This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Weeks 117 – 120: 1 – 31 October 1938

October 2

The Nationalists attack Hill 565 in the Sierra Pandols-Cavalls, taking the strategic post. The Republicans have held this high point since the start of the offensive. On this hillside is an old Moorish tower, which the XV International Brigades used as a general protection site, along with the many caves where men hid from sight during the fighting.  By now, most hill locations defended by the Republicans and International Brigades have been taken by the Nationalists, and many International battalions are starting to retreat from the battle, due to the command that all foreign fighters withdraw from Spain.

October 4

The intensely useless Non-Intervention Committee continues its withdraw of all foreign fighters in Spain. This is done in the hope that Franco and his fascists start to withdraw their 50,000 foreign men (and 30,000 Moroccan Legionnaires) from the battle – but why would they when they are making such sweeping gains? The Republicans start their withdrawal of the International Brigades, though many battalions have already fought their last battles and started their trek into Catalonia to leave Spain for good.

October 8

Sant Vicenç de Calders railway station, three kilometres outside the Catalonia village of  Sant Vicenç, is attacked from the air by the Italian Aviazione Legionaria. The station is an important one, where the junction lines between Barcelona to Madrid and Barcelona to Valencia meet. While the main village is nearby, the station itself is surrounded by the railway town. The bombing starts  as a civilian train from Tarragona is arriving at the station on its way to Barcelona. A single plane came from the sea, as the planes were based at Palma de Mallorca, and hit the train directly. The bombing killed 60 people and injured another 100, many trampled by the panic caused. It would not be the first attack on this strategic railway station, and is only 70 kilometres along the coast from Barcelona.

October 16

The Nationalists breach Hill 666 in the Sierra Panadols, the key point of the Pandols-Cavalls mountain range, which shall lead the Nationalists straight down to the Ebro itself. While the Republicans still hold the Sierra Pandols, they are now isolated pockets of men in caves, bravely holding out in the face of mass casualties. Some 50 kilometres north in the battle, the Republicans are also losing ground near Mequinenza, making the battle ever more difficult as the Spanish fighters are without any of their international men.

International Brigades near Falset (50 kilometres from the Ebro) 16 October as they prepare to leave Spain

October 29

The International Brigades have met their sad end after a bloody and brutal volunteer battle to save Spain. Around  10,000 foreign volunteers are still in Spain for the Republicans. The battles have had around 20,000 foreign fighters on the front-lines at their height, with some 35,000 total coming to Spain, with 15,000 killed and left behind. Of the 10,000 still in the country, half are exiles or refugees from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and other European nations such as Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Balkans, Austria, Poland, all which currently have right-wing governments, are annexed by, or under threat from, Germany.  Those remaining from Belgium and the Netherlands have lost their right as citizens for fighting for a foreign army. Those from countries not supporting the rising Fascism of Europe (England, France, the U.S and Canada, Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Chile, Argentina, olivia, Ukraine, China, India, Japan, Mongolia, the Palestine Jews, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Syria, Iran, Iraq – seriously, everyone came), were sent either immediately home, or were herded into camps north of the French border to either die there or eventually get home in time to suffer WWII. Those who chose not to return to their dangerous countries were drafted into Spanish battalions to stay on as Spaniards. Regardless of what country these men and women came from, their return home was not as heroes, as many suffered consequences of their decision to flee their countries to save Spain. None will be offered safe haven in Spain until the mid-1990’s.

Farewell parade in Barcelona 29 October

October 30

The Nationalist Army of the Maestrazgo is taken over by Morroccan General Mohammed Meziane, and they attack the Pandols-Cavalls sierra one more time, this time to end the battle to the river. Armed with the entire battalion, 100 aircraft from the Condor Legion and 175 guns, the Nationalists attack and take 19 fortified Republican positions, resulting in the deaths of 1,500 Republican troops and take another 1,000 men prisoner. With this, the Nationalists now can hike down the eastern side of the mountains to the Ebro, where its waters run along the border of Aragon in Catalonia. The Republicans are now in serious trouble, with a bloody Catalonia Offensive already planned by Franco.

Click on this great map to go to Richard Baxell’s site to learn so much more about the battles can I could ever manage to write. Baxell is an A+ expert on the war and International Brigades.

