The battle of Ebro
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.