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November 13, 2019

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Briefing - The Asturian Rebellion of 1934

The establishment of a new conservative coalition government in October of 1934, led to the most serious outbreak of unrest in Spain in more than a half-century, the so-called “Revolution of 1934.” Although there were outbreaks all across Spain, that in the mountainous northern industrial region of the Asturias was by far the most serious. Heavily industrialized, the Asturias had a large, politically activist urban working class population. In addition, in the Spring of 1934, fearful that a “fascist” government might come to power, the regional branches of the normal fractious radical workers’ federations, the Socialist Union general de trabajadores, the Federacion Socialista Asturiana, and the Anarcho-syndicalist Confederacion nacional de trabajadores, had agreed to cooperate. This gave the radical faction a potential army of 30,000 workers. They also had a rump “general staff,” as a number of radical army officers worked closely with the workers’ groups, developing a well-reasoned, if optimistic plan of operations in the event an uprising was necessary. The Asturian miners and factory workers were also relatively well armed, having access to considerable stocks of dynamite and small arms, which they planned to supplement during the opening phase of the uprising by seizing the virtually undefended artillery and small arms plants in Trubia, and had the industrial skills to improvise crude but effective armored cars and trains. Further favoring the insurgents was the fact that local security forces were inadequate; civil police aside, there were about 700 paramilitary Civil Guards and Assault Guards, some 200 Frontier Guards, and about 1,700 regular army personnel, fewer than 2,700 men to secure a province of over 200,000 inhabitants. Finally, the Asturias is a rugged, mountainous region, relatively isolated from the rest of Spain. Thus the overall situation in the Asturias greatly favored the insurgents.

The rebels began the uprising with a well-coordinated series of attacks at 0130 hours on October 5th. While police posts and Guardia civil barracks throughout the province were assaulted with suicidal ferocity, large numbers of workers began to concentrate against Oviedo, the capital, a left-leaning city of about 80,000, set in a valley dominated by higher ground and defended by some less than 1,200 “troops” (600 infantrymen, 200 engineers, 70 Civil Guards, 20 Frontier Guards, and 310 civil police).

The garrison entrenched in the central part of the city and, reinforced by a handful of volunteers from local rightist organizations, held its ground against assailants who initially numbered at least 8,000 and gradually rose to perhaps double that, while overall rebel forces may have reached 35,000, armed with over 25,000 rifles and carbines, most “liberated” from the Trubia arms works. While rebel supporters established a libertarian communist society behind the lines, seizing hostages, expropriating property, and committing various atrocities, a regular siege developed. Casualties were particularly high among the insurgents, who had a penchant for frontal attacks by dynamite throwing enthusiasts. The situation was critical, but the government acted with considerable speed.

Rumors that the far left was preparing an uprising had been circulating for some time. Having little confidence in the abilities of the chief-of-the-general staff, in mid-September the war minister had taken the unusual step of summoning Francisco Franco to the War Ministry, ostensibly to act as technical adviser for the upcoming autumn maneuvers. As a result, although officially without authority, Franco was in overall control of military operations. As soon as the Asturian revolt broke out, with the concurrence of the Minster, Franco selected Maj. Gen. Eduardo Lopez de Ochoa, a noted liberal republican and a mason, one of the inspectors general of the Army, to command in the Asturias.

Following a hastily developed plan, troop began converging on Oviedo on October 6th. There were three columns.

  • Two battalions of infantry and some artillery from Leon, on the southwest
  • A battalion of infantry and one of engineers from Gijon, on the north
  • A battalion of infantry battalion from Galicia, on the west.

After briefly toying with the idea of using a parachute or autogiro to reach Oviedo in order to assume command, Lopez de Ochoa instead decided to attach himself to the third column. This was fortunate, because Rebel forces managed to hold the passes from Leon and Gijon, preventing movement from those directions. The western column, with Lopez de Ochoa at its head, was more successful (though at one point the general was briefly arrested by some suspicious Guardia civil, who figured a man with so liberal a reputation must have been trying to aid the Rebels). Despite sometimes very heavy fighting it reached Oviedo on the 11th. This did little more than reinforce the isolated garrison. More decisive measures were needed. At the start of the uprising Franco had recommended that units of the Foreign Legion, the African Light Infantry, and the Moroccan Regulares be committed. By October 10th several battalions of these elite troops had been ferried to Gijon. Joining the troops already available there, they formed a column 3,000 strong. Under Brig. Gen. Rogelio Caridad Pita, a leftist republican, and the conservative Lt. Col. Juan Yague, these troops drove south with considerable energy, clearing the passes to reach Oviedo on the 12th, further reinforcing the garrison With these additional forces, Lopez de Ochoa was able to clear the rebels out of the city and its suburbs within two days. Then, heavily reinforced, the column from the south broke through the mountain passes on the 16th, by which time Lopez de Ochoa was dispatching columns from Oviedo to pacify of the rest of the province. More army troops and paramilitary forces poured in, so that on October 19th, by which time there were perhaps 18,000 troops, police troops, civil police, and volunteers on hand, Lopez de Ochoa announced that the entire province was under military control.

Despite the many advantages enjoyed by the rebels, and their considerable numerical superiority, the Army had put down the revolt with relative ease, demonstrating a surprising efficiency, itself the result of a number of reforms effected between 1930 and 1934 by a succession of leftist war ministers, most notably Manuel Azaña, who would later be President of the Spanish Republic during the civil war of 1936-1939.

Although greatly exaggerated at the time, the butcher’s bill was surprisingly low for so widespread an insurrection; some 1,200 people had been killed, 88 soldiers and 168 police, and the balance mostly workers’ militiamen, plus local citizens, including a number of “rightists” and “capitalists” murdered by leftist extremists. Although atrocities were committed by both sides, charges of large scale shootings by workers or security forces appear to have been exaggerated.

Salvador de Madariaga, a leftist republican intellectual and political, later observed that the Revolt of 1934 was unpardonable. Not only was it unjustified by any immediate danger to the Republic from the Right, but it also stripped the Left of any moral authority to condemn equal excesses on the part of the Right.

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