This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Weeks 121 – 124: 1 – 30 November 1938

November 3

After occupying Pandols Range on November 2, the Nationalists fighting in the battle of the Ebro finally reach the water’s edge itself. With the Republicans either slaughtered or captured, and the International Brigades withdrawn at the Prime Minister’s command, nothing is stopping the Nationalists crossing into Catalonia.

November 7

The town of Cabra, 70 kilometres southeast of Córdoba, is bombed from the air by the Republicans. Between three bombers, some six tonnes of bombs are dropped in a surprise morning attack. The bombs are dropped on the market and working class areas, with one bomb weighing 200 kilograms landing right in the morning marketplace. The Republicans catch the Nationalists off-guard, who don’t have time to react. The plan is to hit the Italian troops stationed in Cabra, and the pilots think they see military tents, but instead hit the market awnings. Around 109 civilians are killed with another 200 injured in a scathing mistake.

November 10 

The Nationalists have crossed the Ebro river to take the small town of Móra la Nova, on the east side of the river in Catalonia province. They also have Mount Picossa, the final main strategic point in the Battle of the Ebro. The Republicans have no way to stop the Nationalists now.

November 16

The remaining Nationalist forces cross the Ebro at Flix and the battle is over. The Republican army is now destroyed, losing most of its men and all of its equipment, and the Republican airforce has nothing left to fight Franco’s rebels, losing 150 planes in the fight. Both sides have suffered massive losses over the four-month battle. The estimate of deaths ranges between 50,000 to 100,000 people, with another 20,000 to 30,000 captured. The Nationalists have sacrificed many of their finest officers, while the Republicans lost their experienced men and all their weapons. Even the Nationalists need to repair all of what they had left.

Franco signs a new deal with Germany, who send in new weapons in return for mining contracts, so the Nationalists can regroup and launch an attack on Catalonia. The Republicans have long used an approach of constantly attacking Nationalist positions, rather than planning solid defense, meaning Catalonia and its capital Barcelona have no safety, and the propaganda gained from constant attacks now has no use. The one positive note of the Ebro battles is that since the Nationalists had to turn around troops and weapons to the mountains, saving Valencia from being captured.

Remaining Republican men at the end of the battle

November 25

The Republicans now have no solid army, and the Nationalists are regrouping for a December attack on Catalonia. They need to bring 340,000 men together to cover the front-line from the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean, along the Catalonia border. The Republicans need to bring together 200,000 men to defend the region, though with no weapons, the men will be unarmed. The Soviets agree to send what artillery they can, though the battle is looking to be another slaughter by the Nationalists.

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This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Weeks 100 – 103: 1 – 30 June 1938

100 weeks into the 80th anniversary blog and still going, not a week missed (okay, sometimes late, but life happens)!

June 6

The small town of Bielsa on the border with France has been home to the Bielsa Pocket, all-out fighting for almost two months. The town of 4,000 people has been protected by the Republican 43rd division led by Antonio Beltran, though they have lost many men. The Nationalists have the entire Aragon and Huesca regions under their control, and only need to defeat the 43rd division, which have only half the number of men and almost no artillery. Much of the population of the Pineta Valley area around Bielsa has followed the Alto Cinca river north  to the border into France, which is still currently open. But on the morning of June 6, the Nationalists break through the frontline to take the town of Biesla. The battle has no importance to the war, yet the hold-up since mid-April means that many Republicans have been able to flee to safety through the difficult terrain into France. This delay in the Nationalist march gives the Republicans a huge morale boost as the 6,000 Republican soldiers bravely fought back.

Pineta valley and Alto Cinca river into France

June 13

The Levante Offensive has continued, despite the huge cache of Soviet artillery the Republicans have received over the French  border. The Nationalists, continuing their three-pronged attack from the north, west, and northwest battalions, take Castellón, capital of the Levante region of north Valencia. It is General Rafael Garcia Valiño’s northwest battalion which has fought its way south through the harsh mountainous terrain, bombing and destroying villages such as Benassal, Albocásser, Ares del Maestrat, and Vilar de Canes. Many in this arid region have never seen bombs or German aircraft, and were killed without resistance. Vilafamés  has an airfield which makes the village a target, the town crushed in the Nationalist trek south to Castellón. Castellón is a key port for the Nationalists to gain, to receive more equipment needed to continue south.

Vilafames in 1938

(Side note: I first visited Vilafamés 13 years ago, when it was still a loooong way off the tourist trail, and is still quiet now. Finding any evidence of the SCW was either hidden or locked away from the public.  The locals thought me suspicious, a foreigner loaded down with babies and looking for war info. Lots of old ladies twitching their curtains. 

In February this year, Vilafamés reopened the old war airfield and its 11,000 square-metre area, home to the old aviation telecommunications tower,  air-raid shelters, staff kitchens, 200 metres of trenches, basic shelters, ammunition store, pilot flying records, a life-size replica of a Polikarpov I-15 ‘Chato’ aircraft, and memorial plaques. All of these areas are fully accessible to the public, considered a living museum, and also has a full military re-enactment camp, medical tents, radio posts and machine gun positions. They have also written a book on the area, which is a good read if you know Spanish, though being filled with photographs and artwork, anyone can enjoy) 

Click here to read more about the book and authors

Franco wants to be in Valencia by July 25, only 70km south of Castellón, and wants the port village of Sagunto, just 30km north of Valencia, immediately. But the Condor Legion are exhausted after bombing their way south through the Levante, and wants to be withdrawn. Generals call for the battle to Valencia to be abandoned, but Franco will not oblige. By the end of the month, Franco will reinforce the Levante troops, now given new leaders, fresh men and an enormous artillery, with some 900 cannons, 400 new aircraft and 50 Italian bombers. The men will be put into the Turia corps, but the second half of June yields little result. The Sierra Espada, the mountains leading from Sagunto on the coast northwest towards Teruel are impossible terrain for Nationalist troops, and the Republicans have managed to hold them back. The reinforcements are coming, and yet the Republicans are in a firm position to hold Sagunto and Valencia.

There are still many war secrets hidden in this area

June 16

The Republican fighters who held the Bielsa pocket complete their final retreat, with the last troops crossing the border into France. The French government gives them a choice – they can re-enter Spain on the Republican or Nationalist side. While 411 men and five nurses choose to join the Nationalists, another 6,000 re-enter Spain to continue the fight against the Francoists.

The 43rd division

June 25

The border from Spain to France as been open since March 17, allowing many people over to safety and weapons in to fight Franco’s men. But the flow of weapons and refugees has taken a toll on France and its relations with other nations in Europe. The border is ordered closed again, cutting off countless thousands from reaching safety. The closure of the border means that Spaniards are completely on their own again while the Nationalists still have access to men and weapons via Italy and Germany. With the border again closed and countries all trying to stay out of the war while they worry about European war, the time the International Brigades can remain in Spain is starting to look short, but first shall come July’s Ebro Offensive.

The below video has no date of the footage nor the location it was shot, but does show how many wished to escape into France on any given day during the precious three months the border was open. 

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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 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.

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.