|Siege of Madrid|
|Part of the Spanish Civil War|
Nationalist soldiers raiding a suburb, March 1937
Legionary Air Force
|Commanders and leaders|
José María Galán
Hans Beimler †
José B. Durruti †
José Enrique Varela
José Moscardó Ituarte
Carlos Asensio Cabanillas
Rolando de Tella
Francisco Afan Delgado
|Casualties and losses|
|~5,000 dead or wounded (including civilians)||~5,000 dead or wounded|
|Casualties refer to the November 1936 battle only|
The Siege of Madrid was a two and a half year siege of the Spanish capital city of Madrid, during the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939. The city, besieged from October 1936, eventually fell to the Francoist armies on 28 March 1939. Madrid was held by various forces loyal to the Spanish Republic and was besieged and subject to aerial bombardment by the rebel faction under General Francisco Franco. The Battle of Madrid in November 1936 saw the most intense fighting in and around the city when the Nationalists made their most determined attempt to take the Republican capital.
The highest military awards of the Spanish Republic, the Laureate Plate of Madrid (Spanish: Placa Laureada de Madrid) and the Madrid Distinction (Spanish: Distintivo de Madrid), established by the Republican government in order to reward courage, were named after the capital of Spain owing to the city symbolizing valour and Antifascist resistance during the long siege throughout the Civil War.
In Madrid, the Republican government was unsure of what to do. It wanted to put down the coup, but was unsure if it could trust the armed forces and did not want to arm the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) and Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT) trade unions and potentially accelerate the ongoing Spanish revolution. On 18 July, the government sent units of the Guardia Civil to Seville to put down the rebellion there. However, on reaching the city the guardias defected to the insurgents. On 19 July Santiago Casares Quiroga resigned as Prime Minister, to be succeeded by Diego Martinez Barrio. He tried to arrange a truce with the insurgent general Emilio Mola by telephone, but Mola refused the offer and Martinez Barrio was ousted as Prime Minister by José Giral. Giral agreed to arm the trade unionists in defence of the Republic, and had 60,000 rifles delivered to the CNT and UGT headquarters, although only 5,000 were in working order. In a radio broadcast on the 18th, the communist leader Dolores Ibarruri coined the famous slogan ¡No pasarán! ("They shall not pass"), urging resistance against the coup. The slogan was to become synonymous with the defence of Madrid and the Republican cause in general.
At the same time, General Joaquín Fanjul, commander of the military garrison based in Montaña barracks in Madrid, was preparing to launch the military rebellion in the city. However, when he tried to march out of the barracks, his 2,500 troops were forced back inside the compound by hostile crowds and armed trade unionists. On the 20th, the barracks was stormed by a mixture of workers and Guardias de Asalto ("assault guards", an urban police force) loyal to the government, as well as five battalions of the Communist-led Antifascist Worker and Peasant Militias (MAOC) —one of these battalions became the famous "Fifth Regiment"— totaling about 10,000 fighters. The fighting was chaotic, and on several occasions some soldiers within the barracks indicated their willingness to surrender, only for other troops to keep firing at the attackers, killing those who had broken cover to take them prisoner.
Eventually the barracks fell when the Guardias de Asalto brought up a 75 mm field gun to bombard the complex and its gate was opened by a sapper sergeant sympathetic to the Republican side. The sergeant was killed by one of his officers, but his action allowed the Republicans to breach the walls. A number of soldiers were massacred by the crowd, enraged by the apparent false surrenders, after the fall of the barracks.
Thereafter and for the remainder of the war, Madrid was held by the Republicans. However, its population contained a significant number of right-wing sympathisers. Over 20,000 right-wingers sought refuge in foreign embassies in the city. The weeks that followed the July uprising, saw a number of fascists, or fascist sympathisers (as the left termed them) being killed in Madrid by Republicans. For example, on 23 August 70 prisoners from the Modelo Prison in the city were massacred in revenge for the Nationalist killing of over 1,500 Republicans after the storming of Badajoz.
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The initial strategy of the military plot had been to assume power all over the country in the manner of a Pronunciamiento (military coup) of the 19th century. However, the resistance to the coup by Republicans meant that instead of this, Franco and his allies would have to conquer the country by military force if they wanted to seize power. Franco himself had landed in Algeciras in southern Spain with Moroccan troops from the Spanish Army of Africa. Mola, who was in command of the colonial troops as well as the Spanish Foreign Legion and Carlist and Falangist militia, raised troops in the north. Together, they planned a "Drive on Madrid" to take the Spanish capital, Franco advancing from Badajoz, which he took in August and Mola from Burgos. Franco's veteran colonial troops, or regulares, under General Yague, along with air cover supplied by Nazi Germany, routed the Republican militias in their path. Yague argued for a rapid advance on Madrid, but Franco overruled him in favour of relieving the Nationalist troops besieged in Toledo. This diversion held up their attack on Madrid by up to a month — giving the Republicans time to prepare its defence.
