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.

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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.

This Week In Spanish Civil War History – Week 2: July 25 – 31 1936

 

Week 2: 25 – 31 July 1936

July 25

Hitler agrees to support Franco’s bid to take over Spain. Franco needs urgent supplies and Hitler needs a distraction from his plans to dominate Europe.

Reprisal killings are happening in the south, in and around Seville. Numbers of deaths are unknown; anyone suspected of supporting the Republicans is taken away to face a firing squad.

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Franco and Hitler

July 26

German and Italian planes land in Morocco, ready to help the Nationalist cause. With a naval blockade halting the transfer of soldiers from Morocco to the mainland, they can be flown instead.

July 27 

The Nationalists control Seville with reinforcements from Morocco on the German-donated airplanes. Seville is to be a main centre for the rebels to plan their sweep north to capture all of Andalusia in southern Spain.

Aircraft used by the Nationalists drop a bomb on a market in Malaga, killing mainly women and children.

Fighting between Republicans and Nationalists continues in the eastern cities of Valencia and Alicante, which haven’t been captured by either side yet. Both cities are Republican strongholds.

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Republicans fighting in the streets

July 28

First bulk arrival of German and Italian planes into mainland Spain. Masses of troops arrive, ready to help local military forces, now vastly outnumbering the Republican people.

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German donated aircraft used in Spain

July 29

Northern city of Gijon still fighting for control; military haven’t yet been able to claim the area.

July 30

Fighting still ongoing in Valencia as the large Republican population manage to contain the military in their barracks. Local people in support of the Nationalists are subdued by the worker’s Republican groups. Reports of old grudges between individuals being resolved with shooting, masked as executions due to the rebellion.

July 31

Great Britain bans the sale of weapons to the Republic. Most of Europe foolishly thinks that non-intervention is better than assistance.

400 Nationalist supporters killed by Republican supporters in Toledo as part of reprisal killings.

Reports from all locations of both Republicans and Nationalists being pulled from their homes and murdered, based on the perception of who they support. Reports of mass rape of women prior to being put before firing squads. Republicans are angry and trying to weed out ‘traitors’; Nationalists are killing the educated – doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists, government workers, anyone left-wing, and anyone suspected of voting Popular Front last February. Full-scale massacre has begun.

Republican prisoners about to be shot by Nationalist firing squad

Men being marched to firing squads

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Feel free to suggestion an addition/clarification/correction below. All photos are linked to source for credit.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: May – ‘Spain in our Hearts’ by Adam Hochschild

Spain in our Hearts
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From the acclaimed, best-selling author Adam Hochschild, a sweeping history of the Spanish Civil War, told through a dozen characters, including Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell: a tale of idealism, heartbreaking suffering, and a noble cause that failed
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For three crucial years in the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War dominated headlines in America and around the world, as volunteers flooded to Spain to help its democratic government fight off a fascist uprising led by Francisco Franco and aided by Hitler and Mussolini. Today we’re accustomed to remembering the war through Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Robert Capa’s photographs. But Adam Hochschild has discovered some less familiar yet far more compelling characters who reveal the full tragedy and importance of the war: a fiery nineteen-year-old Kentucky woman who went to wartime Spain on her honeymoon, a Swarthmore College senior who was the first American casualty in the battle for Madrid, a pair of fiercely partisan, rivalrous New York Times reporters who covered the war from opposites sides, and a swashbuckling Texas oilman with Nazi sympathies who sold Franco almost all his oil — at reduced prices, and on credit.
It was in many ways the opening battle of World War II, and we still have much to learn from it. Spain in Our Hearts is Adam Hochschild at his very best.
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Adam Hochschild is back with his usual expressive and emotional narrative, this time to take on the Spanish Civil War from an American point-of-view. The Spanish Civil War has been written as two sides of the same nation – one banded together with the workers, the artists, the intellectuals, all bolstered by wide-eyed international volunteers, pitted against the Nationalists; the fascist, the army, the Catholic church and the wicked landowners.
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So many tales tell of a romantic story, where optimists from many countries shipped to Spain in order to take on the ‘bad guys’. But Hochschild doesn’t take this typical view – rather he focuses on the facts of those who left the United States, and how their opinions and images could do more than the fighters on the ground. The book tells of how blatant lies were made up to oversell the Republicans power, or to tell total lies about Franco. With the United States continuing an embargo due to the war having a big effect on the outcome, Hochschild also then turns to unknown names, who in fact made a big contribution to  the war, then lost, despite all their efforts. Stories of individual Americans who fought and died in Spain are brought to life without the romance of being renegades or fighters of fascism, destroying the sometimes outdated notions of fighting in someone else’s battle.
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With heavyweights such as Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin all weighing in on the war in Spain, the world now knows that the civil war was a prelude for WWII, one that could have been altered with American and British help, and could have changed the world forever. The realities for Americans who went to Spain to fight, those wounded, killed in battle, or tortured and executed as prisoners, tell a more honest account of what it meant to leave the US for Spain.
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If you don’t know the story of Spanish Civil War, here is a great book which will give you fresh insight, without laying a glossy layer over what it meant to believe in the Republicans. Definitely worth the read. In a war which had so many sides, hastily cast together on the front line, it is individual stories that deserve to shine.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Spy with 29 Names’ by Jason Webster


thespy

The Spy with 29 Names is a gripping account of the exploits of Juan Pujol, the most extraordinary double agent of the Second World War, who was awarded both an Iron Cross by Germany and an MBE by Britain.
 
