Spain at war: a country divided

Chris Bambery traces the history of the Spanish Civil War and sets the scene for the conflict’s bloodiest battle.


It began on the night of 17 July 1936 – with a coordinated revolt in Spanish-held Morocco by right-wing Spanish military officers that spread quickly to garrison towns throughout mainland Spain, splitting the country in two. By the time it ended in victory for General Francisco Franco’s forces on 1 April 1939, it is estimated that around 500,000 people had been killed in the fighting, and countless more had succumbed to malnutrition, starvation, and war-engendered disease – making it the deadliest conflict that Western Europe had experienced since the end of First World War.

Nationalists and Republicans battle during the Siege of the Alcázar in Toledo in July 1936, a significant Nationalist victory at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.

In some respects, the Spanish Civil War reflected what had happened in the past – with roots in the struggle between the forces of reform and reaction that had divided Spanish society since 1808, but also as part of the more recent international civil war that can be traced back most obviously to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. In Spain, as had happened in Russia two decades previously, towns and villages – and even individual families – were divided along ideological lines, with ‘reds’ (Republican forces loyal to the elected Spanish government, and the left-leaning volunteers of the International Brigades who fought alongside them) pitted against ‘whites’ (or Nationalists, as the army-backed rebel forces termed themselves) while the country descended into chaos. Against this bitterly polarised backdrop, as we shall see, human life was devalued, with mass executions taking place, and terrible atrocities committed on either side.

In other ways, of course, the Spanish Civil War was a harbinger of things to come – a clash of dictatorships (with Stalin supporting the Republican side, and Hitler and Mussolini providing powerful backing to Franco’s forces) that acted as a dress rehearsal for the horrors of the Second World War. With fascism on the rise across Europe, it showed the weakness of the remaining democratic powers (Britain and France chief among them), highlighting their lack of resolve in dealing with conflict on their own doorstep, and thereby further emboldening the expansionist urges of Nazi Germany. And of course — as the appalling aerial bombing of the Basque town of Guernica on 26 April 1937 would demonstrate so vividly — it was a proving ground for many of the devastating new weapons and military strategies that would soon be deployed in the greater conflagration to follow.

In this part of a two-part special feature for this issue, Chris Bambery traces the complex history of the Spanish Civil War. In the second part, he examines how the bloodiest engagement of the conflict, the Battle of the Ebro (25 July-16 November 1938), paved the way for four decades of Francoist dictatorship.

A country divided

The Spanish Civil War has gripped the world’s attention ever since it began in July 1936. It has been the subject of innumerable novels, films, and documentaries. At the time, it was seen as the inevitable face-off between fascism, then on the rise across Europe, and anti-fascism, uniting socialists, liberals, and communists. We need to remember, hard as it may be, that for many in the 1930s Stalin’s Russia was a beacon of hope.

From the outset, and as time went by, the Civil War seemed to some to be the opening chapter in a new world war. The failure of Europe’s remaining democracies to support the elected Spanish government when faced with a military rebellion led to its defeat, and strengthened Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Both believed Britain and France would never fight.

ABOVE Republican forces counterattack before losing the northern city of Irún to the Nationalist rebels in September 1936.
Republican forces counterattack before losing the northern city of Irún to the Nationalist rebels in September 1936. Photo: Alamy

The generals who launched the rebellion hoped for an immediate victory, a coup d’état. When this did not transpire, and they were faced with a prolonged war, they relied on terror to purify Spain from the evils they believed polluted its Catholic and national spirit. The fascist party, known as the Falange (‘phalanx’ in English), had been growing in the months before the rebellion began, as Spain polarised. Having rallied to the military, party numbers mushroomed and provided the executioners operating in territory taken by the Nationalists, as rebel forces termed themselves.

On the other side, the Republic was led by an alliance of liberals, socialists, and other leftists, including the communists, but also Catalan and Basque nationalists (the latter were Catholic and moderate but joined the Republican government, with much hesitation, when it granted the Basque Country autonomy). That alliance was an uneasy one from the outset.

In the opening months, there was great violence on both sides – though it was much greater in the Nationalist zone. In the Republican zone, anarchists and leftists executed rightists, burnt churches (the Catholic Church unreservedly supported the rebellion), and rounded up those they considered fascists. The difference was that the Republican government abhorred this, and did everything it could to stop it, eventually succeeding. In the Nationalist zones, by contrast, the military authorities encouraged mass executions.

A deadly danger

The Spanish Civil War can be split into two chapters militarily. The first, from the initial coup d’état launched by the generals in July 1936, lasted until the spring of 1937.

What caused the coup to fail was the reaction of Spain’s working class, which rose up and defeated the army in Madrid, Valencia, and, above all, Barcelona, helped by loyal security forces. Militias were formed to be sent off to fight the Nationalists.

The Catalan militias, led by the anarchist Buenaventura Durruti (1896-1936), drove deep into Aragón, in north-eastern Spain, achieving the biggest territorial gains of the war for the Republic, helped by support from among the peasantry to whom they promised the land. However, they failed to take the regional capital, Zaragoza, when a regular officer advising Durruti convinced him they could not hold it.

below A map showing the division of Spain into Republican and Nationalist zones following the military coup launched in July 1936.
A map showing the division of Spain into Republican and Nationalist zones following the military coup launched in July 1936. Map: Ian Bull

On the Madrid front, the militias checked the Nationalist advance from the north, but the challenge from the south of the country presented a deadly danger. General Francisco Franco (1892-1975), the leader of the Nationalist forces, secured German and Italian planes to ferry his Army of Africa from Morocco, parts of which were then a Spanish colony, to Andalucía in southern Spain. This contained Moroccan troops as well as the Foreign Legion, crack units of the Spanish army with a fearsome reputation as a fighting force.

Nationalist forces had taken Seville, Andalucía’s capital, massacring its defenders. Linking up, Franco led his army northwards, diverting west into Extremadura to butcher landless labourers who had rallied to the Republic, delaying the advance on Madrid.

Franco diverted away again to relieve the besieged Nationalist defenders of the historic city of Toledo, 70 kilometres south-west of Madrid. This had no strategic significance but caught the attention of the media globally and boosted Franco’s reputation. By November 1936, he was finally in position to attack the Spanish capital itself, aided by matériel and planes sent by the fascist dictatorships of Hitler and Mussolini.

France, which in the summer of 1936 had a centre-left government, began supplying arms to the Republic, which was the legitimate, elected government of Spain. The Conservative government of its key ally Britain was appalled, however, and insisted it close its border to arms supplies. Both governments then convened a conference of the European powers, who agreed not to intervene in Spain. Mussolini and Hitler pledged they would not, and then carried on supplying Franco.

In Moscow, Josef Stalin stalled on responding to pleas from the Republican government for military aid, fearing it would alienate Britain and France, two countries with whom he was desperately, and unsuccessfully, pursuing an alliance against Hitler. Eventually, he realised that with the fascist powers throwing in so much military help to Franco, the loss of Madrid would damage the prestige of the Soviet Union.

below Posters representing the opposing sides in the Spanish Civil War, produced for the pro-Republican anarchist union known as the CNT [left] and, bearing the message ‘To arms: nation, bread, and justice’, the pro-Franco Falange [right].
Posters representing the opposing sides in the Spanish Civil War, produced for the pro-Republican anarchist union known as the CNT [above] and, bearing the message ‘To arms: nation, bread, and justice’, the pro-Franco Falange [below]. Images: Wikimedia Commons

Russian weapons and planes arrived in Madrid on a scale sufficient to help tip the balance towards its defenders. Rather than send Soviet troops, Stalin instructed the communist parties of the world to send volunteers for an International Brigade to fight for the Republic. They began arriving, having slipped across the French border, which had been shut to any military assistance for the Republic.

The International Brigades – including significant numbers of volunteers from France, Germany, Austria, Poland, Italy, the United States, the UK, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Canada, Hungary, and Belgium – would eventually number some 40,000: not enough to prove decisive, but their arrival in Madrid was a huge morale boost for the Republic. As losses mounted, the replacements were predominantly Spanish, until they made up a majority of the Brigades’ forces.

In fact, Soviet aid was never on the scale given by Hitler and Mussolini, who between them sent some 100,000 troops. Hitler’s contribution included the state-of-the-art fighters and bombers of the crack Condor Legion – later to become infamous for the aerial bombing of the Basque town of Guernica (on 26 April 1937) – but all three powers used Spain as a testing ground for weaponry and tactical approaches.

Madrid held out, but within the Republic the Communist Party, small at the outset of the war, had grown hugely. This was partly because of the prestige then attached to the Soviet Union, and partly because it insisted revolution was off the agenda: the priority was winning the war, and that required a regular army.

Serious defeats

In the Catalan capital of Barcelona, where the military uprising had been defeated by the city’s insurgent working class in July 1936, the workers organised in the anarchist union known as the CNT. They had taken control of workplaces, neighbourhoods, and much else – events described so ably by George Orwell in his Spanish Civil War memoir Homage to Catalonia.

General Franco outmanoeuvred his rivals to exert total control. Image: Wikimedia Commons

What was missing was the possibility of waging revolutionary war in the same way as Oliver Cromwell in the English Civil War (1642-1651), Hoche and Kellermann in the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802), or Trotsky in the Russian Civil War (1917-1923). All created not only an efficient army but also one imbued with a mission of liberation. In Spain, such a mission might have involved giving the land to the mass of poverty-stricken landless labourers who worked the great estates of the south. Instead, the Republic’s government spurned an offer from Moroccan independence fighters to launch a rebellion there because that might spill over into France’s huge North African empire.

