From Madrid to the Ebro

By the middle of October 1936, the rebel troops, now well equipped with Italian artillery pieces and armoured vehicles, had occupied

1 Quoted in José Andrés Rojo, Vicente Rojo. Retrato de un general republicano, Tusquets, Barcelona, 2006, p. 270.

most of the towns and villages around Madrid. The militiamen, cowed by the advance of the Africa army, withdrew to the capital, and they were joined there by hundreds of refugees fleeing from the occupied localities. Franco announced that he would take Madrid on 20 October, and General Mola is said to have arranged to meet the Daily Express correspondent in the Puerta del Sol for coffee. On 29 October, the first Soviet tanks and aircraft, sent by the Kremlin to counteract Italian and German aid, arrived in Madrid.

General José Enrique Varela, an Africanista and Carlist sympathiser, attacked with 25,000 men via the Casa de Campo and the University campus. General José Miaja, whom the Prime Minister, Largo Caballero, had left in charge of the Junta de Defensa of Madrid, and Lieutenant Colonel Vicente Rojo, Chief of General Staff for the defence of Madrid, had 20,000 men at their disposal. Nobody in the government, least of all Largo Caballero and Prieto, was confident that Madrid could resist the attack of the military rebels. On 8 November, the militiamen and the Moors were engaged in hand-to-hand combat on the university campus. Two weeks later, Franco and Varela had to call a halt to the attacks.

Franco, writes Julio Aróstegui, 'aimed too high with limited resources. Thirty thousand men could not conquer a city with over a million inhabitants determined to defend themselves'. Furthermore, Franco had put back the attack on Madrid in order to relieve the Alcázar in Toledo and that, which might have provided him with important political and propaganda advantages to attain power, gave more time for the republicans to organise their defence, take delivery of the first lot of Soviet aid and welcome the International Brigades. Vicente Rojo, however, in his book Así fue la defensa de Madrid, downplayed the role of these forces who had come from all over the world, and instead stressed the courage and bravery of thousands of anonymous citizens, angered by the destruction wrought by the rebel air-raids and because they felt that their freedom was under threat. It was a battle of resistance in which, in the republican camp, 'compliance with military duty, which began to prevail over any other type of duty', was seen for the first time in the war.2

2 Ibid., pp. 102-4; Julio Aróstegui, 'La defensa de Madrid y el comienzo de la guerra larga', in Edward Malefakis (ed.), La guerra de España (1936-1939), Taurus, Madrid, 1996, p. 151.

While the popular hero of the defence of Madrid might have been General José Miaja, who was seen all over the city attempting to raise the people's morale, the technical and military aspects were in the hands of Vicente Rojo, an officer who remained loyal to the Republic because he believed that such was his duty, and a few months later he became head of its army. He always defined himself as a 'Catholic, officer and patriot', and according to his grandson, José Andrés Rojo, he felt caught between the world of the Africanista officers who took part in the coup, with whom he did not feel identified, and that of the armed militiamen who defended the revolution and burnt churches. Between these two worlds, he took it upon himself to design a new strategy to organise an efficient force to confront the military rebels, and tried to establish the authority of professional officers like himself and the chain of command of this army.3

Vicente Rojo was born on 8 October 1894, in a small town in the region of Valencia, Fuente de la Higuera. He was two years younger than Franco and was not yet 42 when the war began. His father, an officer who had served six years in Cuba, died three months before he was born, and when he was 13 he lost his mother too. In order to continue with his studies, he was sent to a boarding school for orphans of infantry officers and he entered the Toledo Infantry Academy in June 1916. He left as a second lieutenant of the infantry, having come second in a class of 390 cadets.

In 1915, he served as a volunteer in Africa, was promoted to captain in 1918, and between 1922 and 1932 taught at the Academy in Toledo. He then went to the War College to obtain the Staff Diploma, and in June 1936, shortly after his promotion to major, he joined the Central Staff. After the chaos caused by the military uprising, Largo Caballero's first government reorganised the Central Staff and Rojo became number two there, under the immediate orders of Lieutenant Colonel Manuel Estrada. On 25 October 1936, Rojo was promoted to lieutenant colonel 'for his loyalty', a few days before Miaja received the order to appoint him Chief of General Staff for the defence of Madrid. He was made colonel 'for his war service' on 24 March 1937, and in May, Juan Negrín appointed him Chief of Central Staff of the

Republic, a post he held until the end of the war. On 24 September that same year, he was promoted to general.

One of the biggest drawbacks in the Republic's army was the shortage of professional officers. Of the 16,000 officers in the army who were serving before the military uprising, only about 20 per cent stayed in the republican zone, and this, in the words of Gabriel Cardona, 'was totally inadequate for an army whose troop numbers increased five-fold in less than a year'. Very few of its officers had held high command before the war, and this shortcoming 'brought about the rapid promotion of officers who knew nothing about commanding large units'.

Thus, this improvisation of commands posed a serious problem, which intensified as one moved down the ranks, because most of the more junior officers were on the rebel side. Battalion and company commanders had to be appointed precipitately, and the army took in and commissioned the political heads of the militias and columns that were created in the days that followed the military uprising. In Cardona's opinion, 'while the republicans were on the defensive, these shortcomings were not so dramatic as when the major offensives started, in which a clear chain of command was required'.4

But it is worth pointing out that, as well as Rojo, there was a group of professional officers, including Juan Hernández Sarabia, Antonio Escobar, Francisco Llano de la Encomienda, José Fontán and Manuel Matallana, who remained loyal to the institutions of the Republic, yet they are now forgotten. In spite of the fact that many of them were the last to flee Spain, ultra-radical writers in exile, both anarchist and socialist, branded them as traitors, Francoists or mere Stalinist puppets. With the bitter taste of defeat, the Communists also joined in the chorus of invective, while they never warranted respect from the victors. On the one hand, there were officers, those who won the war, who are still remembered in the street names of many towns and cities in Spain, and there were others, those who lost, who today are complete unknowns.

The other group of commanders in the republican army came from the militias. They had had no military skills, although Enrique Lister

4 Gabriel Cardona, 'Entre la revolución y la disciplina. Ensayo sobre la dimensión militar de la guerra civil', in Enrique Moradiellos (ed.), 'La guerra civil', Ayer, 50 (2003), pp. 41-51.

had received some training in the USSR and Manuel Tagüeña had risen through the ranks. The most rapid promotion was that of Juan Modesto, who had been a corporal in the Legion and, in the summer of 1937, was appointed the first commander of the 5th Army Corps, a shock unit in which the Communists played a major role. In addition, some of the anarchists who had been commanding columns since July 1936 joined the chain of command of the Republic's army, shelving their anti-military prejudices. Prime examples included Cipriano Mera, Gregorio Jover and Miguel García Vivancos.

At the beginning of 1937, the republican forces numbered almost 350,000 men, a figure very similar to that of Franco's army, although the latter boasted the priceless aid of almost 80,000 Italians in the Corpo de Truppe Volontarie (CTV), under the command of General Mario Roatta, and several thousand Germans, who, since November 1936, had been serving in the Condor Legion, as well as in antitank and artillery land units. In fact, it was the Italians who entered Málaga on 8 February 1937. Two days earlier, tens of thousands of people - men, women and children of all ages - had begun to swarm out of the city towards Almería, to escape the reprisals and pillaging of their subjugators. They were bombarded by aircraft and the warships Cervera and Baleares, and the road was littered with the dead and wounded, while many families lost their children in the flight. The unofficial death toll of what Doctor Norman Bethune called The Crime on the Road, Málaga-Almería, was over 3,000, but no reliable sources have been found to back that up. Numbers apart, we do have testimonies of one of the most tragic episodes of the civil war: 'the torment from Malaga to Almería, the ruthless crime' as Rafael Alberti wrote.5

Franco, meanwhile, had begun to prepare a new offensive against Madrid, via the Jarama valley, along the road from Madrid to Valencia. This operation was supposed to be completed with an attack by the Italian CTV troops from Sigüenza towards Guadalajara, to catch Madrid in a pincer movement. Over three weeks in February, from 6 February to the end of the month, both sides lost thousands of men, and although the Francoists managed to advance their front

5 Antonio Nadal, Guerra civil en Málaga, Arguval, Málaga, 1984, pp. 190-1; cited in Encarnación Barranquero, Málaga entre la guerra y la posguerra. El franquismo, Arguval, Málaga, 1994, pp. 203-29.

a few kilometres, the Battle of the Jarama was fairly unproductive. A few days later, on 8 March, General Amerigo Coppi's motorised division began its attack, but it was surprised by a heavy snowstorm, and within a few days it suffered a crushing defeat, among other reasons because Franco failed to carry out his diversionary operation from the Jarama, and the republican troops, aided by the Garibaldi Battalion of the International Brigades and Soviet tanks, were able to concentrate all their efforts on halting the Italian advance.

