Sunday, December 11, 2016

Decisive Battles: Santa Clara and Yaguajay, December 1958

Battle of Yaguajay Dates: DEC 16-31, 1958, and the Battle of Santa Clara Dates: DEC 28 1958 - JAN 1 1959
Forces Engaged:


Fuerzas Armadas de Movemiento Revolucionario 26 de Julio and others - The armed forces of Castro's "Revolutionary Movement of 26 July" are difficult to quantify in conventional military terms.

One reason is that, duh, they were not conventional military forces but irregular bands of popular guerrillas; some having returned to Cuba with the leaders of the movement in December 1956, some having joined in the two succeeding years, some having fought in urban rebellions and groups separate from Castro's mob and joining up with his people only when they turned up outside the towns of Yaguajay and Santa Clara that winter.

Also, as with many such rebel organizations, the 26 Julio (often referred to as "M-26-7") numbers tended to shrink or swell depending on the success of the ongoing fight, and the "columns" often appear to have been little more organized than fighting tails of leaders like Cienfuegos, Castro, and Guevara.

(Raul Castro's outfits seem to have been an exception; Raul was the "neatnik" Castro brother. That's him in the middle of the picture below. Fidel is on the left, Che on the right)
But the other reason is that Castro and his commanders made their "organization" intentionally opaque to mislead their enemies; for example, in 1957 the rebel army had a "First Eastern Front" (Primero Frente Oriental) composed of three "columns". These were not, as in a nice, tidy conventional army would have designated them "first" through "third". They were Column 1, Column 7, and Column 31. Because there were really thirty-one columns, not three, got it?

Yeah, neither did Batista's intelligence spooks, the SIM.

Or, at least, that was the idea.

So far as we know, here's how the rebels lined up in December, 1958:

Yaguajay: Column 2, First Eastern Front (Colomna Dos, Primera Frente Oriental) approximately 200-400 light infantry armed with an extremely mixed bag of weapons including shotguns, Springfield and M1 rifles, assorted carbines and submachine guns such as the .30 caliber Kiraly-Cristóbal, as well as a scattering of heavier weapons such as 0.30 caliber Browning LMGs, under the command of MAJ Carlos Cienfuegos.

We also know that the original 26 Julio organization was reinforced by a spatter of local rebels from the vicinity, as well, though we will probably never know exactly how many and from what groups.
Also, for what it's worth, the identification of the higher organization as the "First" of what eventually became four "Eastern Fronts" is per Sandison (1977); other sources (such as Bockman, 1984) state that by the time this organization split off from Castro's main rebel force it was re-designated the Third Eastern Front. I am unsure what the actual designation of this outfit was to the Castro rebel higher at the time.

Santa Clara:
Column 8, First Eastern Front (Colomna Ocho, Primera Frente Oriental) initially approximately 250 light infantry with similar arms and equipment as above under MAJ Che Guevara.

The accounts of Santa Clara do specifically mention that local urban fighters belonging to other rebel groups such as the Revolutionary Directorate (Directorio Revolucionario, or DR) and the People’s Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Popular or PSP) rallied to Guevara's troops in significant numbers. Probably as many as 400-500 irregular light infantry altogether were fighting the batistianos by the time the battle ended on 1 JAN 1959.

The rebels in both columns were largely bereft of any sort of heavy weaponry, although, rather surprisingly, they didn't need much to profit from it; the Cuban Army in the central region was shockingly underarmed as well. As we'll see, the mere presence of a single mortar tube or rocket launcher was enough to push the weight of metal significantly to one side or another.

So approximately 750-1,000 irregular light infantry with a very small scattering of infantry heavy weapons (mortars, rocket-launchers/bazookas, and machineguns) in two main groups. The main rebel groups were under the overall command of the leader of the 26 Julio movement, Fidel Castro, but they included elements of several other, unaffiliated (and competing) revolutionary groups, as well.

Ejercito de Cuba -


The government forces in Cuba during the revolutionary period were divided into two distinct groups. The Ejercito Permanente, the "Permanent Army", was organized as a regular force that included, by 1958, the combat arms typical of the United States Army to the north; infantry, armor, artillery, as well as combat support and service support troops. I believe that the regular Army strength ran to about 45,000-50,000 at the time we're discussing.