Meanwhile, in the city, the Republican government had reformed under the leadership of socialist leader Francisco Largo Caballero. Caballero's government included six Socialist party ministers, two Communists, two from the Republican Left party, one from the Catalan Left party, one Basque Nationalist Party and one Republican Union minister. Although the communists were a minority in the government, they gained in influence through their access to arms from the USSR and foreign volunteers in the International Brigades. The Republican military commander in Madrid was nominally a Spanish general, Jose Miaja, but Soviet military personnel were perhaps more important. General Goriev was their overall commander. General Smushkevic controlled the air forces sent from the USSR and General Dmitry Pavlov commanded their armoured forces. Most of the Republican defenders of Madrid (c.90%) were militias, raised by left-wing political parties or trade unions, who elected their own leaders. The Republican command had relatively little control over these units in the early phase of the Civil War.
On the other side, both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy supplied Franco with air cover and armoured units for his assault on Madrid, while the Luftwaffe units in Spain, the Condor Legion, were commanded independently of Franco's officers. The Nationalists reached Madrid in early November 1936, approaching it from the north along the Corunna Road and west Extremadura road. On 29 October, a Republican counterattack by the 5th (communist) regiment under Enrique Líster was beaten off at Parla. On 2 November, Brunete fell to the nationalists, leaving their troops at the western suburb of Madrid. Mola famously remarked to an English journalist that he would take Madrid with his four columns, of regular and Moroccan troops from southwest in Spain, outside the city and his "Fifth column" - composed of right wing sympathisers within it. The term "fifth column" became a synonym for spies or traitors on the Republican side and paranoia regarding them led to massacre of Nationalist prisoners in Madrid during the ensuing battle. The government including Caballero expected Madrid to fall and so made a pre-planned move from Madrid on 6 November to Valencia. General Miaja and the political leaders who remained formed the Junta de Defensa de Madrid (Committee for the Defence of Madrid) to organise the republican defenders.
However, the Nationalists' attempt to capture Madrid had some serious tactical drawbacks. For one thing, their troops were outnumbered over two to one by the defenders (although the Nationalists were far better trained and equipped). Another disadvantage was their inability to surround Madrid and to cut if off from outside help.
The Republicans had a geographical advantage in defending Madrid: the River Manzanares separated the Nationalists from the city centre, representing a formidable physical obstacle. Mola planned his assault on Madrid for 8 November 1936. He planned to attack through the Casa de Campo park (on a front of only 1 km (0.62 mi) wide) to try to avoid street fighting, as the park was open country and lay just across the river from the city centre. Mola's initial intention was to take the University City, just north of the city centre thus establishing a bridgehead across the Manzanares. He also launched a diversionary attack towards the working class suburb of Carabanchel to the southwest of the city centre. However, on 7 November, the Republicans had captured plans of the attack on the body of an Italian officer found in a destroyed tank by several militia units and therefore were able to concentrate their troops in the Casa de Campo to meet the main attack.
Due to its strategic location over the Manzanares River, the Bridge of the French was of a crucial importance. Colonel Romero commanded Republican forces there, effectively repelling attempts to cross it and gain access to Madrid's city center.
Mola attacked on 8 November with 20,000 troops, mostly Moroccan regulares, supported by Italian light armour and German Panzer I tanks under German officer Wilhelm Von Thoma. The German Condor Legion also provided air support which took a heavy toll on the buildings of the quarter.
The Republicans had deployed 12,000 troops in Carabanchel and 30,000 more to meet the main assault at the Casa de Campo. Despite their superiority in numbers, they were very badly equipped, mostly having only small arms, with reputedly only ten rounds for each rifle. In addition, most of them had never been trained in the use of weapons, let alone experienced combat before. Nevertheless, they held off the Nationalist onslaught at Casa de Campo. Some regulares eventually broke through and made an initial crossing over the Manzanares towards the Modelo Prison, the target of the offensive, but the attack stalled at the western fringe of the city. The Republican General Miaja himself reputedly raced to the ruined buildings where the Republican troops were starting to rout, and, pistol in hand, called upon the retreating troops to rally to him and die in the trenches with him rather than flee as cowards.
Throughout the day, the city radio called upon the city's citizens to mobilise and support the front, with the rally cry, "¡No pasarán!" ('They shall not pass!').
