Authors: Jack Ludlow
Juan Luis emerged from the crowd to talk to this new arrival, and feeling he had the right, Cal went to join them, aware as he did so that the communist leader was looking around him with disdain, as
if he had descended to this place from a higher political plane, that underscored by the way he held his smoking hand, high, almost as an affectation, so it was level with his chin. Certainly there was no order in the contingent that filled the square; those who had not come to rib the new arrivals were lounging about in the shade.
‘Laporta,’ the communist leader said with a sharp nod; he obviously knew Juan Luis.
The name interested Cal, as had the guttural way he had pronounced the Spaniard’s name, as well as his appearance; was he German? As he began to converse it certainly seemed so, and it was also apparent he was passing on instructions. When he finished, Laporta turned to Cal and spoke in French.
‘Orders from Villabova. Instead of heading straight for Lérida we are to move forward along the southern fork up ahead.’ The flick of the finger, aimed at the communist, was disdainful. ‘Our German friend, Manfred Drecker, is to come with us, while the main road is to be left free for Villabova’s main force. He is sure Lérida is too big a nut for the insurgents to swallow, but we are to act as flank guards and make sure nothing comes at the main body from the south.’
Drecker was examining Cal as Laporta spoke, and in a seriously unfriendly way, not that such a thing bothered him; first impressions of this fellow, his unsmiling face and haughty demeanour, fag included, pointed to that being habitual. What troubled him was the difficulty presented by the addition of a third commander, one who would see to the needs of his own men first, added to the fact that he did not speak Spanish.
He had Florencia, and Laporta spoke French; this Drecker, judging by his look of incomprehension, did not, but he was German,
a language in which Cal was fluent. The potential for operational confusion was obvious.
‘I take it you are still in command?’
‘I have the most men,’ Laporta replied, though he looked away from Drecker as he added, ‘but I have never met a communist yet who would take orders from anyone but their own.’
‘When do we move?’
That brought on a long pause, before he spoke. ‘We will stay here today and move out at dawn.’
‘We are not ready,’ Laporta snapped.
‘I was just thinking the people of this place would be glad to see us go. Another day of feeding so many men will leave them to starve in the months to come.’
‘Let their God send them loaves and fishes.’
The sun was dipping now, throwing the base of the hill to the west into shadow. The route they had been ordered to take, unlike the main road, was seriously narrow, barely wide enough for a single vehicle. It ran right through a deep belt of pine trees which, from what Cal could see, hemmed the road in and formed an overhead canopy that cut out sunlight, a perfect place for an ambush if the Falangists and their Civil Guard allies were inclined to set one.
‘How deep is that forest?’
‘How would I know?’ Laporta replied, as if the question was inappropriate.
‘Surely you have a map that tells you?’
‘Map?’ Laporta laughed. ‘We are going west to Saragossa, who needs a map?’
haben Sie eine Karte, bitte
Drecker spun on his heel and shouted, which, after a few seconds, brought one of his men running, he having fetched the necessary from the cab of the lead truck. Cal’s hopes sank as soon as it was handed over, it being no more than a very basic road map, of the kind you might get in the UK from the Automobile Association, while at the same time he suppressed the desire to curse himself, not that he felt entirely guilty.
He had spent half the day saying to his boys that you must never leave anything to chance, which was precisely what he had done; the Barcelona military, now overthrown and everything in their barracks available to be used, had to have regional maps of the kind they needed, the sort any army used, showing features, elevations related to sea level, significant landmarks, watercourses and all the things a soldier needs to make their way through unfamiliar terrain.
A good map was like a safety blanket – with that, a compass and visibility, getting lost for a good map-reader was impossible and Cal had always prided himself on his ability in that area. No map was a prelude to a fog and he had just assumed Laporta would have what was required. He was about to ask if the Spaniard had a compass but, certain he would reply in the negative, he just left it. More worrying was Laporta’s next remark, that with them all being in trucks, and if they set off at first light, they might get to Lérida before nightfall.
‘Do you intend to just drive on without a reconnaissance?’ Cal asked, ‘through a forest?’
