The significance of the Battle of Jarama

Post date: 23/01/2017

On the eve of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Jarama, the AABI Spanish International Brigades friendship group has produced the following account of the battle and explanation of its military and symbolic significance. The AABI will be hosting an international commemoration of the battle – which saw the death of more than 120 members of the British Battalion – in and around Madrid on 17/18 February (see


The story of the Battle at Jarama has been told numerous times, mostly attempting to attribute merit both to the Republican and the insurgent Francoist armies. Those narratives have ignored the significance that this battle had within the long fight that the Spanish people sustained against domestic and international fascism for three years.  


This battle has become legendary for being the last attempt (a frustrated one) by the Franco’s Army of Africa had spearheaded from early August 1936 the march to Madrid, and had tried to take Madrid in November. Having failed, they then laid siege to the city, encroaching upon its north-western (Battle of the Coruña Road) and eastern flanks.


When in late January 1937 the Francoist command, following advice from its Nazi experts, decided to surround Madrid by launching the Jarama offensive, they did not know that they would lose their best troops from among their experienced colonial army. They were convinced that this would be little more than a triumphal march and that in three days (or perhaps a bit longer) they would reach their desired objective at Alcalá de Henares. They were in a rush, and did not want to wait for the deployment of the fascist army sent by Mussolini. The Italian forces had been arriving in Spain since December 1936, and they should have been ready for a joint effort to guarantee the success of the operation. 


The Francoist command knew that the Republican People's Army (Ejército Popular de la República) was preparing a similar offensive, although obviously in the opposite direction, and that they would have gathered enough troops to stop the insurgent army operation. But the Francoists were blinded by their arrogance and that is why they failed. 


They took a gamble and they lost. The Francoists used a number of military assets, such as their Madrid Reinforced Division, led by General Orgaz and consisting of some 20,000 soldiers. This number increased by many more thousands of troops from other units were merged into the division. They had the weaponry supplied and used by the Hitler’s Condor Legion: heavy artillery pieces with a 8.8 calibre, Panzer-like tanks, heavy machine-guns and new types of aircraft. 


The offensive began on 6 February. The five attacking columns, led by General Varela, found their way with difficulty to the heights that dominate the right margin of the Jarama river, and managed to take control of most of this side by 10 February. 


From 11 February, the key players became the three columns brough forward from the rearguard, led respectively by Barrón (on the left flank, marching towards Arganda), Asensio Cabanillas (to the right, marching eventually towards Morata and Perales de Tajuña) and Sáenz de Buruaga (which advanced through the middle of these two flanks). 


The columns advanced towards the hills in Arganda and the lowland in Morata, but they were stopped there.  


The credit for this should go to the heroic action of the International Brigades, without taking away from the merit of other Spanish units in this episode. From 11 to 14 Februay the XII International Brigade managed to contain the advance of Barrón towards Arganda, and they incurred vast losses amongst their battalions, mainly the Garibaldi, Dombrowski and, above all, the French-Belgian André Marty, which was literally decimated in this operation.


The XI International Brigade met a similar fate amongst its battalions (Edgar André, Thälmann and Comune de Paris), who managed to halt the advance of the Sáenz de Buruaga column between the 12 and 17 February; they suffered huge losses.  


The XV International Brigade held out bravely against the troops of Asensio Cabanillas, which were approaching Morata, and the Dimitrov, Six Fevrier and the British battalions encountered a hell-like situation at Suicide Hill. 


The International Brigades mentioned above led the action between 11 and 16 February, and soon had the support of other Spanish units that joined them, such as the brigades in the Lister and Modesto divisions and the V Carabineros Brigade.  Together, and with the addition of the XIV International Brigade and the Lincoln Battalion – which arrived in Jarama on 16 February – they were the main troops in combat in the last stage of the battle (between 16 and 27 February).  


This final stage is defined by a series of Republican counter-offensives which could not quite manage to fend off the fascist army and push them to the Jarama river. But they reinforced a frontline that would basically remain the same until the end of the war. It is worth mentioning among these offensives the assaults led by the Lister Division to the Pingarrón Hill, where a number of Spanish units (including the 1, 9 and 70 brigades) fought heroically at a very important strategic point. The attacks ended on the 23 February, when the troops led by Lister occupied and lost in succession this position until they ultimately lost it for good. This was under the command of general Miaja, who had taken charge of the Republican forces at Jarama on 15 February. 


General Rojo underlined the new aspects of the Battle of Jarama in his book, ‘Así fue la defensa de Madrid’, such as the role played by aviation, tanks and artillery:


The enemy aviation counted with new German airplanes, and we had a considerable force which proved superior to them. This meant that Jarama would become the largest air battle ever fought until then, because over 100 fighter and bombing airplanes took part. The Governmental aviation triumphed and remained in control  of the airspace…

The Republican tanks were far superior in number and effectiveness to those used by the enemy, and they fought bravely in the frontline and in reconnaissance missions, and at confusing times when it was not clear where the frontline was, or which terrain had been lost and which was holding out and needed reinforcements...

The enemy artillery was decidedly far more numerous and better quality than ours.  There we saw the famous German 8.8 calibre guns and new firing methods were rehearsed and proved to be surprisingly effective... 


It should also be noted that it was at Jarama that automatic anti-aircraft batteries were first used, and the Gottwald and Dimitrov Battalions employed them very effectively. 


To sum it up, the Battle of Jarama took on a modern tactical dimension, while recalling warfare from the past. Vicente Rojo himself described the Battle as follows: 


It can be considered as a very simple tactical event, rough, basic and bloody, with two armies fighting without achieving a real result… The International Brigades, the newly-formed Spanish brigades and the troops selected from the defence of Madrid rivalled each other on the battlefield in their exemplary bravery; combat was relentless and ran day and night, while the troops were not satisfied with halting the advance of their enemy but wanted to counter-attack on each patch of regained land, and this led to the continuous loss and recovery of positions, which had a detrimental, eroding effect on the energy of the attack.


As a final conclusion on the Battle, Rojo wrote:  


We cannot state that we defeated the enemy at Jarama. We had not been defeated ourselves either. But we can assert that the enemy tactics had failed, just like the previous month when they had attacked our right flank in Las Rozas. On both occasions the enemy had gained some ground but had not defeated our forces; they had not achieved any tactical or strategic objective, they had not managed to destroy our army or to cut our communications. Instead, they had exhausted themselves and were therefore unable to complete their tasks. Therefore, the triumph was ours and now that the purpose of this attack at Jarama is widely known we can say that the victory was ours because our forces managed to overcome an attack which planned to be a decisive turn in the war, and not only did the enemy fail to achieve this, but they also failed to obtain the objectives that might have compensated for their losses.


The balance was overall a positive one for the Republic, even though it could have been better. The battle was important because it provided a huge morale boost, which contributed to the victory over the Italian fascist CTV troops at Guadalajara.


The Battle of Jarama was, therefore, a remarkable step in the process of maturation of the Republican People's Army. It was also a crucial moment of fraternal bonding between young Spanish and international fighters who were united in their struggle against their common enemy, fascism. The Irish volunteer in the British Battalion, Kit Conway, stated that he would rather have his body serve as compost in the field than to see Franco win. Tragically, he pronounced these words just a few days before he fell on 12 February.


Posted on 23 January 2017.

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