Spain History - Spanish Civil War - (1936 - 1939)

In 1936 the death of Calvo Sotelo brought to a head the discontent that had been simmering in the army for some long time. At the beginning the army revolt was headed by General Sanjurjo who had been exiled to neighbouring Portugal. The active leaders prior to the outbreak of the Civil War were in fact General Goded and General Mola with Francisco Franco still waiting to see which side to join. The army was well prepared when the time arrived with its loyal offers holding lists of all suspected left-wing activists. They quickly moved to make the necessary arrests and often ended up shooting the suspect. General Franco had made his decision prior to the revolt in Melilla and was hand in glove with the other army generals. A famous Mallorca business tycoon had chartered a plane in England on the 11th of July to make its way to the Canary Islands to bring General Franco back to Tetuan and his Spanish Legionnaires on the 19th.

In 1936, Francisco Franco Bhamonde had reached the age of 43 and had distinguished himself as a soldier having acquired promotion at remarkable speed. Son of a naval family he had only become a soldier to the lack of vacancies in the navy at the admission age of 15. His academic ranking at Toledo Infantry Academy was poor but his Moroccan service won him 13 medals for leadership, discipline and bravery. He reached the rank of general at the early age of 33 which made him the youngest to have reached this position in Europe after Napoleon Bonaparte. His social life was so conservative in comparison to his fellow officers and ladies seemed to be of little interest until he met Carmen Polo who he married in 1923. He appeared as a devoted military man with discipline at the top of his priorities, then patriotism, followed closely by strong concepts of honour and integrity.

At the outbreak of the revolt it seemed to be the answer for both sides of the political division believing that the army would support their cause. Spanish Morocco, Canary Islands, Galicia, Navarra and parts of Castille and Aragón immediately sided with the new military rebels. However, due to either lack of communication or division of thought not all the garrisons and their officers joined. The public also took a hand in the matter and in Madrid their intervention kept the garrison loyal to the left-wing government. General Goded equally failed in Barcelona and was shot, whilst, Sanjurjo died as his plane crashed on takeoff in Portugal. This situation left in the field three very independent leaders, the Generals Franco, Mola and Queipo who by not winning or losing created a division in Spain of its population and forcing it to either support the elected government or the army uprising.

The rebel army now only held five large cities and a quarter of the mainland. The government had the backing of about 75 per cent of the industry and commerce plus a sizable support from the rest of the army and the important security forces. Fortunately for Franco and his fellow conspirators the government leaders in Madrid failed to arm or maintain a united policy to its civilian supporters. The reaction was typical of Spain's past recent history with each party or Union taking power into their own hands. Catalonia became ruled by both the Generalitat and the CNT party and the Basques were as elsewhere divided and at the same time considered once again that they were a State that was apart from Madrid. Confusion led to wild propaganda with the end result that the bitterness in people took to the streets which was keenly fuelled with horrific stories and half-truths. One true story about the appalling death of 500 inhabitants of Ronda in Andalucía was made famous by Ernest Hemingway in his book For Whom the Bell Tolls. Within days some hundreds of churches were burnt or ransacked and it is estimated that over 7,000 priests, monks, nuns, and even bishops were horrifically slaughtered. But this was only the beginning of the indiscriminate or mass killings that were committed in this Civil War by both sides.

The key to advancement from Franco's view was to transport his Moroccan Legionnaires into Spain. In this aspect Germany decided to join his side and lent him twenty transport planes which through August and September brought the troops across into Algeciras. Their well trained force contained soldiers had gained many years of fighting experience in Africa. However, as a counter weight the enthusiasm of the Republican street militia helped to balance this armed power. At first the Nationalists, as General Franco's army became known, quickly captured eastern Andalusia and Estremadura. In Madrid this militia stopped their steady advance with a heroic stand. At this time international support was forthcoming for both sides as the idealism of youth was roused in both their defence. The countries of Germany, Italy and Portugal, sent men, much needed arms and planes to assist General Franco. The Italian leader Mussolini claimed his 70,000 troops were just volunteers, and the Germans one hundred planes based in Salamanca had a decided effect on the outcome. Russia was the principal supporter to the Republicans and she sent arms and some much needed other equipment and military advisers. The fighting men were forthcoming for the Republicans in the form of the famous International Brigades which were drawn from ardent left-wing idealistic supporters from the entire world.

