The Battle of Jarama is both a pivotal moment in “549” and one of the bloodiest battles of the Spanish Civil War.
Jarama Valley was situated on a strategically crucial road near Madrid, which on 12th February 1937 was held by the Republican Army. The valley lay on the Republican’s last safe passage between Madrid and Valencia, a lifeline that General Franco was bent on cutting off. As Franco led his Nationalist army along the Jarama River towards the capital to fulfil this aim, the Republican Army began their offensive to stop him.
The International Brigades’ British Battalion fought for the Republican side and was made up of four companies: three infantry and one machine gun. The No. 2 Machine Gun Company was comprised of 120 men, two of which were George Watters and Jock Gilmour – two of our men in “549”.
Franco’s Nationalist army comprised 30,000 men. This figure dwarfed the Republican side and meant that they were outnumbered 3 to 1. The disparity in size was not the only way in which the Republican army were inferior. The soldiers received poor training, resulting in an incohesive unit that lacked proper equipment. On a fundamental level the Republicans were bound together by a common enemy - not a shared ideology which left them vulnerable to fracturing internally.
George and Jock were two Communist miners from Prestonpans, East Lothian and fighting alongside them at Jarama were an equally diverse array of characters:
Andrew Flannagan - a young Irish brick-layer; Frank Graham – a scholar hailing from Sunderland; Albert Charleswork – a metal polisher from Oldham; George Leeson – a London Underground worker; Sam Wild – a Mancunian Royal Navy veteran and George Bright – a sixty year old carpenter; to name a few.
These were just some of the men who made up the British Battalion and fought at Jarama Valley. On the first day of the battle, the No. 2 Machine Gun Company were ordered to take a position on high ground in order to provide covering fire for the other three companies down in the valley. Led by Harold Fry, the Company reached their destination via a thirty-foot vertical ascension. Once atop the plateau, the soldiers began to assemble their Maxim machine guns only to discover to their disbelief that the ammunition they had been given was incompatible, rendering the weapons unusable. For the majority of the first day, the No. 2 Machine Gun Company became virtually obsolete – and the worst was yet to come.
The battle raged on into a second day. When the Republicans counted their losses that morning the commander of the British Battalion, Tom Wintringham, estimated that three quarters of his men had lost their lives. As the day unfolded, the 2nd Company came under increasingly heavy fire. Seeing the damage this shellfire was doing to Fry and his men, Wintringham led a ‘fake’ charge to distract the Nationalist artillery. This move proved a tactical success – but only temporarily.
At 3pm that afternoon, a small section of the Nationalist troops began to mount an assault. Noticing this increase in action, the commander of No. 4 Company panicked and fled with his men, leaving a previously vital piece of protection to the Machine Gun Company exposed. This allowed the Nationalist troops to engulf Fry’s men and led to the capture of 29 soldiers and the deaths of countless others.
The Battle of Jarama is integral to the plot of “549”, as it leads to the death of Jock Gilmour and the eventual capture of George Watters. Unfolding in an olive grove, the battle was estimated as having casualties of up to 45,000 soldiers. One of those lost was the Irish poet Charles Donnelly who famously said, “even the olives were bleeding that day”.