The larger force available to the regime was the Guardia Rural, the "Rural Guard". These jokers were a very lightly armed constabulary very similar to - and probably modeled after - the Guardia Civil of Spain. Unlike the regulars they were tied to their locality and are probably better thought of as a sort of paramilitary police force rather than true soldiers. By late 1958 the Rurales were fairly broken; the local people largely despised them and the guerrillas could usually outfight them, so they appear to have become ineffective as a combat force by December.

Yaguajay: I am unsure of the Army organization present at the Yaguajay Barracks. Triana and Herrera (2009, citing Gálvez, 1965) state that "Companies 1, A, F, and E, which were encamped in Champas" mobilized to Yaguajay with one Captain Abong Li (or Le) from Mayajigua Barracks, about 12-14 miles southeast of Yaguajay." The citation in Triana and Herrera (2009) does not include the higher element of the named companies or, indeed, why one would be numbered and the others lettered; the implication is that the first was from a different battalion (or squadron) from the others.

It is possible that these companies were part of the Leoncio Vidal (or, possibly, the 8th) infantry regiment we'll encounter at Santa Clara - since supposedly the Cuban Army practice was to keep a battalion under the flagpole (which would have been at the regimental barracks in Santa Clara) and then spread the remaining two battalions out in small units down to platoon size through the unit's Area of Operations.

Gálvez (1965) gives the size of the Li force as 344, a surprisingly precise number for a time when things were beginning to fall apart for the government. A typical infantry company at full strength runs between 80 and 100 troops, so assuming that Galvez' list of four company-sized units is correct then something along those lines wouldn't be impossible. But let's say about 300-350 as a guess, regular line infantrymen but without a heavy weapons platoon so no mortars or anything more than light machineguns.
Santa Clara: I have been unable to find anything that give the Army organizations present at Santa Clara. Depending on who you belive somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 troops all arms are said to have been assigned to the units there in December, 1958. Bonachea and San Martin (1974) break down the defense as follows:
"...the Leoncio Vidal camp, with about 3,000 troops; the police station, with about 1,000 men; the municipal building, the Grand Hotel, and the Palace of Justice where there were about 2,500 men..."
However, several other sources (such as the World History Project page for Santa Clara) suggest that the Batistiano forces were much smaller:
"The army garrison at Santa Clara consisted of 2,500 soldiers and officers and ten tanks: another thousand soldiers were scattered at key points throughout the city. In addition, an armored locomotive containing another 400 well-armed soldiers was on its way from Havana."
So 3,500 assorted regular infantry, police, and (possibly) Rurales plus about 400 some-sort-of-troops on the train.

Among the organizations mentioned are the above named infantry regiment, which at full strength should have had something around 1,500 to 2,000 all arms. A Guardia Rural unit - which may or may not have been the "Squadron 31" of the barracks so-named - may also have been present, thought what the hell numbers a "Squadron" represented I have no idea.
The defenders of Santa Clara do not appear to have had any cannon artillery, but something on the order of 10 tanks are said to have been present; what looks like an M-4 Sherman is visible in pictures of Guevara attributed to the fight at Santa Clara, and certainly one is shown in the aftermath of the battle ridden by a happy band of rebels.

This, in turn, implies that at least a tank company was assigned to the garrison; typically some 100 troops plus supporting vehicles. Which armor company I have no idea.

I have seen references to "armored cars" associated with the government troops in Santa Clara. T17E1 "Staghound" armored cars were among the military vehicles provided to the Cuban Army during the Fifties, and at least some were still around long enough to be captured by the rebels. At least one photo purporting to be from the Santa Clara fight shows rebel soldiers with one of these vehicles. How many may have been in Santa Clara I do not know.
Six hundred - or 400 - troops are supposed to have been on the "tren blindado", the armored train that played such an important part in this engagement; these are not otherwise identified (although our boy Henry Gomez, more from whom in a bit, claims that the troopers aboard were only combat support engineer troops instead of rock-hard Cuban infantrymen and, thus, easy pickin's for the eeeeevil Commies and their tricksy bribery).

The Army Air Force - the FAEC, Fuerza Aérea Ejército de Cuba - is said to have provided some fairly halfhearted "support" for the ground troops at Santa Clara although no air missions are mentioned for Yaguajay.
These are reported to have consisted of sporadic ground-attack missions carried out by F-47 "Thunderbolt" and Sea Fury fighter-bombers as well as some what are described as even less-effective bomb runs by FAEC B-26 medium bombers.

So somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 all arms, 10 M-4 Sherman medium tanks (and probably some number between 0 and "x" armored cars...), 1 "armored train" (as well as somewhat desultory air support) under Colonel Joaquin Casillas Lumpuy, who, in turn, was responsible for the President, Fulgencio Batista.
The Sources: The Cuban Revolution, occurring as it did during the beginning of the electronic age, is unsurprisingly fairly well documented in large. The problems become once you begin to look closer at it.

First, and most serious, the political baggage of the revolution is such that a huge amount of the documentation of the events was prepared as a means of either celebrating (i.e., mythologizing) the revolution or discrediting it. A perfect example is the Armored Train Incident during the Battle of Santa Clara.

According to one of Che's biographers, Paul Dosal in his 2003 Comandante Che: Guerrilla Soldier, Commander, and Strategist, 1956-1967 "Later in the day the rebels...attacked the (derailed) train with machineguns and Molitov cocktails, turning the boxcars into ovens...".

There's even a comic book account that includes this delightfully gory image of the french-fried batistiano soldiers baked to a delicate crunch:
There seems to be only one problem with this; the story goes that this train was a treasure box of military goodies, hard to square with the whole business of burning boxcars.

And the Dosal version is just the "official story"; there are accounts that insist that this gory tale of fiery death is just that - a tale.

In his delightfully catty webpage Trenblindado.com Henry Louis Gomez sets us straight; those Commies weren't just rebels, they were dirty cheaters, too:
"My grandfather's account (Henry's grandpappy was one CPT Enrique A. Gomez Perez M.D., officer of engineers assigned to the armored train - that's grandpa over on the left) of Guevara's reaction to the shots fired from the train (earlier Henry says that Che' is shocked that the troops fired at his guys - "That's not what we agreed to!" he says) is consistent with a man who felt he had been swindled. My grandfather also stated that the officers on the train were all speculating that Rosell (Colonel Florentino E. Rosell y Leyva, the train commander or "OC train" as our British allies would call it) had been paid. This gives us some insight as to the feelings of the rank and file soldiers who apparently were aware of the allegations that battle victories were being routinely bought by the Rebels."
See! Toldjaso! Those Commie rebels were just rotten ol' cheaters. They couldn't win on the square; they had to bribe their way to victory.

(For what it's worth, nobody seems to have clued Henry to that whole "all's fair in love and war" thing...)

Anyway, there's a LOT more like this; you have to be extremely careful who you believe when it comes to the Revolution. The Castro regime, obviously, has a vested interest in making it all about heroic rebels fighting for the People against the Evil Empire.

Anti-castroite Cubans (and antiCommie sources more generally) have a similar interest in portraying Batista as a tragically misunderstood enlightened despot who totally did not turn Havana into a playground full of booze and hookers for the benefit of the Mafia before being overthrown by the Most Nefarious Tyrant EVAH!

This, obviously, applies to a lot of the popular literature about the events of 1958, but it applies to scholarly work, as well.

Much of the military analysis has been done by the U.S. service schools and war colleges and although it obviously doesn't help the U.S. armed forces to be biased about the military events of the Revolution there is also a difficult-to-wash-out institutional outlook towards one of the last of the old-school Red dictatorships that cannot help but influence how those studies are presented.

On the other hand, there is a substantial school of Left-wing scholarship that sees the Revolution through the lens of liberation and the events of that time reflected in the mirror of the Batista dictatorship that tend to invest the Castro movement with a sort of heroic gloss that elides the very real problems it contained and created.

The important thing to remember is that neither side is unbiased, and that bias can color even the most apparently-objective accounts.

Another problem is that in purely military terms the Revolution is kind of a snore, so nobody really seems to want to do much research or analysis of it.

We'll talk about this more in the "campaign" section, but the military side of the Revolution was sort of a sideshow. The real reason for the downfall of the Batista government and the triumph of Castro's movement was political and social.

Batista and his people did everything possible to lose the affection and support of Cubans before the rebels marched out of the hills, so that by the time you get to these battles there's not a whole lot of drama there. The rebels attack, the soldiers fold, end of story.

I did what I would consider a fairly exhaustive search for military histories of the revolutionary period and found very little, and even less of of merit. The U.S. war college websites provided nothing of value, and a thorough search of internet citations turned up very little, either.

Much of what you can find is buried in geopolitical or general historical accounts of the revolution which typically dismiss the military events below the strategic or, at best, the grand tactical level. So if you want to know how the infantrymen of MAJ Cienfuegos' Column 2 attacked Yaguajay Barracks or how CPT Li's troops defended it, well...the details just aren't there.

