Shells and Bullets bring havoc to our lines
Deadly fire from an armoured train
James McCarthy, Evening Echo, (Cork)
Thursday, 14th September 1967- Instalment 5
Four more casualties in the Brigade
We moved forwards Ciempozuelos, but now with heavy hearts and faltering step after the deaths of our comrades. When we topped the next height we sighted the town a short distance ahead. It was being heavily shelled so we availed of any cover which afforded protection.
As we reached the suburbs we halted in the shelter of a row of houses having front gardens, some of us keeping close to the dwellings, others crouched on the roadside, beside the garden wall. These buildings received many direct hits at the back, as we sheltered in front and the roof tiles spilled out over our heads, while plaster and dust showered about us.
I was sheltering beside the front wall of a dwelling when plaster from the wall crashed near me, as a shell struck the back wall, causing the house to shudder. I thought the house was collapsing, so, to save myself, I sprinted the few yards to the outside wall and vaulted over it, with the intention of sheltering there.
I thought the house was collapsing so, to save myself, I sprinted the few yards to the roadside wall and vaulted over it, with the intentions of sheltering there. I landed on the back of a comrade who was sheltering beside the wall, sending him sprawling. Captain O’Sullivan, who was nearby, reprimanded me and asked where I was going. I answered that I thought the house was falling down and that I jumped to save myself.
Possibly he saw that I was shaken for he said gently: “Get back to your place, man, and pull yourself together.” I returned to my original shelter, ashamed of myself for having panicked so easily.
Gradually, under cover, we moved into the town, which all reached safely. We advanced to the town square, which was situated in the centre of the town. The square was surrounded by high walls, which afforded good protection from the shells which were still falling heavily. After a short delay in the square, the section to which I was attached, was detailed to occupy posts, at the railway station, on the east side of the town and some distance from it.
Here, we took over from Spanish troops and, with the station premises as a base, we proceeded to occupy a semicircle of outposts further out. The section, which comprised off six squads, was deployed at strategic points, commanding the railway approaches, a crossroads beyond the station and a valley, which separated the town from the Red lines.
Trains were not running through the station, as the railway entered enemy held territory about a mile south of the town. Wagon loads of sugar beet stood in the station since the previous autumn.
Lieutenant Tom Cahill, of Tipperary, had taken over command of our section, replacing the late Lt Hyde. He was a popular officer with all and remained with us until his promotion to the rank of captain, a month later. Cpl. Hoey, who was wounded, was replaced by a member of his squad, Peter Hand. Cpl. Sheehy, in whose squad I served, was raised to the rank of sergeant, replacing Sgt. Levey, who was upgraded.
Our meals were prepared in a field kitchen, set up in the town. All the staff were Irish and they did their best with the ingredients available, to provide us with appetising meals. The meals were taken to the front lines by the kitchen staff who travelled on foot in all weather. It was a difficult task, as some points lay a mile distant from the kitchens and there were difficult paths leading to some outposts. The coffee was not always piping hot on arrival but we appreciated that the cookhouse staff did their best.
The town and the lines of defence were shelled daily and it was providential that we suffered no casualties but some of the members had narrow escapes.
The churches and a monastery in the town were despoiled, with [one line missing] all their contents. The burned remains of vestments and altar cloths were to be found in the sanctuaries and sacristies. Broken Crucifixes, statues and pictures were strewn on the church floors and the altars were smashed.
The only place in the town that was spared severe damage was a mental hospital for women, which was under the care of a community of nuns, but the little church attached suffered some damage. Here crucifixes and statues showed damage, caused by bullets, when the religious objects were used as targets. The hammer and sickle, the emblems of Communism, were painted at every scene of destruction, like an official stamp on a document.
Out chaplain had no church in which to celebrate Mass; instead he had to use a sheltered open air enclosure, or a large room of the weather was inclement.
Only a limited number of those stationed in the town would be free to attend Mass because of military duties. It was only on the day that our rotation of duties placed us in the town that we had an opportunity of attending Mass.
Four weeks passed without any significant change in our routine.
