Sunday, February 15, 2009

The final nail on Batista's coffin: The Battle of Santa Clara

Map of Cuba showing the location of the arrival of the rebels on the Granma yacht in late 1956, the rebels' stronghold in the Sierra Maestra, and Guevara's route towards Havana via Santa Clara in December 1958.

The Battle of Santa Clara was a series of events in late December 1958 that led to the capture of the Cuban city of Santa Clara by revolutionaries under the command of Che Guevara. The battle was a decisive victory for the rebels fighting against the regime of General Fulgencio Batista: within 12 hours of the city's capture Batista fled Cuba and Fidel Castro's forces claimed overall victory. It features prominently on the back of the three convertible peso bill.


In 1958, Fidel Castro ordered his revolutionary army to go on the offensive against the army of Fulgencio Batista. While Castro led one force against Guisa, Masó and other towns in the east of the island, the other major offensive was directed at the capture of the city of Santa Clara, the capital of what was then Las Villas Province. Santa Clara, the fourth largest city in Cuba, was the remaining crucial obstacle lying between the rebels and an assault on Havana. As such, the city had received regular reinforcements of troops and equipment as part of Batista's defense strategy.

Three columns were sent against Las Villas Province under the command of Che Guevara, Jaime Vega, and Camilo Cienfuegos. Vega's column was caught in an ambush and completely destroyed. Cienfuegos's column directly attacked a local army garrison at Yaguajay. Guevara's column took up positions around Santa Clara. In a conversation between Cienfuegos and Guevara, broadcast to Cubans on Radio Rebelde, the rebels' shortwave radio channel, Guevara was heard saying:

"The enemy is concentrated in the usual places . . . I heard you tell Fidel that you were going to take Santa Clara and I don't know what the hell else, but don't you butt in there because that's mine".

Attack on the city

Guevara's column travelled on 28 December from the coastal port of Caibarién along the road to the town of Camajuani which lay between Caibarién and Santa Clara. Their journey was received by cheering crowds of peasants, and Caibarién's capture within a day reinforced the sense among the rebel fighters that overall victory was imminent. Government troops guarding the army garrison at Camajuani deserted their posts without incident, and Guevara's column proceeded to Santa Clara. They arrived at the city's university on the outskirts of the town at dusk.

There Guevara, wearing his arm in a sling after falling off a wall during the fighting in Caibarién, divided his forces (which numbered about 300) into two. The southern column was the first to meet the defending army forces commanded by Colonel Casillas Lumpuy. An armoured train, sent by Batista to reinforce supplies of ammunition, weapons and other equipment, traveled along to the foot of the hill Capiro, at the northeast of the city, establishing there a command post. Guevara dispatched his "suicide squad", a force under 18-year old Roberto Rodríguez (known as "El Vaquerito"), to capture the hill, using hand grenades. The defenders of the hill withdrew with surprising speed and the train, containing officers and soldiers from the command post, withdrew towards the middle of the town.

In the city itself a series of skirmishes were taking place between government forces and the second rebel column, led by Rolando Cubela, with the assistance of civilians providing molotov cocktails. Two army garrisons (the barracks of the Leoncio Vidal Regiment and the barracks of the 31 Regiment of the Rural Guard) were under siege from Cubela's forces despite army support from aircraft, snipers and tanks.

Capture of the train

Guevara, who viewed the capture of the train as a priority, successfully mobilized the tractors of the school of Agronomy at the university to raise the rails of the railway. The train was therefore derailed as it transported troops away from the Capiro hill. The officers within tumbled out asking for a truce. At this, ordinary soldiers, whose morale was very low, began to fraternise with the rebels, saying that they were tired of fighting against their own people. Shortly afterwards the armoured train was in the hands of the rebels and its 350 men and officers were transported as prisoners.

The train contained a considerable amount of weaponry, a huge bonus to revolutionary forces, and it was to become a basis of further attack in the hands of both the rebels and supportive peasants. Various reports have suggested that the surrender of the train and the truce were pre-arranged, relying on payments made to the officers by the 26th of July Movement. Guevara himself described how the men were forced out by a volley of molotov cocktails, causing the armoured train to become a "veritable oven for the soldiers".

The capture of the train, and the subsequent media broadcasts from both the government and the rebels proved to be a key tipping point in the revolution. Despite the next day's newspapers hailing Batista's "victory" at Santa Clara, contrary broadcasts from Castro's rebel forces accelerated the succession of army surrenders. The reports ended with the news that rebel leaders were heading "without let or hindrance" towards Havana to take over the Government.

Capture of the city

Most garrisons around the country quickly surrendered to the first guerrilla commander who showed up at their gate. In mid-afternoon, Che announced over his Rebelde transmitter that the last troops in Santa Clara had surrendered.


No comments: