- Bilbao Modelo 1932
- Blindado tipo ZIS (UNL-35)
- Camiones Protegidos Modelo 1921
- Hispano Suiza MC-36
Tiznaos – Improvised Armored Vehicles
Context – From King to Republic
Before the Second Spanish Republic, Spain’s centuries of decline culminated with the loss of Cuba, Puerto Rico and The Philippines during the Spanish-American War of 1898. The defeat and loss of empire pushed a group of military officers, known as ‘Africanistas’ (with a vocation for Spanish colonialism in Africa) to pursue a conquest strategy of North Africa. Expansion through the Rif region led to the Establishment of the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco and conflict with the local population. In 1911, for the first time in its history, Spain used armored vehicles, in the form of the Schneider-Brillié, during military operations. Under the leadership of Abd el-Krim, the Rifians revolted and inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Spanish forces at Annual in the summer of 1921.
The consequences of the defeat were massive, putting an end to the ‘turnismo’ two-party political system which had existed for decades. General Miguel Primo de Rivera became the de facto leader of Spain after a coup supported by the King in September 1923.
In the Rif, with the aid of France and with new military hardware (Renault FTs and Schneider CA-1s), Spain managed to gain some lost ground. After the landings behind enemy lines at Alhucemas in September 1925, the war was all but won.
Despite the success in Africa and minor economic improvement, Primo de Rivera’s regime did not last long and he resigned in January 1930. He was substituted by General Dámaso Bereguer, whose time in office was characterized by a lack of policies and a very timid return to the pre-dictatorship system.
By 1930, the progressive and revolutionary opposition to the system, which included moderate republicans, socialists, and anarchists, had begun organizing. In August, the San Sebastian Pact, in which a strategy that would topple the monarchic and dictatorial system, was agreed on and signed. On December 12th, against a background of continuous strikes and demonstrations, two captains, Fermín Galán Rodríguez and Ángel García Hernández, and their troops proclaimed the Republic in the town of Jaca, but after only two days, they were defeated and executed by the state authorities. In February 1931, Berenguer was substituted by Admiral Juan Bautista Aznar, with municipal elections having been called for April that year.
The municipal elections on April 14th saw victories for republican parties in most of the major cities and, in the Basque city of Eibar, the Republic was proclaimed, soon to be followed by other cities across Spain. To avoid bloodshed and having accepted his fate, Alfonso XIII abdicated and went into exile, giving way to the Spanish Second Republic.
The State of the Spanish (Republican) Army in 1931
Despite the constant warfare in Africa, the equipment which the Spanish Army had at its disposal was aging and antiquated. The conflict between branches of the armed forces also created problems. For example, the artillery section of the Army, the one in charge of tank production, was disbanded in 1928 because of differences with Primo de Rivera, putting an end to the Carro Ligero de Combate para Infantería Modelo Trubia 75 H.P., Tipo Rápido, Serie A project.
Most of the vehicles available were veterans of the conflict in the Rif: 13 Renault FTs, 6 Schneider CA-1s and a number of armored cars domestically produced by the Centro Electrotécnico y de Comunicaciones (CEYC) [Eng. Electrotecnic and Communications Center], the communications section of the Army. These vehicles, known as ‘Camiones Protegidos Modelo 1921’ [Eng. Protected Lorries Model 1921], or M-21 for short, were based on the chassis of five different lorries, so each model had several differences: Nash-Quad, Federal, Benz, Latil tipo I and Latil tipo II. However, they were all built using the same principles: providing armor all around the chassis to protect the crew and mechanical parts of the lorry; slits on the sides for vision and firing from; and, in most cases, a rotating turret armed with a Hotchkiss M1914 7 mm machine gun. In total, 31 of these vehicles had been built and 29 still survived in April 1931.
|Renault FT||Regimento de Carros n°1||Campamento del Pacífico, Madrid||5|
|Regimento de Carros n°2||Academia Militar, Zaragoza||5|
|Escuela (Training)||Escuela Central de Tiro, Madrid||3|
|Schneider CA-1||Parque de Artillería||Madrid||4|
|Escuela de Automovilismo Pesado de Artillería||Segovia||4|
|Trubia Serie A||NA||Fábrica de Trubia||4|
|Peugeot T3||Escuela de Automovilismo Pesado de Artillería||Segovia||5|
|Camiones Protegidos Modelo 1921||Grupo Mixto de Automóviles y Radiotelegrafía de Ceuta||Ceuta||13|
|Grupo Mixto de Automóviles y Radiotelegrafía de Melilla||Melilla||10|
|Grupo Mixto de Automóviles y Radiotelegrafía de Larache||Larache||4|
|Parque Central de Madrid||Madrid||2|
In addition, there was a Fiat 3000, an unspecified number of Saint-Chamond Chenillette M 21s and a very small number of Citroën-Kégresse half-tracks not in service with the Army and rusting away in depots.
One of the main problems the Army had was it being top-heavy. In 1931, there were 16 divisions, 800 generals, and more commanders and captains than sergeants. In total, there were 21,000 officers for 118,000 troops. This was a consequence of the policy of promotion by ‘war merits’ during the wars in North Africa, which had allowed the rapid promotion of many officers on questionable meritorious grounds.
Provisional Government and Primer Bienio (April 1931 – September 1933)
Initially, the revolutionary committee led by Niceto Alcalá Zamora took over as a provisional government of the newly proclaimed Second Spanish Republic. This government would oversee the process of redacting the new constitution and the first elections. The five main difficulties it faced were: regional, religious, military, agrarian and social.
On the day the Republic was proclaimed (April 14th, 1931), Catalan politician Francesc Macià also proclaimed a Catalan Republic. With negotiations, the Provisional Government convinced the Catalan leaders to abandon the independence route by promising them a special statute of autonomy in exchange.
The Provisional Government also attempted to take away power from the highly influential Catholic Church by secularising schools, cemeteries, and hospitals. This resulted in a massive anti-clerical movement that burnt a number of churches in Madrid and the south of the country and created divisions between the more radical elements of the provisional government and the moderates, leading to the resignation of Alcalá Zamora, who was replaced with the Minister for War, Manuel Azaña.
Prior to the proclamation of the Republic, there had been 100,000 unemployed agricultural day laborers, mainly in Extremadura and Andalucía. The Minister of Work, Francisco Largo Caballero, proposed a series of measures to give power to the laborers at the expense of the large landowners. Additionally, Largo Caballero also strengthened the trade unions and made it harder for companies to fire workers.
Lastly, the military reform, also known as ‘Ley Azaña’ [Eng. Azaña’s law], aimed to reduce the number of divisions to 8 and decrease the number of officers by demotions, the freezing of promotions, and the retiring of Generals. The reforms also brought the armed forces under civilian supervision and closed the Academia General Militar [Eng. General Military Academy] and divided it into three different academies dotted around the country for different branches of the armed forces.
After only a few months in charge, the provisional government had made an enemy of the three most powerful and conservative elements in Spanish society: the Catholic Church, the Army, and large landowners.
The first election on June 28th, 1931 resulted in a victory for the social democrat Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), but, with a very divided parliament, it had to rely on the support of center and center-left republican parties and left-wing nationalist and regionalist parties. The government, under Prime Minister Azaña, managed to pass a number of its key reforms, approved the new constitution, and elected Alacalá Zamora as the first President of the Republic. However, its left-wing tendencies caused friction, and Alejandro Lerroux’s centrist Partido Republicano Radical (PRR) abandoned the government, causing Azaña to form a new government.
This new government was even more radical and in its first months, it dissolved the Jesuit Order, taking its land and wealth, formed the paramilitary police, Guardias de Asalto, to serve as a counterbalance to the mistrusted Guardia Civil, legalized divorces, opened 10,000 new secular schools, approved the Catalan statute of autonomy (though the Basque one was rejected as anti-constitutional), and passed the Ley de Reforma Agraria [Eng. Agrarian Reform Law], which expropriated the lands of large landowners for laborers and their families and farmer collectives.
Opposition – Anarchist Uprisings and Sanjurjada
The first two years of the Second Republic were marred by internal struggle. Whilst different factions took part in strikes, demonstrations, and general public disorder, it was the anarchists that were most prominent, demanding a true anarcho-communist revolution instead of bourgeois reforms.