Late on 8 November, the first International Brigade, the XI numbering 1,900 men, arrived at the front, marching through the Gran Via in the city centre. Although numerically small and with their training unfinished, having been hurried to the front as a relief force, their arrival was a major morale boost for the defenders of Madrid. The foreign troops, while actually a mixture of volunteers from Germany, France, Britain and various other nations - including Winston Churchill's nephew, Esmond Romilly - were greeted with cries of vivan los rusos ("long live the Russians") by madrileños – being mistaken for Soviet infantry.
On 9 November, the Nationalists switched the focus of their offensive to the Carabanchel suburb, but this heavily built up urban area proved a very difficult obstacle. The colonial Moroccan troops were pinned down in house-to-house fighting (in which they had little previous experience, their greatest strength being in open-country warfare) and took heavy casualties at the hands of militiamen who knew the urban terrain very well.
In the evening of 9 November, General Kléber launched an assault of the XI International Brigade on the Nationalist positions in the Casa de Campo, which lasted for the whole night and part of the next morning. At the end of the fight, the Nationalist troops had been forced to retreat, abandoning all hopes of a direct assault on Madrid through the Casa de Campo, while the XIth Brigade had lost a third of its men. Meanwhile, Republican troops counterattacked all along the front in Madrid, on 9, 10 and 17 November, driving the Nationalists back at some places, but taking heavy casualties in the process.
On 11 November, an infamous massacre occurred on the Republican side, when 1,029 Nationalist prisoners held in the Model Prison were taken out and killed in the Jarama valley by the Republican 5th regiment as potential "Fifth Columnists". It has been alleged that the killings were ordered by communist leader Santiago Carrillo but this has never been proved. According to Antony Beevor, the order for the massacre came from either José Cazorla Maure, Carrillo's deputy, or from the Soviet advisor, Mikhail Koltsov. The atrocity was condemned by the anarchist director of prisoners, Melchor Rodriguez.
On the 12th, the newly arrived XII International Brigade, under General Mate "Lukacs" Zalka (German, Scandinavian, French, Belgian and Italian troops), launched an attack on Nationalist positions on the Cerro de los Ángeles hill, south of the city, to prevent the cutting off of the Valencia road. The attack collapsed due to language and communication problems and insufficient artillery support. However the road to Valencia remained open.
On the 19th the Nationalists made their final frontal assault and under cover of a heavy artillery bombardment, Moroccan and Foreign Legion troops fought their way into the University City quarter of Madrid. While their advance was checked, they established a bridgehead over the river Manzanares. Bitter street fighting ensued. Durruti, the anarchist leader, was killed on the 19th, reportedly by the accidental discharge of one of his own men's weapons. Despite fierce counterattacks by the XI International Brigade and Spanish Republican units, the Nationalists kept their toehold in the University City and by the end of the battle were in possession of three quarters of the complex. However, their attempt to storm Madrid had failed, in the face of unexpectedly stiff Republican resistance. Franco stopped further infantry assaults, as he could not risk losing any more of his best regulares and legionnaire troops.
Having failed to take Madrid by assault, Franco ordered the aerial bombardment of the city's residential areas, with the exception of the upper class Salamanca district (which was assumed to contain many Nationalist supporters) with the intention of terrifying the civilian population into surrender. Franco is quoted as saying, "I will destroy Madrid rather than leave it to the Marxists". German bombers pounded the rest of the city from 19 to 23 November.
Arguably, this tactic of Franco's was counter-productive, as the Republican population in Madrid were not cowed into surrender and the aerial bombardment of civilians (one of the first in the history of warfare) was heavily criticized by foreign journalists, among them Ernest Hemingway. The casualties from the aerial bombardment seem to have been relatively low however. There is no definitive figure for the civilian casualties it caused, however according to Hugh Thomas, the death toll was about 2000. From early 1937 on, fighter resistance and Republican pilot experience had also grown too strong for further bombardments to occur during daylight hours, further limiting their effectiveness.
The battle petered out in December, with both sides exhausted. A front line stabilised in the city, running from the Nationalist salient over the river Manzanares, in the University City, through the Casa de Campo park, and through the streets of the Carabanchel area. The population of Madrid was subjected to a sporadic artillery and aerial bombardment, and food became short as the winter went on. The UGT union transferred some vital industries to metro tunnels under the city, which were not in use. Franco's final action of 1936 was to attempt to cut off the road to Corunna, northeast of Madrid, as the first step towards surrounding the Spanish capital. The resulting Battle of the Corunna Road also resulted in a stalemate.
The casualties inflicted in the Battle of Madrid were never accurately counted, but British historian Hugh Thomas has estimated that they came to about 10,000 between the two sides and civilian population.
