El Mazuco (the impossible defence)

Translated from El Mazuco (La defensa imposible) by Juan Antonio de Blas, a chapter in La guerra civil en Asturias, Tomo 2, ISBN 84-334-5539-7, pp369–383. Ediciones Júcar 1986. A transcription of the chapter was at http://es.geocities.com/paisajes guerrilla/mazuco.html; here is a snapshot of that web page.

The intent of this translation is to preserve the historical details and feeling of the original work, by using language, tenses, and constructs as close as possible to the Spanish. In particular, the original sentence structure and paragraph breaks have been preserved instead of following a more English style. For a shorter summary of this piece, see the Wikipedia article.

Mike Cowlishaw 2004, 2005

El Mazuco Valley

El Mazuco (2005)

Asturias, 1937

From a military point of view, two battles were decisive on the Northern front after the arrival of the nationalist forces at the Asturias-Santander border: the battle of El Mazuco and the battle of Sella. The two were distinguished by being resistance operations in which the size of the forces and the quality of their armaments decided the final result. With hindsight, these battles could not have been won by the Asturian popular army, which, isolated and with constant attrition, clung to the two lines and made the Navarrese Brigades pay dearly to secure their victory. But, however unsurprising the result, it is astonishing that the weakened Republican army of the North was able to resist the offensive of the Nationalist armies from the first days of September until the tragic 21 October, 1937.

The plan of general Dávila, leader of the pro-Franco Army of the North, consisted of a combined-arms operation in which the republican Asturias would be attacked from the Santander border and from León in an encircling operation, in which the sea would be the only exit for the defenders, and that Cantabrian sea was already the preserve of the nationalists, in that the cruiser “Admiral Cervera” and the other nationalist ships had complete domination, despite the presence of the republican destroyer “Císcar” and two C-class submarines in the port of Musel.

For the victorious troops of Dávila, Asturias promised to be a repetition of the “military promenade” of Santander. Their enthusiasm and offensive capability quickly punctured the Asturian line of defence along the Deva river, and in a strip less than 20 km wide, between the Cantabrian coast and Peñamellera, the republicans were overthrown by the nationalist units who, with massive support of artillery and aircraft, began their new conquest.

In the Eastern sector the nationalists intended a pincer movement, which, by advancing along the coast and by the Cabrales road to the south would close on Arriondas, after crushing Ribadesella and Cangas de Onís. The coastal column succeeded in reaching Llanes on the 5th of September, whereas the forces that operated to the south were held in Peñamellera until the 8th by the forces commanded by Manolín Alvarez. The initial plan therefore had to be discarded and the assault became an attack on many fronts. The IV Brigade of Navarre advanced along the coast, the I brigade along the Sierra del Cuera and the V and VI brigades along the Cabrales road.

The advance of these troops and the determined resistance of the republicans in the Sierra del Cuera is going to have a legendary name for Asturians: El Mazuco.

The Terrain

The main natural obstacle was the Sierra del Cuera, a wild stronghold in which the maximum heights were Pico Turbina at 1,315m, Peña Blanca at 1,176m, and Vierzo at 1,003m. The structure of their slopes, in general almost sheer, made them barely accessible. To the south of the Sierra del Cuera ran the road from Panes to Cabrales, at first boxed-in along the valley of the Cares river, and then continued along the valley of the Casaño. These valleys had to their south the foothills of the Picos de Europa, with almost non-existent roads, because of which the nationalist army must follow the Cabrales road.

El Mazuco terrain
Terrain near Peña Blanca
To the north of the Sierra del Cuera the land is low and undulating, predominately orchards and small woodlands, but the Llanes road forks into two, and the more southern branch, which connects to the Cabrales road, crosses the narrow valley of El Mazuco, having at its mid-point the pass of Tornería. To the right of the pass, coming from Llanes, is the Sierra Llabres. This dominates the two highways with no other important heights, becoming, along with Cabezo, the two most important positions of this zone. To the south, and almost opposite them, rise Peña Blanca and Vierzo, which, along with Turbina, will be the positions that the Asturian republicans will defend at all costs (1).

A very important factor in this defence will be the weather. The month of September 1937 had persistent fogs and orbayos (drizzles), which turned into heavy downpours. The peculiar difficulties of the terrain were accentuated by the cold and the wet, making combat operations very difficult. But the weather was an equal enemy to both sides, which only served to increase the misery of the soldiers on the summits and during the laborious ascents (2).

The Combatants

The nationalist forces which attacked in the Eastern zone of Asturias were the I, IV, V, and VI Brigades of Navarre, under the direct command of general Solchaga:

This mass of more than 33,000 men came with the support of the nationalist air force, which operated without hindrance from the aerodrome at Llanes:

For the defence of Eastern Asturias, the republican command regrouped on the Santander border two divisions, “A” and “B”, initially under the command of the Lieutenant Colonels Ibarrola and Galán, who tried to reorganize the front and to let the exhausted republican units recover, for which they counted on the support of the Luis Bárzana Division which had fallen back in good order, in spite of its great losses in the defence of Santander.

In the initial arrangement, the division A of Llanes included the I and II Mobile Brigade and the 156. Division B, with headquarters in Arenas de Cabrales, included Brigades 184, 192 and 199. The 184 was Manolín Alvarez’s Brigade and the 192 was Higinio Carrocera’s, which, along with the Basque Brigade, would be punished most in the combats of this sector and which were reinforced by Brigades 179, of Ladreda, the 185 of Manuel Alonso and the 191 of Major José Fernández.

The ballet of the units was constant, many battalions being substituted in the heat of the battle, but the number of republican forces in El Mazuco and the Cuera was never more than the four brigades, all weakened in strength. The republican forces, then, never surpassed 5,000 men, together with a limited number of artillery pieces under Commander Flórez. Republican air cover did not exist, because the republican Air Force of the North had only two fighter squadrons remaining, one of which protected Gijón constantly. In addition to the lack of anti-aircraft protection, the republican forces were bombarded by the heavy-calibre guns of the cruiser Admiral Cervera, which fired from off the coast of Llanes.