On December 31st 1931, in the small town of Castilblanco in Badajoz, after an altercation between local peasants and Guardia Civiles, four of the latter were lynched. A week later, on January 5th 1932, in Arnedo, La Rioja, protesting workers (mainly anarchists) were shot at indiscriminately and without warning by Guardia Civiles, resulting in 11 dead and 30 wounded. Later that January, on the 19th, anarchist miners in Fígols, near Barcelona, took over the town, armed themselves and patrolled the streets. Over the next few days, anarchists took control to varying degrees of other towns in the region. On the 22nd, the first military units entered the region and over the next few days the uprising was quelled, leaving no dead but over 200 detained.
These failures led to the removal of General José Sanjurjo as head of the Guardia Civil. This, alongside his displeasure for the Ley Azaña and the Catalan Statute, prompted Sanjurjo to conspire with Carlists (far right political movement aimed at establishing an alternative branch of the Bourbon dynasty) and other military officers to stage a coup. In the early hours of August 10th 1932, Sanjurjo launched the coup in Sevilla. This coup would become known as la Sanjurjada. Whilst the coup was successful in Sevilla, it was not supported across the country and was quickly defeated. Sanjurjo was sentenced to death, later reduced to life-imprisonment.
In January 1933, there was another anarchist uprising at various points in Spain, though it was not supported by the anarchist trade unions and it was quickly put down with little loss of life. However, in the tiny town of Casas Viejas, in Cadiz, after a day and a half of violent confrontation between the townsfolk and the Guardia Civil, the Guardia Civil massacred 25 locals.
Additionally, there were a large number of street fights between armed groups of different ideologies, including Carlists, Socialists and Communists.
The deployment of the armed forces on the streets during the uprising brought into focus the Republic’s need for dedicated anti-riot vehicles.
Segundo Bienio (November 1933 – February 1936)
Public instability and especially the events at Casas Viejas lost Azaña some of his support and brought down the government. As no other party could form a new government, elections were called for November 1933. A unified right defeated the divided left and the centrist Lerroux was asked to form a government, which he formed with support from the right. Among the parties offering support was the Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas (CEDA), which, inspired by Hitler, had a strategy of offering political support to other parties at first, but slowly taking more responsibility and becoming the government. However, over the next two years, due to clashes between factions leaving and joining the government, a total of eight governments were formed.
The first hurdle the recently-formed government had to overcome was a new anarchist insurrection in December 1933 opposing it. The anarchist Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI) called for a general strike which soon evolved into armed insurrection. Beginning in Zaragoza and the Aragón region, it spread to other parts of the country. As with the previous anarchist uprisings, it was soon defeated, leaving 75 anarchists and 14 Guardias Civiles and Guardias de Asalto dead.
The new government overturned most of the previous government’s reforms, including the Ley de Reforma Agraria and those promulgated by Largo Caballero. Whilst they did not overturn the Ley Azaña, they changed the approach and offered promotions to generals who were not trusted by the previous government, including Francisco Franco and Manuel Goded Llopis. They also offered an amnesty to all military officers involved in the Sanjurjada, including Sanjurjo. In contrast, pro-Republican generals lost their commands and influence.
A feud between Alacalá Zamora and Lerroux led to the latter’s resignation as prime minister and he was substituted by Ricardo Samper Ibáñez, who did not last long after clashing with CEDA over issues regarding Catalonia. CEDA threatened to bring down the government unless they were allowed into the government. As a consequence, Samper Ibáñez resigned and Lerroux formed a new government with three CEDA ministers.
The October 1934 Revolution
Following their fall from government in 1933, sectors within the PSOE had begun to lose faith with the parliamentary route to power and began to talk about an armed revolution. These elements were led by the party’s leader Largo Caballero, who was also General Secretary of the party’s trade union, the Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT). The entry of CEDA into the government on October 4th 1934 was the straw which broke the camel’s back for the Socialists, who called a revolutionary general strike for October 5th.
The strike was supported countrywide, but only in Asturias was there an armed uprising. In Catalonia, on October 6th, the Catalan President, Lluís Compayns, declared an independent Catalan state, though it did not garner as much support as anticipated. Sporadic clashes with the Spanish Army led to paramilitary Catalan forces and Catalan security forces building some improvised armored vehicles. Casualties were low, with 8 dead soldiers and 38 Catalans, and the independence movement was defeated.
In Asturias, the uprising lasted for longer. In contrast to those in other parts of the country, the Asturian revolutionaries were well organized and armed and could count on the support of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) anarcho-syndicalists. They took their weapons from the Trubia and Oviedo arms factories in the region and dynamite from the many local coal mines. By October 8th, half of Asturias was under the control of the revolutionaries. According to historian Hugh Thomas, by the 17th, the revolutionaries numbered 30,000 men, though this figure may be exaggerated. The revolutionaries also made use of a number of improvised armored cars, or ‘tiznaos’.
The revolutionaries managed to take most of Oviedo by the 9th, with the exceptions of two military barracks which were to remain under siege for the rest of the conflict. Whilst the revolution was unsuccessful in Gijón, the revolutionaries managed to take Avilés and Trubia.
The government’s response was left to Generals Franco and Goded. The attack on Asturias was made on four fronts. Moroccans and legionnaires from the Army of Africa alongside 4 Camiones Protegidos Modelo 1921, under the command of Colonel Victor Yagüe, landed by the sea in Gijón on October 7th and headed towards Oviedo, brutally crushing any resistance on the way. From the south, troops under General Bosch advanced into Asturias through the Puerto de Pajares [Eng. Pajares mountain pass] and combated revolutionaries around Mieres until the 15th. Troops under General Eduardo López Ochoa advanced from Galicia in the west and moved on Trubia. The last front was to the east and was made up of army columns under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Solchaga, who clashed with revolutionaries in El Berrón, outside Oviedo.
On the 11th, the government troops advancing from the south entered Oviedo, prompting the revolutionary committee in charge of the Asturias commune to order a retreat from the city and to dissolve. Not all revolutionaries followed these orders and a second revolutionary committee was formed to continue the fight. Despite this, Oviedo fell completely on the 13th and the revolutionaries retreated to a Langero pit where a third revolutionary committee was formed under the leadership of Berlamino Tomás. By the 15th, the revolutionaries sought a negotiated settlement with the priority of not surrendering to Yagüe’s troops, who had used brutal tactics in putting down the revolution. The terms were accepted by General López Ochoa and the last enclave surrendered on the 18th.
Over 1,500 had died on both sides in the fortnight the revolution had lasted. Many leaders of the revolution, including Largo Caballero, were arrested and some were even executed.
The End of the Segundo Bienio
After the failed Revolution of October 1934 and with the entry of CEDA into the government, a number of more conservative decisions were taken. Nevertheless, tensions between CEDA and the centrist republican parties of the coalition increased, leading to the downfall of several governments and the impossibility of agreeing on policy, including a reform of the constitution. CEDA’s leader, José María Gil Robles, joined the cabinet as Minister for War in April 1935 and gave important positions to Franco, Goded, General Joaquín Fanjul Goñi and General Emilio Mola, among several others. All these generals would end up conspiring to plot the June 1936 coup.
In October-September 1935, two corruption scandals forced Lerroux to resign his premiership and later, his party, PRR, to leave the government. This resulted in a governmental crisis, as President Alcalá Zamora refused to grant Gil Robles and CEDA the authority to form a government, citing their disloyalty to the Republic. On January 7th, with no one able to form a government, the parliament was dissolved and elections were called for February.
Armor Developments in the Second Spanish Republic (1931-1936)
Armored Cars for Policing and Security Duties
The multiple uprisings of the first four years of the Republic demonstrated the need for a dedicated riot vehicle to substitute the old and unreliable Camiones Protegidos modelo 1921.
In 1932, Sociedad Española de Construcción Naval (SECN) built a prototype of an armored truck for riot duties. It was armed with a water cannon and had a large water tank at the rear. It is not known if SECN built it on its own initiative or if it had been requested by the Dirección General de Seguridad [Eng. General Security Directorate] nor if the vehicle was ever incorporated into any security body.
In September 1934, impressed with blueprints for an armored car for police duties offered by Hispano-Suiza, the Catalan Government ordered its production. However, for reasons which are unclear*, the vehicles could not be built in Catalonia and Sociedad Comercial de Hierros built between 5 and 15 in Madrid. Known as the Hispano-Suiza MC 36, it was a large vehicle with a powerful 107 hp engine with a turret armed with a machine gun. However, other vehicles being cheaper, proper serial production was not authorised.
*It is the author’s hypothesis that the events surrounding Catalan independence in October 1934 played a part, as the central Spanish Republican Government would mistrust the development of any armor in Catalonia.
