The Army Of The Ebro

During May and June the Nationalists were busy extending the width of their corridor to the sea, but they found it surprisingly heavy going. It was disconcerting to the Nationalists to find their enemy on the ground fighting as fiercely as ever before, just after what they thought was the decisive campaign of the war. A Republican line of fortifications known as the XYZ line blocked their advance, and despite 1000 guns and the massed bombers of three air forces, the Nationalists were unable to break through. With 20,000 Nationalist casualties to 5000 Republican, the slogan "to resist is to win" at last had some meaning. Bitter experience of bombardment had finally taught the Republicans the need for well constructed trenches, and the infiltration of the Moors encouraged them to pick better sites, with interlocking fields of fire and good visibility. A shame, therefore, that their commanders did not heed the lessons of the defence of the XYZ line and instead looked to another offensive action.

After the collapse of Aragon, Negrin, supported by the communists, felt that international attention must be aroused by a great, heroic action. If successful, the Republic could negotiate from a position of greater strength. The military justification was the need to relink Catalonia with the rest of Republican Spain. Unfortunately for Negrin, European attention was occupied more on Nazi Germany now than Spain, especially as Hitler was now pressuring Czechoslovakia, and he did not seem to realise that yet another catastrophic defeat could very well mean the final end of the Republic.

The new Army of the Ebro was formed for the new offensive. As at Brunete, its commanders were communist, and it was allocated nearly all of the Republic's armour, artillery and aircraft. Modesto was in command of 80,000 men, though the numbers as usual concealed weaknesses. The whole army had no more than 150 artillery pieces, some of them which dated from the nineteenth century, and the 76mm antiaircraft ammunition was known to be defective. This was not told to the troops, for "reasons of morale".

The curve of the River Ebro between Fayon and Cherta was the planned area for the offensive. Here the river was a hundred metres across, and would have to be crossed with boats and pontoon bridges recently purchased from France. An innovation however was the creation of a commando force which was to play an important prepatory role in securing the bridge crossing points and then striking inland to cause maximum disruption to the enemy.

The Nationalist 50 Division responsible for the defence of this point in the line reported troop movements on the far bank. Although Yague confirmed this with aerial reconaissance he was allowed no more than two divisions in reserve. The Nationalists did not consider the Republic capable of launching another offensive after Aragon, especially across such a wide river. Frequent headlines such as "Reds on the Run!" in the Nationalist newspapers made Nationalist morale vulnerable to any reverse.

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