The fall of Malaga to the Nationalists 78 February 1937

Ring Steel Spanish Civil War Bilbao

Republicans were seized and executed on a scale not experienced since Badajoz. The violence of the repression alarmed Italian leaders, just as the plight of those fleeing along the road to Almería appalled many observers. This was a civil war in which cruelty as well as heroism was commonplace, because each side loathed and feared everything that the other stood for.

A bizarre symbol of one of the different cultural worlds that the two sides broadly represented made an unexpected appearance in the Malaga campaign. Republicans had taken a preserved hand, venerated as a relic of St Teresa of Avila, from a convent near Ronda. It was found and sent to Franco himself, who kept it by him for the rest of the civil war, and indeed until his death in 1975, when it was returned to the convent. Franco regarded St Teresa, and Isabella of Castile, as the supreme embodiment of the true Spain he was rescuing from depravity and error.

Meanwhile, on 21 February, General Asensio was sacked from his post of Republican Under-Secretary of War. After the defeat at Malaga, Prime Minister Largo Caballero could no longer save him from Communist criticism. The war was taking its toll politically on the Republican government, and Communist influence was growing.


Italian troops played a major part in the next Nationalist attempt to loosen the

The war in Vizcaya, March - June 1937

Guadalajara 1937

Republicans' hold on Madrid. This time the focus was on the north-east approach to the city. Nationalist forces had won control of Siguenza earlier in the war, but access to Madrid was blocked by Republican territory. In early March 1937 over 30,000 Italian soldiers, supported by tanks, artillery and 50 fighter-planes, joined forces with Moroccan and Carlist units at Siguenza, with the aim of breaking through Republican lines and taking Guadalajara. This formidable concentration never got that far, but at first looked as though it would. Using what would soon be known as blitzkrieg tactics, they drove the Republicans back and seized Brihuega. But the advance got bogged down in the sleet and mud of heavy winter storms.

Republican forces, including Italian volunteers in the Garibaldi Battalion, regrouped, resisted and then counterattacked. Once again, as in the battle for the Corunna road and the battle of Jarama, Nationalists gained small amounts of territory, but failed to achieve their objective. Guadalajara remained in Republican hands. The third and best-equipped attempt to encircle Madrid had collapsed.

Mussolini suffered the embarrassment of defeat, exacerbated by the fact that his Italian conscripts had fought against Italian volunteers in Spain and lost. Thousands of his men had been killed or wounded, large quantities of arms, including armoured vehicles, had been captured, and the whole world now knew for sure that fascist Italy had committed enormous resources, ineffectively, to Franco's cause. Chagrin and rage in Rome were matched by relief and jubilation in Madrid. The Nationalists decided that an attacking strategy around Madrid was ineffective and costly. Action now moved away from the capital to the northern front.

The Vizcaya campaign

In the spring of 1937 the main focus of the war was the Basque province of Vizcaya. Together with Guipúzcoa and Alava, it had committed itself to home rule during the Republican years, and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) had attempted to gain an autonomy statute for the whole area from Madrid - an issue that was still under discussion when the war broke out. The Basque country was one of the most fervently Catholic parts of Spain, yet the PNV's passion for Basque autonomy, and dislike of militarism, kept the two coastal provinces and part of Alava on the Republican side of the civil war in July 1936, to the scandalised amazement of many-Catholics elsewhere in Spain.

Once the war began, the autonomy issue was speeded up, and on 7 October the first Basque government, led by José Antonio Aguirre, took office in the new autonomous region of Euzkadi. By this time, however, its claimed territories were already severely diminished. Much of Alava had fallen immediately to the rebels in July, and the Nationalists had taken Irún, on the French border, from its Basque defenders on

General Franco with Colonel Moscardó and General Varela, at the Alcázar in Toledo. 29 September 1936. Franco's decision to relieve the siege of the Alcazar rather than head past it for Madrid, gave the Republic precious extra time to prepare the defence of the capital. But it was politically astute, and Moscardó, hero of the siege, became a major figure in Nationalist propaganda. (Topham Picturepoint)

4 September, severing communications between the Republic and France along the north coast. Worse still, Guipúzcoa's capital, San Sebastian, was surrendered to General Mola on 13 September, and with it the rest of the province. As Nationalist forces advanced across Guipúzcoa, they executed 14 Basque priests and imprisoned many more for political deviancy: that is, sympathy with Basque nationalism. It was extraordinary behaviour for military authorities fighting - as they claimed to do - for the restoration of religion.