In the end, the vehicle chosen was the Carro Blindado Bilbao Modelo 1932. It was tall and had a fully rotating turret armed with a machine gun and was built by the railway department at SECN’s factory in Bilbao, hence the name. 26 were destined for the Guardias de Asalto, 2 were left unattached and 12 were given to the Army’s Grupo de Autoametralladoras-Cañón [Eng. Canon-armed car group], which had been looking for a suitable vehicle since 1931.
In response to the Guardias de Asalto getting their own vehicle, the Guardia Civil designed an armored car known as the Blindado Oteyza. Similar to the Hispano-Suiza MC-36, it was designed on a General Motors Corporation chassis, had a small fixed turret and was armed with two machine guns. It is unlikely that more than one was ever built and little is known of what became of it.
Failed Foreign Imports
Prior to the formation of the Republic, in 1929, a Carden-Loyd Mk.VI tankette and a Vickers 2 ton tractor were purchased by either the Spanish state or by SECN. Personnel from Vickers went to Spain to demonstrate the vehicle, but nothing else is known of this purchase. Later, in 1935, the Estado Mayor Central [Eng. Army Headquarters] created a report on the tankette and studied its purchase, but nothing materialized.
In 1931, the newly organized Grupo de Autoametralladoras-Cañón [Eng. Canon-armored Car Group] was looking for a suitable vehicle and was considering the AMC Schneider P16, also known as the AMC Citroën-Kégresse Modèle 1929 (M 29), a half-track armored car armed with a 37 mm gun. For as yet unknown reasons, the vehicle could not be acquired and the unit ended up being equipped with Bilbao armored cars. Despite it never seeing service in Spain, the unit’s insignia would still sport the M 29.
The Landesa-Areces partnership
The Trubia Serie A had been Spain’s first indigenous tank design. Due to tensions within the military, the project was killed off after only 4 had been built. In spite of this, two of its creators, Artillery Commander Victor Landesa Domenech and Rogelio Areces, the Trubia arms factory’s chief engineer, did not give up and created a tractor for agricultural and military use. In October 1932, the first two vehicles took part in the Republic’s initial military exercises. The tractors were attached to Grupo de Artillería nº1 [Artillery Group No. 1] and were put in charge of towing Skoda 76.5 mm cannons. Whilst they impressed, they were also shown to have engine problems. After a change of engine, they were tested again towing heavier guns across the mud near the Jarama River. After further impressing, an additional 7-9 were built and took part in a publicity stunt driving all the way from their factory in northern Spain to Madrid.
In 1934, Landesa Domenech and Areces proposed an armed and armored version of their tractor, but neither the military nor civilian authorities showed interest. Later that year, during the October Revolution, two Landesa tractors in the Trubia factory were converted into tanks and took part in the fighting.
In 1936, Landesa Domenech and Areces designed the ambitious Carro de Combate Ligero para Infantería Modelo 1936. This light tank was to be armed with a 40 mm gun and a machine gun. The most striking part of the design was its armor, made up of conventional and composite armor. Despite interest from Gil Robles during his tenure as Minister of War, CEDA’s fall from government put a hold on the project.
The Popular Front (February – July 1936)
Following the failure of the October 1934 Revolution, the progressive Republican forces and Socialists began to congregate around the figure of Azaña, and in January 1936, formed an electoral coalition alongside the Partido Comunista de España (PCE), the anarchist Partido Sindicalista, the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM) and the Catalan nationalist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya. The coalition would become the Frente Popular [Eng. Popular Front].
Likewise, the right-wing and far-right political parties, with the exception of the fascist Falange Española, formed a coalition, though this one was more fractured than that of its opponents, and in some constituencies, they were on different tickets on the ballot. As an alternative, former Prime Minister Manuel Portela Valladares, with the support of President Alcalá Zamora, offered a liberal centrist coalition.
At the elections, the Frente Popular won the elections with 263 seats to the right’s 156 and the center’s 54.
The new government tried to reverse many of the policies the previous government had themselves overturned, especially regarding land ownership and autonomy statutes. Similarly, anti-Republican right-wing generals were sacked or given postings far from Madrid, such as Franco to the Canary Islands, Goded to the Balearic Islands and Mola to Pamplona. Those arrested during the October 1934 Revolution were granted an amnesty. The Popular Front Government also removed Alcalá Zamora from the presidency and voted Prime Minister Azaña to the higher office, with Santiago Casares Quiroga becoming Prime Minister.
As soon as the election results had been announced, anti-Republican right-wing politicians and the military began to orchestrate a coup not only to remove the elected government but to bring down the Republic as a whole. Regardless of how poorly the Falange had fared in the elections, they became increasingly popular and powerful afterward and initiated a policy of intimidation and assassinations of pro-Republican judges, civil servants, and politicians. These were met with more violence by the Socialists and Communists. All sides began to form and organize militias and paramilitary groups, mostly for intimidation purposes and street fighting rather than an all-out confrontation.
On March 8th, 1936, a group of military officers, including Mola, Franco and several others, met in the house of a friend of Gil Robles. There, they agreed to a military coup to get rid of the Frente Popular and lead the country as a military junta presided over by Sanjurjo, then in exile in Portugal.
The date of the coup kept being postponed and, in April, Mola took charge of the planning using the pseudonym ‘El Director’ [Eng. The Director]. Mola understood that the coup would not be successful across the whole country and that, in the big urban centers, there would be plenty of opposition.
On July 12th, Lieutenant José del Castillo Sáez de Tejada, the head of the Guardias de Asalto and military instructor of the Juventudes Socialistas [Eng. Young Socialists], was assassinated in Madrid by far right groups. In revenge, a group of Guardias de Asalto and Guardias Civiles arrested and then killed José Calvo Sotelo, a right-wing monarchist Renovación Española politician who had had nothing to do with the killing of Tejeda. It has been speculated that Gil Robles was the one the Guardias were after.
The incidents in Madrid prompted Mola to bring the dates for the coup forward to July 17th-18th. They also convinced some military officers, CEDA politicians, and Carlists to support the coup.
On the evening of July 17th, troops in the Spanish Protectorate of Morocco revolted in Melilla and took over the town. The coup had started earlier than anticipated and this would have negative consequences on its success elsewhere. The following day, the coup extended to the Peninsula and succeeded in capturing most of Galicia, Old Castile, Navarra, Rioja, Aragón, Extremadura, the Balearic Islands, the cities of Cadiz, Cordoba, Granada, and Sevilla in Andalucía, and surprisingly, the left-wing hotbed of Oviedo.
Almost immediately, Casares Quiroga resigned as Prime Minister to be succeeded by Diego Martínez Barrios. His government would only last one day due to its reluctance to arm the masses of workers and trade unionists who demanded access to weapons to fight the coup. Both Prime Ministers were afraid that the workers would carry out a socialist revolution. A third government, under José Giral, took the decision to arm the workers.
Republican Forces in July 1936
Whilst the controversy surrounding it has made it difficult to fully establish, it is often estimated that after the coup, the majority of the Army sided with the Rebels (those supporting the coup were initially known as Rebels and those supporting the Republican Government were known as Loyalists, though the Nationalist vs Republican dichotomy would soon emerge). 70% of officers sided with the Rebels, along with over half of the regular army and non-commissioned officers. Oddly enough, more Generals sided with the Republic than against it. The Guardia Civil was divided in its loyalties but notably sided with the Rebels, whilst the Guardias de Asalto remained loyal to the government.
After some hesitation, Giral’s government decided to arm workers and other citizens to fight for the Republic. Thus, for the first few months of the conflict, the Army for the Republic was a mix of professional soldiers and civilian militias, which also included women. These militias were heavily influenced by their political affiliation, meaning there would be Socialist, Anarchist, Communist and Marxist militias, some of which clashed or refused to take orders from officers of another political affiliation. At the same time, in those loyal areas far from Madrid, workers initiated a social revolution. The extent of the social revolution depended largely on who controlled the land, Socialists, Marxists, or Anarchists, but some of the common changes were a collectivization of the land and seizing of the means of production.
In terms of armor, the sorry state which the Republic had inherited had not changed substantially.
|Renault FT||Regimento de Carros n°1||Campamento del Pacífico, Madrid||5|
|Escuela (Training)||Escuela Central de Tiro, Madrid||1|
|Schneider CA-1||Parque de Artillería||Madrid||3|
|Trubia Serie A||NA||Fábrica de Trubia||1|
|Autoametralladoras Bilbao||Guardias de Asalto||Different locations||24(?)|
The Spanish Civil War
Initial Operations (July-September 1936)
The failure of the coup to subjugate the country by deposing the Republican government gave way to the bloody civil war. From the onset, armored vehicles were to take a decisive role.
