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.

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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 82-85: 80 Years Since the Battle of Teruel, February 1938

February  7

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

the leftovers of Teruel town itself

February 18

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

Republicans defenders in Teruel before their capture

February 20

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

civilians fleeing the Teruel region

February 22

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

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

February 25

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

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the month’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Weeks 77-81: Teruel and Cáceres, January 1938

James Neugass accompanying Cuban volunteer Pablo Carbonell, killed in action in Teruel

January 1

It is Republicans versus Nationalists in hand-to-hand combat in the Convent of Santa Clara, where the original Nationalist garrison are held up on the western edge of Teruel. All the Nationalist fighters in the Convent are killed.

January 3

Another of the initial Nationalist hold-out spots is destroyed, the Civil Governor’s Building. They fight the Republicans floor to floor in the building, the fight witnessed and reported by Ernest Hemingway. All Nationalists in the building are eventually killed, and soon after, the Seminary of Santa Clara is overrun by Republicans when the defenders have no water or food, are low on supplies and the buildings themselves are destroyed by the fighting.

January 8

Colonel Domingo Rey d’Harcourt is still holding out, with only a Bank of Spain building in Nationalist hands inside Teruel, while the reinforcements are still kept outside of the small city. Because of the horrific cold weather, Franco’s troops cannot get into Teruel, and finally Colonel d’Harcourt and his men surrender, along with Bishop Anelmo Polanco. Teruel is officially in Republican hands. The Colonel and Bishop will be sent to Valencia, and then towards Barcelona along with the remaining 40 Nationalist men captured. All will be executed on February 7 en route to France.

January 17

The weather has finally cleared over Teruel. The Nationalist garrison inside the town, which was at 9,500 men when the Republicans first attacked, are all dead. However the 100,000 reinforcements continue to attack the city.

Republicans in Teruel

January 19

The Republicans, despite having similar numbers to the Nationalists, are concerned they cannot hold Teruel, with low supplies and equipment. The International Brigades, who have been in the area, are officially called in to help. The enormous numbers of men on both sides leads to fierce fighting and dramatic damage done to Teruel, though little gains are made for either side. Civilians in the town have now fled, or been killed in the crossfire as the Republicans become surrounded in Teruel.

January 21

The killings in Cáceres have continued though the first weeks of 1938. By the 20th, a total of 196 Republican civilians have been executed. Among the dead are forty Francoist soldiers who were accused of being secret Republicans. The killings, which started at Christmas, continued over New Year and sixteen miners were killed on The King’s Day, the Epiphany, the most celebrated Spanish day of January 6. The tiny nearby village of Navas del Madroño had 54 people killed in one day, and Malpartida de Cáceres lost twelve men. Men, women and children are lined up and executed through the region, and any orphans left over are sent to brutal Francoist orphanages. A total of 675 people are killed in this tiny region during the war, including the 196 victims of these killings, people killed over rumours and outright lies. Their bodies were not be recovered or given a memorial for nearly 80 years.

Numbers of people killed, in date order.

January 23

Back in Teruel, the Nationalists have finally pushed the Republicans off the Teruel Tooth mountain ridge over the city. The Nationalists still hold the train station and bullring in the southwest area but cannot make any more gains.

January 25

The Republicans launch a huge counteroffensive to take back the Teruel Tooth ridge and the train station, so they can be again connected to Valencia. While numbers are massive on both sides, the Nationalists cannot break into Teruel any further, and the Republicans cannot beat them back. The south of Teruel is where heavy fighting occurs. This bloody fighting without gain for either side will continue for another two weeks. If the Republicans lose Teruel, they will lose their hold over Franco being cut off from the Mediterranean.

The Lincoln Brigade stationed outside Teruel

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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.

