Battle of the Ebro

Battle of the Ebro

The Ebro Offensive, or Battle of the Ebro, fought during July 25–November 16, 1938, was the last great military effort by the Republican (Loyalist) forces in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). By 1938 the Republican cause was plainly faltering. The Nationalist (fascist) forces led by General Francisco Franco y Bahamonde had taken the Basque country—indeed virtually all of northern Spain—and now controlled two-thirds of the country. It appeared to most foreign observers that it was now only a matter of time before the Nationalists would triumph.

In these circumstances, premier of the Spanish Republic Juan Negrín approved a plan developed by Spanish Army chief of staff General Vicente Rojo Lluch to stake everything on a major counteroffensive from Catalonia to halt Nationalist forces advancing in Valencia. The Republicans (Loyalists) committed three army corps of some 100,000 men from their 400,000-man army to reestablish communications with Castile and draw the Nationalists away from Valencia. Critics have charged that it would have been better for the Republicans to have remained on the defensive in hopes of prolonging and widening the war.

On the night of July 24–25 Republican engineers constructed pontoon bridges across the Ebro, and early on the morning of July 25, 1938, their infantry attacked across the river. Colonel Juan Modesto had command of the attacking troops, while General Fidel Dávila had charge of the Nationalist defenders. The primary Republican objective was Gandesa, a key communications hub about a dozen miles behind the Ebro. Taking it was assigned to XV Corps. The Republican 11th Division was to advance toward the south. Facing XV Corps was the Nationalist 50th Division of the Moroccan Corps. The Nationalist plan was to hold their line with minimal forces and then bring up reserves to counter any attack.

The initial crossing of the Ebro went well and caught the Nationalists by surprise. Some frontline Nationalist units were wiped out. Among the first of the International Brigades units across the river was the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from the United States.

Although the attackers reached Gandesa by the end of the first day, they were not able to take it. On July 26 the Nationalists opened the floodgates of the Ebro at Tremp, impeding Republican resupply efforts. Fierce fighting raged during July 26–August 2 at Villalba, Cuatro Caminos, and Gandesa, but the Republicans enjoyed little success in these battles. During July 27–28 the Nationalist 74th Division arrived, while the Republican 16th Division joined the battle on July 29. Although the Loyalists seized some 500 square miles of territory and mounted major attacks during August 1–2, these failed. The Nationalists were able to replace their losses quickly, thanks to German and Italian assistance, while the Republicans could not do the same.

On August 3 the Republican side assumed the defensive. Nationalist airpower and artillery played key roles in the outcome, again thanks to the Germans and Italians. The Nationalist side enjoyed near-total air superiority, probably the difference in the war as a whole. Nationalist aircraft struck the Republican troops in the open and attacked supply columns. Also, the Republicans eschewed deep penetrations, which meant that their offensive bogged down as they were forced to clear pockets of Nationalist resistance.

The fighting degenerated into World War I–style encounters, with infantry charges against entrenched enemy positions. Once the Nationalists had contained the Republican advance, fighting raged over the Loyalist bridgehead, and it took the Nationalists more than three and a half months to push the Republican troops back across the Ebro.

Although the Battle of the Ebro had forced the Nationalists to halt their offensive into Valencia and jolted the Nationalist regime as had nothing else in the war, the cost had been high. Loyalist losses amounted to more than 30,000 dead, 20,000 wounded, and some 19,500 taken prisoner. The Nationalist side suffered 6,500 dead, 30,000 wounded, and 5,000 taken prisoner.

The failure of their summer offensive marked the beginning of the end for the Republican side and sped its defeat. The Ebro fighting was also the last big battle for the International Brigades on the Republican side; Premier Negrín withdrew them halfway through the battle. Of some 7,000 members of the International Brigades who fought in the offensive, three-quarters were casualties.

With the end of the battle on November 16, the Nationalists resumed their advance. They took Barcelona on January 26, 1939, and by the end of February both Britain and France had recognized the Nationalist government. Fascist troops entered Madrid on March 28, and Franco declared the war at an end on April 1, 1939.

References

Matthews, Herbert L. Half of Spain Died: A Reappraisal of the Spanish Civil War. New York: Scribner, 1973.

Thomas, Hugh. The Spanish Civil War. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961.