Even given the collapse of government troop morale - which by late December was a serious problem - there also had to be some sort of significant tactical problem that the defenders of Santa Clara were unable to overcome. Outnumbering the rebel attackers by a factor of two or better, supposedly better trained, and at least on paper better armed none of the government forces was able to maneuver effectively outside the places they are reported as defending.

Every account of the fight emphasizes that the government force defending the police station (that group was the most active of the defenders) tried repeatedly to sortie from their fortified bastion. Every attack was pushed back. How? Why? Was it because of failures of the soldiers' morale, or purely tactical, the common hazard to troops moving into the open in urban combat?

We don't know. The accounts read "...the rebel counterattack forced them to retreat." or "...after 30 minutes the tanks withdrew."

Why did the tanks withdraw? Were they abandoned by the supporting infantry and thus vulnerable to antitank attacks? Did the nerve of the tank crews fail? Were they ordered to withdraw? Where were the rebel forces at the time the tanks rumbled away?

We don't know and, at this point, probably never will.
That said, here are some of the sources I used to prepare this post as well as some other places you could look for details on the engagements.

Ramon Bonachea and Marta San Martin's 1974 The Cuban Insurrection 1952-1959 was a wealth of information on the M-26-7 Movement and, in particular, the actions of, and encounters with M-26-7 by, the "other" revolutionary groups like the DR, AAA, OA, and the PSP whose contributions were deliberately downplayed by the victorious Castro faction after the revolution.

The work's treatment of the military side of the revolution, including the two engagements we're discussing, is highly varied; some of the actions include very useful organizational and tactical details (their account of the "Summer Offensive" of August 1958 is particularly good), some are much less descriptive.

It is worth noting that Bonachea was a member of the Directorio Revolucionario, so a partisan of one of the competing groups ruthlessly eliminated by Castro after the revolution, so there's that. On the other hand, it allows the work to introduce those groups, which are poorly documented elsewhere (given that they were competitors and losing competitors of the Fidelistas and the winners wrote most of the histories).

Overall a very good work for anyone interested in the period.

The contribution of those "other" groups to the military success of the revolution seemed like a question worth pursuing, so I also wanted to review Julia Sweig's 2002 Inside the Cuban Revolution: Fidel Castro and the Urban Underground...but some sonofabitch stole it off my front porch.

Well, dammit.

Louis Perez' 2002 Army Politics in Cuba, 1898-1958 provides an excellent summary of just what the title says. Not light reading, but comprehensive and informative.

I looked briefly at Charles Ameringer's 2000 work The Cuban Democratic Experience: The Autentico Years, 1944-1952 for some of the political background.

My rudimentary Spanish prevented me from accessing several of the most valuable primary sources, such as Comandante William Gálvez's work including his Rasgos de combate de Yaguajay as well as his broader account of Columna Dos' campaign, Rasgos de la campana de Camilo Cienfuegos en Las Villas. The commander of Column 2, Camilo Cienfuegos, published pages from his war diary, Informe de la invasión: Páginas del Diario de Campaña, that also has not been translated to my knowledge.

Mauro García Triana and Pedro Eng Herrera's 2009 The Chinese in Cuba, 1847-now contains a good little account of CPT Li's defense of Yaguajay but is silent on the larger events of the military aspects of the Revolution.

I could not find an "official" military history of the Revolution, either in English or Spanish.

Resources on the Internet are likewise exceptionally slender. The Wiki entries for both engagements are sparse, in particular the Yaguajay page. The "Santa Clara" entry, while more detailed, contains a suspiciously large number of "[citation needed]" footnotes.

The Guardian website has a fun little entry about the Che memorial in Santa Clara.

The Cuban Revolution is one of the few periods not covered by the Osprey Men-at-Arms series.
For those with a taste for celluloid drama there's the 1979 film Cuba starring Sean Connery.

I've seen it and as a film it's utterly ridiculous and as history it's somewhere between improbable and "what the fuck..?". You kind of have to see the scene where Sean and Jack Weston fight the Cuban tanks with the hijacked tank destroyer to get the full WTF effect.

It seems to do a fair job of conveying the general impression of Batista Cuba, though, if you can get past all the other goofy nonsense. And Brooke Adams is babe-ish, and, well, Sean Connery.
The Campaign: The Cuban Revolution is usually dated as beginning in March, 1952, when Fulgencio Batista seized power, and to the extent that the coup kicked off the insurrection that eventually led to Yaguajay and Santa Clara that's probably true enough.

