- Battle of Teruel
Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Teruel
caption=Spain in 1937 just before the Battle of Teruel. Note the Teruel
salientsouth of Saragossa. Please click on the map to get a larger image. Blue is Nationalist Spain and Red is Republican Spain.
Spanish Civil War
Spanish Civil War
December 15, 1937– February 22, 1938
Teruel, Aragon, Spain
result=Decisive Nationalist victory [Hugh Purcell, "The Spanish Civil War" (part of the Documentary History Series) (1973), p. 95.]
combatant1=flagicon|Spain|1931 Spanish Republic
combatant2=flagicon|Spain|1939 Nationalist Spain
Juan Hernández Saravia Enrique Fernández Heredia Juan Ibarrola Enrique Lister El Campesino Karol Świerczewski
Francisco Franco Antonio Aranda José Enrique Varela Juan Yagüe
Domingo Rey d'Harcourt
The Battle of Teruel was fought in and around the city of
Teruelduring the Spanish Civil Warin December 1937-February 1938. The combatants fought the battle during the worst Spanish winter in twenty years.Hugh Purcell, p. 95.] It was one of the bloodier actions of the war. The city changed hands several times, first falling to the Republicans and eventually being re-taken by the Nationalists. In the course of the fighting, Teruel was subjected to heavy artilleryand aerial bombardment. The two sides suffered over 140,000 casualtiesbetween them in the two month battle. It became one of the decisive battles of the war. Franco's exploitation of his superiority in men and material in regaining Teruel made it the military turning point of the war. [Paul Preston, "The Spanish Civil War, an Illustrated Chronicle 1936-39" (New York, 1986) p. 149.]
The Republic's decision to move against Teruel was motivated by several strategic priorities. Republican military leaders thought that Teruel was not strongly held and sought to regain the initiative through its capture. By 1937, the Teruel
salientwas similar to the fingernail on a fat finger of Nationalist territory inserted into Republican Spain, and its capture would shorten the lines of communication between central Republican Spain and Valencia on the coast. [Peter Wyden, "The Passionate War" (1983), p. 421 ] Teruel was surrounded on three sides by Republican Spain. In addition, Teruel was a symbol of Nationalist power on the AragonFront. [ Hugh Thomas, "The Spanish Civil War" (1961), p. 504 ] Indalecio Prieto, Republican Minister of War, wanted a spectacular victory to reflect well on his tenure in the war department and to show how the army could function under his reorganization. Hugh Thomas, p. 504 ] A victory at Teruel would also aid the governmentof Prime Minister Juan Negrínin its quest to take over the industries of Catalonia. Finally, Republican intelligence learned that Franco intended to start a major offensive against Madridin the Guadalajara sector on December 18. The Republic wanted to divert the Nationalists away from the Madrid area. The Republic therefore started this battle on December 15.