In Madrid, loyal Renault FTs of the Regimento de Carros nº1 saw action on July 19th fighting rebel infantry and artillery forces. On the following day, along with a column of one Schneider CA-1 and two Bilbaos, they took action against the rebellious Cuartel de la Montaña, an arsenal with a large quantity of weapons which the loyalist workers wanted to use.
On July 21st, a large column under the command of General José Riquelme y López-Bago used two Schneider CA-1s and a number of improvised armored vehicles to head south towards Toledo. Rebel troops took refuge in the historic Alcázar, holding out until the end of September, when the siege was relieved by Franco’s Ejército de Africa. In the fighting in Toledo, one Schneider CA-1 was destroyed and the other retreated back to Madrid.
On July 22nd, 5 Renault FTs of the Regimento de Carros nº1 were sent north to the Sierra de Guadarrama, a mountain range north of Madrid, to take part in the first real battle of the Spanish Civil War, the Battle of Guadarrama. One vehicle was lost in the counterattacks on the Puerto de León, as Republican loyalists prevented the Rebel troops from breaking into Madrid.
In August 1936, the Renault FTs of the Regimento de Carros nº1 received reinforcements from the Escuela Central de Tiro and were used in the failed Republican counterattack on Mérida on August 14th. After this, they fought Rebel forces in Medellín, before being briefly diverted to Peñarroya to take part in the failed Córdoba Offensive. They also participated in the failed defense of Talavera in early September, where one Renault FT was lost, before being brought back to Madrid to take part in the impending defense of the capital.
In the north, after some loyalist success in defeating the coup in San Sebastián, General Mola ordered the conquest of the province of Guipúzcoa. The border town of Irún was fought over throughout August before falling to the Rebels, completing the encirclement of the northern section of the Republic.
Early Political and Armament Situation
The failure to defend Talavera, and thus, Madrid, and the fall of Irún led to the collapse of the Giral government. His successor would be Largo Caballero, who immediately took measures to reverse the military situation. Up to that point, most military offensives had been carried out by columns of enthusiastic, politically motivated militias, which often did not collaborate with those affiliated to other parties or trade unions. These were often not even controlled by the central Madrid government. Most famously, the failed naval attack on Mallorca was carried out without its knowledge. Largo Caballero’s government decided to integrate militia units into regular loyal army units, creating Mixed Brigades led by career military men. The new Mixed Brigades emulated the successful Communist Quinto Regimento de Milicias Populares, which were militarised and had a political commissar. Eventually, by October 16th all these Mixed Brigades would form part of the Ejército Popular de la República (EPR).
At this early point, German and Italian assistance to the Rebels, in the shape of military materiel and crucially, the means to airlift the Ejército de África onto the Peninsula, was proving to be a decisive edge.
During August 1936, European countries and the USA drafted the Non-Intervention Agreement prohibiting the sale of weapons to either warring side. Even so, Germany, Italy and to a lesser extent Portugal supported the Rebels. Later, the USSR would support the Republic. Before that, French Prime Minister Léon Blum had shown support for the Republic, but fears of public unrest leading to a pro-fascist coup in France and pressure from the UK forced him to withdraw this. At this point, the only country which openly supported the Republic in defiance of the Non-Intervention Agreement was Mexico.
Initially, to make up for lack of proper armor, workers built rudimentary improvised armored or semi-armored vehicles. The vehicles were sometimes covered in grease, which, it was believed, would enable them to repel more enemy bullets, giving the vehicles a blackish aspect and earning them the nickname ‘tiznao’, from the adjective ‘tiznado‘, meaning sooty. Whilst many different designs existed, they all shared the same principle of an armored superstructure on top of the chassis of a truck with extra protection at the front, doors to enter and exit the vehicle at the back or sides, and slits along the vehicle to fire from. The vehicles were also covered in slogans denoting the political party or trade union its builders or users were affiliated to.
Cut off from the rest of the Republic, it was in the industrial north where a large number of these vehicles were built. The industries of SECN and the factories of Sestao and Trubia already had experience building military vehicles, though serious production would not commence until December 1936.
In a bid to counterbalance the advances of the Ejército de África, the scant industrial centres of Andalucía and Extremadura produced some very rudimentary ‘tiznaos’ of questionable value. The mines in Riotinto (Huelva) produced a number of ‘tiznaos’, as did the factories in Linares, which fought the advances of the Ejército de África and on the Cordoba Front. In Extremadura, ‘tiznaos’ built in Don Benito and in some other cities and towns of the region were unable to stop the Rebel advance.
The other majorly industrialised region of the Republican controlled territory was Catalonia. It is known from official documents that at least 159 ‘tiznaos’ were built between July 1936 and August 1937, though the real numbers are higher. The main factories building vehicles were Comité Metalúrgico Villafranca (1), Constructora Field (13), Casa Girona (21), Hispano-Suiza (38), Maquinista Terrestre y Marítima (MTM) (22), Sindicato Metalúrgico de Badalona (4), Casa Torras (43), and Casa Vulcano (17). An additional 33 vehicles, including 7 Torras and 8 Gironas, have been counted for the period post-August 1937.
In the Valencia and Murcia region, a large number of vehicles were built, primarily by Unión Naval de Levante (UNL).
In terms of foreign armament, the Republic was able to procure 3 Renault FTs armed with Puteaux SA 1918 37 mm gun on August 9th 1936, before France closed its border with Spain and stopped the flow of military equipment. Through arms traffickers, Spain was able to purchase a number of additional Renault FTs from Poland. To circumnavigate the Non-Intervention Agreement, whereas the vehicles were officially sold to Uruguay, the real buyer was Spain. The first 16 vehicles arrived in Alicante on November 24th 1936 and were sent to Madrid. The following batch of 17 arrived in Santander on March 3rd 1937. In total, Poland sent as many as 72 Renault FTs to Spain, all of which, except the initial 16, fought on the Northern Front.
Towards the end of 1936, a delegation under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Dr Ángel Pastor Velasco visited Prague (then in Czechoslovakia) looking for armored vehicles to purchase. There they were shown the TNHP tank being built for export to Persia. The Second Spanish Republic made a fruitless attempt to negotiate a deal with the producer and Persia to buy the Persian batch.
The Russians Are Coming
The solution to the Republic’s lack of modern armament was found in the USSR. At the start of the civil war, Spain had the fourth largest gold reserve in the world. Under the auspices of the Minister of Finance, Juan Negrín, 72.6% of the reserves, or 510 tonnes of gold, were sent to the USSR for safekeeping. This gold would then be used to finance the purchase of military equipment from the USSR. Apart from armor, between 680 and 1,000 aircraft were purchased from the USSR.
The most numerous tank sent was the T-26. Though becoming obsolete, it proved to be the most effective tank of the war, in part due to its comparatively thick armor and powerful 45 mm gun. According to the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History, 281 T-26s were sent to Spain between October 1936 and February 1938. These were divided as follows:
|Number of T-26s||Date they reached Spain||Location||Ship||Other notes|
|50||October 15th 1936||Cartagena||Komsomol|
|37||November 30th 1936||Cabo Palos|
|19||November 30th 1936||Mar Caribe|
|60||March 6th 1937||Cabo Santo Tomé|
|40||March 8th 1937||Darro|
|50||May 7th 1937||Cabo Palos|
|25||July 1st 1937||NA||Iciar||Cancelled|
|25||February 13th 1938||Gravelines|
A single batch of 50 BT-5s arrived in Spain aboard the Cabo San Agustín steamship on August 10th 1937. Despite being the most modern tanks used during the war, they performed terribly and around 40% were lost in their first actions at the Battle of the Ebro. This was partially down to their misjudged tactical usage as infantry support platforms.
An unknown number of FAI light armored cars were also sent to the Republic. These performed badly, as they had weak armor and poor off-road driving.
More successful were the BA-3 and BA-6. Only 4 BA-3s were sent to Spain, arriving in 1936 alongside 26 BA-6s. More BA-6s were sent throughout 1937, but the exact numbers are unknown.
Alongside the armored vehicles, an undefined number of KhPZ Komintern artillery tractors were sent to Spain, seeing action at Brunete. Between 1937 and 1938, the Second Spanish Republic purchased 55 S-65 Stalinets artillery tractors from the USSR.
Alongside the materiel and replacement pieces for repairs came 2,000 Soviet instructors, military personnel, tank and aircraft crew members and political commissars. The reliance on the USSR resulted in the rise of the PCE and the pro-Soviet elements within PSOE. At the same time, moderate Republicans and anti-Soviet or anti-Stalin socialists or Marxists were persecuted and lost their power and influence, stifling the social revolution taking place in Spain.