But that ignores the ugly history of Cuba beginning with Spanish colonization.

Because at the risk of swinging a broad brush, in my inquiries into troubles in places as distant as the Philippines and Peru and now Cuba one thing jumps out immediately; what a goddamn disaster as a colonial power Spain turned out to be.

Now, mind you, for pure brutal human savagery the Belgians were probably worse; it's hard to top the Belgian Congo for utterly inhuman savagery of one group of people to another. For quantity of colonial-mismanagement-fucking-up-the-locals it'd be the Brits, and for just general incompetence the Portuguese...but in terms of "pretty much guaranteeing a completely shitty post-colonial experience" you've got to give the Spanish credit.

Between the incompetent schlamperi of the Spanish monarchy and its agents, the pernicious influence of the Catholic Church as state religion, and the ridiculously vicious socially feudal fucktardry of Spanish society it'd be hard to find a less salubrious sort of thing to impress into a beaten-down native population consigned to economic ruin.

That most ex-Spanish colonies are political shitshows is about the least surprising thing in the world when you think about it.
1898-1940 - Emplacing the Charges

Cuba has had exactly zero periods of truly democratic or even close-to-democratic rule. The island has no experience with or tradition of nonpartisan rule of law, has seldom been gifted with a peaceful transition of power, and is rife with, as I expressed about South America's southern tier: "Spanish absolutism, social stratification, the continued grip on power of large landowners and churchmen, and, especially, the authority seized by force during the wars, produced very volatile and unstable political systems".

Add to this the overwhelming economic and political presence of Colossus of the North and it is completely unsurprising that the history of Cuba is full of instability and oligarchy.

To keep matters within limits, however, let's start with the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Unlike the Philippines the United States didn't want to (or couldn't) hang onto Cuba as an actual colony. The 1898 Treaty of Paris left it under the "protection" of the US, however, and the U.S. Army kept a sizeable garrison in Cuba for the next couple of years.

As a condition of American withdrawal the McKinley Administration passed, and required the Cuban government to accept into its constitution, something called the Platt Amendment, that specified:
"That the government of Cuba consents that the United States may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty, and for discharging the obligations with respect to Cuba imposed by the treaty of Paris on the United States, now to be assumed and undertaken by the government of Cuba."
Needless to say, how you felt about this depended largely on what you thought about Manifest Destiny...
...and the motives of the United States government.

Whatever the motives, it didn't take long for Cuba to start having trouble, including trouble with its northern neighbor.

In 1906 U.S. troops landed after the incumbent President Palma rigged the 1905 election to beat the "liberals" (mind you, both sides largely represented the interests of the landowners and politically connected).

The liberals rebelled in August, 1906 and both sides wanted U.S. troops; the Palma government to suppress the rebels and the rebels to supervise new, unrigged, elections.

The occupation, however, satisfied neither Cuban party. Secretary of War Taft made himself Provisional Governor and the Yanquis stayed for three years, organizing and training the Cuban regular Army was well as the Guardia Rural. In the elections of 1908 the liberal candidate from 1905 was chosen President and the American forces withdrew.

After a nasty little race war between the Afro-Cubans who worked the cane fields and the Hispano-Cubans who owned them in 1912 the Marines were back, this time in 1917, in the five-year Sugar Intervention again kicked off by another "liberal-conservative" civil war (one of the "liberals" involved was José Miguel Gómez, the guy whose rigged defeat in 1905 had started the LAST round of rebellion...). My favorite part of this one is that the Cuban "conservative" government "invited" the USMC to conduct "warm-weather training" in Cuba.

With live rounds, mind you, and around sugar plantations that were the primary targets of the rebel activities.

I'm sure it was damn good training, as it lasted until about 1920 and the last gyrenes didn't march back to Gitmo until 1922.
The history of Cuba in the Twenties and Thirties looks a lot like the sort of history you read for the continental nations of Latin America.

A guy named Machado was elected in 1925 but by the constitution couldn't be re-elected (he'd already served an earlier term...). As you'd expect, come 1928 he gave the constitution el dedo and got re-elected.

His reign saw several uprisings and a long-running feud with both faculty and students of the University. Machado was a classic caudillo, who loved his secret police and Army "intelligence" that provided 9mm solutions for Machado political problems.

