Francoist Soldiers Reach the Mediterranean
On April 15, 1938, Francoist forces took the town of Vinaroz on the Mediterranean coast, cutting Republican territory in two. Cataluña was now isolated from the central zone. This was the most symbolic moment of the hugely successful Aragón offensive that Franco launched on March 7 and that concluded on April 19. It was an almost mortal blow to the Republic, one from which it never completely recovered.
The Aragón Offensive began barely three weeks after the Republican defeat at Teruel. Republican troops on the Aragonese front were exhausted, many were not battle tested, half did not have weapons, and the Francoists now enjoyed clear air superiority. The Republican high command expected Franco to return to his plan of attacking Madrid through Guadalajara and believed that his troops were almost as exhausted as their own. They were wrong. Rebel morale was high; they were better equipped than ever; they enjoyed an overwhelming superiority of men, tanks, artillery, and planes; and they had a good battle plan.
The offensive easily cut through Republican lines. Many troops fought bravely, especially the worn-down International Brigades, but there were also many cases of mass desertion and even of troops fleeing to enemy lines. The efforts of the Republican command to establish defensive positions were continually frustrated by the attackers’ speed and their control of the air, which allowed them to pound loyal troops at will.
The offensive was accompanied by an intensive aerial bombing campaign against towns and cities in Valencia and Cataluña. In addition to achieving strategic objectives, it was intended to terrorize the civilian population. Mussolini’s decision to bombard Barcelona systematically between March 16 and 18, which caused more than 1,000 deaths, stands out in this regard.
The defeat provoked a crisis in the Negrín government. Believing that the war was lost, Defense Minister Indalecio Prieto resigned from the cabinet. It also led to the emergence of the first important cracks among Republicans who resented the power the Communists had achieved in the Popular Army. These divisions would only widen in the following months, and a year later would provoke the final political and military crisis of the Republic.
Negrín knew that only a spectacular victory and support from France and Great Britain could save the Republic. He tried to achieve the first along the Ebro River in July. The second would never come. Both democratic powers were still trying to appease Hitler, as their quiescence over his annexation of Austria in March 1938 made clear.
The collapse of the Aragón front left the Republic in a position of military and strategic inferiority. If Franco had marched on Cataluña immediately, he would have conquered it easily since few Republican troops stood in his way. Instead, he made a decision that has been much criticized since: to attack Valencia, a much longer and more difficult route than the one that would have taken him to Barcelona.