After the Battle of Madrid, the Republican government tried to re-organise its armed forces from a collection of militias into a regular army, the People's Republican Army. This was achieved by integrating the militias into the structures of the elements of the pre-war army which had sided with the Republic. While in theory this reduced the power of political parties relative to the government, in practice it increased the influence of the Communist Party, who led the implementation of this policy through the loyal, disciplined and militarized units of its Antifascist Worker and Peasant Militias (MAOC). Also close to the Communist Party were the Soviet arms providers and foreign volunteers and advisers (both groups providing much of the practical military experience on the Republican side). The party, therefore, had a disproportionate influence in the appointment of military commanders and the setting of military policy.
The year 1937 saw two major battles in the immediate area around Madrid, the Battle of Jarama (January to February) and the Battle of Brunete in July. In addition, two other battles were fought further afield as part of the Nationalist's campaign to take the capital: in March, at Guadalajara and at the end of December at Teruel, both north east of Madrid.
In the first of these battles, in early 1937 Franco tried to cross the river Jarama to cut off the road between Madrid and Valencia, where the Republicans had moved their government. The battle's results were inconclusive. Franco's troops managed to get onto the east bank of the Jarama but failed to sever communications between Madrid and Valencia. Casualties on both sides were heavy, estimates of their losses ranging from 6,000 to 20,000 on each side.
In March, the Battle of Guadalajara was fought about 60 km to the north east of Madrid, when Republican troops routed an attempt by Italian troops to cross the Jarama, encircle Madrid's defences and launch an assault on the city. With around a third of the city of Madrid heavily damaged by that time, morale was still holding up strongly amongst the populace, and Madrilenes prided themselves of doing "business as usual" under fire.
In May, Republican forces under Polish communist officer Karol Świerczewski tried to break out of Madrid in an armoured assault, but were beaten back. A far more ambitious northern offensive was launched by the Republicans in July, with the intention of encircling the Nationalists. However, the ensuing Battle of Brunete again developed into a bloody stalemate. The initial Republican attack took Brunete and pushed back the Nationalist front some 12 kilometres, but determined Nationalist counterattacks re-took this territory by the end of the battle. In this case, Republican losses were significantly higher than those of the Nationalists.
In late 1937, the Nationalists took much of northern Spain - the country's industrial heartland - and with it many arms factories that had sustained the Republican war effort up to that point. At the very end of the year, the Republican commander of the IV Corps, Cipriano Mera intercepted Nationalist plans for a fresh assault on Madrid from the direction of Zaragoza. General Vicente Rojo launched a pre-emptive offensive of his own, with over 100,000 men on 15 December and took the town of Teruel. Rojo's offensive put paid to Franco's proposed assault on Madrid, but led to one of the bloodiest battles of the war, with over 100,000 casualties on both sides.
In 1938, the siege of Madrid tightened and its population suffered increasingly from a lack of food, warm clothes and arms and ammunition. However Franco by this point had given up on the idea of another frontal assault on the city and instead was happy to gradually constrict the siege, while keeping up the bombardment of the city.
By the spring of 1939, after the collapse of the Republican forces on other fronts, it was clear that the Republican cause in Madrid was doomed. This created a bitter division within Republican ranks. On one side was the prime minister Juan Negrín, some other government ministers and the Communist Party, who wanted to fight to the end. They were opposed by the Republican Colonel Segismundo Casado and others, who wanted to negotiate the surrender of Madrid to spare Republican supporters the worst of the Nationalist retribution. On 5 March, Casado's men arrested communist officers in Madrid, stripped them of their powers, and deposed Negrín, establishing the National Defence Council (Consejo Nacional de Defensa) in order to negotiate a peace deal with Franco. On the 6th, the Communist leaders and the socialist Prime Minister Negrín fled Spain from Elda, nevertheless the communist troops settled around Madrid rejected the authority of the Council and entered in Madrid on the 7th. There were some days of fighting in the streets between communist and non-communist troops, ending with the defeat of the communists and the execution of their leader Luis Barceló.
This left Casado free to try to negotiate surrender terms with Franco. However, the Nationalist leader insisted that unconditional surrender was all that he would accept. On 26 March, Franco ordered a general advance into Madrid and on the 27th, the Republican front collapsed – many of their troops surrendered or simply threw away their weapons and started for home. On 28 March 1939, Madrid finally fell to Franco's forces. In spite of Casado's efforts at negotiation, many of the Republican defenders of Madrid were among the up to 200,000 people who were executed or died during imprisonment by Franco's regime between 1939 and 1943.
The Siege of Madrid became an almost mythical subject in the popular imagination during the Spanish Civil War. The besieged capital of Spain, with the enemy so close, yet unable to take the city for years on end, became the subject of songs, such as Los Emboscados — a version of Si me quieres escribir, and poems like this one by renowned poet Rafael Alberti, Madrid, corazón de España, which begins thus: