Santa Ana was a three-masted first-rate, with three decks of guns: the prototype for seven other ships built during the 1780s at Spanish and Cuban yards.
Santa Ana 1784 by San Martín – Artesanía Latina – Scale 1:84
A first-rate of 112 guns, Santa Ana was the first of a class of eight ships intended to provide the central strength of the Spanish Navy. It was Spain’s flagship at Trafalgar on 21 October 1805.
Naval architecture was a well-established science by the early eighteenth century. By mid-century Spanish shipbuilders were applying lessons learned from English and French designers to their own established techniques, particularly relating to wood treatment and construction methods. Jose Romero y Fernandez de Landa, Santa Ana’s designer, was a scientific builder, author of a textbook on the construction of warships, published in 1784.
Built at El Ferrol, the vessel was launched on 29 September 1784 and first put to sea on 24 November that same year, though not commissioned until 28 February 1785. It was based at Cadiz and maintenance work was done at the La Carraca Arsenal. In January 1787 it was dry docked at La Carraca, and in June 1791 was careened there and rotten timbers were replaced.
Santa Ana had seven anchors with a total weight of 20,457kg (45,100lb). Its ballast, in iron (small ball shots, and iron pieces) occupied around 20 per cent of the length, placed amidships and surrounded by stone ballast. An indication of the care and attention put into construction is given by the ballast-laying instructions. First tar was applied to the holding timbers, then a layer of zulaque (sticky clay or cement), 102mm (4in) thick was applied to the floor-heads. Ground brick was added in alternate layers with iron and fine mix to fill up the space up to 305mm (12in) above the floor-heads. Above this, only the mix of gravel and brick was laid to the heads of the first futtocks. The aim was to ensure that the ballast, around 81 tonnes (90 tons), was densely packed and could not shift in any direction with the pitching and rolling of the ship.
In 1794 the ship was given a full careen at La Carraca, rearmed in January 1797 and stationed at Cadiz. It was with the fleet blockaded in Cadiz in February 1798. In September that year it was careened again at La Carraca and copper sheathing was applied to the bottom. On 21 July 1799 it grounded at the Rota naval base but was refloated. A new keel was fitted in the course of 1800, and Santa Ana remained on service until 1802, when it was again disarmed. Most of its time until 1805 was spent disarmed either through being laid off or having repairs and maintenance; its periods of activity totalled approximately five years out of twenty-one. Disarming meant the removal of everything not integral to the hull structure, including the lower masts, bowsprit and ballast. Everything else was removed and stored away, including the rudder.
In January 1805 preparations for a new spell of active duty began. Careened in La Carraca in September of that year, it was newly rearmed and re-manned when it put to sea with the Combined Fleet, as flagship of the Spanish second-in-command.
In the Battle of Trafalgar, Santa Ana carried the flag of Vice-Admiral Alava and was captained by Jose Gardoqui. It seems it was painted white with black stripes, though some accounts state it was wholly black. Its position in the Combined Fleet’s line brought it against the British fleet’s lee division, headed by HMS Royal Sovereign, flagship of Vice-Admiral Collingwood, under whose drills the ship’s gunnery was the best in the British fleet. Royal Sovereign crossed just abaft of Santa Ana and fired a double-shotted broadside into the stern, which put 14 guns out of action and caused many casualties. The two ships were then locked together for a time, with Royal Sovereign against Santa Ana’s starboard bow, in a devastating cross-fire that continued for almost two hours. ‘They fought us pretty tightish’, reported a British midshipman. Santa Ana’s mizzen topmast was shot away, and after about an hour and a quarter all its three masts had fallen over. At about 14:20 it struck to Royal Sovereign.
Two days after the battle, Santa Ana was recaptured by a Spanish frigate squadron and towed back to Cadiz. When the French invaded Spain in 1808 it was still under repair and took no part in the Peninsular War. With a sister ship, Principe de Asturias, it was moved to Havana in 1810, but saw no further action. It eventually sank at the Havana Arsenal, in 1816.
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.
Beevor, Antony. The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006.
Eby, Cecil D. The Siege of the Alcazar. New York: Random House, 1965.
Matthews, Herbert L. Half of Spain Died: A Reappraisal of the Spanish Civil War. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973.
Moss, Geoffrey MacNeill. The Siege of the Alcázar: A History of the Siege of the Toledo Alcázar, 1936. New York: Knopf, 1937.
Preston, Paul. The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution, and Revenge. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006.
Thomas, Hugh. The Spanish Civil War. Rev. ed. New York: Harper and Brothers, 2001.
Whealey, Robert H. Hitler and Spain: The Nazi Role in the Spanish Civil War 1936–1939. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989.
Louis XIV presents his grandson, the King of Spain to the Court and to the Spanish Ambassador.
The dichotomy of Castile-Aragon could not be summarily removed by the stroke of a pen – not even the pen of a Bourbon.
The fall of Oropesa in 1691 left Spain without an effective Government. Indeed, it was followed soon after by the curious administrative experiment of dividing the peninsula into three large governmental regions, one under the Duke of Montalto, the second under the Constable, and the third under the Admiral, of Castile. This was little more than a medieval-style partition of the country among rival lords; and since it was imposed on a State which already possessed the most rigid and elaborate bureaucratic superstructure, it merely led to a further round of clashes of jurisdiction between Spain’s perennially competing Councils and tribunals. But by this stage domestic changes in the peninsula had virtually ceased to be of any importance. Spain was no longer even remotely the master of its own fate. Overshadowed by the terrible problem of the royal succession, its future now largely depended on decisions taken in Paris, London, Vienna, and the Hague.
By the 1690s, the problem of the Spanish succession had become acute. Charles II had remained childless by his first marriage, to María Luisa of Orleans, who died in 1689. It soon became apparent that his second marriage – an ‘Austrian’ marriage, to Mariana de Neuburg, daughter of the Elector Palatine and sister of the Empress was also likely to be childless. As the hopes of an heir faded the great powers began their complicated manoeuvres for the acquisition of the King of Spain’s inheritance. The new marriage had provoked Louis XIV into a fresh declaration of war, which involved yet another invasion of Catalonia, and the capture of Barcelona by the French in 1697. But in the Treaty of Ryswick, which ended the war in September 1697, Louis could afford to be generous. His aim was to secure for the Bourbons an undivided Spanish succession, and there was more hope of attaining this by diplomacy than by war.
The last years of the dying King presented a pathetic spectacle of degradation at Madrid. Afflicted with convulsive fits, the wretched monarch was believed to have been bewitched, and the Court pullulated with confessors and exorcists and visionary nuns employing every artifice known to the Church to free him from the devil. Their rivalries and intrigues mingled with those of Spanish courtiers and of foreign diplomats, who were collecting like vultures to prey on the corpse of the Monarchy. While France and Austria hoped to secure the entire prize for themselves, England and the United Provinces were determined to prevent either of them from obtaining an inheritance which would bring the hegemony of Europe in its train. But the task would not be easy, and time was running out.
At the time of the peace of Ryswick there were three leading candidates for the Spanish throne, each of whom had a strong body of supporters at the Court. The candidate with the best claims was the young Prince Joseph Ferdinand of Bavaria, the grandson of Philip IV’s daughter, Margarita Teresa. His claims were supported by the Count of Oropesa, and had been pressed by the Queen Mother Mariana, who died in 1696. They were also acceptable to the English and the Dutch, who had less to fear from a Bavarian than from a French or Austrian succession. The Austrian candidate was the Archduke Charles, the second son of the Emperor, who was supported by Charles’s Queen, Mariana de Neuburg, and by the Admiral of Castile. Finally, there was the French claimant, Louis XIV’s grandson, Philip of Anjou, who claims were clouded by the Infanta María Teresa’s renunciation of her rights to the Spanish throne at the time of her marriage to Louis XIV.
In 1696 Charles, who was thought to be dying, was induced by the majority of his councillors, headed by Cardinal Portocarrero, to declare himself in favour of the Bavarian Prince. Louis’ skilful ambassador, the Marquis of Harcourt, set himself to undo this as soon as he reached Madrid on the conclusion of the Treaty of Ryswick. Still manoeuvring among themselves without regard for the King’s wishes, the great powers agreed secretly in October 1698 on the partition of the Spanish inheritance between the three candidates. Naturally enough the secret was badly kept. Charles, imbued with a deep sense of majesty which his person consistently belied, was deeply affronted by the attempt to dismember his domains, and signed a will in November 1698 naming the Bavarian as his universal heir. This arrangement, however, was thwarted by the sudden death of the young Prince in February 1699 – an event which brought the rival Austrian and French candidates face to face for the throne. While frantic diplomatic efforts were made to avert another European conflagration, Charles fought with a desperate resolution to keep his domains intact. The news that reached him at the end of May 1700 of another partition treaty seems finally to have persuaded him where his duty lay. Alienated by dislike of his Queen from all things German, and deeply solicitous for the future well-being of his subjects, he was now ready to accept the almost unanimous recommendation of his Council of State in favour of the Duke of Anjou. On 2 October 1700 he signed the anxiously awaited will, naming Anjou as the successor to all his dominions. The Queen, who had always terrified her husband, did everything in her power to induce him to revoke his decision, but this time the dying King held firm. With a dignity on his death-bed that had constantly eluded the poor misshapen creature in his lifetime, the last King of the House of Austria insisted that his will should prevail. He died on 1 November 1700, amidst the deep disquietude of a nation which found it almost impossible to realize that the dynasty which had led it to such triumphs and such disasters had suddenly ceased to exist.
The Duke of Anjou was duly proclaimed King of Spain as Philip V, and made his entry into Madrid in April 1701. A general European conflict might still have been avoided if Louis XIV had shown himself less high-handed at the moment of triumph. But his actions alienated the maritime powers, and in May 1702 England, the Emperor, and the United Provinces simultaneously declared war on France. For a time the war of the Spanish Succession, which was to last from 1702 to 1713, seemed to threaten the Bourbons with utter disaster. But in 1711 the Emperor Joseph died, to be succeeded on the Imperial throne by his brother, the Archduke Charles, who had been the allies’ candidate for the throne of Spain. The union of Austria and Spain beneath a single ruler – so uncomfortably reminiscent of the days of Charles V – was something that appealed to the maritime powers even less than the prospect of a Bourbon in Madrid. Accordingly, the English and the Dutch now declared themselves ready to accept a Bourbon succession in Spain, so long as Philip V abandoned any pretensions to the French throne. Agreement was formalized in the Treaties of Utrecht of 1713, which also gave Great Britain Gibraltar and Minorca. A further peace settlement in the following year between France and the Empire gave the Spanish Netherlands and Spain’s Italian possessions to the Austrians. With the treaties of 1713–14, therefore, the great Burgundian-Habsburg empire which Castile had borne on its shoulders for so long was dissolved, and two centuries of Habsburg imperialism were formally liquidated. The Spanish Empire had shrunk at last to a truly Spanish empire, consisting of the Crowns of Castile and Aragon, and of Castile’s American colonies.
