Sunday, 7 December 2014

A Battlefield Walk at Ciudad Universitaria

Graffitti in the Ciudad Universitaria - The fight continues 80 years later?

I attended on Sunday last week a guided battlefield walk organised by GEFREMA (a non-profit organisation fighting hard to keep the last remaining sites of the Spanish Civil War in Madrid) focused on the Ciudad Universitaria. It would not have been more timely after finishing our recent Chain of Command campaign Bloody November and the incoming publication of a related article in the TooFatLardies Christmas Special in December.

The visit was intrinsically interesting, but also provided a good feel of the battle terrain and a great understanding of the very deep changes operated in the landscape since the mid 30s. As a matter of fact, the site today has almost no resemblance with the topography of the war period as I will explain later.

I will support the narrative and photos included in this post with the attached map, scanned from the book written by Col Martínez Bande in the early 70s (La Marcha sobre Madrid) part of the official military history of the Spanish Civil War published before General Franco passed away in 1975.

(Click to enlarge)
To put you in the historical picture, the Nationalist troops arrived to Madrid in the first week of November. The attacking plan was to enter Madrid through La Casa de Campo park, cross the river Manzanares and penetrate trough the Ciudad Universitaria.

Why? For two reasons: (1) because the area was still in development, offering wide open spaces where the experienced African troops could apply their favourite tactics of maneuvering around the enemy flanks; (2) and to avoid the hard and eventually bloody  house by house fighting that would have developed by entering Madrid through a more urbanised area.

On 15th November 1936, units from the II Tabor de Alhucemas crossed the river and took the Architecture Faculty. Over the following days the bridgehead was expanded until taking the shape of a greyhound head. But despite the efforts, the attack petered out and the Nationalists troops were unable to break the bulge. In December the order was given to stop the attacks and consolidate the positions, that remained more or less stable as shown in the map until the end of the war three years later (April 1939).

1. Plaza de la Moncloa
The starting point of the visit was at the Plaza de La Moncloa. This is the first borough of the city travelling from the north and limiting with the first buildings to the Ciudad Universitaria. At the time of the war, it was an open space and the most remarkable building was the Cárcel Modelo (the jail) of sinister and sad fame: this is where  most significant right-wing sympathizers were locked first and later taken out and executed when the Nationalists troops were approaching the city.
(Click to enlarge)

After the war the area was to become a francoist monumental  site. The Cárcel Modelo was demolished and the Ministry of the Air Force (today the Spanish Air Force Command building) was erected on top. Across the street the Monument to the Madrid Martyrs (obviously Nationalists) and finally the Arch of Victory overlooking the Guadarrama mountains.

Standing in the middle of this plaza today, the place is completely enclosed and you are surrounded by all these buildings celebrating the victory of the Nationalists in the best fascist architecture style of the 40s.

Spanish Air Force Command Building
The view this morning was truly phantamasgorical, as the buildings slowly emerged from the fog as the first morning light shine on them.

Arch of Victory emerging form the fog
This photo was taken at 2PM

The Martyrs Monument

An this is the look of Plaza de la Moncloa during the war, a more open space than today. The unit standing are forces of the XI International Brigade before moving towards the frontline nearby.


2. Parque del Oeste

The next stop took us to the Parque del Oeste. This park was mostly controlled by the Republicans as can be seen in the attached map except a small at the other side of the road leading to the Puente de Los Franceses.
(Click to enlarge)

Here you can find the only relevant remnamts of the war in the area: three bunkers that had been restored and left intact. We learned that this were not fighting postions, but advanced outposts and that were buuilt quite late in the conflict (January 1939) at a time when it was clear that the Republic was losing.

For this reason they had not a single trace of shots or shrapnel, as the chaps at the other side were just happy with waiting for the war to end and to survive at best...

The bunkers were connected to the main defensive line across the street, supported in the main buildings of Insituto de Sanidad, Fundación del Amo and Residencia de Estudaintes (all destroyed during the war) with communication trenches.

The buildings currently are well above the street level at the time of the war, and therefore the foundations can be seen.

The entry door in the rear have been bricked up.  It look pretty small but again, it was placed beklow the terrain level,  with cover by the communications trenches in order to protect the men entering or leaving the position.

In the next photo, observe over the door, engraved in the concrete  the word "zapadores" (sappers) and the tower emblem of the Spanish army engineers corps.

