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.

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This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 73/74: The Battle of Teruel 1 – 15 December 1937

December 1 – 7

After a month of relatively quiet times around Spain, the next large battle is being prepared, the battle of Teruel. Teruel is a small rural city of only 20,000 people, the capital of the province of Aragon, which has been largely in Republican/anarchist hands since the outbreak of war. Aragon has also been home to the bulk of the social revolution, the anarchist uprising to empower the poor and rural Spaniards suffering under both fascist and socialist rule.

Teruel is a well-fortified city, known as a strategic point over 1000 years of battle between Christians and the Moors. Teruel is only main city that separates the Nationalists in Zaragoza, 170 kilometres north, from the Republican stronghold of Valencia, 140 kilometre to the southeast. Teruel is a mountainous place, with the city at 3000 feet above sea level, and one of the coldest places in Spain. Between the weather and walled fortress city and the forest-covered mountains, Teruel is also surrounded by the Turia and Alfambra rivers.

To attack a city like Teruel, a city with strong Republican support, but in Nationalist hands, is a huge undertaking. But like all Republicans, the men of Aragon are not well-prepared or well-armed. There is the landscape to consider with the mountains home to steep cliffs, and to the west, the La Muela de Teruel, the Teruel tooth, a sharp tooth-shaped hill against the city. Beside this steep rock is a flat area where advancing troops could easily be spotted. Teruel is also a well trenched and guarded area, as it has been on the frontline between Nationalist and Republican fighting since the outbreak of war.

Despite being in the Aragon region, the Nationalists had taken the city of Teruel, and the Republicans are determined to take the city back. It is believed that the occupying Nationalists have only 4,000 men in the area, and is surrounded by Republican-held areas. By having Teruel in the hands of the Nationalists, it became a symbol that needed to be crushed. The Minister of War in the Republican government, Indalecio Prieto, wanted to see a huge victory and have Teruel retaken for the Republic. Not only would the Nationalists lose any hold on Aragon, it would make the enemy think that the Republicans had the artillery and men they needed to win the war. But, as always, fighting within the Republican side would be an issue. Spanish Prime Minister Juan Negrin wanted to take Teruel and then move onto Catalonia, where Spain could retake control of Barcelona and its workers once more. The social revolution born in Catalonia and Aragon was on its last legs, and a victory in Teruel would bolster Republican support there. Infighting would do nothing but strain the Republicans  as they fought the Nationalists as well.

Franco’s Nationalists had been planning a new offensive in Guadalajara, outside Madrid, and a battle in Teruel would stop the Nationalists from getting towards Madrid. What no one could know was that Teruel was about to suffer its worst winter in two decades, something brutal as the average winter could see temperatures well below freezing. But the Republicans decided their attack would begin on December 15, three days before Franco’s plan to capture Guadalajara, catching the Nationalists by surprise, and diverting troops away from Madrid.

8-14 December

The under-resourced Republican army had to be made up of men from all around the regions. Juan Hernández Saravia, who had commanded the southern troops in 1936 and the Levante troops through 137 (Levante is in the eastern Valencia region), began moving men to create the Army of the East for the battle of Teruel and beyond. Saravia did not want any International Brigades to fight in Teruel; it was a Spanish battle to be fought. The Communists were ready to fight with Saravia, with the Communist General Enrique Lister back in the thick of fighting. By rearranging the Republicans around Spain, Saravia had a total of 100,000 men to capture Teruel.

In the walled city of Teruel, Colonel Domingo Rey d’Harcourt commanded the Nationalists. He had a garrison of only 4,000, half just armed civilians. Outside the city in the surrounding areas, there were another 5,000-6,000 men, mostly civilians. Despite a constant flow of news going between each side with spies and information interceptors, Franco did not send any additional troops to the area, meaning as the Republicans could get themselves ready to surround Teruel, and the Nationalists had none of their much-flaunted reinforcements or aerial back-up.

December 15

As snow begins to fall around the walled city of Teruel, General Lister and his men are sent first to surround the area. Given the overwhelming numbers, Nationalists outside Teruel are instantly forced to retreat back into the walls of the city. The Republicans quickly get themselves a prime position on Teruel’s tooth mountain and completely encircle the city. It would be the quiet opening day to what would become a symbolic, bloody and destructive battle lasting over two months, seeing much of Teruel destroyed and 140,000 men killed on both sides.

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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 – Week 65/66/67: 10 – 31 October 1937

October 10 

Franco’s Navarrese Brigade are still heading west into Asturias, and reach the small town of Cangas de Onís. The town, deep in the Picos de Europa, is only 65kms from the city of Gijón, which is preparing for invasion.

A mixture of Republican fighters and International Brigades are still keen to take ground in Aragon, and after minimal gains for heavy losses in the battle of Sabiñánigo, they again plan to attack along the Ebro river in the Zaragoza area. Fighting in the rural areas is sparse and it gains little for either side scattered through the region.