The extinction of the Habsburg dynasty and the dismemberment of the Habsburg empire were followed by the gradual dismantling of the Habsburg system of government. Philip V was accompanied to Madrid by a number of French advisers, of whom the most notable was Jean Orry. Orry remodelled the royal household along French lines, and settled down to the gargantuan task of financial reform. The process of reform continued throughout the war, and culminated in a general governmental reorganization, in the course of which the Councils began to assume the shape of ministries on the French model. At last, after decades of administrative stagnation, Spain was experiencing that revolution in government which had already changed the face of western Europe during the preceding fifty years.
The most important of all the changes introduced by the Bourbons, however, was to occur in the relationship between the Monarchy and the Crown of Aragon. In the modern-style centralized state which the Bourbons were attempting to establish, the continuation of provincial autonomies appeared increasingly anomalous. Yet it did seem for one moment as if the Crown of Aragon might survive the change of régime with its privileges intact. Obedient to the dictates of Louis XIV, Philip V went to Barcelona in 1701 to hold a session of the Catalan Cortes – the first to be summoned since Philip IV’s abortive Cortes of 1632. From the Catalan standpoint, these were among the most successful Cortes ever held. The Principality’s laws and privileges were duly confirmed, and Philip conceded important new privileges, including the right of limited trade with the New World. But the Catalans themselves were the first to appreciate that there was something incongruous about so generous a handling of provincial liberties by a dynasty notorious for its authoritarian traits. Nor could they forget the treatment they had received at the hands of France during their revolution of 1640–52, and the terrible damage inflicted on the Principality by French invasions during the later seventeenth century. It was therefore perhaps not surprising that as Philip V’s popularity increased in Castile, it declined in Catalonia. Finally, in 1705, the Catalans sought and received military aid from England, and proclaimed the Austrian claimant, the Archduke Charles, as Charles III of Spain. Allied troops were also enthusiastically welcomed in Aragon and Valencia, and the War of the Spanish Succession was converted into a Spanish civil war, fought between the two parts of the peninsula nominally united by Ferdinand and Isabella. The allegiances, however, were at first sight paradoxical, for Castile, which had always hated the foreigner, was supporting the claims of a Frenchman, while the Crown of Aragon, which had always been so suspicious of Habsburg intentions, was championing the claims of a prince of the House of Austria.
On this occasion, Catalonia, although a far more mature and responsible nation than it had been in 1640, proved to have made a disastrous mistake. The Government of the Archduke Charles in Barcelona was sadly ineffective, and would probably have collapsed within a few months if it had not been shored up by Catalonia’s allies. Aragon and Valencia fell to Philip V in 1707, and were summarily deprived of their laws and liberties as a punishment for supporting the losing side. It was hard to see how the Principality could escape a similar fate unless its allies held firm, and firmness was the last thing to be expected of an increasingly war-weary England. When the Tory Government signed the peace with France in 1713 it left the Catalans in the lurch, as the French had left them in the lurch during their revolution against Philip IV. Faced with the equally grim alternatives of hopeless resistance and surrender, the Catalans chose to resist, and for months the city of Barcelona held out with extraordinary heroism against the besieging army. But on 11 September 1714 the Bourbon forces mounted their final assault, and the city’s resistance reached its inevitable end. From 12 September 1714 Philip V, unlike Philip IV, was not merely King of Castile and Count of Barcelona; he was also King of Spain.
The fall of Barcelona was followed by the wholesale destruction of Catalonia’s traditional institutions, including the Diputació and the Barcelona city council. The Government’s plans for reform were codified in the so-called Nueva Planta, published on 16 January 1716. This document in effect marks the transformation of Spain from a collection of semi-autonomous provinces into a centralized State. The viceroys of Catalonia were replaced by Captain-Generals, who would govern in conjunction with a royal Audiencia conducting its business in Castilian. The Principality was divided into a new series of administrative divisions similar to those of Castile, and run by corregidores on the Castilian model. Even the universities were abolished, to be replaced by a new, royalist, university established at Cervera. The intention of the Bourbons was to put an end to the Catalan nation, and to obliterate the traditional political divisions of Spain. Nothing expressed this intention better than the abolition of the Council of Aragon, already accomplished in 1707. In future, the affairs of the Crown of Aragon were to be administered by the Council of Castile, which became the principal administrative organ of the new Bourbon state.
Although the new administrative organization went a good deal less far in practice than it went on paper, the passing of Catalan autonomy in 1716 marks the real break between Habsburg and Bourbon Spain. If Olivares had been successful in his foreign wars, the change would no doubt have come seventy years earlier, and the history of Spain might have taken a very different course. As it was, the change came too late, and it came in the wrong way. Spain, under the Government of the Bourbons, was about to be centralized and Castilianized; but the transformation occurred at a time when Castile’s economic hegemony was a thing of the past. Instead, a centralized Government was arbitrarily imposed on the wealthier peripheral regions, to be held there by force – the force of an economically retarded Castile. The result was a tragically artificial structure which constantly hampered Spain’s political development, for during the next two centuries economic and political power were perpetually divorced. Centre and circumference thus remained mutually antagonistic, and the old regional conflicts stubbornly refused to die away. The dichotomy of Castile-Aragon could not be summarily removed by the stroke of a pen – not even the pen of a Bourbon.
42nd Highlanders the Black Watch at the Battle of Corunna on 16th January 1809 in the Peninsular War: picture by Harry Payne
The positions of the armies at Corunna. The British are in red and the French in blue.
Despite their predicament, the British had two factors in their favour. The first was that the range of hills blocking the main road south-east of Corunna could be defended. Moore did not have enough men to secure the Palavea or Peñasquedo Heights but Monte Mero did offer a good defensive position between the mouth of the Rio del Burgo river and Elviña village. The second was that the town’s depots were full of arms and ammunition. Many soldiers exchanged their worn muskets and replaced missing items of equipment before filling their pouches with ammunition. Once everyone had replenished their stocks, the quartermaster’s staff had to destroy what was left. Even if there was room for the spare stores on the transport ships, there would be no time to load everything and tonnes of equipment and clothing was destroyed or burnt to prevent it falling into French hands. Over four thousand barrels of gunpowder still left in the magazine were destroyed on the 13th to prevent them fakllling into French hands; the huge explosion smashed thousands of windows across the town.
While Moore waited for the French to make a move, Soult was advancing cautiously towards the port, giving the tired British soldiers time to recover from their ordeal. Their spirits soared when the fleet was spotted on the horizon on 14 January and the news spread like wildfire; at last the end was in sight. Twelve ships of the line anchored out to sea as over a hundred transports waited their turn to draw up alongside the harbour wall. The sick and the wounded were carried on board first and although they were followed by the artillery and cavalry, many horses had to be destroyed owing to the lack of space.
On 15 January the Duke of Dalmatia probed the rearguard at El Burgo, forcing it to withdraw, but he decided against attacking General Hope’s 2nd Division position at Piedralonga. Although he had some 15,000 men, about the same as Moore, the duke called off the attack, having decided to wait for the arrival of Marshal Soult. This would increase the attacking force to 24,000 men in three divisions, supported by 36 guns including a battery of heavy 12-pounders. In contrast, Moore had only 9 guns ashore. It was going to be an uneven battle if Soult decided to conduct a prolonged artillery duel.
Moore deployed his men on Monte Mero with the 2nd Division on his left flank, overlooking the Rio del Burgo estuary. General Hope placed Hill’s and Leith’s brigades on the forward slopes while their light companies occupied the houses and enclosures in the valley below; Catlin Craufurd’s brigade was in reserve to the rear. The 1st Division held the centre of Moore’s line and Manningham’s brigade held the western slopes of Monte Mero, while Bentinck’s brigade held the slopes overlooking Elviña where the light companies were deployed; Warde’s Guards brigade was in reserve. General Sir David Baird’s position was overlooked by the Heights of Peñasquedo and his men would be exposed to heavy French artillery fire.
Embarkation had continued throughout the night and by the morning of 16 January all the British cavalry and all but nine of the guns were on board the transports. As the sun rose, Moore rode to Monte Mero to inspect his lines and assess Soult’s plans to attack. The French marshal had spotted that Moore’s right flank was his weak point and planned to attack Elviña in force but it was taking some time to get his men into position. As there had been no serious developments, Moore decided to continue loading the ships and he returned to Corunna to order General Fraser and General Paget to move their divisions (both of them only of brigade strength) down to the harbour. While Paget’s reserve division moved back to Oza covering the road into Corunna, Fraser’s 3rd Division deployed on Santa Margarita Hill, covering the south-western approaches to the port.
As the hours passed, the two armies faced each other across the Palavea valley while hundreds of men boarded the transports. The peace was finally shattered just before midday when the French guns began bombarding Elviña as their infantry prepared to advance. News of the imminent attack reached Moore when a report arrived from General Hope, and as Moore cantered back towards Monte Mero, the rising crescendo of gunfire from the Peñasquedo Heights confirmed the news.
Soult had placed a 12-pounder battery opposite the 1st Division’s positions and it bombarded the troops around the village of Elviña for two hours while Delaborde’s and Merle’s tirailleurs forced the British skirmishers back across the Palavea stream and towards the main line. Soult’s plan was to pin down the British troops holding Monte Mero on Moore’s centre and left. Delaborde’s and Merle’s two divisions would feint attacks across the Palavea valley to prevent Moore moving reserves across to where the real threat lay, his right flank. Mermet’s division, some 7,500 strong, would then carry out the main attack, capturing the village of Elviña and the western slopes of Monte Mero, while Lahoussaye’s cavalry division, some 1,300 dragoons, advanced on Mermet’s left and Franceschi’s light cavalry covered the open flank. While Mermet’s troops rolled up the British right flank, the dragoons would swing around the British rear and cut off their line of retreat into Corunna. The final attack would clear the whole of Monte Mero, destroying Moore’s army once and for all.
However, Soult’s plan was taking time to unfold and as Moore noted the tirailleurs struggling to drive the British skirmishers back across the Palavea valley, he commented to his aides, ‘Now, if there is no bungling, I hope we shall get away in a few hours.’ He was sadly mistaken. Shortly afterwards Soult made his intentions known as Mermet’s division advanced down the steep slopes of Peñasquedo Heights towards the right of the British line.
