This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 73/74: The Battle of Teruel 1 – 15 December 1937

December 1 – 7

After a month of relatively quiet times around Spain, the next large battle is being prepared, the battle of Teruel. Teruel is a small rural city of only 20,000 people, the capital of the province of Aragon, which has been largely in Republican/anarchist hands since the outbreak of war. Aragon has also been home to the bulk of the social revolution, the anarchist uprising to empower the poor and rural Spaniards suffering under both fascist and socialist rule.

Teruel is a well-fortified city, known as a strategic point over 1000 years of battle between Christians and the Moors. Teruel is only main city that separates the Nationalists in Zaragoza, 170 kilometres north, from the Republican stronghold of Valencia, 140 kilometre to the southeast. Teruel is a mountainous place, with the city at 3000 feet above sea level, and one of the coldest places in Spain. Between the weather and walled fortress city and the forest-covered mountains, Teruel is also surrounded by the Turia and Alfambra rivers.

To attack a city like Teruel, a city with strong Republican support, but in Nationalist hands, is a huge undertaking. But like all Republicans, the men of Aragon are not well-prepared or well-armed. There is the landscape to consider with the mountains home to steep cliffs, and to the west, the La Muela de Teruel, the Teruel tooth, a sharp tooth-shaped hill against the city. Beside this steep rock is a flat area where advancing troops could easily be spotted. Teruel is also a well trenched and guarded area, as it has been on the frontline between Nationalist and Republican fighting since the outbreak of war.

Despite being in the Aragon region, the Nationalists had taken the city of Teruel, and the Republicans are determined to take the city back. It is believed that the occupying Nationalists have only 4,000 men in the area, and is surrounded by Republican-held areas. By having Teruel in the hands of the Nationalists, it became a symbol that needed to be crushed. The Minister of War in the Republican government, Indalecio Prieto, wanted to see a huge victory and have Teruel retaken for the Republic. Not only would the Nationalists lose any hold on Aragon, it would make the enemy think that the Republicans had the artillery and men they needed to win the war. But, as always, fighting within the Republican side would be an issue. Spanish Prime Minister Juan Negrin wanted to take Teruel and then move onto Catalonia, where Spain could retake control of Barcelona and its workers once more. The social revolution born in Catalonia and Aragon was on its last legs, and a victory in Teruel would bolster Republican support there. Infighting would do nothing but strain the Republicans  as they fought the Nationalists as well.

Franco’s Nationalists had been planning a new offensive in Guadalajara, outside Madrid, and a battle in Teruel would stop the Nationalists from getting towards Madrid. What no one could know was that Teruel was about to suffer its worst winter in two decades, something brutal as the average winter could see temperatures well below freezing. But the Republicans decided their attack would begin on December 15, three days before Franco’s plan to capture Guadalajara, catching the Nationalists by surprise, and diverting troops away from Madrid.

8-14 December

The under-resourced Republican army had to be made up of men from all around the regions. Juan Hernández Saravia, who had commanded the southern troops in 1936 and the Levante troops through 137 (Levante is in the eastern Valencia region), began moving men to create the Army of the East for the battle of Teruel and beyond. Saravia did not want any International Brigades to fight in Teruel; it was a Spanish battle to be fought. The Communists were ready to fight with Saravia, with the Communist General Enrique Lister back in the thick of fighting. By rearranging the Republicans around Spain, Saravia had a total of 100,000 men to capture Teruel.

In the walled city of Teruel, Colonel Domingo Rey d’Harcourt commanded the Nationalists. He had a garrison of only 4,000, half just armed civilians. Outside the city in the surrounding areas, there were another 5,000-6,000 men, mostly civilians. Despite a constant flow of news going between each side with spies and information interceptors, Franco did not send any additional troops to the area, meaning as the Republicans could get themselves ready to surround Teruel, and the Nationalists had none of their much-flaunted reinforcements or aerial back-up.

December 15

As snow begins to fall around the walled city of Teruel, General Lister and his men are sent first to surround the area. Given the overwhelming numbers, Nationalists outside Teruel are instantly forced to retreat back into the walls of the city. The Republicans quickly get themselves a prime position on Teruel’s tooth mountain and completely encircle the city. It would be the quiet opening day to what would become a symbolic, bloody and destructive battle lasting over two months, seeing much of Teruel destroyed and 140,000 men killed on both sides.

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

 

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