GUERRILLA-DIVERSIONARY UNIT By Dusan Popovic, Spanija, Volume 2, pp 332-338

November 9, 2023
The “Spanija” series translates selected autobiographical accounts by Yugoslavian and Montenegrin volunteers of their actions in the Spanish Civil War. Dr. Ray Hoff used Google translate from Croatian to English and he edited the selections.  As this is a machine translation, the idiomatic features of Croatian or Serbian and the translation of names and places are “best effort”.  The full five-volume collection was entitled:

“The Participants write Spanija 1936-1939: collection of memories of Yugoslav volunteers in the Spanish War”

It was assembled by Editor-in-Chief Cedo Kapor and published by the Initiative Committee of the Association of Spanish Fighters, The War History of our Peoples, Book 130, Military Publishing Institute, Belgrade, Yugoslavia, 1971, 5 volumes.


By Dusan Popovic, Spanija, Volume 2, pp 332-338

I arrived in Albacete from Paris in December 1936 with a group of Poles. There, at the Base of the International Brigades, I received the duty of weapons and ammunition handler. I remained in that position until June 1937, right before the Brunete offensive. In the beginning, we didn’t even have the most basic tools and parts for machine guns and rifles. We organized a workshop, where at first the machine guns were repaired and immediately sent to the brigades. Then came Russian weapons with which we armed the entire XVth brigade.

At that time, the brigades had a variety of weapons: some were Spanish, some were Russian, some were mixed. This created great difficulties for us in supplying the units with ammunition. It happened that a unit received ammunition that did not match its weapon. In the end, that was somehow put in order.

One day I went with Major Domingo Aungria to Murcia, where guerrilla units and other services belonging to these units were being formed. There I found two Yugoslavs from Canada: Tomo Čačić, who came there in March 1937[i], and Petar Vukelić, who also came from Canada. Tomo Čačić came from Moscow.2

In Murcia, I also found comrades Ivan Hariš, who came to Spain from Argentina, and Ljuba Ilić, who came from the officers’ school, sometime before the Brunete offensive. That’s how Tomo Čačić, Petar Vukelić, Ivan Hariš, Ljubo lilić and I found ourselves there, Yugoslavs, while the rest were mostly Spaniards. We were all novices for these tasks. We had to, at first from the commander to the last fighter, to learn and manage on your own because we didn’t have any textbooks or instructors. I was sent there to help them with technical work. My task was to help with the making of special “infernal machine” mines with a special activation mechanism, which were used to demolish railways, bridges and other buildings. They had to be trained in handling mines, so that they would not have accidents, as well as to make it impossible for the enemy to use them or to remove them easily and quickly, if he discovers them.

In the beginning, we did not have enough experience and working methods. Later, this improved considerably, but the enemy’s defense also improved. They would find our buried mines and remove them in time. Later, we made them so that they exploded immediately if the enemy tried to take them out. In order to find out if someone was approaching the railway for the purpose of detonation, the enemy sprayed lime along it. However, we got the better of him by carrying lime and repainting the place when we finished the work.

In the beginning there were few of us. When I came to Murcia, we had only one company, but in two years, until the end of the war, our number grew to around 800 people. At first, we did not belong to military units, but were under the command of Colonel Estrada, the head of the intelligence service of the Spanish Republican Army, as a special guerilla unit that had to operate in the enemy’s rear. Our unit was called the 22nd Special Battalion.

From time to time, we came into contact with our people in enemy territory, either for money, instructions, information and other things. We often had problems with the Republican army, which refused our support, and in some places military detachments refused to give us lodging, food, and the like. We were unknown to the lower military units, they only knew about us in the divisions. Later, when we showed excellent results, especially on the front near Belchite, relations changed. Our men have improved so much that they perfectly paralyzed the rear of the enemy, obtained valuable information from the other side of the front, and thus helped the Spanish Republican Army considerably.

