The control of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War was key if one of the two sides was going to win. The control of the seat of government – as Madrid was – made the battle for Madrid a very important occurrence during the Spanish Civil War.
The battle for Madrid actually proved indecisive during the Spanish Civil War in terms of who controlled the entire city.
After the capture of Toledo, Franco set himself a new target – Madrid. By the time the battle started in earnest in July members of the International Brigade had arrived in the capital city to support its defenders. The intensity of the fighting between Toledo and Madrid gave some idea as to what was to be expected in the city. Republican fighters had put up fierce resistance at Illescas and Chapineria to the southwest of Madrid.
The Nationalist forces were commanded by General Emilio Mola while the Republican defenders were led by General José Miaja. The Nationalists approached Madrid from the southwest. This gave them one advantage in that they could use the expansive royal park, the Casa del Campo, to cover their advance. This was supported by a diversionary attack on a suburb of Madrid, Carabanchel. The resistance put up by the Republican defenders was fierce and casualties were high.
A counter-attack by the International Brigade provided a short respite but it did seem like it was only a matter of time before the Nationalists got to the outskirts of the city. When they did they found that their first task was to capture what was known as University City. This was an attackers’ nightmare as the university complex was full of numerous large buildings but also many smaller rooms – perfect for determined defenders to hide and fight in. There was a strong Republican presence in the university. The Nationalists used their air force to bomb places where the Republicans were thought to have a strong presence. Nationalist artillery was also used for the same purpose.
John Summerfield, an English member of the International Brigade wrote: “We saw the Philosophy building then, lit by reflected flames and moonlight. The light shone through the shell holes in the walls, from the windows the shattered sun blinds hung drunkenly awry, a wrecked car sprawled on the drive, and there were great holes in the ground full of water.” The battle for control of University City took ten days but none of the fighting was decisive and on November 23rd Franco decided that his force had suffered enough casualties and that the university complex would need twice as many Nationalist soldiers to succeed and these were numbers he could not afford. Franco decided to make do with the control of about 75% of University City.
It was a pattern repeated until the end of the Spanish Civil War. The Nationalists controlled some parts of the city while others remained firmly in the hands of the Republicans. Cambridge student and International Brigade member Peter Kemp wrote about life in Madrid: The sharp crack of a rifle, the evil chatter of a machine gun, the tapping of pick axes below – all could mean death. A glorious assault had ended in a miserable game of hide and seek played by frightened men.” Though he did not take the city, Franco ordered an increase in its bombing by aircraft from the Nationalists air force.
On November 19th, 1000 people were killed by bombers that targeted areas of the city that they assumed were controlled by the Republicans. “The hiss and crash of explosions, the cries for help or of pain, the clang of fire-bells and the shrill blast of whistles, mingled with the roar of falling stones and glass and the drone of low-flying bombers, made a deafening noise. Madrid was the first European capital to be attacked in this way. Later during World War Two most city authorities dug deep shelters. Being first, the people of Madrid were not so lucky.” (L Snellgrove in ‘Franco and the Spanish Civil War’)