Canadians in the Spanish Civil War: The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion

February 8, 2021 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: Spanish Civil WarCanadaInternational BrigadesMilitary History

Canadians in the Spanish Civil War: The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion

During the Spanish Civil War, Canadian volunteers fought against Franco’s Fascists. The Mac Paps saw combat in the heaviest fighting of the war.

After quickly capturing Flix and Asco, the battalion pushed inland toward Corbera. Lawrence Cane, an American volunteer and executive officer of the Mac Pap Machine-Gun Company, rode ahead with his men on some horses captured from the Fascists to reach the enemy supply depot. The rest of the Mac Paps followed, viewing evidence of a hasty enemy departure as they marched. Discarded equipment littered the roadside and civilians told the Internationals of the Fascist retreat. Reaching Corbera the next morning at dawn, the Mac Paps found the enemy had indeed gone—only Cane’s “cavalry” and civilians were there. Helping themselves to some much-needed equipment and food from the enemy depot, the Canadians left the rest for civilians to take.

Pushing on, the Mac Paps took their post in a two-brigade wide assault line described by Cane as “something like a scene from a war movie.” Intense enemy fire from the surrounding hills brought the Internationals to a halt just outside the town, although one Mac Pap patrol managed to reach the town’s stone marker. They could go no farther. For the next four days, the XV Brigade mounted charge after charge. While the British assaulted Hill 481, known as the Pimple, other battalions tried to take Gandesa. Each attack was shattered by furious Fascist air and artillery strikes. The Mac Paps in No. 2 Company became some of the first soldiers to witness the new and soon to be dreaded German 88mm gun in action; three Republican tanks passed through their position and were turned into blazing hulks.

The Mountain of the Moon

After 10 days of attacks, neither the town nor the Pimple had been taken, and the XV Brigade withdrew into reserve until August 15, when it was ordered to the Sierra de Pandols, the Mountains of the Moon. This was the worst position ever taken by the Mac Paps, a desolate area scarred by war, covered with bodies, and reeking of death. Cane recalled: “Most of the area was bare rocks. Some hard jack-pine and mountain scrub covering the crests had been burned off by bombs and shells. The whole piece was blackened, evil-looking and stunk chokingly of death since the dead could not be buried. The bodies were of both Republican and Fascist dead, and we had to drag and carry them back to the firing position where they lay in stinking, wormy and fly-ridden piles all the time we were there. It was impossible to dig in, and gun positions were prepared by painstakingly filling sandbags with rocks and chips. There was no water. The only route into our positions was a precarious mountain trail up the face of a cliff that dropped into a frightening ravine. All we did in the Pandols was endure and hold.”

The Canadians were on Hill 609, with the Lincolns to the right on Hill 666, the 24th Battalion beyond the Lincolns, and the British in reserve. For the next 10 days, the XV Brigade reeled under the heaviest enemy mortar and artillery barrage of the war, which reduced the Mac Paps to half strength and killed two company commanders. Relieved by a Spanish battalion on August 26, the Mac Paps left the line amid rumors that the Internationals were about to be sent home.

“I was Beginning to Think They’d Never Get Me.”

Instead of going home, the Mac Paps went back into line east of Corbera in the Sierra de Caballs on September 4. They were now commanded by Gunnar Ebb, after Smith was wounded on his way to the Mac Pap position on Hill 565. The Canadians forced a salient in the enemy line on the 10th before going back into reserve until the 22nd, when they returned to the same area. The previous day, Republican Prime Minister Juan Negrin had addressed the League of Nations and called for the withdrawal of the International Brigades from Spain “in order to eliminate all pretexts and possible doubts about the genuinely national character of the cause for which the Republican Army is fighting.” Brigade members heard the news the morning of the 22nd; they were told all they had to do was to survive one more day. For many, it would prove to be one day too many.

At 9 am, the Fascists launched an attack along the entire brigade front after a two-hour barrage. By the afternoon, the XI Brigade on the left had pulled back, and the British and Lincolns had abandoned their hills. The Mac Paps were the only unit to remain in position, and they were furiously attacked. Enemy soldiers swarmed over their trench lines and engaged them in savage hand-to-hand fighting. A second line of riflemen had been set up in the rear, and with the Mac Pap position being overrun fast, there was little to do except make a dash for safety.

Cane passed around his last cigarettes to his men before they all ran for safety with guns blazing. The second line managed to hold, some of the men even mounting a counterattack, but it was repeatedly bombed by three squadrons of enemy aircraft. During one strike, American Mac Pap Archie Kessner was killed. He had fought through the entire war and may well have been the last American killed in Spain. His final words were, “I was beginning to think they’d never get me.” The next morning, 35 Mac Paps marched down from the hills and out of the war for good.

Returning Home in Defeat

After a tremendous farewell parade in Barcelona on October 29, the Canadian volunteers faced a long journey home. Although the government viewed them with hostility, thousands of Canadians greeted them as heroes when they returned. On February 5, 1939, the largest group of them, 272 men led by Edward Smith, was greeted by 10,000 people in Toronto. After Smith addressed the crowd gathered at Union Station, Methodist social reformer Salem Bland spoke to the volunteers, saying, “Canada didn’t understand at first what you were doing, but understands now, and as time goes by, you will have more friends, more honor, because you have done one of the most gallant things in history.”

Of the 1,600 Canadians estimated to have volunteered for Spain, nearly half found their graves there. During the conflict, the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion was recognized as one of the best-trained and hardest-fighting battalions in the five International Brigades. The heroism and fighting ability of the Mac Paps cannot be denied, regardless of one’s politics. History has vindicated them. The soldiers of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion who froze in the icy winds of Teruel, charged headlong onto the murderous plain before Fuentes de Ebro, lay beneath Fascist artillery barrages surrounded by the stench of death in the Mountains of the Moon, and counterattacked in the Caballs when they knew full well that the war would be over for them within hours, left behind a timeless legacy of valor and constancy. Better than most, they realized that the menacing specter of fascism had to be fought and stopped. Had the governments of the Western democracies seen the writing on the wall as clearly as the Mac Paps and the other Internationals did and dealt with Hitler and Mussolini in 1936, the catastrophe about to befall the world only months after the Spanish Republic went down to defeat in 1939 might have been averted, and millions of innocent lives might have been saved. Tragically, it was not to be.

This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons