The arrival of the Army of Africa in Andalusia created the first radical change in the balance of forces in Spain. It also gave Franco the opportunity to establish himself as the leading military figure among the Nationalists, a project that was greatly enhanced by his privileged status as the unique recipient of German aid. Franco flew to Seville on 6 August to oversee operations, while Yague was the field commander of about 8,000 men.
The obvious strategy was to head north towards Madrid. There were two possible routes. One, somewhat shorter, swung northeast through Cordoba and approached Madrid via Aranjuez. Taking this route, however, would have meant leaving Republican territory to the west, which separated the two parts of Nationalist Spain and also gave the Republic a border in southern Extremadura with Portugal. The more westerly route lay through Merida and Trujillo and thence along the Tagus valley, finally approaching Madrid via Talavera de la Reina. Franco opted for this second alternative.
Each bandera of the Legion - a battalion of 600 men - was accompanied by a tabor of the indigenous Moroccan Regulars - a half battalion of 225 men - together with artillery, under a commanding officer. They were transported in lorries, with air cover from eight Savoias 81 and nine Junkers 52s, flown by their Italian and German pilots. The army travelled at remarkable speed, and reached Merida, nearly 200 miles (320 km) north of Seville, in under a week on 10 August. Its methods were direct. Air and artillery fire prepared the assault on towns along the way. Sometimes that was enough to enable the troops to walk in. Sometimes they had to fight their way in, usually against local militias, with Merida itself much the most difficult battle of this first week. Everywhere they took few prisoners, killing those who had fought against them and not managed to escape, and also killing local political and trade union leaders. As news of their advance and their methods spread, a terrified population tried to flee out of their path, together with retreating militias.
The Legion and the Moroccan soldiers immediately became a byword for cruelty. Part of the reason for this lay in the ethos and earlier experience of both of these forces, forged in harsh colonial wars in north Africa. They behaved in Spain like a particularly ruthless, lawless, army in dangerous territory. Another part of the reason was their relatively small number. They did not have the resources to leave large detachments behind to enforce law and order. Terror was easier, Finally, they acted to revenge the social revolution provoked by the July risings, and the atrocities perpetrated against clergy and property-owners.
In Almendralejo, for example, south of Merida, the revolutionary committee imprisoned local right-wingers, and then, treating them as hostages as the rebel forces advanced, killed some of them by setting fire to them and pelting them with hand grenades. Far greater numbers were to die in the reprisals. As far as Yague's army was concerned, the local population was a revolutionary rabble with blood on its hands. Closed churches were reopened. Priests and landlords who had survived the days of proletarian power came out of hiding. Order of a kind was imposed, based on fear and repression. After the fall of Merida, Yague's men were joined by a column from Caceres, in the first meeting of forces from the two blocks of rebel territory.
The capture of Badajoz, on the Portuguese frontier, stands out even in the orgy of violence as exceptionally bloody. Following Franco's directives, Yague turned west to take it, rather than leave a fortified town in Republican hands at his rear. Its city walls, the River Guadiana to its east, and the presence of about 6,000 militiamen and armed forces, with artillery and planes, made Badajoz a difficult target. On 14 August Legionaries launched a suicidally brave advance against defence artillery at one of the city gates, Trinidad, with exceptionally heavy losses. At the second try, survivors managed to fight through, and met other Legionaries who had forced an entry by other gates, inside the city. They pursued their opponents, killing many in hand-to-hand combat, and rounding up others, including some women, into the bullring.
Almost 2,000 people were shot, on Yague's orders, on 14 and 15 August, the eve and feast day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a major festival in the calendar of the Catholic Church. This horrifying slaughter, which continued over the next few days, immediately became known as the massacre of Badajoz. No one and nowhere was safe. Men who retreated into the cathedral were killed there, and others who fled across the border into Portugal were executed when the Portuguese authorities handed them over. The Nationalist forces drew no distinctions between battle, and policy after the battle was won. Reprisals were used as part of a rough strategy to leave no effective enemies in the rear, to intimidate the population and to wipe out the alternative Spain represented by Badajoz's defenders.