I also learned that the gravel used to make concrete for military use was usually chipped and broken stones, not rounded as they natural come form the river beds. The reason is that chipped stones are better to deflect the shrapnel of HE grenades, allowing better protection against artillery fire.

In this close shot you can see the stones among the concrete, but also  two metal pieces: to reinforce the concrete, metal pieces were mixed, anything at hand from bycicle structures to bed matress bases.

In this case, the engineers building the bunker used metal poles used to deploy barbed wire defenses... ingenuity at work.

3. Arquitectura y campo de deportes

(Click to emlarge)

Our next stop was at the Escuela de Arquitectura (Architect Faculty). We walked down the actual Avenida de Séneca towards El Punete de los Franceses over the river Manzanares and turned right.

Arquitectura as you can see in the map attached, was located in the center of the bulge of the Nationalists position. Given its location, it was used as a resting area, magazine and lodging shelter of the reserve troops garrisoning the position.

Today's building is the same that at he time of the war, but little marks from the conflict remains. Our guide mentioned that the actual students canteen (located in an open patio within the building) you can still find remains of the shots, but being a rearguard position, it suffered relatively less than other front-line constructions.

Puente de los Franceses down the road and Casa de Campo across the river

Escuela de Arquitectura façade
The former athletics stadium was part of the Nationalist line (see in the map, located south of the Escuela de Arquitectura). Today the stadium does not exist and on the site it was erected the building of the Sports Faculty.

Sports Faculty and former Stadium site
 4. Viaducto de los Quince Ojos and Agrónomos
(Clisck to enlarge)

Our next stop took us to the edge of the Nationalist line marked by the so-called Viaducto de los 15 Ojos (15 Arcs Viaduct) over which the actual Madrid-Corunna highway runs, Palacio de la Moncloa, Palacio Velázquez and the Escuela de Agrónomos buildings.

The viaduct was exposed to Republican fire and show clear marks of shooting as you can see in the photos below. We could not take photographs of the Palacio de la Moncloa for security reasons as it is the seat of Spanish Government Presidency.

Equally, the Casa or Palacio Velázquez was closed (opens only for special events).  The Escuela de Agrónomos  is a newly constructed building.

Viaducto de los 15 Ojos today...

...and the same place in 1939
Casa Velázquez stood to our right while Palacio de la Moncloa is placed a few hundred meters to the left of this position.

The followiong photos are taking from the viaduct's opposite side, facing de Republican lines. Shot marks are clearly visible.

This photo is from the same side of the Viaducto as above, but taken from the Escuela de Agrónomos

Now compare with the same site but just after the war...

An impressive change in the landscape! The height of the viaduct today is much lower; the reason is that after the war, the authorities decided to rebuild the Ciudad Universitaria and pushed all the debris from the buildings into the ravines of two small streams crossing the place; these streams were completely buried and the terrain completely levelled.

To give you an idea of the tons of debris decomissioned this way, look at the following photo

Viadcuto del Aire

This bridge was called the Viaducto del Aire, and you can see behind the Viaducto de los 15 Ojos. Today it is completely buried! No, you have read correctly: not destroyed  but buried below the surface. We actually walked over it on our way to the other viaduct without even knowing that it layed under our feet.

Now a couple of pics of Casa Velázquez, before the war..
and in 1939

5. Filosofía

To reach our next target (Philosophy Faculty) we had to cross no man's land and penetrate the former Republican lines.

Before reaching the building we were taken to the place where the surviving walls of the terrace of the University botanic garden stood in the 30s, now almost hidden to onlookers behind a garden of the campus.

Here the outposts of the Republican lines were located and the poke marks came from the Nationalists weapons just a few hundred meters away.


The building of the Philosphy Faculty was another of the original constructions in the 30s and the plan remains as when built. This is the rear part of the building now and in the war period.

The building also served as the headquarters of General Kléber of the XI International brigade during the fighting in November-December 1936. The following photos show the building front façade, rebuilt after the war;  it can bee seen a list of the martyrs fallen belonging to the Faculty, engraved in a marble plaque.

 6. Medicina and the Republican lines
(Click to enlarge)

From the Philosophy Faculty we entered the main avenue of the University (Avenida Paraninfo) that run along the no man's land in those November 1936 days.

Walking down the avenue you have to your left the buildings of Farmacia, Medicina and Odontología, making a key center of defense of the Republican line.

Across the street, on our right and just a few tenths of meters from Odontología, the building of Agrónomos occupied by the Nationalists.

