembered my neighbors in the Oryol province – the Bukins: in 1917, the peasants raised pitchforks against the father of the large family – and their land. A year later they heard that their twin daughters perished in the winter of 1918. The son left looking for bread, and never returned, and the mother lost her mind – she was unable to help her children.)

We took a position thirty meters from the last house. Dug trenches to shoot from, and, despite the continuing rain, remained still as stones. It was already evening. Sanchez assigned a lookout, Ivanov. In two hours, he would be switched out.

After all this, I went to sleep.

September 2nd

In the morning, it rained again. A cannonade could be heard in the distance, the artillery of the enemy. At ten o’clock, I sent Sanchez to the command post; perhaps he could get something to eat. He returned without food, but with Svintsov, who yelled at me for my waywardness: “Breakfast will be on time.”
– When will that be?

Svintsov turned and walked towards the village without answering.

We finished the last of our crackers, washed down with cold water. Sanchez promised us something more substantial for lunch (“from my countrymen”). I forgot to mention, but Sanchez is pretty well versed in Russian. He says he has a thirst for learning languages. Probably lies (or I may just be too pessimistic).

We didn’t end up with any breakfast, but did get lunch.

I’ll finish writing for now, the Reds have started shelling us and suppressing us with machine guns…

 

It’s eight o’clock. We were under a lead shower for five hours. It was difficult to raise one’s head. We haven’t suffered any losses. Sanchez, from time to time, rose out of his trench to send some choice curses towards the enemy. They responded with machine gun bursts. We have not fired back. Svintsov hasn’t appeared again. We had some sort of corn mush for dinner.

It’s dark now. I look at the sky and catch myself thinking: Why am I here? Why not in Paris? When I first read in the “Latest News” (an émigré publication from Paris, the chief editor of which – P. N. Milyukov – adhered to moderate left-wing views) about military clashes in Spain and about the position of General Franco, I was shaken awake, like from a deep sleep!

What we could not do in Sevastopol, perhaps from here on out, we could do in Spain, and not alone either. (I recall the French standing on the roads in Sevastopol, well fed and brazen, the refugees asking to take their children, if not them, on board and away from this hell, known as Russia, the French only grinning back, pretending not to understand. Maybe now, after a real threat from the East, from Soviet Russia, they have come to their senses?) I remember a conversation with General Pelikanov (he served as a doorman in a Parisian restaurant: “It is better to die with rifle in hand, just to send a few more comrades out into the world, than it is to rot here, among the peaceful restaurant lights. I am already old, and you, my dear, think about that place,” he waved his hand towards the West, “you would be much more useful there, than behind the wheel of your battered taxi cab”).

I spent my last night before leaving with Nastya. She gently whispered in my ear: “Stay”…

But I couldn’t…

September 3rd

It seems to be starting now. At nine in the morning Svintsov crawled back (although the Red gunfire has not been as overwhelming as yesterday). He at least thought to bring back with him a few cans of meat and three hundred rounds of ammunition.

At eleven o’clock (Svintsov had left by then) the Reds began shelling the village, some shells exploding near us, and flying over our trenches. I think I counted fifty-two, before I spat, and tried to switch over to more pleasant memories of Nastya. At eleven-thirty, machine-gun fire rang out, another minute, and it became clear how a smooth chain of rifles was moving from the distant ravines. The enemy was attacking. I gave the command to fire, without an order to stay under cover.

The Reds are getting closer and closer, individual figures can already be discerned, the enemy occasionally firing. They are not harming us, and in my opinion, do not even realize that we are waiting for them. Closer, closer… I give the command: “Shoot to kill.” I watch Dietrich and Sanchez, the ones closest to me, the former landing a hit almost without aiming, the latter carefully choosing targets, checking to see whether he has hit or not. I am shooting at their ammo-bearers, shooting selectively, carefully watching the advance of the oncoming chain. To our left and right, other “units” are firing.

The enemy could not withstand our fire, and retreated. They left five or six corpses on the field.

After all this, the battle is over.

At three o’clock, it started again. Shelling, machine-gun fire, another attack (this time the enemy infantry is protected by armored cars). I could see clearly how, after my shot, one of the Reds stumbled, and crashed to the ground. Good Lord, I am sorry, another death on my conscience.

