War in the North

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War in the North
Part of the Spanish Civil War
Frente del Norte - Spanish Civil War (March-Sept 1937).svg
Map of the campaign
Date March 31 - October 21, 1937
Location Northern Spain
Result Decisive Nationalist victory
Spain Spanish Republic
Basque Country (autonomous community) Basque Army
Francoist Spain Nationalist Spain
 Italy (Italian CTV)
Nazi Germany Condor Legion
Commanders and leaders
Spain Francisco Llano de la Encomienda
Spain Adolfo Prada Vaquero
Spain Francisco Ciutat
Spain Francisco Galán
Spain Belarmino Tomás
Francoist Spain Emilio Mola
Francoist Spain José Solchaga
Francoist Spain Fidel Davila
Kingdom of Italy Ettore Bastico
120,000 soldiers
thousands of anarchists milicianos[1]
250 artillery pieces
40 tanks
70 aircraft
2 destroyers
7 armed trawlers
100,000 Nationalist soldiers
60,000 Italian soldiers[2]
400 artillery pieces
230 aircraft
1 battleship
2 cruisers
1 destroyer
Casualties and losses
33,000 dead
100,000 prisoners
one destroyer
10,000 dead
one battleship

The War in the North, in the Spanish Civil War was the campaign in which the Nationalist forces defeated and occupied the parts of northern Spain that remained loyal to the Republican government. The campaign included several separate battles. The Biscay Campaign resulted in the loss of the part of the Basque Country still held by the Republic and Bilbao, the greatest Spanish industrial center. This part of the campaign saw the Bombing of Guernica and Durango. The Battle of Santander caused the loss of the province of Santander in Cantabrian Castile for the Republic. The Battle of El Mazuco lead to the capture of the Republican-controlled part of Asturias and the fall of Gijón, the Republic's last stronghold in the North, to the Nationalists. The campaign ended on October 21, 1937 with a decisive and total Nationalist victory.


On the Nationalist takeover of Navarre (July 1936), General Mola had announced a war of extermination and no mercy against any dissent.[3] Harsh repression started to be implemented on blacklisted, inconvenient Navarrese individuals and their families, and by late August, the Requeté (Carlist militia) from Navarre advanced towards Irun with a mission to cut off Gipuzkoan Republican forces from the French border.[4]

With the fall of Irun and then San Sebastián, on September 23, 1936, the Nationalists under Franco pushed their way through Gipuzkoa, cutting off the Republican controlled areas in northern Spain from the border with France. This area had been already isolated from the rest of Spain by Nationalist control at the beginning of the war. This area was very attractive to the Nationalists because of the industrial production of Biscay and the mineral resources of Asturias. To conquer and control this area would be profitable through its valuable resources, would expel Republican forces and concentrate large numbers of Nationalist troops to dictate a two-front war. Franco realized that Madrid, the capital, was not going to be conquered quickly. Basque resources of iron, coal, steel and chemicals were a tempting target. The Republican north was also politically divided and weakened by struggles between Basque nationalists and leftists. Furthermore, its major supplies came by sea. Franco ordered his commanders on the Madrid front to go on the defensive and send all available resources to the north.[5]

Republican forces attempted to establish a front at Buruntza. Eventually the front stabilized temporarily on the western fringes of Gipuzkoa (Intxorta) during October 1936, when the Basque Statute of Autonomy was passed in Madrid, and the Basque Government was rapidly organized. As military rebels advanced, panicking civilians from the occupied areas fled towards Bilbao by the tens of thousands.[6]

Beginning of the campaign[edit]

Main article: Biscay Campaign

Emilio Mola was in command of the start of this campaign, beginning on March 31, 1937; however, Mola, died in an airplane crash on June 3, 1937. The Nationalists began the attack with 50,000 men of the 61st Solchaga]].[7] The Republican Army of the North was commanded by General Francisco Llano de la Encomienda.[8] This was the beginning of the Biscay Campaign. The Nationalist offensive started on March 31, and the same day the Legion Condor bombed the town of Durango, there were 250 civilian deaths. The Navarrese troops attacked the town of Ochandiano and on April 4 occupied it, after heavy combat. Mola then decided to stop the advance due to bad weather.[9]

On April 6, the Nationalist government in Burgos announced the blockade of the Basque ports, but some British ships entered Bilbao. On April 20, the Nationalists continued their offensive and occupied Elgeta after a heavy artillery bombardment. The same day the Legion Condor bombed Guernica. The Basques retreated to the Iron Belt line and on April 30, the Italians occupied Bermeo, but the Nationalist battleship Jaime I was sunk by a mine.[10]