Teruel, located in Lower
Aragon, population, 20,000Hugh Thomas, p. 505 ] was the bleak walled capital of a poor province, renowned for the glum legend of the Lovers of Teruel. Its had been fortified in 1170 to buffer the warring Moorish and Christian states; in 1937 it served essentially the same purpose, separating the Republicans in Valencia from the Nationalists in Zaragoza. [Michener, 697] Because of its elevation in the mountains (3,050 feet high),Peter Wyden, p. 421 ] it usually had the lowest annual winter temperature in Spain. The town was Spain's remotest provincial capital, a gloomy, walled and mountain-ringed natural fortress. The town itself sits on a high knoll above the confluence of the Turia and Alfambra rivers. It is surrounded by a geological potpourri of scragged gorges, tooth-shaped peaks, and twisted ridge fingers. West of the town, however, the Calatayud highway runs up a slight gradient to a pancake-flat plain around the village of Concud, about three miles away. [Cecil Eby, "Between the Bullet and the Lie, American Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War", (1969), p. 197] A key position was the ridge to the west of the town known as "La Muela de Teruel"—Teruel's Tooth.Teruel's defensive position was much improved by previously prepared trenches and wire because of its position protruding into Republican territory.http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batalla_de_Teruel]
The Republican Army was under the command of
Juan Hernández Saraviawho had reorganized that army almost from scratch. [ Hugh Thomas, "The Spanish Civil War" (1986), p. 788 ] Among the commanders under his command was the trustworthy and able Communist commander, Enrique Lister. Lister's division was chosen to lead the first attack. [Hugh Thomas (1961), p. 505 ] The coup de mainagainst Teruel would be an all Spanish operation without the assistance of the International Brigades. The Republican Army of the Levante was to conduct the main part of the assault supported by the Army of the East. The total Republican force had 100,000 men. [ Hugh Thomas, (1961) p. 504 ]
Colonel Domingo Rey d'Harcourt was the Nationalist commander at Teruel when the battle began. [Hugh Thomas, (1961), p. 505 ] The Teruel salient had a Nationalist defending force of about 9,500 men and that would include civilians. After the attack began, Rey d'Harcourt eventually consolidated his remaining defenders into a
garrisonto defend the town. The Teruel Nationalist garrison numbered between 2,000 and 6,000 according to various estimates. [Peter Wyden, p. 425.] The garrison was probably about 4,000 and half of those were civilians. [Hugh Thomas, p. 507 ]
Lister's Republican division attacked Teruel, in falling snow, on
December 15, 1937, without preliminary aerial or artillerypreparation. Lister and fellow commander Colonel Enrique Fernández Heredia moved to surround the town. They immediately took a position on Teruel's Tooth, and by evening encircled Teruel.Hugh Thomas, (1986), P. 789 ] Rey d'Harcourt pulled his defenses into the town, and by December 17 gave up trying to keep a foothold on Teruel's Tooth. Francisco Franco, Nationalist Commander, finally decided on December 23, to aid the defenders at Teruel. Franco decided as a matter of policy that no provincial capital must fall to the Republicans. That would be a political failure, and Franco determined to make no concession to the enemy. [ Hugh Thomas, (1986), pp. 789-790.] Franco had just started a major offensive at Guadalajara and to relieve Teruel meant he had to abandon that offensive much to the disgust of his Italian and German allies. The Nationalist relief of Teruel also signified that Franco was giving up the idea of a knockout blow to end the war, and was accepting a long war of attrition to be won by weight of arms and foreign aid. [Peter Wyden, p. 425 ]
Republican advances and the siege
By December 21, the Republican forces were in the town.
Ernest Hemingwayand two journalists, one being New York Times correspondent, Herbert Matthews, accompanied the assaulting troops entering Teruel. [Peter Wyden, pp. 421-425, inclusive.] Rey d'Harcourt, the Nationalist commander, however, pulled his remaining defenders back to an area where he could make a last standin the south part of the town. By Christmas Daythe Nationalists still occupied a cluster of four key points, the Civil Governor's Building, the Bank of Spain, the Convent of Santa Clara and the Seminary. Republican Radio Barcelona announced that Teruel had fallen, but Rey d'Harcourt and the remnants of the 4,000 man garrison still held out.Hugh Thomas, pp.507-508] The siege continued with fighting hand to hand and building to building. The Republicans would intensely shell a building with artillery and then move in with the bayonet.
Nationalist relief attempts
Franco canceled the Guadalajara offense on December 23, but the relief force could not begin its attack until December 29. All Franco could do was send messages to Rey d'Harcourt to hold out at all costs. [Hugh Thomas, p. 505-507, inclusive.] In the meantime the Republicans pressed home their attack in atrocious weather. The Nationalist attack began on schedule on December 29 with the experienced Nationalist Generals,
Antonio Arandaand José Enrique Varelain command. The Condor Legioncovered the attack. By New Year's Evewith a supreme effort, the Nationalists were on Teruel's Tooth and actually broke into the town to take the bull ring and the railway station. The Nationalists could not hold the gains within the town, however. [Hugh Purcell, p. 96.] Then the weather actually turned for the worse with the start of a four day blizzard, four feet of snow falling and temperatures of minus 18 C. Fighting ground to a halt as guns and machines froze, and the troops suffered terribly from frostbite. The Nationalists suffered the worse from the cold as they did not have warm clothing. Many amputations were performed to remove frozen limbs.
