In July of 1936, the people of Spain revolted against their tyrannical and murderous
Communist government. The uprising was led by General Francisco Franco and had the
support of most (although not all) of the Spanish military, the Catholic Church,
the middle classes, and a very large section of normal working class people as well.
The popular left-wing myth that the Spanish Civil War was nothing more than a "military
coup" is unfounded; the fact that Franco was able to establish a stable and relatively
prosperous society that lasted for over forty years belies this.
When it became apparent that the initial rising in Madrid had failed, the Nationalist
supporters in Toledo, which is 40 miles to the southwest of the capitol, declared
for Franco and occupied the military academy in the ancient Alcazar fortress. The
garrison was mainly drawn from the local Guardia Civil and Falange, but also included
a handful of teenaged military cadets (most were on summer holidays), a large number
of women and children as well as civilians, and a number of nuns who had fled to
the fort for safety from the marauding Communist milita and the Asaltos or Assault
Guards, who were the Republic's paramilitary goon squads. This motley crew of resistance
fighters was commanded by the Commandant of the Academy, Colonel Jose Moscardo.
At that time Toledo was a Nationalist island surrounded by Republican-held territory,
and it was psychologically as well as strategically vital that the Red government
in Madrid recover the symbolic fortress as soon as possible. They dispatched a large
force of militia, Asaltos, army troops who remained loyal to the government, "international
brigades" and Soviet "advisors" as well as the dreaded POUM anarchist paramilitary
gangs, to capture the Alcazar. Within days, the ancient castle was surrounded by
hastily-built barricades and besieged with sniper and machine-gun fire.
One of the most famous incidents of Spanish heroism during the war took place on
July 23, 1936. The Communist commander reached Moscardo by telephone within the Alcazar
and the Colonel was informed that Republican forces had arrested his 16 year old
son, Luis, a cadet at the academy under his father's command, and unless Moscardo
surrendered immediately, Luis would be executed. To prove that they had his son,
he was put to the phone to speak to his father. The boy spoke up proudly, "Father,
if you surrender your command to the enemies of Spain in order to save my life, I
shall disown you and never more acknowledge you as my blood!"
His father replied "Die like a Spaniard, my son!" The enraged Communists then shot
Luis in the head. (A second Moscardo son was later captured and executed in Madrid.)
In the Alcazar today, the telephone still remains on display.
Repeated assaults against the castle walls failed and resulted in heavy government
casualties. The Reds had brought artillery with them, but only light field guns which
could be shielded against through the extensive use of sandbagging on the ramparts,
and poorly trained Republican militia were such bad cannon shots that they often
missed the huge castle completely and their shells fell on the hapless city. Then
they ran out of shells entirely and the incompetent, bickering Republican staff in
Madrid were unable to supply any more. Crude attempts at aerial bombing also failed.
For the next two months the defenders held out against the Republican units besieging
them. Their only source of water was a cistern in the main courtyard; fortunately
they were able to fill it up, because it took the Reds some time to figure out how
to shut off the water mains. After that the hundreds of people in the fortress, many
of them non-combatants, had to rely on rainwater caught in sheets and tarps. In August
they ran low on food and had to rely on nightly stealth foraging expeditions over
the walls to raid a grocery warehouse the Nationalists knew about in town, but which
the Reds had somehow overlooked. They also had to crawl down and scavenge ammunition
by ambushing Republican sentry posts or looting the corpses of those killed in the
day's fighting. Many local residents of Toledo who had remained behind in the city
risked their lives to supply Moscardo and his men with food, ammunition, and intelligence
on the enemy's activities, and many were summarily tortured and executed because
they were suspected, rightly or wrongly, of helping the Alcazar's defenders or being
in contact with them.
In mid-September the Reds brought in a sapper unit of anarchist Asturian miners,
who tunneled beneath the walls and planted a large explosive charge which they detonated
in a massive blast, bringing down a section of the wall. Now the Reds could gain
partial entry into the Alcazar, and the fighting slowly progressed from building
to building, floor to floor, room to room. One upstairs classroom became known as
the "Chamber of Death."
In the meantime General Franco was receiving regular reconnaissance reports from
his air corps on the situation, and he realized that the Alcazar couldn't hold out
much longer. His army was marching on Madrid in four columns (hence General Molina's
famous remark about his "fifth column" inside the city.) Franco faced a choice. He
could divert one of the columns to relieve the Alcazar and risk not having enough
troops to capture the capital, or else he could ignore the sideshow in Toledo and
concentrate on his main strategic objective.
Franco spent a whole night in thought and prayer, and in the morning he made his
decision. "This is a matter of the honor of the Spanish Army. We cannot leave Moscardo
and his heroes to their fate, as well as the women and children." He ordered General
Jose Varela to alter his line of march and storm Toledo. On Sept. 27, 1936, Nationalist
troops from the Army of Africa entered the city. The Reds fled back to Madrid without
much of a fight.
The raising of the siege of the Alcazar did much to enhance General Franco’s reputation,
but the diversion of Varela’s troops from the advance on Madrid gave the capitol’s
defenders further time to prepare their defenses, and time for Soviet supplies and
weapons to arrive. Franco has been criticized by military historians for his decision,
which may well have prolonged the Civil War, but for the rest of his life, he always
maintained that he had been right to put honor before expediency.
Colonel Moscardo was promoted to the rank of General, fought well throughout the
rest of the war, and later led the Spanish Blue Division of volunteers on the Eastern
Front during World War Two. The main Spanish command post on the Russian Front was
always referred to as "The Alcazar."