The battle begins

The nationalist offensive of the first of September demoralized the Asturian defenders, who were overwhelmed along the Deva river. According to Azaña, Colonel Prada, head of the republican army of the north, shot three brigade commanders, six battalion commanders, and some commissars in order to avert disaster (8).

It is certain that drastic measures were taken and some officers who had retreated were shot, as were some who refused to obey orders. In the 54th Division, commanded by Luis Bárzana, two officers of the Tomás San Vicente unit, Alexander Gijó and Jacinto Sanz, faced a firing squad after they were surprised when they tried to escape in a speedboat with a considerable amount of silver coin (9).

Also some soldiers and officers were executed in the field during the heat of the rout; one lieutenant was killed personally by Francisco Galán (10), but we have not found certain proof of Azaña’s claim. Speaking of the Asturian forces it is not true, for no Asturian brigade commander was shot by his companions, and the only Basque brigade commanders were Miguel Arriaga and Cristóbal Errandones, who were not, either. We feel that the effective measures were not any punishments, but in the reorganization and the example of the commanders and commissars, which somehow motivated the republican combatants to continue resisting.

In contrast to its previous behaviour (concealing nationalist victories), the CNT newspaper of Gijón publishes on the 6th: “The rebels have achieved an advance to Llanes, whose population was previously evacuated by us. Also, the enemy has seized the heights adjacent to that town”. On the following day, and contradicting itself, the same newspaper publishes an editorial in which it asserts that Llanes has not fallen, “but it will fall”. The editorial, directed against the hoaxes of the fifth-columnists, says: “Llanes does not hold for us the importance of Belchite nor the value of Quinto, but it will fall” (11). An assertion with little validity, because Belchite did not change the republican situation in the North, and Llanes was a hundred kilometers from Gijón.

The first republican unit that fights in El Mazuco is the 156th Brigade, from the old Basque Shock Division, which the Guipúzcoan Miguel Arriaga commands, and composed of the “Guipúzcoa”, “Larrañaga”, and “Isaac Puente” battalions. Opposite them, in the Sierra del Cuera, operated the republican battalion of Marines commanded by Benito Reola.

The I Brigade of Navarre leaves from Llanes along the road, preceded by bombing by the Condor Legion, in the direction of the Tornería pass and the village of El Mazuco. The resistance of the Basques stops them in the vicinity of the pass. The nationalist movement intended to encircle Cabrales fades away. To the resistance that the Brigade of Manolín Alvarez offers in the zone of Peñamellera, which stopped the V Brigade of Navarre, is added the sudden halt of the I Brigade. In order to reinforce these, the VI operates from the zone south of Cabrales and engages in the Cuñaba area.

The response of the nationalist command is to intensify the aerial and artillery bombardment. The Germans practice here for the first time “carpet bombing” (12), in which the aeroplanes all drop their bombs at the same time on some point of the enemy’s defence. As hardly any of the rare republican fighters are seen, the pilots fly at a low height to locate their objectives precisely. This will cost them two Junker bombers, one downed near Llanes and the other felled by rifle fire from the soldiers of the 222 Battalion (the old Republican Left) in the zone of Peñas Blancas (13).

This operation and the start of solid resistance after the fall of Llanes, fills the combatants of other fronts with joy. Jesús Larrañaga, the head of the communist shock troops who rose from the commander of a battalion of militia up to the political commissar of the Army of the North, and who had been wounded near Potes, discharges himself from the hospital of Ribadesella to organize the Basque troops who defend El Mazuco.

The echo of the resistance reaches the press, and so, on the 7th, Manolín Alvarez, commander of the 184th Brigade, which made an epic defence in Peñamellera, and its political commissar Fernando Fernández, publishes in Avance a call to arms of the combatants to the south of the Cuera in order to encourage those who fight in the Llanes and El Mazuco sector. The performance of the Basque Brigade that day is notable as it means a total break with the demoralized attitude of the preceding days, in which there was an attempt at mutiny and Arriaga had to kill a soldier. The mutineers had thought to take prisoner the head of the Ibarrola Division, and only the moderating intervention of this commander managed to stabilize the situation (14).

By the end of the 6th, both sides have reached the conclusion that the battle of the Eastern sector is decisive for the result of the Asturian campaign. The nationalists concentrate units, artillery and air power, and at the same time the cruiser “Cervera”, armed transports, and gun boats (artillery seiners) arrive in the Llanes zone from the base of Ribadeo. The republican headquarters of Gijón will send reinforcements to El Mazuco from the Bárzana Division and even from units on the Oviedo front.

In the disposition of the nationalist army the most forward brigade is the IV of Camilo Alonso Vega, who, being wounded in Llanes was replaced by Tella. Parallel to the IV is the I Brigade of Navarre of García-Valiño, stopped in the El Mazuco valley, and the V Brigade, halted in the Cares. In order to support them the forces of the 81 Division will advance on the pass of Pontón and Colonel Moliner’s group on the pass of Piedrasluengas. The mission of all these units was to unite the two nationalist contingents, the one of Aranda and the one of Solchaga, in the zone of Infiesto.

On the 7th of September, on the coast road, Tella’s Navarrese take the village of Barro and arrive at Balmori. In the zone south of the Sierra del Cuera the V Brigade has been occupying Robriguero and advanced to the north as far as Cavandi, but without being able to penetrate along the Cabrales road. One can say that the front has stabilized on the 7th. It has only been forty-eight hours since Llanes fell and, for a moment, it had seemed that in Asturias the republican collapse that happened in Santander would be repeated. In spite of the Navarrese pressure and the artillery and aerial supremacy the offensive is halted. On Peña Turbina, in the Sierra del Cuera, “they thrashed half the flag of Coruña; their commanding officer Marcial Holguín fell like a hero, and has been nominated for the military medal” (15). The nationalist losses begin to be significant. On this day, Avance will note that the fascists have bombed Trubia, and mentions the distinguished conduct of the “Larrañaga” and “Isaac Puente” battalions and the VII Asturian Brigade of the socialist Maximino Canga.