Three columns of French infantry marched towards the 1st Division as their guns fired overhead. While the 31st Regiment was heading directly for Elviña, it was clear that the 47th Regiment was aiming to turn General Baird’s position. The advance was fraught with difficulties owing to the difficult terrain, and the French artillery was forced to stay at the summit of Peñasquedo Heights while the infantry struggled to maintain formation across the rough ground. One soldier of the 42nd later reported that ‘The French Army did not advance very rapidly, on account of the badness of the ground.’
Bentinck’s brigade was holding the Elviña area and the 31st Regiment quickly drove the 1/50th’s light company out of the small village as it advanced up the slopes of Monte Mero. The few remaining British guns fired canister into the columns, while the French guns fired back at long range; one of the first casualties was General Baird, who was severely wounded, forcing Lord William Bentinck to take command of the 1st Division. (Baird was eventually loaded on to a ship where surgeons amputated his arm.)
The combination of the rough terrain and skirmishing fire disorganised the ranks of the 31st Regiment but they continued to advance through Elviña towards the 1/50th and the 1/42nd who were waiting in two-deep lines beyond the village. Moore was close by when the two battalions opened fire at close range, bringing the French columns to a shuddering halt. As they reeled back from the effects of the British volleys, the general ordered the 1/42nd to charge, and as they drove the 31st Regiment back through the village, the 1/50th followed with Moore’s shouts of ‘Well done 50th! Well done my Majors’ ringing in their ears. (The majors were the commanding officer, Major Charles Napier, who was wounded and taken prisoner, and Major Stanhope.) The counter-attack had the desired effect and after brisk hand-to-hand fighting, the French were forced to retire from Elviña and regroup.
While the 31st Regiment made the frontal attack against Bentinck’s brigade, the 47th Regiment had been advancing to the west of Elviña, before turning to attack the British flank. Moore had already spotted the French manoeuvre and had taken steps to counter it, ordering General Paget’s division forward from Oza. While Anstruther ordered the riflemen of the 95th and the 52nd to advance in extended order to confront Lahoussaye’s dragoons, the 28th would follow in support. Disney’s brigade extended the British flank when the 20th and the 91st occupied the San Cristobal Heights. Moore had also ordered General Fraser to abandon his plans to embark on the waiting transport ships and his division headed out of Corunna and occupied Santa Margarita Heights.
Meanwhile, as the 47th Regiment moved slowly around Bentinck’s flank it found that the 1/4th Regiment had deployed half its companies at right angles to its main line in order to face the attack. As the 47th Regiment turned to face the British line, their officers found that the ranks became disordered and men began drifting to the rear. According to Sir Robert Ker Porter, ‘the numbers of the enemy augmented their own consternation; they fell back on each other, making a confusion as successful as our arms’. Bentinck’s brigade had won the battle even before the first volley had been fired and the 47th Regiment was soon falling back in disorder alongside the 31st Regiment.
Soult’s first attack had ended in disaster. While Mermet’s division regrouped on the lower slopes of the Peñasquedo Heights, Anstruther’s men were engaged in a furious firefight with Lahoussaye’s dragoons. The dragoons were unable to get their horses across the Monelos stream and many had dismounted and taken cover among the stone walls, rocks and gorse bushes scattered along the valley floor. It was an unequal contest. The British infantry were used to fighting in extended order and their rifles had greater accuracy and a longer range than the troopers’ carbines. Lahoussaye’s men would be forced to fall back slowly over the hours that followed.
By mid-afternoon Mermet’s division had regrouped and made a second attempt to take Elviña from General Baird’s division. The 50th and the 42nd were driven from the village by this renewed offensive but Moore rallied them with the words ‘Remember Egypt, think on Scotland.’ For once his words of encouragement did not work, and Warde had to send two battalions of foot guards to halt Mermet’s men in the village. While the fighting raged around Elviña, General Merle sent his remaining regiment forward to support the attack. Baird countered by sending forward the 3/1st and the 2/81st of Manningham’s brigade, supported by the 2/59th of Leith’s brigade, to strike the French column in the flank. After prolonged fighting, the French finally fell back from the slopes, leaving Elviña in British hands once more.
Moore had directed the fighting from the slopes for most of the afternoon but as the battle was finally swinging in his favour, disaster struck when a cannon-ball hit him in the left shoulder. As aides carried the mortally wounded general to safety in a blanket, he asked to take one final look back over the battlefield with the words, ‘I always wanted to die this way’. He was taken to his headquarters, a house close to the harbour, where he died soon afterwards. The general was buried late that night on the southern ramparts of Corunna.
Meanwhile, on the battlefield, Sir John Hope was finding it difficult to assert himself as the focus of the battle turned away from Elviña and towards his left flank where General Henri-François Delaborde’s division was about to make the final French assault against the summit of Monte Mero. Until now Marshal Soult had avoided attacking the 2nd Division’s positions astride the main road into Corunna, but General Hope had been forced to send several of his battalions west to support the battle for Elviña, thus weakening the hill-top position. French skirmishers had also spent the day forcing their British counterparts from the valley and Soult now decided that the time was ripe to sweep the British from Monte Mero. As Delaborde’s division began to descend the steep slopes of the Heights of Palavea in the late afternoon, the tiralleurs surged forward to clear Piedralonga.
As three columns of infantry crossed the Palavea stream and advanced up the slopes towards Hope’s division, Hill moved two of his battalions, the 14th and 92nd, to take up a position astride the Corunna road to reinforce the only battalion remaining under Leith’s command. Several volleys and rounds of canister from the two guns covering the road brought the leading French regiment to a halt and it was soon falling back to regroup. Although the three British battalions were outnumbered, Craufurd’s reserve brigade was waiting in support only a few hundred yards away, out of reach of the French guns. Soult called off further attacks, and as Delaborde’s troops withdrew across the Palavea stream, darkness began to fall across the battlefield.
As the exhausted men marched back down to the harbour a simple burial ceremony took place on the ramparts overlooking Corunna, as Sir John Moore’s body was laid to rest. The embarkation continued throughout the night and the following day, while the French guns fired long-range shots at the ships; only a few were damaged. The last regiment to embark was the 23rd and legend has it that Captain Gomm of the 1/9th Regiment was the last man to step off the quayside.
After the horrendous march and the final battle in front of Corunna, the exhausted men could finally say goodbye to Spain, leaving behind not only their commander but more than 800 men dead on the slopes of Monte Mero. On 18 January Moore’s battered army sailed for home while Corunna’s garrison fought on until the fleet was safely out to sea. General Alcedo, the garrison commander, then surrendered his men.
Although the British soldiers were safe at last, severe weather battered the fleet all the way across the Bay of Biscay on the two-week voyage. When the ships finally began to land on the 31st, there was a public outcry at the state of the dishevelled men scrambling on to the quayside. Concerns were raised across England as the country was embroiled in political turmoil.
Sir John Moore had been instructed to safeguard the only army that Britain had, and he had done so; but the cost had been high. Over 6,000 men had been left behind, either dead or as prisoners of war, many of them suffering from terrible injuries. Although there had been time to save the majority of the army’s guns, most of the baggage train had been left behind, often unceremoniously dumped alongside the road to Corunna for the French to plunder.
The departure of the army also further deepened the distrust between Britain and Spain. Moore’s troops had done little to endear themselves to the Spanish population as they left a trail of destruction across the Galician mountains, but now they had gone, the people felt abandoned and complaints of betrayal were soon heard across the country. It would take a series of military victories and delicate political negotiations before the Spanish and the British would trust each other again.
Sir Arthur Wellesley was a distinctly odd man; fastidious, snooty and intelligent all at once. He was also deeply ambitious and powered by intolerance towards others. He could hardly have been more different temperamentally in his buttoned-up style, to the mercurial, emotional Nelson or to the excitable, angry Napoleon. Undemonstrative, except in private to his officers and girlfriends, he was clipped and economical with words, but cultivated soundbites with the care of a modern politician. They resonate to this day.
There were three features of genius to his personality: a brilliant eye for a battlefield and the disposition of forces to give him maximum advantage, particularly in defence, which was on a par with Napoleon’s skill in strong offensive deployments; strategic caution allied to an ability to strike lethally at the enemy’s weakest point at exactly the right time that surpassed even Napoleon; and an awesome dedication to the minutiae of military life – supplies, feeding his soldiers, preparing the ground and reconnaissance. Finally there was his remarkable ability to co-operate with the insurgent forces on the Peninsula, both Spanish and Portuguese. In addition, his cool and detached demeanour under fire was awe-inspiring, and inspirational to his men. Like the best generals, he seemed to think better and more calmly the hotter the action around him.
In spite of his semi-privileged background Wellesley was one of Britain’s first truly professional soldiers. The military commander he most resembled was not Napoleon, with his instinct for aggression in all circumstances, but the American George Washington. His skill in being patient in the face of intense provocation was of the same order. Like Washington he would retire to secure winter quarters, bide his time, and then suddenly strike a decisive blow. Like Washington he could provision and march his men for weeks at a time to preserve his forces. Like Washington he had an eye for the jugular, after years of inertia – suddenly spotting the enemy’s weaknesses and inflicting a decisive defeat.
Wellington was also unflappable and almost inhumanly courageous, a born leader of men in battle. It is from him that the tradition of the cold, aloof British military commander descends. While Britain’s foremost naval commanders were often primadonnas, no one could ever accuse Wellesley of being hysterical. But his contempt for the lower classes, his sharp tongue towards his less gifted subordinates, his insensitivity even towards his own veterans, and his addiction to discipline make him a deeply unattractive personality, as did his private behaviour. While the childishly infatuated Nelson was unintentionally cruel to his wife, Wellington was coldly, calculatingly so. Yet as a military professional, he had the forensic mind of a Sherlock Holmes – a fictional character whose personality might have been modelled on him.
On 27 April 1809 he landed at Lisbon with 23,000 men – including 3,000 Hanoverians. Some 6,000 men had already arrived under Sir Rowland Hill, an amiable, outgoing personality who was beloved of his men. These liaised with General William Beresford who had been placed in command of a considerable force of 16,000 Portuguese troops, with Captain Robert Harvey as his chief aide. Wellesley did not waste time: the plight of his army was precarious. In the north Marshal Soult had occupied Oporto, Portugal’s second city, with 23,000 men, while Marshal Victor, to the east was approaching the frontier with Spain with 25,000 men; between these two was a small army under General Lapisse. There were a staggering 250,000 French troops altogether in the Iberian Peninsula.
The British had just one advantage. The incredible brutality of the French, combined with their unpopularity as invaders, meant that the Spanish and Portuguese were united in their hatred of them. But they were almost equally suspicious of the British, whose motives they suspected and whom they regarded as mere allies of convenience. This led in turn to considerable British distrust, mingled with contempt, for their Iberian allies.
