On July 17, 1936, with leaders of the Popular Front government of Spain learning of their plans, rightist plotters in the army were forced prematurely to begin their effort to seize power in what became the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). An important battle early in the conflict was the siege of the Alcázar in Toledo during July 21–September 27, 1936.
The reformist Popular Front had won the recent national elections and was determined to bring Spain into alignment with the rest of western Europe. Those opposing the Republicans sought to preserve the character and traditions of ancestral Spain. As historian Herbert Matthews has put it, the central question of the Spanish Civil War was “whether the Catholic, traditional, agrarian, and centralized rule of the past centuries should continue, or whether the great issues that the French Revolution had resolved for France and much of the Western world should be accepted. These included democratic government, capitalism, civil freedoms, separation of church and state, and land reform.”
The Spanish Civil War was both hard-fought and sanguinary. Both sides were equally ruthless, and there were millions of casualties. Whatever the outcome, the war would have been over earlier had it not been for the intervention of other countries, principally Germany and Italy lining up with the Fascists and the Soviet Union supporting the Republicans.
The Nationalists, or Fascists as they were also known, had some two-thirds of the army and 90 percent of the officers. They also had the support of the Catholic Church, die-hard monarchists, and the conservative old-line families who possessed the bulk of the country’s wealth. They also had the Spanish Foreign Legion and the many powerful armies of the paramilitary groups, the Carlists and the Falange.
The government side was known as the Republicans or Loyalists. Led by Spanish president Manuel Azaña Diaz, the Republicans had the navy and most of the air force. It also had strong support from the peasants and workers in the most industrialized part of Spain, the Madrid-Valencia-Barcelona triangle. The loyalties of the middle class were fairly evenly divided.
Nationalist leader General José Sanjurjo y Sacanell was killed in a plane crash on July 20, and leadership devolved to General Francisco Franco, who would emerge as the Caudillo (Leader) and the most durable of twentieth-century dictators. Opinions differ as to which side would have won the civil war had it been left to the Spaniards themselves, but certainly the conflict would have been over much more quickly. Foreign military intervention greatly prolonged the suffering and dramatically augmented the death toll.
German and Italian aid came early. German chancellor Adolf Hitler loaned the Nationalist side transport aircraft and fighter escorts, with German crews, to ferry 20,000 of Franco’s troops from Morocco to Spain, for Republican control of the navy blocked access by water. Getting these troops to Spain was critical if the Nationalists were to be successful. Italy also sent aircraft and the most men, but German assistance, especially the Kondor Legion that enabled the Fascists to win control of the skies, was critical to the outcome. Soviet aid, while it bought influence and eventually subverted the Republic, was late and never in sufficient quantities to overcome that supplied to the Fascists by Germany and Italy. Unfortunately, the Western democracies remained aloof. Fearful of a general war, British leaders insisted on nonintervention and forced France to act accordingly. It was therefore almost a miracle that the Republicans were able to hold on as long as they did.
At the end of July 1936, however, the Spanish capital city of Madrid remained Republican, thwarting Nationalist plans for a quick coup. Most other major cities also remained loyal. Battles raged everywhere, with atrocities committed by both sides.
The rebels hoped to take Madrid early on, believing that its capture would bring the war to a speedy conclusion. Franco and his Army of Africa now moved north from Seville, where they had been ferried by the Germans. But the Republicans had secured control of the city of Toledo about 45 miles south-southwest of Madrid. However, Nationalists there had barricaded themselves in the large Alcázar (fortress) and were refusing to surrender.
Toledo and the Alcázar were important symbolically to Spaniards. The city had been the capital of the Visigothic Kingdom, and the Spanish monarchs had lived in the Alcázar, built in 1520 on high ground and looming over the city, until it had been abandoned by King Philip II and turned into the Spanish Military Academy. The Alcázar was a formidable fortress structure with 10-foot walls. In 1936 it and the military academy were commanded by Nationalist supporter Colonel José Moscardó Ituarte.
On July 18, Moscardó had ordered the Guardia Civil of the province to Toledo and on July 19 and 20 had rejected efforts by the Republican government in Madrid to secure munitions from the city’s arms factory. The government then sent some 8,000 militiamen men south, with seven field artillery pieces and a few small tankettes. They would be aided during the siege by the Republican air force. Unfortunately, the attackers lacked the modern heavy artillery necessary to breach the fortress walls.
On July 21, the Republican force arrived and moved against the arms factory, where 200 Guardia Civil were then located. The latter used the time during surrender negotiations to load trucks with ammunition and remove it to the Alcázar before destroying what they could and withdrawing to the Alcázar.
By July 22, the Republicans controlled most of Toledo and commenced shelling the Alcázar in hopes of inducing its surrender. Throughout the siege, the Nationalist side adopted a passive stance, returning fire only when threatened by attack.
There were now some 1,500 people inside the Alcázar. Moscardó probably commanded 150 officers and noncommissioned officers assigned to the Academy, 650 members of the Guardia Civil, and 7 cadets (the others being on vacation). There were also more than 500 military dependents. In addition, the colonel had taken about 100 civilian hostages, including the provincial governor and his family. The defenders possessed only rifles and a few machine guns and grenades but were now well supplied with ammunition.
On July 23, in what is touted as the most celebrated single incident of the entire war, Republican militia leader in Toledo Candido Cabello talked by telephone with Moscardó inside the Alcázar and informed him that unless he surrendered the fortress within 10 minutes, he would shoot Moscardó’s 17-year-old son Luis. Cabello put the boy on the phone, and the colonel told his son that he should commend his soul to God and prepare for a hero’s death and shout “Viva Christ the King” and “Viva Spain.” “That I can do,” Luis replied. The elder Moscardó then informed Cabello that he would never surrender. Later asked for his report of the day, Moscardó replied, “Sin novedad” (Nothing new). The Republicans indeed executed young Moscardó, claiming this occurred on August 23 in reprisal for a Nationalist air raid.
The Republicans first concentrated their fire on the northern side of the fortress, but shelling here failed to achieve the desired results, and from August 14 for five weeks they attacked the House of the Military Government located close to the fortress, mounting 11 separate efforts, all of which were turned back. Had the Republicans been able to take this structure, they would have been able to mass a large number of men only 40 yards from the Alcázar.
On September 9, Moscardó again rejected a demand from an emissary, Spanish Army major Vicente Rojo Lluch, that he surrender. Two days later on Moscardó’s request, the Republicans allowed a priest of leftist views into the fortress to baptize two newly born infants. The priest also granted the defenders absolution. That evening Rojo again met with Moscardó and requested the release of the women and children. All the women rejected this, saying that if necessary, they would themselves take up arms in defense of the fortress.
On September 18, the attackers exploded a large mine that they had been preparing for a month. The blast collapsed the tower on the Alcázar’s southeast corner and opened a breach in the wall. In the next few hours, the Republicans launched four separate attacks on the breech, employing their tankettes. These met determined resistance and failed.
With most of the outlying structures having been destroyed, on the night of September 21 the defenders abandoned these and concentrated the defense on what remained on the Alcázar itself. Unaware of this, the attackers were slow to occupy the abandoned structures, but in a surprise attack at 5:00 a.m. on September 23 the Republicans gained access to the Alcázar’s courtyard. However, the defenders rallied and drove them back. Later that morning, another attack led by a tankette was also defeated. Still, the situation appeared dire, but relief was on the way.
General José Enrique Varela Iglesius had been headed for Madrid when Franco decided on September 21 to divert his forces to Toledo. Franco realized this decision might well cost him Madrid, but he believed that relieving the Toledo garrison was more important from a propaganda standpoint. On September 23, Varela set out, and three days later his men cut the road between Toledo and Madrid some four miles north of Toledo.
On the morning of September 27, before the Nationalists could arrive, the Republicans exploded another mine on the northeast side of the fortress, but their attack here was defeated. At dusk the same day, the Nationalist relief force arrived and entered the Alcázar, which was then in flames. The Moroccan troops massacred all Republicans in Toledo they could find, including the wounded, doctors, and nurses, in San Juan Hospital.
Republican casualties in the siege are unknown, but the Nationalists side claimed 65 dead, 438 wounded, and 22 missing.
The siege of Toledo was important in the course of the war. Although a great propaganda victory for the Nationalists, it did secure additional time for the Republicans to solidify their control of the capital and improve its defenses. Four Nationalists columns under General Emilio Mola y Vidal attacked the capital on November 8 but were repulsed. The city held out, its defenders vowing “No pasaran” (they shall not pass). Madrid’s fall on March 28, 1939, marked the end of the long conflict. The Alcázar was rebuilt after the war and today houses the Museum of the Army.
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