The Overrunning Of Aragon

The weather conditions and house fighting made Teruel one of the most horrific battles of the war, with the Nationalists losing 50,000 men, and the Republicans even more, roughly a third of them due to the cold. Lives were lost and material wasted simply because the Republican general staff tried to hold an indefensible and strategically unimportant town. Once again obstinacy, prompted by propaganda claims of victory, made the Republicans fruitlessly sacrifice some of their best troops.

On 9 March 1938 the most ruthlessly professional offensive of the whole war began. With 400 field guns the Nationalist artillery unleashed the heaviest bombardment of the war on the Republican lines at Belchite. The Condor Legion laid waste to the hapless Republicans, leaving most of them so shaken they could barely hold a rifle. Those defenders who endured such devastation then had to face von Thoma's panzers. Nationalist casualties were the lowest of any major offensive during the war. In fact, after the bombardments the Foreign Legion had little to do except bayonet the shocked and stunned survivors in their trenches.

Colonel Yague, the Nationalist commander, was the best they had, and he maintained the pressure, not allowing the attacks momentum to bleed away, so that any defensive line the Republicans set up crumbled almost immediately. After Teruel the Republicans were exhausted and badly equipped, while the fresh troops on the line were inexperienced conscripts. One or two brave stands were made, but demoralisation set in when the Republicans realised they had no chance against the Nationalist onslaught either on the ground or in the air.

The situation was made worse by the increase of anti-communist feeling. So low had the communist star sunk by now that almost any story of communist perfidy was believed. There were also bitter arguments among the Republican field commanders and staff. Lister refused to obey Rojo, El Campesino claimed that Modesto had deliberately left his division to be cut off during the withdrawal, and Modesto and Lister still hated each other, as they had done ever since Lister lost all the Republic's tanks at Belchite.

For the Republicans it was a retreat which slowed only when the enemy paused to rest. The withdrawal of a flank formation set off a panic. The old fear of being cut off, which had broken the militias in the early days of the war, now afflicted the Popular Army. In the first week of April the former POUM stronghold of Lerida fell to the Nationalists. On the 15th they took the seaside town of Vinaroz, establishing a corridor which separated Catalonia from the rest of Republican Spain.

It was Good Friday and Carlist requetes waded into the Mediterranean as if it was the River Jordan. All the Nationalist newspapers reported how their commander, General Alonso Vega, dipped his fingers in the sea and crossed himself. They thought that the end of their crusade was at hand.

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