The Peninsular War was to become a three-way conflict in which the bitter and continuing resistance of the Spanish and Portuguese against the invaders, usually involving small-scale attacks, was supplemented by a disciplined regular British force. The British would not have prevailed without the local resistance, which was widespread and which tied down enormous number of French troops. Equally the partisans would eventually have been crushed without the British, who posed the greater military threat. The British regarded the Spanish and Portuguese with distaste and the latter responded with deep suspicion and sometimes non-co-operation. The Spanish armies in particular were poorly commanded and ill-disciplined. Spaniards often showed a small-minded parochialism that led them to fight in their own immediate neighbourhoods, not co-ordinate with the wider national effort, but their fighters could also be incredibly daring and brave – and cruel.
Wellesley moved with the speed he had learnt in India. The country in Portugal was somewhat different – a rugged one of hills, woods and ravines, all of which grew more impassable the further north he travelled. That did not delay him: he was no Chatham. He assembled nearly 18,000 men at Coimbra on the way to Oporto, reasoning that if he immediately defeated Soult, he would prevent a junction of French armies that would otherwise be larger than his own. It was his fortieth birthday.
Beresford led some 6,000 Portuguese militia on the army’s right flank to try to check the enemy’s expansion eastwards into Spain. Some 12,000 troops were left to guard Lisbon and central Portugal. Wellesley marched northwards, routing a small French force of around 4,500 men above Grija, reaching the town of Vila Nova along the upper bends of that wide and beautiful river, the Douro. He was now overlooking Oporto, an ancient and picturesque city crammed down the opposite slope, the trading entrepot of the area with its access along the river to the sea. It was also the great wine-producing centre of the region, traditionally supplying the British with enormous quantities, particularly now that trade with the rest of the continent had been blocked off. To make the shipping of this wine on the long journey back to Britain possible, the wine was fortified with brandy, which created that unique beverage, port, named after Oporto itself.
Soult had little warning of Wellesley’s arrival. He promptly destroyed the single bridge across the Douro and ensured that all river craft were on his side. If an attack came, he thought it would be from the west, using fishing boats brought up by the British from the sea. Wellesley instead turned his attention eastwards, upstream along the river, where he found several unguarded boats, mostly for carrying wine. Wellesley is usually considered a defensive general, but he was capable of offensive boldness when necessary.
He sent across a small force to seize a large enemy-held seminary on the opposite bank. General Paget, leading the raid, was badly wounded; but Hill, along with an infantry brigade, held the seminary against repeated attack. By that time Portuguese boats were ferrying the British across in increasing numbers. The French, fearful of being attacked by the vengeful Portuguese in the steep, narrow streets of the riverside town, ordered a retreat to the east. The British captured nearly 1,300 prisoners and some sixty guns. Some 500 Frenchmen were killed, for a loss of just twenty-three Britons.
To the east Beresford had repulsed another French force and occupied the town of Amarante on the old road from northern Portugal into Spain, thus cutting off Soult’s retreat. Blocked off to the east, the French army swung north into the hilly and wooded country towards Galicia abandoning their guns and provisions in a desperate attempt to get away. They had several thousand troops in their way, many of them Portuguese insurgents who responded to the routine raping of their womenfolk by castrating French soldiers and stuffing their genitals into their mouths or nailing them alive to trees and doorways.
Soult’s retreating army had circled toward the Tagus valley. The twenty-four-year-old Captain Harvey had linguistic skills which made him a natural scout and spy, travelling undercover, stirring up the Portuguese resistance and liaising with anti-French clerics and Portuguese irregulars. On reconnaissance, he saw Soult’s movement and reported it to the Duque del Parque, the Spanish general with whom he was liaising, enabling his army to draw up into defensive lines at Tamames in the north and there block a junction between Soult’s and Victor’s forces.
The British were unable to follow. Wellesley remarked: ‘If an army throws away all its cannon, equipment and baggage and everything which can strengthen it and enable it to act together as a body, and abandons all those who are entitled to its protection but add to its weight and impede its progress, it must be able to march by roads through which it cannot be followed by any army that has not made the same sacrifices.’
The British instead proceeded to march from Abrantes into Spain to take the battle to the enemy. Their intention was to liaise with the 30,000-strong Spanish army of General Don Gregorio de la Cuesta, a sixty-nine-year-old Spanish caudillo – top general – bedecked with medals, who trundled about in a huge coach drawn by mules. De la Cuesta, who treated Wellesley as a subordinate and the British as junior partners, proposed encircling Marshal Victor’s 23,000-strong army across the border. As Wellesley descended from Portugal with his 21,000 men, leaving Beresford and 4,000 to defend Portugal, they found that Victor had withdrawn towards Talavera to the south-east.
Wellesley followed Victor to Plasencia, the local capital, early in July, where he was now just a hundred miles from Madrid. While Soult’s forces held back for the moment, it was planned that the Spanish army should cross the Tagus to the northern bank and march eastwards to join up with the British at Talavera. To the south another 23,000-strong Spanish army under General Venegas was to engage the French forces in Madrid and stop them reinforcing Victor.
As always, the Spaniards’ first reaction to a disturbance with the Indians was to try to seize the initiative. Hernando sent his brother Juan with seventy cavalrymen – virtually every horse then in Cuzco – to disperse the Indians in the Yucay valley. While riding across the plateau of rolling grassy hills that separates the valley of Cuzco from that of Yucay, they met the two Spaniards who had been with Manco. These had been beguiled by him into leaving when he continued towards Lares, and they were now returning in all innocence to Cuzco, unaware of any native rebellion. The first sight of the magnitude of the opposition came when Pizarro’s men appeared at the brow of the plateau and looked down at the beautiful valley beneath them. This is one of the loveliest views in the Andes; the river below winds across the broad flat floor of the valley, whose rocky sides rise as abruptly as the fantastic scenery in the background of a sixteenth-century painting. The slopes are tightly contoured with neat lines of Inca terraces, and above them, in the distance, the snowy peaks of the Calca and Paucartambo hills shine brilliantly in the thin air. But now the valley was filled with native troops, Manco’s own levies from the area around Cuzco. The Spaniards had to fight their way across the river, swimming their horses. The Indians retreated on to the slopes and allowed the cavalry to occupy Calca, which they found full of a great treasure of gold, silver, native women and baggage. They occupied the town for three or four days, with the natives harassing the sentries at night but making no other attempt to drive them out. The reason for this was appreciated only when a horseman from Hernando Pizarro galloped in to recall the cavalry with all possible speed; for irresistible hordes of native troops were massing on all the hills around Cuzco itself. The cavalry force was harassed continuously on the return journey, but succeeded in entering the city, to the relief of the remaining citizens.
‘As we returned we found many squadrons of warriors continuously arriving and camping in the steepest places around Cuzco to await the assembly of all [their men]. After they had all arrived, they camped on the plain as well as on the hills. So many troops came there that they covered the fields. By day they looked like a black carpet covering everything for half a league around the city of Cuzco, and by night there were so many fires that it resembled nothing less than a very clear sky filled with stars.’ This was one of the great moments of the Inca empire. With their genius for organisation, Manco’s commanders had succeeded in assembling the country’s fighting men and in arming, feeding and marching them to the investiture of the capital. All this had been done despite the fact that the empire’s communications and supply depots were disrupted, and without giving any warning to’ the astute and suspicious foreigners occupying the land. All the Spaniards were taken by surprise by the mobilisation at their gates, and were staggered by its size. Their estimates of the numbers opposing them ranged from 50,000 to 400,000, but the accepted figure by the majority of chroniclers and eyewitnesses was between 100,000 and 200,000.
The great colourful steam-roller of native levies closed in from every horizon around Cuzco. Titu Cusi wrote with pride that ‘Curiatao, Coyllas, Taipi and many other commanders entered the city from the Carmenca side … and sealed the gate with their men. Huaman-Quilcana and Curi-Hualpa entered on the Condesuyo side from the direction of Cachicachi and closed a great gap of over half a league. All were excellently equipped and in battle array. Llicllic and many other commanders entered on the Collasuyo side with an immense contingent, the largest group that took part in the siege. Anta-Aclla, Ronpa Yupanqui and many others entered on the Antisuyo side to complete the encirclement of the Spaniards.’
The native build-up around Cuzco continued for some weeks after the return of Juan Pizarro’s cavalry. The warriors had learned to respect Spanish cavalry on level ground, and they kept to the slopes. The royal general Inquill was in charge of the encircling forces, assisted by the high priest Villac Umu and a young commander Paucar Huaman. Manco maintained his headquarters at Calca.
Villac Umu pressed for an immediate attack, but Manco told him to wait until every last contingent had arrived and the attacking forces had become irresistible. He explained that it would do the Spaniards no harm to suffer confinement just as he had done: he himself would come to finish them off in due course. Villac Umu was distressed by the delay, and even Manco’s son criticised his father for it. But Manco was applying Napoleon’s dictum that the art of generalship is to come to battle with a force vastly superior to the enemy’s. He thought that his warriors’ only hope against the Spanish cavalry lay in overwhelming numbers. Villac Umu had to content himself with occupying Cuzco’s citadel, Sacsahuaman, and with destroying the irrigation canals to flood the fields around the city.
The Spaniards inside Cuzco were suffering just as much anxiety as Manco had hoped. There were only 190 Spaniards in the city, and of these only eighty were mounted. The entire burden of the fighting fell on the cavalry, for the ‘greater part of the infantry were thin and debilitated men’. Both sides agreed that a Spanish infantryman was inferior to his native counterpart, who was far more nimble at this high altitude. Hernando Pizarro divided the horsemen into three contingents commanded by Gabriel de Rojas, Hernán Ponce de León and his brother Gonzalo. He himself was Lieutenant-Governor, his brother Juan was corregidor, and Alonso Riquelme, the royal treasurer, represented the Crown.
At the outset, while the native forces were still massing, the Spaniards tried their tactic of charging out into the thick of the enemy. This met with far less success than usual. Many Indians were killed, but the crush of fighting men stopped the onrush of the horses, and once the Indians saw that the cavalry was thoroughly embroiled they turned on it with savage determination. A group of eight horsemen fighting around Hernando Pizarro saw that it was being surrounded and decided to retreat to the city. One man, Francisco Mejia, who was then alcalde or mayor of the city, was too slow. The Indians ‘blocked his horse and grabbed at him and the horse. They dragged them about a stone’s throw away from the other Spaniards, and cut the heads off [Mejia] and off his horse, which was a very handsome white horse. The Indians thus emerged from this first engagement with a distinct gain.’
This success against cavalry on level ground greatly emboldened the attackers. They moved closer to the city until they were camped right up against the houses. In the tradition of intertribal warfare, they tried to demoralise the enemy by jeering and shouting abuse and by ‘raising their bare legs at them to show how they despised them’. Such skirmishes took place every day, with great courage shown on either side but no appreciable gains.
