The essential story f the war is one of gradual nationalist gains with Republican counter-attacks failing to hold new ground.
- In March 1937, leaving Madrid under siege, Franco moved his main forces north for an attack on the Basque Provinces. The Republic had few planes in Basque country and nationalist air supremacy was pretty total (hence Guernica). The Basques were unable to hold their defence line – the iron ring and Bilbao fell in June…and the last major town, Santander, in August. As usual widespread executions accompanied the nationalist advance.
- During the Basque offensive the Republic launched a number of offensives in an attempt to deflect Franco’s forces…on Huesca (failed), on Segovia (failed), on Brunete which initially succeeded but then was defeated with heavy losses and on Zaragoza (Battle of Belchite-failed).
By late 1937 Franco clearly had more tanks, aeroplanes and possibly troops than the Republic. There was division on the best policy for the Republic to follow:
o Negrín, the PM, favoured holding on as long as possible in the expectation of a general European war breaking out and changing the balance of power.
o Prieto, Defence Minister and army commander Rojo, favoured a more adventurous policy and with intelligence of a fresh attack on Madrid, decided on another diversionary attack. In December, in bitterly cold weather, they launched an offensive on the town of Tervel, which they captured by early January. The tactic worked in that Franco, against advice, did indeed divert forces and launched a massive counter-attack to retake the town. After massive bombardment Tervel was recaptured in late Feb. This marked a decisive turn in the war in Franco’s favour.
Franco’s forces pushed on towards the Mediterranean, which they reached in mid April 1938 cutting Catolonia off from the rest of Republican territory. Against advice again he then decided to advance on Valencia in (early July). Negrín and Rojo’s response was to launch the last great offensive of the Republic – the Battle of the Ebro – a huge attack across the River Ebro launched in late July…but by mid-November they had been forced back across the river, with little material left, leaving Franco in a position to launch a counter-attack into Catalonia in late December. Much of the Republican govt. had been based in Barcelona since Oct 1938 and when Barcelona fell in late January 1939, it was forced to take the road to France…thousands of refugees crossed the French border.
With Catalonia gone further resistance was futile. In March 1939 in the last days of the Republic there was a coup within the Republic against the communists and the pro-communist PM Negrín led by Colonel Casado the commander of the army in Madrid. He hoped to organize an orderly evacuation and surrender of Republican forces…and it may have suited the communists to wash their hands of the final defeat. Casado’s hopes for a negotiated surrender were not realized. In the last days of March, Republican soldiers lay down their arms and nationalist forces took Madrid and other towns. Some including Casado and most senior leaders of the Republic managed to get out of the country in those last days.