FROM MONROYO TO SAN MATEO by Vojo Todorovich Lerer

December 28, 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.

Chris Brooks posted and provided links to volunteers.


Vojo Todorovich Lerer,

Spanija, Volume 3, pp224-230


At the beginning of February 1938, after completing the training in Casas Ibañez, we left for Chillon, a small town in Extremadura, as part of our newly formed 129th Brigade.

In a day and a night, with shorter and longer stays in tunnels and railway stations due to fascist aviation, we reached Almaden.

Lined up, we passed through the narrow streets of the city, which underground hides the richest mercury deposit in Europe. The locals came out to greet us. As always on such occasions, the children were the happiest, hanging around the column, staring at us, asking questions and walking with us. On the faces of the elders, we felt both joy and a spark of hope and concern over the bad turn of events, and some women in black wept, probably because our youth reminded them of their dead and alive on the fronts of Spain. The city remained behind us, and late in the afternoon, at the end of the march, on the near horizon we saw Chillon, a sprawling cluster of hard old houses on a glade. The next day we were classified into units of the 129th Brigade.

The “Daković” battalion embraced us. We were the voice of our kind with fresh news and impressions from Yugoslavia. The comrades were interested in everything, especially the echo of the righteous struggle of the people of Spain – and the struggle of our Party in the country. And we, newcomers, absorbed it. wonderful fighting camaraderie and that unforgettable atmosphere and color of Spain that we all love so much.

I had never experienced such and so much camaraderie before then. Excited and free as birds, we breathed with full lungs. Everything was interesting to us, new, fresh, big and beautiful: both our comrades and weapons with stamped hammer and sickle, and Spanish peasants in black linen clothes, white leggings and berets, and the beautiful land of Spain, and the languages of many nationalities in the brigade, and above all our great goal – the fight for the freedom of the people of Spain.

In the machine gun company of the “Duro Daković” battalion, I met many Yugoslav, Romanian, Spanish and other comrades. I will mention only a few that have remained engraved in my memory, which I always remember with special warmth because we were inseparable.

Aca Bogdanović, commander of the machine gun division, tall, generous and cheerful comrade, was one of those whom nature endowed with both physical and spiritual beauty. He sang beautifully. From the first handshake, he left an impression on me as if we had always been best and inseparable friends.

You could talk to Fadil Jahić, a carpenter, as honestly as you would with yourself. He was immediate, close and warm, just like the sounds of the guitar he played beautifully.

Zvonko Cerić, from the rebellious village of Husinj miners, a veterinary student, the tallest among us, seemed to have grown with the steel of his heavy machine gun, which he was extremely proud of. He had a soldier’s demeanor, always upright and self-confident, as if he was inviting us all to a competition whose machine gun would be better in battle.

Doko Kovačević, assistant marksman, student from Belgrade, one of the organizers of the Party at Belgrade University, tall, thin, with very pronounced eyebrows, he was very serious. The strength of his will and his determination were visible incongruity with his bent and fragile body.

Franjo Boner, a worker, a jovial man, was always ready for a joke. He left the impression of a man who, upon coming to Spain, broke all the restraints that had held him down for years, so unbridled joy burst out of him.

When I came to my machine gun section as an assistant gunner, Dimitrije Koturović1, the commander of our machine gun section, which numbered 9 fighters, squeezed my hand as if he were clamping a cutting tool on a lathe. A metal worker from Belgrade taught us how to handle quickly and use the “Maxim”.  We were counting the seconds it took to disassemble and reassemble the machine gun and eliminate jams, guarding it and caring for it like a good friend. Koturovic and other already experienced fighters told us about earlier battles, about wounded and dead comrades.

The brigade left Chillon for Castuera, where the short-term offensive of our forces in Extremadura had already begun. We were still in reserve when the order came that our brigade should be urgently transferred to the Aragon front, to the other end of Spain, where the enemy’s cutting offensive towards the Mediterranean Sea was to be held to prevent the penetration of fascists to the sea.

As soon as we arrived at the front near Alcañiz, near the town of Villafranca del Cid, directly behind the positions defended by the Spanish units, we experienced the baptism of fire of the fascist aviation bombarded us. The airstrike has passed. Koturović, Aca Bogdanović, Boner, Fadil Jahić and I were together. One of us suggested that we note down the addresses of our families. They may need it. After the war, whoever remains alive, let them stop by and say hello.

In that battle, only Zvonko Čerić’s division from our machine gun company was in position. Cerić shot 3,000 bullets that day; we all envied him.

During the night they loaded us into trucks and again urgently transferred us to another sector of the Aragon front. Our positions near the town of Monroyo, on the road itself, were excellent for defense. Our machine gun was mounted on an anti-aircraft carriage on a hill. At the crack of dawn, the fascist attack began. The earth suddenly trembled from artillery and mortar strikes and explosions, and the air seemed to boil from rifle and machine gun fire. Shrapnel exploded over our heads, from which smoke curled in various colors, which was used by the fascist artillery to correct fire. Our cover was good; the department had no losses. Morale was excellent. All fascist attacks were repelled.

Suddenly, in the haze, in the smoke gap from the explosions on our left wing, we noticed a larger column of soldiers slowly moving from the enemy positions towards our rear, with an unfurled flag at the head. From the sun, which hit our eyes through the torn curtain of smoke and dust, we could not make out either the army or the flag. We thought they were ours, that’s what we were told, but in fact it was the enemy that appeared on our left flank. It was already the final hour when the order to retreat came, the enemy was already beating us with strong flanking fire from both wings at close range. We barely got our machine gun off a vertical rock and made our way towards Poblete.

When the command “withdraw” was given, Aca Bogdanović protected the gap with his comrades. Pulling, “Maxim” was the last to retreat, but then he remembered that his party booklet was left in his backpack, in his position. The fascists were close. Aca pulled out his gun and headed for his backpack, because he could not leave his party card to fall into the hands of the fascists, which, as he said, would bite him for the rest of his life. He returned to his position and died near his party card.

Sergeant Sava Krkljuš, a leather worker, was an exemplary communist and comrade. We especially loved him because he was also much older than us. One machine gun burst cut his intestines. Fadil Jahić and Korošec, marksman and assistant of a machine gun section, carried him while he held his gut. When the fascists got so close that there was a danger that they would be captured alive, Sava asked his comrades to leave him and retreat. “Say hello to my brother Slavko and comrades”, “Long live the Party”, were the last words of Sava Krkljuš, and then the explosion of a hand grenade was heard.

While retreating, we encountered Marko Orešković. Behind one of the cisterns, he was firing from a “Dektarov” submachine gun.

After taking Monroyo, the enemy stopped, and we took up new positions near Pobleta before dark. It was April 1st. The next day, April 2nd, dawned sunny, clear and quiet. Around 6 o’clock in the afternoon, a fragment of an artillery shell seriously wounded Aleksa Demnievski, the commander of our battalion. Belgrade student Moishe Stefanović was also killed. In the position, deep trenches with machine gun platforms and shelters were carved into the stone, with the fact that the back wall of the entire position was straight, like a knife, cut into the high rock. We had a short meeting in the calm. Koturović said that the position must be maintained at all costs, the enemy must be stopped. His extraordinary composure and calm warm gaze instilled determination and confidence. We cleaned the machine gun and rifles, filled the magazines, and put the crates with ammunition in the niches. We waited. I looked in the notebook. The family of our Ace Bogdanović, who was killed yesterday near Monroyo, lived in Belgrade, at Grobljanska Street Number 7. I have remembered that address ever since.

At dawn on April 3, it started again. Fascist squadrons took turns in the sky one after the other. Bombs were constantly prowling our positions. In the shelters, the beams came apart from the explosions. Stone and earth filled the trenches. Then a hurricane of artillery fire began. The batteries pounded and pounded, continuously, and then the air force came again, machinegunned us and showered us with small bombs.

Suddenly everything was boiling with machine gun and rifle fire and explosions of hand grenades; the onslaught of the enemy began. As if thrown out by a spring, we came out of the shelter onto the parapet. Kotur kept his thumb on the “Maxim” trigger, and the dial on the sight was winding as if he was aiming at the fascists with a caliper. We hit them with rapid fire. The fascists stopped and stuck to the ground: “Hit the tanks”. We beat them with piercing bullets with a black tip. The first tankette stopped and the second one stopped. Sirens wailed from the tankettes, and then the artillery started again, firing accurately. The shells exploded on the high stone wall above the trench. At one point, several comrades were killed and a larger number were wounded. Nothing could be seen from the smoke and dust. We fought at random.

A fellow Romanian fell asleep in the hottest fire. Kotur touched him with his hand, and when he noticed that he wasn’t wounded, he smiled and said: “Comrade, we need to load the rifles”. To the left and right of our machine gun were lying dead and wounded. A piece of shell right next to us cut through hand into the shoulder of a miner, a Slovene. I helped Andrija Muhek to cut off the skin on which his arm was hanging dead. The wounded man was crying for water due to the great loss of blood. The losses were increasing. Suddenly we received heavy machine-gun fire from on the right, and then on the left flank. There was no one on our right wing, which was supposed to be defended by a Spanish brigade, and on the left, almost the entire 3rd company of our battalion was killed by direct hits from aircraft bombs in two large bunkers and trenches. Only a dozen fighters remained alive from the company. The 1st company of our battalion had heavy losses. They died not only from fragments of artillery shells and aerial bombs, but also stones.