Higinio Carrocera arrives

In the Eastern zone, in addition to the Basque Brigade and the Battalion of Marines, fought the Asturian battalions 227 (Martyrs of Carbayín), 237 (Piloña), 242 (Guerra Pardo), 220 (Gordón Ordax also known as the less flattering “retreats”), 234 (Somoza), 211 (Tino), 219 (Galicia), 232 (Maximum Gorkinúm 3), 256, and the 165 (16).

In the combats of Paxúes, the brigade commander Jose Fernandez (alias Pepe the Caleyu) was killed while covering the retirement of his men with a machine gun, and to replace him a man called Higinio Carrocera (who was at that time in Avilés and who, along with the communist Ladreda, will be the central figure of El Mazuco) leaves for Cabrales on the 8th, accompanied by the commissar of his brigade, Manuel Aller. On the following day the forces of the Mobile Brigade of Carrocera, the 192, will leave, composed of battalions 210 (Carrocera), 207 (Onofre), and 214 (San Emeterio). To these battalions one must add the 233 (Bárzana), which also arrives to reinforce the zone.

The presence of Carrocera is soon noticed. He appears in the toughest places and personally accompanies the units to establish their positions and defences, and that lifts the morale of the militiamen, who know his reputation and courage. The unmistakable figure of the anarchist, wrapped in a leather donkey-jacket and clutching his gnarled cane, astonishingly will be met in the most desperate sites for a brigade commander, who certainly takes control of the battalions of his unit in the front line of the battle. Carrocera, before the approaching battle, has reinforced the armament of his brigade, and thus each one of his three battalions possesses eight machine guns, which gives him great firepower, very infrequent in the Asturian republican forces (17).

In the face of the republican defence, flights of nationalist aircraft follow one another constantly from dawn until dusk. The Condor Legion drops its normal bombs and on seeing that these do not break the republican defenses, replace them with incendiary bombs and low-level strafings. The effects of this severe punishment are deadly, since against the aeroplanes the Asturian soldiers have no protection other than to lie flat, shoot their rifles and hope that the bombs do not hit them.

The nationalist artillery establishes its command post in some rocks that lie to the left of the road that rises towards El Mazuco. In the command post, in the staff with Vigón, is José María Pemán, a sort of war tourist, who follows with interest the incidents of the combat (18). The Asturian Eastern front is at this time the center of interest for “tourists” and journalists who swarm around General Solchaga’s headquarters, and the scene is repeated in Aranda’s camp in the Leónese zone.

In the zone of the Cuera the attempts to advance by the I Brigade of Navarre are again curtailed. In order to support them, the nationalist aviation turns up and bombs the area so hastily that they strike the Moors of the IV Tabor de Alhucemas, who suffer several losses.

The longest day of El Mazuco

The 8th of September, the day of the Virgin of Covadonga, patron saint of all Asturians, is going to have everything: sun, clouds, clear skies, rain, and even fog. The men of Ladreda’s Brigade, who had rested in Celorio for a few days, rejoin the front. Battalion 210 of Carrocera’s Brigade is located as a reserve in Cabrales, and the 207 and the 214 are positioned on the knoll called Crestacaballo, against which crashes an attack of the Navarrese.

With dense fog in El Mazuco and the Cuera a series of attacks begins in which political commissar Villa dies. In the combat the soldiers of 207 (Onofre) not only withstand the continuous attacks, but also manage to counterattack and take Navarrese arms and equipment. Sergeant Elías Alvarez seizes a machine gun and an automatic rifle, and the soldier Eximio Alvarez takes a monarchist flag (19). But the losses of this battalion are so great that they and the 214 will on the following day have to be replaced by the 210, which comes up from Cabrales as quickly as possible.

In the southern sector of the Cuera the nationalists attempt to reach Camarmeña to seize the electrical power station. Quintela’s 242 Battalion stops them near Tresviso after inflicting many casualties. In order to reinforce this zone the 2nd Battalion of the Basque Brigade is brought up, and garrison the area of Tresviso, Sotres, Camarmeña and the power station of Viesgo.

Also in the southern zone of the Cuera, in the heights of Alles, the “Martyrs of Carbayín” Battalion is hit on the flank by enemy fire, which forces them to move back their line around a half kilometer. In the later rectification of the front they abandon two bends of the road and the bridge of Alles. In the fight, the battalion suffers 8 dead, 22 wounded, and 7 deserted to the nationalist camp (20).

Around six in the evening the Navarrese attack the positions of Battalion 231 (M. Gorki), and are repulsed twice, but they then jog to the heights defended by Battalion 252 and this yields the terrain. The action is fought by infantry and some nationalist cavalry, which, on overwhelming the republican line, produces a panic that ends in flight. The officers run next to the soldiers, and among them goes Cristóbal Errandonea, in a shameful flight. The occupation of more than two kilometers by the nationalists is curtailed by the arrival of night, which Manolín Alvarez takes advantage of to reorganize the line of defence (21). That night there will be reprimands and abuse. Battalion 231 is demoralized, the 252 has by now retreated three times without justification, upon Somoza lies the accusation of not properly directing his unit, on Cristóbal that of running away; but the following morning the new line will withstand the nationalist pressure and everybody will forget the beginnings of chaos of the previous day in the south of the Cuera, in which they lost the zone of Peñamellera.

