War in the North Part 1

The isolated northern zone of the mountainous Basque Country was the logical military target for the Nationalists after their failure to cut short the war by capturing Madrid. To resist this threat, the Basque nationalists and their left wing allies had raised 46 battalions, of which half were Basque and the rest UGT, CNT, communist or republican units. These formations were reinforced by 10 regular army battalions from Asturias and Santander, and organised into the Republic's Army of the North. However, the major problem faced by the Army of the North was the lack of weapons.

The Basques were blockaded by the Nationalist battleship Espana, the cruiser Almirante Cervera and the destroyer Velasco. The Basques had only one ancient destroyer and two barely serviceable submarines. They improvised by mounting 101mm guns from the battleship Jaime I on four deep sea fishing vessels.

On 5th March 1937 the Nationalist cruiser Canarias was spotted off the mouth of the River Nervion with a small vessel she had captured. Basque shore batteries opened fire immediately to drive her off, and then the armed trawlers arrived on the scene. One of the trawlers nipped around the cruiser and made off with her prize, while the other two engaged the much more heavily armed cruiser. One trawler caught fire and made for the shelter of the shore batteries, but the crew of the trawler Nabara continued the attack and fought on into the night, until all ammunition was exhausted and the trawler sank.

The Nationalist ground force was based on the Navarre Division of four Carlist brigades. In addition the Nationalists had moved up Coppi's Black Arrows division with 8000 Spanish infantry commanded by Italian officers and supported by Italian tankettes. In this mountainous area however the Condor Legion was the Nationalists biggest advantage. The thin coastal strip allowed the defenders little warning of air raids, while the terrain greatly restricted their choice of airfields from which defending fighters could be scrambled. The Basques had only a minute fighter force anyway, so the Condor Legion was able to risk the vulnerable He-51 biplanes as ground attack aircraft.

The Nationalist offensive against the Army of the North began on 31st March. The Nationalists showed from the first day that they intended to make use of their crushing air superiority. The town of Durango, behind the front line, was bombed in relays by the heavy Junkers 52s. It had no air defences nor any form of military presence. A church was bombed during mass, killing 14 nuns, the officiating priest and most of the congregation. The objective of the raid was to block the roads through the town with rubble and refugees, but that doesn't explain why He-51 fighters were strafing the fleeing civilians. The Nationalist General Quiepo de Llano stated on Seville Radio that 'our planes bombed military objectives in Durango, and later communists and socialists locked up the priests and nuns, shooting without pity and burning the churches'.

The three mountains of Albertia, Maroto and Jacinto, where the Basques were well dug in, were the other target of the day. After the heavy bombardment and in the mountain mist, the defending Basques hardly knew what had hit them before they were overrun by red bereted Carlists screaming their war cry of 'Viva Cristo Rey!'. Reserves could not be brought up because of air strikes on all communications leading to the front. The barrages had also cut field telephone wires from the forward positions.

The Basques managed to hold their right flank for eight weeks, delaying the Nationalists, but two other mountains were lost the next day, while air attacks smashed a hole in the front. The Basques were demoralised by this overwhelming air power. They could fight back against the fierceness of a Carlist infantry attack but they had neither antiaircraft guns nor fighter cover. The Nationalists paused on 4th April, despite protests from their Condor Legion advisers. Bad weather than grounded Nationalist aircraft and gave the Basques time to reorganise. On the 6th the Nationalists announced a blockade of Republican ports. The same day the cruiser Almirante Cerveza, with the moral support of the German pocket battleship Deutschland nearby, stopped a British merchantman. However, the destroyers HMS Blanche and HMS Brazen of the British destroyer flotilla assigned to the Bay of Biscay raced up, and the cargo ship was allowed into Bilbao.

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