Bombing of Málaga 1937 © unkown
The Road to Almería
To say Málaga was a doomed city is easy with hindsight. Due to Franco’s failure to take Madrid by storm in late 1936 the battle-lines to the east of the city had become deadlocked. The new strategy was to isolate Madrid by cutting the road to Valencia. In February 1937 the Nationalists launched an offensive to force a crossing over the River Jarama.
In Málaga the situation was desperate. Of the 12,000 Republican defenders less than 4,000 had rifles with little ammunition of which even less was usable. The Republican Prime Minister, Largo Caballero, had said ‘Not a round more for Málaga’.
The defence of Madrid was the Government’s priority but the growing anger over Andalucía’s virtual autonomy may have affected this decision. Elements of the anarchist militia, the CNT and armed communists defended Málaga. The former completely caught up with their social revolution and the organisation of the new farming communes. The latter enjoying their new found prominence brought about by the increased influence of the Soviet Union in Spanish affairs. There were no trenches dug or roadblocks erected. The only act against the Nationalists was to shoot hostages as a retaliation against air-raids. Málaga was under constant bombardment, from the air and sea. While the Nationalist fleet including the German heavy cruiser Admiral Graf Spee shelled the City, Republican warships at Cartagena remained at anchor.
Colonel Villalba the Republican commander in Málaga was of variable ability. His inability to organise its defence was either dereliction of duty or a deliberate act of sabotage. There is strong evidence for the latter. Facing these fragile defences of the ‘White City’ were four Nationalist columns under the overall command of the Duke of Seville. This was the first action for the CTV, Corpo Truppe Volontarie the Italian expeditionary force in Spain.
On the 8th of February the City fell.
Arguably the reprisals taken by the Nationalists were the most appalling acts of terror during the whole war. Some 20,000 were executed. The bewildered and demoralised defenders that fell into the enemies hands were simply shot out of hand. The killings continued until 1944. Carlos Arias Navarro, the prosecutor responsible for the horror was Franco’s last Prime Minister holding office in 1975 and subsequently under King Juan Carlos.
The nationalist column attacking from Granada purposely left the coast road out of Málaga open. Not from any concern for the civilian population but to allow escape and so reduce resistance within the City. It was on this road that the refugees began their tortuous 200 kilometre march to Almería. From Sunday the 7th of February some 150,000 refugees left Málaga. Estimates put the number arriving in Almería as only 40,000.
Members of a British aid team carrying supplies originally destined for Málaga encountered the refugees on the road. Their initial impression was of horses, mules and donkeys loaded with household effects being drawn by their sullen masters. These were the strong. As they drove on the whole horror of the situation became clear. Thousands of unaccompanied children bedraggled, exhausted, cold, bewildered and frightened, aimlessly followed. Their feet swollen and bleeding from the ordeal. It was then that they realised the scale of the disaster. Mothers and Fathers followed carrying, consoling and protecting their children. The old lagged further and further behind, falling by the wayside waiting for the inevitable. The pitiful procession not only suffered the elements but the indiscriminate bombing and strafing from the fascist air-force. Remains of the dead were still being found in the 1960s and many more wait to be discovered.
Driving on towards Málaga, the aid team’s progress became increasingly more difficult. The sheer number of refugees halted their progress some ninety kilometres from Almería. They started ferrying children to the temporary safety of Almería. It was only a small van and they carried between 30 and 40 children a trip. To choose which children to take, which to leave behind must have been harrowing for the aid team.
The population of Almería doubled with the influx of almost 40,000 refugees. Shelter was scarce with most sleeping in the streets. A large queue formed outside the Provincial Committees for the Evacuation of Refugees store for food. Many children waited for preserved milk and dry bread, their first food for many days. It was the evening of the 12th of February. The final cynical act was about to be played out as the air-raid sirens started to sound. Fascists aircraft bombed the centre of Almería The queue waiting for food took a direct hit as ten large bombs devastated the small town. No attempt was made to hit a Republican warship in the harbour or the military barracks. Over one hundred civilians mainly refugees were killed or injured.
Many photographs exist of these events. Robert Capa and Gerda Taro used their expertise and compassion to show the injustice and suffering. Looking at these faded nitrate prints we again see the faces of those devastated people. We see the long pitiful procession of displaced people. Tragic scenes which over the next eight years became familiar all over Europe.
If Málaga was sacrificed by the Republic, it was due to military expediency and therefore understandable. Unlike the policy of non-intervention of western democracies which led to the sacrifice of Spain. It was these democracies that reaped the whirlwind of Nazi aggression, honed and practised in Spain. It was the war in Spain that assured Hitler that the democracies would not fight. It was that assurance that influenced his decision to invade Poland.
Would intervention by Britain, France and the United States have saved Spain from Franco? Possibly, but there was no will to get involved. Society gossip filled the front pages of British and French newspapers, with the war almost an afterthought. The last despatch by Delaprée, Spanish correspondent for the Paris Soir stated, ‘the massacre of a hundred Spanish children is less interesting than a sigh from Mrs. Simpson’. With that sort of indifference the policy of non-intervention was inevitable.