Much has been written about the USSR’s decision to aid the Second Spanish Republic. The two main areas of concern regarding Spain for the USSR, international diplomacy and fears of a successful revolution, are neatly put together by Denis Smythe: “it was not socialist internationalism but Soviet national interest, as embodied in the Stalinist fusion of ideology and geopolitics, ‘socialism in one country’, which was the crucial influence in inducing the USSR to intervene in Spain”. In the end, after the Munich Agreement of September 1938, Stalin repositioned the USSR’s foreign policy to be more conciliatory to Hitler’s Germany, resulting in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact a year later. This explains why, from late 1937, Soviet support for the Republic declined.
Towards the Defense of Madrid
The remaining part of 1936 proved to be mostly disastrous for the Republic, yet it managed to hang on.
From the beginning of the war, Oviedo was under siege from Republican forces. In spite of their best efforts and a mass bombardment, they could not occupy the city. During the siege, a Republican Trubia Serie A was lost fighting against other Trubias under Rebel control. Another Republican tank to take part in the siege of Oviedo was the Landesa. The siege was lifted on October 17th when Rebel troops from Galicia reached the city.
At the end of October, enthused by the arrival of the new T-26s, Republican High Command ordered an offensive on Illescas and Seseña in Toledo to stop the Rebel advance on Madrid. Whilst the offensive failed to capture Illescas, it held Seseña for a few hours. The 15 T-26s broke the Rebel defensive line, but were left vulnerable as Enrique Líster’s 1.ª Brigada Mixta was unable to keep up with the tanks. In Seseña’s narrow streets, 3 T-26s were lost to anti-tank cannons and rudimentary hand explosives similar to Molotov cocktails. On the other hand, at least 2 Italian CV33/35 light tanks were destroyed by the superior Soviet/Republican tanks. This first engagement was the beginning of the T-26’s legendary reputation in the conflict.
At the beginning of November, with Rebel troops only kilometers away from Madrid, sensing all was lost, the government abandoned the capital and relocated to Valencia. On November 8th, the Rebel assault on the capital through Casa de Campo and across the River Manzanares commenced. Two or three days into the assault, a detailed plan for the attack was found inside a knocked-out Italian CV33/35. This allowed the Republican commanding officer, Vicente Rojo Lluch, to properly plan a defense. On November 9th, the first units of the International Brigades arrived in Madrid, which, alongside Soviet aircraft regaining control of the skies, lifted morale in a city which adopted a motto which was to go down in history – No Pasarán – They Will Not Pass.
On November 15th, the Rebels attempted a major offensive to cross the bridges across the Manzanares and capture Ciudad Universitaria, the collection of buildings and land belonging to Madrid’s university in the northwest of the city. After Rebel troops had entered Ciudad Universitaria, every room in every single building would be fought over ferociously. In this part of the battle, the T-26 proved to be a very effective defensive tank and a number of the remaining Renault FTs would also see combat. At the same time, similar house-to-house combat took place in the south of Madrid, in Carabanchel and Usera.
Having failed to take the city, Madrid was subject to a siege that would last until the end of the war.
From this point onward, the Republic attempted to carry out offensives in other parts of Spain to relieve Madrid. The first of these was in Alava, the Villarreal Offensive of December 1936, meant to break through Rebel-controlled territory and unite the isolated and encircled north with the rest of loyal territory. This attack was also motivated by the de facto independent Basque Government wanting to demonstrate the value of its newly created Eusko Gudarostea [Eng. Basque Army]. The offensive was a failure but was the first use of modern armor in the north.
The year ended with another Republican defeat, this time in Andalucía, during the Aceituna Offensive, which saw the loss of 1,500 km2 of Republican territory.
Dirección de Industrias Movilizadas del Norte
Cut off from the rest of the Republic, the industrial northern part of loyalist Spain, Asturias, Cantabria and parts of the Basque Country, was de facto autonomous. On August 13th 1936, the Dirección de Industrias Movilizadas del Norte was created to organize the existing industries into producing materiel for the war effort. This was independent from the control of the central government and was mostly overseen by the Basque Government. The two main factories of armoured vehicles were SECN in Sestao and Compañía Euskalduna in Olavega.
SECN would later produce the massive Naval-Souma armored cars which saw service across the whole northern front. Although armed, their main purpose was to transport troops who would disembark and fight the enemy. Another company, Talleres Echeverría, produced a similar but smaller vehicle in moderate numbers.
SECN’s biggest success was the Trubia-Naval, the only tank produced in series during the Spanish Civil War. Based on the Carro de Combate Ligero para Infanteria Modelo 1936 but without its spaced armor and 40 mm gun, between 12 and 45 machine gun-armed Trubia-Navales were produced in Sestao. These had a very limited combat ability and were unreliable. SECN also built an improved version of the Landesa tractor in very limited numbers.
In Gijón, Asturias, Constructora Gijonesa Juliana Sociedad Anonima repaired a large number of vehicles and also built a small number of vehicles.
Comisaría de Armamento y Municiones
On December 8th, 1936, the previously independently organized factories were put under control of the Comisaría de Armamento y Municiones (CAM) to oversee production of armament and munitions, including armoured vehicles. In May 1937, CAM became a subdivision in the Ministry of Defense, becoming the Subsecretaría de Municiones y Armamento (SMA). Later, in June 1937, this would be divided into three regional subdivisions: Center, North, and Catalonia. Eventually, this led to the standardization of the weaponry being built.
A series of vehicles that predated the CAM but which would end up under its control were those built by Construcción Colectiva Sadurní de Noya in a town outside Barcelona. This company produced a number of rudimentary vehicles at the beginning of the war, including one on a tractor with a 140 hp engine. After the initial enthusiasm, they built two series of tractors, which mainly differed in the number of crew members it could carry and the position of the engine. Between September 16th 1936 and March 31st 1937, 20 Sadurní de Noya tractors were built. Of these, three were fully enclosed and armored. Photographic evidence does not show them armed, but they would have carried a machine gun. After almost a year without producing any new vehicles, in April, the order was given for the production of around 30 Sadurní de Noya tractors of the second series. Another vehicle built by Sadurni de Noya was a half-track tractor.
The biggest success of the CAM was the often misnamed UNL-35, of which around 160 were built in the Fábrica nº22, formerly Unión Naval de Levante (UNL). UNL had experience in building armor, having provided the UNL-1 and the massive UNL-2 in the early days of the war. By the time CAM took control of armored vehicle production, UNL had built a series of at least 10 vehicles: 2 heavy armored cars known as ‘Goliat’, and 8 of the lighter UNL Prototipo II, heavily inspired by the Soviet FAI and BA-20. Production was overseen by Soviet Colonel Nicolai N. Alimov. Whilst initially intended to be built upon GMC 1 ½ and 3 tons chassis, a lack of available vehicles meant that they were built on a variety of chassis, including the ZIS-5, GAZ-AA, Ford, Chevrolet and unidentified British models with right-hand drive. The vehicles had a variety of names and all related to the type of chassis used as the base. Most vehicles were named ‘Blindado tipo ZIS’, in reference to the ZIS-5 truck chassis. An alternative was the Latin script for the Cyrillic name of the ZIS-5, ЗиС, thus becoming ‘Blindado tipo 3HC’. These vehicles would be the most prolifically produced vehicles in Spain until the AMX-30E and Pegaso 3560 Blindado Medio sobre Ruedas (BMR) in the 1970s and 1980s.
Towards the end of 1937, SMA initiated plans for a new heavier 6×4 armored car. For years, this vehicle has been known as the Chevrolet-1937 and is thought to have been built in the Hispano-Suiza factory in Barcelona. However, the vehicle was actually named Blindado modelo B.C. and had a far more interesting production history. It is possible that Fábrica nº22, or another factory in the Center region, built the first vehicles which were presented on February 25th 1938. The subsequent vehicles were built on specifically designed Chevrolet Thornton LHD chassis bought from the USA. Main conversion and assembly of the vehicles took place at Fábrica Z in Catalonia towards the end of 1938, with a few other nearby factories receiving parts to diversify production in case bombing put Fábrica Z out of action. In other parts of Spain, Blindado model B.C.s were manufactured, most likely in Fábrica nº22. There were two variants of the vehicle, the main one with a small turret armed with a 37 mm gun, and one which took the turret from knocked out Soviet armor and was armed with the original 45 mm gun.
