This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Weeks 88/89: 16 – 31 March 1938

March 16

With the battle of Aragon in full swing, the border with France is open to allow Russian supplies to flow down to Barcelona and into Aragon to aid the Republicans. Mussolini has a new strategy, to literally win the war with fear and terror, by bombing the civilians in Barcelona.

Barcelona has no aircraft artillery and no fighter cover. None of the Spanish Republican Air Force are based in Barcelona, leaving the city exposed to the surprise attack. At around 10pm, the Italian Aviazione Legionaria arrived from Mallorca with German Heinkel He 51s and Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 and Savoia-Marchetti SM.81s to begin the first of 17 air raids, at three-hour intervals. The darkness means people are caught out by the attacks.

After weeks of fighting in Aragon, the Spanish fighters and International Brigades, led by Republican commander Vicente Rojo have established a defensive in the town of Caspe (only 130 kilometres from the eastern coast), where they have been pushed back 36 kilometres from their original front lines. The Nationalist have forced the Republicans into the centre fo Caspe, with the XV International Brigades desperate to hold the small town. The Nationalists have many troops and a strong air support behind them, and this is a last chance for the Republicans to hold back the onslaught. What begins is two days of heavy and brave fighting by the International Brigades to hold the Nationalists out of Caspe.

March 17

The Italian bombing of Barcelona continues with civilian targets hit, rather than military areas. While Barcelona has an air-raid alarm system in the city, the consistency of the attacks causes confusion, as the air-raid alarm sounds at both the beginning and end an attack. With three hourly attacks, the alarms do little more than cause panic, as the beginning and end alarms are so close together there is no telling what is happening. The bombs dropped are delayed-fuse, meaning they fall through into a building, or onto a street, then detonate, destroying things at ground level. Such a brutal and unjustified attack on civilians begins to be reported around the world, with foreign leaders condemning such cruel attacks.

The XV International Brigades and their Spanish comrades are still battling in Caspe, but are eventually overcome by the Nationalist men who are better equipped. While numbers in the battle are unknown, most of the Spanish and International men are killed in fighting, and the Nationalist battalions quickly move on to continue their march towards the coast. These battles are quickly wiping out all the men and hard work done by international volunteers through the war. The Nationalists can continue their push east and north-east, with plans  to take Lleida in Catalonia, some 80 kilometres north-east.

March 18

The 17th and final bombing by the Italians hits Barcelona at 3pm. The Republican air force did not arrive until March 17, and are unable to do much to deter the heavy bombers. Overnight the working class areas of the city, where many left-wing supporters live, were badly damaged in the bombings, and the lateral force of the bombs means everything is demolished, especially innocent people. One bombs lands in the courtyard outside the  Sant Felip Neri church, murdering the 30 playing refugee children who lived there. After 44 tonnes of bombs have been dropped, between 1000 and 1300 people are dead, another 2000 wounded, while the Nationalists and their Italian allies have suffered no losses. The Foreign Minister in Italy is quoted as saying “(Mussolini) was pleased by the fact that the Italians have managed to provoke horror, by their aggression instead of complacency with their mandolins. This will send up our stock in Germany, where they love total and ruthless war.” Countries around the world denounce such behaviour, yet none step in to help.  As the bombing had no provocation, neither any need to stop, it is believed Barcelona has been used as a site to practice such terror raids on civilians, for later use on the nations as part of Germany’s escalation in Europe.

remains of the Sant Felip Neri bombing

March 20

While the fighting had been ongoing in Caspe, 27 kilometres south in Alcañiz, the Italian forces in the Nationalist camps were also gaining ground on the eastern march. Republican outposts are ill-equipped and can not fight effectively. Floods of Republican troops are fleeing through the Aragon region and also north up into Catalonia. Whole units are either collapsing in battle, or due to desertion and retreat. As the men run, both German and Italian planes were able to attack from overhead. General Karol Świerczewski, leader of International Brigades barely manages to escape the battle at Alcañiz as the Italians take over.

The Nationalists decide to pause and regroup and reorganise, as their 100,000 men are well spread out over a large region. They stop among the Ebro and Guadalope rivers, to prepare for their next attacks.

