Battle of the Ebro


Battle of the Ebro Story:

At midnight between 24th and 25th July, 1938, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Modesto, soldiers of the newly formed Army of the Ebro, crossed the river, breaking through the defensive lines of General Yagüe’s Moroccan Army. The Battle of the Ebro (as we know it today)had begun.

The Ebro campaign was a Republican attempt to divert the Nationalist army’s attention from the Valencian front. The threat to the industrially important area of Sagunto and the city of Valencia was becoming increasingly apparent. Coupled with this, international circumstances, tensions generated within Europe by the Nazi regime’s obsession with territorial expansion made it clear that the Republican government needed to act in order to regain a more favourable position abroad.

The campaign, based on a surprise factor was planned by General Rojo of the General Staff who proposed a risky multiple river crossing. Once the first phase was accomplished, the Republican troops would have to take advantage of this initial success by covering ground quickly and moving inland from different points.

The surprise of the initial attack was a success and different units from the 42nd, 3rd, 11th and 45th Divisions of the Army of the Ebro crossed at various points from Mequinensa as far as Amposta, with the central offensive concentrating on the area between Riba-Roja and Benifallet.

The units of the 50th Division of the Moroccan Army, defending the central territory offered very little resistance and were forced to retreat to a line of defence along the Faió – Pobla de Massaluca – Vilalba dels Arcs – Gandesa – Vall del riu Canaletes axis. This line was established on 26th July and was continually attacked by the Republican Army until the 3rd August, in an attempt to break through and continue the advance.

The Nationalist forces’ reaction was very quick and within a few hours units were sent to the battle area from all parts of the country to hold the new defensive line. Their use of aircraft and the control of the upstream reservoirs made it more difficult for the Army of the Ebro to supply the frontline.

Once it was clear that it was impossible to continue advancing, on 3rd August, Lieutenant Colonel, Modesto gave the order to adopt defensive positions. The Republican Army had achieved their original aims: the pressure on the Valencian front had been relieved and the campaign had brought the military initiative back to the Republic in the war and gained the attention of the main European powers.

The Battle of the Ebro could have come to an end here. However, in spite of some of his general’s advice who believed in maintaining a stationary frontline and initiating an attack against Catalonia via Lleida, General Franco decided to recover the lost ground at any price. This decision made the Ebro campaign to become known as the cruellest and most bloody battle of the whole Spanish Civil War and indeed of Spanish history.

From this time onwards and until 16th November, the Nationalist Army took part in six offensives against the Republican lines. The territory gained by the Army of the Ebro in just one day required more than a hundred days to be recovered.

The result was a war of attrition, the downfall of the Army of the Ebro, which had fewer material and human resources. Both armies suffered around 130 000 casualties in total and lead to the fight for Catalonia, starting in December of 1938.

As well as its importance from a military and historic point of view, the Battle of the Ebro became known as the last ditch attempt of Negrín’s government during the Munich Conference from 29th to 30th September of 1938 to get the European powers to support the Spanish Republic. The rest of Europe bowed down to Hitler’s Germany during the Sudetenland crisis and effectively condemned the Spanish Republic to defeat at the hands of the Nationalist uprising.

The Ebro campaign was also the last battle in which the International Brigades fought for the Republic. On 21st September, President Negrín announced their withdrawal from action in Spain.

All these events lead the Battle of Ebro to become a fundamental reason for the understanding of contemporary Catalan and Spanish history, with a powerful link to events in the rest of the world.

Text taken from the Battle of the Ebro website. Please make sure to visit them. Click Here.

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The Spanish Civil War History:

General Franco's fascist troops invaded Spain in July 1936. They overthrew the democratically elected Republican government headed by the Popular Front which had been composed of liberal democrats, socialists, anarchists, trade unionists, communists and secularists.

The country was basically divided into those fighting for the government (Republicans), and those fighting against the government (Nationalists). The Nationalists were represented by the landed elite, Fascists, the urban bourgeoisie, the Roman Catholic Church, and other conservative sectors whilst Juan Modesto Guilloto was in charge of the Republican Ebro army and commanded the Republican offensive.

The number of war deaths is estimated at between 500,000 and 1,000,000. Many of those casualties were the result of brutal mass executions perpetrated by both sides.

This area was hugely important as the last great Republican offensive in the Civil War, and each town has its own stories of the 115 day long Battle of the Ebre.

On 3 September 2008 it was reported that human remains were unearthed at the site of the Battle during a project to install wind-powered electric generators. This comes just a week after High Court judge, Baltasar Garzon, launched the start of an investigation into atrocities committed by Franco's fascist forces.

The investigation is an attempt to compile the first ever record of those on the Republican side who were exiled, executed or forced into slave labour camps during and after the war and to compile a census of all those who disappeared during the Spanish Civil War and Franco's subsequent forty-year dictatorship.

A 68-page ruling published on 16 October 2008 estimates the total number of people that vanished between July 17th, 1936 and December 1951 at 114,266.

Given that Franco and all 34 of his senior aides named in the ruling as being responsible for instigating the crimes, are dead, they cannot face prosecution though Judge Garzón has requested to see their death certificates just to make sure.