And many problems he had, from the green shirts of the "ABC"...
(I gotta throw this in here just because it's so Mission Impossible that I can't resist it. The "ABC Party" (called the abecedarios in Cuba) started out as a revolutionary anti-Machado movement. Someone or someones in this gang had a brilliantly twisted imagination; they assassinated some mook named Clemente Vazquez Bello (he was president of the Machado Senate).

The idea was that they'd then tunnel into the Vazquez family crypt in Havana's Colón Cemetery and stuff the old mausoleum from floor to vault with explosives. Then, when Machado showed up to pay his last respects to his dear departed 'bro they'd blast him sky-high in a shower of shredded Machado meat and old Vazquez bones.

It didn't work; the damn Vazquezes planted Clemente in Santa Clara, instead, thus thwarting the abecedarios and a perfectly awesome assassination-by-corpse-explosion plan...)
...to groups of lefties led by people like Blas Hernández and Antonio Guiteras and even the old vets from the 19th Century rebellion against the Spanish.

It's kind of surprising, given the way the man could make enemies, that he lasted even eight years but Machado was finally ousted by another coup in 1933.

This revolution, pulled together by a bizarre congeries of students, middle-class intellectuals, labor leaders, and low-ranking troops of the regular Army, was helped along by Sumner Welles, the U.S. Ambassador. But the Roosevelt Administration wasn't entirely happy with the results.

This revolutionary outfit pushed the presidency of a guy named Ramón Grau San Martín and promised a lefty sort of New Deal including reducing the privileges of the Hispano-Cubans and spiking the Platt Amendment.

Between August 1933 and January 1934 the Grau administration (calling itself the "Provisional Government") killed the Platt Amendment, outlawed Machado's political parties, granted full autonomy to the University of Havana, women's suffrage, an eight-hour workday and a minimum wage, and compulsory arbitration for labor disputes.

The Grauites also promised to defend Cuban jobs from illegally imported labor (the deal would be that half of all Cuban workers had to be Cuban citizens and the Grauites even bruited about the notion of breaking up the big estates and giving the sharecroppers legal title to their lands) that was a feature of the U.S. owned sugar outfits.

As you can imagine, the big landowners, the Church, the senior Army leadership, and the United States hated the shit out of these Grau/Provisional Government jokers. After five months the Provisional Government was overthrown by yet another revolution, this one not really a "revolution" but a right-wing coup, the "Revolt of the Sergeants" led by one SGT Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar, a guy we'll hear from again. And again and again.
Because between 1933 and 1944 sarge pretty much ran Cuba. Our boy Grau was officially tapped to be President and Batista was just "Army Chief of Staff" but since he had all the bayonets - and at this point the Army had decided it was the School of the Cuban Nation - he was the boss.

Oh, and he promoted himself to colonel, by the way. Don't have his board scores, but I'm sure they were very bigly.

Early on he made one of his signature moves; almost all of the pre-Batista Cuban Army officers were retired...one way or the other, seeing as how Fulgencio found that Machado's 9mm solutions worked just dandy.

Grau was out after three months, replaced by one Carlos Mendieta. He lasted eleven months. Then Cuba had José Barnet (5 months), Miguel Mariano Gómez (7 months) until finally Fulgencio found someone he could work with; Federico Laredo Brú ran the joint from December 1936 to October 1940.
Intermission 1 - How Can Something So Sweet Be So Bitter?

We should pause a moment to here to talk about sugar.

Because sugar - in the form of growing and processing sugarcane - was the single big player in the Cuban economy in 1958.

Cuban economics was just that simple: Cuba = sugar.

And the sugar economy after 1898 - and particularly after the tariff changes of 1903 - became dominated by corporations from the United States such as the United Fruit Company.

There's a fairly good, concise discussion of the effects of the monopolization of the Cuban sugar industry here, but to sum up:
"...the continued U.S. (sugar corporation) presence in Cuba created resentment among most elements of the post-independence generation of Cubans, and their frustrations were taken out on a succession of Cuban presidents. He explains that because “each Cuban president had to make his peace with the United States, none of them was able to avoid for very long the accusation of having betrayed the nation. Hence, pre-Castro Cuban governments never achieved legitimacy, and were easy targets for disenchanted, revolutionary-minded Cubans."
A ton of post-independence problems in Cuba - from immigration (of Afro-Cubans, particularly, to work in the canefields) to consumerism to environmental troubles to economic instability - lead back to sugar's economic monoculture.

