Siege of the Alcázar
The siege of the Alcázar in Toledo, Spain, in 1936 was one of the most dramatic episodes of the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). Fighting began on July 17, 1936, with a revolt of army regiments in Spanish Morocco and then Spain itself. The Republicans had just won a narrow victory in the national elections, and senior army commanders led traditionalist elements, known as the Nationalists, who were determined to prevent the Republicans from (purportedly) destroying the character and traditions of Spain. The central issue was whether the Catholic, agrarian, and centralized rule that had prevailed in Spain for centuries should continue or whether the nation would embrace the ideas accepted by much of the West, such as land reform, capitalism, civil rights, and the separation of church and state.
The rebels, who were forced to begin their revolt before all plans were in place, hoped to take Madrid at the outset. They believed that if the Spanish capital, then unfortified, could be captured promptly, the war might be ended. The Nationalist side failed to accomplish this, largely because of the Republican siege of the Alcázar of Toledo, a city about 75 miles south-southwest of the capital.Alcázar is the Spanish term for a fortified castle, and the Toledo Alcázar had 10foot walls. The Alcázar was also the home of the Spanish Military Academy, commanded in July 1936 by Colonel José Moscardó Ituarte. The fortress was situated on high ground that dominated both the city and the Tagus River.
On July 20 the Republican government in Madrid ordered Moscardó to send to the capital all the arms from the Alcázar. He refused, stating that he sided with rebels. The government immediately declared him a traitor and dispatched hastily organized militia there. Moscardó realized that he could not control all Toledo, so he ordered the local garrison of the Guardia Civil into the fortress with his regular troops. Long known for its metalwork and arms production, Toledo was home to an important arms factory, and the rebels removed its stocks to the fortress. They thus had some 1,000 rifles, 13 machine guns, a large quantity of ammunition, and a number of grenades. The government forces soon began the siege, but they lacked the modern heavy artillery necessary to breach the fortress walls.
There were some 1,500 people inside the Alcázar. Although figures differ, Moscardó probably commanded about 150 officers and noncommissioned officers assigned to the Spanish Military Academy, 650 members of the Guardia Civil, and 7 cadets (the others being on vacation). There were more than 500 women and children, all military dependents, inside as well. The colonel had also taken about 100 civilian hostages into the fortress, including the city’s civil governor and his family.
On July 23 in what is perhaps the most celebrated incident of the Spanish Civil War, Candido Cabello, leader of the militia in Toledo, talked by telephone with Moscardó. Cabello allegedly told Moscardó that unless he surrendered the fortress within 10 minutes, he would shoot Moscardó’s 17-year-old son Luis. As proof that he held Luis, Cabello put the boy on the phone. Moscardó told Luis that he should commend his soul to God, shout “Long live Spain,” and prepare for a hero’s death. Cabello then came back on the phone, and Moscardó told him that the Alcázar would never surrender. Luis Moscardó was indeed executed, although on August 23.
Moscardó meanwhile organized the defenses of the fortress. With electricity and water into the fortress shut off, the colonel ordered strict rationing of food and water; 124 horses and mules, destined to be the meat supply for the besieged, were placed in the safest part of the fortress. Only 6 of these animals (including 1 thoroughbred racehorse) were still alive at the end of the siege. A daring night raid from the fortress against a nearby storehouse yielded some 2,000 sacks of grain. This was then ground inside the fortress into flour. Crude lamps that burned animal grease provided illumination.
By early August some 8,000 government troops surrounded the fortress. The Republican side controlled both the Spanish Air Force and the Spanish Navy, and the aircraft carried out some 120 sorties against the Alcázar. Thirty-five people deserted the fortress during the siege, including 10 civil guardsmen.
On September 9 a brief cease-fire occurred when Moscardó agreed to meet with government envoy Major Vicente Rojo, but Moscardó rejected demands that he surrender with a promise of freedom for the civilians, with the defenders to be subject to court-martial. On September 11 in response to Moscardó’s calls for a priest, Monsignor Vázquez Camarrasa was allowed into the fortress during a threehour cease-fire. He granted a general absolution to the defenders.
The government then ordered mines to be dug under the two great fortress towers nearest the city. On September 17, to prevent civilian casualties, the government ordered the city evacuated and called in the foreign press to Toledo to witness the Alcázar’s end. On the morning of September 18 the first mine went off, collapsing the tower on the southeast corner of the fortress and opening a breach in the wall. Desperate fighting ensued as government troops tried to storm the fortress.
Nationalist general José Enrique Varela Iglesius and a force of Moroccans bound for Madrid were only about 25 miles from Toledo at this time. General Francisco Franco y Bahamonde, who had become the Nationalists’ leader, decided to divert them to Toledo. Franco understood that this might cost him Madrid, but he remarked that relieving the Toledo garrison was more important. Securing the arms factory there was probably the deciding factor. On September 23 Varela’s forces set out; three days later they cut the road linking Toledo with Madrid.
On September 27 the Republicans exploded another mine, this one on the northeast side of the fortress. Varela’s relief force arrived at sunset and entered the Alcázar, which was in flames. The next morning Moscardó handed over command of what was left of the fortress to Varela with the phrase “Sin novedad” (“Nothing to report”), which had been the rebel password during July 17–18. The Moroccan troops meanwhile massacred all the Republicans in Toledo they could find, including the wounded in San Juan Hospital.
The Alcázar had no strategic significance, but diverting their troops there may have cost the Nationalists the opportunity to take Madrid and end the war. The capital did not fall until March 1939, marking the end of the fighting. Perhaps 600,000 Spaniards died on both sides in the Spanish Civil War, and afterward another 100,000 were executed by the victorious Nationalists. Half a million more fled the country to France.
Eby, Cecil D. The Siege of the Alcazar, Toledo: July to September 1936. London: Bodley Head, 1966.
McNeill-Moss, Geoffrey. The Siege of Alcazar: A History of the Siege of the Toledo Alcazar, 1936. New York: Knopf, 1937.
Thomas, Hugh. The Spanish Civil War. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961.