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Gerda Taro and the Brunete Offensive

Frontline Madrid cover vis [2]_Layout 1

Read Dr David Mathieson’s new fully illustrated guide to the

battlefield sites of the civil war around Madrid – with foreword by Jon Snow. 

Order your copy here.


Tour Itinerary – Gerda Taro and the Brunete Offensive

This tour  leaves Madrid through  the wooded Casa de Campo to the parched battlefield of Brunete some 40 minutes outside the city.   Heading west, we  will cross the River Guadarrama and then stop briefly to explore some Republican fortifications between Villanueva de la Canada and Valdemorillo.  We will walk to the village of Quijorna, following the route taken by El Campesino, when preparing the Republican attack of 8 July 1937.   This is a distance of about 10km – though for those who do not want to walk it will be possible to be driven to the village. 

We will then stop for a picnic lunch in Quijorna.  After lunch we will then visit village of Valdemorillo which was the Republican command post.  From there we will go to explore the villages and remains of the war at Villanueva de la Canada, Brunete itself and Boadilla del Monte (all mentioned below).

On arrangement, the tour leaves Madrid at 10:00 am from the principal entrance to Parque Debod, beneath the fallen soldier memorial (on Calle Profesor Martin Almagro Basch, just off Calle Pintor Rosales and close to Plaza de Espana). It returns to Madrid at about 16:30 to the same drop-off point.

To book a tour contact us at:

Gerda Taro – a pioneer of war photography

Gerda Taro – Refugee from Nazism

Gerda Taro was a pioneer photojournalist who died whilst covering the battle of Brunete.  Born Gerta Pohorylle she came from a middle class Jewish family and – looking to sell her work to the US media – later changed her name to something more memorable in English.   To the Spanish she was known as la pequeña rubia or the little blond. She spent her early years in her native city of Stuttgart and then in Leipzig.   She was arrested in 1934 for distributing anti-Nazi propaganda and then fled Germany to live in Paris where she developed her skills as a photographer.

David Mathieson at the memorial plaque to Gerda Taro in Stuttgart, Germany

David Mathieson at the memorial plaque to Gerda Taro in Stuttgart, Germany

Frontage of the block in Alexanderstrasse, Stuttgart where Taro was born

Frontage of the block in Alexanderstrasse, Stuttgart where Taro was born

The House in the courtyard of 170 Alexanderstrasse where Taro was born

The House in the courtyard of 170 Alexanderstrasse where Taro was born

Taro visited Spain 5 times between August 1936 to July 1937 to cover the conflict with the legendary war photographer Robert Capa (with whom she had a tempestous affair) and befriended writers such as Hemingway and Orwell.   Taro was killed at Brunete a few days short of her 27th birthday.   Her body was sent to Paris, via Valencia, for an emotional funeral attended by artists, friends – and tens of thousands of ordinary Parisians.  Taro became an iconic figure in the anti-fascist struggle and symbolised unfolding tragedy in Europe:  after Taro left Leipzig she never again saw her close family, many of whom perished in the holocaust.

Spanish Civil war and the Battle of Brunete

Taro was just one victim of a battle which it is estimated claimed the lives of 20-25 000 people.  It was the bloodiest battle of the civil war  and according to some estimates involved up to 150 000 men, over 100 tanks and many scores of aircraft.  At times the carnage was equal to that of the western front in World War I and, just as in Belgium or France, the weather marked the course of this battle too – not rain and mud of Flanders but the searing heat of the mid summer sun over the meseta or plain of Madrid.  Click here to see some original film – the commentary is in Spanish but the images give a clear idea of the conditions under which the battle was fought.

El Campesio (on horseback) directing troops outside the village of Villanueva de la Canada

 The offensive took place in July when the sun is at its hottest in Madrid: the temperatures reached up to 40 C – or in excess of 100 farenheight.  As will be apparent from the fotographs,  the area is largely barren or rough arable land and the Republican troops had virtually no cover from the scorching sun.   Supply lines were poor and many of the assailants suffered terrbily from thirst, heat stroke and exhaustion as they waited for the villages to fall.

In addition, German Messerschmitt Bf-109s appeared in the sky and, along with Heinkel bombers, began to impose air superiority for the Nationalists over the whole front.  Within 5 years both the 109s and the Heinkels would be in action again – over the Home Counties in the Battle of Britain.

British soldiers from the XV Brigade on the Brunete Offensive


The two armies clashed under the burning sun for more than two weeks until the Nationalists began to push the Republicans back.   It was fought at a terrible cost in terms of human life.   Amongst the thousands of Republican dead were Oliver Law, officer of the Abraham Lincoln International Brigade and the first Afro-American to command troops in the history of the US military and Julian Bell, nephew of Virgina Woolf who was wounded in the battle and died in the hospital at el Escorial.  In addition, the Republic had lost vital equipment which could not be replaced.  Never again would the Republican forces have the strength or supplies to seriously threaten the Nationalist who were encircling Madrid.

More about Brunete…

There is extensive literature about the battle but the following are helpful in understanding what happened – this shortish account by Luis Silva is lively account of this confusing battle.

…and Gerda Taro

The journalist Ted Allan was with Taro for the last few hours of her life.  You can read his gripping and moving account of what happened here. – an illustrated video talk by Irme Schaber, Taro’s biographer and curator of an exhibition of her photographs at the Barbican centre, London in 2009.  Fascinating. – Daily Telegraph review of an exhibition of Taro’s photograhs in New York. – a review of the same exhibition in Obit magazine with more biographical details of Taro’s life.

Remains of Bunkers outside Brunete with the mountains of Guadarrama in the background

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