However, a list of the names of the leaders of the fascist Falange party during the period under investigation has been requested from the Interior ministry, and any survivors could face trial.

Civil War/ Franco regime 'desaparecidos', totals by region:
Andalucía 32,289
Aragón 10,178
Asturias 1,246
Baleares 1,777
Basque Country 9,459
Canarias 262
Cantabria 850
Castilla La Mancha 7,067
Castilla León 12,979
Cataluña 2,400
Extremadura 10,266
Galicia 4,396
La Rioja 2,007
Madrid 2,995
Murcia 855
Navarra 3,431
Valencian Community 4,345
Ceuta and Melilla 464 
Other territories 7,000
Total 114,266

Details of The Battle of the Ebre centre, aptly named 115 dies (115 days), can be found on the Corbera d’Ebre page.

On the night of 25th July the Republican forces crossed the river, at the start of what was to be a long battle. At around two o’clock the following day, after a short exchange with Nationalist soldiers, the first Republican troops entered and occupied Corbera d’Ebre.

The Republican troops crossing the river Ebre in July 25th, 1938.

The village remained in Republican hands from the first day of the battle until 4th September, when the fourth Nationalist offensive managed to break the Republican lines and force them into retreat.

Members of the 15th International Brigade in action in the Sierra de Pandols
The historical site of Els Barrancs, an area of agricultural land within the boundaries of Vilalba dels Arcs, is part of the the line of defence which the Republican forces built between this village and the village of La Pobla de Massaluca. Around 700 metres of frontline trenches have survived virtually intact, including sniper posts, evacuation trenches and shelters. A trench is a ditch, between 1.5m and 1.8m deep with a stone parapet and sandbags to protect the soldiers and allow them to shoot from a dominant position. Sniper posts protrude from the trenches, covering the frontline, so that soldiers, armed with automatic weapons and hand grenades would make any attack difficult. Evacuation trenches extended from the rear of the trench to bring in supplies and relief troops and to evacuate the wounded.

The frontline established between the villages of Vilalba dels Arcs and La Pobla de Massaluca, remained stable from the start of the offensive until the end of the month of July, 1938. The Nationalist Army concentrated their attacks on other areas of the front, turning this sector into what is known as an inactive sector. This area did not see any important fighting, although there was a continuous exchange of fire between Republican and Nationalist positions.

With the collapse of the Republican front during the Nationalists’ final offensive on 30th October, the Republican units of this sector retreated towards Ascó in order to cross back to the other side of the river. Once the position had been abandoned, the Nationalist units were able to occupy it on 14th November without any resistance.

Hill 705, also known as the “High Point” (Punta Alta), became a key point in the battle. All the surrounding hills could be controlled and taken from this advantageous site. The ridges of the mountain range made it possible to control the valley below, the village of Pinell de Brai and part of the Cavalls mountain range, with the summit of Sant Marc being the nearest point.

Nationalist attempts to take Hill 705 were finally successful on the night of 13th August when luck was on their side, though their losses were considerable. All Republican attempts to retake the position were futile. However, despite the Nationalists’ initial success, their offensive was not fully effective at this point because they did not occupy hills 609, 641 and 666, and the action moved to other areas of the front.

On 25th July, the Republican forces that had crossed near Ginestar occupied the main heights of the Pandols mountain range. They posed a threat for the Nationalist troops in the villages of Prat de Compte, Bot and Gandesa. Despite this advantage, it proved impossible for the Republicans to take any of these villages. At the beginning of August, the Nationalist army was getting ready to expel the Republicans from the Pandols mountain range and divert the front from this point.

For ten days between 9th - 19th August, the two armies were fighting from hill to hill in almost impossible conditions, without water or proper paths on which to advance. Nationalist troops finally managed to push the Republicans out of Gandesa and the rest of the villages, but they did not manage to expel them from the mountain range. Republican forces remained there until 3rd November almost until their final retreat to the other side of the River Ebro.

Members of the Rep. 59th battalion fire a trench mortar on the Gandesa front.
The Cases Caigudes (Fallen Houses) of Pinell de Brai are a poignant reminder of the state the houses of the village were in after four months of fighting and air-attacks on the Republican rearguard. On their return home after months as evacuees, the villagers (around 1,800 in 1938), came back to find Pinell in ruins. As the long and hard postwar period passed, the fields were prepared for cultivation again and daily life was resumed. The destroyed village was rebuilt.

One of the sites chosen by the Republican forces to cross the River Ebro on the night of 25th July 1938 was near Miravet. Once this village was taken, the majority of the troops headed for the Pandols mountain range on the road between Miravet and Pinell de Brai. The Republicans entered Pinell de Brai at around nine o’clock in the morning on 25th August, without meeting with any resistance. The village became part of the Republican rearguard for virtually the whole of the battle until 3rd November when it was taken by the Nationalists. The Republicans set up medical services, other general services and also a place to rest and recuperate. It thus became one of the targets of numerous Nationalist attacks by Franco’s artillery and air-force. General Franco's fascist troops invaded Spain in July 1936. They overthrew the democratically elected Republican government headed by the Popular Front which had been composed of liberal democrats, socialists, anarchists, trade unionists, communists and secularists.