In 1936 Madrid, the capital of Spain, had a population of 900,000 people. Madrid had few industries but both the Union General de Trabajadores (UGT) and the National Confederation of Trabajo (CNT) were active in the city. However, the Socialist Party (PSOE) was strong in the city and regularly won more votes than any other party in Spain's general elections. Julián Besteiro, the leadrer of moderates in the party, had a large following in the city.
Two major strikes took place in Madrid in June 1936. The first was in the construction union and the second in the electrical trade. In both cases the workers demanded a 20 per cent salary increase, a 36 hour week and four weeks paid holiday a year. The UGT agreed a deal of 10 per cent increase and a 40 hour week but it was rejected by the CNT. This led to fighting in the streets between the two rival unions.
On 12th June José Castillo, a lieutenant in the Assault Guards, and an active member of the Socialist Party, was murdered by a Falangist gang as he left his home in Madrid. The following day a group of Castillo's friends took revenge by murdering José Calvo Sotelo. This event resulted in a military uprising led by Emilio Mola, Francisco Franco and José Sanjurjo and heralded the start of the Spanish Civil War.
On the outbreak of the war Madrid was under the control of the Popular Front government. Emilio Mola and Francisco Franco were anxious to capture the capital city of Spain as soon as possible. The first bombing raids by the Nationalist airforce began on 28th August, 1936.
By the 1st November 1936, 25,000 Nationalist troops under General José Enrique Varela had reached the western and southern suburbs of Madrid. Five days later he was joined by General Hugo Sperrle and the Condor Legion. This began the siege of Madrid that was to last for nearly three years.
Francisco Largo Caballero and his government decided to leave Madrid on 6th November, 1936. This decision was criticized by the four anarchists in his cabinet who regarded leaving the capital as cowardice. At first they refused to go but were eventually persuaded to move to Valencia with the rest of the government.
Largo Caballero appointed General José Miaja as commander of the Republican Army in Madrid. He was given instructions to set up a Junta de Defensa (Defence Council), made up of all the parties of the Popular Front, and to defend Madrid "at all costs". He was aided by his chief of staff, Vicente Rojo.
Miaja's task was helped by the arrival of the International Brigades. The first units reached Madrid on 8th November. Led by the Soviet General, Emilo Kléber, the 11th International Brigade was to play an important role in the defence of the city. The Thaelmann Battalion, a volunteer unit that mainly consisted of members of the German Communist Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain, was also deployed to defend the city.
On 14th November Buenaventura Durruti arrived in Madrid from Aragón with his Anarchist Brigade. Six days later Durruti was killed while fighting on the outskirts of the city. Durruti's supporters in the CNT claimed that he had been murdered by members of the Communist Party (PCE).
Santiago Carrillo, the Councillor for Public Order in the Defence Council, argued that the main reason that the Nationalist forces was attempting to capture Madrid was the desire to release the large number of Nationalist Army officers in Madrid's prisons. Carrillo was given permission to take them out of the city by bus.
An estimated 2,000 Nationalist soldiers were murdered at Paracuellos del Jarama and Torrejón de Ardoz. Communists later claimed that the buses were hijacked by Anarchists and they were responsible for the killings. However, no evidence has emerged to support this claim. In fact, after the war Francisco Franco claimed that Carrillo and his Communists were guilty of killing 12,000 Nationalists in Madrid.
On 13th December 1936, the Nationalists attempted to cut the Madrid-La Coruna road to the north-east of Madrid. After suffering heavy losses the offensive was brought to an end over Christmas. On 5th January 1937, the attack was resumed. During the next four days the Nationalist gained ten kilometres of road and lost around 15,000 men. The International Brigades, defending the road, also suffered heavy losses during this battle.
Helen Grant worked as an interpreter for a group sent to Madrid by the Society of Friends. She wrote in her diary in April 1937: "The main impression on walking about Madrid is that nobody even thinks about danger. Nevertheless, the majority of the houses and shops in the Gran Via have been hit... Although the guns roar almost continually and sometimes they are quite deafening, no one appears to take any notice."
General Francisco Franco came under pressure from Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini to obtain a quick victory by taking Madrid. He eventually decided to use 30,000 Italians and 20,000 legionnaires to attack Guadalajara, forty miles northeast of the capital. On 8th March the Italian Corps took Guadalajara and began moving rapidly towards Madrid. Four days later the Republican Army with Soviet tanks counter-attacked. The Italians suffered heavy losses and those left alive were forced to retreat on 17th March. The Republicans also captured documents which proved that the Italians were regular soldiers and not volunteers. However, the Non-Intervention Committee refused to accept the evidence and the Italian government boldly announced that no Italian soldiers would be withdrawn until the Nationalist Army was victorious.
The siege of Madrid continued until 1939. Segismundo Casado, commander of the Republican Army of the Centre, was growing increasingly unhappy by the large number of his soldiers being killed. He was also aware that although Juan Negrin and his ministers were talking about the need to fight to the bitter end, they were organizing aircraft for their flight out of the country. With the support of the socialist leader, Julián Besteiro and disillusioned anarchist leaders, Casedo established an anti-Negrin National Defence Junta.
On 6th March José Miaja in Madrid joined the rebellion by ordering the arrests of Communists in the city. Negrin, about to leave for France, ordered Luis Barceló, commander of the First Corps of the Army of the Centre, to try and regain control of the capital. His troops entered Madrid and there was fierce fighting for several days in the city. Anarchists troops led by Cipriano Mera, managed to defeat the First Corps and Barceló was captured and executed.
Segismundo Casado now tried to negotiate a peace settlement with General Francisco Franco. However, he refused demanding an unconditional surrender. Members of the Republican Army still left alive, were no longer willing to fight and the Nationalist Army entered Madrid virtually unopposed on 27th March.