After the fall of Guipúzcoa, only Vizcaya remained, with its capital, Bilbao, and its powerful concentration of iron mines, steel works, shipbuilding and engineering companies - the very heart of Spanish heavy industry. Round the city, its defenders had built fortifications, a 'ring of iron' that curved from the coast, west of the River Nervión, about 15 miles (24 km) inland, south of Bilbao, and back to the coast further east along the Bay of Biscay. The Basque government had about 30,000 men in arms, but few ships to counter the growing Nationalist fleet, and only a small number of planes. Relations internally between the

Growing NationalismWilhelm Faupel Generalleutnant

General Franco with General Wilhelm Faupel, the Nazi regime's representative to the Nationalist government. 9 March 1937. Franco depended heavily on Nazi planes, bombs, and tanks, but was wary of Faupel's political sympathies with the Falange. The unification of all Spanish political forces into one movement in April 1937 brought the Falange under his direct control. (Topham Picturepoint)

Town Guernica

The Basque town of Guernica after it was combed by the Condor Legion on 26 April 1937. It became an international symbol of the inhumanity of modern war when Picasso painted his huge Guernica, now in the Reina Sofia gallery in Madrid, for the International Exhibition in Paris in 1937. (Topham Picturepoint)

Violence Paris 1937

Nationalist forces marching through Bilbao after it fell on 19 June 1937. The fall of the Republican northern front meant the end of Basque autonomy until after Francos death. Franco was particularly incensed that the Catholic Basque Nationalist Party had fought against him. (Topham Picturepoint)

dominant Basque Nationalists and their Socialist and Communist colleagues were difficult, and communications with the main Republican army of the North under General Llano de la Encomienda back west along the coast at Santander were poor. The Nationalist forces on the Vizcaya-Alava border also numbered approximately 30,000, but were backed by the Condor Legion and Italian and Spanish planes - about 150 in all.

On 31 March Mola began the campaign in Vizcaya by bombing and machine-gunning the town of Durango with Condor Legion Junkers 52s. It was a road and rail junction, but not a military centre, and the 250 people who died were civilians. This terror from the skies was worse than what Madrid had experienced, because Durango had no defences. Mola's forces advanced slowly, and a Nationalist naval blockade was set up at the mouth of the Nervion. On 20 April, Mola's offensive resumed, and Basque forces were driven further back.

On the 26th the country town of Guernica, 20 miles (32 km) from Bilbao, and the traditional centre of Basque rights and liberties, suffered the same fate as Durango. It had no air defences. In the middle of the afternoon, it was bombed and fire-bombed by

Nationalist forces marching through Bilbao after it fell on 19 June 1937. The fall of the Republican northern front meant the end of Basque autonomy until after Francos death. Franco was particularly incensed that the Catholic Basque Nationalist Party had fought against him. (Topham Picturepoint)

several waves of Condor Legion Heinkel 111s and Junkers 52s, together with Heinkel 51 and Messerschmitt BF-109 fighters, which machine-gunned the fleeing population. The town centre was destroyed, and up to 1,000 people killed.

The Nationalists took Durango on 28 April and Guernica on the 29th. They had earned themselves a place in history as the first forces to use massive bombardment of civilian populations who had no means of protecting themselves. For decades after the war, the Franco regime added insult to injury by denying that these towns had been bombed at all, alleging that retreating defenders had burnt them down. But Picasso's 1937 painting Guernica ensured that the name of this Basque town, of about 7,000 inhabitants, would become world famous as a symbol of the horror of modern war.

In May 1937 as Nationalist forces closed in towards the 'ring of iron', Republican planes were sent to help defend Bilbao, but a mass evacuation of Basque children to France, Britain and the Soviet Union underlined the gravity of the situation. On 3 June General Mola died when his aeroplane crashed, and he was succeeded as commander of the Nationalist Army of the North by General Dávila. The Nationalist advance resumed on 11 June. The next day the 'ring of iron' was penetrated. As civilians streamed westwards along the coast to Santander, they were strafed from the air just as refugees from Malaga had been. On 19 June the Nationalists entered Bilbao. Euzkadi's brief existence was over. Autonomy was dead. Basque iron, steel and chemicals were now at the disposal of the Nationalists.

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