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Battle of Jarama
Part of the Spanish Civil War
Savoia-Marchetti SM.81.jpg
Bombers of the Nationalist air force
DateFebruary 6, 1937–February 27, 1937
LocationArganda del Rey, Madrid, Spain
Result Indecisive; strategic Republican Victory
Spain Second Spanish Republic
International Brigades
Spain Nationalist Spain
Commanders and leaders
Spain José Miaja
Spain Sebastián Pozas Perea
Spain Enrique Líster
Spain Valentín González
Robert Merriman
Spain Enrique Varela
Spain García Escámez
Spain Carlos Asensio
Spain Fernándo Barrón Ortiz
~30,000 infantry
(June 15)[1]
30 tanks
25,000[2]–40,000 infantry,[3]
~40 guns[4]
55 tanks
Casualties and losses
10,000[5]–25,000[6] dead, wounded, or captured 6,000[5]–20,000[6] dead, wounded, or captured

The Battle of Jarama (February 6–27, 1937) was an attempt by General Franco's Nationalists to dislodge the Republican lines along the river Jarama, just east of Madrid, during the Spanish Civil War. Elite Spanish Legionnaires and Moroccan Regulares from the Army of Africa forced back the Republican Army of the Centre, including the International Brigades, but after days of fierce fighting no breakthrough was achieved. Republican counterattacks along the captured ground likewise failed, resulting in heavy casualties to both sides:


By winter of 1937 the Nationalist forces, led by Francisco Franco, having failed to carry Madrid by storm in November 1936, resolved to cut off the city by crossing the Jarama to the south east and severing Madrid's communications with the pro tempore Republican capital of Valencia.

General Mola was in overall command of the Nationalist forces around Madrid and planned an offensive across the Jarama 11 km south of the capital. General Orgaz was put in command of the front, with General Varela exercising command in the field.[7] The attack had been intended to coincide with an offensive by Franco's Italian allies under General Mario Roatta at Guadalajara, but the Italians were not ready in time and Mola decided to press ahead without them. The Nationalists had roughly 25,000 infantry, mostly regulares and Spanish Foreign Legionnaires. Mola also had ten squadrons of cavalry at his disposal. They were supported by German troops from the Condor Legion, including two heavy machine gun battalions, a tank corps under Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma and batteries of 155mm and 88mm guns.[8]

The initial objectives of the Nationalists were to take the western bank of the river Jarama and to capture the heights that overlooked it. Next, they would break through the Republican positions on the high ground east of the river and take the towns of Vaciamadrid and Arganda in order to sever the Madrid—Valencia road and cut off the capital to the south and east.

Flag of the Popular Front which hosted the International Brigades

Taking the west bank

The Nationalist offensive began on February 5 with assaults on the Republican positions on the west bank of the Jarama. The opening attacks took the Republicans by surprise. The Nationalists, as was the fashion of the Army of Africa, advanced in mobile columns and overwhelmed the unprepared Republicans. General García Escámez commanded their right flank (to the south), General Rada commanded the left, or northern wing, while General Asensio commanded the centre. Escámez attacked on February 6 at Ciempozuelos and overran the Republican forces which lost 1,800 men. Rada's men took La Marañosa hill, 700 metres high, which overlooked both banks of the Jarama. The two Republican battalions atop La Marañosa vainly stuck to their cliff-top defences and died there to the last.[9] From this hill-top position, the Nationalists could dominate the river crossing with artillery and machine gun fire.

By February 8, the west bank of the Jarama was in Nationalist hands. Elements of General Pozas' Army of the Centre had already begun taking flight when Líster and El Campesino showed up with their veteran brigades on February 8 and stabilized the line. Reinforcements appeared on the east bank of the Jarama and the Republic's army reorganized its defences, forestalling any enemy crossing. In addition, heavy rain flooded the river and held up fighting for two days.

Nationalists cross the river

Flag of the National Faction.

On February 11 a small group of Moroccan regulares crossed the river undetected and crept up to the positions of the Republican XIV International Brigade near the Pindoque railway bridge at Vaciamadrid. As they had learned to do in the Rif War, the regulares slipped inside the enemy perimeter and silently cut the throats of the sentries.[10] Nationalist cavalry under Barrón followed them across almost immediately and attacked the fleeing XIV Brigade. Nearby, Barrón's column, braving heavy Republican fire, charged across the Arganda bridge and established a bridgehead on the other side. The Republicans had laid demolition charges on the bridge, but although they were detonated, the bridge remained intact. Further south, Asensio attacked the village of San Martín de la Vega, where Republican machine gunners brought his advance to grief before being silenced by Moroccan and Legionnaire knifework. At this point, Nationalist troops under Varela crossed the river in force.

