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Battle of the Ebro
Part of the Spanish Civil War
Noviembre 1938.png
Map of Spain in November 1938, after the end of the Battle of the Ebro. Republican territory is in red, and Nationalist territory is blue. Please click on map to enlarge the image.
Date July 25, 1938 – November 16, 1938
Location Ebro, Spain
Result Decisive Republican defeat, Nationalist Victory
Belligerents
Spain Spanish Republic Spain Nationalist Spain
Commanders
Juan Modesto
Enrique Líster
Fidel Davila
Francisco Franco
Strength
100,000 90,000
Casualties and losses
30,000 dead
20,000 wounded
19,563 captured
200 aircraft
6,500 dead
30,000 wounded
5,000 captured

The Battle of the Ebro (Spanish: Batalla del Ebro, Catalan: Batalla de l'Ebre) was the last great Republican offensive in the Spanish Civil War.

Contents

Background

By 1938, the Second Spanish Republic was in dire straits. The Basque Country had fallen, the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) had been crushed by the Stalinist Communist Party of Spain, and many foreign governments felt it was only a matter of time before the question of who would rule Spain would be settled in favour of the Nationalists.

In response to the situation, Spanish premier Juan Negrín approved a plan by Vicente Rojo Lluch to launch attacks against the main Nationalist forces advancing through Valencia. The purpose of the attacks was to relieve the pressure on Valencia and Catalonia. Another purpose of these actions was to show European governments that the Republican government was still a viable alternative.

Critics (such as Antony Beevor) have argued that Negrín's "active war policy"—attacking rather than adopting strong defences and hoping for a wider European conflict or harrying the nationalist forces—was primarily driven by the PCE's desire for propaganda victories, and, as at the Ebro, destroyed the Republican army for no great purpose.

Some historic evidence exists though that the whole idea was nothing more than an effort to buy time for the Spanish Republic.

From April 1938, the intentions of Hitler to integrate Czechoslovakia after Austria were extremely clear. At the same time Britain and France, preferred to see the Spanish War come to an end the earliest possible, so as to avoid the armed presence of Hitler troops near to their areas of interest in the Iberian peninsula; this presence was also followed by heavy diplomatic demands by Hitler as he was claiming to be the unique truly active anti-Bolshevik opponent, the defender of the non-communist Europe.

Negrín who was accordingly informed, understood that the fate of his Republic was about to be sealed, as Britain and France were keen on appeasing Hitler and avoid the confrontation. Trying to destabilise this diplomatic scenery, it is known that Negrín had sent to the USA his Aide of Foreign Affairs in hopes to work another plan with president Roosevelt, in total secrecy. The American president had initially proposed the idea of splitting Spain in two parts with the present front lines as its frontiers. His advisors though indicated that these lines were continually changing and Franco had no intention to stop, unless left alone to fight without the help from Germany and Italy. Mussolini, however, in particular kept high interests in the Balearic islands where his aero-naval bases, supposedly used to bomb Barcelona, constituted actually an advanced front on his aims to the western Mediterranean. As for the German side, although Hitler despised Franco, he was convinced by his advisors that Germany could not lose face now by abandoning a fight that was coming near to a victorious end.

It seems, however, that Negrín's problem started making some sense to the US president. It is also known that he received some 30 American made light bombers that arrived in airfields around Barcelona albeit near the end of the Ebro battle (they were later photographed abandoned to the hands of the Francoist troops in May 1939, when the war was over). The talks with the American president, however, as well as the evolution of the diplomatic spirits in Europe in the mean time, inspired Negrín to play another diplomatic game: he knew that not all European diplomats shared the effectiveness of Hitler's appeasement and even more, others were expecting a full confrontation coming before 1940. It had been also highlighted by the British Admiralty to their Prime Minister, that the presence of a fascist pro-Hitler country next to Gibraltar and the Mediterranean was a serious menace to British shipping in case of a confrontation with Hitler and Mussolini.

The above elements created hopes to the Spanish Republic to pursue the Ebro Battle. The objective was to fix a permanent stable front line between the Republican and the Fascist Spain expecting Roosevelt to press on internationally for his solution as a peace agreement to end this conflict, hoping at the same time, however, that if a conflict in Europe was to arrive then the Spanish Republic would be supported by the democratic nations against Hitler, Mussolini and eventually Franco. A bit more optimistic, the Republican Army generals were hoping to reunite within this line the areas of Catalonia, Madrid and Valencia, encircled but not fallen yet to the enemy.

Today we can know that in case the Ebro line could have hold just another 5–6 months, Britain and France would have entered a war where Negrín would be naturally on their side. It then becomes obvious that the WW2 end would have produced a totally different political end for Spain. But it was too late, both for the Army of the Republic and for the state of mind of Britain and France who allowed themselves to be carried too far away by the deceptive promises of 'Herr Hitler'. The appeasement attitude that sacrificed Austria and Czechoslovakia had included in it the end of the Spanish Republic.