March 22

The Nationalists decided to begin a new attack, this time further 100 kilometres northwest, between Zaragoza and Huesca. This area has been part of the Republican territory since the beginning of the war, and has been part of the Aragon social revolution, where the poor and working class managed to gain control and began a new lifestyle, without government control or money, with land redistributed to help employ and feed the population. But the time has come for the area to be invaded, and the Nationalists storm the area along the 75 kilometre stretch between Zaragoza and Huesca, an east-bound flood of battle. The civilians in the area are now forced to flee or die, resulting in countless refugees leaving the Aragon region. In a single day, troops heading east from Zaragoza make it 75 kilometres to Bujaraloz and north in Huesca, they conquer 50 kilometres east towards Barbastro, with varying distances in between along the mountainous area. This strong and proud region has been cut down in only one day of battle.

Republican men outside Fraga

March 25

Cruel General Yague is leading the Nationalist battalions out of Barastro, and manage to fight their way to Fraga, 50 kilometres east from Barbastro. This marks the day that the Nationalists finally enter the region of Catalonia, with the vast majority of Aragon now totally defeated. Republicans are either being killed, captured (death would be better), or retreat with the refugees.  Fraga is only 100 kilometres from the Catalonia coast.

Republicans in Barbastro

March 27

Yague and his men now look to push on to the larger town of Lleida, but are slowed down by a strong Republican defense, lead by  Communist Valentín  ‘El Campesino’ González, who is miraculously still alive throughout all these battles. Much of the Nationalist front-line has slowed due to total lack of need to fight, with most of Aragon in their possession. But El Campesino holds the northern battle area, and Colonel Duran and his men hold the southern Maestrazgo area, all fighting bravely to allow the majority of Republicans to escape into the rugged Maestrazgo mountain area in south Aragon/northern Valencia region, where they are safe and hidden. A week the Nationalists are held off as men run for safety throughout the southern Aragon region.

Another Nationalist group, fighting the 100 kilometers north from Huesca up to the Pyrenees, also encounter little resistance. The Republicans are beginning to turn on one another; Communists refuse to share artillery with anarchists, and many Republicans retreating their posts and battalions completely. Andre Marty, who is commanding the International Brigades, is seeing the total destruction of all the work done by the volunteers over the course of the war. Men are now traitors as they flee for their lives alongside their Spanish counterparts. Men are turning on eachother, with executions performed among their fellow officers if accused of being a traitor or cowards. The Republican front-lines are falling away and the International Brigades are all but lost, left to die and rot where they fall.

All is not lost; a Republican battalion manages to hold off the Nationalists at Solchaga, some 270 kilometres west of Huesca. Due to this offensive, and the battles for Lleida and  Maestrazgo, precious Russian supplies are being received in Barcelona, where they can be distributed along the coast, to aid the Republicans when the Nationalists eventually arrive. The battle for the Mediterranean coast still has months to go, and the Republicans are getting armed and prepared. 

International Brigades encounter Italian troops in Gandesa, and 150 are killed, another 100 captured

March 31

The Aragon offensive is now largely over, with the exception of the far north along the Pyrenees, where Franco worries the French may rise up to defend themselves. The Nationalist men, tired and losing numbers, need to slow to recover, before finishing the region piece by piece over coming weeks. Soon the Levante offensive can begin, taking the Mediterranean coastline of the Catalonia and Valencia regions, but first the Segre river battle must be won, to take hold of water supplies and vital hydro dams which spreads from Segre to 170 kilometres north in the Pyrenees.

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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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This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Weeks 86-87: 1 – 15 March 1938

March 5

The Nationalists have a large naval base on the island of Mallorca, where two heavy cruisers, Baleares and Canarias, set off as an escort for a convoy, accompanied by a light cruiser named Almirante Cervera, flanked by three destroyers. The ships are protecting an Italian shipment of artillery heading south along Spain’s eastern coast line. At the same time, the Republican navy sets out from their base in Cartegena, with two light cruisers, the Mendez Nunez and the Libertad, flanked by five destroyers, all heading north along the coast. As night falls, the three Nationalist destroyers turn back toward Mallorca as planned, while the cruisers continue their journey.

March 6

In the night, quite by chance the two groups meet off the coast of Murcia, near Cape Palos, and a Republican destroyer fires a torpedo, missing the Nationalist fleet. The Nationalists decide they want to avoid a battle, as they are better suited to fighting in daylight, but the Republicans are keen to engage with the enemy.