The succession of failures to capture Madrid brought about a change in Franco's strategy, and from that moment on he opted for a long, drawn-out war of attrition to grind down the enemy. He said as much to Colonel Emilio Faldella, General Roatta's Chief of Staff, who was trying to convince him of the advantages of a guerra celere (lightning war): 'In a civil war, a systematic occupation of territory, accompanied by a necessary clean-up operation, is preferable to a rapid defeat of the enemy armies that will leave the country infested with adversaries'. And he said it again, in more detail, to Mussolini's ambassador, Roberto Talupo, on 4 April 1937:

We must carry out the necessarily slow task of redemption and pacification, without which the military occupation will be largely useless ... Nothing will make me give up this gradual programme. It will bring me less glory, but greater internal peace . I will take the capital not an hour before it is necessary: first I must have the certainty of being able to found a regime.6

Franco held all the trumps to apply this military strategy. He had plenty of men, made possible by the continuance of the traditional system of recruitment and by the large number of Moroccan volunteers swelling the ranks of the Africa army. Since September 1936, he had two academies, in Burgos and Seville, to rapidly train university graduates as second lieutenants, and he also set up four establishments to train officers and NCOs. But above all, he had the confidence that the international prospect of German and Italian backing for his cause and the isolation of the Republic by the western democracies was not going to alter. Thus he had plenty of men and a guaranteed supply of materials.

6 Paul Preston, Franco: A Biography, HarperCollins, London, 1993, pp. 222, 242.

The Nationalists now concentrated their attention on the industrial and mining areas of the north, which were cut off from the rest of the republican zone. General Mola wanted to conquer these areas and teach the Basques a lesson: 'I have decided to finish the war quickly in the north ... If submission is not immediate, I will raze Vizcaya, beginning with the industries of war'.7 And the Germans thought that obtaining coal and steel from the north-west would help Hitler's aggressive rearmament programme. Mola began his campaign at the end of March with heavy bombing by the Condor Legion, designed to shatter the morale of the civilian population and destroy ground communication networks. First it was Durango, on 31 March, then Guernica on 26 April. On 19 June, 'the industrious city' of Bilbao was 'reintegrated into civilisation and order', in the words of the war dispatch of the occupiers for that day. And a few days later, on 1 July, in his inaugural speech, the new mayor of Bilbao, the Falangist José María de Areilza, warmly embraced the patriotic and bloodthirsty atmosphere of the moment:

Let us be clear about this: Bilbao has been conquered by force of arms. There have been no pacts or posthumous acknowledgements. Be in no doubt that here there are the victors and the vanquished. The winner has been a united, great and free Spain. We have seen the last of this fearsome sinister nightmare called Euskadi which was the result of socialism on the one hand and Vizcayan stupidity on the other: Vizcaya is once again part of Spain through military conquest, pure and simple.8

The united, great and free Spain spread later to Santander, and in October to the red zone of Asturias. With the fall of the industrial north, the balance of power began to tip clearly in favour of the Nationalists. Colonel Vicente Rojo, recently appointed Chief of General Staff of the Republic, organised a defensive strategy aimed at limiting the Nationalist advance as far as possible, given the material superiority of the enemy and the difficulties involved in consolidating a true republican army. This was the objective of the surprise diversionary offensives launched in Brunete, in July 1937, to halt the Nationalist advance on Santander; at Belchite, in August and

8 Quoted in Gonzalo Redondo, Historia de la Iglesia en España 1931-1939.

La guerra civil 1936-1939, 2 vols., Rialp, Madrid, 1993, vol. II, p. 288.

