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Gerda Taro and the Brunete Offensive

Gerda Taro – a pioneer of war photography

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.

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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.

There is some confusion in the accounts of her death but it seems that Taro was in the thick of the action covering the retreat of a Republican unit on Sunday 25 July.  Hitching a lift on a passing vehicle she threw her equipment into the back seat and clambered on to the running board.  The Republican column was then straffed from the air by German planes, the vehicle was struck by Russian tank whose driver had lost control.  Taro was then run over by the tank which split her abdomen.  She was evacuated from the battle ground, bleeding profusely, and along with other wounded transported to a hospital near el Escorial.  Despite blood transfusions and emergency abdominal surgery she died at around 5 am on Monday 26 July.   The writers Rafael Alberti and Maria Teresa León took charge of her body which was sent back to Paris, via Valencia, for an emotional funeral attended by artists and friends.   After she left Leipzig Taro 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 to date 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.

In the summer of 1935 events were turning against the Republicans.  Whilst the Nationalists had failed to take Madrid in their first attack (see John Cornford, Casa de Campo and the University) or in the Jarama Offensive (see Charlie Donnelly and the Battle of Jarama) they had made gains elsewhere.  Their army in the north had chalked up a string of successes and in the middle of June took the Basque port of Bilbao.  The next Nationalist objective would be the more important port of Santander on the north coast.

To relieve pressure on the beleguered Republicans in the north, General Miaja (who was in charge of the defense of Madrid) ordered a major Republican offensive on the Nationalist lines just outside the capital.  The point chosen for the attack was about 25km to north west of Madrid – then a sleepy pueblo or village with a population of less that 2000 souls.

It was hoped that this would achieve two immediate objectives.  First, it would force Franco to redeploy troops from the noth of Spain and give the Republicans there more time to prepare.  Secondly, if Miaja could cut the road from Madrid to Extremadura it would severely disrupt the important Nationalist supply line which ran from the east of Spain into Madrid – in essence Miaja’s strategy was to effect a pincer movement with divisions coming up from the south and down from the north to cut the Extremadura road and encircle the Nationalist army in the Casa de Campo.  Finally, it was hoped that if the Republic could demonstrate decisive action against the rebels, countries like Britain and France might finally get off the fence and come to the aid of the democractically elected government.

 The Republican Offensive at Brunete

The Republican attack began on 6 July 1937 and was initially a success.   The Nationalist line along the plain near Brunete was thin and poorly defended.  The Nationalist intelligence had picked up troop movements and a concentration of forces in the area but were fooled by Republican counter-intelligence into believing that the attack would be directed north to break the Guadarrama front (see Hemingway and el Escorial).

After a rapid advance over nearly 10km from bases around Valdemorillo and el Escorial, forces led by the able Enrique Líster  quickly took the village of Brunete.  Líster’s men were still far short of the Extremadura road, however, and were unable to progress further south without support on either flank: to consolidate the successful thrust at Brunete, Republican forces needed to take swift control of the surrounding area an villages such as Quijorna, Villanueva de la Cañada, Villanueva de Pardillo and Boadilla.   It was the failure to do this which led to the failure of the offensive as a whole.

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

As Republican troops surged forward in support of Lister’s men they were met with solid resistance especially in the villages of Quijorna and Villanueva de la Canada.   The delays in taking the villages led to a serious flaw in the plan of attack.  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.  Republican reserves were deployed to help take the village of Quijorna which finally fell on the morning of 9 July.  Two days later the XII International brigade took the village of Villanueva del Pardillo on the Republican left flank (towards the east) but were unable to push on.  The Nationalists fell back to the neighbouring village of Boadilla:  despite heroic attempts and heavy casualties the International Brigadiers were unable to dislodge them and were finally forced to retreat.

Republican Advance Falters

The Republicans now suffered even more serious reverses on their right flank (towards the west).  Crack Navarrase troops arrived from the nortern front to assist the Nationalist forces and at Villfranca del Castillo they pushed the Republicans back across the Guadarrama river – ground which Miaja’s troops would never again recover.  In addition, more German Messerschmitt Bf-109s appeared from their reserve basis in the south and along with Heinkel bombers began to impose air superiority for the Nationalists over the whole front (incidentally, 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 Nationalist Counter Offensive on Brunete

On 18 July the Nationalists launched a counter offensive.  With proper air support their professional army had established effective supply lines to the front line troops in contrast to the often chaotic support for the Republicans which left soldiers without adequate distribution of food or – crucially – water.  Despite these advantages the Republican resistance was determined.  For a week the war raged at various points in the area – it was no longer possible to determin where, exactly, the front lay – until the Republicans were forced to Retreat from village of Brunete which they had taken just two weeks before.

The defeat might have been a rout but at this point General Franco called off the attack and redeployed troops back to the north of Spain where they were used in the successful assault on the more strategically important port of Santander.

Brunete – the Begining of the End for Republican Spain

As the summer of 1937 wore on the front at Brunete became more stable and the Republicans had gained some ground on their original position.  But it had been won a terrible cost in terms of human life – some of their ablest troops had been killed or wounded.  Amongst the thousands of 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 militaryand Julian Bell, nephew of Virgina Woolf 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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