The bat­tle of Ebro

Timeless Travels Magazine - - SPAIN -

On­the 17th July 1936 a group of mil­i­tary plot­ters launched a coup against the Span­ish Re­pub­lic. They had de­cided that the re­cent elec­toral vic­tory of a left-wing ‘Pop­u­lar Front’ was un­ac­cept­able. The upris­ing failed and dragged into a pro­tracted and bloody civil war which pit­ted the forces of right-wing re­ac­tion against an of­ten awk­ward al­liance of an­ar­chism, com­mu­nism, so­cial­ism and lib­er­al­ism.

With the death of the coup’s orig­i­nal leader in an un­timely plane crash, the stage was set for Gen­eral Fran­cisco Franco’s rapid rise to power over the so-called ‘Na­tion­al­ists’. He cun­ningly en­listed the help of Hitler and Mus­solini, who duly fur­nished his army with air­craft, tanks, and troops.

By the spring of 1938 Franco’s rebel army had cut Re­pub­li­can ter­ri­tory in two. The gov­ern­ment was cor­nered in Cat­alo­nia, sev­ered from loy­al­ist Va­len­cia and Madrid. Des­per­ate to demon­strate the Re­pub­lic’s abil­ity to fight on, in the hope of ob­tain­ing help from Bri­tain and France, Prime Min­is­ter Juan Ne­grín de­cided to launch a fresh of­fen­sive. Gen­eral Vi­cente Rojo was charged with plan­ning what we now know as ‘The Bat­tle of the Ebro’.

In the dead of night on the 24th July, 1938, 80,000 Re­pub­li­can troops crossed the Ebro River in the south of Cat­alo­nia in a sur­prise at­tack against an en­emy which out­num­bered them and pos­sessed far su­pe­rior air and tank power. This was the be­gin­ning of what was to be­come, in the words of Paul Pre­ston, “the most hard-fought bat­tle of the war”. Amongst the first ca­su­al­ties were many of the for­eign vol­un­teers of the In­ter­na­tional Bri­gades. The Amer­i­can Al­vah Bessie wrote that com­pany com­man­ders felt like “real butch­ers, lead­ing these un­de­vel­oped, fright­ened kids into fire”. Those that sur­vived would en­dure a bat­tle fought in atro­cious sum­mer heat in a rocky ter­rain which made dig­ging de­fences al­most im­pos­si­ble. Franco’s coun­ter­at­tack was un­re­lent­ing. He wanted to prise the Re­pub­li­cans from ev­ery inch of con­quered ground.

The long­est and blood­i­est bat­tle of the Civil War raged for more than three months and ended in a de­ci­sive Na­tion­al­ist vic­tory. It had de­stroyed the Re­pub­li­can army. Franco’s forces could now sweep into Cat­alo­nia un­op­posed as the roads swelled with refugees. Bri­tain con­tin­ued its pol­icy of ‘non-in­ter­ven­tion’ in Spain and never came to the Re­pub­lic’s aid as Ne­grín had orig­i­nally hoped. By April 1939 Spain was Franco’s – and would re­main so for al­most four decades.

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