Franco's African Army moved successfully north from Andalucía close to the border of Portugal taking Badajoz and once again they slaughtered the local population in a gross manner that when reported in detail and it outraged many to the north in Europe. The old city of Toledo was to prove too strong in its defence when some 2,000 inhabitants retreated into the old Alcázar fortress against the besieging Republican army. Franco appreciating the propaganda value of the situation in Toledo marched across and broke the siege and took blood in revenge. Among many other events worth recording is one that occurred earlier at the town of Gijon. The Nationalists realizing they could not hold there garrison any longer against the attacking Republicans called upon a Nationalist warship to shell their barracks as they would rather die than surrender. Their request was respected and they all died as they wished.

The episode at Toledo gave Madrid sufficient time to build its defences and the subsequent 10 day battle for the capital gained much support internationally as women and children took up arms in support of their men. The fighting was in the area of the Casa del Campo to the west of the city and the Nationalists attack failed so an unsuccessful siege was laid which lasted for more than two years.

The imbalance of the outside support from Europe helped the outcome to sway towards the Nationalist. This was further helped by the strong conflicts that lay between the different left wing fractions in the Republican ranks. Barcelona became an example of division in extremes with prostitutes forced to learn to cook and sew, bars closed and coffee and alcohol banned, meanwhile half-naked male and female supporters of an eccentric Colonel Mangada were driven around town in army lorries. Barcelona extremists longed for a counter revolution and the anarchists wanted their Cátalunia to be declared an independent country.

In April 1937 there occurred the famous destruction of Guernica, a town which had previously played its part in Spain's earlier history. After a completely unexpected bombing attack lasting three hours from German planes, this historic town lay in ruins with some thousand bodies under the destroyed buildings. Through the masterpiece painted by Pablo Picasso this event has become permanently remembered by the world.

By the end of 1937 much of the action had moved to the northern coast where the iron and ship building industry fell into the hands of the Nationalists. The death of General Mola in a plane accident that year left the centre stage clear with one leader - General Francisco Franco. Almost by coincidence in May of the same year a crisis occurred in Barcelona amongst the Republicans and the Communists. The end result was that leadership fell firmly in the hands of the Communists. As the conflict moved into its final stages the Republicans appointed a puppet leader by the name of Dr Juan Negrin who had earlier in the war committed the absolute blunder of all blunders. Fearing that Spain's huge hoard of gold bullion would fall into the hands of the Nationalists he decided to move it to Russia. Stalin is reported to have received the gold as a present! Negrin as the new Prime Minister allowed the setting up of a new security police force whose principle job was to rid the Communist party of any dissenters and Trotsky sympathizers.

In Spring of 1938 the Nationalists drove through the defence line in Aragón and ended up on the east coast of Spain. Ignoring the problem of Barcelona, the army marched south to unsuccessfully attach Valencia. Seizing the moment the Republicans attacked Franco's rear with an offensive in the River Ebro valley which cost in total over 50,000 casualties and 20,000 dead. In December Franco marched on a virtually undefended Barcelona and the Republicans fled north to France. The final theatre was in 1939 in Madrid with the Nationalist forces posed on the outskirts a Colonel Casado staged a coup within the Republic defenders in the hope of better surrender terms. On March 28th Franco's army marched into Madrid and on the 1st of April the war was officially over. The war ended with the control of Spain firmly in General Franco's hands. The Spanish Civil War had done untold damage to the their prosperity and structure of Spain and had sent brother to kill brother. It is estimated that well over 500.000 Spaniards had died and in some cases many of these were slaughtered in mass killings rather than on the actual battlefield. It had been a very sad and costly war for Spain.


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