Finally on Saturday, 6 May, the feast of St John-ante-Portam-Latinam, Manco’s men launched their main attack. They moved down the slope from the fortress and advanced along the steep, narrow lanes between Colcampata and the main square. Many of these alleys still end in long flights of steps between whitewashed houses and form one of the most picturesque corners of modern Cuzco. ‘The Indians were supporting one another most effectively, thinking that it was all over. They charged through the streets with the greatest determination and fought hand-to-hand with the Spaniards.’ They even succeeded in capturing the ancient enclosure of Cora Cora which overlooked the northern corner of the square. Hernando Pizarro appreciated its importance and had fortified it with a palisade the day before the Indian onslaught. But his infantry garrison was driven out by a dawn attack.
If the horse was the Spaniards’ most effective weapon, the sling was undoubtedly the Indians’. Its normal missile was a smooth stone about the size of a hen’s egg, but Enriquez de Guzman claimed that ‘they can hurl a huge stone with enough force to kill a horse. Its effect is almost as great as [a shot from] an arquebus. I have seen a stone shot from a sling break a sword in two when it was held in a man’s hand thirty yards away.’ In the attack on Cuzco the natives devised a deadly new use for their slingshots. They made the stones red-hot in their camp fires, wrapped them in cotton and then shot them at the thatched roofs of the city. The straw caught fire and was burning fiercely before the Spaniards could even understand how it was being done. ‘There was a strong wind that day, and as the roofs of the houses were thatch it seemed at one moment as if the city were one great sheet of flame. The Indians were shouting loudly and there was such a dense cloud of smoke that the men could neither hear nor see one another…. They were being pressed so hard by the Indians that they could scarcely defend themselves or come to grips with the enemy.’ ‘They set fire to the whole of Cuzco simultaneously and it all burned in one day, for the roofs were thatch. The smoke was so dense that the Spaniards almost suffocated: it caused them great suffering. They would never have survived had not one side of the square contained no houses and no roofs. Had the smoke and heat come at them from all sides they would have been in extreme difficulty, for both were very intense.’ Thus ended the Inca capital: stripped for Atahualpa’s ransom, ransacked by Spanish looters, and now burned by its own people.
From the captured bastion of Cora Cora the Indian slingers kept up a withering fire across the square. No Spaniard dared venture on to it. The besieged were now cornered in two buildings facing each other at the eastern end of the square. One was the great galpón or hall of Suntur Huasi, on the site of the present cathedral, and the other was Hatun Cancha, ‘the large enclosure’, where many of the conquistadores had their plots. Hernando Pizarro was in charge of one of these structures and Hernán Ponce de León of the other. No one dared to move out of them. ‘The barrage of slingshot stones coming in through the gateways was so great that it seemed like dense hail, at a time when the heavens are hailing furiously.’ ‘The city continued to burn on that and the following day. The Indian warriors became confident at the thought that the Spaniards were no longer in a position to defend themselves.’
By extraordinary chance, the thatched roof of Suntur Huasi itself did not catch fire. An incendiary projectile landed on the roof. Pedro Pizarro said that he and many others saw this happen: the roof started to burn and then went out. Titu Cusi claimed that the Spaniards had Negroes stationed on the roof to extinguish the flames. But to other Spaniards it seemed a miracle, and by the end of the century it became established as such. The seventeenth-century writer Fernando Montesinos said that the Virgin Mary appeared in a blue cloak to extinguish the flames with white blankets, while St Michael was by her side fighting off devils. This miraculous scene became a favourite subject for religious paintings and alabaster groups, and a church called the Triunfo was built to commemorate this extraordinary escape.
The Spaniards were becoming desperate. Even Manco’s son Titu Cusi felt a touch of pity for these conquerors: ‘They secretly feared that those were to be the last days of their lives. They could see no hope of relief from any direction, and did not know what to do.’ ‘The Spaniards were extremely frightened, because there were so many Indians and so few of them.’ ‘After six days of this strenuous work and danger the enemy had captured almost all the city. The Spaniards now held only the main square and a few houses around it. Many ordinary people were showing signs of exhaustion. They advised Hernando Pizarro to abandon the city and look for some way to save their lives.’ There were frequent consultations among the weary defenders. There was desperate talk of trying to break the encirclement and reach the coast via Arequipa, to the south. Others thought that they should try to survive inside Hatun Cancha, which had only one entrance. But the leaders decided that the only thing to do was to fight back, and if necessary die fighting.
In the confused street fighting the natives were resourceful and ingenious. They evolved a series of tactics to contain and harass their terrible adversaries; but they could not produce a weapon that could kill a mounted, armoured Spanish horseman. Teams of Indians dug channels to divert Cuzco’s rivers into the fields around the city, so that the horses would slip and sink into the resulting mire. Other natives dug pits and small holes to trip the horses when they ventured on to the agricultural terraces. The besiegers consolidated their advance into the city by erecting barricades in the streets: wicker screens with small openings through which the nimble warriors could advance to attack. Hernando Pizarro decided that these must be destroyed. Pedro del Barco, Diego Méndez and Francisco de Villacastín led a detachment of Spanish infantry and fifty Cañari auxiliaries in a night attack on the barricades. Horsemen covered their flanks while they worked, but the natives maintained a steady barrage from the adjoining roofs.
The flat walls of Cuzco’s houses were exposed when the thatch was burned off in the first great conflagration. The natives found that they could run along the tops of the walls, out of reach of the horsemen charging below. Pedro Pizarro recalled an episode when Alonso de Toro was leading a group of horsemen up one of the streets towards the fortress. The natives opened fire with a bombardment of stones and adobe bricks. Some Spaniards were thrown from their horses and half buried in the rubble of a wall overturned by the natives. The Spaniards were only dragged out by some Indian auxiliaries.
With inventiveness born of desperation, the natives evolved another weapon against the Christians’ horses. This was the ayllu, or bolas: three stones tied to the ends of connected lengths of llama tendons. The twirling missile tangled itself around the horses’ legs with deadly effect. The natives brought down ‘most of the horses with this device, leaving almost no one to fight. They also entangled the riders with these cords.’ Spanish infantry had to run up to disengage the helpless cavalrymen, hacking the tough cords with great difficulty.
The besieged Spaniards survived the burning roofs, sling-shots, bolas and missiles of the Inca armies. They tried to counter each new native device. As well as destroying the street barricades, Spanish working parties smashed the flumes along which the natives were diverting the streams. Others tried to dismantle agricultural terraces so that the horses could ride up them, and they filled in the pits and traps dug by the attackers. They even began to recapture parts of the city. A force of Spanish infantry recaptured the redoubt of Cora Cora after a hard battle. In another engagement some cavalry fought its way under a hail of missiles to a square at the edge of the city, where another sharp fight took place.
The brunt of the Indian attacks came down the steep hillside below Sacsahuaman and on to the spur that forms the central part of Cuzco. Villac Umu and the other besieging generals had established their headquarters within the mighty fortress. Indians attacking from it could penetrate the heart of Cuzco without having to cross the dangerous level ground on other sides of the city. Hernando Pizarro and the besieged Spaniards deeply regretted their failure to garrison this fortress. They realised that as long as it remained in enemy hands their position in the roofless buildings of the city was untenable. They decided that Sacsahuaman must be recaptured at any cost.
Sacsahuaman – local guides have learned that they can earn a larger tip by calling it ‘saxy woman’ – lies immediately above Cuzco. But the cliff above Carmenca is so steep that the fortress needed only one curtain wall on the city side. Its main defences face away from Cuzco, beyond the brow of the cliff, where the ground slopes away to a small grassy plateau. On that side the top of the cliff is defended by three massive terrace walls. They rise above one another in forbidding grey steps, casing the hillside like the flanks of an armoured dreadnought. The three terraces are built in zigzags like the teeth of great saws, four hundred yards long, with no fewer than twenty-two salient and re-entrant angles on each level. Anyone trying to scale them would have to expose a flank to the defenders. The regular diagonal shadows thrown by these indentations add to the beauty of the terraces. But the feature that makes them so amazing is the quality of the masonry and the size of some of the blocks of stone. As with most Inca terrace walls, this is polygonal masonry: the great stones interlock in a complex and intriguing pattern. The three walls now rise for almost fifty feet, and excavations by the archaeologist Luis Valcárcel showed that ten feet more were once exposed. The largest boulders are on the lowest terrace. One great stone has a height of twenty-eight feet and is calculated to weigh 361 metric tons, which makes it one of the largest blocks ever incorporated into any structure. All this leaves an impression of masterful strength and serene invincibility. In their awe, the sixteenth-century chroniclers soon exhausted the mighty buildings of Spain with which to compare Sacsahuaman.
The ninth Inca, Pachacuti, started the fortress and his successors continued the work, recruiting the many thousands of men needed to manhandle the great stones into place. Sacsahuaman was intended to be more than a simple military fortress. Virtually the entire population of the unwalled city of Cuzco could have retreated within it during a crisis. At the time of Manco’s siege the crest of the hill behind the terrace walls was covered in buildings. Valcárcel’s excavations – made to mark the four-hundredth anniversary of the Conquest – revealed the foundations of the chief structures within Sacsahuaman. These were dominated by three great towers. The first tower, called Muyu Marca, was described by Garcilaso as having been round and containing a water cistern fed by underground channels. The excavations confirmed this description: its foundations consisted of three concentric circles of wall of which the outer was seventy-five feet in diameter. The main tower, Salla Marca, stood on a rectangular base, sixty-five feet long. Pedro Sancho inspected this tower in 1534 and described it as consisting of five storeys stepped inwards. Such height would have made it the Incas’ tallest hollow structure, comparable to the so-called skyscrapers of the pre-Inca Yarivilca culture along the upper Maranon. It was built of coursed rectangular ashlars, and contained a warren of small chambers, the quarters of the garrison. Even the conscientious Sancho admitted that’ the fortress has too many rooms and towers for one person to visit them all’. He estimated that it could comfortably house a garrison of five thousand Spaniards. Garcilaso de la Vega remembered playing in the labyrinth of its corbelled subterranean galleries during his boyhood in Cuzco. He felt that the fortress of Sacsahuaman could rank among the wonders of the world – and suspected that the devil must have had a hand in its extraordinary construction.
Manco Inca and other 3 soldiers with Spanish weapons during the rebellion.
