July 1938 has all eyes on Valencia, Catalonia and Aragon, and yet in the south-west, the Mérida pocket is also suffering new battles. Extremadura, the most western area of Spain, was quickly taken by the Nationalists when the war broke out, but the Mérida pocket is the sole area held by Republicans, an area west of Mérida in the La Serena region in Badajoz province. Franco wants the Mérida pocket in his control to settle the entire region. If Republicans could take Mérida, then they could cut the Nationalist zone in Extremadura in half. While the Nationalists had quietly secured the frontline along the Zújar River in June, Franco implements a plan to circle all remaining Republican men and execute the whole lot, whose numbers could be as high as 10,000.
The Battle of the Ebro preparation is well underway. The Republican Ebro Army was formed on May 15 by the Republicans, in response to massive gains made by the Nationalists as they murder their way through the Valencia region. Lieutenant Colonel Juan Modesto took control of both the 5th and 15th Army Corps, which combined the 35th International Division (made of the XI, XIII and XV International Brigades), the 3rd Division (made of the 31st, 33rd and 60th mixed brigades) the 42nd Division (made of the 226th, 227th and 59th brigades), the 15th Army Corps (with the 16th Popular Republican Army Division of the 12th Army Corps) and the 3rd Cavalry Regiment. By mid-July many anti-aircraft weapons arrive along with 11th Division (made of the 1st, 9th and 100th mixed brigades), the 46th Division (made of the 10th, 60th and 101st mixed brigades) and the 45th Division International Division (made with the 12th”Garibaldi”, 14th “Marsellesa” and 139th mixed brigades).
The Republicans add more to their numbers with the 12th Army Corps, now led by Lieutenant Colonel Etelvino Vega. The 12th Army Corps was then made up of the 16th Division (including the 23rd and 24th mixed brigades) and the 44th Division (including the 140th, 144th and 145th mixed brigades). The 18th Army Corps bring Lieutenant Colonel José del Barrio to lead the 27th Division (including the 122nd “la Bruixa”, the 123rd and 124th mixed brigades), the 60th Division (with the 95th, 84th and 224th mixed brigades) and 43th Division (with the 72nd, 102nd and 130th mixed brigades). At its height, the Republican troops will number 80,000 men.
The Nationalist army has been storming regions around the Ebro for months and have many huge battalions in the area. The Army of the North, controlled by General Fidel Davila, a powerful and successful group, are flanked by the 40th, 50th and 105th Divisions of the Moroccan Army Corps under vicious General Yague. Included in the Moroccan Corps are the Legionarios, Regulares, the Carlists and Falaganists and African mercenaries, all groups well-known over the past two years for wild slaughter, torture and rape of troops and civilians. General Rafael García Valiño’s Maestrazgo Army Corps, made of the 1st Navarra Division and the 74th, 84th and 13th Divisions are also very close by, having controlled the northwest Valencia region. The numbers the Nationalists have/can access is 90,000 experienced men.
Today marks two years of civil war in Spain. The death tolls is already into the hundreds of thousands, with no spot in the country unaffected. Madrid continues to be held by the Republicans while surrounded by Nationalists, who still cannot get through the front-lines. Catalonia’s uprising with the rights of workers has long dimmed as the war nears their own streets, and the Aragonese anarchist lifestyle has been destroyed. Concentration camps have been set up to take Republicans, if they are not first executed. All major cities, except for capital Valencia, Madrid and Barcelona, rest in Nationalist hands. Europe is looking nervously at Hitler, yet not helping the people of Spain, already suffering Hitler’s power as Franco looks to join Hitler and Mussolini as Europe’s great fascist leaders. Precious few believe in the Republican cause now, which is the one card they have to play in the Battle of the Ebro, as they have the element of surprise on the Nationalist troops.
South in Extremadura, the Mérida Pocket is going to be closed by the Nationalists. General Saliquet, based in the northern area of the Badajoz region, marches his men south into La Serena, where the Republican front-line is strong. At the same time, General Queipo de Llano has been marching his men northwest towards La Serena. This makes the Republicans embattled at both their major front-lines, and are routinely pounded by gunfire for four days.
