15-16 Marzo Taking a short break from the diary

Merriman is still in the process of catching up on events at Murcia in his diary and several pages will be combined in an upcoming post here.  The last posting (13-14_Marzo) discussed the Fascist attack on the left flank of the Brigades lines by Italian Fiat tanks and Spanish troops on the 14th of March.  The context of this attack has not been discussed.

Starting in early February, Franco initiated his assault on Madrid designed to sweep around the southern end of the city and then up along the east side to meet up with his troops that had already advanced across the north side of the Madrid region.  Closing that trap would probably have ended the war with the taking of Madrid.  Jarama was a significant impediment to his plans.

As most people who understand the war know, but some new readers might not, Franco’s efforts to overthrow the government of Spain was underwritten by other Fascist powers in Europe: Portugal, Italy and Germany.  German infantry troops were available to Franco but it was German air power and artillery that empowered the Rebels.  Portugal contributed several divisions of infantry, but the most significant contribution of manpower came from Italy who could infiltrate boatload after boatload of troops into Spain now that the city of Malaga and the southern coast was clear for them.  Thus, the Italian tanks, infantry and artillery would be involved in all major fighting against the International Brigades until the very end.

There was a superior attitude of the Germans and Italians against this unknown Spanish General Franco.  When Jarama stalled, Mussolini was dismissive of Franco thinking that he was too careful and not daring enough in his offensive on Madrid.  On March 8, the Italians led a massive onslaught on Madrid from the north and south which was intended to show Spain and Europe that Italians could do in Spain what they had done in Ethiopia, quickly conquer a weaker power.  Landis analyzes this:

It would appear from the record that the ease of the almost all-Italian victory at Málaga had convinced the forces of the Italian CTV (Corpo Truppe Volontarie) that Madrid would fall in like manner.  Franco historians maintain that because of this Italian thinking, previous grandiose plans for the shifting of the center of operations from the Madrid front to the area of the Levante had been hastily abandoned.  Those plans, too, had called for the use of Italian divisions, using the fortress-city of Teruel as a base.  An armored wave of Italian and Spanish troops were to breach the Republican lines below Teruel, fan out along the Zaragoza-Sagunto road, to be met finally by an additional number of Blackshirt {Italian} divisions to be landed at Sagunto above Valencia under the protection of the Italian fleet.  Republican Spain would thus have been effectively cut in half and its doom sealed.¹

The plan to take Madrid, however, was quicker and the Italians and Germans prevailed on Franco to make an assault of the city. This would become the Battle of Guadalajara.  Landis outlines what international forces (remember that strict non-intervention was being non-applied, or at least, ignored, by the European Non-Intervention Committee):

The Italian general, Roatta Mancini, commanded the main forces, which consisted of four complete Italian divisions {approximately 40,000 men}.  They were the Blackshirts of General Rossi, the Black Flames of General Coppi, the Black Arrows of General Novalari, and the Littorio Division under General Bergonzoli.  This Italian corps alone had the armored support of 250 tanks and 180 varied piece of mobile artillery.  There was also a chemical warfare company, a flame-thrower company, and an auto-pool with a disposition of seventy trucks per battalion.  In addition, the Fifth Division (the Black and Blue Arrows) composed a mixed brigade of Italian-German infantry, a complete Brigade of German infantry, and four companies of motorized machine-gunners {the Italian Fiat Ansaldo L3 two-man tanks}, was placed at the disposal of General Mancini.  

The air force directly under Mancini’s control consisted of three groups of Italian planes and three groups of German, with twelve planes each.¹

The attack began on March 8 and surprised the Republican forces.  General Rojo’s  forces were routed above Madrid with the fall of Almadrones, Alaminos, Brihuea and Trijueque.  The Republican 11th (Lister’s), 14th, 12th Divisions and the 72nd Brigade were involved in the fighting.   On March 11, the International Brigades of France, German and Italy (the Commune de Paris, Thaelmann’s, and Garabaldis) became firmly involved in the battle to hold that sector.  By the 14th of March, when Spanish Rebel General Orgaz had attacked in Jarama, the overall assault was stalling against the Republican resistance and weather did not help the Fascist cause.  Mixed cold rain, sleet and snow occurred through the period and made going more difficult.   From March 15-17, a pause in the fighting occurred.

General Rojo and the Internationals had a few plans of their own to greet the Italians at this time…


¹ Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid., pp 112-118.