Spanish Civil War. How it all Began: July – August 1936.

THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR: War Breaks Out. July 1936.

Salvador Dalí: Construcción blanda con judías hervidas. Premonición de la guerra civil (“Soft Construction with boiled beans. Premonition of the Civil War”).

The Spanish Civil War was a tragic tearing apart of a society where civil discourse had failed and given way to violence. The war lasted from July 1936 to April 1939. It was initiated by a rebellious group of disaffected army generals frustrated by what they saw as the failure of Spain’s Second Republic, 1931-36.

After the election of a left-wing government in February 1936, Spain entered a period of extreme volatility and discontent. The Cortes (Parliament) was subject to polarizing language full of threats and accusations.

The social dissatisfaction of the left was channeled into strikes, churches were burnt and there were threats of revolution. The right responded with its own creed of violence with gangs wearing paramilitary uniforms cruising Madrid on the lookout for the enemy.

The military followed the events closely and with great unease. Although there were members loyal to the Republic it was no secret that many of the most powerful figures were more than uneasy with the disorder and fragmentation of the country, and some had begun to sound out the possibilities of a coup as soon as the results of the February elections were known.

Most of the hardliners were dispatched to minor posts to neutralize their influence. Even so, this did not prevent collaboration and it only required an incident to galvanise the disaffected generals into action. The trigger was pulled on the night of July 12, with the murder of Calvo Sotelo, the leader of the Bloque Nacional a militant, authoritarian, monarchist party.

The shocking circumstances of the murder — Calvo was shot in the back of the head between two policemen in a government car— convinced the leading hardliners, headed by Generals Mola and Franco, that it was time for action.

On the evening of July 17th, rebel soldiers in the Spanish protectorate of Morocco (aka the Rif) –fearing that loyalist troops were about to arrest them– seized control of their garrisons in Ceuta, Melilla and Tetuan. Early next day, Franco declared a state of war and that afternoon took a chartered plane  from the Canaries to Tetuan. The objective at this point was Madrid. In the north, General Emilio Mola (who coined the phrase “fifth column”) headed the northern army, with the same objective as Franco: Madrid. There was no turning back.

By July 19th, several garrisons on the mainland had also fallen to the insurgents. In Andalusia, General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano –head of the frontier police– arrived at Seville on July 17th ostensibly on an inspection tour of the city’s customs offices.

On the following day, the general –a former pro-Republican– supported by only some 200 rebels audaciously took over the garrison at gun point.  He then terrorised the working class by “recycling” his soldiers in rapid and brutal machine gun raids into various quarters of the city, which gave the impression of widespread attacks by a large military contingent.

Queipo followed this with perhaps the first effective radio campaign of terror, in which he conjured obscene images of what his Moroccan mercenaries would do to republican women if there was any resistance. Within a few days other major southern cities –Córdoba, Granada, Cádiz, Huelva– fell, following swift and ferocious attacks on working class quarters.

In the rural areas, however, where resentment was deeper and opposition fiercer and initially harder to pin down, the peasants quickly collectivised the land and prepared to defend it. The cities of western Andalusia (with the exception of Málaga) were firmly controlled by the rebels but the rural areas were dangerous territory for them.

In the conservative north the uprising encountered little opposition, except along a coastal fringe from Asturias to the Basque Provinces (Euskadi). Here, the rural areas supported the insurgents and in the ancient ecclesiastical cities of Old Castile –Burgos, Salamanca, León, Avila and Segovia—anti-republican hostility ensured enthusiastic support for the rebels.

In Carlist** Navarre, General Emilio Mola enjoyed widespread support and the streets of Pamplona rang to the joyful cries of Viva Cristo Rey! (Long live Christ the King!). There was brief union resistance in Valladolid and Zaragoza, and some heavy fighting in the larger towns of Galicia, but republican support was quickly and brutally crushed.

**Carlists: conservative supporters of the claims to the throne of the descendants of the 19th-century pretender, Don Carlos de Borbón. Don Carlos was excluded from succession after the death of King Ferdinand VII in 1833 in favour of Ferdinand’s three-year old daughter, Isabella (II).

By the end of July, some clear patterns were emerging from the attempted coup. For example, it was evident that a country-wide uprising had failed. Only a minority of the military high command and just over a half of the regular officers actually joined the coup.

The navy (and much of the small air force) remained loyal to the Republic. Equally important, the well-armed Assault Guards and the Civil Guard (Guardia Civil) had split their allegiance. Where they joined the insurgents as, for example, in western Andalusia or Galicia, the government lost; where they remained loyal, the government generally prevailed.

At this point, the rebels controlled about one third of the country, primarily those northern, central and western areas with an historical affiliation to the church and a vision of a unified country: Old Castile, León, Aragón, Galicia, northern Extremadura.

Civil War Map: September 1936.
The failure to achieve a rapid, country-wide coup had the makings of an embarrassing military bungle. What saved it was the arrival of Franco’s army of legionnaires and Moroccan mercenaries (aka the Army of Africa), which had been isolated on northern Morocco by a navy blockade of the Straits of Gibraltar.

Given the insurgents’ lack of naval power, the answer to the blockade was an airlift, but Franco had hardly any planes available to transport over 40.000 troops gathered in Morocco. The solution was found elsewhere, beyond Spain’s borders. Appeals were made to the German Chancellor Adolf Hitler and the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini for assistance, giving the conflict an international dimension. Both Hitler and Mussolini agreed, calculating that Europe’s other powers, Britain and France, were unlikely to intervene and that a right wing power at the doors of the Mediterranean would be a useful ally.

On July 28th, Mussolini sent 12 bombers and 2 merchant ships (only 9 of the planes made it, with 3 crashing en route!). A day later, Hitler dispatched 20 transport planes, 6 fighter planes, pilots, and a supply of machine guns. It was the first step in foreign aid that would help transform a botched coup into a prolonged civil war.
In the first week of August, 1936, the first major airlift of men and equipment in history — some 20.000 soldiers– was under way. This was followed by a breach of the blockade off Gibraltar, allowing the rest of the African army to cross by boat.

The whole manoeuvre was a psychological boost for the insurgents, while news of the landing of the ferocious legionnaires (whose anthem was Los novios de la muerte “The bridegrooms of Death”) and the equally bloodthirsty Moroccan mercenaries sowed fear amongst republican supporters. By August 7, Franco was installed in Seville. The war was about to heat up.

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Casanova Julián & Andrés, Carlos Gil Twentieth-Century Spain: A History trans. Martin Douch Cambridge 2014
Ellwood, Sheelagh  Franco  London and 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 A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War London 1996
Salvador Dalí’s painting from
Map: “Map of the Spanish Civil War in September 1936” by NordNordWest, modifications by user:Sting, Grandiose (talk) – File:Iberian Peninsula location map.svg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – Civil War map