Spanish Civil War. Objective Madrid.

Spanish Civil War (1936-39): Objective Madrid.

Note: Several names are used to designate the two broad, polarised forces embroiled in the Spanish Civil War. Those on the side of the legitimately elected left-wing coalition government are called Republicans, loyalists, socialists, or simply government forces/ supporters. On the other side, we have anti-Republicans, rebels, insurgents, insurrectionists, Fascists or, most commonly, Nationalists.

 From the outset of the Civil War, the main military objective of the rebellious anti-Republican forces was to take Madrid. Clearly, as capital and seat of the Republican government Madrid was extremely important, but its situation in the geographical centre of the country also carried significant psychological implications.
It symbolised the centralist vision espoused by the rebels and carried with it both moral and political authority. 

The Opening Salvo.
The opening salvo of the Civil War was fired on July 17th, 1936, when garrisons rebelled in the Spanish protectorate of Morocco and in mainland Spain. On the following day, General Francisco Franco declared a state of war and arrived in Morocco from the Canary Islands where he had been stationed. However, the insurgents failed to inspire a country-wide insurrection on the mainland, and the burden of victory fell on the Army of Africa (consisting of legionnaires and mercenary Moroccans) commanded by Franco. Crossing the Straits of Gibraltar from the Spanish protectorate of Morocco, Franco planned to head north to Extremadura before turning east to Madrid.

Fortunately for him, by the time he crossed the Straits in the first week of August 1936, the major cities of Western Andalusia (Seville, Cordoba, Granada) had already fallen to the rebels, but not the countryside.

Spanish Civil War Map: End of July 1936. Nationalist zone in red.

So, before heading north, the Nationalists (the term was first coined on August 7 as part of the insurgents’ patriotic propaganda) first had to secure western Andalusia, a task that was completed by a thorough village-by-village “cleansing” of rural opposition. Then, supported by German and Italian air cover and applying tactics of terror learned in the Moroccan wars of the 1920s, Franco’s troops swept northwards into Extremadura purging all pockets of opposition as they went.

The battle for Badajoz (Aug 14) was especially bloody and savage and made international headlines. Cut off from all help, government forces fought desperately and managed to inflict heavy damage on the insurgents before succumbing.

What followed became known as the “massacre of Badajoz.” Under the direct command of one of Franco’s most callous commanders, Lieutenant-Colonel Juan Yagüe Blanco, almost 2,000 civilians were herded into the town’s bullring and slaughtered.  It was a bloody message of what to expect for those who dared oppose the Nationalist advance.

By September 3, 1936, the insurgents had crossed the River Tagus and taken the town of Talavera de la Reina, just over 100 kilometres (60 miles) south west of Madrid. From this point, fierce Republican resistance slowed the Nationalist advance to the capital and it took over two weeks to reach Maqueda (September 21), only 33 kilometres (20 miles) east of Talavera.

It was here, however, that Franco made an unexpected decision. Instead of pressing on to Madrid, he turned his army south to Toledo where about 2,000 Nationalist soldiers and supporters were besieged in the giant fortress (alcázar) by Republicans.

Military strategists have questioned the decision, especially since the time spent “liberating” Toledo allowed the capital precious time to shore up its defences. But there were extenuating factors at work here, which take us away from the military front for a moment.

On September 21, 1936, the day Franco ordered his soldiers to Toledo, he headed for a meeting he had requested with Nationalist military leaders in Salamanca. The time had come to choose one leader with a clear chain of command, not only for the unity of the rebels but also for crucial ongoing negotiations with Hitler and Mussolini for aid.

The only two real candidates for supreme leadership were Franco and General Emilio Mola, commander of the Northern Army heading south towards Madrid. Mola was older and had been the main organiser of the coup; Franco, however, was senior in rank, had a higher military profile, and already enjoyed the confidence of Hitler and Mussolini.

The choice was never really in doubt: with only one abstention among the generals, Franco was elected Commander-in-Chief (Generalísimo) of the Nationalist armed forces. (And as it happened, any subsequent challenge from Mola was eliminated when he died in a plane crash on June 3, 1937.)

Franco was now in complete charge of the war effort, but there was more to come for the 43-year old Galician. Despite doubts expressed by some of his military colleagues, by the end of September Franco’s supporters had succeeded in getting him elected Head of State, effectively concentrating in his hands both military and political power.

It was a provisional arrangement “as long as the war lasts” the agreement said (Preston Franco 183), but the die was cast. It was but a short step from absolute authority to dictatorship, and the “provisional” title of Head of State, Caudillo, was one that Franco was to enjoy for the rest of his life, “by the grace of God.”