To the north of the forces of El Mazuco the 54 Division of Lieutenant Colonel Ibarrola resists as best it can. Under his orders are the Brigades 179 (Ladreda), 185 (Manuel Alonso), and 191 (commanded by José Fernández until his death). The most pressure was taken by Baldomero Fernández Ladreda’s Brigade, which strengthens the line of defence of Battalion 214 (of Carrocera’s Brigade) by order of Ibarrola. In an offensive, the 233 Battalion (the old “Bárzana”, commanded by Casaprina) recaptures two heights, which, when lost by the 219, had provoked the beginnings of flight (like the one in the southern zone of the Cuera) which also infected a part of the 236 Battalion (commanded by Alfredo Noval). The fast and energetic reaction of Ladreda ends the demoralization. Ladreda continues to hold although complains in his daily report that he does not have a commissar, does not have an adjutant-captain, and is left with no liaison, which is why his Brigade needs a reorganization (22).

When the end of the day of the “Santina” arrives, the end of that very long day for the defenders, the forces of the 54 Division are as follows:

  1. Brigade 179 (Ladreda):

  2. Brigade 185 (Manuel Alonso):

  3. Brigade 191 (José Fernández and after his death, under Carrocera):

The troops of a Division of 6,000 men are reduced to 1,734 men, fewer than a normal brigade would have. In the rest of the forces the situation is much the same, which is why it is possible to calculate that three brigades of Basque-Asturian forces of the Republic withstood the attack of more than 30,000 men of the nationalist army.

Faced with the drain on the republican units, the Consejo Soberano determines on the 8th that “the workers who are not in the army will receive daily military training” so they can be used immediately as shock troops should the need arise (24); an assessment that will be made several times before the end of the campaign.

By general order of the Republican Army of the North is published, on this day of the Santina, the award of the Medal of Freedom to the Majors Ignacio Esnaola and Antonio de Teresa, heads of the “Larrañaga” and “Isaac Puente” battalions, for their performance in El Mazuco (25). For the defence of the south of the Sierra del Cuera Alvarez, the Medal of Freedom is awarded to Major Manuel Alvarez and to Fernando Fernandez, leader and political commissar of the 10th Asturian Brigade, the current 184 Brigade. Colonel Prada, head of the Republican Army of the North, proposes the promotion to regular Lieutenant Colonel, for excellence in war, the Major of the Civil Guard (Republican national Guard) Juan Ibarrola Orueta. Also to receive the Medal of Freedom are Captain Pío Arias, of Manuel Alonso’s 185 Brigade and Lieutenant Manuel Ramos, of José Recalde’s 186 Brigade (26).

The engagements continue

The 9th, as soon as dawn breaks, begins with aeroplanes and artillery pounding the positions of El Mazuco. Under the heavy punishment Battalion 219 (Galicia) abandons the position that it occupied to the left of the highway, and also part of the 214 (Emeterio) falls back. The situation at 13:30 is difficult, so Ladreda takes command of his old Battalion, the 224, which occupies the positions before the enemy. The “Bárzana” holds its positions, and in the fighting Captain José María Alvarez (the brother of Manolín Alvarez) is killed.

By order of Carrocera, Battalion 210 is brought up from Cabrales with the utmost urgency, and, under the control of Commander Jarín, engages the enemy as soon as they arrive at the positions of Battalion 207, who they are to relieve. In the first moments of the fight the 210 take twenty casualties, among them Captain Collado, without even time to occupy the defence line because of the intensity of the enemy fire.

The retreat, having been decimated, of Battalions 207 and 214 makes the situation of Carrocera’s men very difficult, although many of the useful men move to reinforce the position of the Bárzana Battalion. Carrocera gets, to reinforce his decimated Brigade, the Battalions 247 (Sangre de Octubre), yielded by the 185 Brigade, and the 220; with these, the line that was on the point of collapse is held.

That same day, at the heights of Nueva de Llanes, a republican cargo plane on a flight to or from France is knocked down. Fíat CR-32 fighters machine-gun the airplane, which crashes, killing the pilot, Abel Guides, a close friend of André Malraux. He was one of the first voluntary pilots who formed the international squadron “España” and continued fighting for the Republic when most of the international pilots had disappeared. At the time of his death Abel Guides directed the aerial postal service with France and had transported several Asturian personalities to central Spain and Valencia (27).

In the Cuera zone it rains heavily, which impedes the movements of both the Navarrese and the defenders. The V Brigade of Navarre enters Llonín. The IV of Navarre remains prisoner on the coast before arriving at Niembro. To the south of the Cuera the VI Navarrese Brigade is replaced by the soldiers of the Moliner Group and marches to regroup in Llanes, from where they will be led to the left sector of El Mazuco.

The personal relationship between Ladreda and Carrocera, the first communist and the other anarchist, works very well, helping both leaders at difficult moments and avoiding any kind of personal or political friction.

The impossible resistance

The combats continue on the following day, monotonous and unrelenting. The nationalists concentrate their artillery in the zone of El Mazuco, and as soon as the mists disperse, the Dornier 17s of the Condor Legion from the nearby field of Llanes unload their bombs regularly. The incendiary bombs, a forerunner to Napalm, burn the vegetation, the rocks, and the men. In order to avoid bombing their own ranks the nationalists marked their forward lines with streamers and flags, which is why the republicans would sometimes advance as close as possible to those signs to take cover from the bombs. Time and time again the same bloody spectacle was repeated. After the the artillery barrage and the bombs and strafing from the aeroplanes the Navarrese forces leapt from their parapets to be harvested by the machine guns of the republicans. After a brief struggle the Navarrese returned to their lines and again the guns began to thunder.

Tons and tons of explosives pulverized the zone, but when it seemed that nothing alive could remain in the zone again the rattle of the republican machine-guns could be heard and the nationalist advance halted.

In the sector of the Cuera the Brigade of Manolín Alvarez covered a line that descended from Pico Lodón to the hills of Carria, passing through the village of Alles, and garrisoning the following positions: the Sierra del Cuera, Pico Lodón, Collado de Caramo (in the neighborhood of Alles), and Monte de la Carria. On the right flank of the Cabrales road the Brigade covered the positions of Vallejo, La Mordal, Cabezón de Muros, the pass of San Esteban–Traspandio, Pico Jaya, and the Trescares road. It seems scarcely possible that the 184 Brigade can maintain so broad a front with its decimated three battalions which have taken more than ten days of continuous fighting in the zone, since the enemy smashed the line on the Deva river on the Santander border. In this sector, the 242 Battalion of Quintela falls back, as ordered, as a consequence of the nationalists reaching Nedrina. This position is one of the worst, since it lacked water and it was sixteen hours before it could be supplied, which led the defenders to consider the possibility of dispatching the severely wounded as there was no possibility of moving them (28).

