The Siege of the Alcazar

(This was originally posted at The American Catholic and I thought the history mavens of Almost Chosen People might find it of interest.

Luis: Dad!
Moscardó: What’s going on with you, my son?
Luis: Nothing, at all… they say they will shoot me if the Alcazar does not surrender. But don’t worry about me.
Moscardó: If it is true commend your soul to God, shout Long live Spain, and you will be a hero who died for her. Goodbye my son, a big kiss, with much love!
Luis: Goodbye Dad, a big kiss, with much love!
Moscardó: You can all spare yourself the waiting for end of the deadline and start shooting my son. The Alcazar will never surrender!

Colonel Jose Moscardo, July 3, 1936.  His response to the militia commander of the besieging Republican forces who told him by phone that his son Luis would be shot if he did not immediately surrender the Alcazar of Toledo. His son, shouting defiance at his murderers, was executed a month later.  By coincidence, another of Moscardo’s sons was executed by Republican forces in Barcelona on the same date as the phone call.

Dale Price at Dyspeptic Mutterings looks at two books on the siege, both of which grace my library:

Given the general Anglo-American ignorance of things Hispanidad, it is not a surprise that the siege of the Alcazar in the Spanish Civil War is virtually unheard of in our circles today.

This is unfortunate, because as a matter of human drama alone it is worthy of study. 

On July 18-19, 1936, much of the Spanish army officer corps rose against the increasingly-anarchic Spanish Republic. One of the bastions that eventually threw itself in with the uprising was the Toledo Alcazar, an ancient fortress which at the time operated as an infantry academy. 

It was a military history museum when I visited it in 1989.  

Who knows what it will become of it if Spain’s misbegotten socialists enact their erase-the-past law. Seriously, read this. A sign of things to come world-wide, I am afraid.

Toledo is a little over 40 miles (73 km) from Madrid, and is one of the most beautiful cities in Spain. 

Let me amend that: it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Like Venice, it leaves an indelible impression on the visitor.

The former capital of the Spains (until Philip II packed up and moved north to a then-insignificant market town called Madrid), it was the adopted home of El Greco and still contains some of the most marvelous architecture in the world. I will return there one day…if not soon.

El Greco’s View of Toledo, one of his two surviving landscapes.

The salient feature of the July 1936 officer alzamiento was that it succeeded in about 40 percent of the planned locations and generally failed in large cities. In Toledo itself, there was no attempt to take over the city. Those in charge of and manning the Alcazar were not part of the plotting and learned of it after the fact. However, they were in sympathy with the uprising and drifted into open rebellion.

The Alcazar’s semi-retired commander, Colonel Jose Moscardo Ituarte, was a soccer fanatic who had been looking forward to going to the Berlin Olympics to watch Spain’s national team in action. But once the uprising occurred, he became cagey in his dealings with Madrid. He refused (truly, if sometimes only technically) illegal orders to turn over weaponry and ammunition to the Republic’s partisan militias. He also stalled for time by asking for actual legal authorities in the defense ministry to follow the proper chain of command. In the meantime, he assembled as many reliable troops as possible–ranging from teenage cadets, police, Falangists and volunteers to a handful of regular soldiers–to man the defenses of the Alcazar. He also brought in at least 700,000 rounds (not a typo) of rifle ammunition from the city’s arms factory and as much spare food as could be found. In addition, the family and friends of the army and Guardia Civil who supported the rebellion were gathered in. 

Despite it being a conservative ciudad which had voted strongly for the right-wing coalition in the controversial February elections, there was no prospect of holding the entire city. There was some preliminary planning, but it was implausible, given the lack of troops. And it was recognized that since the Alcazar was the closest “success” to Madrid, that immediately made it a prime objective for the now-revolutionary regime there. Instead, a couple of blocking forces were placed at obvious choke points to hold off the enemy for a bit.

And it was not long after Moscardo had exhausted his passive-aggressive delays that the Republic rushed troops to take the fortress.

Moscardo expressed his belief that the siege would last 14 days, tops.

What followed next was a nearly eleven-week siege which reduced most of the fortress and outbuildings to rubble through accurate artillery bombardment and somewhat less accurate aerial bombing.

