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The Battle of Guadalajara (March 8 - March 23, 1937) saw the Spanish Popular Army (Ejército Popular Republicano, or EPR) defeat Italian and Nationalist forces attempting to encircle Madridmarker during the Spanish Civil War. The Nationalist forces involved in the Battle of Guadalajara were primarily the Italian Corps of Volunteer Troops (Corpo Truppe Volontarie, or CTV).

The battle opened with an Italian offensive on 8 March. This offensive was halted by 11 March. Between 12 March and 14 March, renewed Italian attacks were supported by Spanish Nationalist units. These too were halted. On 15 March, a Republican counter-offensive was prepared. The Republicans successfully launched their counter-offensive from 18 March to 23 March.

Preceding activities

After the collapse of the third offensive on Madridmarker, Spanish Nationalist General Francisco Franco decided to continue with a fourth offensive aimed at closing the pincer around the capital. The Nationalist forces, although victorious at Jarama River, were exhausted and could not create the necessary momentum to carry the operation through. However, the Italians were optimistic after the capture of Málagamarker, and it was thought that the Italian forces could score an easy victory owing to the heavy losses sustained by the Republican army during the Battle of the Jarama River. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini endorsed the operation and committed the Italian units to it.

The Italian commander, General Mario Roatta, planned that his forces would surround the defences of Madrid from the north-west. After joining the Spanish Nationalist corps "Madrid" on Jarama River, they would begin the assault on Madrid. The Italian forces would execute the main attack. The Spanish division "Soria" was present to secure the operation, but played no part in the first five days of fighting. The main attack began in the 25 km-wide pass at Guadalajaramarker-Alcalá de Henaresmarker. This region was well suited for an advance, as there were five roads of high quality running through it. Three other roads in the area led to Guadalajara, allowing for the possibility of capturing this town as well. The Nationalist forces had 35,000 soldiers, 222 cannon, 108 L3/33 tankettes and L3/35 tankette, 32 armoured car, 3,685 cars, and 60 Fiat CR.32 fighter planes. The Italian tankettes and armored cars were organized as the "Tank and Armoured Cars Group" (Agrupación de carros de asalto y autos blindados). The Italian aircraft were organized into the "Legionary Air Force" (Aviazione Legionaria).

The Republican presence in the Guadalajara region consisted only of the 12th Division of the Spanish Popular Army under Colonel Lacalle. He had under his command 10,000 soldiers with only 5,900 rifles, 85 machine guns, and 15 cannon. One company of T-26 light tanks were also sent to the area. No military engineering works had been effected in the Guadalajara region, because it was regarded as a peaceful part of the front. The Republican Army staff was sure that the next Fascist offensive would come from the south.

Order of Battle: Battle of Guadalajara

Italian offensive

March 8

After 30 minutes' artillery fire and air raids on the Republican positions, the Italians began advancing upon the 50th Republican brigade. Led by tankettes, they broke through the Republican line. Their assault then slowed down, mainly because fog and sleet had reduced visibility down to 100 metres (110 yards) in places. The Italians captured between 10 and 12 km of terrain, including the towns of Mirabueno, Alaminos and Castejon. Falling back, the Republican commander requested infantry reinforcements and the company of tanks.

March 9

Italian tankettes advancing with a flame thrower tank in the lead at Guadalajara.
The Italians continued their assault on Republican positions. The main attack was carried out with tanks, but was again bogged down by poor performance and low visibility. The Republican 50th Brigade escaped without a fight. At about noon, the Italian advance was suddenly turned back by battalions of the XI International Brigade (battalions involved were "E. Andre", "E.Thaelmann" and "Commune de Paris" – with soldiers mainly from Germanymarker, Francemarker, and the Balkan countries). The Italians had taken another 15 to 18 km of terrain and the towns of Almadrones, Cogollor, Masegoso. In the evening, the first formations of Italian troops reached the suburb of Brihuega, where they settled down to await a widened breach in the Republican lines. This break in momentum, though incompatible with the blitzkrieg tactics they were nominally following, was under the circumstances necessary to allow the soldiers to rest.

The Republican forces on this day consisted of the XI International Brigade, two artillery batteries and two companies of infantry from the 49th Brigade, 12th Division. They had 1,850 soldiers with 1,600 rifles, 34 machine rifles, 6 cannons, and 5 tanks. By the end of the day, more reinforcements started to arrive as Colonel Enrique Jurado was ordered to form IV Corps with Líster's 11 Division in the centre at the MadridmarkerSaragossamarker road at Torijamarker, 12th Division on the left flank and 14th Division on the right.

March 10

The Republican forces received new reinforcements: XII International Brigade (two battalions; Jarosław Dabrowski Battalion and Giuseppe Garibaldi Battalion), three batteries of artillery, and an understrength battalion of tanks. The Republican forces now had 4,350 soldiers, 8 mortars, 16 cannon and 26 light tanks.

In the morning Italian forces launched heavy artillery and air bombardments and began the assault on the XI International Brigade without success. At that point they had 26,000 soldiers, 900 machine guns, 130 tanks and a large number of cannon committed to battle. The Nationalists captured the towns Miralrio and Brihuegamarker. The latter town was taken almost unopposed.

Italian attacks on XI and XII International Brigades continued throughout the afternoon, still without success. At Torijamarker, they met the Italian Garibaldi Battalion. During the skirmish the Italians from the Garibaldi Battalion took the opportunity to encourage the Fascist soldiers to join the Republicans. The attacks were halted towards evening, and the Italian Nationalist units built defensive positions.

