The Thaelmann Battalion was established in November 1936. Named after Ernst Thaelmann, the former leader of the German Communist Party, It became part of the International Brigades that fought in the Spanish Civil War.
The battalion consisted mainly of communists who had escaped from Nazi Germany. Its leaders included Ludwig Renn and Hans Beimler. It first saw combat protecting Madrid in November 1936. The battalion suffered heavy casualties and was virtually destroyed as a unit at Las Rozas in January 1937. What was left of the battalion went on to fight at Guardalajara in March 1937.
The group I left with was the first to walk over the Pyrenees, since the border had been shut. We were in Paris for four weeks. And then in a little village closer to the Spanish border. There we hid with a family for an entire week, one German and four Swedes. We weren't allowed to go outdoors. Then one night, they came and fetched us and we could continue. Some kilometers from Perpignan we met a bunch of Americans. First we took a bus, until we were on the edge of Perpignan. Then a bunch of taxicabs came driving. We had to jump into them, just a few of us at a time. When we had almost reached the railway bridge there in Perpignan we had to jump out - while they drove slowly. Then we had to crawl over the bridge. We saw some border patrol guards when we'd reached the other side, but they disappeared. It seemed like some sort of cooperation. We were given a guide. I don't know if he was a Frenchman or a Spaniard. But we walked all night over the mountains.
The first frontline I came to was Guadalajara. I had wanted to get to the fighting sooner, but had to obey my orders. There was some drilling first. I was put in the Thälmann Battalion - but not in the third Scandinavian company - in the eleventh company. There were Swedes, Germans and Danes there. Back then Herman Wohlin was kind of in charge of it all. You didn't think so much. You were just there. And Herman, he was like everyone's father.
When we came as rookies to Guadalajara, we were put in the reserves. We didn't get to hold a rifle even once, as we lay in the olive tree groves. You had to wait for someone to be killed. Then you could take his gun. You had your uniform and steel helmet, though. The first few days… it was so exciting. You had dreamed… but could never have imagined what it would be like. The only rule was: Make it on your own. You could play hero, if you wanted, and definitely never show that you were scared. It was just to walk straight ahead.
The conditions were bad, especially the hygiene, but it got better later on. We were quartered in a bullfighting arena. In dressing-rooms, bull-pens... they had placed beds all over. We also used the old barracks of Guardia Civil. All the locations were equally bad. The worst thing was the latrine. You had to crowd, stand and shit in a drain. Sometimes you couldn't help it but you stepped in the excrement and you got some on you. There were piles of it every morning. It was completely crowded when thousands of people wanted to get in and then... at ten-eleven o'clock somebody came and poured lime on top before they were going to take the crap away. But sometimes it was left several days. So it smelled bloody awful. And when it rained and so on and the slush... It was all under and around the bleachers. We were not used to the greasy food either. Some people seemed to have dysentery, as they ran all the time. Yes, it was awful before they got used to the wine, food and olive oil. You nearly throw up at first. But it went away. Then you ate anything as long as you were hungry.
Since I had received a General Certificate of Education, I spoke a little German. Therefore I was placed as an orderly in the Battalion Staff, to keep contact with the Scandinavian Company. We came to Morata de Tajuna at night. It was a little city just behind the frontline. But we had some problems with the communication. My German wasn't quite good enough. Next morning, when the company marched towards the frontline, they forgot me at the Staff Headquarters. Suddenly I was all alone with the Sergeant Major, Herman Wohlin from Gävle. Then came a bomb attack that destroyed Morata. Windows, walls… it was all blown to smithereens. We had had enough time to run down into a cellar. Our kitchen was bombed as well, but the truck, the cooking wagon, was still usable. But later we drove it out to the front. We came to the Brigade Staff Office. There we asked where we could find Battalion Thälmann. They told us to go left. I walked that way, amongst hills and olive trees. But I couldn't find our boys. Instead I ran into Battalion Dimitroff, with guys from The Balkan countries. I followed the Bulgarians and Rumanians when they advanced. That's when I heard the first noises from the front. It sounded as though someone was hammering on a roof, or like the noise from a carpenter's workshop. There was consistent hammering. They said that Thälmann was out on their right flank. So I moved right, and finally reached Thälmann's left flank. The first person I saw was a German Battalion Officer. I think he was in charge of the First Company. His name was Willi, and he was walking straight through the rain of bullets. He never threw himself to the ground, just walked around, straight and tall, pointing with a stick and commandeering his men forward. It seemed like he didn't even notice all the bullets flying around him. He was used to it, as he had fought in the First World War. But later he was killed. He told me to continue out to the Battalion's right flank, because that's where the Scandinavians were.