*thank you for your patience with these posts while I was delayed with the release of my latest book. 

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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 95 – 99: 1 – 31 May 1938

May was considered a quiet month in terms of gains in the war, it was certainly not quiet. After the heavy battle of the Aragon offensive, the Levante Offensive was proving to be slow-going for troops on either side due to weather and terrain. Madrid was being bombed constantly, as those defending the city were cold and suffering from lack of food and ammunition. Franco accepted he could not just take the city, but continued to bomb slowly, restricting the Madrid defenders piece by piece. Barcelona was still reeling from bombings earlier in the year, and plagued by constant infighting between Republican factions. Northern Spain was completely dominated by the 1937 invasion by the Nationalists. Seville had been captured on day one of the war and was locked down in fascist hell, as was nearby Granada. Salamanca further north suffered a similar fate, while across in Valencia and Alicante, they were far from the frontlines but their ports were subject to attack by air. Almeria was filled with refugees from southern Spain who had nowhere to turn. People in the cities were suffering from lack of food, safe shelter and medical care, while rural homes and small villages had the additional struggles with weather, poor crops, lack of supplies and trade and constant skirmishes of fighting.

May 1 – Bielsa Pocket Offensive

By the end of April, the Nationalists had reached the Mediterranean coast, breaking through at Vinaros, the most northern town of the coastal Valencia region. The Aragon Offensive had stretched through the entire Aragon region, leaving just one pocket, the town of Bielsa, under Republican control. The tiny town on the border with France is home to around 4,000 people living in the Pineta valley by the Alto Cinca river. The 43rd division, led by Antonio “El Esquinazado (The Dodger)” Beltran, a group of 7,000 men, have only four guns and no chance of any reinforcements or air cover. Meanwhile, the Nationalists in the surrounding area have double the men, with plenty of weapons and enormous air support.

The one thing which saves the Bielsa pocket is the difficult terrain, which surrounds the valley which leads directly into the Pyrenees. The Republicans, with almost no ammunition, manage to hold off the Nationalists in outbreaks of attack, backed up by bad weather. The Bielsa pocket managed to stay unharmed through April in snow and fog, but the weather begins to clear in May, so the Republicans start evacuating the 4,000 residents of the valley over the Pyrenees and safely into France. The troops manage to hold the Nationalists back as the civilians make the trek into France, but the Republicans do not flee and continue to fight to hold the Bielsa pocket, as it represents a huge morale boost for Republicans everywhere. Despite the overwhelming odds, the Republicans would hold the Bielsa pocket well into June. Some of the soldiers and nurses  choose to return to the Nationalist regions after aiding refugees, but almost 6,000 remain to fight.

The Pineta Valley north of Bielsa, where the refugees trekked to safety in France
The Republican 43rd division

May 11 – Levante Offensive

The Levante Offensive, which started on April 25, is continuing in difficult terrain. Due to the bad weather of April, all attacks were halted, giving the Republicans time to receive their new artillery, shipped over the French border courtesy of the Russians.  They were fitted out with Soviet Supermosca (I-16 Type 10) fighters with four machine-guns, 40 Grumman FF fighters and anti-aircraft guns. The Nationalists wish to make it south to Castellon, some 80 kilometres south from their first break into the region.

Nationalist faction tracking south through the Levante through three different divisions

The Nationalist Galician troops start heading south along the coast, the Castile troops head east from Teruel and the Maestrazgo troops headed southeast through the mountains in the centre. The Republicans, with their new equipment, are able to slow the inevitable march of the troops south, with none of the groups reaching Castellon by the end of May. Individual skirmishes break out through the month but casualty numbers are not recorded, though it is estimated  that in May, around 10,000 Nationalist men are killed, with only around 2,500 Republican casualties.

May 22 – Balaguer Offensive

The battle of Balaguer had been continuing since its first outbreak in early April. Francoist men had held the Segre river and the bridgehead into the town, when the Republicans were forced to remain in retreat on the east side of the river. On May 22, the Republicans again try to launch an offensive to take the Balaguer bridgehead, resulting in fighting going for a full seven days, but the Nationalist men are better trained, equipped and prepared.