Very little is known of a project to build a copy of the T-26 in Catalonia named R.T.1, though archival documents state that one was finalized on January 20th, 1939.
Minor Successes – Operation from January to April 1937
The first few months of 1937 were mostly successful for the Republic. Between January 3rd and 15th, Nationalist forces were defeated in the Third Battle of Corunna Road, the last Nationalist attempt to envelop Madrid through the northwest of the city. However, in the south, at the beginning of February, Málaga was lost to advancing Nationalist and Italian forces, who carried out the massacre of 4,000 loyalist militiamen and civilians according to numbers from the highly respected historian Hugh Thomas.
At the same time, beginning on February 6th, 1937, a Nationalist offensive to encircle Madrid in the east and cut it off from Valencia was met with strong resistance in what became known as the Battle of Jarama. On February 13th, the timely intervention of Dmitri Grigórievich Pávlov’s T-26s turned the tide of the battle, allowing the Republic to mount a timid counterattack that was unable to recapture all lost territory. This minor Republican tactical victory ended on February 27th.
On March 8th, 1937, Italian and Nationalist forces initiated an offensive on Guadalajara to again cut off Madrid in the east, this time attacking from the north. Poor weather conditions allowed Republican divisions to retreat from the attack by Italian forces, whose tanks got stuck in the mud, and whose air force was prevented from flying. On March 12th, Republican forces, spearheaded by the T-26s, counterattacked. Having recaptured all lost territory, the Republican counteroffensive finished on March 23rd. This was one of the Republic’s finest victories in the war, severely damaging the Italians’ reputation.
In the south, on March 6th, 1937, the Nationalists launched an offensive on the Cordoba Front centered on Pozoblanco. The advance reached its climax on March 18th, after which Republican reinforcements allowed for a counterattack. Republican armor was able to push forward, regaining all lost territory and making some gains, stabilizing the front until shortly before the end of the war.
Trouble Brewing and the Loss of the North – Operations from April 1937 to October 1937
The Republic’s success would not last. At the end of March 1937, the Nationalists and their Italian and German allies commenced the conquest of the Republican north, beginning in Vizcaya. This campaign was marked by the mass bombing of Durango and Gernika, the latter famously represented in Pablo Picasso’s iconic painting. Republican forces on this front still retained some of the politically motivated militias of the early days of the war and were heavily outnumbered in men and armament.
To make matters worse, tensions within the Republic intensified over the winter of 1936-37 and, in April 1937, there would be altercations between government forces and anarchist militias for the control of road checkpoints and custom houses in Catalonia. On May 2nd, a telephone conversation between the President of the Republic, Manuel Azaña, and Lluis Compayns, President of the Generalitat, was cut by an anarchist phone operator deeming it unimportant to the war effort. Anarchists had controlled the telephone exchange since the summer of 1936 and their handling was considered to be detrimental to the war effort.
On May 3rd, a force of police officers was sent to take over the telephone exchange in Barcelona. The anarchists resisted and soon, barricades would be raised all over the city – a civil war within a civil war. On the one side were the government and Catalan forces, and on the other, the CNT-FAI, POUM, and other revolutionary far-left forces. Whilst fighting on the streets of Barcelona continued, the central Republican government decided to send troops from Madrid and Valencia to end the violence and regain control of the crucial region of Catalonia. Lieutenant Colonel Emilio Torres was put in charge of the 4.ª División, which arrived in Barcelona on May 7th and consisted of 5,000 assault guards and at least 6 of the newly built Blindados tipo ZIS. By this point, what became known as the May Events (famously described in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom) were almost over, but some vehicles may have taken part in the clean-up operations the following day. Hundreds had died in less than a week and the political consequences were monumental. Shortly afterwards, the POUM leadership would either disappear or be arrested and executed. The CNT-FAI was weakened, and the PCE, backed by Moscow, rose to prominence.
The negative situation in the war and pressure from his political opponents for supporting radical factions within the Republic forced Prime Minister Largo Caballero to resign on May 17th, 1937. His substitute, Juan Negrín, had the support of the moderate wing of PSOE and the Communists. The social revolution taking place in Spain was completely killed off, and militias that had resisted joining the Ejército Popular de la República (EPR) were forced to join. Women were no longer allowed to be part of the frontline military. This was an effort to professionalize the Republic’s military in the hope of showing the Western powers that the Republic was not just a revolutionary hotbed but the beginning of the fight against fascism.
With Nationalist troops advancing towards Bilbao, the Republic mounted two separate offensives to force the Nationalists to pull troops out of Vizcaya. The first was against the area of Segovia, north of Madrid, which commenced on May 30th. The offensive was a disaster, as it was hastily planned and poorly prepared and most of the troops involved were tired from marching to the front. By June 4th, the offensive was finished with not much ground-changing hands.
The even more disastrous second offensive to relieve Bilbao, against Huesca, which began on June 12th, was devoid of armor and proper artillery support, and was held back by the numerically inferior but well-positioned Nationalist defense. George Orwell was wounded in the offensive and it has been speculated that former anarchist and POUM militiamen were purposely used as cannon fodder by Republican command as a consequence of the earlier Barcelona May Events.
Neither operation succeeded in saving Bilbao. By June 11th, Nationalist troops had readied themselves to assault the Cinturón de Acero, the defensive fortifications surrounding the city. One of the original designers had facilitated the plans of the defenses, allowing the Nationalists to attack its weakest point. Fighting continued over the next few days until the order was given to abandon the city. By the time Nationalist forces entered the Basque capital on June 19th, the city was deserted. After this, Nationalist forces looked west to Santander.
To force the Nationalists to pull forces out of their advance in the north and also to relieve the position in Madrid, the Republic launched a major offensive on July 6th west of Madrid, centered around the town of Brunete. It could count on a large amount of Republican armor, which was initially successful in breaking through the enemy line and threatened to outflank the Nationalist rear besieging Madrid. By July 9th, the Nationalists had sent reinforcements from the north and counterattacked on July 18th, supported by air superiority provided by the arrival of German Messerschmitt Bf 109s. By July 25th, the inconclusive battle had ended with around 40,000 dead. The Republic had captured some ground and delayed the advance in the north by one month.
The Nationalist advance on Santander, beginning August 14th, saw one of the most famous tank-on-tank actions of the war at La Virga, where Italian Lancia 1ZM armored cars and CV33/35 light tanks fought Republican/Soviet BA-6s and FAI, Renault FTs and possibly Trubia-Navales, with both sides claiming victory. The mountainous terrain of the region slowed down the Nationalist advance. On August 23rd, the remaining Basque troops abandoned the defense of Santander and headed towards Santoña, where they surrendered to Italian forces in the infamous Pact of Santoña the following day. On August 27th, Santander was captured by Nationalist forces.
To alleviate the position in the north, a massive Republican offensive on Zaragoza was planned for August 24th. For the offensive, the newly arrived Soviet BT-5s were to be used for the first time in history. The objective of the offensive was to capture Zaragoza, the Aragonese capital, which had been a target from the beginning of the war. The Republican offensive crossed the River Ebro and managed to advance 6 km short of Zaragoza. However, contrary to what had happened in Brunete, the Nationalist advance in the north continued. By September 1st, the Republican advance had halted and was tied down fighting for small towns, such as Belchite, which was completely destroyed. The Nationalist counterattack managed to recapture some of the lost territory, keeping Zaragoza safe. A final Republican attempt was carried out at Fuentes del Ebro in October, spearheaded by the BT-5s, with disastrous effects after the majority of the tanks got stuck in the mud.
Having failed to stop the Nationalist advance in the north, the remaining Republican forces were completely outnumbered by a force with superior artillery, armor, and aircraft. Taking advantage of the heavily mountainous terrain, the Republican forces were able to mount a courageous but ultimately futile resistance, as shown at the Battle of El Mazucu between September 5th and 20th 1937. In the end, the numerical superiority and constant aerial bombing proved too much, and on October 21st, Gijón and Avilés fell. By October 27th, the whole of Asturias was lost, putting an end to the campaign in the North.
The Slow End of the Republic – Operations from December 1937 to April 1939
After the fall of the north, it was believed that the next Nationalist attack would be on Madrid. To steal the initiative, the Republic mounted a massive offensive on the small provincial city of Teruel. Between 77,000 and 100,000 troops were amassed, with as many as 100 armored vehicles, almost all the remaining ones available.