In November 1936, both Germany and Italy officially recognised Franco as Head of the Spanish State, a move that gave some international legitimacy to his position.

And finally, there was the church. The rebels were traditionalists and overwhelmingly devout Catholics and predictably protected the church. The church’s support, in turn, gave legitimacy to the Nationalists from the beginning and provided ideological cohesion to the war.  This sense of cohesion marked a major difference between the Nationalists and the Republicans in the running of the war.

Later, in April, 1937, Franco added the final trappings of an alternate government to oppose the legitimately elected Popular Front when he took command of the two major civilian branches of the Nationalist uprising (the fascist Falange and the Carlist** militias/ “requetes“) and united them into a single political party, the cumbersomely-named Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las JONS (Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista).The importance attached to unity by the Nationalists is neatly wrapped up in the slogan adopted from the Falange and repeated ad nauseam by Franco and his followers: España una, grande, libre: Spain one, great, free.
**The Carlists were reactionary Catholics who supported the claims to the throne of the descendants of the 19th-century pretender, Don Carlos de Borbón. Their strongest presence was in Navarre.

Franco’s decision to take Toledo rather than proceed to Madrid now acquires better focus. Better-organised Republican resistance had increased as his troops approached Madrid, so any failure to take the capital could undermine confidence in Franco during those crucial meetings in Salamanca.

On the other hand, the besieged Alcázar of Toledo (the siege had been going on since at least Aug 24, 1936) highlighted Nationalist valour against all-out Republican efforts and to lift the siege would be a feather in Franco’s hat. Of the two cities, Toledo was an easier target, but there was in addition another important reason: Toledo’s historic significance.

Toledo was the religious and spiritual capital of the country and the seat of its most important Catholic diocese. Toledo’s history was indelibly linked –since the times of the Visigoths— with Spain’s Catholic soul.

To deliver it, then, from the “godless hordes” would convey a powerful symbol to the Nationalists and, among the inner circle of generals, enhance Franco’s reputation and consolidate his position in a decisive moment of his career.  Franco might not have thought about it then, but the deliverance of Toledo from an alien “heresy” had echoes of the triumphant conquest of the city by Alfonso VI back in 1085.

And if he did not think about it then, certainly by the time he made his state entry into Madrid in May of 1939 he followed –according to the official Nationalist press release– “the ritual observed when Alfonso VI, accompanied by the Cid, captured Toledo in the Middle Ages (Preston Franco, 329).

The battle for Toledo was bloody and ferocious, with no prisoners taken. On September 28, 1936, the Alcázar was relieved and Toledo was back in Nationalist hands. On October 1, following a much-hyped trip to Toledo –which cinema audiences throughout the world witnessed– Franco was officially invested as Chief of State in a lavish ceremony in the ancient city of Burgos, the Nationalist headquarters (and resting place of the Cid!).

With Toledo taken, could Madrid be far behind?
 General Mola had boasted that success was assured by the four rebel columns approaching the capital, and from a fifth column within the city (it is now that the term “fifth column” enters our common idiom). His expectations, however, were frustrated.

On October 7, 1936, the Nationalists, attacking in an arc from the north and west, managed to make it to the university campus on the northern outskirts of the city. On November 6, fearing the imminent fall of Madrid, the Republican government withdrew to Valencia, ostensibly to conduct the war from there. They left the defence of the capital to General Jose Miaja, an undistinguished commander but popular with the troops.

The Nationalists were euphoric at the prospects of victory. Newspapers predicted the triumphal entry of Franco, military bands prepared for a glorious parade, victory speeches were penned, banners painted. But the defenders of Madrid had something to say about that.

Despite the brave words of the banner above: “They shall not pass…. Madrid will be the tomb of fascism,” Madrid did fall. Franco’s troops entered Madrid on March 27, 1939.
1937. The decision was to encircle Madrid and cut off its supply lines to the east. Reinforced by German aircraft and Italian soldiers, the Nationalists launched attack after attack in some of the bitterest fighting of the war, made worse by wintry conditions.
By March 1937 it had become clear that although the Nationalists had made some territorial gain, they had lost many lives and not succeeded isolating the capital. In the battle for the River Jarama valley (February 1937), the Nationalists failed to gain control of the Madrid-Valencia road, while in the Battle of the of the Guadalajara (March 1937)–on the Madrid-Zaragoza road– the Italians were routed, much to the embarrassment of a furious Mussolini.