In the face of this overwhelming firepower, the 1,100 defenders had plenty of rifle ammunition, an artillery piece with a few rounds and a functional mortar–also with limited ammo. These latter two weapons were saved for breakthrough threats only. 

It was a nearly passive defense, with the defenders only firing when the militias launched infantry attacks on the grounds of the increasingly-destroyed fortress.

The civilians lived in the well-protected underground parts of the Alcazar, safe even from the massive and well-crewed 155 mm artillery pieces of the Republicans. No civilians died directly from the attacks themselves. 

As to rations, there was horse and mule meat (from the animals in the stables) sacks of wheat run through a jury-rigged grinder, occasional foraging raids which turned up other food and, later in the siege, two Nationalist airdrops. Water consisted of a liter of brackish cistern water per person per day.

With electricity cut, the defenders were unable to get a clear picture of the status of the uprising for two weeks. For all they knew, they might be alone. Finally, a working radio was cobbled together and the defenders learned that civil war was raging across Spain. While they were not alone, the nearest Nationalist troops were 300 miles away, and there was no guarantee the Alcazar would be considered worthy of relief, with the big prize of Madrid lying just to the north.

Fortunately for them, Francisco Franco, the bantam-sized commander of the Nationalists’ elite Army of Africa, thought the Alcazar was not only worthy of rescue, it was essential. While Franco’s tactical instincts were cautious, his political sense was usually correct, as it was here. The propaganda impact of the siege was already foremost in the minds of the warring sides–and the liberation of the Alcazar would be a huge boon to the Nationalist cause. So the African veterans were loaded into every conceivable motor vehicle which could be scrounged up (including a purple bus) and launched northward.

The siege ground on for almost eleven weeks, and despite the fortress being reduced to rubble, it was liberated by the Army of Africa on September 27, 1936–with Moroccan troops in the vanguard, barely beating a Spanish Legion spearhead racing for the prize. The Moroccans were greeting with overwhelming joy, and responded with gentleness to the emaciated and often traumatized defenders, reassuring them that after a couple of solid meals they’d be able to go off and kill Reds together.

The two best accounts of the siege in English are either out of print or available as reprints of possibly dubious quality.

The earliest is English historian Geoffrey McNeill-Moss’ The Siege of the Alcazar (the British version is entitled The Epic of the Alcazar). Moss was an English army officer and now-forgotten popular novelist and historian. He arrived in Spain shortly after the siege was lifted, had access to Moscardo’s daily log and interviewed numerous members of the garrison. He also acquired photographs of the fortress right after the siege, and had diagrams drawn up based on his interviews of the participants. Thus, his access to primary source material was unparalleled in English and remains essential. He tries to (and mostly succeeds) at being objective, not uncritically handing on all of the atrocity stories reported by the Nationalists, and he warns the reader when he cannot make judgments about disputed claims. But he clearly admires the defenders and ascribes their endurance to their Catholic faith. He notes that there was a stockpile of wheat that lay in the no-man’s land between the lines, but the garrison never emptied it out, instead taking what they needed to get by for a week or two at a time. He could only ascribe it to the decision to place themselves into the hands of Providence. He also notes (and backs it up with photographic evidence) that the garrison took care not to shoot at holy images when possible. The main failure of the book is also, weirdly, a strength, as it is a nearly-claustrophobic focus on the day-by-day events from the perspective of the Alcazar alone. But his skill as a writer keeps it from being monotonous. 

Nearly thirty years later, Cecil D. Eby, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, also recounted the siege in a book from Random House. Of the two, I would more quickly recommend Eby’s to the casual reader. Some reviews (wrongly) criticize Eby in comparison to McNeill-Moss, claiming his view of the siege pays less attention to the primary sources. A quick read of the bibliographical chapter essays at the end of the book disposes of that critique quickly. He was meticulous in his review of the sources, and handled all of them with a critical eye. Apart from that, what Eby does better is giving a fuller overview of the siege in the context of the wider war, and names more of the participants–when given permission. He recounts an odd moment where a surviving officer, who happily assisted with information, balked at being given an acknowledgment. The officer wasn’t worried about negative consequences, but could not see the point. So Eby respected that, albeit with bafflement. To use the modern parlance, it seems to be a Spanish thing which we Anglos can’t understand. Which is probably the best explanation of any.

So, my recommendation is the opposite of the way I did it–read Eby’s first, then get granular with McNeill-Moss if you want the Das Boot view of the conflict.

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A few thoughts:

  1. The Spanish language writings on the siege are immense, with lots of primary accounts.  Little of it has been translated of it into English.
  2. Moss was a novelist and a career British Army officer who retired with the rank of Major after World War I.  His account of the siege has held up remarkably well over 84 years.  He made no bones about the fact that he was a partisan of the Nationalists and had no access to Republican sources, but he strove for factual accuracy and usually achieved it.  A prize in my personal library is a 1937 first American edition of his book on the siege.
  3. Cecil Eby is still with us at age 94.  He has authored numerous books and articles on a wide range of historical topics.  I heartily recommend his 1969 Between the Bullet and the Lie study of Americans who served in the International Brigades.
  4. The last defender of the Alcazar passed away in 2018.  This is all still very much recent Spanish history, with the Socialist Party in Spain practicing a nasty brand of grievance politics with one sided attacks on the Nationalists in a war which ended eight decades ago, but the  hatreds of which the Left in Spain wishes to keep ever green.  One wonders if we ever learn anything from History after all other than how to endlessly repeat old errors.
  5. The Alcazar was no fortress but rather a museum piece.  It is amazing that the defenders held it over a seventy day siege.  It might as well have had death trap painted all over it.
  6. The garrison was an eclectic mix:  800 men of the Guardia Civil, 6 cadets of the Military Academy, one hundred Army officers and 200 civilian volunteers.  They guarded 670 civilians, mostly women and children of the garrison.
  7. During the siege the garrison was under constant artillery bombardment and aerial attack.  Sniping was constant with the combatants often separated only by a few yards.  The garrison beat off eight full scale infantry assaults from the besieging forces that vastly outnumbered them.  The garrison sustained 92 dead and 540 wounded.
  8. The garrison was visited under a flag of truce by Major Vicente Rojo Lluch.  He urged them to surrender but made no secret that he hoped they would hold out.  Urged to stay with them, he said that the Republicans would murder his wife and kids before nightfall if he did.  His last words to the garrison was for them to keep digging to detect the Republican mines being planted under the Alcazar.  He would rise to be a Lieutenant General in the Republican Army and Chief of Staff.  He returned to Spain in 1957.  Franco so admired him that his pension as a retired Lieutenant General was paid to him, and he lived peacefully in Spain until his death in 1966.
  9. Rojo asked the garrison if there was anything he could do for them.  They told him they needed a priest to baptize the two kids born during the siege and to give all of them communion.  A left wing priest was sent in who had been in hiding.  Initially he attempted to persuade the garrison to surrender.  He was bluntly advised that all they required of him were the sacraments, which he did and which were reverently received.
  10. The commander of the garrison, Colonel Moscardo, is an interesting figure.  His world revolved around the trinity of God, Spain and his family.  Up until the Civil War his military career had been a failure in his eyes.  He often told young officers of his first duty as a newly commissioned officer in 1896:  the burial of a white haired elderly Lieutenant, a symbol to him of how badly awry a military career could go.  Although he had reached the rank of Colonel, his career now consisted of dead end assignments.  He was so little thought of, that he was not made a party to the plans for the military rising and had to find out about it over the radio.  Circumstances often bring to the fore unsuspected abilities, and so it was for Moscardo who became the heart and soul of the resistance of the Alcazar.  After he had sacrificed his beloved son in the cause of Spain, none of his officers ever suggested surrender, although the odds against them were staggering.  During the siege, when they could get their radios to operate, Moscardo would issue daily reports consisting of two words:  Sin Novedad, nothing to report.  A calculated insult to the besiegers, the phrase became a rallying cry in Nationalist Spain.  He would repeat the words to Franco when the garrison was relieved.  He was promoted to General, ultimately reaching the top rank of Captain General.  He received permission from Franco to wear a black mourning cape over his uniform for his murdered sons.  During World War II he was noted as being the most anti-Axis and pro-Allied of Franco’s generals.
Published in: on May 25, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The Siege of the Alcazar  
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