The interlocked political cat's-cradle; U.S. sugar corporations with Cuban governments with U.S. governments - was an almost impossible problem to solve. U.S. food companies like Hershey's chocolate (Milton Hershey owned Cuban mills and canefields...) and Kellogg and Post cereals wanted cheap sugar, Cuban mills and canefields needed cheap labor to make cheap sugar, Cuban governments needed to suppress millworker and canecutter discontent with low wages and miserable conditions to ensure that labor stayed cheap, and U.S. governments were sure to come down hard on Cuban governments that couldn't assure cheap labor and cheap sugar.

So...are we good on the sugar? Because while we were discussing this not-so-sweet history our guy Fulgencio Batista just got elected President.
1940-1952 - It's Quiet. TOO Quiet.

That was 1940. Batista was then what passed for a liberal in Cuba. In his first term he oversaw social and political reforms, including passing union-friendly populist regulations. He left office peacefully in 1944 but his choice of successor was defeated by our old pal Ramón Grau San Martín. Batista looked like he was getting set to make trouble...but at the last minute left for the U.S., where he stayed for the next four years.

The next twelve years were, for Cuba, delightfully peaceful. In his account Ameringer (2000) said that the period - Batista's first term, Grau's, and the Autentico President Carlos Prío Socarrás - was
"...unique in Cuban history. They were a time of constitutional order and political freedom. They were not 'golden years' by any means, but in two elections (1944 and 1948), Cubans had the opportunity to express their desire for a rule of civil liberties, primacy of Cuban culture, and achievement of economic independence."
This was Cuba, however, so this peace was only relative. It was not some sort of idyll; the situation in Cuba during the Forties and early Fifties was much the same as it had been since Independence. Most of the people were poor, sugar dominated the economy, and all the old dissatisfaction and grievance boiled along under the surface.

This calm was deceptive, and many people both in Cuba and the United States were deceived. In particular the Partido Auténtico, the party of Prio and Grau and probably the single most influential party in Cuba up to 1952, assumed wrongly that the Army had been subjugated to civil authority and the populace had been pacified by the promise of reform.

As the elections of 1952 approached the Havana rumor mill started grinding out tales of a planned military coup led by Batista. Prío, good constitutionalist that he was, didn't move against Batista or his old Army cronies.

Unfortunately for Cuba the rumors were true.

On 10 MAR 1952 Army units seized barracks, police stations, and the major radio and TV broadcast facilities. Prío didn't try and fight; he and his family boarded a plane and flew to Miami.

1952-November 1956 - Lighting the Fuze

In great Cuban tradition Batista, seeing that he and his party were running third behind the Orthodox Party and the Auténticos, decided to just skip the whole election thing and be President. Bonachea describes it:
"The coup d'etat was successful. Confronted by a military coup elected officials decided to flee rather than fight, while the national oligarchy rejoiced...labor leaders hurried to make common cause...the nations political institutions did not challenge what the army decisively supported. The effect...demonstrated that as long as the traditional regular army existed, no constitutional order was safe from eventual destruction."
This time Batista was much less interested in pleasing the proles. He wanted the country club set to love him, and he wanted cash.

This was the beginning of the "Rat Pack" period for Havana, the heyday of the Cuba of hookers and mobsters and "gangsterismo", the time when what was good for U.S. Sugar was good for Cuba, when everything and everybody from the President on down was for sale.
Were things really that bad? In a sense it doesn't matter. That was how a lot of Cubans perceived their country, and they weren't very happy about it.

Within months of the coup Cubans were beginning to organize to resist Batista's government. These included early student groups like Rafael Barcena's Moveimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) and later, direct-action groups like M-26-7, the DR, as well as anti-Batista outfits outside the M-26-7 like the DR groups such as the Directorio Revolucionario Estudantil (or "13 de Marzo") and the Segundo Frente Nacional del Escambray.

1953 - Moncada Barracks

The road that lead to Yaguajay and Santa Clara, though, really begins at the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba on the morning of JUL 26, 1953.

Castro's original following came out of the Partido Ortodoxo. This was a sort of grab-bag center-left outfit that split off from the Autenticos - it's slogan was Vergüenza contra dinero (Shame on wealth) which kinda gives you the idea.

Between March 1952 and July 1953 these guys scratched up weapons and went to the local ranges to shoot pretending to be soda jerks and hardware store owners interested in hunting.

Most were Hispano-Cuban; the Afro-Cubans in general were batistianos given that the caudillo himself was part Afro-Cuban.