Franco continued to pour in men and machines and the tide slowly started to turn. The Republicans pushed home the siege however, and by
New Year's Day, 1938, the defenders of the Convent were dead. The Civil Governor's Building fell on January 3, but Rey d'Harcourt fought on. Ernest Hemingway was present during the fall of the Governor's Building. The attackers and defenders were on different stories of the building and fired at each other through holes in the floors. The defenders now had no water, few medical supplies and little food. Their defenses were piles of ruins, but still they held out. The Nationalist advances were stalled because of the weather, and finally Rey d'Harcourt with the Bishop of Teruel at his side, gave up on January 8. [Hugh Thomas, p. 507-508] The Republicans, in one of their last acts of the Civil War, killed d'Harcourt along with forty-two other prisoners including Anselmo Polanco, Bishop of Teruel. [http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domingo_Rey_d´Harcourt] [Hugh Thomas, p. 577 ] After Rey d'Harcourt's surrender, the civilian population of Teruel was evacuated and the Republicans became the besieged and the Nationalists the besiegers. [Hugh Thomas, p. 508 ] Teruel had fallen to the Republicans.
The Nationalist counter-offensive
After Rey d'Harcourt's surrender, the Nationalist buildup began to tell on the Republican forces. With the weather clearing, the Nationalists started a new advance on January 17, 1939. The Republican leadership finally gave up its scruples about the Battle of Teruel being an all Spanish operation and ordered the International Brigades to join the struggle on the 19th. [Hugh Thomas, (1986)] Many of these units had been in the area but in reserve. Celebrities and politicians entertained and visited the units during this time. American Communist singer,
Paul Robeson, sang for them on Christmas Eve with a repertoire that included L'Internationaleand ended with Ol' Man River. [ Peter Wyden, pp. 433-434] Future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Clement Atlee, left-wing Labour politician, Ellen Wilkinsonand future Labour Government official and diplomat Philip Noel-Bakervisited a British unit. [ Hugh Thomas, (1986)pp. 792-793 ]
Both high commands now were in heated trains, near the battlefield, and directing their troops in the final part of the battle. Slowly but surely, the Nationalists advanced. Teruel's Tooth fell to them. The Republican forces launched fierce counterattacks on January 25 and the next two days, but gains were temporary. Finally on February 7, the Nationalists attacked north of Teruel. This was a weak area since most Republican forces had been concentrated to the south around Teruel itself. A massive
cavalry charge, with one or two exceptions near the Caspian Seain World War II, the last in the history of warfare, broke the Republican defenses and scattered them. Aranda and Yagüe swiftly advanced and the victory was complete. Thousands of prisoners were taken and more thousands of tons of supplies and munitions fell to the Nationalists. Those Republicans who could, ran for their lives. [Hugh Thomas, (1961) pp. 511-514, inclusive.]