Just after 2am, the Nationalists fire upon the encroaching Libertad, who is situated only 5000 metres away. The Republican cruisers begin firing back, and three of the Republican destroyers, the Sanchéz Barcáiztegui, Lepanto, and Almirante Antequera, manage to move away unseen, before turning to fire a total of 12 torpedoes from a range of about 3000 metres. Several torpedoes damage the Nationalist Baleares, and one torpedo from the Lepanto makes a central hit which begins to sink the Baleares.

The other Nationalist cruisers flee as Baleares goes down. By luck, the stern manages to stay afloat, and two British destroyers head to the battle from 75 kilometres away. The Kempenfelt and Boreas destroyers manage to save 441 or the 1206 Baleares crew.

As dawn breaks over the area, the Nationalist cruisers return to the scene, and meet with the British Boreas, to collect their rescued men. But Republican bombers have arrived to attack from the air and one British naval officer is killed in the attack.

The sinking of the Baleares is one of the last successes the Republicans will have in the war, with the men on all the Republican ships given bravery medals for their roles. The battle of Cape Palos has no effect on the war itself, but is still considered to be an impressive Republican victory.

the Baleares sinking, as seen from a Republican bomber

March 7

Franco begins the Aragon Offensive. The Nationalists have 100,000 men between Zaragoza and Teruel, an area only separated by 180 kilometres. With them comes about 950 planes, 200 tanks and thousands of well-equipped trucks. New artillery built in the Basque Country and aid from the German Condor Legion and Italian fascists mean the Nationalists are ready for the huge push to cut off the Catalonia and Levante regions from each other. While the Republicans have as many (possibly more) men than the Nationalists, their artillery and weapons had been decimated in the failed battle of Teruel only weeks earlier. Most men don’t even have a gun. Republican generals were ready for the Nationalists to resume their cancelled Guadalajara offensive, so the Aragon offensive to break through to the Mediterranean coast comes as a surprise attack.

A 6.30am attack begins by the Nationalists along the  100 kilometre Republican front-line between Vivel del Rio Martin and the Ebro river. The northern Ebro area is attacked by General Yague’s cruel African army with the German Condor Legion flying relentlessly overhead. The front-line breaks on the first day of the attack.  The fighting goes on for days as the Nationalists slaughter their way down the right bank of the Ebro river.

March 10
The XV International Brigade, with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade as support, attempt to hold the already battered town of Belchite. Nationalist General Solchaga launches an offensive to take the town back from the Republicans, which results in the final bombing and destruction of the village. Belchite marks 35 kilometers that the Nationalists have eaten into Republican territory over only four days of battle. Famed Lincoln commander Robert Merriman is killed as he orders the retreat of his men while the Nationalists took over, and most of the international volunteers are killed alongside Merriman. This was the start was what became known as The Retreats, as the Nationalists pushed towards the Levante coast, and all enemy soldiers and prisoners are executed without delay. Almost none of the International Brigades survive the Belchite assault. Around 55 kilometres south from Belchite, the Italian Black Arrow division at Rudilla break through the front-line and continue the fascist march east.

Belchite after its second bombing

March 13

From the southern tip of the offensive at Vivel de Rio Martin to the north at Ebro, the Nationalists are making their way through the front-lines, and begin the next phase of moving both east and north, as the assault will stretch north right to the Pyrenees some 300 kilometres away. Retreat is in full swing by Republican soldiers who haven’t been killed, and the Republican factions, made of multiple groups, are splitting apart, with many turning against the communist allies and mutiny is rife. Decorated Communist Generals Lister and Marty attack each other rather than the enemy. Lister begins shooting commanders who direct their troops to retreat from battles.

The Republicans are now looking to retreat to the town of Caspe, some 115 kilometres east of their front-lines, to regroup as the Nationalists storm towards them. The commander-in-chief of the Republican army, Vicente Rojo, looks to set the centre of the Republicans in Caspe, but three strong Nationalist battalions are fighting towards Caspe at great speed, while the Republicans lose enormous ground.

marching to Caspe

March 15

The French government reopens their borders with Spain and Russian supplies can get towards Barcelona to aid the Republicans. The same day, Mussolini looks to stop these supplies by planning a huge terror raid in Barcelona, to bomb the city to pieces so the struggling Republicans cannot get their supplies.

March 16 is chosen as the start dates for both the bombing of Barcelona and the Battle of Caspe.

marching to Caspe

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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.