In the face of such determined opposition with a high cost of life, Franco had little choice but to change tactics again. His major consolation was that although the battle for Madrid had not gone as planned, in other parts of the country there was success, perhaps the main conquest being the city of Málaga (February 1937). As for Madrid, it would become an increasing obsession of his and he would return to it, but only after dealing with less stubborn resistance.

After failing to capture Madrid, Franco’s first move was against the northern coast, a loyalist strip that was cut off from the rest of the Republic. It made perfect sense, and would at the same time provide the Nationalists with important access to the coal of Asturias and to the industrial resources of the Basque Provinces: iron ore, steel, shipyards.

But the terrain is also wooded and mountainous and Basque opposition, especially around Bilbao was determined. However, once the city fell (June 19, 1937) the advance westward was methodical, if slow.

Altogether, the campaign took almost seven months (March to October 1937) and might have been no more than a detail in the history of the Civil War but for one notorious event that immediately leapt onto the international stage and left an indelible mark on the history of warfare.

In the late afternoon of April 26, 1937, the centre of the sleepy, Basque market town of Guernica (Gernika in Basque) was obliterated and its inhabitants strafed by waves of German planes over a period of almost three hours.

For the German commanders of the Condor Legion who masterminded the assault, it was an experiment in bombing methods. The rest of the world now recognises it as the first case of blitzkrieg, the tactic that was to terrify civilians in the Second World War, 1939-45.

Guernica/Gernika after the blitzkrieg.
The widespread destruction of buildings and appalling rain of death on the inhabitants** was a graphic, gruesome demonstration that civilian safety could no longer be protected from air attack.
**Figures for the numbers of victims vary widely, from about 300 to 1654. The latter figure –based on information provided by the Basque government of the time— was long accepted but the former approximate number is now more widely recognised. Neither figure takes in the injured, estimated in the hundreds. For a very interesting piece on propaganda –or fake news– see

Public awareness of the attack was heightened when Picasso’s painting “Guernica” was shown at the Paris World’s Fair in June 1937.

Picasso’s Guernica. In the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid.

During the summer of 1937, the Republicans tried diversionary tactics to relieve pressure on the north. In July, a bloody, three week offensive against the Nationalist held village of Brunete, 15 miles west of Madrid proved costly in men and material. It did force Franco to bring reserves temporarily from the north, but the territorial gain for the Republicans was negligible, and Brunete remained in Nationalist hands!

Another offensive in Belchite (Aragón, about 43 kilometres south west of Zaragoza) in August came to nothing. It was a grim period for the Republicans whose lack of success on the front for more than a year was beginning to create a defeatist mentality in many.

Ruins of Belchite, left untouched as a memorial of the Civil War. A new community has since been built alongside the ghost village.

Once the northern war was won (October 1937), Franco again turned his attention to Madrid and preparations were made in November 1937 for another assault on the capital. By some good fortune or astute spying, the Republicans obtained information of Franco’s plans and quickly organised a pre-emptive, diversionary strike on the Nationalist-held, provincial capital of Teruel in the southern tip of Aragón.

Republican soldiers in Teruel, 1938

The town, lightly defended and almost surrounded by Republican columns was attacked in mid-December 1937. The Republican strategy succeeded as Franco –ignoring the advice of his German and Italian allies– diverted troops from Madrid to Teruel. It wasn’t enough to prevent the town falling to the Republicans on January 8, 1938.

However, Republican success was short lived as Nationalist forces launched a massive counterattack. In appalling conditions –snow, ice, temperatures that plunged to -20C and caused soldiers to die from exposure– the battle raged back and forth, from street to street, house to house.

Both sides suffered massive losses in what was one of the bitterest battles of the war, with estimates of casualties running as high as 40,000 for the Nationalists and 60,000 for the Republicans. It was a morale sapping experience for both sides, but the air and artillery superiority of the rebels eventually won out. On February 22 the Republicans retreated and Teruel was back in the Nationalist fold.

1938. The Battle of Teruel was a defining moment of the Civil War. Following quickly on their advantage, the Nationalists undertook what is called the Aragon Offensive, swallowing more territory in a massive push into western Catalonia (Catalunya) and down the Ebro valley to the Mediterranean.

When they reached the Catalan fishing village of Vinaroz (Vinaròs) on April 15, 1938, they effectively split the Republican zone, leaving Catalonia and Valencia isolated from each other. The Nationalist camp now seemed invincible; the Republicans, demoralised and suffering from a serious shortage of food, were on the run.