The Nationalists now controlled west Spain from La Corunna in the north to Cádiz in the south, including the whole of the frontier with Portugal. On 26 August Franco moved his centre of operations north to Cáceres. Meanwhile, in southern Andalusia, Colonel Varela mopped up the countryside between the rebel strongholds of Seville, Cordoba and Granada.
The main Army of Africa resumed its advance through Extremadura towards Navalmoral de la Mata, north of the River Tagus. Republican aeroplanes and General Riquelme's soldiers and militias operating from the central zone attacked them from the east, successfully at Medellín, unsuccessfully at Guadalupe and then Navalmoral itself. Securing Guadalupe, a small mountain town dominated by a historic monastery and shrine to the Virgin Mary, was a symbolic triumph for Franco's forces.
This part of Extremadura was classic conquistador country, from where the conquistadores had taken the devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe to America. Trujillo, between Mérida and Navalmoral, was Francisco Pizarro's birthplace. Hernán Cortés's hometown of Medellín would only fall to the Nationalists two years later, in July 1938. Securing these territories meant forging a link between the Spanish, Catholic conquest of South America, and Franco's Catholic reconquest of Spain itself. It was a link that the Franco regime would always emphasise, no more troubled at the cruelty and bloodshed of the modern crusade than at that of Ferdinand and Isabella over
The Spanish Foreign Legion in Morocco, July 1936, waiting to board a German transport plane that would fly them to Seville. From there, they advanced rapidly through southern Spain towards Madrid. Without Hitler's intervention, Franco's forces in Morocco, including the Army of Africa, indigenous troops, and the Foreign Legion, would have been stranded. (Topham Picturepoint)
400 years earlier. Nor would the regime's apologists be embarrassed that this Christian crusade owed much of its success to Islamic Regulars from Morocco and pagan Nazis.
Naval moral was firmly under rebel control by 23 August 1936, and became a military and air base. From there, the major obstacle on the way to Madrid was Talavera de la Reina, which the Nationalists reached on 2 September. Even though the town was defended by several thousand militiamen and artillery, it fell within a day. Madrid was now less than 70 miles (110 km) away. The rebels pressed on, encountering repeated, but ultimately ineffective, Republican attacks, and taking Maqueda on the 21st. Perhaps if they had headed straight for Madrid, as planned, they might have broken through its defences. But at this point Franco, to Yague's dismay, instead ordered his forces to march 25 miles (40 km) south-west to Toledo.
Here Colonel Moscardo had joined the rising, but had been unable to hold the city. Instead, he was besieged in the majestic fortress, the Alcazar, which enjoyed an almost impregnable defensive position, with
Republican poster depicting the generalísimo, Commander-in-chief General Franco, as a death-dealing combination of a giant Nazi, backed up by the Italian military, international finance, and a gun-toting priest. Such propaganda posters were plastered on walls all over Republican Spain, to inspire continuing effort against the military rising. (Author's collection)
1,197 officers, men and Civil Guards, more than 100 right-wing civilian activists, mainly of the Falange, and over 500 women and children, including some nuns. There were also about 100 left-wing hostages. They lived on corn and horsemeat. On 21 September they were still holding out, but with very few supplies left, in spite of repeated bombardments, artillery and arson attacks, which had destroyed large sections of the fortress. Moscardó's resilience had become a Nationalist symbol, intensified by his famous refusal to surrender even when Republicans put his son Luis on the telephone on 23 July to explain that, if his father held out, he, Luis, would be killed. Colonel Moscardó refused. Luis was executed a month later.
It was typical of Franco that he rated the relief of the Toledo fortress as more urgent than the advance on Madrid. His troops were too close to it for him to be able to ignore Moscardó's situation, with its symbolic potency. The Nationalists fought their way into the city, and wreaked vengeance on its defenders and citizens not only for their attacks on the Alcazar, but also for murdering priests and right-wingers. One-half of the clergy of the archdiocese of Toledo had been killed in the early stages of the war. Toledo was the historic centre of Spanish Catholicism, and the archbishopric of Toledo was the most senior church office in the country. Victory here, as elsewhere, was not just military conquest but also counter-revolution. Nonetheless, it was a costly strategy: Madrid was better defended when Franco's army eventually reached its outskirts at the end of October than it had been a month earlier.
Was this article helpful?