In El Mazuco, on the 10th, the soldiers of the I Brigade of Navarre are used in an all-out attack to break the resistance of the pass of Tornería. They advance in dense fog, and after hard fight they take the height of Biforco, to the right of the highway, but fail to take the Sierra Llabres, which is the key to the defence of El Mazuco. From their greater height Carrocera’s men hammer the area, but the Navarrese tenaciously hold the captured terrain. Here a “new weapon of war” is invented: carbide drums are filled with dynamite and after lighting a fuse are rolled down the slopes onto the enemy positions below. It was not a very effective weapon in terms of causing casualties, but it was terrifying.

Part of Carrocera’s troops protect Pico Turbina and link with those of Manolín in Arangas de Cabrales. The only important loss is that of Pico Liño, and then begins in earnest a policy of relief of the units, with hot food for the soldiers. The forces of the Basque Brigade and those of Carrocera and Ladreda will have on this day, for the first time since the 6th, adequate food and some hours of rest.

Peña Turbina becomes the most important line of defence in the Sierra del Cuera. With its 1,315m it dominates a distance of 2km. And mostly with a major shoulder of 1,100m with slopes steeper than forty degrees. From there ridges descend in steps to the west, but there, as a rearguard position, is the elevation of Peña Blanca with its 1,176m (29). This is a position that the nationalists had not been able to take without the support of artillery and air force, and one for which Higinio Carrocera is going to exact a high price.

The Pro-Franco offensive intensifies

On the 11th, facing the sudden halt in El Mazuco, units of the I Brigade of Navarre commanded by García-Valiño are reinforced by troops of the IV Brigade which operate on his right. The stagnation of the nationalist offensive is creating a serious military problem. The autumn approaches and the rain and the fog of these September days promise a hard winter. General Dávila, head of the Army of the North, and the Asturian Vigón, his chief of staff, know that if not conquered before the winter arrives it will be difficult to continue the advance. The Asturian mountain passes and harsh weather, which do not favour aerial operations, along with the determined Asturian resistance could delay the conquest of the region until the spring of the following year, which would destroy the overall plans of Franco’s General Staff. They had, then, to break the Asturian defence and to finish the campaign as soon as possible. In Asturias the nationalist forces are fully committed, as are almost all the aircraft, and they consider bringing up the Cuerpo de Tropa Voluntario (CTV, the Italian Expeditionary Force), which had been transferred to Aragón after the conquest of the province of Santander.

On the republican side it is also understood that time plays in favour of the defence and so urgent calls for fortification work are constantly in the press. In fact it seems there is a note signed by the mayor of Sama, Félix Vitoria, in which he requests that superfluous recruits, such as medical, administrative or mine workers, “must present themselves for work on fortification. Should they not appear they will be considered deserters”. At the same time police surveillance is extreme and there are a succession of arrests, which are reported in newspapers.

Almost daily a notice appears in the republican press, with a different font than the rest of the news, and without signature, which says: “A soldier who leaves his position is not given time to explain why he left it. He is shot first, without any discussion. One cannot waste time on excuses of cowardice.” This draconian observation is a double-edged weapon: on the one hand it serves to terrify and ensure that the soldiers resist rather than risk facing a firing-squad, but at the same time it is a recognition that they have to take extreme measures, and that therefore they are on the brink of defeat.

Pena Turbina
Peña Turbina (L) and Peña Llacia
In the Sierra del Cuera the defence of Pico Turbina by Carrocera and Peña Blanca by Reola’s battalion of Marines changes the prospects for the V Brigade of Navarre. Colonel Sánchez González cannot continue the advance along the road that borders the Cares river to Arenas de Cabrales. The narrowness of the track and the continuous bends mean that when the republican defence loses a stand it regroups 50m back with the same obstacles they abandoned in the previous one. It is no longer sufficient to flank the Sierra Cuera and continue to advance; to be able to continue Juan Bautista Sánchez must take the mountain range.

The ascent of the Navarrese is not going to be easy, because in addition they must carry up their supplies and mountain artillery on the backs of mules. The trails, which are no more than narrow paths, are treacherous and the soldiers and mules often fall. And so, since they are so important, the ordinance ends up being carried in the arms of the Navarrese soldiers, while behind them the sapper companies, working non-stop, construct a track for the animals.

The entire VI Brigade of Navarre leaves Llanes to operate to the north of the Sierra del Cuera on Peñas Blancas. The V by the south and VI by the north attempt to be the jaws of pincers that crush the defence of the Cuera, but on the 11th the weather continues being bad and aircraft can barely operate over the area, so the line of defence remains stable in spite of the continuous bombardment of the artillery.

The harshness of the terrain is equally bad for both sides, and, for example, in the zone of the V Brigade of Navarre food convoys take thirty-six hours to arrive at the front lines, but when the track that is being constructed is finished the time for the journey will be only eighteen hours (30).

In order to complete the nationalist offensive Aranda orders a push in the zone of Pajares-León, engaging the forces of colonel Muñoz Grandes in an attack, but without being able to breach the front. To the right of the 81st Division that operates near El Pontón is the Moliner Group, which pushes on the zone of Peña Labra and to the north of Cervera de Pisuerga, but the mountains of the Picos of Europe continue being an impassable barrier after the whole zone to the south of the La Hermida gorge has fallen (31).

