The XYZ Line
The Francoist attack on Valencia, which took place between April 23 and July 25, is one of the forgotten battles of the Civil War. It was a continuation of the Aragón offensive that had carried rebel troops to the Mediterranean, splitting Republican territory in two. With Catalonia in his sights, Franco took the highly questionable decision to turn south and take Valencia rather than heading directly for Barcelona. Perhaps he was expecting a repeat of the dynamics of the previous battle, with the Republicans collapsing in the face of the Francoist advance, but this did not happen. The offensive did take the entire province of Castellón, but it failed to capture the ultimate target, grinding to a halt as Republican troops held at the XYZ line, fifty miles from Valencia.
After its defeat in Aragón, the Popular Army managed to rebuild its armaments sufficiently to confront the enemy. New planes and anti-aircraft weapons, which reduced the advantage in the skies the rebels had enjoyed since mid-1937, were especially valuable. Also, Republican engineers built the defensive XYZ line in the mountains to the north of Valencia. This consisted of well-fortified trenches that took advantage of the folds in the terrain that turned out to be resistant to aerial bombardment and difficult to capture. These fortifications were the target when the rebels renewed their assault on July 5: frontal infantry attacks with heavy aerial and artillery support. The attackers took heavy casualties in the unsuccessful attacks: 20,000 compared to 5,000 for the Republicans. The rebel attacks diminished after July 24 and eventually ended altogether. It was a great Republican victory that the Francoists chose to forget.
The attack on Valencia was accompanied by a wave of aerial bombardments of coastal towns in Valencia and Cataluña. Once again, the Italians distinguished themselves by their indiscriminate attacks. On May 25, Italian bombs fell on Alicante’s central market killing some 300 people. On May 31, it was the turn of Granollers, where 200 civilians were killed. For its part, the Condor Legion used Mallorca as the base for bombing raids on a number of ports. Its attacks on Alicante and Cartagena were especially lethal. Barcelona was bombed repeatedly. These attacks generated much indignation internationally but, as with so many other atrocities committed by the fascist powers, they had no effect on the democracies’ policy of Non-Intervention.
The defeat of the rebel offensive in the Levante allowed the Republic to rebuild its forces in Cataluña, where it had its best units. These could now be resupplied with weapons, but lacking soldiers, the Republic began to call up adolescents, who were popularly known as the “baby bottle draft”. They would soon find themselves in the middle of the largest, bloodiest and most decisive battle of the war on the banks of the Ebro River.