The first half of 1937 saw serious defeats for the Republic. In the south, the important city of Málaga fell, with the Nationalists massacring defenders and civilians. In the north, Franco was advancing on the Basque Country, Asturias, and Cantabria. The loss of Basque and Asturian iron ore, coal, and industry was a crucial loss.

The one Republican success was in March, at the Battle of Guadalajara, 60 kilometres north-east of Madrid, where an Italian attempt to encircle the capital ended in a rout – with Italian anti-fascists playing a prominent role, much to Mussolini’s shame.

In May 1937, however, simmering factional tensions within the Republican side caused a civil war to break out within the civil war. In Barcelona, communist units attacked the telephone exchange controlled by the CNT. Anarchists and members of the Party of Marxist Unity, known as the POUM, who were labelled ‘Trotskyite’ by the communists, erected barricades and fought back, but the CNT leaders ordered the barricades to be taken down. When that was done, crack Republican troops led by communist officers arrived and took control of the city. Workers’ control was ended, the POUM made illegal, and its leader seized and assassinated by the communists. This takeover also curtailed the powers of the autonomous Catalan government.

A demonstration in Salamanca to celebrate the occupation of Gijón by Francoist troops. Image: Alamy

Within days, Juan Negrín (1892-1956), previously the finance minister, became prime minister of the Republic, promising a government of victory. His aim was the formation of a regular, disciplined army, and his allies in this were the communists. But the Republic was now internally divided, with many socialists, anarchists, liberals, and Catalan and Basque nationalists resenting the takeover. Negrin needed a military victory to rebuild political unity.

Republican advances

In July, the new Republican Army, together with the International Brigades, launched an offensive aimed at Brunete, a small town south-west of Madrid, which if successful would have cut a key Nationalist supply route and relieved those still resisting in the north. With Soviet tanks and weapons, the offensive began well, but then the commanders concentrated on crushing pockets of resistance within captured territory, allowing Franco to bring up reinforcements, air support, and heavy weaponry. The Nationalists counterattacked and the outcome was stalemate. In truth, however, this was the best-equipped Republican thrust of the war, and after initial success it failed.

below General Franco outmanoeuvred his rivals to exert total control. right A demonstration in Salamanca to celebrate the occupation of Gijón by Francoist troops below right Nationalist soldiers train in the Plaza del Castillo, Pamplona.
Nationalist soldiers train in the Plaza del Castillo, Pamplona. Image: Alamy

Another Republican offensive was launched in the late summer of 1937 against Belchite, a town in Aragón. The aim was to capture Zaragoza, the region’s capital, which was only a few kilometres behind enemy lines, and to relieve Republican forces fighting in the north-east. Another motive behind the action was to establish the authority of the Negrín government in a region that had until then been dominated by the CNT and POUM.

Initial success saw the Republicans advance by 10 kilometres, capturing Belchite with heavy losses. But the Nationalists held, bringing up reserves and artillery, and counterattacking until that too became bogged down. Though there was no clear winner, once again the Republicans lost men and matériel that could not be replaced.

At the start of 1938, the Republican Army launched an offensive at the provincial capital of Teruel, some 300 kilometres east of Madrid in a mountainous part of southern Aragón. The city lay in a salient sticking out into Republican lines, and its capture would shorten communications between the Madrid front and the Republican capital of València, hopefully also diverting Franco from an offensive at Madrid that the Republicans knew was planned.

Again, the Republican advance met with initial success, and despite freezing temperatures Teruel was eventually taken after four weeks of bitter fighting. However, the Republican Army was not sufficient both to take the town and pursue an attack in depth. They had outnumbered the Nationalists only in the first few days, and could never match them in matériel.

ABOVE Armed civilians from the Republican side during the Battle of Irún, 19 August-5 September 1936. LEFT The anarchist Buenaventura Durruti achieved early territorial gains for the Republic. right Juan Negrín was appointed prime minister on 17 May 1937, promising a government of victory.
Armed civilians from the Republican side during the Battle of Irún, 19 August-5 September 1936. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Franco once again brought up reserves, air support, and artillery, and counterattacked. Three Nationalist corps faced one Republican corps. The Republic could proclaim the offensive a success, because it had drawn Franco’s forces away from a renewed offensive against Madrid, but the losses in both men and matériel were appalling. The failure to follow up on initial gains reflected the lack of Republican reserves, and what one political commissar described as the ‘diversity of arms’ – meaning that even finding stocks of the correct ammunition was difficult.

The Republican offensives were brilliantly conceived but could not be carried through. An alternative, given that they could not match Franco’s well-equipped army, was to stay on the defensive, launching many rapid incursions into Nationalist territory using both regular and irregular methods: that is, guerrilla warfare. The latter was never attempted on any large scale because it seems the Republic’s government wanted to keep tight control over the war, wary of any revival of the radicalism of the early months of the conflict, fearing it would harm attempts to win support from Britain and France.

