The Nationalist Drive on Madrid

A Sneak Peak of Spain in Arms


The Spanish Civil War was a conflict that defined the Interwar Period. On one side stood the left-leaning Republicans, the supporters of the Second Spanish Republic, who prized freedom of speech and the removal of the Spanish nobility. They found support in the Soviet Union, who provided them with materials and armaments necessary for their efforts. On the other stood the Nationalists, a faction comprised various far-right political groups, led by the pragmatic Francisco Franco.

The culmination of nearly 60 years of research into the Spanish Civil War, Spain in Arms is a book that examines how the conflict developed on the battlefield through the prism of eight campaigns, dispelling many of the half-truths and propaganda that have plagued its legacy. Through detailed study and analysis, the author explains the true reasons behind the Nationalist victory in a level of detail never before written.

Below is a sneak preview of the book, which picks up the action as the Nationalists begin their siege of Madrid up the Corunna Highway.

At the end of November Franco, Mola, and Colonel José Varela, the field commander on the Madrid front, held a two-day conference at Varela’s headquarters in Leganes where Franco accepted Mola’s suggestion to abandon a direct advance on the capital. He agreed to envelop the city which dovetailed with Varela’s concerns about the security of the University City bridgehead at the tip of a salient 7km long but less than 4km wide at its broadest point.

West of the Manzanares, the exposed salient cut the Corunna Highway and railroad, then ran south into the Casa de Campo to the Estremadura Highway but it had few internal roads. The Estremadura Highway was the Nationalist’s prime supply line to the Madrid front with the enemy barely a kilometer away from it at the base of the salient. All agreed it was vital to secure the highway and on November 28 Varela was ordered to do so by advancing to a line from Pozuelo del Alarcon (Pozuelo) to Aravaca.

The battlefield was marked at its northern edge by the Corunna Highway, which curved around Aravaca and continued for nearly 20km to Las Rozas, then went northwest into the Sierra de Guadarrama. The western boundary was the River Perales, which with the River Guadarrama to the east and its tributary the Aulencia, ran roughly north to south through a rolling plain cut by deep gullies from streams feeding the waterways which created frequent winter mists. Apart from the gullies the only defensive features on the landscape were numerous olive groves and orchards, notably north of Brunete, along the banks of the Guadarrama, east of Boadilla del Monte (Boadilla), west of Majadahonda, and around Pozuelo. The area was dotted with thick-walled summer villas called castellos, whose walled gardens and olive groves or orchards helped to make them excellent strongpoints.

East of the Guadarrama the ground slowly rises with a few hills, notably west of a road which ran from the Corunna Highway at Las Rozas through Majadahonda, Boadilla, Villaviciosa de Odon (Vilaviciosa) to the Estramadura Highway. Boadilla was the key road junction with an important road west–east from Brunete through Retamares to the Estremadura Highway and a side road north through Pozuelo and Aravaca to the Corunna Highway. Southeast of Pozuelo was Humera from which the enemy could threaten the Nationalist salient, while to the north the Corunna railroad diverted around Aravaca to Pozuelo station, a kilometer northeast of the town, then ran parallel with the highway. Between the Perales and the Guadarrama was another road which ran north from the Estramadura Highway at Navalcarnero through Nationalist-held Brunete, Villaneuva de la Cañada, and Valdemorillo to the Corunna Highway at San Lorenzo del Escorial (Escorial) with a side road north of Villaneuva de la Cañada eastwards through Villaneuva del Pardillo to Majadahonda.

Varela organized three regimental-size columns with 7,000 men under the overall command of Colonel Francisco García-Escámez. On the left was Lieutenant Colonel Marcelino Gavilán’s Cavalry Column based upon seven squadrons, in the centre was Lieutenant Colonel Siro (Félix) Alonso with four light/field batteries, and on the right was Lieutenant Colonel Maximiano Bartoméu who would strike west from the Casa de Campo Col with two batteries, Varela providing five batteries of mostly heavy artillery in support.

