Globusz Publishing 

THE BATTLE OF BRUNETE

In the early morning hours of July 6, 1937, the quiet, sparsely manned Nationalist front facing Madrid erupted in a nightmare of bombardment from Republican artillery and aircraft. This was only a prelude to what was to become the most massive military offensive to date in the cruel history of the Spanish Civil War. For about three weeks, it drenched the thirsty soil of the province of Castile with the blood and sweat of thousands of Spaniards and hundreds of their foreign allies. The battle raged on in 100 degree heat from the blistering July sun. Men were not only shot and blown to pieces or die from ghastly wounds, but also went mad from hunger and thirst, some took their own lives when they realized their cause was lost, while others mutinied and fled the battlefield----only to be stopped by their own machineguns. This was all in the name of a small unimportant pueblo (town) just 15 miles west from Madrid. It was a town, only a minor point in the greater scheme of thing, which, because of the heroism and tragedy surrounding it, was it to be projected into the pages of History. It was the battle of Brunete.

After the capture of the Basque province, the campaign in the north moved rapidly. Bilbao was captured on 19 June, after two and half months of hard fighting. Both sides suffered many casualties. General Francisco Franco y Bahamonde decided to halt his Nationalist forces (fascists) in and around Brunete, before falling upon Santander, the next Republican (Spanish government) center in the north, which had previously fended off several Nationalist assaults. Also the fall of Malaga, a city on the Mediterranean Sea had impressed public opinion abroad. Events were moving in the Nationalists favor, but a reaction from the Republicans was to be expected. So, on 6 July 1937 at about 0630 hours, with secrecy and diligence, before Franco could move his forces, the Republicans launched a surprise attack on the sleepy town of Brunete (consisted of 1,556 people) and the El Escorial-Madrid road, which linked it to Madrid. The Republicans used 60,000 men, 150 planes, 20 batteries and 128 tanks.

Brunete seemed a curious choice for a major offensive for it was of no great military importance, although it did lie at the crossroads of a minor road system on the Castillian plain between the Perales and Guadarrama Rivers. Yet, this little town had been the subject for weeks of political and military intrigue in which the Communists and the Russian military mission had played a major role.

In the spring of 1937, Komarm Gregori Kulik, head of the Russian military mission, had advocated an attack at Brunete because its defenses were weak, exposing the enemy salient, which pointed at the heart of Madrid. Without a major regrouping of the Nationalist army or air forces, the Republican Central Army could lop off the salient, destroying enemy forces and freeing the national road and rail system, and placing pressure on Nationalist troops at Casa del Campo. It was also aimed at capturing Navalcarnero, situated five miles farther on the main road to Badajoz and Seville. This would then enable the Republicans to seize the initiative and help relieve pressure on the hard-pressed northern front in Asturias.

Naturally the Communists, who dominated the Central Army, supported the plan, as did many non-Communists and regular officers. Opposition came principally from the General Staff Operations Section, under Colonel Segismundo Casado, who argued in favor of an attack at Merida to cut Nationalist Spain in two and then recapture the southern zone. In the end, Prime Minister Francisco Largo Caballero accepted the Brunete plan and preparations for the operation began in April. But by then the Republican's bridgehead on the Biscay coast, whose existence forced the Nationalists to fight a two-front war, came under heavy pressure and diversions had to be staged, drawing off resources for the Merida area. Simultaneously, there was a change in government, with Juan Negrin becoming the Prime Minister, and he not only supported Kulik's plan but also reformed Republican High Command making Colonel Vicente Rojo (later general), Chief of Staff of the Army, while Casado was transferred to an unimportant post.

The early summer saw both sides in the throes of reorganization; this delayed the Republican offensive. The character of each regime was reflected in this reorganization. The Nationalists developed their forces on pre-war lines while the Republicans were more adventurous. This is shown by their treatment of the political militias, made up of keen but untrained volunteers.

In the Nationalist Army these battalions, Monarchist Tercios and Falangist Banderas, were completely controlled by the army which provided experienced officers, who ensured a high level of efficiency. A fifth of the battalions were volunteer units, most of the remainder being conscripts raised in the frame-work of pre-war regiments, the shock troops being the Spanish Foreign Legion battalions composed mostly of Spaniards and Moorish troops and several thousand Portuguese volunteers along with several hundred other nationals.

On the other hand, most of the Republica Ejercito Popular's battalions were ex- militia units, increasingly supplemented by conscripts, whose commanders were chosen for their political abilities rather than military abilities. Some, however, displayed real talent especially among the Communists. Two well-known examples: a former quarryman, Enrique Lister, who proved to be an excellent divisional and corps commander and Juan Modesto, commander of the crack V Corps. Unfortunately most battalion and brigade commanders did not have the knowledge or initiative needed for their posts.

The Nationalist generals organized their formations on traditional lines with three to four independent battalions, each containing 500-600 men and tabors (Moroccan) regiments of 225 men, and a pair of support brigades with artillery, engineers and signallers, this was then formed into a division. The Ejercito Popular's battalions were similar to their opponents' but were radically organized into mixed brigades of four battalions, with artillery, anti-tank, engineers and support services. In total, these divisions held 3,700 men, but shortage of equipment meant that most were simple infantry brigades in which two or three formed a division.

A substantial foreign presence made up of volunteers was found on both sides. The Nationalists had the Italian Comando Truppe Volontarie, commanded by Colonel Mario Roatta, the short-lived Irish volunteer unit, the Blueshirts under ‘General’ Eaion O’Duffy, a Portuguese Brigade dubbed “Os Viriatos”, led by General Raùl Esteves, one of the founders of dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar’s revolution and the German Condor Legion, commanded by Major-General Hugo Sperrle. The Condor Legion consisted of an air wing, a tank battalion along with anti-tank batteries and artillery. The Condor Legion was the only foreign unit to participate at the battle of Brunete. Along with these foreigners, some right-wing Frenchmen volunteered for the Spanish Foreign Legion. These French volunteers had their own separate company commanded by a Colonel Courcier. To distinguish themselves from the rest of the Legionnaires, they were accorded the right to wear a thin tricolor ribbon across their shoulder strap. There were also contingents of other nations from South and Latin America, the Balkan States, exiled White Russia from the Russian Civil War, Anglo-Saxon and others, there could not have been more than 1,500 of these men at the most.

The Republicans had seven International Brigades: the 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 86th Mixed Brigade, 150th International Brigade. These units were a conglomerate of French, Belgian, Italians, Englishmen, Americans, Irishmen, Germans, Bulgarians, Albanians, Russians, Greeks, Poles, Hungarians, Austrians, Yugoslavs, Scandinavians, Swiss, Czechoslovak, South Americans, Mexicans and Canadians. Several other nationalities from the British Empire and the Commonwealth also volunteered, such the Australians, New Zealanders, Egyptians, Indians, Cyproits, and Chinese from Hong Kong. These men were all part of the British Battalion, while the American Lincoln Battalion consisted of Canadians and Cubans. The brigades that fought at Brunete were the German 11th International Brigade (dubbed Hans Beimler later it was renamed Thaelmann) under Colonel Richard Staimer, the Italian 12th Int. Bde. (Garibaldi) under Randolfo Pacciardi, the Franco-Belgian and Slav 13th Int. Bde. led by the Italian Communist ‘Krieger’ (real name Vincenzo Bianco) and the English- speaking 15th Int. Bde. was led by the Croat Communist Vladimir Copic.

By 1 July the Republican Ejercito Popular had gathered two army corps to be committed to the offensive at Brunete. The Army Corps, were the 5th Army Corps led by Juan Modesto Guilloto and the 18th Army Corps commanded by Lt.-Col. Enrique Jurado, together they had 60,000 men, 128 tanks, and 102 artillery pieces. The 5th Corps was comprised of the 11th Division commanded by Lister, the 46th Division under Valentin Gonzalez, known as 'El Campesino, and the 35th Division led by ‘General’ Karol Swierczewski, known as 'General Walter', a former Polish colonel of the Russian Army, and the 11th International Brigade. The 18th Army Corps consisted of the 34th Division under the command of Colonel Francisco Galan, the 10th Division under Major Jose Maria Enciso, and the 15th Division led by Colonel Janos Galicz, known as 'Gal', a former Hungarian officer of the Russian Army. The 15th Division included the 13th and 15th International Brigade, plus three artillery groups and an armored battalion. The reserve was made up of the 45th Division under ‘General’ Emilio Manfred Stern Kléber, a former Austrian Army captain, who fought in World War I and in the Russian Civil War on the Bolshevik side, and the 47th Division under the composer ---for films mostly--- Gustavo Duràn, including the 12th International Brigade. The reserve division had 20,000 men, 30 tanks, and 23 guns. Also allocated to the offensive was the 2nd Corps with a further 20,000, 47 tanks and 92 guns, it was to assemble south of Madrid. These units came under the direction of Gen. Jose Miaja Menant's Central Army. Thus the army numbered 85,000 men.