I I Republican areas | Francoist areas

Map 2 Evolution of the war, September 1937

I I Republican areas | Francoist areas

Map 2 Evolution of the war, September 1937

September, to slow down the conquest of Asturias; and in Teruel, in December 1937, to counteract the expected Nationalist attack on Madrid.

And indeed, now that he had occupied the north, Franco was planning to launch a new attack on Madrid, through Guadalajara, the same route that the Italians had taken unsuccessfully in March 1937. Vicente Rojo, who had been promoted to general at the end of September, decided to launch a preventive attack against Teruel. He deployed some 40,000 men there, with some of the divisions fighting on the Aragon front, the 11th, under Lister and the 25th under García Vivancos, as well as the Levante army, commanded by Colonel Juan Hernández Saravia. The attack, initiated by Lister on 15 December 1937, caught the limited Nationalist forces that were defending the city, under the command of Colonel Domingo Rey d'Harcourt, and counter-attacks by Generals Varela and Aranda were hampered by the extremely harsh weather conditions of those days.

On 7 January 1938, the republican troops broke through Rey d'Harcourt's defence, and he signed the surrender document, which he ended by requesting 'that the lives of civilian personnel be spared'. Teruel became the only provincial capital to be taken by the republicans throughout the war. As well as Rey d'Harcourt, the Augustine friar Anselmo Polanco, the bishop of Teruel, was arrested and they were taken, along with many other prisoners, to the San Miguel de los Reyes prison in Valencia and then moved to Barcelona, to the 'Depot for prisoners and escapees of 19 July', installed in the Servants of Mary convent in the Plaza Letamendi.

On 16 January 1939, a few days before Barcelona fell to Franco's troops, the prisoners were evacuated from the 'Depot' and taken to Santa Perpetua de Mogoda and thence to Ripoll. On its way to the border, the expedition suffered repeated Nationalist bombing. The members of this 'pilgrimage', made necessary by the Nationalist military advance, arrived on 31 January at Port de Molins. A week later, on 7 February, they were taken to the Can de Tretze ravine to be machine-gunned down. The decision was taken by Major Pedro Díaz, and the killers disobeyed the order given by General Rojo for the prisoners to be handed over to the republican air force to be taken to Madrid. Forty-two were executed. Their number included Bishop Polanco, Colonel Rey d'Harcourt and the vicar-general of the diocese of Teruel, Felipe Ripoll Morata. Colonel Barba, wounded in one of the Nationalist air-raids, escaped with his life as he was in hospital. The bodies of Bishop Polanco and Ripoll were later taken to Teruel. Rey d'Harcourt, however, was treated by his side as incompetent, responsible for the fall of Teruel, and so his remains did not deserve to be removed from that remote ravine near the French border. His family were not able to transfer his body to their private vault in Logroño until 1972.

Teruel was retaken on 22 February, by troops under the direction of General Juan Vigón, who deployed 100,000 men, including the Italian CTV. Thus ended one of the cruellest battles of the civil war, with 40,000 Nationalist and over 60,000 republican casualties. The two armies had the same number of troops mobilised at that time, almost 800,000 each, but the material superiority of the Nationalists was overwhelming. In just a few weeks, Teruel went from being the republicans' biggest victory, blown out of all proportion in their propaganda, to what Antony Beevor calls 'the biggest republican disaster in the whole war', because 'the Republic had set out to seize a city of no strategic value, which it could never have hoped to hold, all at a catastrophic cost in lives and equipment'.9

The disaster widened the breach between the Communists and Indalecio Prieto, the Minister of Defence, who became the butt of all their accusations, although General Vicente Rojo also began to be held responsible for the defeats in the reports that some of the Comintern delegates in Spain sent to Moscow. However, Rojo was quite adamant that little could be done with 'the lack of materiel, the poor morale of our units, their incomplete organisation, and the ineptitude or incompetence of many of the commanders'. As he wrote to Prieto in his report of 26 February 1938, a few days after the withdrawal of the troops from Teruel: 'So far, we have only an outline ... an embryonic organisation'. He also complained about the lack of discipline and how long it took to prepare the recruits that were joining the ranks. On the very morning of the fall of Teruel, Rojo presented his resignation to Prieto. Negrín, the Prime Minister, replied to him the following day that, with him, the army of the Republic was in good hands, that he did not know of anybody who 'comes near you for your professional skill, composure, clear vision . precision and sense of organisation in your acts', and, as if that were not enough, 'above all these qualities', what he most admired about him was 'your human character'.10