On December 15th, under heavy snow and without artillery support, Republican troops launched the offensive on Teruel, catching Nationalist forces by surprise and fully encircling Teruel by the 17th. By December 22nd, Republican troops had entered the city and fierce house-to-house fighting took place, causing a huge number of Republican casualties. The Nationalist counterattack took place on December 29th but was unable to lift the siege in Teruel, with the remaining Nationalist soldiers and civilians surrendering on January 8th. Delayed by bad weather and sub-zero temperatures, the second Nationalist counteroffensive did not take place until mid-January.
At the end of January, the Nationalists had still been unable to retake Teruel, with Republican forces repelling the Nationalist attacks, but exhaustion and the frigid weather were beginning to take their toll. At the beginning of February, the Nationalists launched an attack against the weakly defended line on the Alfambra River, 25 km north of Teruel. In two days, the Republic lost 800 km2 and over 20,000 troops, including the dead, wounded, and those taken prisoner. After this failure, by February 17th, Teruel was being enveloped again. Fearing capture, Republican troops abandoned the city they had fought so hard to take. By February 20th, Teruel was once more in Nationalist hands.
After the battle of attrition in Teruel, the floodgates were opened for Franco’s troops to capture the rest of Aragon and Catalonia. On March 7th, Nationalist troops attacked the Republican defensive line which broke in several points, notably including Belchite, which had only been won several months prior. By March 13th, the inexperienced EPR troops broke and began to retreat. On March 25th, Nationalist troops entered Catalonia and attacked Lleida, which was defended by the 46.ª División of the EPR under Valentín González González ‘El Campesino’, which managed to hold on for a week, allowing for a retreat of military personnel, equipment, and civilians. By this point, mass desertion from the EPR was the norm and several officers were executed for insubordination as a blame game took place between the different military commanders.
Whilst Lleida and Gandesa fell on April 3rd, the 11.ª División, under the command of Enrique Lister, managed to hold back the Nationalist advance on the Ebro. With the battle won and Barcelona ready to fall, Nationalist troops stopped and turned south towards the Republic’s capital, Valencia, reaching the Mediterranean Sea on April 15th, cutting the remaining parts of Catalonia off from the rest of the Republic.
On April 23rd, the Levante Offensive on Valencia began. Aided by the weather and new aircraft and anti-aircraft guns recently arrived from France, the Republic managed to halt the initial Nationalist advance. Once the attack recommenced, the ferocious Republican defense and the mountainous terrain slowed the Nationalist advance. However, after heavy fighting, on June 14th, the port city of Castellón fell to Nationalist forces that were 80 km north of Valencia. A new Nationalist push commenced on July 5th and broke through the Republican forces, which now feared a repeat of the collapse in Aragón a few months earlier. By mid-July, the only thing between the Nationalist offensive and Valencia was the XYZ Line, a defensive line in the mountainous terrain north of Valencia. After repeated attacks, Nationalist forces were unable to break the XYZ Line and were pulled out as the Republic launched its last major offensive in the north, across the Ebro.
To relieve Valencia and in the hope of convincing France and the United Kingdom to intervene as the Sudetenland Crisis was taking place, the Republic launched an offensive across the Ebro. The newly formed Ejército del Ebro, under the command of Juan ‘Modesto’ Gulloto León, was made of 100,000 troops who were relatively well-armed, though many troops were very young newly conscripted men. Supporting them were around 120 armored vehicles.
On the night of July 25th, Republican troops crossed the Ebro supported by T-26 tanks. Initially, the offensive was a massive success, catching the Nationalists off-guard and forcing them to pull out troops from other fronts, most importantly from the offensive on Levante. However, the Ebro was a very wide and abundant river, meaning that the transport of materiel across it was difficult and slow, resulting in many EPR infantry units attacking enemy positions without artillery or armor support.
The Nationalist counteroffensive came on August 6th across the whole front. Over the next few days and weeks, several Republican positions fell back and tried to cross the river. It took the Nationalists four weeks to regain almost all the territory lost in the initial twenty-four hours of the offensive. Nevertheless, by using the terrain to their advantage, the EPR managed to hold onto strategic positions across the River Ebro.
During September, in order to appeal to France and Great Britain, Prime Minister Juan Negrin ordered the removal of the International Brigades from Spain, though, by that point, their numbers were very low and they did not have the same impact on the battlefield as earlier in the war. In any case, on September 30th, the Munich Accord sealed the fate of the Republic, with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain reaching an agreement with the German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, in the hope of appeasement and peace in Europe.
After a month with not much fighting, on October 30th, the Nationalists launched a new offensive, reaching the banks of the River Ebro on November 3rd. Over the next two weeks, Republican troops abandoned their positions and crossed back across the river. The last troops returned to their original July positions on November 16th.
In spite of the fact that the Republic still had around 300,000 troops in Catalonia following the Ebro Offensive, these were mostly poorly armed young conscripts and morale was low. Furthermore, there was very little to offer in terms of armor or air support. Knowing this, Franco’s forces launched an offensive across the River Segre into Catalonia at the end of December 1938. Whilst there were some instances of valiant defense, the front did not hold on for long.
On January 14th, 1939, Tarragona fell without much resistance. On January 16th, with Nationalist troops 25 km short of Barcelona, a massive stream of refugees, and constant bombing raids on Barcelona, Juan Negrín ordered the mobilization of all able-bodied Catalan men and women between the ages of 17 and 55 and the militarization of all industries in Catalonia. This was followed two days later by the declaration of a state of war, giving civilian power in Catalonia to the military. These measures were too little too late.
On January 22nd, Negrín ordered all government personnel to leave Barcelona and head north to Gerona and Figueras, near the French border. Once the general population found out, tens of thousands of refugees headed towards the border, hoping to find refuge in France. Whilst there were some attempts by the Communists to build barricades and defend Barcelona, the city was left unprotected and abandoned. The first Nationalist forces entered the city on January 26th.
On the night of January 27th, France opened the border, allowing thousands of Republican refugees to cross into safety, escaping the pursuing Nationalist forces. On February 4th, Gerona fell, followed by Figueras on the 8th and the last town of Catalonia, Llivia, on the 11th. The final session of the Cortes, the Republican parliament, had been held on February 1st in the castle of Figueras. Along with around 400,000 refugees, including civilians and military personnel, on February 5th, President Manuel Azaña, Catalan President Lluís Companys, and the former Basque Lehendakari, José Antonio Aguirre, crossed into France.
Earlier, whilst Nationalist troops were penetrating into Catalonia, the Republic launched an offensive on the lightly defended Badajoz and Cordoba Front. On January 5th, 1939, the offensive, with around 90,000 troops and a small number of aircraft and armored vehicles, began. After three days, the Republic had captured 500 km2, the most it had done in any offensive during the whole war. However, torrential rain, the delayed use of the available aircraft, poor command and the ill-judged tactical use of the available but superior tanks slowed down the offensive, which, at times, threatened to completely break the Nationalist front and cut their territory in half.
With news from the situation in Catalonia and the offensive having failed to stop Franco’s advance on Barcelona, hundreds if not thousands of Republican soldiers deserted. On January 17th, Nationalist forces, which had received reinforcements from nearby fronts, counterattacked, putting the EPR on the defensive. Following the loss of kilometers of conquered territory, the offensive was ended on February 4th, with troops returning to their original positions.
The End of the Republic – Casado’s Coup and Franco’s Victory
For months, a group of politicians, including Indalecio Prieto and Julián Besteiro, and military officers had been opposing Negrín, believing the war was lost and that a negotiated surrender was the only solution to avoid further bloodshed. From the beginning of February 1939, Colonel Segismundo Casado, the commanding officer of the Ejército del Centro of the EPR, without the authorization or knowledge of Prime Minister Negrín, had been in contact with Nationalist fifth columnists to reach terms for a surrender. Over the following weeks, Colonel Casado reached out to other officers and politicians in favor of surrender to conspire together in organizing a coup against Negrín.
By this point, Negrín only had the support of a wing within his party, the PSOE. The PCE had been losing prominence since the USSR had removed its open support for Republican Spain. Negrín’s strategy was to resist for as long as possible, hoping for a major European war, pitting the western democracies against Italy and Germany, to break out. In this context, France and the United Kingdom would support Spain in its fight against fascism. Negrín was also aware that surrender would have serious repercussions and that many would be imprisoned or executed. Negrín’s hopes were dented when, on February 26th, France and the United Kingdom recognized Nationalist Spain as the sole representatives of Spain. Two days later, on the 28th, Manuel Azaña resigned as President of the Republic, further damaging Negrín’s position.