This area was the hot front line during the conflict and the buildings suffered substantial damage accordingly. They were rebuilt in the post-war period but given the scarcity of building materials (Spain was impoverished and the world was amidst a general war), whataver available surviving bricks or stones were recycled.

In the photos below you can see two distinctive red tones of the bricks in the walls of the buildings. The darker tone denotes the very low quality of the materials used in the rebuilding process and they make a sharp contrast with the original (lighter) bricks.

Facultad de Farmacia
More interesting, the granite stone labs used in the plinth of the buildings were also original. While the brick walls showed no traces from the conflict, it was impossible to erase the shooting marks in the stone. And there you can easily discover the prominent marks of small arm weapons as well as the shrapnel from artillery and mortar grenades... difficult to imagine the hellish place this was in this sunny November Sunday walking the avenue.

 It also made me think how ignorant we are about our own history: in the 80s I attended this University (although in a different campus, farther from Madrid) but I walked these same avenues frequently as I was dating a girl studying in the Law Faculty (for those curious enough, she's my wife now) and never realised these were marks from the war!!

Medicine School
In this same place, Franco reopened the University course in October 1943. The building far behind in the Medicine Faculty.

The Odontoly Faculty in the Republican side of the front (more dark and light red bricks)...

...and the Escuela de Agrónomos just across the street

 7. Hospital Clínico
(Click to enlarge)
The last lap of the tour, the Hospital Clínico. This was (is) a massive construction standing on the top of a hill overlooking the whole campus of the Ciudad Universitaria and was a critical position of the Nationalists lines.

The hospital also marked the maxium penteration achieved by the Nationalists troops in Madrid in November 1936 and make the nose of the greyhound head described at the beginning of this post. The site saw the most ferocious fighting including the use of mines to try blowing the building from underneath.

Climbing the hill towards Hospital Clínico
Here you can see (hopefully) the hole caused by the explosion of one of these mines (either was faulty or the Republican sappers were lost, as it is too far from the building to have any effect in the structure)

A view of Ciudad Universitaria from the hill top. The nearest building is Odontology. However, no trees and a clean LOS in 1936!

The hospital today; this side looks into the Ciudad Universitaria campus

This is an aerial view of the building today...

... and these are from the post-war period (see the the round building with the blue roof in the bottom left corner of the photo  above)

Finally a bird's view of the area visited with the buildings just before the war. Use in conjunction with the map above to have a full view of the positions in this part of the battle front.

Final remarks

First a question: Why the Nationalists hedl such a precarious position, surrounded by three sides and supplied through a dangerous and feeble footbridge over the Manzanares River after the failed November attack? 

The reason is more political than military: for Franco was a question of prestige (not a step back) and to show the world taht he had penetrated Madrid. The truth is that it tied a large number of troops of both sides, which could have been better used in other fronts.
Second, a wish: I hope you've found interesting this battlefield tour. It took around 4 hours to complete the circle but I would have walked for another 4 hours without break. Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and an outstanding stroyteller (I guess he is a retired history professor)

Third, a request: GEFREMA gathers a group of enthusiastic people whose objective is to save both the last material remnants and the historical memory of the Spanish Civil War in Madrid. Without any help from the Sapanish administrations, their efforts are worth supporting from anyone interested in our past.

The foundation publishes a magazine every forthnight at the cost of 5€, offering an incredible amount of well researched information.  The members of GEFREMA supporting the tour brought some of the past issues  and I bought the 4 available. If you live in Spain or can read our lenguage, and are an aficionado to the Spanish Civil War, I strongly encourage to take a look in the website and buy magazine. GEFREMA is worth  any little economic help that you can provide.



  1. Thanks for sharing this post of almost living history!

  2. Very interesting article. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Muy bueno Benito, tendremos que estar atentos a nuevas visitas co esta gente.

  4. That is a very thorough and interesting walking tour. Your documentation of the tour is outstanding.

    Very enjoyable!
    Thank you!

  5. Really interesting thanks for sharing

  6. Perfecto camarada! ;-)

    Great post and I will be sending some of my hard earned euros GEFREMA's way too!

  7. Brilliant, thanks for that, great amount of info and some cracking pics, cheers

  8. Excellent coverage Benito.

    I had the good fortune to walk the University grounds and down along the river in my Madrid stay a few months in hand...very interesting.

    I wish I had your guide though, but I enjoyed myself nevertheless.



  9. Thanks for a great report, I would have loved to have done that.