28 December 1958 – 1 January 1959

This characteristic portrait of the guerrilla leader Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (1928–67) was taken as he led the assault on the town of Santa Clara during the Cuban Revolution.

The final decisive battle in the revolutionary war waged in Cuba by Fidel Castro’s 26th July Movement was fought by a group of around 300–50 guerrilla fighters commanded by the Argentinian former medical student, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, against an estimated 3,900 soldiers of the Cuban army and police force who were supported by ten tanks, an armoured train and B-26 bombers based in and around the town of Santa Clara in the centre of the island. The odds were overwhelmingly in favour of the army, but the revolutionary fighters were armed with great confidence that justice was on their side, while the men defending the crumbling regime of the dictator Fulgencio Batista were demoralized by the prospect of fighting against a revolution that now seemed on the brink of victory.

The road from hunted fugitive in the mountains of Cuba – following the landing of Castro’s rebel group in 1956 – to guerrilla leader poised to complete the revolution was a long and hard one for Che Guevara. By the summer of 1958, the revolutionary movement had grown larger and had won the tacit support of much of the poor rural population, but the 10,000-strong Cuban army remained a major obstacle. In August 1958, Guevara led one of three major guerrilla units to the central area of the island, Las Villas. It was a challenging and arduous trek, with few horses, beset by swarms of mosquitoes, many of the guerrilla fighters barefoot and trying to carry heavy equipment through wet, swampy ground.

Guevara’s force arrived dispirited, ‘an army of shadows’ as he later described them. On 16 October, they finally reached the sanctuary of the Trinidad-Sancti Spiritus mountains and could rest. Over the next month, they attacked key communication points across the centre of the island, forcing small army or police garrisons to surrender. By December, they had succeeded in cutting major road and rail links. After capturing the small port of Caibarién, the column marched past the rail junction at Camajuani on the way to Santa Clara, where Batista’s army was gathered under the command of Colonel Joaquin Casillas Lumpuy. The rebels arrived outside the town on 29 December 1958.

Guevara, his arm in a sling after a fall in the capture of Caibarien, wearing his iconic black beret and an open-necked shirt, divided his small band into two groups. One was sent to intercept an armoured train laden with military supplies and men on its way to help Lumpuy. The attack was directed by the twenty-three-year-old Roberto Rodriguez (‘El Vaquerito’), commander of what Guevara called the Suicide Squad, chosen for dangerous missions and dedicated to the revolutionary cause.

Fierce fighting around the Capiro Hills above the stationary train resulted in the death of an unknown number of guerrillas, including the eighteen-year-old Captain Gabriel Gil, who had been chosen to lead the assault, but the army commanders decided the train would be safer nearer to the barracks, and it set off along the rail route into Santa Clara. In the town itself, Guevara had set up his headquarters in the university and here he found tractors belonging to the School of Agriculture. The tractors were used to tear up the rail tracks so that the train would have to halt. The front carriages were derailed and the guerrillas attacked it with small arms fire and Molotov cocktails (‘an arm of extraordinary value’, wrote Guevara in his handbook on guerrilla warfare). After several hours sealed up in carriages made unbearably hot by the fires, the train commanders surrendered. Some of the 350 soldiers fraternized openly with the guerrillas. According to Guevara’s account, his band suddenly possessed twenty-two armoured cars, anti-aircraft guns, machine guns and ‘fabulous quantities of ammunition (fabulous, that is, to us)’.

These new weapons certainly helped the second column in the city, commanded by Rolando Cubela, to capture key points in the northern quarters. The urban battle was quite different from the usual hit-and-run attacks the men had carried out in the Cuban countryside, but the group adjusted well to a prolonged fight, sheltered by buildings and primitive barricades built by sympathetic townspeople. On 30 December, a fierce gun battle raged around the police station, which was finally captured the following day, although ‘El Vaquerito’ died during the assault.

The guerrillas laid siege to the army barracks of the Leoncio Vidal Regiment and the 31st Regiment of Rural Guard, which between them housed some 2,900 men. The army had tanks and air support, but the garrisons were demoralized and poorly led. The 31st Regiment surrendered and attention was then turned to the Grand Hotel. The guerrillas cleared all but the upper floor, from which snipers continued to fire until the rest of the town had been captured. The guerrillas, now with the open support of many of the townspeople, surrounded the Leoncio Vidal barracks and called on Casillas to surrender. On the morning of 1 January news arrived that Batista and his entourage had fled Cuba, leaving the garrison with little choice but to give up. A force almost ten times larger than Che Guevara’s original unit finally abandoned the struggle. Casillas and the police chief Cornelio Rojas were shot by the revolutionaries the following day. How many others died on the two sides has not been recorded.

The Battle of Santa Clara has gone down in Cuban mythology as the fight that ended the Batista dictatorship. It contributed to the popularity of Guevara himself, who was hailed as a military genius for winning the largest open battle between the rebels and the government.

Guerrilla fighters in the town of Santa Clara attack a Cuban army post at Camajuani in December 1958. As the revolutionaries consolidated their position, more civilian Cubans joined their ranks, armed only with what they could find.

The fall of the regime was more complicated than this, since by late 1958 the loyalty of the army was in doubt and much of the island could no longer be defended against local guerrilla initiatives. Much rested on the ability of the large armed force in Santa Clara to halt the decline and impose a punishing defeat on Guevara, but the Cuban regular army was full of disillusioned men, unwilling to die for Batista. The dictator was already getting ready to run.

This moral contrast was all-important, for the revolutionaries had no real military background, though they quickly learned how to make a Molotov cocktail, to lay explosives on a rail track, or to fire the weapons they captured. Guevara was by most accounts a stern and puritanical commander. He would not allow gambling or alcohol among his recruits and expected undeviating commitment to the cause. ‘The chiefs,’ he later wrote in his handbook, ‘must constantly offer the example of a pure and devoted life,’ while their men must display ‘valour, capacity and a spirit of sacrifice’.

When he found that one of his troops had fallen asleep, having lost his gun, he sent the soldier back to the front line unarmed and told him to find another one. Guevara next saw the man a few moments before he died in the rough hospital set up for the injured, his new gun beside him. ‘It seemed to me,’ wrote Guevara, ‘that he was pleased to have proved his courage.’ The victory against the odds owed a good deal to the self-confidence of Guevara and his small band of followers that in the end numbers did not matter as much as the rightness of the cause.