Was the failure due to its inability to capture key centres such as Madrid, Bilbao and Santander in the north, Barcelona and Valencia in the east, Badajoz in the west, and Málaga and Jaén in the south? Indeed, a coordinated enveloping attack on the capital in July 1936 proved impossible. Forty years later, in The Battle for Madrid, the Anglo-Spanish writer and broadcaster George Hills made this point explicit: for example, that because of fighting on the northern Basque and Santander fronts, the rebels could only commit part of VI Divisional Command's forces to a march south on the capital; and their advance was blocked eighty kilometres short, at the passes through the Guadarrama Mountains.1
In Madrid itself, the leadership of the poorly coordinated and undermanned coup attempt had fallen to the second-in-command, General Fanjul. But Fanjul found himself besieged in the Montaña Barracks ('a hated symbol of reaction and military repression')2 and outnumbered two to one by well-trained Assault and Civil Guards and by the MAOC (Communist) and UGT (Socialist) militias. The revolt also collapsed at other barracks in Madrid, but it was the Montaña - source of the 50,000 bolts missing from rifles distributed by the government - that provided the crucial victory. Many loyalists now marched to lay siege to the Alcázar in Toledo, to which in turn Franco would divert his forces, giving Madrid yet more breathing space.
Historians also underline the importance of the Assault and Civil Guards in putting down the rebellion in Barcelona - Spain's largest port and second-most populous city. However, writers such as Jackson, Mitchell, Esenwein and Shubert, and Preston stress the initiatives taken by the anarchist CNT and independent Marxist POUM militias in seizing arms and defeating what was in any case a half-hearted revolt. Sources quoted in Fraser's innovative oral history, Blood of Spain, point to a mutual dependency between civilian resistance and security forces loyal to the Republic. But whatever the case, the loyal Assault and Civil Guards in Barcelona outnumbered the insurgents; and the workers seized arms the government had refused to distribute. Rebel general Goded, who had flown into this humiliating situation from Majorca, lacked the military power base for a successful coup. But his defeat had a much wider significance for, as Paul Preston has observed, with Barcelona secure for the Republic, so was Catalonia. Catalonia's resources would do much to sustain the Republican war effort. The Catalan historian Albert Balcells underlines the weakness of Carlism and the Falange in Catalonia, and the opposition to the coup by the Catalan Regional League (Lliga). Therefore, the 'political constituency' in Catalonia was deeply unsympathetic to the military revolt. Even where the rebels were in the narrower sense locally successful, the wider environment might well remain hostile to them, as in Galicia, Andalucía, and the coal-rich Asturias with its explosives industry.
Thus, in terms of resources, the Republic retained several advantages in July 1936. Besides Catalonia and Asturias (minus its capital, Oviedo), these included the industry of the Basque provinces and the fruit-and vegetable-rich Mediterranean lands. The Republican zone's population was double that of the rebels'; it had 75 per cent of railway engines and rolling stock, Spain's gold reserves and its main radio stations. This last point is crucial, for the government's report that the uprising in Morocco had been put down led to hesitation on the mainland, and to the revolt's collapse in Valencia and elsewhere. The radio was also used significantly in Barcelona, where President Companys persuaded General Goded to broadcast the surrender call to his troops. In Bilbao telephone taps prevented a revolt from ever getting off the ground.
What was the balance of Republican loyalism and rebel insurgency among the armed forces themselves? In their 1936 account for the Left Book Club, Spain in Revolt, Gannes and Repard noted that the Spanish air force was a relatively new phenomenon, its officers mainly middle class; here, 'remnants of feudalism' had failed to gain much of a foothold. But the percentage of air force personnel joining the rising has been disputed. Whereas Payne estimated only about 20 per cent pro-rebellion, Hills's (1976) figure is double that.3
Whatever indiscipline and ineffective leadership followed the naval mutinies against rebel officers in July 1936, the fact remains that most of the Spanish navy remained loyal to the Republic and consequently the rebels suffered a crucial initial setback: Franco's army was blockaded in Morocco by both surface ships and submarines.
George Hills's estimate of the balance of Spanish army personnel is useful because it is dated 22 July, after the military risings against the Republic had occurred. Also, the estimate excludes the blockaded Army of Africa. Thus, based on Hills's statistics, the Nationalist rebels had: 53 per cent of the army (all ranks); 17 per cent of major (i.e. most senior) generals; but 46 per cent of brigadiers and 65 per cent of junior officers. In addition the rebels only had one intact military region, the VIIth, based on Valladolid in León. Esenwein and Shubert (1995) add the VIth, with its HQ at Burgos in Old Castile. However, this criterion ('intact') is misleading because it excludes other military regions in which the rebels controlled most, or at least a good portion, of the territory. On the matter of rebel officers, Fraser (1979/94) observed that the bulk of those were captains and majors with a lesser number of colonels - but Alpert (1984) observes that most of the younger colonels joined the rebels. Nevertheless, such points of difference aside, the fact remains that the rebel Nationalists lacked sufficient support to achieve what Fraser calls the 'decisive breakthrough' and thus control of Spain in July 1936.4
A crucial problem was how to get the Army of Africa from Morocco to the Spanish mainland. Hitherto the rebels had for this purpose only four aircraft at their disposal, so only 130 soldiers per day could be airlifted. Generals Mola and Franco appealed to Germany for help. The German Foreign Ministry opposed intervention: German citizens in Spain and German ships in Spanish waters might be put at risk, as might relations with France and Britain. Indeed, Ribbentrop, German Ambassador to Britain, was working ostensibly for a British alliance. Like Mola, General Franco had cabled the German Foreign Ministry but, similarly rebuffed, cunningly approached the Nazi Party leadership through some German business contacts. Franco's request reached Hitler on 25 July 1936. Having cogitated for two hours, the Führer agreed to help lift the blockade on the Army of Africa - on grounds both strategic (for example, to undermine French security) and ideological (to exorcize the spectre of communism and anarchy). Thus, ten days after the rising had begun in Morocco, on 27 July German Junkers JU52 aircraft began their airlift of Spanish and Moorish troops to the peninsula. Recent scholarship demonstrates that
Hitler's decision to help the Nationalists had not been planned in advance.5
Italy, too, had originally doubted the wisdom of involvement. On 22 July Mussolini, worried that it might upset Italian diplomacy vis-à-vis France and Britain, declined to assist Franco's colonial forces. Only on 30 July, with the Duce convinced that neither France nor the USSR would intervene in Spain, and with Britain apparently favouring Franco, did Italian planes leave Sardinia for Morocco. This in itself was nearly two weeks after the rising, and the aircraft were not ready to operate as aircover for Franco's convoys until 5 August.
Thus, a painful and to a large extent unforeseen combination of internal and external setbacks robbed the military insurgents of outright victory against the Republic. Writing in 1938, the Duchess of Atholl observed that the rebellion was not in any case a 'popular movement': 'No one has attempted to name any centre in which there was a spontaneous rising of the civil population in their favour.'6 Perhaps Navarre came nearest to it, with its entrenched anti-Republican Carlism. But to many in Spain the politics of Navarre were as much a furnace of fear as a beacon of hope. Stanley G. Payne wrote in 1970, 'The rebellion that precipitated the revolution and Civil War was not a "generals' revolt" but a rising of the active middle strata of the officer corps that in many cases dragged senior generals along with it.'7 However, in many cases resistance to the rebels was sustained: a social and economic revolution was launched in the Republican zone, showing a determination to create the polar opposite of what Mola's and Franco's Nationalists represented and respected. And, crucially, Spain's most populous city and its centre of communications, its capital - Madrid - refused to yield to them.
Was this article helpful?