Madrid was the capital of Spain, and with its location in the center of the Iberian peninsula it was within striking distance of a nationalist advance. Capturing the city would be a huge political victory for the Nationalists, and so it would be the site of one of the first major battles of the Civil War.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War episode 40 - The Spanish Civil War Part 5 - Attack on Madrid. After the failure of the coup the Nationalists knew that they had to start making progress if they wanted to ensure that they were capable of carrying a war forward. They needed to expand the territory under their control for political, military, and economic reasons, but also for diplomatic and propaganda reasons. There were many paths that they could have taken at this juncture, there was a lot of Republican territory that could have been targeted. The Republic was still in control over an enclave that stretched along the northern coast of Spain, and almost the entire eastern and southern areas of the Iberian peninsula. The first order of business for the Nationalists was to join the large mass of Nationalist territory in northwestern Spain with those areas of the South where the Army of Africa would be advancing out of, after they made it across the Straits from Africa. After these two pieces of territory were joined together the next target seemed obvious: Madrid. Madrid was the capital of Spain, and with its location in the center of the Iberian peninsula it was within striking distance of a nationalist advance. Capturing the city would be a huge political victory for the Nationalists, and so it would be the site of one of the first major battles of the Civil War. For their part the Republicans were very aware that Madrid was a likely target, and they fully expected the attack to be launched, although they did not have high hopes that they would be able to stage a victorious defense.
The most important tool that the Nationalist cause possessed in the early months of the war was the Army of Africa. It was made up of troops and officers with more experience than any other military formation in Spain, and they were able to cross over to Spain thanks to the help of German and Italian aircraft. There were between 12,000 and 14,000 men which were brought over the straits and into Seville in an airlift that would begin in early August, with Franco coming over on August 6th. This would be an important turning point because it represented a huge strengthening of the Nationalist military forces in Spain, before August it might have been possible for the Republican forces to launch an attack into Nationalist areas, but after the arrival of the Army of Africa such actions seemed almost doomed to failure. The Nationalists planned to use the Army of Africa as a spearhead in their first major set of offensives, designed to greatly expand and consolidate the territory under their control. It would be at this stage that the difference between the experienced and organized military units of the Army of Africa and the largely inexperienced and disorganized Republican forces would be most sharply felt. In the disorganized early weeks of the coup and the Civil War the workers’ militias had proved that in the correct situations they were a potent fighting force, especially in their own urban environments. However, what they would experience in the opening offensives of August and September were something very different. In the unfamiliar areas of battle in the field they made mistakes, and were put in situations for which they were simply not prepared. Artillery fire, flanking maneuvers, proper entrenchments, and many more areas of military training were often lacking, which put them at a serious disadvantage. The result was a string of Republican military failures and Nationalist military successes. Franco’s forces would advance north very rapidly, making an advance of almost 500 kilometers from the south to the town of Talavera de la Reina in a bit over a month. Along the way any Republican resistance was often easily dismissed through a combination of artillery barrages and flanking movements. This resulted in the often outnumbered Nationalist troops seeming to be unbeatable, and their reputation would begin to precede them along their route of advance. There were instances were Republican forces did mount a solid defense, generally this would occur when the Nationalist forces made the mistake of advancing into urban environments where the advantages provided by their military hardware and experience were far less pronounced. However, these instances were the exception, and having arrived in Talavera, the southern forces were able to link up with the troops that were under the command of General Mola in the northwest. It also put the Nationalist forces only about 100 kilometers from Madrid. At this point the general expectation was that Franco would order his commanders to advance on the capital, but he instead chose a different path. He ordered an advance on Toledo, where a Nationalist garrison under the command of Colonel Jose Moscardo had been besieged inside the Alcazar, a castle that had been first restored back in the 1500s. During the coup Moscardo had led the almost 800 men of the Civil Guard in joining the uprising, and eventually they would be joined by over 200 other men to defend the Alcazar. They were also joined the siege by several hundred civilians, mostly members of the Civil Guard’s families. The siege had began in late July, and as the Army of Africa advanced it was into September. The siege had taken on heroic proportions for the Nationalists, and Franco made the decision that it would be better for his troops to relief the siege. As the Army of Africa began to rapidly approach Toledo many of the militia units in the area began to retreat, although some did give a spirited defense of the city. When the Nationalist troops finally reached the Alcazar, it was reported that Moscardo greeted them with the message ‘Nothing to report at the Alcazar.’ As with many rescues of beleaguered garrisons throughout history, the actual impact on the ground of this relief was minimal, but its propaganda value would be very potent, Moscardo would soon be promoted and he would go on to command an Army later in the war.