Although Negrín was trying to repair the 'physical and moral damage' affecting Rojo after 'twenty months of constant stress' in his work, it is true to say that the state of the republican troops following the Teruel disaster was worrying, and this was borne out just a few days later in the full-scale push begun by the Nationalists through Aragon and Castellón to the coast. On 9 March, some 150,000 men, backed up by hundreds of artillery pieces and aircraft of the Condor Legion and the Aviazione Legionaria, began their advance through Aragon. On 10 March, they recaptured Belchite, which they had lost the previous summer; on 14 March, Alcañiz, having dropped several tonnes of bombs on the town a few days previously; and on 17 March, the Morocco Corps and the 1st Division entered Caspe, which had

9 Antony Beevor, The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, Phoenix, London, 2007, p. 329.

been the headquarters of the Council of Aragon and was now that of the republican authority that replaced it, the Governor-General José Ignacio Mantecón. There then followed two simultaneous actions: one, to the south of the Ebro, with the capture of Gandesa, in the province of Tarragona, on 1 April; and the other, to the north of the river, which saw Yagüe take Fraga on 27 March and Lérida on 3 April. The campaign ended on 15 April on the Mediterranean coast. 'The victorious sword of Franco', said the Seville daily, ABC, the following day, 'has split the Spain still held by the reds into two'.

The report sent by the examining magistrate, General Carlos Masquelet, on 2 April, to the Minister of Defence on the 'collapse' of the Eastern front showed the situation in which the divisions of the Eastern army found themselves at that time:

The performance of our army left a great deal to be desired: incomplete units; unarmed units; artillery of poorer quality than ordered, particularly anti-aircraft guns; communications that were flawed or misused and with little protection, with the commanders unable to re-establish them promptly; rudimentary fortifications, with little tactical thought behind them and hardly any infantry working on them; shortage of transport, so useful these days for supplying and motorising the troops, providing them with mobility and flexibility and, above all, the vast discrepancy between our equipment and that of the enemy, in their favour.11

The republican troops and civilians withdrawing to Catalonia suffered endless bombing from the Savoia-Marchetti of the Aviazione Legionaria. According to a report by the Jesuits in Lérida, on 27 March, the fourth Sunday in Lent, 'some thirty bombers, totally unopposed, devoted themselves to pounding the city for several hours'. Tortosa, near the mouth of the Ebro, was reduced to rubble. In the bombing of Balaguer, on 6 April, over one hundred aircraft took part. However, the most violent air-raids of all occurred in Barcelona, far from the front, on 17 and 18 March, with over a thousand casualties. In some places like Lérida, the Nationalists later removed the lists in the Civil Registry that contained the names of the victims.

11 'El derrumbamiento del Frente del Este en marzo de 1938', report of the examining magistrate, 2 April 1938, Servicio Histórico Militar, armario 46, batch 768, file 1.

Split in two, beset by a serious economic crisis and with its morale shattered, the Republic was in torment. Indalecio Prieto, who made no secret of his defeatism, left ('driven out', as he put it) the government of the Republic, which he had served both in peace and in war. Outside Spain, things were no better: on 20 February, Anthony Eden, the only minister in Neville Chamberlain's government who had not openly expressed any antagonism towards the Republic, resigned as Foreign Secretary. On 16 April, his successor in the Foreign Office, Lord Halifax, signed an agreement with Italy in which, once again, the British turned a blind eye to the Fascist intervention in Franco's camp. In France, after a short-lived government led by the Socialist, Léon Blum, which lasted only thirty days, the radical Edouard Daladier took over in April, and in June he once more closed the border with Spain. Such was the harsh situation that the Republic found itself in, and the government began to reconstruct the army of the East with all the units that had withdrawn to Catalonia. It had to defend itself, resist and at least prevent a swift collapse that would almost certainly be accompanied by the likely unconditional victory of Franco, while all the time waiting for the international headwinds to change direction.