Republican soldiers crossing the Ebro, 1938

It seemed only a matter of time before the end. “The Civil War has entered upon its last lap” was the verdict of The Times of London (Carr Spanish Tragedy... 217). Still, the war dragged on for almost another year, in part owing to Franco’s refusal to accept offers of a compromise peace from the Republican government and in part owing to his decision to attack Valencia instead of Catalonia.

Having reached the Mediterranean, the logical choice for Franco–and the one urged by his advisers– was to finish the conquest of Catalonia, the only remaining source of the Republic’s industrial base, and also by now the seat of its government.

To the astonishment of his advisers, however, he opted for a much longer journey south to take Valencia. What this did was to stretch Nationalist lines and allow the Republicans to amass troops for one massive effort to restore contact between the two Republican zones.

In July 1938 –as Nationalist forces approached Valencia– a huge concentration of some 80.000 to 100.000 men using small boats and pontoon bridges crossed a bend in the lower Ebro river and attacked Nationalist positions.

The battle raged for four months and turned out to be the climactic battle of the Civil War. It was a case of survival for the Republican forces, but their desperate action was also fuelled by hope that came from what was happening elsewhere in Europe.

The Spanish Civil War was fought against a background of increasing tensions in Europe, and both Nationalists and Republicans were heavily indebted to aid from interested European powers. Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union were the main foreign players in the Spanish Civil War, but others, in particular Britain and France, followed events very closely.

What gave the Republican leadership hope in the summer and fall of 1938 were the actions of Adolf Hitler. In March 1938 Hitler had annexed Austria, and by late summer he had his eyes on Czechoslovakia. Republican optimism rested on the hope that Britain, France and the Soviet Union would resist Hitler’s belligerence.

This would precipitate a European war, whereby the Spanish Civil War would be absorbed into a larger conflict and the Republic would acquire allies whose interests would include the defeat of Franco. And for exactly the same reason that the Republicans hoped for a European war, Franco feared one, and hastened to assure Britain and France that should hostilities break out north of the border, he would remain neutral.

As it turned out, Britain and France capitulated to Hitler and surrendered Czechoslovakia on September 29, 1938. Indirectly it condemned the last Republican effort to defeat. The Ebro campaign continued until mid-November when the Republicans were finally pushed back across the river.

By now the heart of Catalonia was exposed and the Nationalists pushed on methodically.  Their troops entered Barcelona on January 26, 1939, as thousands –including most Republican politicians– fled to exile in France. By February 10 Catalonia had fallen.

1939. Madrid and Valencia still held out, but the outcome was never in doubt. Internal dissension weakened Republican defences, and efforts to negotiate an honourable peace were coldly rejected. In the confusion there was no effective resistance. There was a mass exodus to the Mediterranean ports as Republicans sought any means of evacuation.

The end came on March 27 when Nationalist troops entered Madrid. It had taken almost three years, but Franco had finally achieved his objective of taking the capital. On April 1, 1939, he issued a hand-written communique: Today, with the Red Army captive and disarmed, our victorious troops have achieved their final military objectives. The war is over. (Preston Franco 322).

Barton, Simon A History of Spain Basingstoke, Hampshire 2nd.  ed. 2009
Carr, Raymond Spain 1808-1939 Oxford 1966
Carr, Raymond  The Spanish Tragedy: The Civil War in Perspective London 1993 (first pub. 1977)
Casanova Julian & Andres, Carlos Gil Twentieth-Century Spain: A History trans. Martin Douch Cambridge 2014
Ellwood, Sheelagh Franco London & New York 1994
Hodges, Gabrielle Ashford Franco: A Concise Biography London 2000
Jackson, Gabriel A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War London 1974
Preston, Paul  Franco: A Biography  London 1995
—————-   A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War
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Banner in Madrid: “¡No pasarán! Madrid” by Mikhail Koltsov – Оригинал (1936) сделан фотоаппаратом “ФЭД”. Own work photo. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –!_Madrid.jpg#/media/File:%C2%A1No_pasar%C3%A1n!_Madrid.jpg
Picasso’s Guernica:
Image of Belchite:  By ecelan – Own work, CC BY 2.5,
For a series of excellent graphic photos of Belchite, see NB Belchite is not in the south of Spain, as the article states, but in Aragon, in the north east.
Destruction of Guernica: Guernica “Bundesarchiv Bild 183-H25224, Guernica, Ruinen” by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H25224 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Commons –,_Guernica,_Ruinen.jpg#/media/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-H25224,_Guernica,_Ruinen.jpg
Republican soldiers in Teruel: “Reemplazo republicano” by Senior 2009 – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –  
Wikimedia Commons –