The beleaguered Spaniards now decided that their immediate survival depended on the recapture of the fortress on the cliff above them. According to Murua, Manco’s relative and rival Pascac, who had sided with the Spaniards, gave advice about the plan of attack. It was decided that Juan Pizarro would lead fifty horsemen – the greater part of the Spaniards’ cavalry-in a desperate attempt to break through the besiegers and attack their fortress. Observers from the Indian side remembered the scene as follows:’ They spent the whole of that night on their knees and with their hands clasped [in prayer] at their mouths – for many Indians saw them. Even those on guard in the square did the same, as did many Indians who were on their side and had accompanied them from Cajamarca. On the following morning, very early, they all emerged from the church [Suntur Huasi] and mounted their horses as if they were going to fight. They started to look from side to side. While they were looking about in this way, they suddenly put spurs to their horses and at full gallop, despite the enemy, broke through the opening which had been sealed like a wall, and charged off up the hillside at breakneck speed.’ They broke through the northern Chinchaysuyo contingent under the generals Curiatao and Pusca. Juan Pizarro’s horsemen then galloped up the Jauja road, climbing the hill through Carmenca. They somehow broke and fought their way through the native barricades. Pedro Pizarro was in that contingent and recalled the dangerous ride, zigzagging up the hillside. The Indians had mined the road with pits, and the Spaniards’ native auxiliaries had to fill these in with adobes while the horsemen waited under fire from the hillside. But the Spaniards eventually struggled up on to the plateau and rode off to the north-west. The natives thought that they were making a dash for freedom, and sent runners across country to order the destruction of the Apurímac suspension bridge. But at the village of Jicatica the horsemen left the road and wheeled to the right, fought through the gullies behind the hills of Queancalla and Zenca, and reached the level plain below the terraces of Sacsahuaman. Only by this broad flanking movement were the Spaniards able to avoid the mass of obstacles that the Indians had erected on the direct routes between the city and its fortress.
The Indians had also used the few weeks since the start of the siege to defend the level ‘parade ground’ beyond Sacsahuaman with an earth barrier that the Spaniards described as a barbican. Gonzalo Pizarro and Hernán Ponce de León led one troop in repeated attacks on these outer enclosures. Some of the horses were wounded, and two Spaniards were thrown from their mounts and almost captured in the maze of rocky outcrops. ‘It was a moment when much was at stake.’ Juan Pizarro therefore attacked with all his men in support of his brother. Together they succeeded in forcing the barricades and riding into the space before the massive terrace walls. Whenever the Spaniards approached these they were greeted by a withering fire of slingshots and javelins. One of Juan Pizarro’s pages was killed by a heavy stone. It was late afternoon, and the attackers were exhausted by the day’s fierce fighting. But Juan Pizarro attempted one last charge, a frontal attack on the main gate into the fortress. This gate was defended by side walls projecting on either side, and the natives had dug a defensive pit between them. The passage leading to the gate was crowded with Indians defending the entrance or attempting to retreat from the barbican into the main fortress.
Juan Pizarro had been struck on the jaw during the previous day’s fighting in Cuzco and was unable to wear his steel helmet. As he charged towards the gate in the setting sun, he was struck on the head by a stone hurled from the salient walls. It was a mortal blow. The Governor’s younger brother, corregidor of Cuzco and tormentor of Inca Manco, was carried down to Cuzco that night in great secrecy, to prevent the natives learning of their success. He lived long enough to dictate a will, on 16 May 1536, ‘being sick in body but sound of mind’. He made his younger brother Gonzalo heir to his vast fortune, in the hope that he would found an entail, and left bequests to religious foundations and to the poor in Panama and his birthplace Trujillo. He made no mention of the native siege, and left nothing to the Indian woman from whom ‘I have received services’ and ‘who has given birth to a girl whom I do not recognise as my daughter.’ Francisco de Pancorvo recalled that ‘they buried him by night so that the Indians should not know he was dead, for he was a very brave man and the Indians were very frightened of him. But although the death of Juan Pizarro was [supposed to be] a secret, the Indians used to say “Now that Juan Pizarro is dead” just as one would say “Now that the brave are dead”. And he was indeed dead.’ Alonso Enríquez de Guzman gave a more materialistic epitaph: ‘They killed our Captain Juan Pizarro, a brother of the Governor and a young man of twenty-five who possessed a fortune of 200,000 ducats.’
On the following day the natives counter-attacked repeatedly. Large numbers of warriors tried to dislodge Gonzalo Pizarro from the hillock opposite the terraces of Sacsahuaman. ‘There was terrible confusion. Everyone was shouting and they were all entangled together, fighting for the hilltop the Spaniards had won. It looked as though the whole world was up there grappling in close combat.’ Hernando Pizarro sent twelve of his remaining horsemen up to join the critical battle – to the dismay of the few Spaniards left in Cuzco. Manco Inca sent five thousand reinforcements, and ‘the Spaniards were in a very tight situation with their arrival, for the Indians were fresh and attacked with determination.’ Below ‘in the city, the Indians mounted such a fierce attack that the Spaniards thought themselves lost a thousand times’.
But the Spaniards were about to apply European methods of siege warfare: throughout the day they had been making scaling ladders. As night fell, Hernando Pizarro himself led an infantry force to the top of the hill. Using the scaling ladders in a night assault, the Spaniards succeeded in taking the mighty terrace walls of the fortress. The natives retreated into the complex of buildings and the three great towers.
There were two individual acts of great bravery during this final stage of the assault. On the Spanish side Hernán’Sánchez of Badajoz, one of the twelve brought up by Hernando Pizarro as additional reinforcements, performed feats of prodigious panache worthy of a silent-screen hero. He climbed one of the scaling ladders under a hail of stones which he parried with his buckler, and squeezed into a window of one of the buildings. He hurled himself at the Indians inside and sent them retreating up some stairs towards the roof. He now found himself at the foot of the highest tower. Fighting round its base he came upon a thick rope that had been left dangling from the top. Commending himself to God, he sheathed his sword and started clambering up, heaving up the rope with his hands and stepping off from the smooth Inca ashlars with his feet. Half way up the Indians threw a stone ‘as big as a wine jar’ down on him, but it simply glanced off the buckler he was wearing on his back. He threw himself into one of the higher levels of the tower, suddenly appearing in the midst of its startled defenders, showed himself to the other Spaniards and encouraged them to assault the other tower.
The battle for the terraces and buildings of Sacsahuaman was hard fought. ‘When dawn came, we spent the whole of that day and the next fighting the Indians who had retreated into the two tall towers. These could only be taken through thirst, when their water supply became exhausted.’ ‘They fought hard that day and throughout the night. When the following day dawned, the Indians on the inside began to weaken, for they had exhausted their entire store of stones and arrows.’ The native commanders, Paucar Huaman and the high priest Villac Umu, felt that there were too many defenders inside the citadel, whose supplies of food and water were rapidly being exhausted. ‘After dinner one evening, almost at the hour of vespers, they emerged from the fortress with great élan, attacked their enemies and broke through them. They rushed with their men down the slope towards Zapi and climbed to Carmenca.’ Escaping through the ravine of the Tullumayo, they hurried to Manco’s camp at Calca to plead for reinforcements. If the remaining two thousand defenders could hold Sacsahuaman, a native counter-attack might trap the Spaniards against its mighty walls.
Villac Umu left the defence of Sacsahuaman to an Inca noble, an orejón who had sworn to fight to the death against the Spaniards. This officer now rallied the defenders almost single-handed, performing feats of bravery ‘worthy of any Roman’. ‘The orejón strode about like a lion from side to side of the tower on its topmost level. He repulsed any Spaniards who tried to mount with scaling ladders. And he killed any Indians who tried to surrender. He smashed their heads with the battle-axe he was carrying and hurled them from the top of the tower.’ Alone of the defenders, he possessed European steel weapons that made him the match of the attackers in hand-to-hand fighting. ‘He carried a buckler on his arm, a sword in one hand and a battle-axe in the shield hand, and wore a Spanish morrión helmet on his head.’ ‘Whenever his men told him that a Spaniard was climbing up somewhere, he rushed upon him like a lion with the sword in his hand and the shield on his arm.’ ‘He received two arrow wounds but ignored them as if he had not been touched.’ Hernando Pizarro arranged for the towers to be attacked simultaneously by three or four scaling ladders. But he ordered that the brave orejón should be captured alive. The Spaniards pressed home their attack, assisted by large contingents of native auxiliaries. As Manco’s son wrote, ‘the battle was a bloody affair for both sides, because of the many natives who were supporting the Spaniards. Among these were two of my father’s brothers called Inquill and Huaspar with many of their followers, and many Chachapoyas and Cañari Indians.’ As the native resistance crumbled, the orejón hurled his weapons down on to the attackers in a frenzy of despair. He grabbed handfuls of earth, stuffed them into his mouth and scoured his face in anguish, then covered his head with his cloak and leaped to his death from the top of the fortress, in fulfilment of his pledge to the Inca.
‘With his death the remainder of the Indians gave way, so that Hernando Pizarro and all his men were able to enter. They put all those inside the fortress to the sword-there were 1,500 of them.’ Many others flung themselves from the walls. ‘Since these were high the men who fell first died. But some of those who fell later survived because they landed on top of a great heap of dead men.’ The mass of corpses lay unburied, a prey for vultures and giant condors. The coat of arms of the city of Cuzco, granted in 1540, had ‘an orle of eight condors, which are great birds like vultures that exist in the province of Peru, in memory of the fact that when the castle was taken these birds descended to eat the natives who had died in it’.
Hernando Pizarro immediately garrisoned Sacsahuaman with a force of fifty foot-soldiers supported by Cañari auxiliaries. Pots of water and food were hurried up from the city. The high priest Villac Umu returned with reinforcements, just too late to save the citadel. He counter-attacked vigorously, and the battle for Sacsahuaman continued fiercely for three more days, but the Spaniards were not dislodged, and the battle was won by the end of May.
Both sides appreciated that the recapture of Sacsahuaman could be a turning point in the siege. The natives now had no secure base from which to invest the city, and they abandoned some of the outlying districts they had occupied. When the counter-attack on Sacsahuaman failed, the Spaniards advanced out of the citadel and pursued the demoralised natives as far as Calca. Manco and his military commanders could not understand why their vast levies had failed to capture Cuzco. His son Titu Cusi imagined a dialogue between the Inca and his commanders. Manco:’ You have disappointed me. There were so many of you and so few of them, and yet they have eluded your grasp.’ To which the generals replied, ‘We are so ashamed that we dare not look you in the face…. We do not know the reason, except that it was our mistake not to have attacked in time and yours for not giving us permission to do so.’
The generals might possibly have been right. Manco’s insistence on waiting for the entire army to assemble meant that the Indians lost the element of surprise they had preserved so brilliantly during the early mobilisation. It also meant that the professional commanders could not attack while the Spaniards had sent much of their best cavalry to investigate the Yucay valley. The hordes of native militia did not necessarily add much to the effectiveness of the native army. But Manco had clearly felt that as long as his men suffered a terrible handicap in weapons, armour and mobility, their only hope of defeating the Spaniards was by weight of numbers. The heavy, determined fighting of the first month of the siege showed that the Spaniards had no monopoly of personal bravery. Once again, it was their crushing superiority in hand-to-hand fighting and the mobility of their horses that won the day. The only arms in which the natives had parity were projectiles – slingshots, arrows, javelins and bolas – and prepared defences such as breastworks, terraces, flooding and pits. But projectiles and defences rarely succeeded in killing an armoured Spaniard, and the siege of Cuzco was a fight to the death.
