This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Weeks 108 – 112: 1 – 31 August 1938

Sorry for the massive delay in posts as I published my latest book. All will be caught up in the next few days. HERE is July if you have forgotten the timeline.

August 1

The XV International Brigade and the Republican mixed 15th Army Corps launch their attack of Hill 481 outside Gandesa. The Republicans have large numbers but suffer massive casualties as the Nationalists have air support over the hillside into Gandesa. The Nationalists are prepared to defend Hill 481 at the expense of making any gains.

The battle lasts for several days, resulting in the Republican troops trapped along the edge of the Segre river. While crossing the river would give the Nationalists a free advance towards Barcelona, Franco orders the men to stay and ensure the slaughter of the Republican army.  The Republicans order their men to stand their ground, and are executed if they try to retreat. The Nationalists kill their way through the Republicans with solid artillery and air cover.

The early August battle is fought WWI western front style, with both sides battling in long trenches, neither gaining or losing significant ground while the casualty numbers pile up. In the first few days of the month, the Nationalists’ 500 cannons pound the Republicans with 13,000 rounds while their 200 aircraft dropped another 10,000 bombs. The Republicans had only machine guns and mortar fire, but refused to give up their access across the river.

Nationalist men heading towards the Segre

August 5

With the land rock-hard in the height of summer, and the temperatures hovering about 40C, water and food shortages begin to become another battle for Republican men. Bodies are piling up, and cannot be buried, while the wounded can only be sent over the river at night, causing the death count to rise further. The German and Italian air cover continue to fly dawn to dusk, only hindered by the Republicans’ 75 planes, half of which are poor quality aircraft. Over the past six weeks, the Republicans have lost half of their planes in battle and most of their Soviet pilots, the only ones trained in flying and fighting, had either died or retreated from battle. By August 5, the Republican crossings over the Ebro have been bombed, and supply lines all over the battle are destroyed, leaving men on barren hillsides to be bombed from the air, or shot from high points around the Sierra Cavalls.

A Republican cave hospital

August 6

After almost a week of defence and systemic bombing, the Nationalists launch their own counter-offensive, this time to retake Republican areas. The northern area of the Ebro battle, a 20-kilometre line between Mequinenza and  Fayón, is bombed by the German Condor Legion carrying 50 tonnes of bombs, over four days, to break their supply line and Republican defence. The Republicans have no way of defending themselves, with their airforce tied up at Gandesa.

The Nationalists outside Gandesa

August 11

The Republicans camped by the river outside Mequinenza are unable to cross back over the river, which marks the border between Aragon and Catalonia. Some 900 men are killed in the bombing and over 200 machine guns have been destroyed, leaving the stretch of river exceptionally vulnerable.  The attack then changes to attack the 11th division, lead by the Republican General Lister, who has no reinforcements or artillery to defend them, leaving the river further unprotected.

August 14

The Nationalists have the Ebro Army still battling to cross, while the Eastern front is ready to cross the Segre river into Catalonia. Yet Republicans still hold the Sierra Cavalls beside the river, though the Nationalists take the hilltop of the Santa Magdalena near the town of Vilalba dels Arcs, 40 kilometres south of Mequinenza, getting closer to the Ebro on foot.

August 18

The Nationalists, who have captured the northern dams, open the dams and flood the Ebro, which again washes away the Republican pontoons, leaving troops stranded and the supply line cut as they struggle to hold their ground in the mountains.

Franco in the Sierra Cavalls

August 19

The last five days of fighting has allowed the Nationalist General Yague to move his six divisions and the Condor Legion to the area of Gaeta, 10 kilometres north of Gandesa. The new Republican counter-offensive has now completely stalled, and yet the Nationalists are only making very slow progress. The weather conditions are making war near impossible on the rocky plains as the temperatures remains at 40C on a regular basis. The Republicans have had their crossings of the Ebro lost and yet the Nationalists are also not advancing into Catalonia.

August 29

In a fit of anger and frustration, Mussolini, who had been aided the Nationalists with men, planes, points, artillery and cash, is angry that the Nationalists have still not gained into Catalonia, and announces “today, 29 August, I predict the defeat of Franco. That man does not know to make war or doesn’t want to.” (if only!)

August 31

Nationalist General Valiño and his Maestrazgo Corps are ordered by Franco to head north to battle for the Sierra Cavalls. The highest point, Punta Redona, is held by the Republicans and only 12 kilometres from the Ebro. The whole mountain range is held by the 35th, 43rd and 11th Republican divisions, and the Nationalist Maestrazgo Corps bring in eight division with 100 tanks and 500 aircraft, ready to destroy the Republican area.

The Sierra Cavalls outside Gandesa

September and October 1938 will be done tomorrow.

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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 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.