At the end of the day, Lacalle resigned his command, officially for health reasons, but probably because of his resentment over being passed over by Jurado. Command over 12th Division was given to the Italian communist Nino Nanetti.

March 11

The Italians began a successful advance on the positions of XI and XII International Brigades, who were forced to retreat down the main road. The Italian vanguard was stopped some 3 km before the town of Torijamarker. The Spanish Nationalist division "Soria" captured the towns of Hita and Torre del Burgo.

Republican counterattacks

March 12

The Republican forces under Líster's command redeployed in the morning and launched a counterattack at noon. Close to one-hundred '"Chato" and "Rata fighter planes and two squadrons of Katiusha bombers had been made available at the Albacetemarker airfield. While the aircraft of the Italian Legionary Air Force were grounded on water-logged airports, the Republicans did not have this problem since the Albacete airfield had a concrete strip. After an air bombardment of the Italian positions, the Republican infantry supported by T-26 and BT-5 light tanks attacked the Italian lines. Several Italian tankettes were lost when General Roatta attempted to change the position of his motorized units in the muddy terrain; many got stuck and were easy target for strafing fighters. The advance reached Trijueque. An Italian counterattack did not regain lost terrain.

March 13

The Republican counterattack on Trijueque and Casa del Cabo, Palacio de Ibarra was launched with some success. The plan was to concentrate 11th Division under Líster and all armoured units on the Saragossamarker road, while 14th Division under Mera crossed the Tajuña River to attack Brihuegamarker. The Italians were warned that this might happen, but ignored advice from the Spanish chief of operations, Colonel Barroso. Mera nearly failed to cross the river, but local CNT members advised him where to place a pontoon bridge.

March 14–17

On March 14, most Republican infantry formations rested while their airforces executed successful attacks. The International Brigade captured the Palacio de Ibarra. In the subsequent days the Republicans redeployed and concentrated their forces.

The Republican forces now consisted of some 20,000 soldiers, 17 mortars, 28 cannon, 60 light tanks and 70 planes.

The Italian and Spanish Nationalist forces consisted of some 45,000 soldiers, 70 mortars, 200 cannon, 80 light tanks (L3 tankettes), and 50 planes.

March 18

At dawn, Mera led 14th Division across the pontoon bridge over the Tajuña River. They had cover from heavy sleet, but the weather also delayed the assault. After midday, the weather had improved enough to allow the Republican air force to operate. At around 13:30, Jurado gave the order to attack. Líster was slowed down by the Italian Littorio Division, arguably the best of the Italian units. 14th Division nearly managed to surround Brihuegamarker, and the Italians retreated in panic. Remaining Italian soldiers were cleared out by the XI International Brigade. An Italian counterattack on Republican positions failed. The Littorio Division saved the Italians from a complete disaster when they conducted a well-organized retreat.

March 19–23

The Republican forces recaptured the cities of Gajanejos and Villaviciosa de Tajuña. Their counter-offensive was ultimately halted on the Valdearenas–Ledanca–Hontanares line, because Franco had sent reserve formations to settle the line of defence between Ledanca and Hontanares.

Significance

Nationalist forces at Guadalajara.
The Battle of Guadalajara was the last major Republican victory and did much to lift morale; but it was not as Herbert Matthews claimed in the New York Times "to Fascism what the defeat at Bailénmarker had been to Napoleon".

Strategically, the Republican victory prevented the encirclement of Madridmarker, ending Franco's hopes of crushing the Republic with a decisive strike at its capital. On German advice Franco decided to adopt a new strategy of chipping away at the Republican territories, starting in the north.

More than anything, Guadalajara was a severe blow to Italian morale and a personal loss of prestige for Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who had personally orchestrated the deployment of the Italian army at Guadalajara in order to benefit from the glory of a successful offensive. It did, though, guarantee continuing Italian involvement as Mussolini sought another victory to counter his defeat at Guadalajara. The Italians lost some 6,000 men (Spanish Nationalist losses were marginal) and a considerable number of light tanks and planes. In addition, the Republican army captured sizeable quantities of badly needed matériel and equipment, including 35 artillery pieces, 85 machine guns, and 67 vehicles. The disappointing performance of Italian arms reached its nadir at Guadalajara. In response, Franco announced his intention to dismantle the Italian field army in Spain, seeking to disperse it among Spanish Nationalist units. This threat was not ultimately carried out.

The tactical lessons of the battle were ambiguous and prone to misinterpretation. The failure of the Italian offensive demonstrated the vulnerability of massed armoured advances in unfavourable terrain and against a coherent infantry defence. The Frenchmarker General Staff, in harmony with existing beliefs in the French Army, concluded that mechanized troops were not the decisive element of modern warfare and continued to shape their military doctrine accordingly. A notable exception to this view was Charles de Gaulle. The Germans escaped this conclusion by dismissing the Guadalajara failure as the product of Italian incompetence.

In truth, both views had some merit: armoured forces were largely ineffective against prepared defences organized in depth; in adverse weather, and without proper air support, the result was disaster (Italian strategists failed to consider these variables). But the German assessment correctly noted the deficiencies in Italian soldiery, planning, and organization that contributed to their rout at Guadalajara. In particular, their vehicles and tanks had lacked the technical quality and their leaders the determination necessary to effect the violent breakthroughs characteristic of later German blitzkrieg tactics.

References

  1. Beevor, Battle, p. 246
  2. Thomas, p. 501
  3. Thomas, p. 501. Thomas notes that "the Italians had not maintained fighting contact with their enemies and had not taken the weather into account at all.




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