By November 1936 a number of positive reforms enabled the Republican side to resist more effectively the Nationalist threat to the national capital. Militiamen and women and regular soldiers had pay rises, and a successful recruitment drive had swelled the ranks of the Assault and Civil (now 'Republican National') Guards. A more robust GOC Central Theatre of Operations had been appointed, and the General Staff reorganized to include commanders of the International Brigades and 'Fifth Regiment'. Militias became regular units of the People's Army and self-sufficient 'mixed brigades' were brought in. All this was varnished by glowing tributes from the Prime Minister, Largo Caballero. Yet his rhetoric was misleading. On 28 October he hailed the 'heroic sons of the worker-people', and called on them to 'hurl fire' against the traitorous enemy: 'Victory is yours!' Only nine days later, however, he and his cabinet left for the east coast and the 'safe haven' of Valencia.
With Largo's departure, General Miaja and his colleagues in the new Madrid 'Defence Junta' began to orchestrate the saving of the capital. The enemy assault began on 8 November. As 'defence supremo' Miaja proved a good delegator, adept at raising morale and in forging the will to resist the rebels at all costs. He was responsive to changing circumstances; thus, the command structure on the Madrid front was twice reorganized by the end of the year, with three mixed brigades to each of the five defence sectors. Miaja conducted an able joint leadership with Chief of Staff General Rojo, whose skilful planning helped to ensure initial success for the Republic's own offensives. He also played a key part in directing the civilian population in building a network of barricades and trenches. Controversy surrounds the organizational role played by General Goriev, the senior Russian adviser - highlighted by Hugh Thomas, but downplayed, as Thomas recognizes, by the Francoist Spanish historian Ricardo de la Cierva. Arguments have also occurred about Miaja and Rojo: Hills has suggested that General Rojo, when planning an offensive, did not always realistically evaluate the worth to the Republic of that specific terrain.
Turning from leaders to political parties, the historical consensus is that without the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), the defence of Madrid might have been much less efficient. The Party took a vigorous lead in fortifying the city and, influenced perhaps by Russian advisers, it conceived the innovatory idea of mixed brigades. The PCE offered exemplary training, and preached to an increasingly receptive audience the ethos of military discipline. The leading propagandist 'La Pasionaria', who exhorted resistance to the death, was not only leader of the Association of Antifascist Women but a member of the PCE Central Committee. Most battalion, brigade and divisional commanders on the Madrid front were also PCE, so it is hardly surprising that the Party came to dominate the Republican war effort. Furthermore, in the early months of the Civil War it had constructed the prestigious 'Fifth Regiment'of infantry - a model of discipline and training in up-to-date tactics. This bred a new generation of similar units but, again, has been held up to scrutiny. In The Battle for Madrid (1976), George Hills points to the Fifth Regiment's flagging counter-attack in the southern Madrid suburbs (November 1936) against the Nationalists' flank.8 More significantly, however, the success of Russian tanks advancing ahead of the Fifth Regiment ended Nationalist hopes of outflanking Madrid from the south. Whatever the case, Fifth Regiment volunteers made up much of the early People's Army, and the latter's single chain of command and the mixed brigades added strength to the capital's defence.
Each of these mixed brigades was an autarkic whole: self-transporting and managing its own light artillery, sapper, ordnance and medical units. Colonel Galan's mixed brigade, for example, played a leading part in holding back the Nationalist advance west of Madrid in October-November 1936, while, in the Battle of Guadalajara in March 1937, the mixed brigades 'obeyed orders, operated coherently, and [showed] professional knowledge of tactics down to platoon and section level. They were an army.'9
Chapter 6 will offer further discussion of the International Brigades and the People's (Popular) Army. Here, however, it would be fitting to note the legendary status won by the IBs in all sectors in and around the capital. They raised morale and encouraged by example; played a key role in containing the Nationalist bridgehead in the west and north of Madrid, and helped maintain the Republicans' lines of communication; they led effective counter-attacks in January 1937 when the Nationalists tried to cut the Corunna Road west of the capital; and fought heroically at the Battle of the Jarama when the Nationalists similarly failed to cut the road to Valencia. The XIth and XIIth I Bs routed the indisciplined 'volunteers' of Mussolini's CTV units north of Guadalajara (March 1937) and led a Republican breakthrough at Brunete four months later. Never had the term 'international community' contained such resonance.