Battle

Map of the Battle of the Ebro.

The Battle of the Ebro opened on July 25, 1938. Republican forces under Colonel Juan Modesto launched attacks across the Ebro river. The Republican forces were initially successful and the surprise of Franco was total. Nevertheless, the Republican forces were only lightly armed due to the crossing and had no means of essential transport to support heavy guns and armor. The key role in this battle was air superiority, provided by Italian and German squadrons that flew under the Nationalist markings. Some 550 first class planes were available on the Nationalist side against only some 35 modern fighters and some 40 second class others on the Republican side. The Nationalist aviation was thus able to identify quickly the areas of penetration and harass constantly the Republican troops that were crossing the river.

The key target for the Republicans was the town of Gandesa, some 25 km west of Ebro, a cross-road to Catalonia and the roads running in parallel to the Ebro, north to south. The terrain around that town is extremely hilly with hard and bold granite rocks that provided no cover to the attackers. Eventually the Republican penetration was stuck there without ever getting any more ground. Within a week Franco has moved heavy artillery in the area and some 500,000 troops that annihilated most of the Republican strong points. Within a month Negrín understood that the effort has failed but in his desperation was unable to consider any withdrawal. The difficulty of the terrain, however, delayed Franco considerably for another 2 months and the battle lasted until November 16, 1938.

The republicans were not able to arrive to any important strategic objective and, according to Beevor, were unwilling to apply the theory of the deep operation to their attacks — meaning their forces spent a long time clearing nationalist secondary defensive positions, allowing the highly mechanised nationalist forces to quickly deploy in strong defensive positions.

The battle was fought by both sides as a World War I Western Front battle, with each side launching bloody frontal assaults on enemy positions. The attacks by both sides tended to fail, but not without inflicting severe losses on each of them.

But nationalist superiority in numbers and armaments meant they were better able to withstand the losses. Essentially the Ebro saw the republican forces destroyed as a capable force while after this battle the Republican aviation was in no position to operate.

The Battle was also the last action of the International Brigades, who were withdrawn midway through it.

Aftermath

This defeat destroyed the Republican Army as a fighting force. After this battle, the Republicans would continue to lose ground until April 1, 1939 when Franco declared the war over.

A well-known Republican song, El Paso de Ebro, commemorates the battle.

Sources

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Battle of the Ebro
Part of the Spanish Civil War
Date July 25, 1938 – November 16, 1938
Location Ebro, Spain
Result Decisive Republican defeat, Nationalist victory
Belligerents
 Spanish Republic  Nationalist Spain
Commanders and leaders
Juan Modesto
Enrique Líster
Fidel Davila
Francisco Franco
Strength
100,000 90,000
Casualties and losses
30,000 dead
20,000 wounded
19,563 captured
200 aircraft
6,500 dead
30,000 wounded
5,000 captured

The Battle of the Ebro (Spanish: Batalla del Ebro, Catalan: Batalla de l'Ebre) was the last great Republican offensive in the Spanish Civil War.

Contents

Background

By 1938, the Second Spanish Republic was in dire straits. The Basque Country had fallen, the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) had been crushed by the Stalinist Communist Party of Spain, and many foreign governments felt it was only a matter of time before the question of who would rule Spain would be settled in favour of the Nationalists.

In response to the situation, Spanish premier Juan Negrín approved a plan by Vicente Rojo Lluch to launch attacks against the main Nationalist forces advancing through Valencia. The purpose of the attacks were to relieve the pressure on Valencia and Catalonia. Another purpose of these actions was to show European governments that the Republican government was still a viable alternative.

Critics (such as Antony Beevor) have argued that Negrín's "active war policy"—attacking rather than adopting strong defences and hoping for a wider European conflict or harrying the nationalist forces—was primarily driven by the PCE's desire for propaganda victories, and, as at the Ebro, destroyed the Republican army for no great purpose.

Some historic evidence exists though that the whole idea was nothing more than an effort to buy time for the Spanish Republic.

From April 1938, the intentions of Hitler to integrate Czechoslovakia after Austria were extremely clear. At the same time Britain and France, preferred to see the Spanish War come to an end as early as possible, so as to avoid the armed presence of Hitler's troops close to their areas of interest in the Iberian peninsula; this presence was also followed by heavy diplomatic demands by Hitler as he claimed to be the unique truly active anti-Bolshevik opponent, the defender of the non-communist Europe.