In the zone of El Mazuco, village and valley, the fire of the nationalist artillery is like the “sol de toro”, so Battalion 131 begins to disperse, which impedes the leaders Ibarguen and Tuñón. Meanwhile, the Navarrese have taken the Sierra Bautista, and from that height they pound the positions of the 247 Battalion, in which the commander of the unit, Salgado, wounded, has been replaced by the political commissar. Battalion 227 (Martyrs of Carbayín), seeing the seriousness of the situation, sends a reinforcement of 60 men. There is no night attack and the Navarrese hold the position (frequently, positions lost by the republicans during the day because of aviation and artillery were recovered in violent nocturnal counterattacks).

From the captured position the nationalist artillery pulverizes the defence lines of the Battalion “Guipúzcoa” and later it presses hard towards Caldueño and Vibaño for El Mazuco. When the day ends the forces of the 15 Brigade are composed of 300 men totally disorganized and exhausted, who lack a leader, because Manuel Alonso is in Headquarters (32). The Brigade is crumbling under the continuous punishment it suffers.

The Consejo Soberano annuls this day all certificates of immunity and exemption for conscription and announces that from now on, only those exempted by the Examining Commission and the War Commission will be valid. This is a sensible measure, intended to reduce “favouritism” at the rear, but it should have been taken several months before to avoid the confusion and the action of the fifth-columnists.

The Larrañaga Battalion moves to Peñas Blancas to reinforce the republican Marines who begin their tenacious resistance, which continues after the fall of El Mazuco. Another heavily punished battalion is the 222 (Izquierda Republicana), which has been reduced to 70 survivors after the combats and bombings (33). Of the losses, more than half have been in combat. Aircraft not only operated on the battle fronts of the zone, but also have unloaded their bombs on Cangas de Onís and Pola de Gordón, aiming to hit the headquarters of those sectors and to produce losses in the civilian population. On the following day it will repeat these actions against Cangas de Onís and Arriondas and along the road between Arriondas and Ribadesella, to impede the arrival of republican reinforcements in the battle zones.

About the raging battle of El Mazuco the national newspaper ABC of Seville, the paper most widely circulated in the pro-Franco zone, states that it “is almost all quiet on the front” and the official headquarters report says tersely: “In the Eastern sector of the Asturian front there was nothing new” (34).

This time Pemán does not write about glorious conquests and stays silent.

On the 12th, in bad weather, the battles for the ridges that lead towards El Mazuco continue. At times these are hand-to-hand. The I and IV Brigades of Navarre suffer very many losses, but they are less than those inflicted on the republican defenders by the artillery. Battalion 220, nicknamed “retreats”, assigned to the Brigade of Carrocera, begins to crumble and abandon its positions. Higinio Carrocera, without drawing his Mauser submachine gun from its wooden holster at his waist, stands and faces them.

The frightened militiamen meet that leader of their Brigade, who, with insults, blasphemies, and blows of his cane drives them back to the lines of their defensive positions. Higinio remains with them enduring the Navarrese assault and the militiamen resist on the rocks. As of that moment the battalion will distinguish itself in the rest of the battle of El Mazuco and in the withdrawal to the line of Sella. Never again would they be labelled with that infamous word “retreats”.

The Defence Group of the Ports is established

On the 13th, after a week of continuous nationalist attacks, the republican forces register the effects of the punishment and begins to yield the line of resistance. The soldiers of the IV Brigade of Navarre, who reinforce the I Brigade, jump from El Biforco up to the Sierra Llabres, the key defensive position of El Mazuco. At the same time the V Brigade of Navarre achieves an advance along the Sierra Cuera towards Peña Turbina, with the Battalion of Valladolid going in the lead in a fog so dense that the soldiers could scarcely see each other, and conquer two heights, Laguna and Pedrobulde, close by the summit of the Sierra. Some are able to reach the Cotero de las Avispas, very close to Peña Turbina, but Carrocera’s men, in a counterattack with hand grenades, get among the nationalists and create great confusion. This period of chaos saves Peña Turbina, because while the soldiers reorganize themselves the night arrives and the advance is paralyzed due to their ignorance of the terrain.

In the Headquarters of Gijón, Lieutenant Colonel Linares and commissar Roces sign an order which constitutes the Defence Group of the Ports of León. The staff of the Army of the North, aware that the fall of the Eastern front is imminent, begins to prepare a line more to the west which is based on the rivers Bedón and Sella and makes a perimeter with the mountain passes of León. These, which been had defended by the two Brigades of “the Coritu” and “Antuña”, are now vulnerable to an attack by general Aranda, which is why they create the new republican unit ... with the troops that they have.

The new Group will be composed of two Divisions, the “C” and the “D”. The first becomes the charge of Major Luis Bárzana, with command post in Valgrande, and will have the soldiers of the III Expeditionary Brigade, Brigade 183 of Major Penido Iglesias, and the 186 of Major José Recalde. Division “D” will be under the orders of Arturo Vázquez, composed of the battalions of Puerto de Pinos, the 187 Brigade of Máximo Ocampos, and the rest of the mountain Brigade. The Headquarters is established in Villamanín. The supreme command of this “new” unit is held by Lieutenant Colonel Ibarrola, who has as chief of staff Commander Bravo Quesada (35).

Meanwhile, in the rear, political incidents of sectarianism rebellion and settling of accounts take place. In Advance, the news appears that Rafael Fernández, Councilor of Justice, ordered the imprisonment of Luis López, Emilio Gutiérrez, Servando Bernardo and Arcadio González, who were in charge of two working organizations in Colunga, for acts of defeatism. As it is not indicated which two working organizations these are, the CNT considered itself forced to clarify in their newspaper that the prisoners do not belong to the central anarchist union.

Of greater importance will be the order of detention made in Gijón against a Sergeant, seven Corporals, and four Assault Guards who are accused of disloyalty to the republican regime and who will be sent to the penal battalion. The Assault Guard, which has been totally dependable in Gijón since the first day of the civil war, begins to experience the effects of demoralization, which indicates that this is happening to the whole military establishent in the rear. This demoralization, nonetheless, is not yet seen at the front, because at the same time the “Guipúzcoa” Battalion is decorated with the Medal of Freedom for its performance in the Eastern front on the nomination of Chief of Staff Ciutat.

