These days, foreign visitors to Spain’s Ebro River are quite likely to be drawn there by the prospect of catching one of the huge Wels Catfish that populate this 565-mile long waterway.
Seventy-six years ago, thousands of young men from Germany, France, Morocco, Italy, America, Canada, Britain and Ireland were gathered along the banks of the Lower Aragon and Catalonian stretch of the river. However, these were not recreational anglers or tourists; they were part of two huge, rival Spanish armies totalling over 170,000 men involved in the longest and bloodiest battle of that country’s civil war.
The Ebro flows north to east from Cantabria to its delta near Tortosa in Catalonia where it joins the Mediterranean. Chris Henry’s account of this last great offensive operation of the Spanish Republic was originally published in 1999 and was the result of a year’s research in Spanish primary sources and archives. It remains, to my knowledge, the only English-language work on this campaign. (Please note, the map below and the photos in this post are not from the book.)
As a consequence the governments of Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy rapidly dispatched vital military aid in the form of aircraft, artillery, tanks, troops and technicians to General Franco’s rebels, known as the Nationalists. Leon Blum’s Popular Front government in France sent a small number of French-built fighter and bomber aircraft, but internal opposition and the lack of British support pushed them toward supporting the non-intervention agreement.
The Soviet Union soon became the main source of assistance to the Republic and during the autumn of 1936 large quantities of material began to arrive in Republican ports. While many of the weapons supplied by Stalin’s regime were antiquated and virtually useless, the aircraft, such the Polikarpov ‘Chato’ I-15 biplane and ‘Mosca’ I-16 monoplane fighters and the Tupolev ‘Katiushka’SB-2 bomber were the latest Soviet models and amongst the best warplanes of the time. Soviet supplied armour was also of a high standard and the T-26 and BT-5 tanks, both fitted with a 45mm gun, were more than a match for the German Panzer 1’s and the Italian CV33/35s that formed the bulk of the Nationalist tank force.
Soviet influence was further strengthened by the Comintern-organized and controlled supply of foreign volunteers known as the International Brigades. Whilst their military significance has been exaggerated - they formed under 20% of the Army of the Ebro in 1938 for example - they did play a key role in preventing the fall of Madrid in November 1936 and were used as ‘shock troops’ in the subsequent battles in and around the Spanish capital in 1937.
In May 1937 Dr Juan Negrin replaced Largo Caballero as Prime Minister and although he wasn’t a Communist he did support closer Republican links with the Soviet Union and broadly accepted the Spanish Communist Party military/political strategy, which was also the Soviet Union line - the importance of ‘winning the war’ the need for ‘military hierarchy and order’ and the abandonment of the ‘social revolution’ and the centralized control of the previously independent political and trade-union militias
By early summer of 1938, the prospects for the Spanish Republic looked very bleak. The whole of the northern zone with the heavy industry and iron ore of Bilbao and the coal mining region of Asturias had been lost to Franco’s Nationalists by October 1937, whilst his Aragon Offensive of March/April 1938 came to a successful conclusion on 17 April 1938 when Navarrese troops reached the Mediterranean at Vinaroz thus splitting the Republican-held territory in two.
So despite their recent military setbacks Prime Minister Negrin and the Chief of Staff of the Ejército Popular de la República, Vincente Rojo decided to launch another offensive in the summer of 1938 and this is the subject of Chris Henry’s concise study.
The objectives of the Ebro Offensive were to draw-away enemy troops from the Levant Offensive, to reunite the two halves of Republican Spain and to prolong the war until what appeared to many as the inevitable general European war broke out. This war would see Republican Spain aligned with France and Britain against Franco and the Fascist states of Italy and Germany.
The Battle of the Ebro began on the night/morning of the 24/25 July 1938 when the Autonomous Army of the Ebro carried out a series of meticulously planned crossings along a 40 mile front on the southern part of the river. With the aid of some excellent maps, alongside the now familiar Osprey ‘bird’s eye’ battle views plus a selection of the author’s own battlefield photographs the reader is better able to appreciate the rugged and harsh terrain over which the two armies fought.