The Republican divisions, the VII Army Corps with the 36th and 36th Divisions from Algodar to Zújar, and the VIII Army Corps with the 38th, 63rd and 51st divisions from Zújar to Guadalmellato, are completely overtaken by Nationalist troops. The battle ends with the massive slaughter of troops throughout the Don Benito and Villanueva de la Serena areas, murdering the whole Extramaduran Republican Army. This short battle is the largest slaughter of troops in the region (as civilian slaughter and imprisonment has been wholesale here since the outbreak of war). Nationalist men continue their march through the Mérida pocket of La Serena, eastwards into Toledo province, where the Republican 91st and 109th mixed brigades are trapped on every side. These remaining men are rounded up to be placed in the Castuera concentration camp 45 kilometres south, though most will be executed in the camp. Colonel Ricardo Burillo, leader of the Extremadura Army Corps, survives, and is dismissed after the bloody defeat of around 10,000, while the Nationalists have lost almost no one.
After a week of planning, the commanders of the 14th Republican Army Corps cross the Ebro river, to watch the Nationalists, taking their positions while other troops prepare river crossings. The Nationalists soon see what is happening, reporting to Franco that the Republicans and their International Brigades are on the bank of the river with rafts and pontoons. Franco is not concerned, aware of how weakened the Republicans have been in the area.
The early hours of July 25 are completely dark with no moon. Between Fayon and Benifallet, a 45 kilometre bend in the river, the commanders again cross the river and kill 50th Division Nationalist guards posted in the area. After fastening assault boats, the first of 90 boats cross, ten men in each boat, under darkness. All following troops then cross on pontoon bridges at daybreak. The Nationalists are totally unprepared for this wide attack, overcome in surprise. The International Brigade attack 40 kilometres south of Benifallet at Amposta, but are overpowered within the first 18 hours of combat, with the few survivors retreating back over the Ebro.
Around 4,000 Nationalist men of the 50th division are imprisoned, while some manage to desert. The Republican 15th Army Corps carry on, and advance three miles north, while the 5th Army Corps manage a huge 21 kilometres east.
The Republicans have marched 30 kilometres south to Gandesa, and now occupy 800 square kilometres, but cannot hold Gandesa, as the Nationalists’ 13th division have the town fortified. Franco frantically deploys more troops to counter the attacks, with an extra eight divisions, 140 bombers and 100 fighters sent to the Ebro. The Nationalists hold the dams at Tremp and Camarasa, which are opened, flooding the Republican pontoons, which take two days to repair. At the same time the German Condor Legion and Italian Aviazione Legionaria bomb the pontoon bridges, which can only be repaired at night. Due to the planes and the flooding, the Republicans have only got 22 tanks and minimal artillery over the bridges, leaving men exposed and without water and food.
The town of Gandesa is a key target for the Republicans, which is 25 kilometres west of their first river crossing point. Gandesa is surrounded by hilly limestone terrain in the Caballs, Pandols and Fatarella ranges. The limestone hills have little shelter, leaving the men at the mercy of overhead bombers. But they push on, spread out over a 35 kilometre line, eager to take Gandesa, a pivotal town into Catalonia, so men and tanks are forced over the limestone hillsides.
The leading Nationalist commanders want to hold their ground at Grandesa, keeping the town in their hands and stopping the Republicans, while also planning to attack them from the north. But Franco is unwilling to listen to this, as he is pleased to have the strength of the Republican army trapped within a 35 kilometre stretch. Regardless of the loss of life, Franco wants the Nationalists to regain all the ground they have lost, rather than holding Republicans in place. Franco wants them back over the Ebro and killed.
The International Brigades, who have been mixed with 15th Army Corps, have regrouped after their failed crossing at Amposta, and plan an attempt to take Hill 481, right outside the town of Gandesa. It will be a risky attack, with no cover from the air bombers. The battle still has four months to run.
This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the month’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.