This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Weeks 138 – 141: 1 – 25 March 1939

March 3

Now that the Republicans have lost Catalonia, they have no chance of winning the war. The Republicans still holds Madrid after almost three years of being surrounded, and another thirty percent of the country. But Barcelona is the head of the war industry, all now in Nationalist hands. More than 220,000 men and women have died fighting the Nationalists, Republican president Azaña has quit, and the UK and France have recognised Franco’s government. Prime Minister Negrin still wants to battle on, supported by the PCE Communists, while the CNT, the SIM and the PSOE and UGT are also working together, but want to stage a coup against the Prime Minister and the Communists.

Spanish refugees in concentration camps on French beaches

March 4

Negrin sends Communist PCE Francisco Galán to Cartagena to take over command of the naval base. Cartagena has been under the control of General Casado, and remaining Republicans revolt in Cartagena, and Galán is arrested. The Fifth Column members in Cartagena decide to join Casado’s rebellion and take the coastal batteries of Los Dolores and the local radio station. They broadcast a call for help to fight the coming Nationalists and name retired General Rafael Barrionuevo as governor of the city. The Nationalists have already sent 16 ships with 20,000 men towards Cartagena, but the coup members have the coastal batteries, meaning landing is impossible.

March 5

The Nationalists bomb the harbour of Cartagena from the air so their ships can dock in the city. The surprise attack by five bombers sinks the Republican destroyer Sánchez Barcáiztegui, but those all on board manage to escape. Republican Commander Miguel Buiza orders the entire Republican fleet to leave Cartagena in an attempt to escape damage before they plan their next move. They still have three cruisers,  Miguel de Cervantes, Libertad and Mendez Nuñez, as well as another eight destroyers all in good order, which head for Bizerte in Tunisia. None of the ships will ever return, interned by the French.

March 6

The Republican government flees Spain into France in permanent exile. General Casado, having staged his coup against the Prime Minister, is backed by General Miaja in Madrid, and sets out to arrest all communists in the city, believing they are going to rise up and try to take Republican Spain. Fights begin breaking out all over the city as Republicans start to turn on one another in desperation. Casado appoints himself the Commander of the Republican Army of the Centre and leader of the National Defence Council, who wish to negotiate with Franco. Colonel Barceló, who had been Commander of the Army of the Centre, resists these moves, but General Casado is supported by the heads of the Levante, Extremadura and Andalusia armies.

Franco orders his ships heading for Cartagena to hold off, as the Republican coup still have the batteries ready at the port. All ships pull back, except for the SS Castillo de Olite, which is fired upon three times at close range. The ship quickly breaks in two and sinks. While 700 Nationalist troops are rescued and taken prisoner, another 1,225 soldiers drown in what is Spain’s biggest naval tragedy.

The SS Olite prior to sinking

March 11

Five days of fighting in Madrid has led to Colonel Barceló and his men marching into Madrid to take control of the city and out of General Casado’s hands. But Barceló and his men are defeated after bloody street battles. Barceló and his commissar Jose Conesa are arrested and put before a military tribunal in Madrid a day later. Up to 2,000 are dead in just five days.

The National Defence Council, Casado on the left

March 12

General Casado, leading the Consejo de Defensa Nacional (National Defence Council) with many supporting factions – Julian Besteiro, Wenceslao Carrillo, Gonzalez Marín and Eduardo Val (CNT), Antonio Perez (UGT), and Republicans representatives Miguel San Andrés and Jose del Río. They group attempt to negotiate with Franco, but Franco wants nothing but total surrender, with massive repercussions for Republicans supporters.  Casado wants safety for surviving Republican soldiers and civilian sympathisers, which Franco will not agree to in any form.

Fighting has also been taking place in other Republican held areas. In Ciudad Real, Extremadura army troops rise against Communist deputy Martínez Cárton and take control of the city. Cartagena, scene of the initial uprising, is now firmly in the hands of rebel Republicans, and the Communist factions have lost all control over the port and city.

March 15

The executions of Colonel Barceló, his commissar and their supporters take place in Madrid. The Communists among the Republic have no power, and neither do any of the groups which have clung together throughout almost three years of war. Madrid cannot hold out against Nationalists troops any longer and Franco is ready to march upon the city.

Madrid ready to surrender

March 20

Franco and his men are planning the final offensive of Spain. No negotiations from Casado or Madrid have worked, and Nationalist troops are slowly heading into every remaining Republican area to take total control. Republican troops will fight the Nationalists, lacking men, food, clothing and ammunition. The ports of Valencia and Alicante are the last place that people can run to, fleeing the coming Franco troops. All ports are blocked, all ships captured within three miles of the coast, but Valencia and Alicante are still in Republican held zones, meaning people have a slim chance of getting on board a foreign ship. Many would rather kill themselves on the dock at Alicante and Valencia than be captured by the Nationalists. For the leaders of Republican troops, such as Casado, they must flee the country before the arrival of Franco’s men, or they will be immediately executed.

2,638 people managed to get on board the Welsh Stanbrook in Alicante when the captain took as many of the 30,000 refugees as he could fit in what was a trip to collect oranges and saffron.

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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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