War In The North Part 3

The 'Iron Ring' around Bilbao was not ideal. Wrongly compared to the Maginot Line, it had no depth - in some places it was just a single line of trenches - and it was incomplete. There was no attempt to conceal or camouflage it, as the Mannerheim Line in Finland was camouflaged. Worst of all, the man in charge of building it, Major Goicoechea, had defected to the Nationalists, taking with him its detailed plans.

The Valencia Republican government tried sending aircraft to the beleagured Basques via France, but the Non Intervention Committee headed by Britain frustrated it on two occasions. That the French frontier was the one border where non intervention was enforced embittered the Republicans greatly. It was thought too dangerous to fly aircraft straight to Bilbao from the main Republican zone against Nationalist fighters. The Basques were now down to six Chato biplanes.

Relations between the Basques and the Valencia government were strained by misunderstandings. The Basques were often accused of trying to make a separate peace, while many Basques felt that the Valencia government was actively trying to prevent assistance from being sent. The Republic was, however, fully aware that if the Basques were defeated the defeat would release large numbers of Nationalist troops for deployment in the centre. They therefore planned two minor offensives in May, but, busy as the Republic was with events in Barcelona, both attempts were halfhearted and neither succeeded in diverting Nationalist troops from the northern front.

Their backs to the wall, the Basques fought valiantly. Incompetent commanders were replaced in this time of peril by the unconventional and in some cases the truly inspired, such as the remarkable mechanic, Belderrain, the communist smuggler Cristobal, and the French Colonel Putz from the International Brigades. On the Nationalist side a change of command was also necessary due to the death of General Mola in an air crash - his death could best be described as a setback for the Basques, as his caution had saved them at critical moments. His replacement, General Fidel Davila Arrondo, was to prove a far more dangerous adversary.

In Bilbao after an agonized discussion the Basques decided to evacuate the city. Basque nationalists, to the horror of the Republicans, decided that the steel works and important war industries of Bilbao should not be destroyed but left to the enemy. The coastal road from Bilbao soon became choked with refugees seeking escape, the whole mass being strafed by Heinkel-51 fighter squadrons. Republican forces were assigned new positions along the line of the River Nervion, curving around Bilbao to the east. With the imminent arrival of Nationalist forces, the Nationalist fifth column in Arenas, on the east side of the river, started shooting into the streets in their excitement. The anarchist Malatesta Battalion, positioned on the west of the river, stormed across and dealt with them rapidly. Their final action before withdrawing was to set fire to the church. The commander knew that its priest was a Nationalist - the priest was his brother.

Bilbao was under constant artillery bombardment by now. Eventually the Republicans had to retreat, flanked as they were on the southern side, and the fifth columnists awaited the Nationalist forces with monarchist flags ready to greet the Carlist troops of General Davila. The cheers for the Nationalists, when they finally arrived, sounded hollow in the empty, evacuated city.

Summary court martials were held in the newly conquered territory and thousands, including priests, were sentenced to prison. There were, however, fewer executions than normal - Guernica had provoked a hostility in foreign opinion the Nationalists did not want to further antagonise. The conquerors had no compunction about setting out to destroy every aspect of Basque nationalism, however. The Basque flag was outlawed, and the use of the Basque language suppressed. Regionalist feelings in any form were portrayed as the cancer of the new Spanish State of the Nationalists.

The remaining Republican units retreated into the mountains of Asturias or holed up in the area of the port of Santander. Desperation was so great that many sought oblivion in drink, forcing the officers to destroy the wine stocks. The general staff sought to escape in small boats, but the boats were overloaded with panic stricken men and many capsized. Apathy seemed to take over when the last chance of escape was gone, and the Republicans waited for the Nationalists and their firing squads. Since 3000 Nationalist sympathisers were executed last year under socialist orders, little mercy was expected.

A surrender was arranged with the Italian commander of the Black Arrows, which agreed there would be no reprisals, and no Basque would be forced to fight for the Nationalists. As soon as the surrender was taken however, the Nationalists broke the agreement. Basques were taken off British ships in the harbours at gunpoint. Summary trials followed and a large proportion of Basque soldiers and officers were executed. This dishonouring of the articles of surrender was used later in the century by the Basque ETA guerillas as a reason why the Basque Republic was still at war with the Spanish State.

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