On March 12, 1937, word was passed to all units that we were to launch an offensive on the river-front the following morning. We were visited at the posts during the day by our chaplain who heard each mans confession in preparation for the morrow. We prayed fervently that night and placed out destiny in God’s providence.
On the morning of the 13th, at dawn, we assembled in the town square, where we were issued with a day’s supply of tinned rations. A detachment of Moorish cavalry assembled there also, with their steeds prancing impatiently. At sunrise, the enemy laid down a heavy barrage of artillery fire on the town and its approaches. They had evidently noticed our movements or may have had prior knowledge of our intentions.
At an order, the cavalry left the square and advanced in full view of the enemy lines, towards the railway station. They were an impressive sight, long-robed figures on white steeds, riding towards the rising sun. The road leading towards the river passed under the railway near the station, here the railway embankment on both sides of the bridge was high, so the cavalry sheltered behind it until we arrived.
The brigade followed the cavalry down the road, with A Company leading and, as the units arrived at the railway, they sheltered from the shells, which were coming over in quick succession.
We followed the cavalry closely under the railway and at the double rushed through the crossroads, fanning out into battle formation on both sides of the road. As the shells screamed towards us we lay flat and each man covered his head and neck with a folded blanket, to protect himself from shrapnel as the shells exploded.
The cavalry waited until the brigade approached, then, crossing the canal, they headed towards the bridge which crossed the river and formed the only link between the valley and the enemy-held territory beyond.
The enemy artillery men intensified their fire and concentrated their guns on the stretch of road from the canal to the river. We got orders to move away form the road, as the shellfire was making our position dangerous, so we crept into the open fields.
Rain fell heavily as we sheltered, each man using one of his blankets as a cape when a shouted warning was passed down the lines to us, from the right. The alarm was caused by the sound of an armoured train, which was puffing up the line that lay between us and our base at Ciempozuelos. We sprang to arms and waited for orders; the request was passed down along that the command post be notified. The command post was located in a sandpit on the far side of the canal.
My officer, whose section was nearest to the bridge, despatched me with the message to the command post.
The train had now come into view as it steamed along the line towards Ciempozuelos. The railway, being on a higher level than the canal, gave the train crew a good position. The train halted opposite the brigade positions and opened fire with machineguns and trench mortars.
I was now on my way to the command post when the firing began and as bullets were clipping though the tree branches overhead I ran as fast as I could to the bridge. Before crossing, I crouched low, looking across to try to locate the sandpit where I had been told the command post was situated. The armoured train was clearly visible as I looked across the canal, but before I spotted the sandpit Major O’Sullivan, who was in command, called to me from the post. In a crouching posture I ran across the planks and on getting to the sandpit I jumped down to the shelter of the post and gave my message to the major. As I already knew he was aware of the presence of the train, but I had to deliver the message as ordered.
I returned, as I had gone, to find my comrades where they had been when I left still awaiting orders. The bullets were still being sprayed along the canal and were whizzing overhead as we lay low. The train crew possibly did not know our exact positions, so they fired indiscriminately, paying particular attention to points likely to be hiding places.
Shells were exploding in quick succession towards the centre of the brigade line, but none fell near where my section was.
As dusk approached and the train crew could no longer view their field of fire, they steamed back down the line, possibly well satisfied. They probably thought they had terrified us, as we did not reply to their fire.
As quietness spread over the valley again we were eager to know how all had fared. We had not long to wait, when bad news arrived and our stretcher-bearers were called to help the others in dealing with the causalities.
We learned there were a large number of causalities, most of them in our own company. One man was dead and about a dozen seriously wounded. Three of them died within a few days.
The causalities were carried on stretchers to the road and across the canal bridge to ambulances, which bore them to hospital at Grianon, a town behind the lines.
Those who died were Sergeant-Major Lee of Dublin and Volunteers McSweeney, Foley and Horan of Kerry. Sergeant-Major Lee was native of Offaly who served in Dublin during the War of Independence.
It was night when we got the order to return to Ciempozuelos, so in the semi-darkness, with rain still falling, we found our way to the road and after coring the canal bridge, we returned to the town.
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