On March 2nd, 1939, fifth columnists and anti-Negrín Republican officers began an uprising in Cartagena, the base of what was left of the Republican Navy, with the intention of handing it over to the Nationalists. Three days later, on the 5th, Colonel Casado launched his coup against Negrín in Madrid. Whilst the situation was under control by that same night, fighting would continue for a week. The following day, Negrín boarded a plane to Toulouse, France, giving up his duties as Prime Minister.
Whilst Colonel Casado and his supporters had hoped that, without Negrín and the Communists, a peace deal could be agreed with Franco, they soon found out that Franco demanded nothing short of unconditional surrender. Following weeks without reaching an agreement, on March 26th, the Nationalists launched offensives across all fronts to completely break the Republic, which, by this point, was in no state to fight. Madrid surrendered on March 28th and Valencia on the 30th. On April 1st, the war was over.
The Challenges of Studying the Armor of the Second Spanish Republic
Studying the armor of the Second Spanish Republic has its own unique challenges. As with many defeated sides, the records in which one could have found production numbers, regiment organization, and so on, were destroyed to avoid capture. Possession of Republican documentation could have resulted in the owner being thrown in jail or executed. Most of the documents that have survived were carried into exile into France from the Basque Country or Catalonia, limiting what we can learn from documents.
Whilst the Russian archives have opened and become accessible, there are still many hurdles, and it is likely that many documents relating to the Spanish Civil War were destroyed in the purges of 1939 to 1941. The Spanish archives have their own problems with categorization and it is possible that new documents will emerge, shedding light on the conflict. However, whilst this is still possible, it is unlikely given how much documentation was destroyed or lost.
Photographic evidence does help researchers better understand the armor of the Second Spanish Republic. Nonetheless, these have their unique challenges. The early period of the Spanish Civil War from a Republican perspective is well documented. But, as the war turned, the amount of pictures of armor in Republican hands diminished. As with documents, possession of photographs could lead to jail or execution, so many were destroyed or lost. Many photos were also brought back with International Brigaders once they left Spain and have been kept in small archives, like the South Wales Coalfield Collection partly located at Swansea University, or private collections. It is also worth noting the contribution of Hungarian photographer Endre Ernő Friedmann, who probably took the most famous photo of the whole war, and his wife, German photographer Gerta Taro, aka ‘Robert Capa’ (the pseudonym Robert Capa was used by both). Taro died on July 26th, 1937, during the Battle of Brunete, after an accident with a tank.
Some of the best sources of photographic or video evidence come from film. The pro-Republican propaganda film The Spanish Earth, written by American writers John Hemingway and John Dos Passos, has many scenes of T-26s and Renault FTs at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937. A Roman Karmen and Boris Makasséiev documentary for Studio Moscow recorded scenes inside Fabrica nº22 during the production of the Blindado tipo ZIS, giving us fabulous insight into the differences in chassis used during production and how a factory of the Republic worked during the Civil War. Henri Cartier-Bresson filmed a pro-Republican film documentary titled Victoire de la vie using scenes of T-26s and Blindados tipo ZIS at the Battle of Teruel during the short occupation of the city by Republican forces in late December 1937.
However, following the defeat at Teruel, the majority of pictures of Republican armor show them knocked-out, surrendering or in Nationalist service.
Post-scriptum – The Republic in Exile and WWII
The number of dead as a result of the Spanish Civil War has always been questioned. When it comes to military deaths in the Republic, British historian Hugh Thomas points towards 110,000 dead. In addition, Thomas estimates a total of 10,000 dead from bombardments (mostly in the Republican zone) and 25,000 dead civilians from malnutrition and illness. However, a more recent study by distinguished Spanish historian Enrique Moradiellos García suggests that as many as 380,000 died from malnutrition and illness, whilst generally agreeing with Thomas’ military casualty numbers. In addition, the extensive studies of historians Francisco Espinosa Maestre and José Luis Ledesma found that, throughout the war, 130,199 people were killed in the Nationalist-controlled zone, mainly due to their political affiliation, though the figure could be even higher. In the aftermath of the war, at the very least, an additional 50,000 people were executed by the new Francoist government.
In addition to the Republican dead, there were those who had fled into exile fearing for their lives. As of April 1939, it is calculated that around 450,000 Republicans had fled into exile. Around 400,000 of those were in France, where they were put in provisional internment camps with very poor sanitary conditions. Throughout the 1940s, many returned to Spain, whilst others fled to Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and the USSR.
Many of those who remained in France were subject to more persecution once France fell to Germany in the summer of 1940. Over the four years of German occupation, a number of prominent Republicans were extradited to Spain to be executed, most famously former President of the Catalan Government Lluís Compayns. In addition, 13,000 Republicans were sent to concentration camps, most of whom ended up in Mauthausen, the “Grade III” (Stufe III) concentration camp, intended to be the toughest camps for the “incorrigible political enemies of the Reich“. Even the former Prime Minister, Largo Caballero, would end up in a concentration camp, in this case Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg. In total, only 2,000 (15%) Republican inmates would survive the concentration camps. Lastly, between 30,000 and 40,000 Republicans were used as forced labor in France and Germany.
Some of those Republicans who remained in Vichy France following the armistice joined the French Foreign Legion, whilst others were sent to work camps in French North Africa. Some even joined the French Resistance. In the aftermath of the Allied landings in Algeria during Operation Torch in November 1942, many Republicans signed up to the Corps Franc d’Afrique, a unit of foreigners within the Free French Forces. They fought in Tunisia during the remainder of the Campaign of North Africa.
Once the Campaign in North Africa was finished, the Republican troops in the Corps Franc d’Afrique were presented with two options, join the recently defected troops of General Henri Giraud or General Philippe Leclerc’s 2nd Armored Division. The majority chose the second option and most were part of the ninth company, which soon became known as ‘la Nueve’ [Eng. The ninth] or ‘la española’ [Eng. The Spanish one]. Of 16,000 troops of the 2nd Armored Division, 2,000 were Spanish Republicans. Whilst they used Free French or American uniforms, they were allowed to have patches with the Republican flag on their uniform and paint the Republican tricolor on their vehicles. In September 1943, the Division was fitted with American vehicles, including M4 Shermans, M8 Greyhounds, M3 half-tracks and several other utility vehicles. The ones in ‘la Nueve’ received Spanish names, including Guernica, Madrid or Teruel.
Landing on Utah Beach at the beginning of August 1944, ‘la Nueve’ fought with distinction in Normandy.
After the city of Paris revolted against its German occupiers on August 20th 1944, Charles de Gaulle ordered the 2nd Armored Division to attack Paris in support of the city’s citizens. On the morning of August 24th, the M3 half-track ‘Ebro’ was the first Allied vehicle to fire upon the occupying Germans. Later that day, the M3 half-track ‘Guadalajara’ was the first vehicle to reach the Hôtel de Ville, Paris’ town hall. On August 25th, General Dietrich von Choltitz, the German Governor of Paris, surrendered to Spanish Republican forces. During the military parade to celebrate the liberation of Paris on August 26th, ‘la Nueve’ marched with the Spanish Republican flag.
Following the liberation of Paris, for the remainder of 1944, ‘la Nueve’ fought in northeast France. After some very intense fighting, ‘la Nueve’ was relieved from the front for the first few months of 1945. In April, they returned to the front and took part in the capture of the Eagle’s Nest. Following the end of the war in Europe, some members of ‘la Nueve’ went on to fight in Indochina, though the majority returned to civilian life.
Earlier on, seeing the war in Europe finished, many exiled Republicans felt that the war now had to be turned back on Franco. Communist (PCE) politicians and affiliated officers began to plan an invasion of Spain across the Pyrenees, which would instigate a massive civilian uprising against Franco. In the summer of 1944, thousands of Republicans and French Resistance troops amassed in the south of France to invade Spain. In the end, the invasion would be made up of fewer troops. 250 troops crossed the border into the Basque Country and another 250 into Navarra on October 3rd, but they were soon defeated. The main attack was on October 19th into the Valle de Arán in Catalonia, with the aim of capturing Viella. However, before the end of the month, the troops that had crossed the border returned to France having failed to succeed in their objectives. For a few more years, a number of Republican exiles would operate from France as guerrilla fighters.
The hopes of the Republican Government in Exile and the tens of thousands of remaining Republican exiles was that, once the war in Europe was finished, the Allies would turn on Franco’s Spain. To their disappointment, this did not happen, and whilst Franco’s Spain was excluded from international organizations for a few years, the dictatorial regime would not fall until 1975. Only then did the majority of surviving exiles move back to Spain for the first time in almost forty years.
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