Enemy tanks on the left flank penetrated the road to the rear of our positions. The enemy had absolute superiority in aviation, artillery and tanks because we didn’t have them there, and he also had great superiority in automatic weapons. Commander Kranjski and Sergeant Šarić ordered a retreat at the last minute. Through the smoke and dust from the explosions, we slipped one after the other through the only gap in the back stone wall of the trench and retreated down the steep side, and then with difficulty made our way across some terraced land with high stone walls. We were so thirsty from the dust, smoke of explosions, fatigue and the scorching sun that we were attracted like a magnet to a well near a lonely house with wonderful alabaster white walls and a roof of beautiful red tiles. There was also the fiercest artillery fire. Many comrades were killed and wounded for a sip of water, to wash away the thick white scum that stuck to their throats like a membrane. Next to me, a young Spaniard, with a new machine gun, just slumped and mortally wounded, he slowly descended to the ground, and when he touched it, he was already dead.

With great effort we overcame the high stone walls and finally made it to the road. A fighter of the 2nd company, Ivanović, nicknamed Ramona, had just said, “If I haven’t died today, I guess I won’t either,” fascist bombers came over the nearby hills. Kotur and I threw ourselves aside. We were deafened by explosion. The planes left and our comrade Ramona was left blown up on the Aragonese road above Pobleta. It was barely fifty meters from the ambulance of our battalion.

Position, heavy unequal struggle, retreat; thus went the long days of fighting in Aragon.

On that stony ground, intersected by deep narrow valleys with dry riverbeds called “barrancas”, digging in, movement and maneuvering were difficult. We were often forced, when the enemy wedged into our positions or penetrated through communication, to our rear, to retreat hastily, and often unorganized, in order to avoid encirclement.

Ammunition was scarce, aviation was hanging over our heads, tanks were penetrating the road, and infantry and Moroccan cavalry were attacking from both sides of the road. Due to the unprotected flanks of the brigades, there was a constant threat of encirclement. It was the same at Monroyo and at Pobleta and Morella, but it was necessary to hold out, defend the road, and provide time to gather new forces to prevent the enemy from breaking out into the Mediterranean Sea and cutting Republican Spain in two.

Day by day, the pressure of the fascists was getting heavier, there were more and more wounded and dead comrades, and fewer and fewer fighters in the ranks. I remember that on one of those days, fascist planes dropped leaflets with the alleged signature of the Communist Party of Spain, in which they spread the lie that “help from 100,000 soldiers of the French army” would arrive in a few days. They wanted to demoralize our forces with such misinformation.

In those days when the tired body was asking for a little breath of soul, someone said that we should move across the Ebro River to Catalonia to link up with other International Brigades and that the further resistance of our severely crippled brigade against the huge forces of the fascists in the main direction of their attack was in vain.

It was in an olive grove near San Mateo. Then our calm and unforgettable friend Doko Kovačević climbed a large wooden crate. Modestly, so as not to hurt anyone, he said that he considers himself neither the bravest nor the most loyal, but that the will of our Party is the law for him and that he will remain to the end to defend communications, because the Party asks us to do so. He was a powerful communist who shone in full light that morning, a few months before his death. Although the body could barely move due to fatigue, the Party’s will was truly the law for us.

We boarded three trucks, because at that time there were no more of us left together from our battalion, and with the experienced red waving the flag, singing the International song, we started for the last one the fight against fascists on the Aragon front.

In that battle, I was transferred to Romanian Abramescu’s machine gun division, which had been cut in half in the earlier battle. We protected the flank of the “Daković” battalion. The Italian planes supported the attack of their infantry with machine gun fire.

Fighting, we lit a fire behind a stone fence. Due to the enemy fire, we could not retreat until just before dark, and when we were tired and with bruised soles, late at night we went down the dry rocky bed of a mountain stream to the road and the last truck with fighters had just left for San Mateo. When he saw me, Kotur hugged me and said: “Hey, Crni, we thought you were killed.” He only had time to accept the machine gun and throw me a can and rice bread from the truck, because the driver, the Spaniard, despite the shouts of his comrades to stop, started suddenly, frightened by a strong explosion that was heard behind us when the bridge on the road was collapsed.

It was one of the hardest nights for me. Due to purulent blisters on the soles of my feet and swollen glands in my groin, I could hardly move towards San Mateo, which is fifteen kilometers away. I went every which way all night; I moved slowly, stopped, rested and I don’t even know how I continued again. From time to time behind me I could hear the occasional shot of a rifle and a burst of unfriendly patrols, but already in the late morning I was no longer alone. I somehow arrived in San Mateo among my friends.

Despite our very persistent resistance, the Fascists, thanks to their great superiority in weapons, broke out into the sea, and thus cut Republican Spain in two. The central part of Spain remained surrounded by fascists and cut off from the rest of the world. They pulled us to the Levant, to close the route towards Valencia. The brigade was replenished, the wounded returned from the hospitals, and then followed the difficult days of defense, a constant retreat in a zigzag line, on very difficult terrain, in the Ejulve-Villarluengo sector. I remember one night with weak shoes, wounded feet, we finally got out on the road in the moonlight and I and many comrades lay face down on her and caressed her like something dearest. It was after almost a month’s retreat over rugged terrain, which in some places resembled lava that suddenly froze in its boiling, and where many fighters and horses broke and bruised their legs.




1 Dimitrije Koturović Kot, a legendary figure of the French movement resistance. Died in Marseille in 1944.


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