‘Why would I not?’
Cal looked around him, aware that many of Laporta’s lieutenants were once more within earshot. The absurdity of what he then asked did not escape him – they did not speak French – but it was the man’s face he was worried about and his inability to keep hidden his pride
when challenged. He waved a hand towards the entrance to the church and the darkened interior.
‘Can I talk to you in private?’
‘This is not?’
‘Not for what I want to say.’
Laporta did not look at Manfred Decker, but he did appear cautious if not downright suspicious. ‘Without our friend?’
Cal nodded, then sauntered off, leaving Laporta to decide how to follow him without causing Drecker offence. The communist, having finished one cigarette – it was the long Russian variety with a tube – immediately lit another.
have decided to take my athletes back to Barcelona.’ Seeing the Spaniard stiffen, he carried on before he could interrupt, struggling to keep any hint of anger out of his voice.
‘And I will tell you why; it is because I fear they will die to no purpose under your leadership. You intend to advance without knowing what is ahead – and I say you cannot just barge on as if there is no force opposing you and, even worse, you have no idea where they are.’
‘The Falangists do not frighten me and they are cowards.’
‘They are eighty strong and stiffened by Civil Guards.’
‘We are over five hundred, six now that Drecker has joined us.’
‘Advancing along a single-track road.’
‘One they have no idea we will take,’ Laporta snapped. ‘They will expect us to continue on the main road to Lérida.’
That was true, but to Cal it did not obviate the need to reconnoitre any road before they passed through.
‘If I were your enemy, I would be making preparations whichever route you took, and you would find, halfway through on either road, enough trees blocking it to make forward movement impossible.’
‘We have an armour-plated van.’
‘I have seen proper tanks destroyed by men with grenades.’
‘They would die trying.’
‘Perhaps, like you, they are prepared for that.’
‘Then we will fight and kill them.’
‘They may kill you.’
‘So, my men will avenge me.’
‘Will they? Other trees would then be felled behind them to block any retreat, and the enemy have a machine gun.’
‘They cannot kill us all.’
‘No, but they can kill many and then just disappear, leaving you to clear the road. Somewhere up ahead of that I would have already picked the next place to make you pay in blood for your progress.’
‘This is no more than a dream.’
‘Look, my friend, you are a good leader of your men, they respect you, but this is my profession. I don’t say there is an ambush waiting for us, only there might be and the proper course of action is to find out. Let us advance like soldiers and not a rabble.’
The silence was as long as the stare that accompanied it, before the Spaniard spoke. ‘I think we should rejoin Drecker or he will think we are plotting against him.’
‘Why would he think that?’
Laporta laughed out loud, albeit low and hoarse. ‘My friend, he is a communist. They are convinced everyone is plotting against them.’
‘And the road ahead?’ The nod was slow, but positive, so Cal asked, ‘Sentries?’
That killed off any humour and Laporta once more looked grim.
‘Look, if your men are going to behave like soldiers, that is the best place to start.’
The answer did not come immediately; it was the same as sitting on that wall outside the Ritz Hotel. The anarchist suspected he was out of his depth and in need of advice, but he was too proud to ask, yet hanging in the air was Cal’s threat to take himself and his men away.
‘Tonight, they will be my men,’ Laporta said, finally and with confidence.
Later on, when the time came to execute such a promise, it turned out to be a lot less simple, only solved after a noisy discussion, which seemed again to involve every one of the Barcelona anarchists who had an opinion and the conviction of their right to air it. Cal stayed well out of it, but he did observe that Laporta finally began to lay down the law, in essence to begin to act like a proper commander and not the chairman of some revolutionary committee.
Not that his orders were accepted with grace; it was a sullen bunch of anarchists who went out into the gathering gloom, while their leader continued to argue with his senior underlings as to whose job it was to ensure both that the necessary changes were made and who should be responsible.
Vince summed it up in one well-worn phrase. ‘Fred Karno’s Circus, guv.’
‘It’s a new tactic, Vince, you make so much noise arguing the toss you frighten away your enemy.’
