Battle of Teruel
The Battle of Teruel was fought in and around the city of Teruel during the Spanish Civil War. The combatants fought the battle between December 1937 and February 1938, during the worst Spanish winter in twenty years. The battle was one of the bloodier actions of the war with the city changing 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 artillery and aerial bombardment. The two sides suffered over 140,000 casualties between them in the two-month battle. It was a decisive battle of the war, as Francisco Franco's use of his superiority in men and material in regaining Teruel made it the military turning point of the war.
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 salient was 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. Teruel was surrounded on three sides by Republican Spain. In addition, Teruel was a symbol of Nationalist power on the Aragon Front. 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. A victory at Teruel would also aid the government of Prime Minister Juan Negrín in its quest to take over the industries of Catalonia from their workers. Lastly, Republican intelligence learned that Franco intended to start a major offensive against Madrid in the Guadalajara sector on 18 December, leading the Republicans to want to divert the Nationalists away from the Madrid area. The Republic therefore started the battle on 15 December.
Teruel, located in Southern Aragon with a population of 20,000 was the remote capital of a poor province. It 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. Because of its elevation in the mountains (3,050 feet), it usually has the lowest annual winter temperature in Spain. The town was a walled and mountain-ringed natural fortress, sitting 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, the Calatayud highway runs up a slight gradient to a pancake-flat plain around the village of Concud, about three miles away. 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.
The Republican Army was under the command of Juan Hernández Saravia, who had reorganized the army almost from scratch. The Republicans had a total of 100,000 men in two armies. The Army of the Levante was to conduct the main part of the assault supported by the Army of the East. Saravia wanted the coup de main against Teruel to be an all Spanish operation without the assistance of the International Brigades. Among his commanders was the trustworthy and able Communist commander, Enrique Líster, so Saravia chose Lister's division to lead the first assault.
Colonel Domingo Rey d'Harcourt was the Nationalist commander at Teruel when the battle began. The Teruel salient had a Nationalist defending force of about 9,500 men including civilians. After the attack began, Rey d'Harcourt eventually consolidated his remaining defenders into a garrison to defend the town. The Teruel Nationalist garrison numbered between 2,000 and 6,000 according to various estimates. The garrison was probably about 4,000 and half of those were civilians.
Lister's Republican division attacked Teruel, in falling snow, on December 15, 1937, without preliminary aerial or artillery bombardments. Lister and fellow commander Colonel Enrique Fernández Heredia moved to surround the town. They immediately gained a position on Teruel's Tooth, and by evening encircled the city. 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, having decided as a matter of policy that no provincial capital must fall to the Republicans. Such a loss would be a political failure, and Franco determined to make no concession. He 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.
Republican advances and the siege
By December 21, the Republican forces were in the town. Ernest Hemingway and two journalists, one being New York Times correspondent Herbert Matthews, accompanied the troops entering Teruel. Rey d'Harcourt, the Nationalist commander, pulled his remaining defenders back to an area where he could make a last stand in the southern part of the town. By Christmas Day the 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 d'Harcourt and the remnants of the 4,000 man garrison still held out. The siege continued with fighting hand to hand and building to building. The Republicans would bombard 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. In the meantime the Republicans pressed home their attack in atrocious weather. The Nationalist counter-attack began on schedule on December 29 with the experienced generals Antonio Aranda and José Enrique Varela in command. The German Condor Legion covered the attack. By New Year's Eve with a supreme effort, the Nationalists were on Teruel's Tooth and actually broke into the town to take the bullring and the railway station. But they could not hold the gains within the town. 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 most 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. But the Republicans pressed home their siege, and by New Year's Day, 1938, the defenders of the Convent were dead. The Civil Governor's Building fell on January 3, but d'Harcourt fought on. Ernest Hemingway was present at 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 stalled because of the weather, and finally d'Harcourt, with Anselmo Polanco,the Bishop of Teruel, at his side, gave up on 8 January. Teruel had fallen to the Republicans.
The Republicans, in one of their last acts of the Civil War, killed d'Harcourt and the bishop along with forty-one other prisoners. After d'Harcourt's surrender, the civilian population of Teruel was evacuated and the Republicans became the besieged and the Nationalists the besiegers.
The Nationalist counter-offensive
After 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 17 January 1938. Two days later 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. Many of these units had been in the area but in reserve. Celebrities and politicians entertained and visited the units during this time. American pro-Communist singer Paul Robeson sang for them on Christmas Eve with a repertoire that included L'Internationale and ended with Ol' Man River. Future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Clement Attlee, left-wing Labour politician Ellen Wilkinson and future Labour Government official and diplomat Philip Noel-Baker visited a British unit.
Both high commands were now in heated trains near the battlefield, 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 25 January and the next two days, but gains were temporary. Finally on 7 February, 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, one of the last in the history of warfare (there were one or two exceptions near the Caspian Sea in World War II), broke the Republican defenses and scattered them. Aranda and Yagüe swiftly advanced and the victory was complete. The Nationalists took thousands of prisoners and thousands of tons of supplies and munitions. Those Republicans who could, ran for their lives.
The final battle began on 18 February. Aranda and Yagüe cut off the town from the north and then surrounded it similar to what the Republicans had accomplished in December. On 20 February, Teruel was cut off from the former Republican capital in Valencia, and with the Nationalists entering the town, Hernández Saravia gave the order for withdrawal. Most of the army escaped before the route was cut off, but about 14,500 men 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. The Nationalists finally recaptured Teruel on 22 February.
The Nationalists found 10,000 Republican corpses in Teruel. The battle was over.
The Battle of Teruel exhausted the resources of the Republican Army. The Spanish Republican Air Force could not replace the airplanes and arms that it lost in the Battle of Teruel. On the other hand, the Nationalists concentrated the bulk of their forces in the east as they prepared to drive through Aragon into Catalonia and the Levante. 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 armament industry 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 rifle or machine gun or cannon...." 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.
Franco did not waste much time and began the Aragon Offensive on March 7, 1938. The Republic had withdrawn its best troops for rebuilding purposes after the loss of Teruel on February 22, and the Republicans, still reeling from the heavy losses at Teruel, offered little resistance. The Nationalists rolled through Aragon, entered Catalonia and Valencia Province, reached the sea, and by April 19, 1938, controlled forty miles of coastline, thereby cutting the Republic in two.
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."
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, giving a total of 56,500 casualties for the Nationalists. It is very likely that the Republican casualties were 50% higher, about 84,750. The Republicans lost a large number of prisoners. 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 Soviet spy Kim Philby, who was nominally a correspondent for 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. Near Teruel in December 1937, a shell hit an automobile in which Philby and three other journalists (Bradish Johnson, Eddie Neil and Ernest Sheepshanks) were riding. Philby was the only survivor. Franco personally decorated Philby, to Philby's great exhilaration.
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- Battle of Teruel Photographs, Capa, Robert (1939) International Center of Photography. Retrieved 2010-09-23.