A Condor Legion Heinkel He 111 drops bombs while the gunners, one in a “dustbin turret” below
the aircraft, keep a watchful eye for enemy fighters.

They faced the Central Army created on October 24 under 60-year-old cavalryman Major General Sebastián Pozas, a former Director General of the Civil Guard and Interior Minister, whose brother Gabriel was Mola’s aide. A fervent Republican despite being born into a conservative Monarchist family, he distinguished himself like many in the Moroccan Rif Wars. Despite being court-martialed in 1934 for refusing to prevent the declaration of the Catalan state in 1936, he became Director General of the Civil Guards and was briefly Interior Minister. On October 5 he became commander of 1 Division District and President of the Madrid Defense Council (Junta de Defensa de Madrid) but on October 23 General José Miaja took over the division, leaving Pozas nominally in charge of the Defense Council and, from New Year’s Eve, commander of the Central Army responsible for the sector from the Sierra Guadarrama down to the Tajo river.

He had 35,800 men and 134 guns by the end of November, but the Madrid Defense Council, which remained the fiefdom of the Communists, was determined to retain its autonomy, as was Miaja. The 58-year-old owl-like Miaja was a conservative infantry officer and despite service in Morocco and membership of the right-wing Unión Militar Española (UME) was never fully trusted by the right and his Madrid-based brigade remained loyal when the uprising began, possibly by accident rather than design. He was an affable man, a competent ‘plodder’, brave but vain and slightly deaf.

On November 20 he reorganized the defense of Madrid between the Guadarrama and the Jarama in the south into four sectors, of which the 1st (or Right) between the Perales and the University City north of the Nationalist salient was under a Rumanian-born Russian advisor, Manfred or Moishe Stern who had the nom de guerre of Kléber. Kléber had led the 11 International Brigade (BI) into battle in Madrid and was a competent soldier as well as a member of Soviet Military Intelligence (Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye or GRU) since 1924 serving in the United States before being transferred to China. He had 10,400 men and ten guns, six heavy, organized into Column Colonel (Luís) Barceló, Lieutenant Colonel Francisco Galán’s 3 Mixed Brigade (BM), medical Major Miguel Palacios’s Brigade “X,” which was being activated from his column and that of Colonel Julián Fernández-Cavada, as well as Captain Fernando Sabio’s 5 BM, later reinforced by 12 BI.

Varela’s attack on November 29 struck Galán, whose men, caught in the open having failed to dig, broke and fled being rallied only at Pozuelo where their pursuers took the town’s cemetery. The arrival of 12 BI regained the cemetery and prevented Alonso from taking the town, and while Gavilán advanced 3km Bartoméu made little progress. However, the Nationalists had succeeded in protecting the Estremadura Highway which they secured by repulsing Kléber’s counterattack on December 3.

In a surfeit of optimism Franco and Mola decided to exploit their success to seize Escorial and isolate Republican forces in the Sierra Guadarrama, the mountain chain shielding Madrid in the north, while simultaneously cutting the capital’s water and electricity supplies. On December 7 Franco ordered ‘a sudden and surprise attack’ to isolate Madrid from Pozas’s troops in the Sierra de Guadarrama. Two days earlier the Nationalist ad hoc command arrangements on the Madrid front were regularized with the creation of what was usually abbreviated to the Madrid Reinforced Division under 55-year-old Brigadier General Luis Orgaz, a Monarchist who had opposed the Republic from its birth. A friend of Mola, he was described as ‘resolute and irascible’ and as an ardent coup supporter he was scheduled to lead the rising in Madrid. But the suspicious government exiled him to the Canaries where he worked closely with Franco. With Nationalist air chief, Brigadier General Alfredo Kindélan, he became one of Franco’s most trusted confidantes and it was he who proposed Franco as supreme military leader. Orgaz’s command was split into three brigade sectors of which I Brigade was north of the Estramadura Highway under Varela who had 10,000 men in 15 battalions, nine squadrons and two tank companies supported by 13 batteries with 52 guns.

Columns under Colonels Fernando Barrón and Eduardo Sáenz de Buruaga would advance from Villaviciosa to take Boadilla while Colonel José Monasterio’s column would advance north from Brunete to take Villaneuva de la Cañada. Given the Nationalist superiority in open country, Varela hoped he could stampede the enemy and reach the Corunna Highway. They faced Kléber with 12,100 men and six guns and, having relieved 3 BM, he now had Barceló’s column in the Guadarrama Valley, Lieutenant Colonel Juan Perea’s Anarchist column on his right holding the line to Pozuelo station and Palacios around Aravaca, with Major Alejandro Gallo’s 6 BM holding the line down to the Nationalist salient. In reserve was 5 BM, now under Carabinero Captain Hilario Fernández after Sabio fled his command post during the first attack.

Thick fog disrupted Varela’s planned attack on December 13 and when it began the following afternoon dense vapors returned and quickly brought it to a halt. Only when visibility improved by dawn of December 16 did the attack begin in earnest. The thin-faced, graying Barrón from the west and Alonso from the east isolated Boadilla, held by Barceló’s men and elements of 11 BI who failed to prevent Buruaga taking the town. Yet Kléber contained the threat by sending in tanks to disrupt the advance while bringing 11 BI down the Guadarrama Valley and 12 BI to cover the highway to the east.

Monasterio managed to take Villaneuva de la Cañada but fog again blanketed the battlefield and lifted only on December 19 by which time Varela realized he was outnumbered and had lost the element of surprise. Cannily he withdrew from his more exposed positions while retaining Boadilla and Villanueva de la Cañada. He planned to renew the assault after Christmas but was wounded on that day causing a delay.

From December 20 through January 2 the 12 BI under Hungarian Communist ‘Lukàcs’s (Mate Zalka) vainly struck along the Guadarrama Valley towards Brunete but gained time for Miaja to reorganize his forces again on December 31; the former 1st Sector becoming the 8 Infantry Division (DI) with 35, 37, 44 BM under Major Eduardo Cuevas. Kléber had irritated both the Socialist Spanish Premier and War Minister Largo Caballero, once dubbed the ‘Spanish Lenin,’ and the Madrid Defense Council leadership by disparaging the Spanish troops and demanding the international brigades be concentrated as a spearhead for an offensive on the Madrid front. He reportedly told Perea, who was leading an Anarchist column, that Spain needed a leader like the Soviet Union’s Defense Minister Marshal Kliment Voroshilov to control the war effort and suggested Perea as a potential candidate. The paranoid Anarchists perceived this as the start of a Communist coup while the equally paranoid Communist organizer of the international brigades, André Marty, who was jealous of Kléber, also dismissed the idea. Kléber was relieved and sent to live in a small hotel in Valencia until the crisis blew over, whereupon he returned to command a new division. Barceló’s column was redesignated 35 BM but on New Year’s Day he was shot in the face by a battalion commander in a row over the relief of two companies and replaced by the Italian Communist Nino Nanetti.

Republican infantry prepare to meet an attack. While there was much rhetoric about “Spanish
Trenches,” as this picture illustrates neither side liked digging so that trenches were often shallow. (Courtesy of Marx Memorial Library, London)

Nanetti shielded Valdemorillo with 11 BI under “Hans” to the east. On his right was 5 DI (formerly 2nd Sector) under Perea from December 31, with 5, 38, 39 and Z BM, while Captain Joaquin Zulueta’s 38 BM held Pozuelo with Palacios’s 39 BI on its left. Being activated in the rear were 37 BM (Fernandez-Cavada) and 44 BM (Major José Enciso) and the defenders had a total of 20,300 men.

On December 19 Franco demanded that Madrid be encircled from the north as soon as possible, and on New Year’s Day Orgaz ordered a new advance upon the Corunna Highway with 12,000 men supported by 40 tanks and 80 guns swinging the Nationalist line northwards like a closing door hinged upon Pozuelo. A new column under Colonel José Iruretagoyena, with 4½ battalions and six squadrons, had relieved Monasterio at Villaneuva de la Cañada and was to strike northeast towards Villaneuva del Pardillo and Las Rozas covering the left. The main blow would be from Villaviciosa by Barrón’s and Colonel José Asensio’s columns with a combined strength equivalent to nine battalions. Buruaga, advancing from Boadilla, would cover their right with 4½ battalions and together they would strike northwards in the direction of Majadahonda then swing eastwards and advance to the highway north of the La Pozuelo station. García-Escámez, who was south of Pozuelo would first mask, then envelop the town with his 3½ battalions and occupy the highway south of the railroad. Each column had four batteries, one heavy, and most had a tank company. Only one battalion was in reserve and there was additional support from eight heavy batteries south of Pozuelo.

The 14km-front attack on January 3 saw Iruretagoyena cross the Aulencia and approach Villaneuva del Pardillo but Barrón and Asensio made slow progress against Cuevas who committed Hans’s 11 BI. The command was expanded to Group Cuevas (Agrupación Cuervas) which received Brigade “E” under Communist Valentine González, better known as El Campesino (the Peasant), some International Brigade cavalry and three tank companies. But the reinforcements failed to prevent Iruretagoyena taking Villaneuva del Pardillo the following day as Barrón isolated Majadahonda from the north, allowing Asensio to take the town before fog and resistance from the castillos slowed the Nationalist advance. Cuevas now created a divisional-sized reserve from Hans’s, Nanetti’s and Campesino’s brigades augmented by a couple of battalions from other brigades.

A formation of Nationalist Air Force tri-motor Junkers Ju 52/3m bombers. Many of these aircraft had served with the Condor Legion and some had been used to fly in troops from Morocco at the beginning of the war.

The Nationalist offensive’s next phase began on January 5 when Barrón, Asensio, and Buruaga turned east, shielded by Iruretagoyena, to strike the brigades of Nanetti, Campesino, and the Anarchist Cipriano Mera. The defenders’ resolve was shaken by heavy artillery fire and the brigades lost contact with each other to fight private wars as they withdrew. The sense of isolation led to panic due to rumors of Moorish cavalry in the rear, a side effect of Republican propaganda emphasizing the brutality of the North African troops. At Pozuelo six Soviet armored cars knocked out a dozen PzKpfw I as Barrón and Asensio bypassed the town to reach the Corunna Highway near Las Rozas smashing Hans’s Thaelmann Battalion which attempted to hold the town unsupported.

The defenders ran short of ammunition, reportedly forcing Miaja to send up blanks so that the men had the illusion of resisting while his reserves had only 20 rounds each when the official requirement was 300. He took personal command of the sector and conducted a mock execution of deserters from Campesino’s and Mera’s units, while, ominously, scarce machine guns were set up behind the lines. Miaja also ordered the transfer of Enrique Lister’s 1 BM from the southern suburbs to shield the Corunna Highway and also brought up 12 and 14 BI. Meanwhile the defenders rallied and fought stubbornly until the arrival of Lukàcs’s 12 BI and Lister supported by Russian tanks, but an overnight counterattack failed.

The Nationalist waves lapped up to the Corunna Highway on January 6 when Barrón and Asensio cut the Corunna railroad west of Pozuelo Station but the newly arrived 69 BM under Major Gustavo Durán thwarted Buruaga’s attempts to take the station as Campesino shielded Las Rozas. The defenders were also displaying greater spirit with numerous bayonet charges which bought time during the day but at great cost. But despite this the following day saw García-Escámez take both Pozuelo and Humera while Barrón added another 2km of the highway. García-Escámez’s well-timed assault upon Pozuelo almost trapped the French battalion of 11 BI with a tank company and while they escaped it was at great cost, their escape aided by a diversionary attack from 6 BM. Hans’s Thaelmann Battalion was not so lucky, being isolated when it was sent forward to plug a gap near Las Rozas then almost annihilated.

The Nationalist advance was slowing. During the evening of January 8 they took Aravaca but the following day Asensio and Buruaga failed to take the hills on the other side of the highway. This left the Nationalists with a line from Las Rozas to the outskirts of Madrid, including 10km of the Corunna Road but Varela could advance no further.

The arrival of 12 and 14 BI and six fresh Spanish battalions gave Miaja the opportunity to plan a counteroffensive against Las Rozas and Majadahonda respectively. Cuevas had ‘Hans’s, Campesino and Duran in line with Galán’s brigade in reserve while Perea’s division had along the highway 6 and 39 BM with a reserve of Lister’s 1 BM with 21 and 38 BM and Brigadier General Dimiti Pavlov’s tanks. On the other flank Lieutenant Colonel Ricardo Burillo, the 9 DI commander, was sent from the Jarama front with some of his battalions to command a division-sized group with Lukàcs, Nanetti, and 14 BI augmented by 2 and 3 DI battalions.

As the attack began on January 11 the temperature dropped to freezing as a thick mist again arose to disrupt both sides’ preparations. Nanetti’s failure near Majadahonda exposed the neighboring 12 IB but the largely French 14 BI, under the Polish Karol Swierczewski, a former Moscow Military School professor known as “General Walter,” managed to take Las Rozas with the aid of Russian tanks. But when they withdrew to refuel the Frenchmen followed, believing there had been an order to withdraw and their attempt to retake the town the next day saw them cut to pieces.

The Russian tank performance was poor, with vehicles driving around firing wildly because they had new leaders. The experienced Major Paul Arman and Brigadier General Semon Krivoshein had been recalled to Moscow for debriefing and been replaced by Pavlov, who had assumed command of the Tank Brigade on December 6 with 56 tanks and 68 armored cars reduced to 47 tanks a month later. Both his predecessors had recognized the difficulties of coordinating tank, infantry, and artillery into what are termed “combined arms operations.” This led to a Catch-22 situation where the tanks easily outpaced the infantry, the former then being exposed to antitank guns and the latter to automatic weapons. To square the circle Krivoshein ordered the tanks to provide direct support to the infantry and stray no more than 500m ahead. With the departure of Arman and Krivoshein together with many veterans, Pavlov had to relearn these lessons, as tanks were used either for infantry support or as cavalry acting as fire brigades to plug gaps.

The clashes confirmed the inferior firepower of the Nationalist tanks, armed only with a pair of rifle-caliber machine guns. The German tank advisor Lieutenant Colonel Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma ordered his advisors to avoid engaging enemy tanks whenever possible. Attempts to up-gun the German and Italian tanks proved futile but the Spanish followed Thoma’s advice to support their armor with 37mm antitank guns which often proved deadly against the T-26.

Meanwhile, the fighting continued for another three days with ever-decreasing success, and as ammunition ran low combat evaporated. Some advanced Republican detachments remained in the Nationalist line until Iruretagoyena and Asensio straightened it out on January 16. Orgaz had advanced some 20km but it was claimed he had suffered 15,000 casualties, a figure which was clearly exaggerated, but certainly the inexperience of the new units was reflected in their heavier casualties and was probably about 1,500. Republican casualties were also exaggerated at 15,000; the actual figure was 6,775 with a further 4,100 reporting sick, but a third of the International troops became casualties. The success, with Communist propaganda support, cemented Miaja’s reputation, and while never a Communist himself he did hold membership cards for every political party in Madrid, including the joint youth movement even though he was 58!

Due to be released in April 2019, Spain in Arms is a book that is set to rewrite what we know about the Spanish Civil War. Be sure to keep an eye on our Facebook and Twitter pages for regular updates, or subscribe to our email newsletter and receive news straight to your inbox.

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