This time around, the Reds are more aggressive, they do not stop, even despite the increased amount of lead coming from our side. Dietrich, seemingly realizing that this is no cake walk, seldom shoots, carefully aiming. Sanchez pulls the trigger even less often than before, but each shot more precise, more efficient.

The armored cars do not move toward us, but towards our neighbors. We have no more ammunition.

My troops wait until the enemy gets close enough, then begin throwing grenades. Risky boys. I don’t know if I could do the same.

At five o’clock, the enemy once again retreated, firing backwards and, apparently, sending curses our way. From six till eight, the reds battered our positions with light artillery fire and machine guns, but didn’t cause us any harm.

After all this, I went to sleep. I have been to busy being nervous today to feel hungry, but I had no more strength even to pick up a pot.

September 4th

The first thing I ate was a roast duck I dreamed about all night. The enemy is silent, and so are we. In this small respite, I want to write about our company, one of the many that make up our side.

There are 53 people in our company, 34 of them Russian, the rest are Spaniards, Portuguese, and Moroccan (the last five are intelligence). The commander – Staff Captain Vladislav Svintsov, undoubtedly the “sparrow” among us (eternally fearing for his life). The company is armed with rifles, pistols, and three machine guns. 90% of our soldiers and officers are not new to the military; they have been fighting for almost a year and a half.

I will finish writing now, the Reds seem to be moving again. I will continue in the evening.

 

It is ten in the evening. The second half of today has been awful. Attack from the enemy have been like waves, rolling one after another. Today, it was our turn to struggle against an armored car. It moved ahead of the infantry, battering our position almost incessantly. I missed the vehicle, throwing my only grenade to detonate beside it, but Sanchez hit its right side. The car stopped, tried to move again, but could not. The engine was apparently heavily damaged by our grenades. The hatches opened, and two men in black emerged from inside. We were fast. I almost didn’t need to aim, barely rising from the trench, shot at one of them, he fell. The second, not expecting this, hesitated, trying to pull his revolver out of its holster, but in vain. He was shot by both Sanchez and von Dietrich. The latter has done well. With cold blood, he clicks the bolt, a blade of grass in his mouth. At absolute peace.

But even the loss of two armored cars (the second being shot down by our neighbors to the left) did not stop the enemy, and the infantry stubbornly pressed onward, sparing no bullets. We have taken any losses, haven’t been shot, unlike those above ground. We simply didn’t notice the bullets flying above us, and as we went, we exchanged words. Our blood was boiling, all trembling with excitement, like small boys. Only at a distance of a hundred and fifty meters our enemy started to retreat hesitantly. But only after our bullets laid down about a dozen of them, the Reds started rushing away. At seven thirty (judging by my watch) the battle ended. Dietrich and I got close to the wrecked armored car, searched the dead, and took only ammunition, not touching any personal belongings (Moroccans would take them, as we all know). I was struck by the face of my kill’s corpse: Calm, as if asleep, a very young guy, maybe eighteen years old. Dietrich claims the one killed by me was not a Spaniard, most likely German. I didn’t argue against him (I didn’t utter a single word, for that matter). We heard rumors that foreigners were fighting on the side of the enemy (including our own – Russians, Ivanov spoke about Soviet soldiers and immigrants who took the side of the Reds; but I’ll believe it when I see it).

Sanchez, restless, after Dietrich and I returned, turned to the damaged car, and even climbed inside. He took from inside two bottles of wine, a basket of grapes, and a can of fish.

Quite the dinner, so it all turned out well.

At nine o’clock in the evening the Reds once again actively bombarded our trenches and suppressed us with machine gun fire, so we waited for an attack under cover of darkness, but the enemy did not dare to go out and fight again. We all slept.

September 5th

In the morning I learned that the enemy was still attacking our units – on the flanks. Not our company, but our neighbors, located twenty kilometers away. The attack was successful, they broke the Francoist defenses (which was held by recently mobilized peasants) and got two to three kilometers into our ranks. If we fail to stop them and retaliate, we will be in a lot of trouble. The Reds are not advancing towards our side, apparently waiting for news from the flanks. We receive only rifle and machine gun fire. Lead has not arrived for two days. We depleted our ammunition, and if it wasn’t for captured ammunition, we would be defending with only bayonets and the butts of our rifles.

