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The Siege of Alcazar

By Edited Apr 22, 2015 1 2

The Alcazar

It was July, 1936. Red flags bearing the hammer and sickle waved over Spain, and shouts of "Viva Russia" filled the streets. Spain’s Republican government presided during an intense purging of Christianity. The persecution provoked resistance from nationalist troops at the Alcazar, an immense stone towered fortress built on the highest part of Toledo, Spain. The Republican siege of the Alcazar was the defining point of the Spanish Civil War. 

The Alcazar was (and is) one of the foremost landmarks in Spain. It was a symbol of Spanish strength and unity during the Reconquest of Spain: a decades-long, epic affair which saw the Catholic armies finally expel the ruling Muslims from Spain. After the victory Spanish monarchs resided at the Alcazar. It is a landmark of great historical significance and symbolism for all Spaniards. 

The Spanish civil war began with a religious purging in July 1936. During the next three months approximately eight thousand religious were murdered: 12 bishops, over 5,000 priests, more than 2,000 monks, and hundreds of nuns and novices.[1] Tens of thousands of Spanish Catholics were also killed during the same small space of time. 

English historian Hugh Thomas wrote the authoritative book on the Spanish civil war. He noted that "in one month (July, 1936), close to one hundred thousand people were killed arbitrarily and without a trial." He added "many of these crimes were accompanied by a partly frivolous, partly sadistic cruelty." Churches and convents “were indiscriminately burned and despoiled, destruction rather than loot was the aim. Thomas concluded: "At no time in the history of Europe or even perhaps the world has so passionate a hatred of religion and all its works been shown..."[2] 

Strong words from a professional historian who was sympathetic to the SpanishRepublic. Yet the facts support hard conclusions. Anarchy ruled the day, and the government seemed not to notice the bloodshed. Fevers ran high in Spain, and across the waters in Africa, where Spanish military officer Francisco Franco had been banished for his opposition to the Republican government. The religious persecution and general slaughter prompted Franco, on July 17, 1936, to formally oppose the Republican government of Spain in what became known as the “Nationalist rebellion.”[3] 


The Siege 

The day after Franco’s announcement, the Republican Ministry of War attempted to secure munitions from an arms factory in Toledo, just south of Madrid. The military governor of Toledo, Colonel José Moscardó eItuarte, refused to comply. Several more attempts by the government to secure the munitions were similarly rebuffed. On July 21 the government sent 8,000 troops from Madrid to Toledo to force Moscardo’s obedience.

A detachment of 200 Civil Guard were protecting the arms factory. While they negotiated with the Republicans the ammunition was loaded onto trucks and driven to the Alcazar. Then the arms factory was evacuated, and the Civil Guard also retreated to the Alcazar. Already inside were Colonel Moscardo and other members of the Civil Guard, some Army officials, and politicians sympathetic to the nationalist cause. The total fighting number was maybe one thousand. In addition there were five hundred women and fifty children.

The republican army surrounded the Alcazar, positioning their artillery pieces, armored cars, and tanks to prevent escape. The Republican Air Force flew over the Alcazar to provide intelligence for the Army. Those inside the Alcazar had plenty of ammunition, of course, but not much to fire it with: a lot of old rifles, and a few machine guns. There was nothing they could do when the planes started dropping bombs on them except to burrow further down in the catacombs of the Alcazar.

Over the next 67 days the planes dropped bombs on the Alcazar 35 times. In addition, Moscardo and the Alcazar were subjected to “unrelieved bombardment, shelling, mines, underground explosives, and constant attack.”[4] At night huge floodlights were trained on the castle, an attempt at psychological warfare that failed, since most of the besieged were in the deepest depths of the great castle.

They did not know that Franco had defeated the Soviet blockade of the Strait of Gibraltar and was now in Spain with his army, slowly reclaiming cities, moving steadily northwards, in a straight line towards Toledo and Madrid.

Colonel Moscardo had no intention of surrendering, no matter what Franco might be doing. He made that clear when the besieging army captured his son, Luis. There was a telephone in the Alcazar, and Luis was made to call his father. “They say they will shoot me if the Alcazar does not surrender,” Luis said. He asked his father what to do. “If it be true,” Moscardo told Luis, “commend your soul to God, pray for us, shout Viva Espana and die like a hero.” Luis said he would do just that. “Good-bye my son, a last kiss,” Jose Moscardo said, “the Alcazar will never surrender.”[5]  Brave words for a leader who had lost half of his small army. The survivors lived on hard bread and mule soup.

The besieged

In addition to continual bombardment by planes and artillery, the besieged could hear the enemy tunneling towards them, at times even feeling the vibrations of the pneumatic drills. Those inside knew early on exactly where the bombs would be placed which would detonate the Alcazar, and in all likelihood bury them under tons of rubble. 

It was this likelihood that prompted Moscardo to request a priest to baptize two babies born during the siege, to perform mass, and to hear final confessions. The only priest available, that is, alive and not in hiding,[6] was Canon Vasquez Camarassa.  He was a friend of the Republicans, and entered the Alcazar in lay clothes. After performing his priestly duties, Camarassa made to leave – he had no intention of being around for the big explosion. Before he left, however, he exhorted all present to give up. He was ignored. Turning to the women, he asserted that they were being held against their will. “That’s a lie!” Carmen Romero retorted. “I have talked with every woman in the Alcazar and all of them think as I do. Either we will leave here free, with our men and children, or else we will die with them in the ruins.”[7]

Women of Alcazar

One week later the drilling stopped. There was silence as everyone awaited the detonation. The entry in the log book of the Alcazar is underlined: “All possible having been done, we commend ourselves to God.”

Detonation at Alcazar

The explosion tossed the entire southwest tower into the air. Walls crumbled. There were breaches on all sides. The Alcazar seemed little more than a pile of rubble. The republican army advanced through the dust and smoke to look for survivors. 

The Alcazar in ruins

They were met with volleys of machine gun fire. The defenders of the Alcazar emerged from the catacombs, clawed through the rubble, and somehow filled the breaches to repel the enemy. Thin, dusty, bleeding and deafened, they steadied themselves for the next attack. 

Defenders of Alcazar

Waving red banners with the hammer and sickle, hundreds of republicans hurled themselves at the dozens of defenders, who met them on the broken stones in desperate hand to hand combat. Again the republicans retreated. There was another attack, and then another, and then another. A tank lumbered up the rubble of the Alcazar, crushing stones as it came. The defenders filled bottles with gasoline, lit them, and heaved their home made bombs at the tank. The red flags bearing the hammer and sickle retreated once again. A ragged cry went up from the rubble: "Viva Cristo Rey!" -  Long live Christ the King! The Alcazar had held. 

The republicans continued to attack with all their weapons. Incredibly, they were not able to conquer the few hundred starving survivors. Then there was a change in the air. Nationalist planes began circling Toledo. Franco had made rapid progress: towards Madrid, it was assumed, in order to arrive there before reinforcements could arrive to defend the city. Instead, Franco went to Toledo first, to relieve Colonel Moscardo and the Alcazar. 

The victors of the Siege of Alcazar

There he lingered, drawing criticism that he should be double stepping towards Madrid. Franco supporters claim he was paying proper homage to the valiant defenders of the homeland. Critics of Franco contend he was milking a photo opportunity. He may well have been doing both things. Franco knew just as well as the Republicans how significant the Alcazar was. Both sides had fought to grasp the Alcazar. The Republic succeeded in destroying the physical fortress, but the nationalists had won the battle - in nearly miraculous fashion. As it turns out, the outcome of the Spanish Civil War was decided there as well. 

“The epic of the Alcazar,” writes Richard Pattee, “was unquestionably the culminating point of heroism in this war which was filled with instances of individual and collective valor. The Alcazar became the symbol of the nationalist spirit and to a very real degree of the spirit of Spain.”[8] 

Dr. Warren Carroll notes that on one of the stone walls of the Alcazar there is “a little mosaic picture of our Lady set in the wall in blue and white tile, which was there at the time of the siege. All around the picture the stones are covered with bullet marks. But the face and form of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the mosaic is untouched. She and her faithful people, in this terrible confrontation with Christ’s enemies, had triumphed.”[9] 

The defenders had erected an underground altar, at which they prayed and offered up their sacrifices to the Blessed Virgin.[10] Later, one of the defenders summarized the Epic of the Alcazar: 

“We are few, they are many. But numbers are not all. We believe, we have faith. They do not believe, they would destroy faith. They think; that is in the brain. We pray; that is in the heart. I myself, sometimes I cry. But I am not afraid. If I die, I die. But that is only myself. What I believe cannot die. The Reds think. Thinking is nothing. Presently they will give way. We believe. That endures for ever.”[11] 

The Alcazar, rebuilt, today

 [1]  Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, Eyre and Spottiswoode, Ltd., 1961, p. 173.

[2]  Ibid., p. 173 et seq.

[3]  The American Catholic press was split on the Spanish Civil War. An advocate for Franco’s cause was American writer William Thomas Walsh, who declared that the cause of Franco was the cause of the Church. Others, like Emmett John Hughes, claimed that Walsh’s “exorbitant enthusiasm” for Franco “has kept alive the oratorical tradition of the most eloquent members of the Nazi party.” Obviously feelings ran high in America too. (Report From Spain, Henry Holt And Company, 1947, pp. 132-133). 

[4]  Richard Pattee, This is Spain, The Bruce Publishing Company, 1951, p. 219.

[5]  Luis was executed. Some accounts have him executed on the spot; others have him executed weeks later for reasons unrelated to the Alcazar. Moscardo’s remaining other son, Pepe, was also executed that same summer. Jose Moscado’s last conversation with Luis is a composite of two accounts: Dr. Warren H. Carroll, Seventy Years of Communist Revolution, Trinity Communications, 1989, p. 160, and Arnold Lunn, Spanish Rehearsal, Sheed & Ward, 1937,  p. 72.

[6]  Of all the priests in Toledo, only seven (besides Camarassa) were not massacred because they went into hiding (Lunn, op. cit., p. 75.

[7]  Carroll, op. cit., p. 191. Richard Pattee recounts a slightly different version: “A republican officer proposed in parley that the women leave, but they themselves on consultation indicated they would not leave, nor surrender, and if the men capitulated they would fight on alone.” (Spain, op. cit., p. 220).

[8]  Spain, op. cit., p. 218.

[9]  Soul Magazine, July August 1993.

[10]  Pattee, Spain, op. cit., p. 220.

[11]  A statement made to Major McNeill-Ross, as quoted in Lunn, op. cit., p. 163.



Aug 21, 2013 8:30pm
Great article Moina, very comprehensive and well written
Aug 22, 2013 9:15am
Thanks Mr. Rooibos! It was a lot of fun to write.

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