October 13

The Madrid Council, representing socialist parties and workers’ unions, confronts the Spanish government (currently in Valencia) over the influence of the PCE (Partido Comunista de España, Communist party of Spain) in the Republican government. They also protest the recent expulsion of Caballeristas, socialist parliamentary supporters of former prime minister Francisco Largo Caballero.

Caballero in Madrid

October 17

Th Consejo Soberano, the Sovereign Council of Asturias and Leon, decide to evacuate, due to the large number of Nationalist soldiers entering the region from fallen Cantabria. The Consejo Soberano is based in Gijón and officials and their families are taken out of the city for their safety. Asturian villages to the west of Gijón are abandoned, as the 1934 miners revolt is still a fresh horror for those living in the mountain areas.  Guerilla style groups form, to help protect rural areas from incoming Nationalists, but none have the numbers or resources to save anyone. These men will fight to the death and light houses on fire with dynamite if they flee.

Socialist Francisco Largo Caballero is arrested in Madrid while giving an anti-PCE speech at Pardina cinema. He is placed under house arrest in Madrid and held responsible for the Madrid Council’s anger.

The Condor Legion march through Gijon

October 21

The Nationalist Army of the North finally reaches Gijón. The fall of the city is as bad as expected; rape and murder goes uncontrolled for days as those still in the city are subjected to the Nationalists’ cruelty. Countless thousands are raped and murdered in the first few days of the invasion, and no official count of those tortured and killed is ever recorded. The soldiers plundering the city are so busy with killing, their jurisdiction is called ‘the machine gun’. Unlike many other Republican-held cities, Gijón cannot put up a fight; many have fled, many are already refugees from other cities, they is no international back-up and the atrocities committed are not well-documented or photographed. Wholesale slaughter brings Asturias’ largest city under control within days.

I do not post photos of women raped to death, or mass bodies lined up before firing squads. While the majority of these types of widespread depravity happened earlier in the war, Gijon managed to hold out longer than most main centres. Regardless of when it happened, I do not post such photos. You can search for yourself if you are into such perverse behaviour.

October 30

The Republican government has been safe in Valencia for a year. Valencia is far from the front line and is a base for many Republicans and Spain’s elite who do not side with Franco. Valencia does still suffer many air raids, and the government decides to leave Valencia and move north to Barcelona, despite the Catalonia region not being stable like Valencia.

Need to catch up? – SCW history : October 1936

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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 – Week 60: 3 – 10 September 1937: 80 years since the Battle of Belchite

The ailing Republican battle of Zaragoza is now centred on the bombing of the village of Belchite, which has been surrounded for two days. Around 3800 civilians are trapped in the town along with 7000 Nationalists fighting, determined not to lose the area. All are suffering with the heat of summer and water in the area has been cut off by the Republicans. With troops so spread out over the Zaragoza battle area of 100 kilometres between Belchite and Zuera, exact numbers are not known, but bloody combat continues right around the small town. Much of the Republican artillery for the battle, with T-26 tanks and aircraft support, moves in to cut off the southern end of the Nationalist troops from the northern reinforcements.

September 4

While the bombardment of tiny Belchite continues, Nationalists with the Army of the North continue their trek through the mountains from the Cantabria region into Asturias, and cross the strategic point of the Deva river, with Republicans holding the area quickly having to retreat.

September 5

The advancing Nationalists capture the tiny town of Llanes, but the 33,000 troops now have to trek through the limestone cliffs of the Sierra de Cuera. These difficult regions are Asturias’ protection and the Nationalists will have to take the El Mazuco pass in order to advance any further.

El Mazuco mountains

September 6

While the bombardment of Belchite is still ongoing, the 33,000 Nationalists in the north begin the battle of El Mazuco. The Republicans, groups of Basque, Cantabrian and Asturian fighters, have only 5,000 men in the Sierra de Cuera region. El Mazuco is just five kilometres from the ocean, meaning destroyers can also be deployed to help the Nationalists, along with German Condor Legion aircraft. The Republicans, all men weakened from the lost battles of Bilbao and Santander, have no support and no way of gaining reinforcements. Only the steep cliffs will keep the Nationalists at bay.

Republican Libertad

September 7

The Nationalist cruiser Baleares battles the Republican light cruisers Méndez Núñez and Libertad off the coast of Cherchell on the Algerian coast. The Baleares comes across the Republican convoy in the dark, becoming the battle of Cherchell. Republican ships are escorting merchant ships through the dangerous area. The entire convoy flees the area while Libertad and Méndez Núñez try to hold off the larger Baleares. The two Republican ships are separated  during the day while Baleares tries to repair initial damage, but by afternoon, Baleares is hit twice by Libertad. Baleares backs away to be recused by a sister-ship in the sea, while both Nationalist and Italian planes attack the two Republican ships from the air. All ships involved are damaged and the leave the area, with only the Nationalist Baleares suffering serious damage. However, two of the cargo ships which had been travelling with the Republican convoy panicked during the nearby battle and changed course to get to Algeria. One ship runs aground, and one is captured the French and taken into the Cherchell port.