During the battle of El Mazuco the courage of the Asturian combatants will be recognized even on the nationalist side. In one of his nightly radio chats from Seville, general Queipo de Llano recognizes “the hard resistance of that Carroceda or Carrocera, but already we are putting him in his place”.

The resistance yields in El Mazuco

On the 14th of September the I Brigade of Navarre throw all their forces into the combat and occupy El Cabezo and thus weaken and divide the republican line of defence between those which are in the Sierra Llabres, and those in the village of El Mazuco and the Sierra del Cuera.

From their higher ground the Navarrese dominate the village of El Mazuco, which must be considered lost. The I, VI, and V Brigades of Navarre prepare for the final assault. Throughout the day the fighting will continue throughout the front, but the main aim of the Navarrese brigades is to take the Sierra Llabres.

Sierra Llabres and Monte Cabeza are also like a beacon, dominating the valley of El Mazuco, located to the east of this mountain, and also the command of this position means it is possible to advance along the road from Posada to Ortiguero.

Even if the battle of El Mazuco does not have resonance abroad (the North front after the fall of Bilbao did not especially draw attention although it is there that the war was decided), something of the spirit of the republican resistance of the north is conveyed through the success of Picasso’s “Guernica”. The canvas of the Malagan painter hangs in the Spanish pavilion of the International Exhibition in Paris, where the crowd makes a long queue to see the painting. But even though its vision reminds of the horror of the war, it is quickly forgotten because it is so far away. While the French contemplate the Guernica, Asturias is in agony under the same aeroplanes that destroyed the Basque town.

On the following day the nationalist report declares tersely: “the village of El Mazuco, the heights to the north of this village, the heights to the west of Peña Villa, and also Peña Llabres, have been occupied”. The I Brigade of Navarre has achieved its objective and El Mazuco has fallen. The republican troops in this sector fall back in an orderly manner to Meré.

At the same time the VI Brigade arrive in the proximity of the peak of Peña Blanca (in fact there are three summits). The troops of Carrocera’s brigade, after fighting all day, fall back and the V Brigade of Navarre seizes Peña Turbina and, finally occupying the villages of Alles and Ruenes, advances along the Cabrales road as far as Mier.

On the 16th, Arangas de Cabrales falls, and Arenas on the following day, where the headquarters of Manolín Alvarez and his Brigade had been. The Gijónian commander gives the order to withdraw to Meré to join the rest of the republican forces in retreat.

A new line of defence is organized along the river Bedón river, starting at its mouth, and along the Sierras Ardisana de Llanes and spurs to the south of the Cuera. But the republican line of resistance has a salient: Peñas Blancas, where the stubborn defenders of the terrain do not think of evacuation.

In the battle of El Mazuco the main character of the republican defence has been the military Major Higinio Carrocera, who is nominated by Ciutat for the Medal of Freedom, which is awarded to him the following month. By general order of the Army of the North on the 3 of October, “the extraordinary leadership and excellence of an officer who has in difficult circumstances maintained the spirit of his Brigade and who made possible the magnificent actions executed in the Eastern front of Asturias”. El Mazuco already has its popular hero and now Asturias has another epic legend.

The hard battle of Peñas Blancas follows

(36) If El Mazuco was a passing nightmare from which finally the Navarrese Brigades were awakening, even so, its fall did not produce the collapse of all republican resistance that had been expected. The spur of Peñas Blancas is the objective given to Colonel Abriat, head of VI Navarrese Brigade, for when it was taken the battle would be over.
Pena Blanca
Peña Blanca

On the 15th, as the Colonel prepared his plan of operations, together with the head of artillery Díaz de Rivera, the command post is located by the republican guns and flattened (37). It is a foretaste of what awaits the VI Brigade in the heights which they have to conquer. That same day, the Lieutenant Colonel Martínez Iñigo, at the front of the 10th battalion of Zamora, gets to within 50m of the summit. The attack is repulsed by the republican Marines who also foil two new assaults by Villarrobledo’s troops. The failure of the three attacks obliges the concentration of more forces for new assaults. On the 16th September ten battalions of the IV Brigade and six of the VI are now prepared to engage. A massive force to assault the three peaks of Peñas Blancas (38).

On the following day, with no bombardment, the republicans hold and the Navarrese are spectators to the entrance of their comrades into Arangas. They will witness the engagements in the valley in which two republican armoured cars, the only ones remaining in the area, intervene in the battle, and one is destroyed by the nationalist guns.

On the 17th a new attempt to assault the Peñas Blancas, taking advantage of the gap between two downpours, costs the Battalion of Zamora many losses. An agressive manoeuver is then preferred, and the VI Brigade of Navarre encircles Peña Blanca to the south. The operation is compete when it links up with the V and VI Navarrese Brigades.

Artillery shells and mortar bombs rain down on the summits defended by the republicans. On the heights the drizzle becomes snow. The conditions and terrain are described by Lieutenant Colonel Martínez Iñigo in a report: “the engagements develop in a Dantesque landscape, barely imaginable, rocky and full of obstacles, with the appearance of a lunar landscape in that it lacks even the most insignificant footpath. The distance from the highway prevents support from the artillery, and the rain and fog prevents support from the air” (39).

On the 18th, the aircraft repeatedly machine-gun the republican positions in “strings”. After this performance, at noon, the Navarrese infantry commences an attack that will be broken with hand grenades. After another pass of aircraft, and when the airplanes leave, the republican grenades cut down the second advance. In the third attack a mixture of 36 Junkers and Fiat aeroplanes take part, but as soon as the last fighter turns away the republican machine guns beat off the nationalist advance. In this combat the political commissar of the 249 Battalion dies at the head of his men. Division “D”, which now defends the republican line, is made up of Brigade 187 (Máximo Ocampos), the I Mountain Brigade, and Battalions 241 (Silvino Morán) and 247 (Sangre de Octubre).