OCTOBER SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Petals and Bullets’ by Mark Derby

It was bright moonlight – good bombing light – and once we had to stop and put out our lights as a Fascist aeroplane flew over. They usually come swooping down with guns firing at cars, especially ambulances. Finally we arrived at a town among the hills about 12.30 p.m. Here there is a hospital of about 100 beds in a former convent . . . They expect an attack tonight. – New Zealand nurse Dorothy Morris’s description of her journey to a Republican medical unit of the Spanish Civil War in early 1937

Petals and Bullets is based on the vivid, detailed and evocative letters written by Dorothy Morris to her family in Christchurch, while she was serving in often dangerous circumstances in Spain and other European countries. The letters have been supplemented by wide-ranging research to record a life of outstanding professional dedication, resourcefulness and courage.

Dorothy Aroha Morris (1904–1998) volunteered to serve with Sir George Young’s University Ambulance Unit, and worked at an International Brigades base hospital and as head nurse to a renowned Catalan surgeon. She then headed a Quaker-funded children’s hospital in Murcia, southern Spain. As Franco’s forces advanced, she fled to France and directed Quaker relief services for tens of thousands of Spanish refugees. Nurse Morris spent the Second World War in London munitions factories, as welfare supervisor to their all-female workforces. She then joined the newly formed UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, working in the Middle East and Germany with those who had been displaced and made homeless and destitute as a result of the war.

Dorothy Morris’s remarkable and pioneering work in the fields of military medicine for civilian casualties, and large-scale humanitarian relief projects is told in this book for the first time.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Spain veined with blood and metals, blue and victorious, proletariat of petals and bullets, alone, alive somnolent, resounding.

The quote from Pablo Neruda starts the book of the life of a woman no one knows, but made a huge difference to the lives of those struggling during the Spanish Civil War. Dorothy Morris was born in Cromwell, New Zealand in 1904, by the mid-thirties was working as a nurse. The book charts her early life in New Zealand, a life filled with change, war and strikes which would have moulded Morris’ plan to live a life of helping others. Gtowing up in Christchurch, Morris left New Zealand for London in 1935, with ideas considered ‘radical’, ready to take on Europe.

Morris spent 1936 in London, helping those who were preparing to leave for Spain as civil war broke out, and helped to raise funds for those in need. But by early 1937, she could stand aside no longer. She applied to go to Spain with Sir George Young, to send ambulances to Málaga in Spain’s south. As they set out for Spain, Franco’s forces destroyed Málaga and the killing reached catastrophic levels. Morris and a small group drove through Europe, managed to get over the border from France, and headed for Valencia. By February 1936, they were all sent to Almería to try save the few refugees that hadn’t been murdered on the roads out of Málaga.

Letters from Morris to her family tell of the horror and desperation in Almería, a small city now filled with traumatised refugees and the threat of Franco’s forces ever-present. Morris was charged with aiding the International Brigades, who were suffering from health problems, horrific injuries and starvation.

Morris was moved to Brunete as the huge battle broke out just a few months after her arrival in Spain. She survived to be moved on to Murcia, to aid starving refugees from Málaga, Cadíz and Seville. She called the place an abyss of misery, a city of just 60,000 which had another 60,000 refugees.

Letters and photos of Morris’ time in Spain are beautifully woven into a story through this book, before detailing how, by February 1939, long after International Brigades had left, Morris had to flee. Sadly, Morris had fallen in love with a Republican doctor, a lover whose name was never revealed. He was sent to the front lines along the Ebro in late 1938, and he disappeared. Morris would never hear from him again.

Morris left Spain via Alicante in February 1939, just before the mass killing of refugees, and went to France, where she would then help the 100,000 men in a refugee camp in Perpignan, and worked to send thousands of Spaniards to Latin America in June 1939.

Morris couldn’t bear to leave the area, and moved to the Pyrenees where she worked helping children in a village name La Coume. Morris served as a nurse throughout the entire WWII, enduring her brothers’ imprisonment in Europe, and was chosen to work for the United Nations from 1944. Morris’ letters tell the story of a strong woman, who truly cared about the plight of the working class, of equality and peace. Dorothy Morris is a woman to inspire everyone after 50 years of caring for the suffering of Europe.