On the afternoon of July 19, Colonel Antonio Aranda, the army commander in Oviedo, the capital of Asturias, rose in revolt. Aranda had a reputation as a Mason and a liberal, and he played these cards well to mollify the Republican authorities and convince a column of 4,000 coal miners to leave the city in order to help in the defence of Madrid. They never arrived because when they reached León, they learned that the rebels had taken Valladolid and now controlled the road to the capital.
Aranda took full advantage of their absence from Oviedo, which allowed him to put down resistance by the Assault Guards and loyal militias and begin a fierce repression against local Republicans. The city became a rebel island in the middle of a revolutionary region. Aranda had 2,500 men and abundant supplies of weapons, ammunition and food. The only problem was water, which would cause serious sanitary and health problems. He had also taken hundreds of family members of Republicans hostage.
In the nearby coastal city of Gijón, the rebels were much weaker. Colonel Antonio Pinilla had only a few hundred men. They took refuge in the barracks, and courageously fended off the attacks of the poorly armed militias until August 21. Even then, Pinilla refused to surrender and during the final Republican assault he radioed the rebel cruiser Almirante Cervera to bombard the barracks. The rebel officers who survived were executed by the Republicans.
Pinilla’s defence of Gijón was a great help to Aranda. Until it was finally subdued, the Republicans merely encircled Oviedo but did not launch any attacks. This changed on September 4, when the Republican forces began their assault on the city, supported by artillery and aerial bombardments. These attacks were costly for both sides. The rebels rapidly lost men and positions while civilians in the city had to endure the bombardments and then, at the end of September, an outbreak of typhus.
The Republicans launched their final offensive on October 4. Aranda concentrated his troops in the city centre. Fighting was often hand to hand and his position was on the verge of collapse. He did have one hope: a large relief column, including units of the Army of Africa, was advancing on Oviedo from Galicia. Aranda was able to hold out just long enough for the column to connect with his troops on October 17. Exhausted and running short on ammunition, the Republicans withdrew to the outskirts of the city and continued fighting from there. This postcard, issued after the war by the city’s tourism office, shows the destruction caused by the fighting.
Holding Oviedo made Aranda famous and brought him promotion to general. It also further reinforced the prestige of Francisco Franco. At the same time, it weakened the Republicans. However, even though they were isolated from the rest of loyal Spain, they managed to hold out for a year against an enemy that only became stronger and more confident.