This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Weeks 104 – 107: 1 – 31 July 1938 – Two Years of War; the 80th Anniversary of Ebro

July 1

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.

July 10

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).

July 13

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.

Republican soldiers at the Ebro, July 1938

July 15

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. 

Legionnaires on the Ebro, July, 1938

July 18

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.

July 20

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.

La Serena

24 July

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.

Republicans cross the Ebro

July 25

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.

July 26

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.

International Brigades cross at Minveret

July 27

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.

Republicans in the hard terrrain

July 31

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.

British troops at Hill 481

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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.

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This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Weeks 100 – 103: 1 – 30 June 1938

100 weeks into the 80th anniversary blog and still going, not a week missed (okay, sometimes late, but life happens)!

June 6

The small town of Bielsa on the border with France has been home to the Bielsa Pocket, all-out fighting for almost two months. The town of 4,000 people has been protected by the Republican 43rd division led by Antonio Beltran, though they have lost many men. The Nationalists have the entire Aragon and Huesca regions under their control, and only need to defeat the 43rd division, which have only half the number of men and almost no artillery. Much of the population of the Pineta Valley area around Bielsa has followed the Alto Cinca river north  to the border into France, which is still currently open. But on the morning of June 6, the Nationalists break through the frontline to take the town of Biesla. The battle has no importance to the war, yet the hold-up since mid-April means that many Republicans have been able to flee to safety through the difficult terrain into France. This delay in the Nationalist march gives the Republicans a huge morale boost as the 6,000 Republican soldiers bravely fought back.

Pineta valley and Alto Cinca river into France

June 13

The Levante Offensive has continued, despite the huge cache of Soviet artillery the Republicans have received over the French  border. The Nationalists, continuing their three-pronged attack from the north, west, and northwest battalions, take Castellón, capital of the Levante region of north Valencia. It is General Rafael Garcia Valiño’s northwest battalion which has fought its way south through the harsh mountainous terrain, bombing and destroying villages such as Benassal, Albocásser, Ares del Maestrat, and Vilar de Canes. Many in this arid region have never seen bombs or German aircraft, and were killed without resistance. Vilafamés  has an airfield which makes the village a target, the town crushed in the Nationalist trek south to Castellón. Castellón is a key port for the Nationalists to gain, to receive more equipment needed to continue south.

Vilafames in 1938

(Side note: I first visited Vilafamés 13 years ago, when it was still a loooong way off the tourist trail, and is still quiet now. Finding any evidence of the SCW was either hidden or locked away from the public.  The locals thought me suspicious, a foreigner loaded down with babies and looking for war info. Lots of old ladies twitching their curtains. 

In February this year, Vilafamés reopened the old war airfield and its 11,000 square-metre area, home to the old aviation telecommunications tower,  air-raid shelters, staff kitchens, 200 metres of trenches, basic shelters, ammunition store, pilot flying records, a life-size replica of a Polikarpov I-15 ‘Chato’ aircraft, and memorial plaques. All of these areas are fully accessible to the public, considered a living museum, and also has a full military re-enactment camp, medical tents, radio posts and machine gun positions. They have also written a book on the area, which is a good read if you know Spanish, though being filled with photographs and artwork, anyone can enjoy) 

Click here to read more about the book and authors

Franco wants to be in Valencia by July 25, only 70km south of Castellón, and wants the port village of Sagunto, just 30km north of Valencia, immediately. But the Condor Legion are exhausted after bombing their way south through the Levante, and wants to be withdrawn. Generals call for the battle to Valencia to be abandoned, but Franco will not oblige. By the end of the month, Franco will reinforce the Levante troops, now given new leaders, fresh men and an enormous artillery, with some 900 cannons, 400 new aircraft and 50 Italian bombers. The men will be put into the Turia corps, but the second half of June yields little result. The Sierra Espada, the mountains leading from Sagunto on the coast northwest towards Teruel are impossible terrain for Nationalist troops, and the Republicans have managed to hold them back. The reinforcements are coming, and yet the Republicans are in a firm position to hold Sagunto and Valencia.

There are still many war secrets hidden in this area

June 16

The Republican fighters who held the Bielsa pocket complete their final retreat, with the last troops crossing the border into France. The French government gives them a choice – they can re-enter Spain on the Republican or Nationalist side. While 411 men and five nurses choose to join the Nationalists, another 6,000 re-enter Spain to continue the fight against the Francoists.

The 43rd division

June 25

The border from Spain to France as been open since March 17, allowing many people over to safety and weapons in to fight Franco’s men. But the flow of weapons and refugees has taken a toll on France and its relations with other nations in Europe. The border is ordered closed again, cutting off countless thousands from reaching safety. The closure of the border means that Spaniards are completely on their own again while the Nationalists still have access to men and weapons via Italy and Germany. With the border again closed and countries all trying to stay out of the war while they worry about European war, the time the International Brigades can remain in Spain is starting to look short, but first shall come July’s Ebro Offensive.

The below video has no date of the footage nor the location it was shot, but does show how many wished to escape into France on any given day during the precious three months the border was open. 

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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.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW SERIES – MAY: ‘Spanish Crossings’ by John Simmons

Spanish Crossings is an epic tale of love, politics and conflict, with the yearning but elusive possibility of redemption. A woman’s life has been cast in shadow by her connection to the Spanish Civil War. We meet Lorna in Spain, 1937 as she falls in love with Harry, a member of the International Brigade who had been at Guernica when it was bombed. Harry is then killed in the fighting and Lorna fears she might have lost her best chance of happiness. Can she fill the void created by Harry’s death by helping the child refugees of the conflict? She finds a particular connection to one boy, Pepe, and as he grows up below the radar of the authorities in England their lives become increasingly intertwined. But can Lorna rely on Pepe as he remains deeply pulled towards the homeland and family that have been placed beyond his reach? Coming through the war, then the post-war rebuilding, Lorna and Pepe’s relationship will be tested by their tragic and emotive history.

cover and blurb via amazon 

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Having written a string of Spanish Civil War novels, and read countless more, my enthusiasm is beginning to wane at times (having said that, I plan to write plenty more). To hold my interest, an author needs to come up with a new angle, especially when it comes to the International Brigades, who get far more books written about them than the forgotten local heroes of the war. So thank you to John Simmons, who has tried something outside the usual storyline and predictable ending.

Lorna is fairly typical young woman of her time who works in London. Lorna has a lover, Harry, who volunteers to fight in Spain while his country stands idly by. Only Harry goes and gets killed at Guernica. The pain is real for Lorna, who loses someone in the worst way, killed and largely forgotten in a war his country won’t recognise. Of course, Lorna’s experience isn’t a rare one during the Spanish Civil War, but how she learns to cope is unique. Lorna works at a law firm, which is working with Spanish refugee children.

Pepe has been shipped to England, as were thousands of Basque children during the war, in an attempt to keep them safe as the fascists invaded and destroyed their own country. Lorna ‘adopts’ Pepe, and how Lorna learns to live with Harry’s loss is entwined with how Pepe copes with being sent from the Basque Country and his family left to their fate.

Lorna has been torn from a loved one killed in hell, and Pepe longs for his homeland, the hell which killed Harry. But Pepe is an innocent bystander in this mess, and Lorna’s friendship might just be the only way to save them both. The children of the Basque country became foreigners a country that doesn’t fully understand the complexity or the horror that is happening in Spain, and life in London in the late 1930’s is described beautifully without the usual clichés.

This book allows people to feel what it would have been like for all the Lorna’s and Pepe’s of the age, and the realities of having to cope in a world sinking into fascism. There are plenty of lessons to learn that could be just as meaningful for 2018 as the 1930’s.

From the ship which took 4,000 people to England (when it should have taken about 800), to pre-war London, the bombings of WWII, and beyond is shared by Lorna, the book capped by moments told by Lorna’s son at either end.  Happiness is not simple or attainable for everyone, and what it means to heal and be happy again is different for every person. Lorna and Pepe are a shining glimpse to a time when life and death, reality and art, truth, lies and propaganda, love, friendship and home all meant different things.  Thank you to John Simmons, for a refreshing take on a classic story.

 

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW – APRIL: ‘Albi’ by Hilary Shepherd

A poignant, compassionate glimpse into the life of a child caught in a country at war with itself

Albi is nine years old when Franco’s soldiers arrive in the village and his life begins to change in confusing ways. It’s not clear quite who should be trusted and who should not. Some neighbours disappear not to be seen again, others are hidden from view in cellars and stables – like his brother, Manolo, who left long ago to join the resistance. Albi is charged with shepherding not just his own sheep, but also those of El Ciego who sends him on errands requiring a good memory and the ability to keep his mouth shut at all times.

Alberto, at 88, is haunted by what he did and what he may or may not have said. And then the daughter of his old friend Carlos turns up wanting stories of old times. Albi’s day of reckoning may be at hand…

cover and blurb via Honno Press

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Here we are – yet another Spanish Civil War book, which alternates between present day and the 1930’s. All I can say is – yay! I’ve written three of these myself, so I’m always pleased to find another one, but this one is different to many I have stumbled across.

The book starts in present time, where Alberto has just been to a funeral, of his friend, Carlos, who grew up with Alberto in rural Aragon. The remembrance of his childhood friend takes Alberto back to the time where he was known as Albi, only aged nine, and the memories he still hasn’t managed to shake.