But Franco insisted on the idea of a long drawn-out war of attrition, in which he would conclusively crush the Republic. 'He had a vast army and could afford to be careless of his men's lives', writes Paul Preston. Instead of launching a swift attack against Barcelona, as it appears his colleagues had asked him to do, in view of the victorious Aragon campaign, Franco ordered Generals José Varela, Antonio Aranda and Rafael García Valiño to advance from Teruel to Castellón, which they took on 13 June.12 The offensive against Valencia - the main objective of this campaign that was initiated a few days later - came up against an effective defensive response from the republicans. However, the Nationalist troops remained less than 50 kilometres from what had been the capital of the Republic for a year. Franco said that he would enter Valencia on 25 July, the feast day of Saint James the Apostle. And it was on that night, 24 to 25 July, that various units of the republican army, under the command of the Communist Juan Modesto, crossed the Ebro in rowing boats, following the plan outlined by General Rojo to relink the Levante with

12 Preston, Franco, pp. 304-16.

Catalonia. Thus began the Battle of the Ebro, the longest and harshest of the whole war.

Almost all the commanders in this ad hoc army of the Ebro were Communists. The commander-in-chief was Lieutenant Colonel Juan Modesto, and on his staff were Enrique Lister, who commanded the 5th Army Corps, and Lieutenant Colonel Manuel Taguena, a physics and mathematics student who had begun the war in the ranks and ended up commanding the 15th Army Corps. General Rojo told them, according to Taguena in Testimonio entre dos guerras, 'that he would answer for any decision we might take on the opposite shore if we found ourselves cut off and in a difficult situation'.13 They crossed the river in various locations, from Fayon in the north and Miravete in the south. The initial advance, as was normal in these republican actions, was considerable, but it was quickly halted, as was also normal. And Franco acted as he had done on previous occasions, in Brunete, Belchite and Teruel, and began to take back the ground lost.

At first, the battle looked like a tactical victory for the republicans, as they had halted the Nationalist offensive on Valencia, but almost throughout it was a defensive battle whose aim was to tire the adversary and force them to negotiate a victory that was less unconditional, rather than to defeat them, which was impossible. For nearly four months, until 16 November, 250,000 men fought. The Nationalists lost over 30,000 men (dead and wounded) and the republicans double that number, although leading military historians disagree over the exact number of dead, some citing 13,000 in total, spread almost equally between the two sides. The Republic had lost the best of its army and soon afterwards lost the whole of Catalonia. The Republic by now seemed to have been defeated, particularly because the Munich Pact, signed at the end of September, allowing Hitler to advance freely on Czechoslovakia, ruined Negrin's resistance and showed that the democracies had no intention of changing their policy of appeasement of the Fascist powers. On 7 November, Franco told the Vice-President of the United Press, James Miller, something that he had never tired of repeating throughout that year: 'There will be no negotiated peace. There will be no negotiated peace because the criminals and their victims cannot live side by side'.14

13 Quoted in Rojo, Vicente Rojo, p. 218.

14 Preston, Franco, p. 316.

Madrid Surrendering Francos Authority

I I Republican areas | Francoist areas

Map 3 Evolution of the war, November 1938

I I Republican areas | Francoist areas

Map 3 Evolution of the war, November 1938

Rojo's opinion after the withdrawal from Teruel still held after the Battle of the Ebro: all they had was an 'outline' of an army, 'an embryonic organisation'. Policy and military strategy did not always coincide in the republican camp. And there was more conflict and disunity than in the Nationalist camp. The civil war in the republican camp began with a revolution and ended with a desperate attempt by Negrin to introduce a democratic and disciplined alternative that would bring about a change in French and British policy, and which many people, particularly anarchists and the socialist left, saw as a Communist dictatorship, because of the Republic's dependence on the Soviet Union for military equipment and for the rise of Communist militants in the republican army.

The military rebels, despite the disparity of their forces, never had any problems of that type. Aid from the Fascist powers was more readily available, and the military authorities, under the sole command of Franco, controlled the home front with an iron glove. Those who shared their values were happily experiencing the renaissance of a new Spain, because their army always won its battles, so loss of morale was out of the question. For those who did not support them, a savage violence awaited them, implemented from the very day of the uprising, a violence that did not cease until many years after the end of the war.

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