The Nationalist advance on Madrid would be the first major military campaign that involved both the men who had been in Mola’s Army in the north and the Army of Africa from the south. It would begin in October 1936 and wit would be Mola who was put in direct command, not Franco, although it is possible that Franco did this to ensure that there was someone else to blame should the campaign not be completely successful. The plan was for multiple columns of Nationalist troops to converge on the city, with three columns moving in from the south, southwest, and west. The moment that the attack would take place represented something of a high point for the Nationalist forces, from the end of the coup until the attack on Madrid they had done little other than continue to achieve victories. The benefits this string of success provided for Nationalist morale was met by the negative effects it had on the Republican forces. There seemed to be little doubt that Madrid would simply be another successful attack. During October the advance on the capital continued, and by the 21st Nationalist forces were just 30 kilometers outside the city. A few days later they would take Terrejon de Velasco, just 30 kilometers from the city center. By the 24th of October the advance was in a ring around the Madrid at about that same distance, which each column having advanced up to about 30 kilometers from the city. On the 23rd the first bombing attacks on Madrid would be executed by German aircraft. It was at this point that the final preparations for the attack on the city began, there was a slowing of the advance as preparations were made. This included the organization of food convoys behind the front, with Nationalist optimism being so high that they were just operating under the assumption that these convoys would soon be moving into the city.
The months of September and October had been frantic times for the Republicans, they had been trying to do something to slow the Nationalist advance, and there was little doubt in their minds that the next target was Madrid. This would also be the period during which the first major efforts were made to morph the militia columns which had been such a large part of the Republican military effort into more traditional military units, this included the establishment of the ‘mixed brigade’, which was made up of 4,000 men and would become the primary Republican unit during the war. More men would also be mobilized specifically for the defense of Madrid. There were also many efforts put into not just making sure the men were available, but also that morale was boosted as much as possible. For example on October 28th Caballero would take to the radio in a radio broadcast which would state: ‘Listen to me, comrades! Tomorrow, 29 October, at dawn, our artillery and our tanks will open fire on the enemy.’ He was not lying with this statement, and in fact on the next day 15 T-26 tanks, which had arrived from the Soviet Union, would attack near Sesena to the southwest of Madrid. The T-26 was a very capable tank, at least in comparison any other tanks around the world, the Soviets had also sent technical and knowledgeable officers under the command of Captain Pavel Arman. The results from this attack was disappointing, with the failure due in no small part to the inability of the tanks and the infantry to properly coordinate their efforts. They would not be the first or the last army of the 1930s to have serious problems in trying to coordinate infantry and armor. After the Republican counter attack efforts were rebuffed the leaders inside the city began to fully prepare for the attack, an attack that they believed would almost certainly be successful. This meant that the primary way that the Republican leaders prepared for the attack was to leave and move the capital to Valencia on the Mediterranean coast. This movement was made during the night of November 6th, with a provisional Junta de Defensa being left behind with orders to defense the city. Fleeing the capital in the middle of the night was not a good look, but in the wake of the removal of the national government the same groups that had proven so effective in meeting the coup also began to act in Madrid. The anarchists and communists began once again to reform their militias and to form local committees, mass mobilization happened just as the Nationalist forces were beginning to enter the outskirts of the city from the south. Anna Louis Strong, an American journalist in Madrid at this time, would write in her book Spain in Arms that ‘behind the lines, the civilian population poured into the streets to strengthen barricades. These grew in a week from the first amateur structures to solid fortifications, shoulder-high walls of cobblestones cemented into place by a military plan. In all Madrid’s streets towards the rebel front I saw them – these walls of rock and cement, with well-made holes for rifles and machine-guns. They reached from the buildings to the car-tracks, leaving a narrow traffic space. They repeated at intervals down the main thoroughfares; they guarded entrance[s] from every side-street and alley. Building these walls, and seeing how the people’s forces held the enemy, the ‘week of panic’ steadily passed into the growing conviction that Madrid, defended by its citizens, need not be taken. And the slogan began to pass from mouth to mouth of the defenders: ‘Madrid shall be the grave of fascism.’ The Junta de Defensa and the Communists collaborated in a series of mass arrests and executions of those that they felt might endanger the defense, the numbers of people killed during this time are difficult to determine. All the while the Nationalist advance continued up to the outskirts of the city with militia units falling back from the outskirts of the city.
The first probing attacks into the city began on November 5th, these were launched by units under the command of Colonel Varela as he determined the best path forward. A key part of the Nationalist attacks plan was to move through the Casa de Campo, the old royal hunting grounds which made a roughly 5 kilometer triangle that pointed directly towards the center of the city, with the point being less than a kilometer from that center. This would provide the great benefit of avoiding as much street fighting as possible. There would be other diversionary attacks further south, but the primary goal was to move through the Casa de Campo onto a line which rang between Ciudad Universitaria and the Plaza de Espana. The attacks would begin on November 7th, however the day before a set of operational orders was obtained from an Italian tank which had been destroyed, these were then forwarded on up the chain of the Republican forces. This information allowed General Miaja to reposition some of his troops. Troops might be an incorrect term to use here, because what Miaja commanded was a mixture of various militia units, many of which had not yet seen any fighting, in total less than half of the forces available for the defense of the city had any experience at all. While there were some units of carabineros and regular soldiers, the largest group of defenders were untrained volunteers many of which only became available in the previous few days, some of which had never even fired a weapon. The one thing that they did have were numbers, and there would be twice as many defenders as those available to the attacking forces. There would also be international brigades which would arrive to defend the city, including the XI International Brigade which would play an important part in the defense. These were units made up of international volunteers from around Europe and the world that had arrived in Spain to help the Republican cause, primarily facilitated by the Comintern. While they would participate in the battle, it is important to be clear that they made up only a small percentage of the total defending force, only around 5%. they would prove that they were incredibly brave and very ready and willing to fight, but their contributions to the fighting would be amplified by the propaganda groups within the Spanish Communist party to make it appear that the defense of Madrid had been a Communist victory, and to try and get more volunteers to come to Spain. We will be discussing the International Brigades in much more detail at a later date. When the initial attacks into the Case de Campo began they made some progress, but they were unable to move through the area completely and into the urban areas on the other side. These attacks were costly failures, and Varela would switch the emphasis to the south and into Carabanchel on the southwestern edge of Madrid. here the Nationalist forces ran into the problem that they had always experienced when attacking into populated cities, house to house fighting against militias that were from the area and knew very well how to defend it. They would inflict heavy casualties on the attackers while mostly holding their ground. While the Republican forces were able to defend quite well, almost any attempts at a more proactive defense ended in failure, like an attacks on the Cerro de Los Angeles to the south of Madrid. here 4 Spanish and the XII International Brigades attacked to prevent a possible Nationalist attack on the Valencia road, it did not go very well. Back in the north the attacks did continue to grind slowly forward, although at great cost. On November 19th they were able to finally push across the Manzanares and establish a position in side Ciudad Universitaria. However, while they pushed the front forward a bit, it was clear that after the attacks slowed that it would simply be another long grind trying to continue forward which caused the Nationalists to shift their approach. Instead of continuing forward with what had become incredibly costly attacks, often resulting in large casualties to the best Nationalist units, the attacks were slowed and instead air and artillery assets were increased and a bombardment of the city began. the theory was that this would cause morale in the city to break, both among the militias and the people, this was a common theory that was held around the world at this time, and would be well into the Second World War, and as with many other later examples, here it did not work, if anything the bombardments just caused the resolve the defenders to harden. With little change in the situation, the Battle of Madrid turned into the Siege of Madrid, with the Nationalist forces digging in and commencing a series of occasional bombardments as the focus of Nationalist efforts shifted elsewhere along the front. It was an important victory for the Republicans, the first major victory since the Army of Africa had become involved, but it also caused Madrid to become incredibly important to the Republic’s propaganda efforts, which made the city almost a black hole which absorbed resources until it was finally captured in 1939.
The failure to take Madrid either by an open attack on the city and then by bombardment left the Nationalists at a new crossroads. A meeting would be held near the end of November with Franco, Mola, General Orgaz, and Varela in attendance at Varela’s headquarters. There was of course the option to simply keep slugging away at a front assault on the city, however this was greatly discouraged. Mola was heavily against this option, due to a very valid concern that further attacks would simply continue to be incredibly costly. Franco agreed with this, and so they began to look at possible options to encircle the city. There were two options, they could move either to the south of the City across the Jarama river, or they could attack to the north, which was the path that was chosen. The final decision was that there would be an attack launched to the north which would attempt to first capture the areas around the Corunna Highway to the northwest of Madrid. This area had several geographical obstacles, and was largely made up of olive groves and orchards, which was still quite different than the more populated areas around Madrid. One of the problems was that the area had many thick walled villas called castellos which would provide the defenders very nice strong points on which to anchor their defense. The initial forces available for the attack were about 17,000 men in three columns, which would be thrown into an attack on November 29th. They were facing a much larger group of Republican units which had been combined into the Central Army near the end of October. The resulting Second Battle of Corunna Highway would be a lengthy ordeal which would Spain into the early weeks of January. The initial attacks would catch some Republican units off guard, and some units would break completely, often as a result their neglected defensive preparations. Throughout the process new Nationalist attacks would be ordered, like on December 7th when Franco ordered a surprise attack to be launched to try and continue the advance forward, hopefully all the way to a position between the Sierra de Guadarrama and Madrid. however, when this attack was launched, an operation that was heavily dependent on surprise, it was met with a thick fog which made it challenging for the attack to be launched. It would only really get started 3 days later on December 16th, but then shortly thereafter fog would once again return. By the time that the fog lifted it was December 19th, and the element of surprise had been lost, Republican reinforcements had already arrived. Another attempt was made on New years Day, with another advance involving about 12,000 men and 30 tanks. The Corunna highway was approached, finally, on January 6th, and the Corunna railway was cut to the west of Puzuelo. On January 8th Aravaca was taken by another Nationalist attack, however, they were unable to move to the north of the highway. As January continued the weather became a greater and greater obstacle. It was dropping to freezing on January 11th when another attack was launched. While a further small advance was made, it did nothing to greatly change the overall situation. As the battle finally ended in mid-January, the Nationalist attempts to encircle the city and to cut it off from the resources to the north was unsuccessful. They had captured a solid stretch of the Corunna Highway, but had failed to make further progress. Casualties had been heavy, with Orgaz claiming that his units had suffered 15,000 casualties, although that number might be greatly exaggerated. Republican casualties were probably between 6,000 and 15,000, with a lot of variability due to some concern that numbers were again purposefully inflated. However, on both sides fresh troops began to arrive which caused the entire situation north of Madrid to solidify.
The failure of the Corunna attacks meant that both sides were in for a long and drawn out struggle. On the Republican side the transition of the militias into a more organized military force continued, with the mixed brigade system being implemented in more and more units. However, there were many issues with equipment which still remained. This was felt very clearly during the winter months when the Republican soldiers, often with little more than a rifle, ammunition, and a blanket, were defending poorly constructed defensive works. They had however performed far better than many expected up to that point, but it remained to be seen whether this success could continue. On the Nationalist side they were concerned far more about expanding the troops that they had. By the final months of 1936 they had been able to bring the total number of Nationalist forces up to about 200,000 men, with about 60,000 of that number coming from the Army of Africa a new recruits from Morocco. The rest were made up of Nationalist militia forces, volunteers, and conscripts. The militias, mainly Carlists and Falangists, would need to be incorporated into the military establishment, much like on the Republican side. Next episode we will discuss a vital component for both the Nationalist and Republican war efforts as 1937 began, International involvement.