We set to counting cartridges, fifty per rifle, not a lot. Two grenades left.Enough for only five to ten minutes of battle. I pray to God that the Reds do not advance. Clearly, my prayers are not heard, and the enemy attacks again. I ordered everyone not to fire until they come close. Take down at least as many as the numbers in our company. The distance between the advancing troops was three to five meters. They learned to fight! Let them come closer, closer, wait, wait, wait…

Fire!

A successful volley of five rifles. I saw four men fall into the dust, a fifth crouched, and, it seemed, was caught.

Once again.

Fire!

And the enemy lost yet another.

We did not have time for another volley, the Reds were already retreating. Covering fire from two armored cars couldn’t hurt us, the bullets were going too high.

At two o’clock, Svintsov finally appeared with two Portuguese fighters. They brought lunch. Our captain gave us some bad news. The enemy has successfully beaten our flanks. The Francoists, taking casualties, are retreating. If this continues, our company will end up in bags. We already have casualties, two dead and more than a dozen wounded.

At three o’clock in the afternoon, machine gun fire rang out from the enemy, and Svintsov wished us luck, heading in the direction of our neighbors.

This time, five armored cars rushed to attack, and more than a hundred infantrymen followed, shells flying over our heads. Cheremushkin crawled up to me. I forgot about his existence (he occupied an extreme flank, and Ivanov our left side). He reported a great number of Reds on his side. Wielding shovels, apparently preparing positions for artillery guns or tanks. I tried to calm him down; it was clear how frightened he was.

The armored cars stopped three hundred meters away, and hit, precisely, our position. Sanchez tried to hit their rifles through our viewing cracks, but, in my opinion, this would never work. The Red infantry laid down, tried to dig, but to no avail, as our (infrequent) shots prevented them from doing so. At four thirty, one of the Spaniards crawled in, delivering cartridges. Great timing! We had no more than a clip left per rifle.

At five forty-five, the enemy left us again, having treated us with the last of a series of mortar shells.

September 6th

Silence on our position all day. The enemy isn’t even bothering with the machine gun fire. But the story is much different on our flanks; apparently a fierce battle. I have the impression that our command is imposing long, defensive battles on the enemy, delaying him, while preparing a powerful offensive.

I left Ivanov on lookout, while myself with the rest went, under the cover of walls, to the nearest village house. Took turns resting. Cheremushkin ran to the command post, and returned half an hour later, bringing the “Renaissance” (and émigré publication from Paris; the editors held extreme right-wing views). It was an issue a week old, but we still read it cover to cover. It is striking that there are literary evenings, gambling anniversaries, etc. going on in the world. The issue also talks about the war, Some Orekhov is “corresponding from the front.” Of course, more bravado, but close to the truth. The author seems to be a supporter of General Franco.

September 7th

We are surrounded. In the village and nearby ravines are trapped more than two hundred of our men. We were ordered to surrender our company’s reconnaissance units (five Moroccans), and to occupy a plot on the other end of the village, in a broken-down – roofless – stone barn.

We took position at two o’clock in the afternoon. Created additional look-out holes in the wall overlooking the approach into the village. By these three holes are myself, Sanchez, and Cheremushkin. At the doorway is Dietrich, and at the end window, Ivanov. This position, I must say, is not very effective. One hit of a projectile is all it takes. But we don’t get to choose. We are waiting for the enemy, while Svintsov “shuffles” through our ranks. Portuguese, Russians, and Spaniards: sweeping from one side of the village to the other.

September 9th

All of yesterday and today, the enemy has been completely silent, apparently licking his wounds and preparing for another battle. I learned that during the flank attacks, we lost almost a whole battalion of infantry. Only twenty to thirty were killed, the rest ran to join the side of the enemy. Resisted only by Navarrets, the platoon fell completely, but not without any success. The Red losses have also been considerable. On our previous site, with only 7 in our ranks, I counted 23 corpses. Three burned armored vehicles.

A calm lunch and sleep. The enemy doesn’t bother us.

Only a single shot at nightfall.