* * *
Another salient fact was the way the atmosphere was noticeably changed by the arrival of the chain-smoking Drecker and his men; they kept themselves separate in a way that did not apply to the British contingent, made up of youngsters who had a sunny disposition on life, took the ribbing they had received earlier in good humour and generally showed their Spanish compatriots a comradely attitude.
The communists were not given to smiling at anyone, not even each other, seeming like a particularly committed set of monks in their sense of purpose. They had appropriated one corner of the square and they stayed there, being subjected, after eating, to what looked like lectures that had to be about politics, given by their squad leaders, and Cal, seeing Laporta was still with Drecker, wandered over to listen, though it was more the tone than the words, given he could not understand them; he could tell by the gestures it was all about purpose.
So intent were they that no attention was paid to him, which allowed him to look over their stacked equipment. With the eye of a professional he did not have to get too close to their rifles to recognise them as Mosin-Nagants, the standard rifle of the Russians since czarist times; bolt action and magazine fed, they were a pretty useful weapon.
Idling on, he walked behind their trucks, and with the rear flaps down he could see they had ample ammunition and what he thought were boxes of grenades, all with Cyrillic script lettering to denote their Soviet provenance. It was not too surprising that communists looked to Russia for their weaponry, but it was just another indication of the state of the nation; how easy it had been over the years for such a group as the PCE to smuggle in their own armoury.
Back out in the open, Cal, in reacting to a shout, was dragged
into having dinner with Drecker and Laporta – he half suspected the Spaniard could not abide that he should eat with the German alone. That was a sore trial; if the anarchist was given to an excess of pride in the company of his lieutenants, he was positively barbed by the new arrival. Not that he was alone in that. Both were eager to air their differences in a dialectical debate on competing principles, and the German bugger smoked incessantly, holding his cigarette in that affected manner.
What it came down to, as far as Cal could make out – not easy in a three-way language discussion – was the difference between the communist ideal of central control and the anarchist view, which was the precise opposite. For Juan Luis Laporta, centralism was an abomination and he made no attempt to keep hidden his repugnance of the notion, the idea that the leadership was not only always right, but that it had no need to explain itself to those who followed.
Listening to them argue, it was worrying how this would play out in action, and not only in the tripartite relaying of orders; Laporta, by dint of his numbers, was the leader, and if Cal Jardine was determined to educate him he must seek to do nothing to openly undermine his position in the process.
Less certain in that regard, and it was only an impression, was Drecker, a humourless prig who also had, as well as his beliefs, an air of arrogance recognisably German and of the most intolerant Prussian hue, which went against his rough Ruhr accent. He created the feeling that he might question every instruction given, which would be fatal in an engagement.
It was a relief to get away and meet up with Florencia, who had found an abandoned house into which she was eager to drag him, though he was obliged to keep her waiting while he checked on his
charges, making sure they were ready for the morning, pleased that they seemed eager to undertake the task outlined, for, given a chance to engage in some on-the-job basic training for the Olympians, there was not even a suggestion that any of the Spaniards should undertake the reconnaissance.
Rejoining Florencia, and she linking her arm with his as they began to move, Cal was very aware of Drecker. He was smoking another of his long cigarettes and watching them from the communist section of the square with what looked, in the torchlight, like narrowed eyes; so was Florencia and her response was typical.
‘He is like,’ she said, with a slight giggle, relishing the chance to use an idiom that Cal had applied to one of the Ritz receptionists, ‘a man with a broom up his arse, that is what you English say, yes?’
‘Not in polite company.’
‘Is he polite company?’
Taking a puff in the strange manner in which he smoked, Cal saw that the flaring cigarette end lit up the red star on his cap.
Vince had his boys kitted up and ready to move in the hour before dawn and they were out of the built-up area before the sky turned grey, where they waited till there was enough light to move. Nor did they just march out of the town and straight down the road to be taken by the main body, to the point at which it forked south. They moved at an angle, as previously lectured, in extended order, five staggered squads deep, well apart, weapons ready, that took them towards the treeline, now bathed in low sunlight.