Frontline through from Bielsa in the Aragon far north, down through the Levante – May 1938

Some of the Republican soldiers are only in their mid-teens and have received no training. By the end of the week of fighting, the Republicans have to withdraw and leave their casualties behind. Numbers of casualties during the constant outbreaks around Balaguer are not recorded, instead considered part of the overall push towards defeating Catalonia. The Republicans at Balaguer have successfully held the Nationalists as they slowly head into Catalonia, fearful of angering nearby France. The Balaguer Offensive will not end until January 1939.

The website on the Balaguer offensive of very thorough and has many photos and details of the battles and how it looks today. Click on the photos to access the site.

May 25 – Alicante bombing

After the Aragon Offensive, Franco changes tactics to destroy the Republican maritime trade and along with it, their morale. The Italian Aviazione Legionaria and the German Condor Legion plan to undertake bombings of the remaining Republican-held cities. Valencia, Gandia, Barcelona, Murcia, Alicante, Granollers and other Spanish towns are made targets.

Aerial attack on Alicante

Nine Italian Aviazione Legionaria bombers attack Alicante. Alicante has been far safer than any other Spanish city and has no working air-raid alarm and the anti-aircraft artillery is unusable.  Ninety bombs are dropped, many into the market and central city area. The deaths of civilians range between 275 and 393, some 100 of them unable to be unidentified due to damage. The Italians have no problems bombing purely civilian targets, just as the Germans have done.

Italy had already accepted to withdraw from Spain at the end of the war and to allow the Mediterranean to be safe and back to normal. But while saying this, they then sent another 3,000 men to Spain to fight and started bombing Mediterranean ports.

May 31 – Granollers bombing

Five Italian Aviazione Legionaria bombers attack Granollers. The town is only 30 kilometres north of Barcelona and has no military targets and is not a port town. One hundred kilograms of bombs, around 40 individual bombs, land in the city.  As the bombing lands in the city centre, most of the dead are women and children at the market. The death toll is estimated at between 100 and 224, as not everyone missing was found after the attack. 

Granollers after the bombing May 31, 1938

Only now does the rest of Europe stop to pause over the bombings of civilian targets, after more than a year of specific bombings. The British government sends two officers to carry out enquiry, who report that the bombings are being planned and carried out only to install terror.  The British government pairs with the Vatican, who appeal to Burgos (Franco’s Spanish capital), plus Rome and Berlin. Rome blames Burgos for ordering the attack, despite Alicante and Granollers being Italian attacks.  Italy’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Mussolini’s son-in-law Gian Galeazzo Ciano promises to look into the bombings, and calls Berlin to report – “actually, we have, of course, done nothing, and have no intention of doing anything either.”

List of cities to be targeted by the Italians, as found in an Italian notebook dated January – September 1938

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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.

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Weeks 90 – 94: 1 – 30 April 1938

*Apologies for the delays in postings. Hopefully that should be the end of the delays now*

April 1

The Nationalist troops are over the border from Aragon into Catalonia in Fraga, but they want Lleida, 28 kilometres to the northeast. First they encounter a Republican stand at Caspe, where the factions of left-wing fighters have retreated while they regroup or flee for their lives. The Nationalists easily sweep the now destroyed town of Caspe with the help of aerial support, and the Republicans continue their retreat east.

April 3

All Republican front lines have now collapsed and the International Brigade support has been destroyed. The German Condor Legion and Italian Aviazione Legionaria provide aerial support as the Nationalists storm the town of Gandesa, 50 kilometres east of Caspe.  The International Brigades left decide it is time to make a stand and choose Gandesa as their town, but after two days of heavy fighting, the Nationalists managed to either bomb or shoot many of the men. Around 140 mostly British and American fighters are captured, much of them from the XV International Brigade, while the Nationalists lose no men due to their aerial attack. As the volunteers are taken prisoner, many other Republicans are given the chance to escape over the Ebro river to safety.

Meanwhile, 80 kilometres north, the Nationalists have already reached the Catalonian town of Lleida, partly with the help of the Aragon fields, which are good airstrips for the huge aerial campaign the Francoists are waging in the region.  The town of Lleida has  a short-lived battle, for they too are overwhelmed by Nationalists.