Initially the Republican crossing of the Ebro and westward-advance was very successful and their sappers and engineers constructed a number of pontoon-bridges at various points along the river plus a wooden bridge at Asco and eventually an iron-bridge at Flix in the north-central sector, specially built to transport armoured vehicles.
The only unsuccessful part of the Ebro crossing was at Amposta in the far south close to the sea. Here the mainly French XIV International Brigade was badly mauled by the deadly rifle fire of General Juan Yague’s Moroccan Regulares. Some 60 men of the former were either killed or captured on the west bank of the river.
By 3 August 1938 the Republican field commander Lieutenant Colonel Juan Modesto in the face of growing numbers of Nationalist reinforcements decided to switch tactics to the defensive. The Republicans were still in control of a significant bridgehead on the west bank of the Ebro most importantly a series of 600m-high peaks in the Sierra de Pandols mountain range. From this date the Battle of the Ebro developed into a bloody attritional bloodbath that highlighted both the weaknesses of Republican operational thought and the sanguinary nature of Franco’s own poco a poco (little by little) strategic vision.
As Chris Henry highlights in his book, the Republican successes in the first three days of the offensive were achieved in spite of almost no operational air cover. Not until 30 July did the Polikarpov I-16 and I-16/10 ‘Super-Moscas’ make an appearance over the front. Even as late as 7 August 1938 there were only 70 of these machines operating in the skies above the Ebro.
In sharp contrast Nationalist aircraft were interdicting the bridges and pontoons on 26 July, hindering Republican supplies and tanks from reaching their comrades on the other side of the river. Very quickly the German Condor Legion, flying the best fighter of the day the Messerschmitt Bf109B and C variants were supporting the Dornier DO-17 and Heinkel 111B and Italian S-81 and SM79 bombers attacking the bridges at Flix and Asco and flying ground-attack missions against the Republican infantry. By the end of August 1938 the Nationalists had a total force of 500 fighters and bombers, including a handful of the new Junkers JU-87A dive bombers. The outnumbered Republican air force was unable to provide anything but token resistance and many of their planes were shot-down
This Nationalist aerial response was mirrored on the ground as thousands of infantry and 500 artillery pieces of from 65mm to 260mm were hastily redeployed to the battle sector in American-made trucks.
Many of Franco’s contemporaries including Hitler, Mussolini and the chief of the Nationalist air force, General Alfredo Kindelan, were highly critical of his policy of diverting troops from other sectors to engage in meat-grinder struggles to recover ground with little or no strategic value. However, as Professor Paul Preston has remarked, Franco wanted to deny the Republic any territorial gains, whatever the cost. His overall strategic goal was the long-term consolidation of his own political power and to achieve complete dominance over the enemy.
The earlier Battles of Brunete July 1937 and Teruel December 1937 to February 1938, both strategic defeats, had already demonstrated the tactical weaknesses of the Republican Army in attack. Here, initial success gained by surprise would be lost in a series of wasteful frontal assaults against some insignificant and weakly-held enemy position which would then allow the Nationalists time to bring up reserves and to launch deadly counter-attacks with their superior aerial forces and artillery which at Brunete decimated the Republican troops spread out as they were in open country.
Like Brunete and Teruel there was no shortage of bravery shown by the Republican troops when the relentless Nationalist counter-assaults started on 3 August 1938, and Enrique Lister’s 5 Corps’ stubborn defense of Hill 666 on the Sierra de Pandols mountain range from early August 1938 to 1 November 1938 was particularly heroic, especially so when one considers the constant artillery and aerial bombardment these men would have had to have endured. In the past three years excavation work prior to the installation of wind turbines in the La Fatarrella area north-east of Gandesa has unearthed the skeletons of several Republican soldiers buried in their trenches as they provided the rearguard for their comrades to complete the retreat back across the Ebro on 16 November 1938.