Manco could also be criticised for not directing the attack on Cuzco in person. He apparently remained at his headquarters at Calca throughout the critical first month of the siege. He was using his authority and energies to effect the almost impossible feat of a simultaneous uprising throughout Peru, together with the feeding and supply of an enormous army. But the Inca’s presence was needed at Cuzco. Although there were plenty of imposing fighting men in the various contingents, the army lacked the inspiration of a leader of the stature of Chalcuchima, Quisquis or Rumiñavi.
The fall of Sacsahuaman at the end of May was by no means the end of the siege. Manco’s great army remained in close investiture of the city for a further three months. The Spaniards soon learned that the native attacks ceased for religious celebrations at every new moon. They took full advantage of each lull to destroy roofless houses, fill in enemy pits, and repair their own defences. There was fighting throughout this period, with great bravery displayed on either side.
One episode will illustrate the typical daily skirmishes. Pedro Pizarro was on guard duty with two other horsemen on one of the large agricultural terraces at the edge of Cuzco. At midday his commander, Hernán Ponce de León, came out with food and asked Pedro Pizarro to undertake another tour of duty as he had no one else to send. Pizarro duly grabbed some mouthfuls of food and rode out to another terrace to join Diego Maldonado, Juan Clemente and Francisco de la Puente on guard.
While they were chatting together, some Indian warriors approached. Maldonado rode off after them. But he had failed to see some pits the natives had prepared, and his horse fell into one. Pedro Pizarro dashed off against the Indians, avoiding the pits, and gave Maldonado and his horse, both badly injured, a chance to return to Cuzco. The Indians re-appeared to taunt the three remaining horsemen. Pizarro suggested ‘Come on, let’s drive these Indians away and try to catch some of them. Their pits are now behind us.’ The three charged off. His two companions turned half way along the terrace, and returned to their post, but Pizarro galloped on ‘impetuously lancing Indians’. At the end of the terrace the natives had prepared small holes to catch the horses’ hooves. When he tried to wheel, Pizarro’s horse caught its leg and threw him. One Indian rushed up and started to lead off the horse, but Pizarro got to his feet, went after the man and killed him with a thrust through the chest. The horse bolted, running off to join the other Spaniards. Pizarro now defended himself with his shield and sword, holding off any Indians who drew near. His companions saw his riderless horse and hurried to help him. They charged through the Indians, ‘caught me between their horses, told me to grab the stirrups, and took off at full speed for some distance. But there were so many Indians crowding around that it was useless. Wearied from all my armour and from fighting, I could not go on running. I shouted to my companions to stop as I was being throttled. I preferred to die fighting than be choked to death. So I stopped and turned to fight the Indians, and the two on their horses did the same. We could not drive off the Indians, who had become very bold at the thought that they had taken me prisoner. They all gave a great shout from every side, which was their normal practice when they captured a Spaniard or a horse. Gabriel de Rojas, who was returning to his quarters with ten horsemen, heard this shout and looked in the direction of the disturbance and the fighting. He hurried there with his men, and I was saved by his arrival, although badly wounded by the stone and spear blows inflicted by the Indians. I and my horse were saved in this way, with the help of our Lord God who gave me strength to fight and to endure the strain.’
Gabriel de Rojas received an arrow wound in one of these skirmishes: it went through his nose as far as his palate. Garcia Martin had his eye knocked out by a stone. One Cisneros dismounted, and the Indians caught him and cut off his hands and feet. ‘I can bear witness’, wrote Alonso Enriquez de Guzman, ‘ that this was the most dreadful and cruel war in the world. For between Christians and Moors there is some fellow-feeling, and it is in the interests of both sides to spare those they take alive because of their ransoms. But in this Indian war there is no such feeling on either side. They give each other the cruellest deaths they can imagine.’ Cieza de Leon echoed this. The war was ‘fierce and horrible. Some Spaniards tell that a great many Indians were burned and impaled…. But God save us from the fury of the Indians, which is something to be feared when they can give vent to it!’ The natives had no monopoly of cruelty. Hernando Pizarro ordered his men to kill any women they caught during the fighting. The idea was to deprive the fighting men of the women who did so much to serve and carry for them. ‘This was done from then onwards, and the stratagem worked admirably and caused much terror. The Indians feared to lose their wives, and the latter feared to die.’ This war on the women was thought to have been one of the chief reasons for the slackening of the siege in August 1536. On one sortie Gonzalo Pizarro encountered a contingent from the Chinchaysuyo and captured two hundred of them. ‘The right hands were cut off all these men in the middle of the square. They were then released so that they would go off. This acted as a dreadful warning to the rest.’
Such tactics added to the demoralisation of Manco’s army. The vast majority of the horde that massed on the hills around Cuzco were ordinary Indian farmers with their wives and camp followers – with few exceptions a thoroughly militia army, most of whose men had received only the rudimentary arms drill that was part of the upbringing of every Inca subject. Only part of this rabble was militarily effective, although the entire mass had to be fed. By August the farmers began drifting away to sow their crops. Their departure added to the attrition of heavy losses in every battle against the Spaniards. Weight of numbers was Manco’s only effective strategy, so the reduction of his great army meant that further operations against Cuzco might have to wait until the following year. But Cuzco was only one theatre of the national uprising. In other areas the natives were far more successful.
“Out-gunned, out-maneuvered, and hard-pressed, the Spanish had no effective answer to the tank, in desperation they resorted to hand-to-hand fighting”
JOHN WEEKS, MEN AGAINST TANKS: A HISTORY OF ANTI-TANK WARFARE, 1975
The Spanish Civil War was the war which produced the “Molotov cocktail,” but Spain also witnessed the first widespread use of antitank weapons, especially guns and most notably the German Rheinmetall 37mm Pak 35/36 and its Russian copy, the Model 1932 45mm antitank gun. These weapons, when skillfully used, proved very effective against tanks. The light tanks were extremely vulnerable to them, and learning from this lesson, production of medium and heavy tanks began in several major European armies. Combat in Spain proved that better armor was needed, even if the main tank contributors—Germany, Italy, and the USSR—did not initially show much haste when it came to making new and more effective tanks.
Since the early days of armored warfare, improved artillery was seen as the quickest solution for antitank defense. In Germany, the Rheinmetall corporation commenced the design of a 37mm antitank gun in 1924, and the first guns were produced in 1928 as the 37mm PanzerabwehrkanoneL/45, later adopted by the Wehrmacht as the Pak 35/36. It made its first appearance during the Spanish Civil War, and the Soviet Army soon upgraded the design to a higher-velocity L/45 Model 1935, while also making a licensed copy of the German gun. However, the Red Army was taught several hard lessons about antitank warfare when many tanks sent to aid the Republican Army were destroyed in combat engagements with German guns.
At the time, the predominant ammunition used against tanks was the armor-piercing kinetic energy shell that penetrated armor by direct pressure, spiking or punching through it. In Spain, the antitank defense of the Nationalists was organized by German Condor Legion officers. The antitank guns were incorporated into a system of obstacles created to stop an armored attack, slowing tanks down, isolating them from the supporting infantry with machine-gun and mortar fire, and forcing them to conduct deliberate head-on assaults with engineer support or to seek a less-defended area to attack. The time thus gained for the defenders meant that Nationalist field artillery could also engage the Soviet tanks.
The only change to German World War I antitank tactics was that an effective antitank weapon was now available to support the defending infantry. However, the Soviet tanks armed with 45mm guns easily destroyed the German light tanks in Spain, establishing an urgent need for antitank guns to be included in mobile tank-led units due to the strong possibility of encountering enemy tanks. To many analysts, the Spanish Civil War reconfirmed the importance of defense over the offensive and of antitank weapons over tanks.
Poorly trained Spanish tank crews among both Nationalist and Republican forces proved undisciplined and prone to attacking heavily defended positions even when equipped with antitank weapons. Tank attacks occurred with little prior reconnaissance and without coordination with supporting infantry and artillery. Too often, tanks made themselves vulnerable to destruction by moving on their own through village streets or remaining on open roads. It was the poor tank tactics that made antitank warfare so successful.
A report presented in Berlin on September 12, 1936, by Lieutenant Colonel Walter Warlimont pointed out that antitank defense was one of the main weaknesses of the Nationalist Army. Consequently, the first German antitank guns came with the first tank shipment the following month, comprising 24 Pak 35/36 37mm guns. An antitank company with 15 guns was formed immediately, with the remaining nine guns kept for training purposes under the supervision of the Drohne group at the German base in Cubas de la Sagra.
A further 28 guns of the same model arrived with the second shipment of tanks in November. With these new guns and four more from the Drohne group, making a total of 32 guns, the Nationalists organized their first three antitank companies. At the end of May 1937, another shipment of 100 37mm Pak 35/36s arrived at Vigo’s harbor for the Nationalist Army, which organized 10 antitank batteries with 10 guns each within the artillery branch, while 50 more guns were delivered in August. On April 14, 1938, the last shipment of antitank guns was received by the Nationalists, with 100 more Pak 35/36s delivered at Cubas de la Sagra, making a total of 352 Pak 35/36 antitank guns supplied to the Spanish Nationalist Army by Germany.
A problem arose when it was established that the antitank gun supplied by the Germans to the Nationalists had a maximum range of 900 meters, whereas the guns in Russian tanks could engage targets at up to 3,000 meters. The Nationalists, under German guidance, were forced to attach at least five antitank guns to each light tank company to provide some effective protection against Soviet tanks. However, the effect was minimal as understanding and coordinating the new tanks and antitank guns proved extremely difficult for the Nationalist forces. Despite much training, and to the dismay of German instructors, Nationalist troops often began shooting wastefully at targets far over 1,000 meters away.
The Condor Legion also made extensive use of the excellent 88/56mm Flak 18 antiaircraft gun in the civil war, where its usefulness as an antitank weapon and general artillery gun exceeded its antiaircraft role. The first four of these guns came to Spain even before the formal organization of the Condor Legion on August 6, 1936, landing with the first shipment of aviation equipment from the Usaramo cargo ship at Seville. They were part of the first heavy air defense artillery battery and arrived with a full complement of men and accessories. The battery was under the command of Luftwaffe First Lieutenant Aldinger, and the guns were to be used in Spain for the first time. The battery was soon combat-ready and was deployed at Seville’s military airfield as protection against Republican raids.
The air defense artillery unit of the Condor Legion was named Flak Abteilung 88 and was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Hermann Lichtenberger, with Lieutenant Colonel Georg Neuffer as second in command and chief of staff. All air defense artillery personnel belonged to the Luftwaffe and not to the Army. Initially, four batteries—16 guns—of Flak 18 88/56mm guns were sent to Spain as air defense artillery for the Condor Legion in 1936, but they were soon used in antitank, antibunker, and even antibattery roles. Further guns were sent later, and more 88mm guns were also supplied to Spanish units. At the end of the war, the Spanish Army took over five batteries— 20 guns—from the total of 71 Flak 18 guns sent for the Condor Legion.
Soviet tank superiority was clearly shown in combat around Madrid, where, by the end of November 1936, the Nationalists lost a total of 28 Panzer Is plus several Italian L3s, resulting in a stalemate. Here, the Spanish People’s Army made the major mistake of not going on the offensive but remaining in a defensive posture. It was here around Madrid where the Nationalist forces employed for the first time in an antitank role, and with great success, their Flak 18 88mm guns. Such was their effectiveness that the Germans later turned the “88,” with some modifications made for ground-to-ground combat, into one of the most dreaded weapons of World War II. The “88” gun literally obliterated T-26 tanks in Spain at the first hit. Luckily for the Republicans, the 88mm guns were not supplied to the Nationalists in large numbers.
Not much is known about the first combat actions of Flak units in Spain, but unconfirmed reports point at 88mm guns entering combat in early 1937 during the fighting around Malaga, when a battery of Flak 18s was assigned to support an infantry column. Bad weather had grounded the main bomber force, but the assault succeeded, mainly because of the concentrated and accurate fire of the supporting 88mm guns.
The Flak 18 guns were deployed mainly to protect airfields and bases used by the Condor Legion. However, the nature of war in Spain, with its wildly fluctuating front lines and the presence of Russian tanks, forced the Germans to employ the Flak 18 guns in a direct-fire role against ground targets. Furthermore, the initial scarcity of Nationalist Spanish artillery and the general low proficiency of its crews soon forced the use of the Flak 18 gun as a direct-fire infantry support weapon. The Flak 88 group fought at the battle of Jarama, in February 1937. The following month, the unit moved northwards and took part in all the battles along the Northern front, where their tasks were divided between antiaircraft duties and field artillery employment. Flak 18 guns took part in the assault against Bilbao’s line of fortifications, the so-called “Iron Belt” (Cinturon de Hierro), and following the battle of Brunete, went north again to contribute to the Santander and Asturias campaign.
Flak 18 batteries were also employed by the Nationalist Army in the Aragon offensive and at the battle of Ebro in 1938, being used for direct fire against pillboxes and indirect fire in the advance towards Barcelona during the final campaign in Catalonia. During the battle of Ebro, Flak 88 batteries took up positions in the neighborhood of the main bridgehead as direct support to the ground forces.
By the end of the war, the 88mm guns had performed far more missions as an antitank and direct-fire field artillery gun than as an antiaircraft gun. In total, German 88mm guns were involved in 377 combat engagements, and only 31 were against enemy aircraft. On the other hand, the use of the 88mm guns in close vicinity to the enemy made them vulnerable to infantry fire. Casualties among the Legion’s 88mm gun batteries in the Spanish Civil War were second only to those of bomber pilots and crews. According to two different sources, which provided information to U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Waite, the Germans alone manned their antiaircraft weapons. No one was allowed within a few hundred yards of them, especially the Spanish soldiers. The French War Department verified that “great secrecy surrounded the operation of these weapons.”
In May 1939, the Flak 88 unit returned to Germany, leaving practically all its equipment in Spain for the Nationalist Army. After the civil war, in 1943, more improved Flak models were sent to Spain—almost 90 88/56mm Flak 36s—and in the same year they were manufactured under license by the Spanish artillery factory at Trubia, near Oviedo, under the name FT 44. These remained in active service with the Spanish Army until the early 1980s.
Italy also sent various antitank guns to Nationalist Spain; however, these were only used by the Italian Volunteer Corps. They were mainly the Breda 47mm Model 35 antitank gun, but there were also some 37mm Models 36 guns, a copy of the German Pak 35/36 made in Italy under license from Rheinmetall.
The Republicans used a similar antitank gun to the German Pak 35/36, the Russian Model 19323 45mm gun. The first shipment of these guns took place on April 29, 1937, when the Republicans received just 15 guns. However, they later received 100 additional guns in May that year, and another 20 in December. In January 1939, the Republicans received through France the last three Soviet guns. The total number of Model 1932 guns delivered to the Republican Army was 138; however, throughout the war, the Republicans received a total of 494 guns of various calibers capable of antitank use. The Soviet Model 1932 45mm gun was a copy of the German Pak 35/36 after the Soviet Union purchased the rights for production from Rheinmetall in 1930 and began a small-scale procurement for the Soviet Army. However, the Soviet General Staff wanted a more “universal” gun able to fire both antitank and high explosive rounds, so the gun was scaled up to 45mm, entering production in 1932, created by Soviet artillery designer Loginov. Towards the end of 1937, the Model 1932 was pushed out by the Model 1937 45mm antitank gun. The new gun had better ballistics, a higher rate of fire, and was more reliable. The new wheels were also made of metal rather than wood (the Model 1932 also received metal wheels in 1937). However, due to insufficient armor penetration against the newest German tanks, it was subsequently replaced by the long-barreled Model 1942.
The Italian M35 47mm gun was a dual-purpose gun able to fire a high explosive round as well as an antitank projectile. It was originally an Austrian artillery piece produced under license in Italy. It was used both as an infantry assault gun and antitank gun, proving to be very successful, especially when equipped with HEAT (High Explosive Antitank) rounds. Due to its shape, the 47mm gun was commonly called the “elefantino” (little elephant) by Italian troops.
The British Major General Fuller wrote an interesting letter published in the London Times following a visit to Spain:
I have referred to the antitank gun several times. On the Nationalist side, the German 22mm gun, mounted on a small wheeled vehicle, has proved to be very useful. It is the gun that I saw in use with the German Army. Other German models are also reported to be in Spain, a 37mm and an Italian 47mm. From all the information that can be gathered, the German antitank gun is a very efficient weapon.
In May 1937, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Lee quoted an article by Liddell Hart, who said that “the defense against tanks has been developed and perfected more quickly and more effectively than the tank itself.” The antitank weapons used in Spain were clearly a threat to the tankers. As Colonel Fuqua, the U.S. Army attaché in Madrid, concluded, an infantryman with an antitank gun had no need to fear tanks.
The British antitank battery was formed within the International Brigades in May 1937 from 40 volunteers and was issued with three Soviet Model 1932 45mm guns, capable of firing both armor-piercing and high explosive shells that, at the time, represented state-of-the-art of military technology. Well led, trained by Russian instructors, and comprising a high proportion of students and intellectuals, they represented somewhat of an elite unit, and quickly became a highly efficient force in the 15th International Brigade.
After cutting its teeth at Brunete in July 1937, the battery was heavily involved in the battles at Belchite in August, where, according to Bill Alexander, the battery’s political commissar, the antitank guns fired 2,700 shells in just two days. During October 1937, the 15th International Brigade took part in the disastrous operation at Fuentes de Ebro, where the new BT-5 tanks were mauled. Initially, the antitank battery was held back from the main battle until the panicked brigade staff ordered it to advance on the Nationalist lines. None of the guns were able to fire and the battery’s second in command, Jeff Mildwater, was injured before the battery was eventually wisely withdrawn.
During the Aragon front retreat in the spring of 1938, the antitank battery was virtually surrounded and forced to fall back swiftly from Belchite, to avoid being cut off. The battery had to destroy one of its guns that could not be moved, while low-flying Nationalist aircraft destroyed another. With the battery no longer in existence, the men were incorporated as riflemen into the British battalion of the International Brigades.
The remark that antitank weapons had surpassed tank development was perhaps the most important conclusion reached about the use of tanks and antitank weapons in Spain. And if the trend was toward heavier tanks trying to overcome the threat of antitank weapons, there was also a trend for more powerful antitank guns.
In an article sent by American Lieutenant Colonel Lee to the Military Intelligence Division in the spring of 1937, Liddell Hart had argued that light antitank weapons had the advantage of being easily shifted from location to location and quickly brought up to the front lines. Other sources observed that antitank defense needed to be coordinated and that antitank guns were only part of the defensive plan. The U.S. Army attaché in Paris, Lieutenant Colonel Waite, commented that antitank weapons worked most effectively when they were used in combination with obstacles.
All tanks employed in Spain often faced antitank weapons that could immobilize or destroy them at any moment. The tank, that was supposed to return maneuver and offense to the battlefield, was countered with modern antitank weapons that gave the advantage back to the defense. To overcome the threat of antitank weapons, military attachés, observers, and their sources stressed the need for tanks to be employed en masse, not as separate weapons or in small groups. They also recommended that tanks be combined with infantry, which could hold the ground gained, and with artillery and aviation, that could protect the tanks by destroying or suppressing enemy antitank fire.
Although little technical data about antitank and antiaircraft weapons was gathered, there was general agreement on antitank weapons being effective in meeting their enemies in Spain. However, with the trend toward heavier tanks, there was an implied corresponding trend toward more powerful antitank weapons, as has been mentioned. With clouds of war gathering all over Europe, some countries looked to Spain to see what, if anything, they could learn. Unfortunately, most of the lessons were misleading, especially those relating to tanks being defeated. The issue seems to have been that whereas the designers of tanks saw clearly that they had to improve armor and gunnery, those whose specialty was antitank weaponry were quite happy with what they had achieved and took few active steps to improve anything. Such thinking was to work to the detriment of the German Wehrmacht when World War II began, as the Pak 36 was no longer as effective.
Regarding the war in Spain, when expectations about tank performance was not met, it was concluded that circumstances were so specific to the Spanish situation and its kind of war that battles fought there were unlikely to provide useful lessons for most European armies. Others, who had their predictions fulfilled, pointed to specific incidents as evidence that the testing ground of war had proven them right. Nowhere was this more apparent than regarding the efficacy of antitank weaponry. Officers who did not like the tank argued that combat in Spain clearly demonstrated the superiority of antitank guns over tanks. Tanks in Spain had proven themselves as less than the decisive force that some battles of World War I had promised, while antitank weapons now had an advantage in development over tanks.
Yet while the war on the ground was similar in its trenches and infantry battles to World War I, it was also a signal of changes to come in a future European war. Each country was confident that it had in service an adequate antitank defense. Yet, by 1939–40, before a year had passed, each was to find how over-optimistic these predictions had been, how vulnerable troops were, and how poorly the designers had prepared for the onset of the German blitzkrieg.