The Retreat to France
Repository: Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego, La Jolla, USA
Contributor: Associated Press of Great Britain Ltd.
Repository: Spanish Civil War News Photos
Date Created: 1939-01
Extent: 1 item
Geographic Region: Perpignan, France
After the conclusion of the Battle of the Ebro in mid-November 1938, Francoist troops took a brief rest. Five weeks later, on December 23, they launched the conquest of Cataluña. They were very well equipped and their morale was high. The situation of the Republicans was the complete opposite. The French border remained closed, which meant they were short on arms, and their soldiers were convinced that defeat was inevitable. This pessimism was especially pronounced among the young Catalan recruits of the “Baby Bottle Draft” and the older ones in the “Scraping the Barrel Draft” who the government had hurriedly called up.
The Francoists advanced slowly at first. They were facing some of the best remaining units of the Popular Army, who put up a stiff resistance. In addition, the value of the air force was reduced by bad weather, and the Ebro and Segre Rivers, which separated the two armies, had flooded. The rebels broke through Republican lines on January 3, and from then on they faced little resistance as they moved quickly up the coast. Fearing they would be cut off, Republican troops in the interior retreated. And despite the best efforts of General Vicente Rojo to establish defensive lines, the attackers overran them easily.
The Francoists took Tarragona, the southernmost provincial capital in Cataluña, on January 14. The next major objective was Barcelona. An exodus of government officials, civil servants, and the civilian population had begun in the days before Christmas and when the Francoists entered Barcelona on January 26, they found a semi-deserted and silent city. Meanwhile, a flood of soldiers and civilians was heading for the French border. The government of France opened the border to civilians on January 27, albeit with great reluctance. Disarmed Republican soldiers were allowed in later. By the time the Francoist conquest of Cataluña was complete, more than 400,000 had crossed the border.
On February 1, 1939, in the castle in Figueres, the Republican parliament met for the last time on Spanish soil. Three days later, the Francoists took Gerona. President Manuel Azaña, General Rojo, and Lluis Companys and José Antonio de Aguirre, the presidents of Cataluña and the Basque Country respectively, left on February 5. On the 8th, it was the turn of Prime Minister Juan Negrín. Two days later, all of Cataluña was in Franco’s hands.
The conquest of Cataluña was accompanied by intense aerial bombing of the entire region. Most of these attacks were superfluous, as the Republican army was retreating, and Francoist success was never in doubt. Once again, Italian planes wreaked devastation on Barcelona, where they launched a number of ferocious assaults around the Day of the Three Wise Men (January 6), the day for giving Christmas gifts in Spain.
The fall of Cataluña meant that the Republic had essentially lost the war. The only question was how long it could hold out. Negrín, and his Communist supporters wanted to fight to the bitter end. Azaña, who was convinced that defeat was unavoidable, resigned. And others, politicians and military men, mostly in Madrid, began to plan a coup to force a negotiated surrender with Franco.