To the west of Madrid, Republican forces had made the most of their strong defensive position and numerical advantage: it took the Nationalists a week to cross the River Manzanares, and by 22 November their attack had been contained. Crucially, successful rearguard defence had slowed down the rebel advance on Madrid in the autumn of 1936. It was, however, an inspired rearguard attack by government forces that disrupted the rebels' efforts to deploy their columns effectively. And, as Gabriel Jackson pointed out, with the IBs' strength of courage and of numbers, enemy strongholds in the University City were recaptured.10
In addition, the Republic had some of the best military equipment of the war. The USSR supplied top-quality T26 tanks with revolving turrets and higher speeds than the Italians' tankettes, while armoured cars used armour-piercing shells to knock out the light tanks supplied to Franco by Nazi Germany. From mid-November 1936 the Republic had more artillery at its disposal and by the end of the year calibres were being standardized (also those of rifles and machine-guns). Russian Polikarpov biplane and monoplane fighters confronted the Italian Fiats and German Heinkels and Messerschmitts, and at the Battle of Guadalajara the Republican air force was blessed with permanent runways. Until the summer of 1937 the Nationalists found it hard to break the Republic's daytime air superiority, and even when they did mount a terror bombing campaign they failed to break the will of the Madrileños. The capital also retained most of the detailed maps and their printing plates; as with the German army during the Anschluss, the Nationalists had to make do with motoring maps.
No less a reflection of Republican strength in the defence of Madrid were the weapons of propaganda and education. Icons of resistance such as 'La Pasionaria' and invocations to stand fast boosted both civilian and military resolve. But the rhetoric, in live speeches, Radio Madrid and the Republican press, was not monopolized by the PCE: the Socialists and anarchists also boasted powerful women orators such as Margarita Nelken and Federica Montseny. Furthermore, People's Army political commissars made hating the enemy, obedience and victory convincingly inseparable - even to anarchists. Michael Alpert, a leading authority on the Spanish army during this period, has written that these commissars were vital in convincing new recruits that victory was a pipedream without discipline and respect for competent authority.11 At the Battle of Guadalajara the Republic won a propaganda coup when captured documents showed that the members of the Italian Corpo di Truppe Volontarie were in fact regular Italian army units and Fascist blackshirts.
Some mention should be made of the good fortune of the Republic and the weaknesses of its opponents. The wooded ground of the Casa de Campo (on the western outskirts of Madrid) was ideal for defence, and the rough ground in the Corunna Road campaign made coordination of the Nationalists' tank squadrons difficult. At the Battles of the Jarama and Guadalajara the weather benefited the Republic. In the former case, heavy rain delayed the Nationalist attack; in the latter, snow and ice halted Italian motorized columns, in any case low on fuel, and grounded Nationalist planes, including the Condor Legion. In his biography of Franco, Paul Preston brings into critical focus his personal role in the Madrid sector: according to the author, Franco was indecisive and showed
'plodding, indeed hesitant, prudence'12 More broadly, the Republic held an advantage with regard to Nationalist leadership. At Guadalajara, for example, rivalry between Spanish Nationalist and Italian commanders undermined a westward advance on Madrid. Here again, Franco proved a blessing to the Republic for he appears to have used the less disciplined Italian forces to bear the worst of the Republican counter-attack while his own troops were rested and regrouped. Republican luck held when in early November 1936 the Nationalist assault plan against Madrid was found in an Italian tank. This allowed the Republican command to redeploy its forces accordingly and protect key bridges across the River Manzanares.
If the Republic could claim many strengths in the defence of Madrid, grave weaknesses were also evident. In the Madrid zone, criticism of individual commanders (Spanish and foreign) and disagreements between them soon came to the fore. Moreover, not only would focusing too closely on the defence of the capital distort the war effort; given its great advantages in resources, the Republic ran the risk of complacency. Rivalry between Generals Miaja and Pozas set back government forces at the Battle of the Jarama in February 1937. The Segovia Offensive, in May and June, failed to take pressure off Madrid: poor tactical leadership by the Polish general 'Walter' has been blamed. Following Franco's decision taken after Guadalajara to suspend further attacks on Madrid, political divisions grew in the Republican 'Defence Junta' between those who favoured 'revolution' and those who opposed it.