The final battle began on February 18. Aranda and Yagüe cut off the town from the north and then surrounded it similar to what the Republicans accomplished in December. On February 20, Teruel was cut off from the former Republican capital in Valencia, and with the Nationalists entering the town, Hernández Saravia gave the order of withdrawal. Most of the army escaped before the route was cut off, but about 14,500 were trapped. Colorful Communist Republican commander,
El Campesino, was surrounded but eventually broke out to escape. He always claimed that Lister and other Communist commanders had left him to his fate hoping he would be killed or captured. Teruel was recaptured by the Nationalists on February 22. [Gabriel Jackson, "The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, 1931-1939", (1965), p. 508] The Nationalists found 10,000 Republican corpses in Teruel. The battle was over. [Hugh Thomas, (1961), pp.513-515, inclusive. ]
The Battle of Teruel exhausted the resources of the Republican Army. The Republic could not replace the airplanes and arms that it lost in the Battle of Teruel. [Carl Geiser, "Prisoners of the Good Fight, The Spanish Civil War, 1936-39", (1986), p. 42.] On the other hand, the Nationalists concentrated the bulk of their forces in the east as they prepared to drive through Aragon into
Cataloniaand the Levante. [Gabriel Jackson, "The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, 1931-1939", (1965), p.407] Franco had the edge on resupply as the Nationalists now controlled the efficiently run industrial might in the Basque Country. The Republican Government, however, had to leave the armamentindustry in Catalonia in the hands of the Anarchists. One Anarchist observer reported that "Notwithstanding lavish expenditures of money on this need, our industrial organization was not able to finish a single kind of rifleor machine gunor cannon...." [Hugh Purcell, p. 98, Colonel Vicente Rojoas quoted in Stanley G. Payne, "The Spanish Revolution", (1970)] Franco's act of retaking Teruel was a bitter blow to the Republic after the high hopes engendered by its capture. The recapture of Teruel also removed the last obstacle to Franco's breakthrough to the Mediterranean Sea. [E. H. Carr, "The Comintern and the Spanish Civil War" (1984), p. 66.]
Franco did not waste much time and began the
Aragon Offensiveon March 7, 1938. The Republic had withdrawn its best troops for rebuilding purposes after the loss of Teruel on February 22 [ Carl Geiser, p. 42.] , and the Republicans, still reeling from the heavy losses at Teruel, made little resistance. The Nationalists rolled through Aragon, entered Catalonia and Valencia Province, reached the sea, and by April 19, 1938, controlled forty miles of coast line, thereby cutting the Republic in two. [ Hugh Thomas (1986) pp. 798-803, inclusive.] Laurie Lee, British poet and writer, who, by his account, served in the International Brigade, sums up the Republican strategy of attacking Teruel. "The gift of Teruel at Christmas had become for the Republicans no more than a poisoned toy. It was meant to be the victory that would change the war; it was indeed the seal of defeat." [ Laurie Lee, "Moment of War, A Memoir of the Spanish Civil War", (1991), p. 158.]
Casualties from the Battle of Teruel are difficult to estimate. The Nationalist relief force lost about 14,000 dead, 16,000 wounded and 17,000 sick. In the original Teruel defensive force including the garrison, casualties were about 9,500 and nearly all were dead or captured. That is a total of 56,500 casualties for the Nationalists. It is very likely that the Republican casualties were 50% higher so that would be about 84,750. The Republicans lost a large number of prisoners. [Hugh Thomas, "The Spanish Civil War" (2001), p. 773] Round figures would be Nationalists 57,000 and Republicans 85,000 for a total of 142,000. To round down to an even number would make a total casualty list for both sides over 140,000.
Celebrities at Teruel
Mathews, Hemingway, Robeson and the British politicians have been mentioned previously, and the battle certainly attracted many other such celebrities. One of them was British spy
Kim Philbywho was a correspondent for the " The Times" covering the war from the Nationalist side. Evidently he was already under Moscow's orders in Spain but wrote glowing reports about Franco. [Verne W. Newton, "The Butchers Embrace, The Philby Conspirators in Washington," (London, 1991), p. 51.] Near Teruel in December, 1937, [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kim_Philby] a shell hit an automobile in which Philby and three other journalists were riding. Philby was the only survivor. Franco personally decorated Philby to Philby's great exhilaration. [Verne W. Newton, pp. 51-52.]
*Hugh Purcell, "The Spanish Civil War, (part of the Documentary History Series) (1973) ISBN 399-11283-3 (hardcover)
*Hugh Thomas, "The Spanish Civil War" (1961),
*Hugh Thomas, "The Spanish Civil War" (1977),
*Hugh Thomas, "The Spanish Civil War" (1986), ISBN: 0-671-75876-4 (paperback)
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