It’s September 1938, and Republican Aragon is being eaten up by Nationalist rule. Not a story about the frontline, but rather this book takes us into the lives of those who lived during the war under their new fascist rulers, and the reality that they faced in the uproar of the civil war. Poor Albi is only a boy, and his parents, three sisters and his senile grandmother are forced to live under the Guardia soldiers who have occupied their town. Albi’s bother Manolo was gone off with the Republican army and is already a ghost in Albi’s life. Things start hard and frightening for Alibi, adjusting to soldiers everywhere, curfews in place, and odd screaming echoing, but the adults in Albi’s life won’t share anything with him. Albi herds sheep for his disabled father, but whisperings in his house start leading to a slow demise for Albi as his family falls apart with illnesses, hushed up mysteries, secret weddings, and daring daybreak escapes.

Albi and Carlos are kids caught in a real disaster destroying their country. But Albi’s life takes a dangerous turn when he starts passing messages and spending time with Mena, a woman from Valencia who stands out, and  Mena is not one to sit back as war changes their country. The marquis are in the Aragonese hillside, rebel fighters prepared to take on Francoist soldiers, regardless of the cost.

Albi’s trips to see Mena lead him to a moment in the war he cannot forget, not even in 2017 when Alberto’s story has caught the attention of people making a show about the war. While Carlos’ granddaughter is telling the stories she was told, Albi is the one with the real truth, the truth Carlos didn’t know or share. Death came to Albi’s village and he is the only witness who knows the truth, which haunts his dreams nearly 80 years on. But is 80 years enough for Alberto to be ready to tell the whole truth?

Many thanks should be given to the author, as Shepherd has written a book about those who tend to get forgotten. While I write the weekly updates about the war and major battles, it is people in the cities and villages already ‘conquered’ who get forgotten about, who had to live under the cruel rule of their new leaders. Shepherd has told that story through the eyes of a child, who doesn’t take sides, as his innocence will be destroyed either way. The doesn’t dwell on detail and accurately gives the point of view of a child, a messy and confused state in a world which wouldn’t make sense to anyone.

Albi is available April 19.

 

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Weeks 82-85: 80 Years Since the Battle of Teruel, February 1938

February  7

In the last calvary charge of modern warfare, the Nationalists attack Teruel from the north, while Republican forces are centred in the south of the town.  The Nationalists launch an attack along the Alfambra river north of Teruel, a front-line thirty kilometres long with 100,000 men and 500 guns. This massive charge in an undefended area means the Nationalists make it through the front-lines and into Teruel itself. The Republicans who can, run for their lives, scattered out in every direction to hide or be slaughtered. Generals Yague and Aranada consider this their moment of victory in the Teruel battle.

the leftovers of Teruel town itself

February 18

Many Republcians are still in hiding in the Teruel area, and Aranda and Yague have to ensure the town is cut off completely from any further reinforcements reaching the surrounding areas. Anyone left alive not on the Nationalist side must be pulled out of their hiding places and killed. Since the Alfambra charge, the Republicans have lost more than 22,000 men, including 7,000 prisoners, and the Nationalists have claimed an area of 1300 square kilometres around Teruel.

Republicans defenders in Teruel before their capture

February 20

The road from Teruel east to Valencia is destroyed, cutting the area off from the relatively safe Republican city. No one can reach Teruel or surrounding villages and areas, as all mountains and roads are Nationalist front-lines. General Saravia for the Republicans orders a total retreat of all Republicans and International Brigades from this lower Aragon area. Some 14,500 men are still trapped in the new Nationalist zone and have no chance to be rescued or have reinforcements fight their way in to help them in battle.

civilians fleeing the Teruel region

February 22

Well known Communist leader El Campesino (Valentín González González), manages to break through Nationalist lines and escape, where he claims he was left by other Communist leaders to die. The Nationalists now have all of the Teruel region to themselves, and declare victory. Their prize is around 10,000 Republican bodies strewn through the town itself. It is estimated that around 85,000 Republicans have been killed, and around 57,000 Nationalists are dead. 

The Nationalists, though battered, can quickly resupply men in the area, thanks to taking the massive factories in the Basque country the year before. But the Republicans have lost the bulk of their men and all of their airforce has been destroyed and cannot be replaced. Not only that but Republican morale has fallen desperately, and now they have no towns or areas in which they occupy to keep Valencia or Barcelona safe from the ever-increasing Nationalists. Franco is ready to begin the new Aragon offensive, to push through to the eastern coast and crush these two cities.

February 25

Any remaining Republicans, Communists and International Brigades left alive in Aragon huddle to form a front line along the bank of the Alfambra river, about 40 kilometres north of the Teruel town itself. As the Nationalists prepare for the upcoming Aragon offensive, these men have no plans or artillery to aid them.
International Brigades after seeking safety north of Teruel

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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.