This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Weeks 138 – 141: 1 – 25 March 1939

March 3

Now that the Republicans have lost Catalonia, they have no chance of winning the war. The Republicans still holds Madrid after almost three years of being surrounded, and another thirty percent of the country. But Barcelona is the head of the war industry, all now in Nationalist hands. More than 220,000 men and women have died fighting the Nationalists, Republican president Azaña has quit, and the UK and France have recognised Franco’s government. Prime Minister Negrin still wants to battle on, supported by the PCE Communists, while the CNT, the SIM and the PSOE and UGT are also working together, but want to stage a coup against the Prime Minister and the Communists.

Spanish refugees in concentration camps on French beaches

March 4

Negrin sends Communist PCE Francisco Galán to Cartagena to take over command of the naval base. Cartagena has been under the control of General Casado, and remaining Republicans revolt in Cartagena, and Galán is arrested. The Fifth Column members in Cartagena decide to join Casado’s rebellion and take the coastal batteries of Los Dolores and the local radio station. They broadcast a call for help to fight the coming Nationalists and name retired General Rafael Barrionuevo as governor of the city. The Nationalists have already sent 16 ships with 20,000 men towards Cartagena, but the coup members have the coastal batteries, meaning landing is impossible.

March 5

The Nationalists bomb the harbour of Cartagena from the air so their ships can dock in the city. The surprise attack by five bombers sinks the Republican destroyer Sánchez Barcáiztegui, but those all on board manage to escape. Republican Commander Miguel Buiza orders the entire Republican fleet to leave Cartagena in an attempt to escape damage before they plan their next move. They still have three cruisers,  Miguel de Cervantes, Libertad and Mendez Nuñez, as well as another eight destroyers all in good order, which head for Bizerte in Tunisia. None of the ships will ever return, interned by the French.

March 6

The Republican government flees Spain into France in permanent exile. General Casado, having staged his coup against the Prime Minister, is backed by General Miaja in Madrid, and sets out to arrest all communists in the city, believing they are going to rise up and try to take Republican Spain. Fights begin breaking out all over the city as Republicans start to turn on one another in desperation. Casado appoints himself the Commander of the Republican Army of the Centre and leader of the National Defence Council, who wish to negotiate with Franco. Colonel Barceló, who had been Commander of the Army of the Centre, resists these moves, but General Casado is supported by the heads of the Levante, Extremadura and Andalusia armies.

Franco orders his ships heading for Cartagena to hold off, as the Republican coup still have the batteries ready at the port. All ships pull back, except for the SS Castillo de Olite, which is fired upon three times at close range. The ship quickly breaks in two and sinks. While 700 Nationalist troops are rescued and taken prisoner, another 1,225 soldiers drown in what is Spain’s biggest naval tragedy.

The SS Olite prior to sinking

March 11

Five days of fighting in Madrid has led to Colonel Barceló and his men marching into Madrid to take control of the city and out of General Casado’s hands. But Barceló and his men are defeated after bloody street battles. Barceló and his commissar Jose Conesa are arrested and put before a military tribunal in Madrid a day later. Up to 2,000 are dead in just five days.

The National Defence Council, Casado on the left

March 12

General Casado, leading the Consejo de Defensa Nacional (National Defence Council) with many supporting factions – Julian Besteiro, Wenceslao Carrillo, Gonzalez Marín and Eduardo Val (CNT), Antonio Perez (UGT), and Republicans representatives Miguel San Andrés and Jose del Río. They group attempt to negotiate with Franco, but Franco wants nothing but total surrender, with massive repercussions for Republicans supporters.  Casado wants safety for surviving Republican soldiers and civilian sympathisers, which Franco will not agree to in any form.

Fighting has also been taking place in other Republican held areas. In Ciudad Real, Extremadura army troops rise against Communist deputy Martínez Cárton and take control of the city. Cartagena, scene of the initial uprising, is now firmly in the hands of rebel Republicans, and the Communist factions have lost all control over the port and city.

March 15

The executions of Colonel Barceló, his commissar and their supporters take place in Madrid. The Communists among the Republic have no power, and neither do any of the groups which have clung together throughout almost three years of war. Madrid cannot hold out against Nationalists troops any longer and Franco is ready to march upon the city.

Madrid ready to surrender

March 20

Franco and his men are planning the final offensive of Spain. No negotiations from Casado or Madrid have worked, and Nationalist troops are slowly heading into every remaining Republican area to take total control. Republican troops will fight the Nationalists, lacking men, food, clothing and ammunition. The ports of Valencia and Alicante are the last place that people can run to, fleeing the coming Franco troops. All ports are blocked, all ships captured within three miles of the coast, but Valencia and Alicante are still in Republican held zones, meaning people have a slim chance of getting on board a foreign ship. Many would rather kill themselves on the dock at Alicante and Valencia than be captured by the Nationalists. For the leaders of Republican troops, such as Casado, they must flee the country before the arrival of Franco’s men, or they will be immediately executed.

2,638 people managed to get on board the Welsh Stanbrook in Alicante when the captain took as many of the 30,000 refugees as he could fit in what was a trip to collect oranges and saffron.