Somewhere in January 1938, during the siege of Teruel, around 3,000 Franquista soldiers and their commander were cut off, a large number of whom retreated to the monastery of St. Teresa. At that time, Teruel was occupied, except for a few buildings. The monastery, whose walls were 3-4 meters thick, represented a very strong fortification. Even the special engineering units did not even partially manage to demolish its walls and enable the liquidation of the entrenched enemy. Then our 22nd Special Battalion was tasked to do it. We brought a large amount of first-class explosives and placed them in the holes dug in the foundation of the monastery. It was done day and night. Huge holes had to be dug and bags with explosives placed in each hole down in the basements.

When we activated the explosive charges, we did not hear an explosion, so we wondered what happened. However, that night enemy artillery continuously bombarded our forces that surrounded the monastery. Also, shots were fired from our side, so we did not hear the explosion, nor did we notice the flames that must have erupted from such a large amount of explosives.

And here’s what happened: the monastery had several cellars, and the explosion didn’t go up, but down in the cellars. In the morning, the enemy raised a white flag on the cracked walls. About 1,200 Franquistas left the monastery, together with the bishop and all dignitaries. Those who remained in the basements could not be removed. The explosion crushed them all.

The successes of the special battalion of Spanish guerrillas were not unnoticed, and the Supreme Command of the Spanish Republican Army formally recognized us as a unit of the 14th Corps by decree of February 1938. Then we were all decorated, and many received ranks. I didn’t have any rank until then. I was only a foreman, and then I was made a Lieutenant. Those who already had ranks got one more. All participants in that fight received, I think, 2,000-3,000 pesetas and 15 days of rest in Barcelona. Occupation of the monastery of St. Tereze was one of the biggest successes of our group.

When the front from Teruel towards the Ebro was divided, our units were also divided. Some remained in positions in Extremadura, among them Ivan Hariš. We were divided into companies. Hariš then commanded the 2nd Company, which was one of the most active. Čačić left us before Teruel. He went to the Russians, and then he was with Stefanovich in Albacete, while Hariš, Ljubo Ilić and I remained in the guerillas until the evacuation, that is, until we were all in Ripoll at the demobilization center.

In order to better understand the work, place and role of guerrilla units, I will try to illustrate this with our successful and unsuccessful actions. Before going into action, we usually rehearsed the role and tasks of almost every individual on an improvised terrain on the sand. On these reliefs, we added various colors to the objects that were important for the execution of the task (roads, bridges, railroads, populated areas and individual objects in them, forests, etc.). The group that had to perform the task first got to know the surroundings in detail. Then it is up to each individual to carry out his task explained on the relief: who will, when, from which side and how to approach the object, where the guards and other security are, whether the action will be carried out during the day or at night, and other things.

It happened that the group could not return by the same route. That’s why they got acquainted with the next task, with the procedure when you run out of food and the like. In order to prevent a group from submitting a report on the completed task even when it was only partially completed or not completed at all, various checks were undertaken. The leader of the group received a camera, which was used to record the results of the action, moments of explosions and demolition of mined objects (trains, bridges, etc.). Or, if this could not be done, upon their return, the participants came one by one to their boss and explained what each of them had done. By comparing all these statements, it was possible to establish whether and how the task was performed. Knowing about this check, everyone made sure to complete the task as well as possible.

One day near Belchite, guerrillas caught a courier and a cashier who were leaving the division by car. The treasurer carried about 300,000 pesetas to pay the soldiers and some archives. They ambushed the car and forced it to stop. Everything was done in silence. The cashier was terrified. A Spanish guerilla grabbed him and pulled him out of the car, which was then disabled.

By the way, we stopped and liquidated cars most often in this way. Ours would hang a wire with a device across the road, which bounces off if it makes contact, like on a mousetrap. The guerrillas would dress in Franquista’s uniforms and take up positions by the road to the left and right of the wire. The first truck that came across would be signaled to stop about 10 meters from the wire. If he didn’t stop, the wire would be activated and the truck would crash. Our goal was to end it all without shooting, to keep our presence in the utmost secrecy. Trucks stopped most often at our call. Then four would immediately approach from behind from two sides, with guns at the ready and disarm the crew. When other trucks came by and saw an overturned car on the road, they would stop to see what happened. Then ours would end up with them as with the first one. This is how very important enemy documents were obtained. The wire remained on the path with a rope, while we, in order to avoid pursuit, retreated in hidden directions.