September 10th

Nine PM. We have been fighting the Reds, attacking us from all sides, all day. We have our first wounded man. Dietrich was stung in his left hand. He remains with us. We haven’t spared cartridges, but we didn’t let the infantry get closer than two hundred meters.

I have no strength left to write.

September 11th

The fighting continues. The Reds have managed to press against us, knocking out our soldiers from all the beams and ravines, shooting through the only street in the village, so that we are forced to move only by crawling, and only at night. Dietrich’s wound has inflamed, Cheremushkin gave him his supply of alcohol – a little less than one hundred grams. But it is apparently too late, gangrene has already taken hold. Ivanov is terribly thin and blackened, Sanchez believes this is from overstraining himself, and from what he has experienced.

At two o’clock in the afternoon, the Reds launched a decisive strike on our positions: An infantry platoon, supported by a tank and two armored vehicles. We aimed at the infantry, who were laying down and crawling, but the tank pressed onwards without firing a single shot. Someone touched my shoulder. Dietrich, clearly with a temperature, his eyes feverishly gleaming, his right hand firmly squeezing his rifle.

“Captain, I have nothing to lose. My time is up.”

He spoke, almost in a whisper, and I could hardly understand him due to the noise of battle around us.

“Give me a grenade, give me one, please… Yes?”

I did not answer.

“Captain, I beg you!”

I handed him a grenade, and after a second thought took out another one.

Dietrich smiled gratefully and handed me a rifle, then emptied out of his pocket a dozen cartridges.

“That’s all I have left, three more in the chamber.”

He didn’t say another word. He was clearly uncomfortable. Taking both grenades in his right hand, Dietrich crawled across the shed to the door, jumped through a small gap, and disappeared from my sight. After reloading Dietrich’s rifle, I carefully began to observe the battlefield. Firstly, the advancement of the tank and armored vehicles (which were behind the tank, covering the prone infantry).

And here was Dietrich, clinging to the ground, crawling towards the enemy, trying to remain unnoticed. He moved fast enough, almost at grenade-throwing distance. But Dietrich was in no hurry, hiding in a small ditch left by a projectile, he waited for the tank’s approach. The Reds apparently did not notice him. The tank pressed onwards towards the ditch, were Dietrich was hiding (to the left of the tank). Now Dietrich rose, and leaning on his left, wounded arm, swung his right hand, and immediately, there was a great explosion: A grenade had landed on the tank’s engine. The tank, and a radius of around five to ten meters around it were covered in black smoke. And what of Dietrich? Through gaps in the smoke, I saw the Red infantry get up and rush towards the tank. We hit them with our rifles without aiming. A second explosion.

– Stop shooting.

A command from Svintsov.

We did not notice him among us. He saw everything.

But our rifles were silent for no more than three minutes; the Reds were attacking again. We fought back, all thinking of Dietrich. And another loss, a shriek, and Cheremushkin fell to my feet. Some three bullets (apparently from an armored car) had hit him.

We shot without stopping. Svintsov took Cheremushkin’s position, firing at the enemy. I observed from the corner of my eye how he shot: Without haste, as if savoring, rejoicing at every hit.

The Reds were fifteen meters from our shed.

– Grenades to battle!

Another command from our lead.

But we have no grenades. Our last, is thrown by Svintsov himself, under the enemy’s feet. The explosion clouds us in smoke. I shoot the last three rounds from my rifle. With no time to reload, I pull a revolver from a holster. Just in time. A Red figure appears in the doorway. I shoot. The soldier disappears. A second appears. I shoot again. A Red manages to jump over an opening in the wall; now he grabs Ivanov. Tom would have had a bad time, if Sanchez didn’t rush to help. A blow from his rifle’s butt finished off the Red. A shot rings out just above my ear. Svintsov shot another Red, one I hadn’t noticed.

– Out, quickly, or they’ll shoot us in here!

I am the first out. I crossed the threshold of the barn, straight towards a Red with his rifle at the ready. I give him two shots from the revolver. I pick up his rifle, good thing the bayonet is already fixed and cartridges are already loaded. Shouting wildly, I rush; forward, towards the center of the village, turning back only when I reach the trenches, dug in at the very center of the village. Following me is Svintsov. Sanchez flops to the bottom.