The anarchist Buenaventura Durruti achieved early territorial gains for the Republic. Image: Alamy

In fact, the Nationalists held long lines, along an often lightly manned front and through underpopulated territory, and such a strategy – as some historians, including Antony Beevor, have argued – would have stretched their forces, perhaps allowing the Republic to fight on until the Second World War finally began. Other historians point to the scale of the repression in the Nationalist zone, arguing that it would have ruled out guerrilla operations – even though guerrilla fighting did take place across Spain from 1944 until 1952, when Franco’s control was even stronger.

Nationalist success

In December 1937, outraged at Franco’s apparent inability to press home the advantage of his superior forces, the Italian Foreign Minister Count Ciano wrote in his diary, ‘Franco has no idea of synthesis in war’.

Along with Franco’s German and Italian advisers and some of his own generals, Ciano chafed at the Nationalist leader’s willingness to respond to diversionary Republican offensives (such as those at Brunete, Belchite, and Teruel in 1937), and to divert large numbers of troops to the meaningless and usually costly task of recovering territory of little strategic importance captured by the Republic.

Juan Negrín was appointed prime minister on 17 May 1937, promising a government of victory. Image: Alamy

After his success at Teruel, the Generalissimo had spurned the chance to push on into poorly defended Catalonia, a crucial industrial area for the Republic. Franco was not interested in a quick end to the war. As he explained to the Germans and Italians, his was a crusade to rid Spain of communists and socialists, freemasons and liberals, Basque and Catalan nationalists. That meant destroying the enemy by forcing them to commit to attritional battles. In these, the Nationalists held a 20% advantage in terms of manpower, and an overwhelming one in terms of aircraft, artillery, and other equipment.

At the beginning of February 1938, Franco launched his offensive. On 23 February, Nationalist forces retook Teruel. Francoist matériel-strength superiority once again overcame Republican courage. The Nationalist offensive caught the Republican forces reorganising, and they were caught off balance. Retreat became a rout. The Nationalists advanced towards the Mediterranean, with the aim of cutting the Republican zone in half.

The disorganised Republican forces fled to relative safety across the Ebro – Spain’s longest river, which flows more than 900 kilometres to reach the coast midway between Barcelona and València. Now they could only draw on reinforcements from within Catalonia, and they were few.

RIGHT German Stuka (Junkers 87) dive-bombers of the elite Condor Legion in action during the Battle of Brunete in July 1937. below Right Between December 1937 and February 1938, the provincial capital of Teruel, 300 kilometres east of Madrid, saw some of the war’s bloodiest fighting.
German Stuka (Junkers 87) dive-bombers of the elite Condor Legion in action during the Battle of Brunete in July 1937. Image: Alamy

In early March – instead of moving further into Catalonia – Franco ordered six army corps totalling 200,000 men to begin an advance across a 260-kilometre-wide front in the direction of the Ebro valley. The objective was to destroy more Republican forces and to reach the Mediterranean. On 4 April, the Catalan city of Lleida (Lérida in Spanish) fell. Along with the usual executions, Franco announced the abolition of Catalan autonomy, and banned the language from public use.

But then, to the amazement of his generals and his allies, rather than continue east to Barcelona and north to the French border, Franco ordered his men south towards València. First they forced their way to the Mediterranean, reaching the fishing village of Vinaròs on 15 April and splitting the Republic in two, and then advanced through the isolated Maestrazgo mountains towards València itself, which was well defended. Franco’s troops got to within 40 kilometres of the Republican capital, but both sides suffered heavy losses.

The International Brigades numbered 40,149 troops, but just 14,175 were now foreign volunteers.

Total control

Victory at Teruel had also led Franco to convene the first Nationalist government, on 30 January 1938. At the beginning of the Civil War, the Nationalists had been an alliance of the military, the fascist Falange, and monarchists supporting different claimants to the throne. Now Franco had outmanoeuvred them all, and exerted total control as Caudillo (leader).

Between December 1937 and February 1938, the provincial capital of Teruel, 300 kilometres east of Madrid, saw some of the war’s bloodiest fighting. Image: Wikimedia Commons

For its part, the Republican side was now internally divided. Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler all justified the war as part of their fight against communism: the communists were a bogey that they could use to frighten the British and French governments. But the irony was that during the Spanish Civil War the Communist Party was, following Stalin’s directives, a moderating force in the Republic, arguing alongside Negrín against any attempts at revolution, and instead concentrating all on winning the war by building a disciplined, conventional army.

Within the Republican zone, anarchists, socialists, and Catalan nationalists resented Negrín and his communist allies. Then, to the surprise of all, the Republicans launched their last great offensive, across the River Ebro.•