For the first time, the Nationalist troops can see the sea, around 50 kilometres east of Gandesa over mountainous terrain.

April 4

Today marks the first day of the Battle of Segre, which lasts for nine months along the edges of the Segre river. Both sides will each bring in 180,000 men into what will be one of the longest battles of the entire war. The Segre river runs along the border of Aragon and Catalonia, providing a fortunate front line for the Republicans, who need all the help they can get. The river helps to power the hydro dams close to the border at the Pyrenees, and provide much of the power and supplies for the city of Barcelona. The Republicans set up fortifications along the east bank of the Segre while the Nationalists set up along the west, marking the first of hundreds of skirmishes.

New York University students in the Lincoln battalion, in April, 1938.Photograph from AP

April 5

The small town of Balaguer, on the Catalonian side of the Segre river, suffers the first of two days of attacks by Nationalist air forces. Balaguer is only 28 kilometres north up the river from Lleida, yet Nationalist men manage to get over a bridge at Balaguer. Republicans are able to fight back and get the Nationalists back over the river. Balaguer is one of the first town to be caught up in the Segre battle.

the Battle of Lleida

April 8

In the far north, Franco’s men have managed to claim several hydro-electric dams. With the  Talarn Dam already claimed in Lleida, these plants in the Pyrenees are vital to the survival of Barcelona. With this major coup, Franco could now easily take Barcelona and Catalonia. But Franco doesn’t want this; he wants a long drawn-out defeat of the Republicans, one that will inflict maximum suffering and death, plus a huge humiliation which will destroy any rebellion against Franco’s plans.

Franco decides he wants to continue to push through southern Catalonia and the Levante area of northern Valencia to the coast, rather than risk angering France and having them enter the battle along the Pyrenees.

April 10

The bridge over the Segre river is captured again by the Nationalists at Balaguer, allowing them access over the river to the stronghold the Republicans have set up.

Republican men on the border with France in the Pyrenees

April 12

The Republicans in the Balaguer area, most only teenage boys with no training, are part of the XVIII Army Corps,  who counterattack along the edges of the Segre in what turns into three days of fighting that sees all of the young and keen men killed by the better organised Nationalists, who continue to establish themselves east of the river.

Nationalist soldier on a captured Republican tank

April 15

While things north have slowed, the Levante Offensive continued its planning as Nationalist troops under General Aranda break through and reach the coastline at Vinaròs, the most northern town in the Valencia region, rather than aiming along the Catalonian coast. While Vinaròs is a town ill-equipped and easily surrenders, it is a huge blow for the Republicans and great for Nationalist morale. The Valencian and Catalonian regions have suffered from bloody aerial attacks and internal fighting, but until now have far from the front-lines of the war. Within only four days, the Nationalist have 70 kilometres of coastline around Vinaròs.

Nationalists at Vinaros

April 19

The Aragon Offensive is finally declared over, as the region is now totally under Nationalist control. But while the Nationalists have been fighting east from Teruel to the coast, the French border has been opened for Soviet supplies to flood in, to aid the Republicans. Franco is now on the coastline and has cut off Valencia from Barcelona, but Republicans along the coast and in both regions are formidable and ready to fight back.

Cyclist battalion at the front. Levante, 1938

April 22

Another battle breaks out in Balaguer, as the Republicans fight to keep the Nationalists west of the Segre river. A week of fighting in the area sees many Republicans killed as the Nationalists finally manage to gain control over the bridge in the town. But the Republicans have not lost the area around Balaguer; they will manage to hold out for another four months, though Republican casualties will be high.

April 25

The Levante Offensive officially begins, a month after troops enter the area. The Nationalists have 125,000 troops ready to take the region with 400 aircraft, upwards of 1000 pieces of artillery and Italian support. General Varela starts to head south from Teruel in Aragon, General Aranda is in Vinaròs, and the third faction under General Valiño are in the mountainous area between these locations, all spread over a 200 kilometre area. But the terrain is difficult and wet weather means the offensive is paused after only two days. In the meantime, the Republicans in the Valencia region now have anti-aircraft guns and machine guns, fresh from the Soviet supplies, along with men who are new to fighting. It won’t be until June that these Nationalists capture any serious areas.

Nationalist troops advancing in the Levante

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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.

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.

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.