This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 142: 80th Anniversary of the Final Offensive 26 March – 1 April 1939

March 26

General Yagüe and his troops advance north and east from the Sierra Morena mountains, on the Andalusia/Castilla La Mancha border. Any remaining Republican soldiers in the country are ordered to drop their weapons and retreat from any remaining front-lines. Nothing can be done to stop the Nationalists now. In a single day, the Nationalist troops take 200,000 square kilometres of land and take 30,000 Republican prisoners. Escobar Huerta surrenders the city of Ciudad Real to Yagüe inside an old casino, and is then shipped off to be executed.

March 27

General Solchaga’s Navarre Corps, General Garcia Valiño’s Army of Maestrazgo, and General Gambara’s Italian troops are ordered to take the city of Toledo, which has spent much of the war on the front-line, and just 70 kilometres from Madrid. The city suffers unconditional surrender and prisoners are quickly captured. Anyone Republican must be swiftly rounded up.

Troops head from Toledo to Madrid

March 28

Republic Colonel Prada officially surrenders Madrid to the Nationalists, who have had the city surrounded for almost three years, and the Nationalists are able to enter the city without a fight. All remaining leaders of the Republicans who are in Madrid flee to Valencia in the hope of escape, including General Casado, who had been trying to negotiate a peaceful surrender with Franco.

Troops mingle with locals as they enter Madrid

March 29

The Nationalists now hold the main centre of Jaén, some 90 kilometres north  of Granada, and have also marched 250 kilometres southeast of Madrid to Albacete and Cuenca, so most of Castilla La Mancha is now occupied. The port town of Sagunto, just 30 kilometres north of Valencia city, is occupied, leaving Republicans refugees almost nowhere else to go.

March 29

The ports of Valencia, Gandia, Alicante and Cartagena are still in Republican hands, and 50,000 Republican refugees are stranded along the coast, without any Republican navy to aid them from the coming onslaught. British and French ships in the regions cannot take refugees, as their governments have recognised Franco’s control over Spain. Hundreds of Spaniards rich enough to bribe foreign ship captains are able to escape, General Casado included.

Refugees wait in Alicante

March 30

The Nationalists take Valencia, marking the final demise of the Republican effort to save their country. Gambara’s Italian troops take Alicante and its port, taking 15,000 refugees prisoner at the port. Gambara is prepared to allow political refugees to leave the country, but the Nationalists shall not allow it. At the port in Alicante, refugees start committing suicide in huge numbers, to avoid the Nationalists, who are only one day away from arriving.

The British Stanbrook leaving Alicante with rich refugees, bound for Algeria.

March 31

After taking the regions of Almeria, Murcia and Cartagena in the far south-east, all of Spain is now under Nationalist occupation. All remaining refugees in Spain are huddled in Alicante port, hoping their chance to be evacuated will still come. The Nationalist troops arrive, and the refugees are slowly lined up to be taken prisoner. But there are 20,000 terrified people, and they have to suspend capturing people until the next day, giving more the chance to commit suicide at the port before being taken away. The suicide toll runs into the hundreds.

April 1

Generalissimo Francisco Franco broadcasts what will be his last radio message of the war:

Today, after having disarmed and captured the Red Army, the Nationalist troops have secured their final military objective. The war is ended. Burgos, April 1, 1939. Year of Victory.

As of April 1, only the Soviet Union does not already recognise Franco’s government. Franco already has a new Non-Aggression Pact with Portugal and a treaty of friendship with Germany, leaving Spain to be neutral in WWII, while they recover from civil war. Within a week, Franco backs the Anti-Comintern Pact between Germany and Japan to denounce Communism. German and Italian troops leave by June 1939, in preparation for the coming European war.

The Final Offensive saw 150,000 Republic soldiers and civilian rounded up in the concentration camps, bringing the total of Republic prisoners in April 1939 to upwards of 500,000. Within just several years, over 50,000 will have already been executed. 

Franco celebrates in Madrid

After three years of bloody battles, of murder, rape, pillaging, looting, of destruction of cities, towns, communities, ways of life, ideals, and families, evil emerges the winner. All sides of political spectrum have fought, the rich against the poor, the workers against those desperate to hold onto the monarchy, religion, and landowning feudal rulers, everyone and everything has been pitted against one another for a horror show of gore and misery. Approximately one million people are dead, murdered by people of their own country. From the sprawling rural plains to the ancient cities, everything has been reduced to nothing, every way of life hacked to pieces. Civilians have been herded and lined up to be executed, women raped until they died and left sprawled in the dirt. Bodies of nuns were dug up and displayed, family members ripped from their homes in the dead of night and shot in ditches, their families still to scared to speak up eighty years later.

Nationalist victory parade in San Sebastian

While April 1st marks the end of the Spanish Civil War, the war didn’t end for many. Franco’s first decree was to ensure all Republicans would suffer for their choices. More than 1000 concentration camps were erected in Spain, holding people well into the 1950’s. Many didn’t survive the camps. How many people died between 1939 and 1975 isn’t known, but one estimate is almost one million. Fascism and staunch Catholicism wormed its way into every part of Spanish life, its people silenced as Franco systemically destroyed everyone who hated him. Right up until Franco died, he signed death warrants, a miserable old bastard who got to die warm in his bed.

With WWII starting just a few months after Spain was brought down, Franco and what he did has been largely ignored, by history and anyone not directly affected. Franco couldn’t have won the war without Hitler and Mussolini, whose European exploits shot memories of their fascist cruelty into the hearts and minds of everyone, unforgettable despotic hatred. Franco allowed the Germans and Italians to aid him, and they used Spain as their own practice killing fields, testing new methods of warfare, such as carpet bombing, testing men and artillery, preparing for the fight to take Europe. Countries such as the UK and France sat idly by, hoping to avert a European war by doing nothing, when they could have potentially stopped Germany, Italy and Spain before the Nazis took over. But not the UK, France, nor any other country in the Non-Intervention Committee bothered to help, countries overrun by Germany soon after. The Germans and Italians assumed the UK would quickly intervene when the war started, and  were surprised that nothing happened in retaliation. The US was as unhelpful in the Spanish Civil War as it was in the first two years of WWII. The only people desperate to stop all this were the Spanish Republicans, and the thousands of individuals who risked their lives to find their own way to Spain to help. Many never made it home, many who did were punished for their bravery.

I will do a separate post as to the fates of the main players of the war on both sides, as well as the struggles faced by the people in their home cities and towns in the aftermath. I will also post about the ongoing discovery of ‘disappeared’ Spaniards still being reburied, the fates of the refugees who walked into France, and what happened to the International Brigades. I will also do a post on the many sources I have used for these three years of postings.

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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 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.