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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 – Week 48: 12 – 19 June 1937

June 12

The Republican attack on Huesca begins in the hope of stalling the Nationalist attack on Bilbao. The XII International Brigade, now without their General, join Spanish Republicans under their General and storm Huesca, 300 kilometres southeast of Bilbao, and just 70 kilometres north of Zaragoza. Huesca has been held by the Nationalists through the war and while they lack the men the Republicans have, they are well dug into the area. The Republicans have 50,000 men, mostly anarchists and POUM members from Barcelona, sent after the May Days a month earlier. Thousands of Republicans men are cut down with machine guns and artillery fire in what will become a week-long offensive.

Republican/Basque fighters outside the Bilbao (via Robert Capa)

June 13

The battle of Bilbao sees fighting in the streets of the city, with Nationalist supporters rising up against their fellow Basques. The Republican/Basque army is in retreat, headed for Santander, and Nationalist sympathisers, Fifth Columnists, riot through the city and take strategic buildings. Anarchist militias, not fleeing with the army, fight back against the columnists and beat them back, with mass casualties on both sides. The Basque police force, still in the city, have to hold back the anarchist fighters as they try to storm jails to kill Nationalist prisoners.

Women flee in Bilbao (via Robert Capa)

June 14

Most of the city is now evacuated as the people of Bilbao flee ahead of the awaiting Nationalist army, who are already camped inside the Iron Ring. The government and army have completed much of their retreat and it is every man for himself as the Basque capital is about to fall.

Basque fighters outside Bilbao (via Robert Capa)

June 16

The POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) party is officially outlawed in Spain. Their leaders are rounded up mostly in Barcelona. Their official leader, Andreu Nin, is not yet found and caught.

Republican troops continue their offensive against Huesca, to draw Nationalist troops away from Bilbao. Republicans attack the villages of nearby Alerre and Chimillas, but are beaten back by the Nationalists. Around 9,000 Republican men are now dead and the offensive to take Huesca is all but over.

June 17

Andreu Nin is found in Barcelona and arrested. He, along the other POUM leaders are secretly taken by Communists to an illegal torture prison at Alcalá de Henares, just north of Madrid. Alexander Mikhailovich Orlov, a General for the KNVD (Soviet internal affairs), tortures Nin for days. It was admitted by Spain’s Education Minister, a Communist, that Nin was interrogated and would not talk. They then used torture in the form of peeling off Nin’s skin and tearing his muscles and they tried to get information out of him. Within days, Nin’s face was unrecognisable. Whatever the Communists wanted, none of the POUM either had it, or would give in.

Minster of Health Federica Monstseny, and others soon start asking the Spanish government if they know the whereabouts of Andreu Nin and his party members. A campaign named Gobierno Negrín: ¿dónde está Nin? (To the government of Negrín: where is Nin?) begins as rumours spread Nin was taken to the Soviet Union for execution, or that he was killed when the Germans tried to save him (thus making him a secret fascist). Rumours swirl Nin was either with Franco in Salamanca or with Hitler in Berlin. Nin is never seen in public again.

Bilbao is bombed with 20,000 shells as the capital city is destroyed. Basque President Aquirre makes a secret deal to send 900 Nationalist prisoners from jails and hand them to the enemy, in the hopes of saving some innocents who are being bombed.

Jaime I, a dreadnought battleship of the Spanish Navy, is destroyed in Cartagena. Bombed three times in drydock on May 21, it is beginning another round of repairs when an explosion happens without warning. Sabotage versus accident is never fully explained. All three of Spain’s dreadnought sister-ships are now destroyed.

Shells knock out bridges into Bilbao

June 18

The Basque government is ordered to destroy all its valuable factories in Bilbao, so the Nationalists cannot gain access. Bilbao has many strategic factories for the war effort and the Basque government refuses the command from the Republic Spanish government. The Basques believe European war will soon come and the Nationalists will be destroyed.

The Nationalists walk straight into Bilbao

June 19

Juan Manuel Epalza, working for the Basque government, leads 900 Nationalist prisoners out of prison in the night and hands them over the awaiting Nationalist army outside Bilbao. At dawn, the Nationalist troops walk into Bilbao without opposition. About 200,00 people have now fled, and the Nationalists start giving food to some left behind in the city. The Bay of Biscay is filled with boats as Basques try to flee the Nationalists. Many refugee boats are overcrowded and sinking, and the Nationalist Navy have ships waiting to round them up and send them home. Many boats attempt to float to France, and Non-Intervention Committee ships, mostly from Britain, watch them but do not go to their aid. Many sink are or are sent back to Spain.

Franco now has the multiple steel and mine factories in Bilbao in his hands. But he has to give two-thirds of all production to Hitler. With Hitler is making his own preparations for war, Franco owes Hitler for all the German planes, weapons and killing that has been done on Franco’s behalf.

Rumours continue about the possible death of Andreu Nin, who may or may not still be alive in Alcalá de Henares. Many do not know officially of his secret arrest yet, but are well aware the Communists have pounced.

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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.