Let me also mention how we leapfrogged each other when blowing up trains. In the beginning, we set the mines so that they disable the locomotive as soon as it comes across. Usually there would be a traffic jam for a day or two, during which time we managed to finish those escorting the train. Then the enemy tried to put old wagons loaded with stones in front of the locomotive, which caused a premature explosion – before when the locomotive with the main composition comes by. This was achieved by the fact that I, as a technical authority for making mines, added a wheel to the activation button, so that it turned every time the wagon hit the rails. Only at 10-15 teeth did I put a copper plate – a connection to the battery that ignited the mine when a locomotive came by.

We also established connections with our people in the enemy’s background. These were people very loyal to the Republic. They had places where they secretly left information. Our people would come and pick them up, and they would leave what we asked for: money, instructions, etc. Through them, we would get information about what was happening on the other side. Otherwise, we avoided contact with civilians, except for a person who was well known to our road leader and whom he knew where and how to find him. It happened that our people, out of ignorance, penetrated deep into enemy territory and exposed themselves to energetic pursuits by enemy organizations and units, which were alerted very quickly. I remember a case with a forester who had a house next to the forest. About two kilometers from his house, we attacked the train. Since the forester knew the terrain well, he ran to the fascists. However, we ran away and took shelter in his house. We found a fire and tired as we were, sat down to rest. Having taken the fascists out on the road after searching the surroundings, the forester returned home. We didn’t know he was a forester or that he was on patrol. However, as a precaution, we set up a guard around the house. It was dark, and it was raining, so the guard did not hear the forester’s footsteps. We spotted him when he was already at the door. We let him in. Those in the house, as soon as we noticed the unknown man, started to use their weapons. During the interrogation, we found that he was an enemy. Finally, he himself said: “You will not get out of here easily, because you are surrounded and will fall into our hands. You can do whatever you want with me.” Our men collected all his papers, liquidated him and continued their journey within an hour or two. If they had left him, it would have been difficult for them to get away.

Once, our whole group in Asturias was destroyed, not completing the task. From the famous miners (dynamiters), we got about 40 very brave people. With a little preparation, they were ready for the task. It was necessary to blow up a large culvert on the railway line, which was well guarded. Enemy patrols moved from one side and the other. While our men were waiting for the right moment under the culvert, a patrol with dogs came by and discovered them. It was dark. Not knowing that they were discovered, our men stayed where they were. Fascists approached from both sides and threw bombs. Of course, none survived. There were cases when our people stayed in the rear for a very long time. They acquired documents and legalized themselves. Only after about six months did they manage to transfer to our base.

We had casualties when carrying, filling and assembling these special mines. It took a lot of coolness to assemble them in the dark, at the place of use, the whole parts were carried separately. It was necessary to put an explosive in the compartment, then a lighter with a detonator and tie it all together with the battery.

Ljubo Ilić was also seriously wounded near Belchite. It was a group of about 15 people who went on a mission to enemy territory. One was carrying a device, another a box, the third an explosive. They had not yet crossed enemy territory when the dynamite exploded – nine of them were killed, while Ilić was seriously wounded in the left thigh and arm. It took him seven months while he was cured in the hospital in Barcelona.

We did not have specific positions or a front. In addition to diversionary actions, we also served well on the Ebro. All our companies were given the task of collecting those people who would separate from the unit in any way, and then they inserted them where necessary. The depth of penetration into the enemy’s territory depended on the objects that interested us (airfields, bridges, railroads connected to the front, etc.). The goal was to prevent enemy supply by destroying bridges and communications. We did not go to the cities held by Franco. This was done by other sections that had no connection with us. We were special background sabotage and destruction units.


Memories of Dušan Popović, taken from the tape that is kept in the archives of the Association of Spanish Fighters. With the use of other material, prepared for the press by Zivojin Ljubinković.

[i] Tomo Čačić, as a member of the Communist Party of Canada, after serving three years in prison, went to the Soviet Union and came to Spain from there. That’s why he is known to everyone as a Canadian. He was a party functionary in Canada and editor of the newspaper “Pravda.”