Negrín understood that the fate of his Republic was about to be sealed, as Britain and France were keen on appeasing Hitler and avoid the confrontation. Trying to destabilise this diplomatic scenery, it is known that Negrín had sent to the USA his Aide of Foreign Affairs in hopes to work another plan with president Roosevelt, in total secrecy. The American president had initially proposed the idea of splitting Spain in two parts with the present front lines as its frontiers. His advisors though indicated that these lines were continually changing and Franco had no intention to stop, unless left alone to fight without the help from Germany and Italy. Mussolini, however, in particular kept high interests in the Balearic islands where his aero-naval bases, supposedly used to bomb Barcelona, constituted actually an advanced front on his aims to the western Mediterranean. As for the German side, although Hitler despised Franco, he was convinced by his advisors that Germany could not lose face now by abandoning a fight that was coming near to a victorious end.

It seems, however, that Negrín's problem started making some sense to the US president. It is also known that he received some 30 American made light bombers that arrived in airfields around Barcelona albeit near the end of the Ebro battle (they were later photographed abandoned to the hands of the Francoist troops in May 1939, when the war was over). The talks with the American president, however, as well as the evolution of the diplomatic spirits in Europe in the mean time, inspired Negrín to play another diplomatic game: he knew that not all European diplomats shared the effectiveness of Hitler's appeasement and even more, others were expecting a full confrontation coming before 1940. It had been also highlighted by the British Admiralty to their Prime Minister, that the presence of a fascist pro-Hitler country next to Gibraltar and the Mediterranean was a serious menace to British shipping in case of a confrontation with Hitler and Mussolini.

The above elements created hopes in the Spanish Republic to pursue the Ebro Battle. The objective was to fix a permanent stable front line between Republican and Fascist Spain and then expected Roosevelt to press internationally for his solution as a peace agreement to end this conflict, hoping at the same time, however, that if a conflict in Europe was to arrive then the Spanish Republic would be supported by the democratic nations against Hitler, Mussolini and eventually Franco. A bit more optimistic, the Republican Army generals were hoping to reunite within this line the areas of Catalonia, Madrid and Valencia, encircled but not fallen yet to the enemy.

Today we know that if the Ebro line had held just another 5–6 months longer, Britain and France would have entered a war where Negrín would be naturally on their side. It then becomes obvious that the WW2 end would have produced a totally different political end for Spain. But it was too late, both for the Army of the Republic and for the state of mind of Britain and France who allowed themselves to be carried too far away by the deceptive promises of 'Herr Hitler'. The appeasement attitude that sacrificed Austria and Czechoslovakia had included in it the end of the Spanish Republic.

Battle

The Battle of the Ebro opened on July 25, 1938. Republican forces under Colonel Juan Modesto launched attacks across the Ebro river. The Republican forces were initially successful and the surprise of Franco was total. Nevertheless, the Republican forces were only lightly armed due to the crossing and had no means of essential transport to support heavy guns and armor. The key role in this battle was air superiority, provided by Italian and German squadrons that flew under the Nationalist markings. Some 550 first class planes were available on the Nationalist side against only some 35 modern fighters and some 40 second class others on the Republican side. The Nationalist aviation was thus able to identify quickly the areas of penetration and harass constantly the Republican troops that were crossing the river.

The key target for the Republicans was the town of Gandesa, some 25 km west of Ebro, a cross-road to Catalonia and the roads running in parallel to the Ebro, north to south. The terrain around that town is extremely hilly with hard and bold granite rocks that provided no cover to the attackers. Eventually the Republican penetration was stuck there without ever getting any more ground. Within a week Franco has moved heavy artillery in the area and some 500,000 troops that annihilated most of the Republican strong points. Within a month Negrín understood that the effort has failed but in his desperation was unable to consider any withdrawal. The difficulty of the terrain, however, delayed Franco considerably for another 2 months and the battle lasted until November 16, 1938.

The republicans were not able to arrive to any important strategic objective and, according to Beevor, were unwilling to apply the theory of the deep operation to their attacks — meaning their forces spent a long time clearing nationalist secondary defensive positions, allowing the highly mechanised nationalist forces to quickly deploy in strong defensive positions.

The battle was fought by both sides as a World War I Western Front battle, with each side launching bloody frontal assaults on enemy positions. The attacks by both sides tended to fail, but not without inflicting severe losses on each of them.

But nationalist superiority in numbers and armaments meant they were better able to withstand the losses. Essentially the Ebro saw the republican forces destroyed as a capable force while after this battle the Republican aviation was in no position to operate.

The Battle was also the last action of the International Brigades, who were withdrawn midway through it.

Aftermath

This defeat destroyed the Republican Army as a fighting force. After this battle, the Republicans would continue to lose ground until April 1, 1939 when Franco declared the war over.

A well-known Republican song, El Paso de Ebro, commemorates the battle.

Sources


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