However, the Republicans remained firmly entrenched along the Pingarrón heights on the eastern bank and continued to plaster the Nationalist bridgeheads with artillery fire. Barrón's brigade was held up by the Garibaldi Battalion, which held the high ground near Arganda. Late in the day, units of XI International Brigade held off a Nationalist push onto the Arganda—Colmena road. The Republicans then counterattacked twice with Soviet T-26 tanks, which were beaten off with artillery fire from Nationalist batteries dug in on La Marañosa, but they served to hold up further Nationalist advances.[11] When Junkers of the Condor Legion appeared overhead in support of the Nationalists, Republican planes shot them down and took control of the skies. Until February 13, the Republican air force, largely composed of Soviet machines and pilots, maintained air supremacy. However, they were challenged by the arrival of more Italian and Spanish nationalist aircraft, with the result that, by the end of the battle, neither side had a decisive advantage in the air.

The Nationalists brought their reserves forward and opened on February 12 a powerful attack in the direction of Morata. Asensio's troops took the Pingarrón hills and assaulted the Pajares heights to the north. This struggle for the high ground east of the Jarama would see some of the most bitter fighting of the battle.

Suicide Hill

The XI International Brigade (composed of British, Irish, Balkan, French and Belgian volunteers) defending the Pajares found itself outmanned and outgunned. Nationalist artillery massed on the heights of Pingarrón and pummeled the defenders. The German Thälmann Battalion held off a frontal assault on their hill-top, inflicting severe casualties on the attacking regulares with machine gun fire,[12] but the British were forced back and took up position at a place they named Suicide Hill. A machine-gun battalion arrived in support but proved of little use, having been issued the wrong ammunition.[13] However, Líster's veteran Spaniards appeared to the left of the British and helped the Republican line hold all day and through the night, despite frightful casualties.

A furious and confused fight followed in which the British Battalion lost poet Christopher Caudwell and 375 of their 600 men, including almost every officer. On February 13, Nationalist forces started a flanking manoeuvre and forced back the French units to the right of the British. They were then able to isolate and capture 30 members of the machine gun battalion. The surviving Republicans gave up the hill and retreated to the heights, where the enigmatic, pseudonymous "Colonel Gal" — whose identity was never confirmed with certainty — rallied the officers and convinced them to rejoin the battle.[14] The Nationalists, mistaking the returning Republicans for their own soldiers, gave up the hill to them without a fight before realizing their error and resuming the struggle. By the night of February 14, fresh troops arrived to shore up the Republican line.

The farthest Nationalist advance was made to the south of "Suicide Hill" in the low hills between the heights of Pajares and Pingarrón. There the Nationalist centre made a breakthrough, after the XV International Brigade was smashed by artillery fire from the Nationalist 155mm guns on Marañosa hill. Barrón's troops almost reached the town of Arganda del Rey and the coveted Madrid—Valencia road. However, their advance was halted by orders from General Varela, who was concerned that they would be cut off if they advanced too far ahead of other Nationalist units.

Republican counterattack

After Jarama, the Americans were heard to remark: "Small wonder our unit was named after Abraham Lincoln: He, too, was assassinated."

On February 14, the Republicans counter-attacked Barrón's men with 50 T-26 tanks, supported by infantry, artillery and air cover. Although it did not re-take any lost ground, the counter-attack again bloodied the Nationalists and halted their advance.[12] The shaken Nationalists went as far as to call the 14th "el día triste del Jarama" ("the sad day," a throwback to Hernán Cortés' Noche Triste).[15]

On February 17, General José Miaja took overall command of the Republican front. Command had previously been split between him and General Pozas, hampering the co-ordination of Republican strategy. Miaja mounted a major counter-offensive to clear the eastern back of the Jarama. Forces under Líster made a frontal assault on the heights at Pingarrón, only to be driven back with up to 50% casualties. On the tactical execution of these counterattacks, one Nationalist soldier reflected:

We only just held on to the position after two days of fighting. It was partly the courage of the Requetés that saved us, partly the arrival at a critical moment of a squadron of our tanks, but chiefly the inept and suicidal tactics of the enemy. They put in a frontal assault in broad daylight across a plain dominated by our positions and almost devoid of cover. ...They were Spanish troops and I greatly admired their bravery, but I wondered what kind of military cretin had ordered such an attack.[16]

Another futile and costly attack was made by troops under Juan Modesto from the direction of the Manzanares river to the north on the Nationalist hill-top position at Marronosa. Here again, the Republicans failed, at a heavy cost, to achieve their objectives. In the northern sector however, the Nationalists were forced back, away from Vaciamadrid and the Madrid—Valencia road.

Further Republican counter-attacks followed between February 23 and February 27. General Gal ordered another attempt to storm the Nationalist strongpoint at Pingarrón. The Republican forces involved included 450 Americans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade under Robert Merriman. The inexperienced troops, advancing without artillery support, marched bravely into the teeth of the Nationalist lines and were cut to pieces. Poet Charles Donnelly (part of an Irish contingent known as the Connolly Column) was heard to remark, "even the olives are bleeding", before being gunned down by a burst of machine gun fire and killed. The Americans lost 120 dead and 175 wounded, or 66% casualties.[17] After the failure of this attack, the Jarama valley settled again into silence. Both sides dug in and the front stabilised.


By the end of February the front lines had stabilized, with both sides consolidating and fortifying their positions to the point where no useful assault could be undertaken. Nationalists and Republicans alike had suffered very heavy losses (of between 6,000 to 25,000 each, depending on different estimates[18]). In addition, their troops were exhausted and low on ammunition and food.

Although the Nationalists succeeded in crossing the river and resisted all efforts to dislodge them from their footholds on the other side, the Madrid—Valencia road remained out of reach and firmly in Republican hands. Consequently, the area lost much of its strategic importance and merged into the wider front, lined with trenches and reminiscent of the static struggle of the First World War's Western Front. In March, the Italian Expeditionary Army was likewise thrown back at Guadalajara, ending Franco's hopes of cutting off Madrid.

See also

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  1. Thomas, p. 490. The defenders constituted III Army Corps. The front line at this point was held by the XIth, XII, XIIIth, XIVth, and XVth International Brigades, as well as Líster's regiment (perhaps 20,000 men).
  2. Beevor, Antony. The Battle for Spain; the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. Penguin Books. London. 2006. p.209
  3. Jackson, Gabriel. The Spanish Republic and the Civil War,1931-1939. Princenton University Press. Princenton. 1967. p.345
  4. Thomas, p. 485. The Nationalist force included five brigades of the Army of Africa and six 155-mm field batteries, supported by an artillery detachment from the Condor Legion.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Coverdale, The Battle of Guadalajara, 8–22 March 1937, p. 54
  6. 6.0 6.1 Thomas, p. 492
  7. Antony Beevor, The Spanish Civil War, 1999, p. 151
  8. Beevor (1991) p. 153
  9. Thomas, p. 485
  10. Thomas, p. 486
  11. Beevor, p.153
  12. 12.0 12.1 Beevor, p. 154
  13. A chronic problem resulting from the Republic's international isolation, which forced it to acquire polyglot weaponry from a variety of suppliers.
  14. Thomas, p. 489
  15. Richardson, The Defense of Madrid: Mysterious Generals, Red Front Fighters, and the International Brigades, p. 180
  16. Esenwein (2005), pp. 60
  17. Thomas, p. 491
  18. Beevor, p.155


  • Antony Beevor (1999). The Spanish Civil War. Cassell. ISBN 0-304-35281-0. 
  • Bradley, Ken; Mike Chappell (1994). The International Brigades in Spain, 1936-39. Osprey Publishing. pp. 21–24. ISBN 1-85532-367-2. 
  • Esenwein, George Richard (2005). The Spanish Civil War: A Modern Tragedy. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-20417-0. 
  • Richardson, R. Dan (December 1979). "The Defense of Madrid: Mysterious Generals, Red Front Fighters, and the International Brigades". Society for Military History. pp. 178–185. Digital object identifier:10.2307/1986750. JSTOR 1986750. 
  • Hugh Thomas (2001). The Spanish Civil War. Modern Library. ISBN 0-375-75515-2. 

External links

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