– Where is Ivanov?

Svintsov shook his head strangely (as it turned out, he was shell-shocked), Sanchez only waved his hand. I tried to rush back, but Sanchez grabbed me and pulled me back into the trench. Immediately afterwards, the parapet lit up with machine-gun fire. Bullets, like drops of rain, whipping up dust, pounded all around us, sand fountains shot up right before our eyes.

I did not calm down. I got up, raised my rifle, one of the attackers in my sights (they ran after us), a shot. Right on target, another shot, hit again. On the left, Sanchez’s rifle fired, our lead casings falling to the bottom of the trench.

Suddenly, the shooting subsides. The Reds don’t continue the attack, and instead take positions in the houses occupied during the battle.

September 12th

Yesterday, I fell asleep right in the trench. I don’t remember how. Woke up in the morning. Sanchez held out a piece of rust. Lead – half a circle of water. I learned that we are preparing a counterattack. Supposed to hit them at night till morning, from the 12th to the 13th. Of course, only if we resist today’s attacks from the Reds.

Now our positions are in the center of the village. On the front line – The village street. There are fifteen of us in the trench – Russians, Spaniards, and Portuguese. All black from smoke, eyes inflamed, hungry, dealing out cartridges, watching for the enemy. But the enemy is silent. His problems are plenty, too. We await twilight.

September 13th

Two o’clock in the afternoon. I am writing, sitting in my old position – a practically destroyed barn. The counterattack was successful. We are thirty-two men strong. At four o’clock in the morning, we rushed with bayonets without a word: we traversed the space towards the enemy. He did not expect us. We gored them without mercy, almost spending no ammunition. In the morning, we counted eighteen corpses in the shed alone. Sanchez believes the Reds lost at least fifty people that night (it is impossible to verify, since nobody has been cleaning out the corpses for several days).

I found Ivanov, or rather, his body. He ran after us, Red shot him in the back, then finished him off with a bayonet. Ivanov and Cheremushkin were buried by Sanchez and I in a large ditch, covering them with broken stones from above ground. We also found Dietrich. He’d blown himself up with the second grenade, to evade capture.

Our “unit” strengthened, as we gained three Spaniards.

September 14th

It all started again. Artillery shelling our positions, machine guns, then Reds rushing in to attack: Three tanks and an infantry company (cavalry on the flanks)…

September 15th

Yesterday never ended. We fought off countless attacks. By the end of the day, only two of us remained from our “unit” – myself and Sanchez. One of the Spaniards was killed, and two decided to join the enemy. One succeeded, the second was shot by Sanchez. The last attack could not be defeated, so we retreated to the center of the village, once again to a village street shared with the enemy. But we have no forces for a counterattack anymore. Our company has no more than eighty bayonets left. I have not seen Svintsov in a long time. Anatoly Fok has taken command. Everyone calls him “General”.

September 16th

Sanchez died today. Died, beating off another attack. I didn’t even have time to throw some straw his way, we were forced again to retreat. Our position is a chapel, here we moved all the wounded, and have taken a defensive position. There are thirty-four of us left.

The chapel is surrounded on all sides. There is no water, very few cartridges, almost no grenades. I’m afraid we will have to fight back with nothing but bayonets.

At 5 o’clock in the afternoon, the Reds opened heavy fire on the chapel with machine guns and rifles. After a half hour of shooting, we turned to attack. We let them get as close as possible, then hit them from all sides. The space around the chapel was covered with the corpses of enemy soldiers. I counted seventy-two dead.

September 17th

The wounded die. We are no longer waiting for help. I don’t remember when I last ate. Fok passed between the survivors, trying to support everyone still fighting.

The attack began at three o’clock in the afternoon. This time the Reds moved with caution, in small rushes, machine gunners not sparing cartridges. But the enemy suffered a setback. They are forced once again to retreat.

September 18th

The enemy is pulling up with tanks, preparing to fire directly…

… Here, the diary entry breaks. On the last page, another person’s handwriting reads in French “Killed”.

The tanks and Francoist infantry launched a counterattack on September 20th, when the Republican forces were exhausted, having spent all of their reserves.

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Jakob Polukhina’s Combat Diary (Battle of Ebro, 1937)”

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