The Republican government decided to send 50 aircraft to Bilbao and launched two offensives against Huesca and Segovia in order to stop the Nationalist advance, but both failed. On June 3, Mola died and was replaced by Davila. On June 12, the Nationalists started their assault of the Iron Belt and after heavy aerial and artillery bombings entered Bilbao on June 19.[11]

Battle of Santander[edit]

Main article: Battle of Santander

After the fall of Bilbao, the Republican government decided to launch an offensive against Brunete in order to stop the Nationalist offensive in the north on July 6, but by July 25 the offensive had ended. The morale of the Republican troops in Cantabria was low and the Basque soldiers did not want to carry on the fight. On August 14, the Nationalists launched their offensive against Cantabria, with the 90,000 men (25,000 Italians) and 200 aircraft of the Army of the North. On August 17, the Italians occupied the El Escudo Pass and encircled 22 Republican battalions at Campoo (Cantabria). On August 24, the Basque troops surrendered to the Italians at Santoña and the Republican troops fled from Santander. On August 26, the Italians occupied Santander and by September 1, the Nationalists had occupied almost all Cantabria. The Nationalists captured 60,000 prisoners, the greatest victory of the war.[12]

Asturias Campaign[edit]

Main article: Asturias Campaign

After the failed republican offensive against Zaragoza, the Nationalists decided to continue their offensive against Asturias. The Nationalists had overwhelming numerical (90,000 men against 45,000) and material (more than 200 aircraft against 35) superiority, but the Republican Army in Asturias was better organized than in Santander and the difficult terrain provided excellent defensive positions. The Navarrese troops (30,000), led by Solchaga, and supported by the Legion Condor, managed to occupy the El Mazuco Pass, held by 5,000 Republican soldiers, only after 33 days of bloody combat.[13]

On October 14, the Nationalists broke the Republican front, and, on October 17, the Republican government ordered the evacuation of Asturias to start, but Nationalist ships were blockading the Asturian ports and only a few military commanders (Adolfo Prada, Galan, Belarmino Tomas) managed to escape. By October 21, the Nationalists had occupied Gijón and completed the conquest of the northern zone.[14]


With the conquest of the North, the Nationalists controlled 36 per cent of Spanish industrial production, 60 per cent of the coal and all the steel production. Furthermore, more than 100,000 Republican prisoners were forced to join the Nationalist army or sent to labour battalions.[15] The Republic had lost the Army of the North (more than 200,000 soldiers) and by then a complete military victory of the Republic in the war became impossible. Franco then decided to start a new offensive against Madrid, but Vicente Rojo Lluch, the leader of the Republican Army, launched a diversionary offensive in Aragon, the Battle of Teruel.[16]


  1. ^ Jackson, Gabriel. La república española y la guerra civil. RBA editores. 2005. Barcelona. Pagina 330
  2. ^ Jackson, Gabriel. La república española y la guerra civil. RBA editores. 2005. Barcelona.
  3. ^ Preston, Paul, The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain, (2013), p. 179.
  4. ^ Preston, Paul, The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain, (2013), p. 430.
  5. ^ Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, (2001) p. 594.
  6. ^ Preston, Paul, The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain, (2013), p. 430
  7. ^ Hugh Thomas, (2001), p. 595
  8. ^ Hugh Thomas, (2001), p. 597.
  9. ^ Beevor, Antony. (2006). The Battle for Spain. The Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. Penguin Books. London. pp.228-229
  10. ^ Thomas, Hugh. (2001). The Spanish Civil War. Penguin Books. London. pp.595-611
  11. ^ Beevor, Antony (2006). The Battle for Spain. The Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939. London: Penguin Books. p. 236.
  12. ^ Thomas, Hugh. (2001). The Spanish Civil War. Penguin Books. 2001. London. p.699
  13. ^ Beevor, Antony. (2006). The Battle for Spain. The Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939. Penguin Books. p. 302
  14. ^ Thomas, Hugh. (2001). The Spanish Civil War. Penguin Books. London. pp.708–710
  15. ^ Beevor, Antony. (2006). The Battle for Spain. The Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. Penguin Books. London. p.303
  16. ^ Graham, Helen. (2005). The Spanish Civil war. A very short introduction. Oxford University Press. p.93


  • Beevor, Antony (2006). The Battle for Spain The Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. Penguin. ISBN 978-0-14-303765-1. 
  • Graham, Helen. (2005). The Spanish Civil War. A Very Short introduction. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-280377-1.
  • Jackson, Gabriel. (1967) The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, 1931–1939. Princeton University Press. Princeton. ISBN 978-0-691-00757-1.
  • Preston, Paul (2013). The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain. London, UK: HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-00-638695-7. 
  • Thomas, Hugh (2001). The Spanish Civil War. Penguin Books, Limited (UK). ISBN 978-0-14-101161-5. 

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