The battle for the Ebro (Tarragona) in 1938 was the largest and bloodiest in the Spanish Civil War. Various remains of this can be visited today. A recent book also describes the role of Dutch combators in this war.
The Spanish Civil War is unique in many ways. Firstly, this civil war is seen as the start of the second world war, especially because of the interference of Hitler and Stalin. It was also the last romantic war in which some 35,000 idealists from around the world went to Spain to fight against fascism and for “the freedom of Spain, the freedom of the world”. I too was enchanted in my youth by the books of Ernest Hemingway (For Whom the Bell Tolls) and George Orwell (Homage to Catalonia). But above all, the civil war was a tragic and brutal war in which compatriots, neighbours, friends and family came to be torn apart and pitted against each other in a bloody way.
There is much to tell about this tragedy, but in this Blog I would like to limit myself to the traces of the battle for the Ebro visible in Tarragona today, as well as the role of the Dutch in this civil war. For those who are interested, click here for a 6-part documentary on YouTube (in English).
Visit to the remains of the battle of the Ebro
But what actually happened at the Ebro? After the fall of Aragon in the spring of 1938, the Republicans had been driven back in two areas (see the red areas in the map above). However, on July 25, 1938, they launched a surprise attack from the north, across the River Ebro, to build a bridge between the two areas. And initially it worked, in a short period of time the republicans (fighting against Franco's fascism) made spectacular territorial gains. In the next three months, however, the Nationalists under Franco recaptured this area and destroyed a large part of the Republican army. The Republicans would never recover from this blow. The force majeure with the most modern weapons and elite troops from Germany and Italy was too great.
For more information, the website La ruta de los espacios de la batalla del Ebro (Spanish) is recommended. This website takes you through the most important remnants of the battle of the Ebro in four days. In this Blog I will discuss 6 places of this. Each of these places can be easily combined with other excursions in the area (see also our page with excursions from Tarragona city).
1. The trenches of Les Devees (La Fatarella)
In the municipality of La Fatarella lies the Les Devees complex, formed by zigzag-shaped trenches and a shelter that served for the soldiers to rest. There are also other visible traces of the fighting that took place here, such as two craters in the ground caused by aircraft bombs.
A few kilometers from these trenches lies Les Camposines, an important junction linking the coastal area with the interior. Numerous bloody Franco-offensives took place here in September and October to force the republicans to withdraw. These managed to hold out here until a few days before the end of the battle. A memorial now stands here, consisting of 40 panels with about 1,600 names of missing combatants.
2. Memorial of the Battle of the Ebro (Tortosa)
The bombing of the city of Tortosa reminds us Dutch of the one on Rotterdam. From 1937, so much explosive material fell on Tortosa (through some 80 bombings) that out of 4,000 buildings, 600 were destroyed and 2,400 damaged. Good Friday, April 15, 1938, was the most devastating day: about 55,000 kg of bombs fell that day (about twice as many as in the city of Guernica, and more than half as in Rotterdam). Ernest Hemmingway, along with other leading foreign journalists, stayed in Tortosa to cover the war.
Under Franco, the monument was erected in 1964 in the middle of the Ebro River, and is therefore still controversial. During a plebiscite in 2016, two-thirds of the votes were in favour of made Tortosa keeping the iron monolith. Some Francoist elements were removed from the monument though. Today, the monument pays tribute to the dead of both sides and has been declared part of Catalonia's cultural heritage.
Miravet, one of the most beautiful villages in the province of Tarragona, shows that tragedy and beauty sometimes go hand in hand. How beautiful the view must have been when the Republican soldiers crossed the river at sunrise on July 25, 1938. Franco's nationalists surrendered around 2 p.m. after numerous losses and the death of their battalion commander. From then on, the city became a material depot for the soldiers who fought in the mountains of Pàndols and Cavalls.
In the small historic district of Miravet (Cap de la Vila), traces of the bombing can still be seen, such as houses in ruins and shrapnel on the walls of the Renaissance Esglèsia Vella.
4. The ruins of La Iglesia de Sant Pere (Corbera d'Ebre)
In the village of Corbera d'Ebre you can also see several traces of the Battle of the Ebro. The ruins of La Iglesia de Sant Pere show remains oif the atrocities arising out of an anti-clerical wave. Today the church is a space for cultural activities.
Take a walk through the streets of Poble Vell in Corbera d'Ebre. Another tip is a visit to the 115 Days Interpretation Center museum. The 115 days refers to the duration of the Battle of the Ebro.
5. Museo Memorial de la batalla del Ebro (Gandesa)
Gandesa, the capital of Terra Alta, was the city the Republican army was trying to reach. In vain. If it had been captured, the Republicans would have had a real chance to move west. In Gandesa, a visit to the Memorial Museum of the Battle of the Ebro is a must. The museum was founded in 2011 on the initiative of a group of researchers and collectors and contains all kinds of military objects such as uniforms and weapons (the showpiece is a 250 kg bomb).
6. La Cota 705 (Sierra de Pàndols)
The famous Cota 705 of the Sierra de Pàndols (also known as Punta Alta) was of great strategic importance and crucial to control the rest of the Sierra de Pàndols. Therefore both sides fought hard for this place. There was a stifling heat (above 40 degrees Celsius) and a total lack of water. A true hell on earth.
At the top of La Cota 705 is the Monument a la Pau (Monument to Peace). This is where the survivors commemorate the victims of the Battle of the Ebro every July 25. You reach the top via a rocky and steep mountain path which is not always easily accessible by car. As an alternative: see here link to walking route on Wikiloc along La Cota 705 of about 9 kilometers.
The Dutch in the Spanish Civil War
Idealists from the Netherlands also went to Spain to fight against fascism. In the Spanish Civil War, about seven hundred Dutchmen fought in the International Brigades. During the last offensive on the Ebro, one hundred of the one hundred and thirty Dutch were killed or wounded.
Recently the book "Towards the war: the Dutch and the struggle for Spain, 1936 - 1939" was published. Here, some of the Dutch fighters are followed, both before, during and after the Spanish Civil War. They tell about the motivation of the combators, often to fight fascism.
In the Dutch news, however, they were portrayed as hard communists. That explains the cold reception that awaited them on their return, their taking away from Dutch citizenship and their difficult road to rehabilitation.
During the occupation in the Second World War, these former Spanish fighters made an important contribution to the resistance. Nevertheless, all surviving veterans did not regain Dutch nationality until 1969.
The book also describes the role of the Dutch Military Unit 'De Zeven Provinciën' in the battle for the Ebro. How this Unit, led by Piet Laros (see photo above, in front with pistol) crossed the Ebro at the front line in boats near Ascό. After an initial rapid advance as far as Gandesa, they could not withstand the increasingly fierce air raids. Within a few days the company had only 36 members and the battle of the Ebro ended for the Dutch company.
The story of Johan Kloostra, above in the photo (with cap on) at the front is also illustrative. He was active in the Dutch resistance after the Spanish Civil War, was in the Dachau concentration camp with three of his brothers in the autumn of 1944, and although selected for a so-called death march to an unknown destination, he miraculously survived.
More information can be found on the website of the 36-39 Foundation (in Dutch, English and Spanish) and spanjerijders.nl (Dutch only). In honor of these fighters, a square has been named after them in Amsterdam (“Plein Spanje 36 39”) and a monument has been erected.
Also recommended is the VPRO documentary "Combatants in the Spanish Civil War" (in Dutch). See the trailer below.