Canadian Members of the International Brigades Crossing the Ebro River
On July 25, 1938 the Popular Army launched a surprise attack and succeeded in crossing the Ebro River. So began the longest and toughest battle of the Civil War. When it ended in mid-November, it had produced a combined total of 100,000 casualties. The Battle of the Ebro was the Republic’s swansong. Even though its army fought more effectively, and perhaps with greater determination, than ever before, it ended up losing due to the enemy’s great superiority in materiel.
Crossing the Ebro was the brainchild of General Vicente Rojo. The plan was as simple as it was audacious: cross the river, advance rapidly, and bottle up as many enemy troops as possible. This would produce a large opening in the rebel lines that would force Franco to halt his offensive against Valencia and deploy as many troops as possible on the Ebro.
The plan also had a political purpose: to show France and Great Britain that the Republic could still fight and that they could count on it in the struggle against Hitler that was certain to begin sooner rather than later. Unfortunately for the Republic, this hope proved unfounded. While the battle was still raging, the democratic powers threw away their last chance to destabilize Hitler: on September 30, they agreed to the Munich Pact that permitted the German dictator to take the Sudetenland and begin the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. Rather than confronting Hitler, Britain and France made him ever stronger.
Along the Ebro, the Republican advance and the chaos it produced among the enemy lasted only a few days. Franco brought to bear all the men, artillery, and planes he possibly could, the largest such accumulation of the entire war. On August 6, he launched a counterattack, but the mountainous terrain and stiff Republican resistance obstructed their advance. All the while, German and Italian planes began another wave of assaults on towns along the Mediterranean, killing hundreds of civilians.
A good strategist, which Franco was not, would have pinned the Republicans against the river and turned the rest of his forces against an almost undefended Cataluña. Instead, he chose the safer but more costly approach: a war of attrition, with frontal assaults preceded by or accompanying massive artillery and aerial bombardments. At the same time, his planes repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, tried to destroy the bridges that Republican engineers had built across the river. Franco’s tactics prolonged the battle for several weeks, at the cost of numerous lives on both sides. The final offensive against the Republican positions began on October 30. On November 15, the exhausted Popular Army staged an orderly withdrawal across the river to their starting point. The battle was over.
Little remained of the Popular Army in Cataluña. With France having closed the border in June, the Republic had been unable to bring in war materiel. In contrast, Germany and Italy continued providing Franco the supplies he needed to replace what he had lost. For Cataluña and the Republic as a whole, the die was cast.