Indeed, politics intruded corrosively into the Republican war effort as, for example, Payne and Alpert have demonstrated. Thanks to the politically driven 'Committee of Investigation' set up in the summer of 1936 by the War Ministry, the talents of many able professional officers were not deployed in battle - a situation exacerbated by militia hostility to 'reactionary' professionals.13 As described by Thomas and Preston, the death during the defence of Madrid's University City of anarchist leader Durruti led to bitter polemics between 'inefficient' anarchists and 'authoritarian' Communists, while Hills quotes President Azaña's desperate reference to 'indiscipline, anarchy, disorder, dissipation of time, energy and resources'.14
Late in July 1936, in the fighting for the three Guadarrama passes north of Madrid, official Republican reports berated the disobedience of militia troops which contributed to the rebels' successful capture of the Alta del León Pass. This left only one pass in government hands.
As has been seen, the PCE took the lead in improving militia training but, as Alpert has shown, the Republic suffered from a paucity of proper training schools.15 This added dramatically to the evidence of weakness on the Republican side shown by the slow processing of conscripts. Deficiencies in air force training meant that Republican pilots were entering combat with inadequate flying hours behind them. Among junior army officers, inexperience and lack of initiative told badly against the Republic at the Battle of Brunete, west of Madrid, in July 1937. 'The failure of the Brunete offensive', asserts S.G. Payne, 'doomed the northern zone.'16
Brunete also revealed poor mobility on the part of Republican forces, described by Jackson as a failure to maintain momentum. The Republic found successful counter-offensives elusive: two in the outskirts of Madrid against the Nationalists' eastern flank failed in late October/early November 1936, partly due to poor coordination between tanks and infantry. These defective tactics were also shown at the Jarama (February 1937) when, as Esenwein and Shubert have observed, initial Republican gains were not consolidated. Soon after, at Guadalajara, Hills has the Republic failing to 'exploit their rout of the Italians' - although this 'rout' was a tremendous psychological and propaganda victory and Guadalajara, with its aircraft factory, remained in Republican hands.
Despite the positive evidence discussed earlier, the weapons in the hands of the Republic could prove, to say the least, problematical. The French Dewoitine fighter aircraft had poor engines; later models bought from the Lithuanian government had, where feasible, to be armed from scratch in Spain. Foreign individuals and governments, for example the Polish, harvested vast sums of money in cynical or desperate deals.17 Meanwhile, as Hugh Thomas has suggested, the Nationalists' new CR32 biplane often proved an unexpected match for its Republican Polikarpov counterpart, as in a memorable dogfight over Madrid on 13 November 1936. And the Republic had no nightfighters to parry Condor Legion bombers when they launched their night raids on the city, nor adequate anti-aircraft cover. Both sides, however, suffered from unreliable bomb-sights and ground-to-air communications. At the beginning of the Civil War, the Republican forces were making do with obsolete rifles from Germany, Mexico, and, via Russia, Swiss designs from the 1860s; while it could be that three out of four guns in an artillery troop had different calibres (altogether there were nine different artillery calibres in use). Preston has drawn a depressing picture of how all these armaments were paid for: if Russian, by the shipment of the gold reserve to Moscow; too often otherwise, on the cut-throat international arms market where exorbitant charges were made for antiquated weapons.18
Nevertheless, the defence of Madrid represented a heroic exercise in mobilization, both military and civilian. It demonstrated resilience and resolve; the fighting in the University City was indeed a ferocious battle of minds. Resistance to Nationalist attack offered objective evidence of Republican success: despite flaws in organization and resources, despite massive casualties, government forces contained the rebel bridgehead. Major roads out of the capital were kept open. What is ironic, however, is that the strength of Madrid proved a weakness for the Republic, for it encouraged the Nationalists to focus their strength on weaker sectors elsewhere. The humiliation of the Italian CTV at Guadalajara made Mussolini determined to fight on until Franco had won. Thus, in these senses, 'strengths and weaknesses' were inseparable.
Was this article helpful?