Battle of Las Mercedes
|Battle of Las Mercedes|
|Part of Operation Verano and the Cuban Revolution|
|Batista government||26th of July Movement|
|Commanders and leaders|
|General Eulogio Cantillo|| Fidel Castro
Rene Latour †
The Battle of Las Mercedes (July 29 - August 8, 1958) was the last battle of Operation Verano, the summer offensive of 1958 launched by the Batista government during the Cuban Revolution. The battle was a trap, designed by Cuban General Eulogio Cantillo to lure Fidel Castro's guerrillas into a place where they could be surrounded and destroyed. The battle ended with a cease-fire which Castro proposed and which Cantillo accepted. During the cease-fire, Castro's forces escaped back into the hills. The battle, though technically a victory for the Cuban army left the army dispirited and demoralized. Castro viewed the result as a victory and soon launched his own offensive.
Earlier in the month, an amphibious assault from sea by the Cuban army Battalion 18, was crushed by Castro's forces at the Battle of La Plata. Battalion 18 was surrounded and sniped at by the rebel forces. General Cantillo ordered Battalion 17 to cross over the Sierra Maestra to come to the aid of Battalion 18. However, Castro's troops were able to block the road and prevent any relief for the surrounded soldiers. After 10 days of fighting, Battalion 18 surrendered.
This left Battalion 17 in an exposed position on the road south of Las Mercedes lake. General Cantillo thought that since he was going to pull Battalion 17 back in any event, he might try to trap any guerrillas which chased the ineffective battalion. Castro did try to ambush the retreat of Battalion 17, just as General Cantillo expected.
Battalion 17 began its pull back on July 29, 1958. Castro sent a column of men under Rene Latour to ambush the retreating soldiers. They attacked the advance guard and killed some 30 soldiers but then they came under attack from previously undetected Cuban forces. Latour called for help and Castro came to the battle scene with his own column of men. Castro's column also came under fire from yet more Cuban soldiers that had secretly advanced up the road from the Estrada Palma Sugar Mill.
As the battle heated up, General Cantillo called up more forces from nearby towns and some 1,500 troops started heading towards the fighting. However, this force was halted by a column under Che Guevara's command. While some critics[who?] accuse Che for not coming to the aid of Latour, Major Bockman argues that Che's move here was the correct thing to do. Indeed, he called Che's tactical appreciation of the battle "brilliant".
By the end of July, Castro's troops were fully engaged and in danger of being wiped out by the vastly superior numbers of the Cuban army. He had lost 70 men, including Rene Latour and both he, and the remains of Latour's column were surrounded. The next day, Castro requested a cease-fire with General Cantillo, he even offered to negotiate an end to the war. This offer was accepted by General Cantillo for reasons that remain unclear. Batista sent a personal representative to negotiate with Castro on August 2.[who?] The negotiations yielded no result but during the next six nights, Castro's troops managed to slip away unnoticed. On August 8, when the Cuban army resumed its attack, they found no one to fight. The battle was over.
Since Castro's troops withdrew from the battle and suffered huge losses (about one quarter of his small army was killed), this should have been a defeat for Castro. Yet the reality was the opposite. By failing to destroy Castro's troops, and by talking with him instead of killing his men, the Cuban army was revealed to be weak and uncertain of its mission. Batista lost confidence in his senior generals, the junior officers lost confidence in their commanders, demoralization was rife in the Cuban army.
By contrast, Castro viewed this as proof that the Cuban army had lost the will to fight and that now was the time to carry the battle to the rest of Cuba. No longer would he hide in the mountains, now his forces would carry the war to the major cites of the country. Castro's army and his commanders were lifted up by a belief that they had escaped from certain disaster because they were destined to win. Within four months, Castro had won, Batista had fled, and the revolution was victorious.
- The Spirit Of Moncada by Larry Bockman (Major, USMC) 1984.