The days will be repeated, one after another, monotonous and bloody. The aircraft will pound the rocks of Peñas Blancas, the nationalist artillery will shatter its defences, but when the Navarrese infantry advance to take the summits they are always repulsed. Until the 22nd the red flag will wave on the highest peak; on that day the VI Brigade of Navarre is able to overrun Peñas Blancas. “This Peñas Blancas has been a nightmare” (40)

The republican line recedes to the Bedón river. The obstinate defence of the last position of the Sierra del Cuera has set back the nationalist offensive by an entire week.

On the 19th of September, three days before the fall of Peñas Blancas, in the headquarters in Llanes, Von Richstoffen, the German head of the Nazi wings over Guernica, reveals that the Condor Legion considers that a massive bombing of the Asturian ports is necessary, principally Musel. In Gijón, in the prison boats, there are nationalist prisoners, kinsmen, friends. Juan Vigón, the Asturian Chief of staff of the pro-Franco Army of the North, telephones his superior, the General Dávila, and requests authorization from him so that the bombings by the German airplanes can go ahead.

General Dávila said yes.


(1) Martínez Bande: El final del frente Norte (The end of the Northern Front), p.128.

(2) Colonel Salas Larrazábal, soldier in a Navarrese brigade, told me that he had many very bad experiences in the civil war, but that he did not remember a fatigue and cold equal to that which he endured in the Asturian lands.

(3) These German artillerymen always acted with well-known delay on the nationalist front. In Arenas de Cabrales they were distinguished more for the skill with which they camouflaged their pieces than by their ardour for combat. Testimony of Daniel Casanova, of Arenas de Cabrales.

(4) Martínez Bande: op. cit., pp119–120.

(5) Cristopher Shores: Las fuerzas aéreas en la guerra civil española (The Air Force in the Spanish civil war), p.33.

(6) Adolf Galland: Los primeros y los últimos (The first and the last), p.42. By the way, Galland spoke that in the advance on Gijón a car with three German officials was captured, due to their being lost. I believe that this talks about a capture in Basque country (Vizcaya), because in Asturias the only record of German prisoners were from an aeroplane which was downed.

(7) Jesús Larrazábal Rooms: La guerra de España desde el aire (The Spanish war from the air), p.260.

(8) Manuel Azaña: Complete works, volume IV.

(9) Communication of the 54 Division to the political commission of the PC dated in Meré the 7 of September 1937.

(10) Testimony of Miguel Bengoechea, official of the information service of general Gamir, eyewitness to the fact.

(11) Periódico CNT, days 6 and 7 of September 1937.

(12) Galland, op. cit.

(13) Testimony of Daniel Casanova, sergeant of the Asturian 223 Battalion.

(14) Undated report, signed by Ania K– 87. SDS.

(15) José María Gárate: Mil días de fuego (Thousand days of fire), p.320.

(16) Solano Palacios: La tragedia del Norte (The tragedy of the North), pp.192 and 195.

(17) Testimony of Elías Fernández, captain of the Asturian 210 Battalion.

(18) Jorge Vigón: Cuadernos de guerra (War notebooks), p.165.

(19) The importance of flags as trophies was more propaganda than anything else. Each nationalist battalion carried twelve flags to mark positions, to signal to aircraft, etc., so the capture of some of them did not have much value.

(20) The desertions in shock battalions such as the “Mártires de Carbayín” are explained by the successive reorganizations of the unit because of the losses suffered. The fallen volunteers were replaced by soldiers mobilized by calls of their respective drafts and who lacked the enthusiasm of the original volunteers.

(21) Report of the 8th edited by the military political subcommission of Neuva of the PC. AK–SDS.

(22) There is an indication that in the commanders’ meeting on the 6th of September, the day after the fall of Llanes, Ladreda was one of the leaders who pleaded for the total withdrawal from the zone. Two days later he was one of the heroes of the resistance of El Mazuco.

(23) Report of Division 54 to the Military Political Commission of the PC signed in Meré the 8–IX–1937 at 12:40 by C. G. Roza. Original document from the author’s archives.

(24) Periódico Advance of 8–IX–1937.

(25) Periódico Advance of 9–IX–1937 and Ramón Salas Larrazábal: Historia del Ejército Popular (History of the Popular Army), p.1520.

(26) The republican military decorations were created by a decree of the 5 of March of 1937, which established the following awards: the Shield of Honour of Madrid (equivalent to the Cross of Honour of San Fernando), the Medal of Freedom (equivalent to the Individual Military Medal) and the Medal of Sufferings for the Motherland. Later, in 1938, the Duty Medal, the Medal of Valour, and the Shield of Valour were created.

(27) The periodical CNT describes the aeroplane demolished as a French aircraft, but this is uncertain, because it belonged to the Spanish Postal Air Line (Líneas Aéreas Postales Españolas).

(28) Report of the X Brigade of 11–IX–1937. Author’s archive.

(29) José María Gárate: op. cit., p.332.

(30) Idem, p.326.

(31) The offensive of Aranda on the zone of Pajares will have to be stopped, due to heavy losses, on the 16th of September. The forces of Arturo Vázquez and Luis Bárzana halt those of Aranda and Muñoz Grandes.

(32) Report of the 15 Brigade of 11–IX–1937. Author’s archive.

(33) Testimony of Daniel Casanova, sergeant of that battalion.

(34) Periódico ABC of Seville of 10–IX–1937.

(35) Ramón Larrazábal Salas: op. cit., p.2942.

(36) Diary entry of Colonel Vigón corresponding to Tuesday 14 September 1937.

(37) Jorge Vigón: Cuadernos de guerra (War notebooks), p.166.

(38) José María Gárate: op. cit., p.337.

(39) Report of Colonel Tella, head of the IV Brigade of Navarre, included in Gárate’s book, p.341.

(40) Vigón: op. cit., p.168.

This is a Speleogroup project.   Please send any corrections to the translator, Mike Cowlishaw.
All photographs © Mike Cowlishaw 2005, 2008.