Aware of the power of imagination and approaching a forest that rose before them, dark-green and menacing, the notion that this
might be something other than an exercise was not mentioned, but it was drummed in that coming out of a low sun and advancing on a forest edge illuminated by the same strong backlight created the best conditions for the approach. The sunlight rendered them indistinct, while any movement in the trees should be obvious.
Once in the shade, Cal explained what they must look for and where, outlining the same scenario as that with which he had regaled Laporta. ‘We will move on both sides of the roadway. There was rain the night before last, so look for disturbed ground at the edges, the same, as well as cuts, at the base of the bigger trees, wood chippings or sawdust, then wires leading to hidden explosives, but if you find any don’t touch.’
As he was talking Cal realised he was probably addressing a load of townies – there was not a country boy amongst them; the best he could hope for was the likes of Jock, from a small mining village.
‘Anybody keep pigeons?’
Two lads from Tyneside put up their hands, shipyard workers, he recalled. Even in what was close to the most depressed part of the country they still kept up their hobbies.
‘Well, Jack,’ Cal said, hoping he had the name right, ‘you know the noise a bird makes when disturbed, and that could signal an enemy moving if they fly towards you. Anything suspicious, it is hand up by the lead men and everyone else crouch down. Have your rifles at the ready but do not turn them inwards to the road. Remember who is on the other side – your own mates.’
‘What aboot the Spaniards, like, Mr Jardine?’ asked one of the Geordies.
‘They are coming behind us, when they have got themselves organised.’
‘Organised?’ came the heavily accented Geordie response. ‘Ha’way, man, they divn’t ken the meaning o’ the word.’
‘Right,’ Vince called, ‘let’s get moving and no more talking.’
You cannot blame young and inexperienced lads for being excitable and a lot of the time was spent hushing them up, but once more, in such a situation, you can observe those who take the whole thing seriously, not joking with each other, but keeping themselves alert to possible dangers, and they are the ones you want to give responsibility. When the chance presented itself, both the pros took the time to show individuals where to look for tree-felling charges, first the larger one that would blast open the trunk, then the secondary explosion which, going off a fraction later, would ensure the tree fell the right way towards the road.
Not that there were any, nor, for a long time, was there evidence that the men fleeing the town had come this way. It was one of the two lads on point, in this case Jock, holding up his hand and immediately crouching down, who first indicated some kind of threat, which led Cal and Vince to move forward from the position further to the rear where they were seeking to contain the exuberance of some of their charges – an inability to avoid whispered banter – all now silent and on their haunches. Once they joined the signaller they could see clearly the four large lengths of mature pine that lay across the road.
The first thing Cal looked for was the stumps from which they had been felled, even in the gloom of the deep forest a stark white, the angle of the face showing they had been brought down by axes, not explosives; not surprising, for that would have been heard in the town where they had bivouacked.
Given there had been no evidence of any laid charges through the parts they had already traversed it seemed unlikely they faced any threat from the rear, quite apart from the fact they were on foot; if there was a trap set it was for the motorised column, not those who could just leave the road and retreat through the trees.
‘Just a hold-up to help them get clear?’ Vince suggested.
‘Probably. They had no idea Laporta would stop.’
‘How do we check it out?’
The question implicit in that was about the rawness of their recruits and whether the possibility of real danger existed, not a thing you could ever be a hundred per cent sure about. For them to lead a recce into the depth of the trees carried a risk, but here again was a chance to engage in a practical exercise. If he had been up against a wholly professional foe, one who could not only conceal themselves but also stay still and hidden, it would have been out of the question. But he was not; even the Civil Guard would not have been trained in the requisite tactics for this kind of scenario.
‘Bring up the rifle squads one at a time.’
That took a while and was achieved in silence with finger and hand signals – each squad was now numbered – and if there had been any temptation to banter it was suppressed by their uncertainty about what was about to be asked of them, this while Jardine, just in case, ranged his eyes over the forest ahead looking for tiny signs of movement, a branch being twitched, a rifle muzzle jerking; even for highly trained troops it was hard for a large party of men to stay absolutely still. The more he looked, the more he was convinced there was no danger.