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.

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This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 60: 3 – 10 September 1937: 80 years since the Battle of Belchite

The ailing Republican battle of Zaragoza is now centred on the bombing of the village of Belchite, which has been surrounded for two days. Around 3800 civilians are trapped in the town along with 7000 Nationalists fighting, determined not to lose the area. All are suffering with the heat of summer and water in the area has been cut off by the Republicans. With troops so spread out over the Zaragoza battle area of 100 kilometres between Belchite and Zuera, exact numbers are not known, but bloody combat continues right around the small town. Much of the Republican artillery for the battle, with T-26 tanks and aircraft support, moves in to cut off the southern end of the Nationalist troops from the northern reinforcements.

September 4

While the bombardment of tiny Belchite continues, Nationalists with the Army of the North continue their trek through the mountains from the Cantabria region into Asturias, and cross the strategic point of the Deva river, with Republicans holding the area quickly having to retreat.

September 5

The advancing Nationalists capture the tiny town of Llanes, but the 33,000 troops now have to trek through the limestone cliffs of the Sierra de Cuera. These difficult regions are Asturias’ protection and the Nationalists will have to take the El Mazuco pass in order to advance any further.

El Mazuco mountains

September 6

While the bombardment of Belchite is still ongoing, the 33,000 Nationalists in the north begin the battle of El Mazuco. The Republicans, groups of Basque, Cantabrian and Asturian fighters, have only 5,000 men in the Sierra de Cuera region. El Mazuco is just five kilometres from the ocean, meaning destroyers can also be deployed to help the Nationalists, along with German Condor Legion aircraft. The Republicans, all men weakened from the lost battles of Bilbao and Santander, have no support and no way of gaining reinforcements. Only the steep cliffs will keep the Nationalists at bay.

Republican Libertad

September 7

The Nationalist cruiser Baleares battles the Republican light cruisers Méndez Núñez and Libertad off the coast of Cherchell on the Algerian coast. The Baleares comes across the Republican convoy in the dark, becoming the battle of Cherchell. Republican ships are escorting merchant ships through the dangerous area. The entire convoy flees the area while Libertad and Méndez Núñez try to hold off the larger Baleares. The two Republican ships are separated  during the day while Baleares tries to repair initial damage, but by afternoon, Baleares is hit twice by Libertad. Baleares backs away to be recused by a sister-ship in the sea, while both Nationalist and Italian planes attack the two Republican ships from the air. All ships involved are damaged and the leave the area, with only the Nationalist Baleares suffering serious damage. However, two of the cargo ships which had been travelling with the Republican convoy panicked during the nearby battle and changed course to get to Algeria. One ship runs aground, and one is captured the French and taken into the Cherchell port.

Carpet-bombing is used in the battle of El Mazuco, using both explosive and incendiary bombs throughout the day. The Republicans are trying to hold their post under Commander Higinio Carrocera, just three battalions and 24 machine-guns, and only the terrain holds back the strong Nationalist troops.

Still on September 7

The huge battle of Zaragoza is over. Republicans managed to eat 10 kilometres into the Nationalist areas, but only captured unpatrolled areas and win a few tiny villages. Exact losses on both sides are unknown (running into the thousands) but are worse for the Republicans who have also lost much of their artillery in the process. The battle of Belchite has also now come to an end, with the village completely destroyed. The Republicans and International Brigades take 2,411 prisoners and another 600 Nationalists have been wounded in the fight. After both bombing and hand-to-hand fighting, 3,000 people are dead. Those left behind manage to live in the rubble until a new town is built nearby in 1939, however the ruins will never be touched.

source

September 8

The battle through the El Mazuco mountains continues as thick fog fills in the whole area. The only fighting that can be done is hand-to-hand combat, causes massive casualties and wounds on both sides, and the Nationalists manage to capture a full two kilometres of ground.

September 9

The Republicans battalions defending El Mazuco have to retreat as the Nationalists shell their positions, but the Nationalists cannot take new ground as the men are cut down by machine gun fire from the Republicans in reply, meaning no one makes up any ground.

Area of Cabrales in the El Mazuco pass area

September 10

Still under the thick fog, the Nationalists take the hill at Biforco, below the El Mazuco Pass, but the mountain of Llabres is still in Republican hands, where they machine gun Nationalist troops and roll down barrels of explosives. The day is marked with the first delivery of hot food for the Republican men. If the Nationalists cannot take this pass, they will be forced to climb much steeper mountains to claim El Mazuco.

on the hills at El Mazuco

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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 – Week 58/59: 21 August – 3 September 1937

August 22

Nationalist forces take the areas of Selaya, Villacarriedo, Ontaneda and Las Fraguas in the Cantabrian region as they advance towards Santander.

August 23

Navarrese forces fighting for the Nationalists claim Mazcuerras Valley and take Mount Ibio, which all-but cuts off the main road and the rail line between Santander and Asturias. Italian forces take Puente Viesgo after facing little Republican resistance.

Fascist salutes for Nationalists in Cantabria

August 24

Republican General Gámir-Ulibarri orders the general evacuation towards Asturias. Basque fighters begin their withdrawal from the front as the Nationalists are overwhelming the Cantabrian region.

The Republicans begin a major ongoing campaign in Zaragoza, which is their main aim for recapture. Both Belchite and Quinto are heavily guarded town where fighting begins, though Belchite has around 7,000 Nationalists fortified in the the village.

Nationalists enter Santander

August 26

Santander falls to the Nationalists at last thanks to huge troops numbers and air strikes. Around 160,000 refugees are in the city, including Republican  soldiers. Many try to escape via boats, which are overcrowded and begin sinking in the Bay of Biscay. Republican General Gámir-Ulibarri flies out of the region to France, to re-enter and take up arms again. All major Republican leaders flee the area. Nationalist forces enter Santander at midday and take 17,000 prisoners, but many are executed right away.

Unknown to the Republicans, the Basque fighters have made a secret agreement with the Italian Nationalist soldiers two days earlier. They agree to surrender at Santoña near Santander (close to 30,000 troops and officials), give over their weapons and do no harm to Basque industry. The Basques head aboard two British ships waiting to take them to safety. This becomes known as the Treason of Santoña.

August 27

The Basque troops waiting to leave Santander are captured by Franco forces. They are given the choice of fighting for the Nationalists or being Italian prisoners in Santoña. 22,000 are imprisoned, with half released three months later as they start fighting for the Nationalists. Only 510 are executed. The final prisoner won’t be released until 1943.

Prisoners being held in the bull ring in Santander

August 29

The Republican Army of the East, along with the XI and XV International Brigades, a total of 80,000 men, 90 planes and 105 T26 tanks, have fighting for five days begin the offensive to capture Belchite. The centre and north units only take vacant land, though the southern units have more success and take Mediana, Quinto and Codo. The Republicans surround Belchite itself but the Nationalists are ready to hold out over the forces. The Republicans cut off the water supply to the Nationalists and the 3,800 people in Belchite. September 1

The Nationalists take Unquera in Cantabria, which borders Asturias, as the Nationalists fighting in the north begin the offensive of Asturias. They begin a slow offensive, which will see troops moving less than one kilometre per day in mountainous areas.

The Republican offensive to take the town of Belchite begins, with aerial bombing, artillery bombing and fighting on the ground. The town is surrounded but the Nationalist are desperate to keep their post.

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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.