Carpet-bombing is used in the battle of El Mazuco, using both explosive and incendiary bombs throughout the day. The Republicans are trying to hold their post under Commander Higinio Carrocera, just three battalions and 24 machine-guns, and only the terrain holds back the strong Nationalist troops.

Still on September 7

The huge battle of Zaragoza is over. Republicans managed to eat 10 kilometres into the Nationalist areas, but only captured unpatrolled areas and win a few tiny villages. Exact losses on both sides are unknown (running into the thousands) but are worse for the Republicans who have also lost much of their artillery in the process. The battle of Belchite has also now come to an end, with the village completely destroyed. The Republicans and International Brigades take 2,411 prisoners and another 600 Nationalists have been wounded in the fight. After both bombing and hand-to-hand fighting, 3,000 people are dead. Those left behind manage to live in the rubble until a new town is built nearby in 1939, however the ruins will never be touched.

source

September 8

The battle through the El Mazuco mountains continues as thick fog fills in the whole area. The only fighting that can be done is hand-to-hand combat, causes massive casualties and wounds on both sides, and the Nationalists manage to capture a full two kilometres of ground.

September 9

The Republicans battalions defending El Mazuco have to retreat as the Nationalists shell their positions, but the Nationalists cannot take new ground as the men are cut down by machine gun fire from the Republicans in reply, meaning no one makes up any ground.

Area of Cabrales in the El Mazuco pass area

September 10

Still under the thick fog, the Nationalists take the hill at Biforco, below the El Mazuco Pass, but the mountain of Llabres is still in Republican hands, where they machine gun Nationalist troops and roll down barrels of explosives. The day is marked with the first delivery of hot food for the Republican men. If the Nationalists cannot take this pass, they will be forced to climb much steeper mountains to claim El Mazuco.

on the hills at El Mazuco

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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 – Week 58/59: 21 August – 3 September 1937

August 22

Nationalist forces take the areas of Selaya, Villacarriedo, Ontaneda and Las Fraguas in the Cantabrian region as they advance towards Santander.

August 23

Navarrese forces fighting for the Nationalists claim Mazcuerras Valley and take Mount Ibio, which all-but cuts off the main road and the rail line between Santander and Asturias. Italian forces take Puente Viesgo after facing little Republican resistance.

Fascist salutes for Nationalists in Cantabria

August 24

Republican General Gámir-Ulibarri orders the general evacuation towards Asturias. Basque fighters begin their withdrawal from the front as the Nationalists are overwhelming the Cantabrian region.

The Republicans begin a major ongoing campaign in Zaragoza, which is their main aim for recapture. Both Belchite and Quinto are heavily guarded town where fighting begins, though Belchite has around 7,000 Nationalists fortified in the the village.

Nationalists enter Santander

August 26

Santander falls to the Nationalists at last thanks to huge troops numbers and air strikes. Around 160,000 refugees are in the city, including Republican  soldiers. Many try to escape via boats, which are overcrowded and begin sinking in the Bay of Biscay. Republican General Gámir-Ulibarri flies out of the region to France, to re-enter and take up arms again. All major Republican leaders flee the area. Nationalist forces enter Santander at midday and take 17,000 prisoners, but many are executed right away.

Unknown to the Republicans, the Basque fighters have made a secret agreement with the Italian Nationalist soldiers two days earlier. They agree to surrender at Santoña near Santander (close to 30,000 troops and officials), give over their weapons and do no harm to Basque industry. The Basques head aboard two British ships waiting to take them to safety. This becomes known as the Treason of Santoña.

August 27

The Basque troops waiting to leave Santander are captured by Franco forces. They are given the choice of fighting for the Nationalists or being Italian prisoners in Santoña. 22,000 are imprisoned, with half released three months later as they start fighting for the Nationalists. Only 510 are executed. The final prisoner won’t be released until 1943.

Prisoners being held in the bull ring in Santander

August 29

The Republican Army of the East, along with the XI and XV International Brigades, a total of 80,000 men, 90 planes and 105 T26 tanks, have fighting for five days begin the offensive to capture Belchite. The centre and north units only take vacant land, though the southern units have more success and take Mediana, Quinto and Codo. The Republicans surround Belchite itself but the Nationalists are ready to hold out over the forces. The Republicans cut off the water supply to the Nationalists and the 3,800 people in Belchite. September 1

The Nationalists take Unquera in Cantabria, which borders Asturias, as the Nationalists fighting in the north begin the offensive of Asturias. They begin a slow offensive, which will see troops moving less than one kilometre per day in mountainous areas.

The Republican offensive to take the town of Belchite begins, with aerial bombing, artillery bombing and fighting on the ground. The town is surrounded but the Nationalist are desperate to keep their post.

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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.