As for the extremely vulnerable Nationalist Army of 500,000, for most of its reserves were in the north, it left a perilously thin line of about 15 divisions, few static brigades, and some mobile columns to hold the line from the French border to the Straits of Gibraltar. When the battle of Brunete began, two army corps were threatened. They were the 7th Army Corps under General Jose Enrique Varela Iglesias, comprised of the 71st Division under Major Ricardo Serrador Santès and the 72nd Division near Madrid. The other was the neighboring 1st Army Corps, which was temporarily without a commander. The Corps consisting of the 11th Division under Colonel Josè Irutetagoyena Solchaga, the 12th Division led by Colonel Josè Asensio Cabanillas and the 14th Division commanded by Colonel Juan de Yagüe Blanco (during the battle he became 1st Army Corps acting commander). The 13th Division under Colonel Fernando Barron y Ortiz was held in reserve. The 1st Army Corps had to defend the Sierra de Guadarrama Mountains. The Nationalist Army of the Center, under General Andrés Saliquet Zumeta, was holding a 20 mile (30km) line but by the beginning of July two more divisions were added to the line.

Rojo proposed exploiting the enemy’s weakness by staging a deep-thrusting pincer attack to cut the Madrid-Navalcarnero road, Yague's umbilical cord, another attack would come from the east, while the main blow would come up through Brunete. This plan implied a mobile operation but Miaja's conservative staff produced a conventional set-piece approach with a series of short advances, which would engulf the Nationalist defenses and have the Republican troops cross the Guadarrama River, simultaneously cutting the road. Armored units were to be scattered among the divisions. Only the Russian T-26B-Is would be used, while the fast BT-5s were kept out of the battle and only to be used as reserve if needed.

The battlefield was and is an undulating plain dotted with olive groves and rises to a low, broad ridge between the shallow valleys of the Perales and the Guadarrama, the road to Brunete runs along the crest of this ridge. Large scale movement was restricted by numerous rivers and streams which had cut deep gullies in the plain, while to the east a range of hills, whose steep slopes command an excellent view of the road to Brunete, which suddenly rises to more than 700 meters. Across the southern slope runs the road to Boadilla, overlooking the Romanillos Ridge in the north and the Mosquito Ridge in the south. The villages covering the approaches to Brunete were then battalion strong-points, each with one or two 37 mm anti-tank guns, while companies held covering positions on the Llanos Ridge, Villafranca Castle, and Villafranca del Castillo where there was also an anti-tank battery. The only artillery support for the garrison, a 2,000 man regiment of Major Serrador's 71st Division, consisted of a field battery at Villafranca del Castillo and a couple of 105 mm howitzers.

During the middle of June troops assembled in camps north west of Madrid, a move Republican counter-intelligence cleverly explained as part of an offensive in the Sierra de Guadaramma, which would include a diversionary attack around Brunete. The Nationalists completely accepted this deception. Also reports from several Republican deserters about the real objective (Brunete) lead Varela to take precaution of alerting Serrador on 30 June and having two tabors of the 13th Division to be ordered to the area together with a battery of 155 mm guns on 4 July. There were no reinforcements for Yague’s units, which held the line. What made matters worse for the Nationalist was that they only had 35 aircraft from the Italian 23a Gruppo Caccia Terrestre and a Spanish reconnaissance squadron to give air support, compared to the 150 aircraft which supported Miaja's forces. Even though they were short on manpower, Varela believed he could hold out until reinforcements arrived from other areas of the country.

Even before the reinforcements had been ordered to Brunete the Republicans began assembling at Valdemorillo and on Monday, 5 July, at 10pm, they moved out: the 46th Division on the right, the 11th Division in the center, and the 34th on the left. During the night, troops crossed the plain while Lister's men passed between Quijorna and Villanueva de la Canada covered by the commandos of the Battalion Especial. By early dawn the assault troops were in position; the 101st Brigade at Llanos Ridge, the 10th Brigade north of Quijorna, the 3rd Brigade at Villanueva de la Canada and the 11th Division surrounded Brunete.

Any suspicious the defenders had of the incoming Republican offensive were brutally confirmed at 5:30am on 6 July, when the Republicans bombarded the Nationalist defenses for half an hour before the infantry stormed out of the mist. After the attack half a dozen members of the garrison were killed and 250 were captured. And when a mop-up operation was completed, half of the 100th Brigade went down to Sevilla la Neuva road, while the 9th Brigade advanced on Villaviciosa to seize a jump- off line for the 35th Division.

The Nationalists were taken by surprise; although they knew that an attack was likely the take place closer to Quijorna than at Brunete. The Nationalist commander also underestimated the scale of the attack, believing that the main offensive would occur in the Ebro River region in Aragon.

But for Lister, hopes of relief evaporated with the morning mist as the sounds of battle behind him became louder instead of fainter, for everywhere else the Republican attack had failed. The inexperienced attackers failed to completely surround and take their objectives, and gave time for the defenders of the 71st Division to recover from the bombardment and thus inflicting heavy casualties. Even the tanks failed to guarantee success, the 3rd Brigade lost 10 tanks without opening the road to Brunete, while El Campesino's infantry and half of Modesto's armor were also beaten off.

In an effort to keep up momentum, attempts were made to filter brigades between the strong points but this proved impossible and units became hopelessly mixed up because junior commanders displayed little initiative. In the confusion some of the Moorish tabors (Nationalist) were sent to reinforce the sector at Villanueva de la Canada.

By mid-morning situation reports trickling into Miaja's headquarters, near Vildemorillo, painted an alarming picture. The main force was still boxed-in by the defenders except for Lister who was three miles (5km) ahead running into resistance south of Brunete. At 11am Miaja tried to break the logjam by directing Lister to hold out until Villanueva de la Canada was captured, while Juardo sent Gal's 15th Division, reinforced by the 68th Brigade, past the village to the Romanillos Ridge. But fire from Villanueva de la Canada effectively blocked all major movements, then exaggerated air force reports of large troop movements from the west forced Miaja during the afternoon to change his plans. Fearing a counter-attack he ordered Modesto to prepare his men to meet it and at the same time stopped Juardo’s men from moving any further.

Villanueva de la Canada had no respite, however, elements of four divisions gathered around it but did not attack until dusk. Then the assailants skillfully infiltrated into the village although the defenders, Sevillian Falangists, held out until 0700 in the morning on Wednesday, losing 200 men but buying General Varela 24 hours of precious time.

But as the defenses were cleared, artillery shells from a battery of 155mm howitzers began falling around the village. The bombardment was coming from Quijorna whose garrison was reduced to 200 men, after they had repelled two attacks the previous day. Two battalions, later reinforced the garrison. They were the vanguards of a powerful force being sent by the Nationalist High Command, which reacted coolly and decisively in the crisis. Varela was given command of the sector and set up his headquarters at Sevilla la Neuva although initially he was a general without troops, receiving only six battalions and two batteries on the first day.

Fortunately for the Nationalists, the time gallantly gained by Major Serrador’s men of the 71st at Villanueva de la Canada was put to good use. Several units were transferred to the Brunete front from the north, including Colonels Camilo Alonso Vega’s and Juan Bautista Sànchez’s crack 4th and 5th Navarrese Brigades, while the tiny Nationalist Air Force and the Condor Legion’s air squadrons, being alerted for a move south. Nearer athand was a new division of African troops, the 150th under Colonel Eduardo Saenz de Buruaga, which was completing training near Merida was also sent to the front. But of all the units that were sent, Colonel Barron’s 13th Division arrived first with orders to hold the line as near Brunete as possible and not to surrender an inch of land. The real danger spot, however, was in the east where Colonel Carlos Asensio, with his headquarters at Boadilla, was ordered to create a line. His task force, bearing the title Guadarrama Provisional Division consisted of the Villanueva del Pardillo and Villafranca garrisons. It had the vital task of holding the heights east of the river and the important ‘shoulder’ position between Villanueva del Pardillo and Villafranca del Castillo, which restricted enemy movements and prevented them from flooding the Guadarrama Valley. The transfer of these reinforcements was carried out very quickly: a real triumph of planning.

Yagüe was to provide Asensio’s main source of manpower although on July 6 he was fully engaged in repelling the other side of the pincer attack, the brunt of the attack being borne by Colonel Jose Iruretgoyena’s 11th Division whose forward defenses were overrun in the early morning. Unfortunately the Republican attackers feared envelopment, and hesitated to move forward anymore than they already had, this gave time to the Nationalists to recover and drive them back. The II and III Corps tried to recreate their previous successes in the next few days but failed, and as their attacks grew weaker Yagüe was able to withdraw battalions and feed them to Asensio.

On July 7, the brunt of the fighting fell upon the 13th and 15th Int. Bde. They surrounded the town to the south straddling the Brunete road, but became pinned by enemy machine gunners in the church tower. Towards dusk the Nationalists launched sorties behind a human shield of civilians, it was beaten back at a high cost in men. In failing light the British, Lincoln, and Dimitrov Battalions and a Spanish brigade assaulted the village, wiping out the last resisting Nationalists. It was another day of crisis for the Nationalists, for the fall of Villaneuva de la Canada allowed Miaja’s men to continue their advance, but it was not to be. Artillery fire was already harassing the first convoys to Brunete, officers were still trying to sort out the chaos of the previous day and they were acutely aware of the presence of the enemy at Llanos Ridge and Quijorna barely 5km (3miles) from their supply line. Accordingly El Campesino was given all of the V Corps armored and heavy artillery to destroy both garrisons. The ridge fell easily but attacks on Quijorna, where the defenders had received another battalion, were again repelled, forcing Modesto to order the 35th Division, then to the north of Valdemorillo, to aid El Campesino instead of exploiting Lister’s success. But road congestion prevented these reinforcements getting into position until dark.

Quijorna was becoming an ulcer for the Republicans, and it was Lister who suffered most. For the forces drawn into El Campesino’s battle should have supported him, and without them Lister was unable to prevent the piecemeal assembly of Colonel Barron’s division. What skimpy resources were available were used to cover the XVIII Corps advance, six of Lister’s battalions tried to keep pace with Gal’s division by moving towards Villaviciosa without armor, for which none were available until July 10, they were easily stopped. As Modesto’s troops were pulled westwards, Jurado’s were pulled eastwards in an effort to widen the salient and seize the crucial heights, but Asensio had garrisoned the MochaRidge, which acted as a breakwater giving the defenders time to meet each blow in turn. Both Asensio and Varela were worried about the front north of the Aulencia. Varela wished to reinforce Villanueva de Pardillo to secure the area, but he could not because Yagüe had no troops to spare. Luckily for the Nationalists, the Villanueva garrison managed to repel an attack by half of the 10th Division, but the other half took the ridge, driving the Nationalists towards Villafranca del Castillo, even though Villafranca del Castillo held out for sometime.

Success on the Mocha Ridge allowed Gal to advance towards the Guadarrama River But he did not cross the river until evening, allowing Asensio to fortify the hill. With the crossing complete, Gal tried to seize several key ridges; the 13th Brigade, including the Chapiev (Balkan), Henri Vuillemin (French), Mickiewicz (Polish), and Louise Michel (Franco-Belgian) Battalions attacked the Romanillos Ridge, while the 15th Brigade with the British Battalion, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington (American), the 6eme Fevrier (French), and Dimitrov (Yugoslav) Battalions scaled the Mosquito Ridge. For the next two days repeated assaults were attempted, but the defenders were too firmly established and where gains were made they were quickly wiped out by aggressive counter-attacks. Without tank or air support Gal’s infantry were powerless although they succeeded in reaching Boadilla. So in the end, Gal pulled his men out from the area.

As for Asensio’s line, it was just holding on, but by midnight the pendulum began to swing in the Nationalist’s favor. The great gash in their front line was beginning to heal with the aid of 31 battalions and nine batteries that had arrived twenty-four hours after the first Republican attack. The 71st Division had a firm grip on Navalgamella and the 150th was digging in along the Perales to the south. Barron was strengthening his defenses between the rivers and only Asensio’s sector was giving cause for concern. The most serious handicap for the defenders was the lack of artillery, barely 40 guns, while the Republican Air Force of Polikarpov I-15 (Chatos) and I-16 (Mosca) controlled the skies. However, the Condor Legion’s Messerschmitt fighter Bf-109s appeared on the battlefront here for the first time. They had flown south from bases within striking distance of the battlefield, although it would be a day or so before they appeared in force and began to take control of the skies. Out-numbered by the Russian monoplanes, the Bf-109s seemed much more effective. The Heinkel He111 bomber was also as effective as it had been in northern Spain, particularly at night, though the Russian fighters were used mostly for daytime attacks, they were used here at night, for the first time.

On 8 July Miaja, perhaps sensing this was his last opportunity to break out, spurred his men into a new effort to take the last strong-points. El Campesino, egged on by being told that his troops were the best in the Republican Army and that his men should set the example, staged a pincer attack, which pushed the Nationalist out of Quijorna by the following morning. It was a hallow victory for El Campesino, his 46th Division was weakened and Modesto had wasted most of his ammunition and lost 14 tanks. Nevertheless, during the next few days El Campesino drove the Nationalists across the Perales, securing the river line near the village of Perales de Milla.

Meanwhile, Lister’s Division plugged the gap between the two corps, leaving the 15th Division unsupported as it tried to open the Boadilla road. The salient around Villafranca de Castillo, which Gal’s men had created and proved very vulnerable to fire from the flanks, broke up every attack. The Condor Legion twisted the knife with the aid of forward air controllers who brought down air strikes at short notice, yet the morale of the international volunteers was still high enough to repel a Nationalist attempt to roll up their line from the south.

North of the Aulencia every assault by the 10th Division on Villafranca del Castillo ran into withering fire, Asensio’s counter-attacks regained lost ground. The situation at Villafranca del Castillo was grave for the Nationalist because they still did not have enough men to hold the salient around the village, now under attack by the 16th Brigade, and the corridor linking it to their main positions was slowly contracting.

The very next day, Friday, Villanueva del Pardillo and the surviving 250 men of its garrison were finally isolated and captured by the 12th International Brigade, this was the only Republican success of the day, for exhaustion of men and supplies meant that the offensive was running out of steam. Emphasis was now put on securing, rather than gaining ground. Significantly the 35th Division under General “Walter” (the future Polish Defense Minister Karol Swierczewski) was used to plug the gap between Lister and El Campesino instead of driving southeast as had been planned. While in the east, Miaja had committed half of his reserves to Kleber’s 45th Division to back up the 12th Int. Bde. at Villanueva del Pardillo instead of reinforcing Gal’s hard pressed troops at Boadilla. But Asensio’s men held Boadilla, which was being constantly attacked.

Miaja was forced into this course of action by the deteriorating supply situation and the ever-increasing strength of the Nationalists. The task of providing six divisions with food, water, ammunition over a single, narrow road would have been formidable for experienced officers, but for the half-trained staff of the Ejercito Popular it was almost impossible and forward units were receiving only a fraction of their requirements. In contrast, the Nationalist supply situation was improving daily. Varela now had 50 battalions including the crack 4th (under Colonel Camilo Alonso Vega), and 5th (under Colonel Juan Bautista Sanchez) Navarrese Brigades and elements of the 108th Division, the latter building a second defensive line whose existence doomed any faint hopes Rojo or Miaja might have had. Worse still was the appearance of the Nationalist Air Force now making an all-out effort to secure air superiority.

From Saturday onwards Asensio’s Division, now holding an S-shape line, bore the brunt of Miaja’s attack on two fronts. The main effort came from the Aulencia where Jurado was making a determined effort to consolidate his position. The 45th entered Villanueva del Pardillo during the evening, after that, the 10th tightened its grip on the Mocha Ridge, forcing the Villafranca Castle garrison to retreat to the Romanillos Ridge. Asensio in turn tried to retake Villanueva del Pardillo but every effort was crushed by artillery fire and Republican air attacks. By dusk another crisis approached Asensio’s exhausted men, for XVIII Corps under Jurado, were preparing to make one last push to capture Villafranca del Castillo and expand the Guadarrama bridgehead, but at that moment Jurado fell sick and had to be relieved.

Colonel Segismundo Casado Lopez replaced Jurado, but when he arrived at his new headquarters he learned that his men were exhausted and morale was very low, this being reflected in the loud grumbling about the political background of the operation. Two brigades were reported completely demoralized and the whole corps had only 14 operational guns. Casado tried to postpone the attack but was overruled by Miaja. The attack on Sunday started well, with Kleber and the 2nd Brigade isolating Villafranca del Castillo, but it could not last. The pressure on Asensio was so serious that Varela was forced to send in the 5th Navarrese Brigade, which he had been saving for a counter-offensive. These troops turned the tide pushing Enciso’s 10th Division off the Mocha Ridge and across the Guadarrama River. Further south Gal’s International Brigades ran into a Nationalist attack aimed at wiping out the bridgehead, both sides fought to a standstill.

Less than a week later after it had begun, the great venture to turn the tide of the war had disintegrated into a battle of attrition, with artillery liberally used for minor actions and every yard contested.

The Nationalist Air Force had now established firm control of the air and harassed traffic along the Brunete road day and night. Republican morale began declining even in the international brigades, with near-mutiny and panic in the 15th Brigade, while many men of the 13th Brigade streamed to the rear, its brigade commander, Vincenzo Bianco, tried without success to force them back at gun point. This action almost cost him his life, for he shot dead one of his men who refused to fight. The Brigade thereafter had to be thoroughly reorganized and ‘reeducated’. The British Battalion, which had been reduced to about 80 men, grumbled about returning to the battle and the International Brigades’ cavalry commander, deserted in the face of the enemy and drove to the French frontier. Returning later to Madrid, he was arrested and shot for cowardice. Fearing he would be made a scapegoat for XVIII Corps’ failure, Casado reported “sick”, being replaced by Lt.-Col. Fernandez Heredia.

Reluctantly Miaja realized his army had shot its bolt, and on Thursday, July 15, he stopped the offensive, a decision which brought welcome relief to Asensio’s hard pressed men, many of whom had been fighting almost continuously for 10 days. Casualties had been heavy and the lull gave Asensio the opportunity to withdraw four battalions which were little more than shadows, while seven batteries, which were down to a single gun, were brought up to strength.

But Varela realized he had a superb opportunity to inflict a crushing blow on the Republican’s best troops. For some time he had wanted to stage a counter-offensive, and as the pressure eased he began preparations to iron out the salient, the battle of attrition continuing to weaken the enemy. His plan was simple and direct: Barron would advance north towards Brunete to pin down the enemy, while a pincer movement from the east, by Asensio and the 5th Navarrese Brigade, and the west, by Saenz de Buruaga and the 4th Navarrese Brigade, would cut the Valdemorillo-Brunete road north of Villaneuva de la Canada. There was an abundance of artillery, 44 batteries, and Varela urged his subordinates to be liberal with shells and frugal with lives. The general shortage of armor in the Nationalist Army meant Varela had only the Condor Legion’s tank battalion of 45 Pzkpfw Is, which he intended to disperse, but its commander, Oberst Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, insisted on keeping the unit intact, and eventually Varela attached it to Barron.

Varela’s plan had one major flaw, he set the date for the attack as 18 July, the anniversary of the army coup which began the civil war. The significance date was not lost on the Republicans, who where ready when Varela’s bombardment began.

Everywhere the Nationalists ran into heavy artillery fire, which inflicted heavy losses. Asensio had a third of Varela’s guns but could not break through the 45th, 10th, and 15th Divisions. The bombardment on Barron’s right failed and the German tanks, armed with only machineguns, did not provide adequate fire support. The attack in the center was more successful, the troops reaching Brunete four times, but the 11th and 35th Divisions drove them out each time. In the west, the inexperienced Africans and veteran Navarrese had no luck against the 35th and 46th Divisions and paid a high price for a tiny bridgehead on the Perales, 1,000 men were lost.

Thwarted in his grand design, Varela was still determined to regain Brunete and kept up the pressure, especially in the east. On Monday, the 5th Navarrese Brigade struck southwest from the Mocha Ridge to outflank the 34th and 15th Divisions. The next day Asensio hit the Guadarrama bridgehead, this attack plus the capture of Villafranca Castle by the Navarrese, forced the 15th Division to evacuate the bridgehead and to be placed in reserve.

Modesto’s Corps was also under pressure with the 11th bearing the brunt of the fighting. By Tuesday, 20 July, Lister had only half his men left and wanted relief, but Rojo revealed a plan for a counter-attack by the 14th Division and successfully begged Lister to hold on a bit longer.

However, by Saturday, 24 July, Barron supported by von Thoma’s tanks and a Navarrese regiment renewed his attack with a simple pincer movement aimed at grabbing Brunete. Lister’s men resisted stubbornly, but they were too few and Barron managed to cut the Brunete-Boadilla road and enter Brunete. Fortunately for the Republicans, El Campesino was able to hold on around Quijorna, allowing Lister, finally reinforced by the 108th Brigade, part of the 16th Brigade and a tank company, to open the road to the north. But he was unable to hold the town, which fell at midday. The 11th Division retreated into the town’s cemetery where Lister had learned that a counter-attack would take place the next day.

Everything depended on the 14th Division, an Anarchist unit under Cipriano Mera would lead the counter-attack, but somehow Barron learned of the plan, and as the Anarchists moved out of an olive grove north of Brunete on Sunday morning they were mercilessly bombed and shelled and as a result they fled. Barron’s planes and artillery then thoroughly worked over the cemetery for about an hour before a volunteer battalion and a Moorish tabor drove out Lister’s men. By 25 July the Nationalist counter-offensive had spent itself, Varela still hoped to exploit this earlier success but was restrained by Franco who was anxious to renew the northern campaign. At this time both sides began to dig in and the battle line began to stabilize roughly from Quijorna in the west to just north of Brunete and on to Villanueva del Castillo and near Villanueva del Pardillo in the north. The Republicans had gained ground to a depth of four miles on a 10-mile front, but failed to achieve their objectives. The Nationalists counter-attack won back about six miles of territory. Both sides claimed a victory.

The Republic’s attempt to wrest the initiative had been soundly beaten, despite the extremely favorable conditions, at the cost of 25,000 men, 7,000 in Lister’s Division alone, and irreplaceable equipment was squandered, 30 tanks, 67 machineguns, and 2,500 rifles were captured around Brunete. True the Republicans had inflicted 13,000 casualties on the Nationalists but the fact was the high investment in men and material that produced a derisory gain in ground and had actually weakened the Republican cause.

When the Ejercito Popular recovered, it belatedly tried to aid the northern states, but the chance to exploit the Nationalist military incapacities had passed and soon these states fell. Their arms then helped to outfit the growing Nationalist Army, so that by the end of 1937 Franco was in a position to finish the war, although the Republican’s death agony was to last another 16 months.

The International Brigades would not see the end of the Republic, but for them too Brunete was a watershed. Their reputation for fearlessness and reliability was tarnished, and the blood of hundreds of volunteers could not remove the stain. Indeed it was a miracle the international volunteers had retained their elan for so long, few were professional soldiers and most had to learn their craft on the battlefield, which they frequently paid a terrible penalty for their innocence. The losses of the International Brigades were heavy at Brunete, they were tested once too often and cracked, the 15th Brigade suffered 1,900 casualties (a third were Americans). The Lincoln and Washington Battalions lost so many men that they had to be merged. Among the Americans who fell was Captain Oliver Law, a six year army veteran of the U.S. Army and the Negro commander of the Lincoln Battalion. The 15th also lost Major George Nathan, commander of the British Battalion. While the 11th lost 1,025 out of 3,555. From this point on the Spaniards began dominating the International Brigades, which were usually given less arduous tasks.

Brunete had the effect of checking the development of large mechanized formations throughout Europe. These had been slowly evolving, but the apparent lessons learned in this battle, and at Guadalajara four months earlier, was that anti-tank defenses could stop armored forces of any size. Also, military theorists were later at pains to point out the tactical significance of the battle of Brunete for the use of the tank. The fact that the Republican armor was unsuccessful was because they were used spread out in support of the infantry, in accordance to French tactics of the time. In fact, the Republic always used their armored dispersed, as well as their artillery and aircraft. This tactic was not appreciated, with the result that the creation of mechanized formations was hindered, Later, Kulik tried to persuade Stalin to disband the Motor- Mechanized Corps of the Red Army. As for Varela, on the insistence of the German tank commander, von Thoma, concentrated his tanks to find a tactical thrust-point (Schwerpunkt), and so gained the day. Only the Germans realized how successful Republican armor could had been if they where used en masse, before and after Brunete, and their panzer divisions were to profit from these lessons.

Neither side conducted itself well; 300 men from El Campesino’s column were surrounded and taken prisoner. They were later found dead, with their legs cut off. El Campesino shortly after captured a tabor of 400 Moroccans, they were all shot. These are just two examples of the many atrocities that occurred after the battle and throughout the war. Manuel Azana y Dias, President of the Republic, on hearing the news of these atrocities asked himself,” Is this the birth of a new Spain?”. On the contrary the old Spain, with all its troubles, was preferable.

Indeed the Republic lost Brunete because it adopted the traditional First World War approach, with its built-in obsessions with flank security, which consequently led to the failure to exploit Lister’s success. This mistake handed the initiative to the enemy, whose leaders were of a higher standard and where able to turn the tables once they had recovered from their surprise. Three weeks later, the nationalist renewed their offensive in the north. The offensive against Santander gathered way on 14 August only to end 12 days later, another Republican defeat. This was the beginning of the end of the Spanish Republic.

Recommended Books:

George Hills, The Battle for Madrid, 1977
Jose Manuel Martinez Bande, La ofensiva sobre Segovia y la batalla de Brunete, 1972
Manuel Aznar, Historia Militar de la Guerra de Espana, 3 vols.,1969.


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