After the Spanish Civil War, determined to fight the spread of totalitarianism, Pujol moved to Lisbon with his wife, persuading the German intelligence services to take him on. But in fact, he was determined all along to work for the British, whom he saw as the exemplar of democracy and freedom. Seeing the impact of the disinformation this Quixotic freelance agent was feeding to the Germans, MI5 brought him to London, where he created a bizarre fictional network of spies – 29 of them – that misled the entire German high command, including Hitler himself. Above all, in Operation Fortitude he diverted German Panzer divisions away from Normandy, playing a crucial role in safeguarding D-Day and ending the war, and securing his reputation as the greatest double agent in history.
Cover artwork and blurb from jasonwebster.net
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The Spy with 29 Names is the story of a man who was almost lucky that the Second World War was raging. Had it not, his behaviour and attitude probably would have gotten him into trouble. A master of disguise, a man who had charming down to a fine art, a deceiver who could tell any lie. The spy known as ‘Garbo’ set up another, almost implausible, 28 spies from all walks of life and locales, and tricked the Germans into things no other spy managed during the war effort.

The book covers Juan Pujol Garcia’s early life from his birth in 1912 and the effects the Spanish Civil War had on his family in Barcelona. Pujol tried to fight for the Nationalists after his family got imprisoned by the Republicans, but he ended up with hate for the ideals of both sides of the conflict. Pujol harboured desires of being a WWII spy for the British but got rejected early on by the Embassy in Madrid, so he set out to work alone. Living in Lisbon, he started feeding downright false information to the Germans. The lies seemed to be trusted with impunity, so was Pujol’s ability to deceive.

British Intelligence crossed paths with Pujol first in 1941 when the code-breakers at Bletchley Park started finding messages to ‘Arabel’, a German agent who appeared to be in Britain. The messages started capturing their attention when they could see the information was blatantly false, but still seemed to be believed by the Germans. Kim Philby, the famous British spy, decided they needed to recruit ‘Arabel’ to help their own efforts and keep the British spy operations a secret. MI5 discovered the identity of ‘Arabel’ and Pujol went to Britain and worked with Tomás Harris to help with the effort and increase his false intelligence operation. While the information that Pujol spun to Germany was a pack of lies, he peppered it with a few genuine facts, only increasing his believability. The deeper Pujol went with Germany, the more elaborate he became, eventually having both male and female ‘spies’ on his side, reporting from the UK and abroad.

MI5 gave Pujol the code name ‘Garbo’ because he was a top-quality actor. Pujol went on to name his spy aliases with simple names, such as Rags the Indian poet, Mrs Gerbers the Widow, the Treasurer, the aptly named Con, and my personal favourite the Mistress, whom the Germans knew as Amy. Pujol’s ability to play the role of 29 different people would sound preposterous if it hadn’t been a real man who made such a massive contribution to the Allied endeavours. Pujol then become the main agent in ‘Operation Fortitude’, and his main objective was to tell the Germans that the proposed Allied invasion of Europe would happen anywhere other than Normandy.

As Pujol increased his involvement, even Hitler himself believed that Normandy would be not the D-Day location. For weeks leading up to the D-Day invasions, the Germans were diverting men and supplies away from Normandy. Pujol planned to tell the Germans a location and time of an invasion, only an hour before it happened. He then banked on them missing the transmission so his lying operation wouldn’t be blamed when the Allies stormed Normandy rather than up the coast, and ‘Garbo’ changed the war forever.

Two months after D-Day, the Germans awarded Pujol with the prestigious Iron Cross and a whopping payout for all his work. Even after the pivotal point in the war had damaged their operations, the Germans still believed all Pujol told them. Did anyone ever truly suspect Pujol? We will never know. Pujol moved to South America for his own safety after the war, and didn’t return until 1984 when he received his belated MBE and got the chance to visit the site of the D-Day landings. He passed away in 1988.

The story of Juan Pujol could have been lost to history while the stories of Kim Philby and other British spies were shared. Spain’s contribution to the Allied effort with one man’s charisma, lying and genius ideas is a story that needed to be told. Webster has woven a tale so astounding that it could be mistaken for a work of fiction and lets the light of day shine on the network of deception which saved countless lives. With meticulous planning and a clear, easy to read style, Webster has made an espionage tale that can appeal to those who enjoy war history and those who don’t. From the offices of the code-breakers to the complex conversations with the Germans and everyone in between, both the real-life and entirely fictional characters of the most fascinating spy are brought to life. Webster has written a book where everyone feels so authentic that a reader could be forgiven for falling for Pujol’s lies 70 years later.

Thanks to my father being a WWII buff, I grew up with a good knowledge of the war from the British point of view, but that level of knowledge isn’t required to enjoy this book. Webster also supplied a marvellous collection of photographs to feed the imagination of the reader. The book can sit proudly among all the fabulous works of fiction and non-fiction by this author. The Spy with 29 Names is an extraordinary account for all to enjoy as they recall how one of the most powerful weapons that saved the lives of our own relatives wasn’t a bomb – but a concoction of fiction.

Check out The Spy with 29 Names at jasonwebster.net and thespywith29names.com, and purchase on Amazon UK. Plus here is a video with the author about the locations where Pujol and Harris ran their operations.