To give you an idea what a ragbag this outfit was, here's the Wiki list of the weapons they collected for their first mission, the seizure of Moncada Barracks:
"Forty 12- and 16-gauge shotguns, thirty-five Mosberg and Remington .22 rifles, sixty handguns of various models, a malfunctioning .45 caliber submachine gun, twenty-four rifles of different caliber, including eight Model 1898 Krag-Jørgensen rifles, a .30-06 Model 1903 Springfield rifle, three sawed-off 1892 .44-caliber Winchester rifles, and a .30 caliber M1 Garand rifle with a folding metal stock."
Christ, what a circus. Can you imagine trying to buy ammunition for that goat rodeo?

Anyway, the idea was to dress up about 130 guys in pilfered uniforms, parade up to the barracks in a big ol' car convoy, and jump the soldiers who would presumably be getting likkered up for the big parties in Santiago the next day.

The attack was a total shitshow.
The convoy got separated. Some of the cars got lost, including the only one with the "heavy weapons". Castro himself admits that instead of driving up to the front of the barrack he rammed a bunch of joes hanging out at the gate who supposedly alerted to him, and his guys behind him - thinking they were there - jumped out and started blasting at nobody.

Only about 80 or so of the attackers even fired a shot, and the attack was routed within an hour or so. About half of the attack force was either killed at the scene, or captured and murdered afterwards.
Something like 100 people, including Batista opponents not connected with Castro or the Moncada attack, were charged and tried.

Whatever legality the Cuban government was seeking failed. Castro, acting as his own counsel, was allowed to speak for four hours in what has become - in it's revised and "improved" form - known (for the closing phrase) the "History will absolve me" speech in which Castro quotes Milton and Locke, thre Rights of Man and the Declaration of Independence, drops Latin tags and name-checks the heroes of the war against Spain, rages against Batista's cronies and United Fruit, and has become a central part of the Castro legend in Cuba.

But at the time, it was just the last public appearance before the Isle of Pines.


1954-1956 - Prisons and students and coups, oh my...

While Castro and many of his cronies sweated on the old pirate haven southwest of Cuba proper the students of the University of Havana were getting properly pissed off.

Friction between the Havana coppers - whose notable corruption included an almost Germanic level of organization called forrajeo, "foraging" - and the students at the U was a tradition, but during the Batista Fifties it took on a nasty intensity.

As the students were organizing "action groups" the anti-Batista politicians were organizing a drive to amnesty the prisoners of the regime as part of the traditions of the election of 1954. While Castro and his outfit weren't well enough known to be the focus of this push they benefited along with the others.
Batista's "re-election" in the fall of 1954 was the traditional fiesta of ballot-box stuffing and Chicagoesque electoral chicanery, but by early 1955 he and his regime felt like they had crushed their enemies.

Batista acceded to the calls for amnesty and the Moncada attackers - who now called themselves the "July 26th Movement" after the date of their clusterfuck - were released in May, 1955. Castro got word that things in Cuba might be getting a trifle too hot for him so he and brother Raul blew town for sunny Mexico in July.
That spring and summer the university was becoming a hive of anti-Batista anger. Finally in August, 1955 a guy named Mora, an old school urban guerrilla, assisted by some interesting characters such as Dan Labrandero, an ex-Brigadero from the Spanish Civil War, and Carlos Menoyo, a WW2 vet, sent the word out to the student action groups that it was time to take it to the Batista coppers and the caudillo himself.

The coppers struck first. They surrounded the warehouse where the group was assembling and bagged most of them.

In September, 1955, one of the senior leaders that had escaped the roundup, a man named Echeverria founded the Directorio Revolucionario - the "DR". Under the aegis of this organization the fall and early winter of 1955 were seared by demonstrations - including student "protests" designed to ambush the responding police - and strikes, including an immense sugar-workers strike in December. DR groups beavered away after study hall devising cunning assassination plans for the caudillo.

The first shot of 1956, however, was an old-fashioned Latin American failed-coup-attempt. One COL Ramón Barquín, one of the most senior officers in the regular Army, was arrested (along with many of his co-conspirators) by the SIM secret police for planning to defenstrate his boss.

This Conspiración de los Puros de 1956 is important, because in the aftermath Batista, suspicious of those of his senior officers not beholden to him - the puros, the "pure" - personally purged a lot of them. His replacements were largely from his cronies, or from families he wanted to tie to his person; this completed the purge that Batista had started right after the 1952 coup.

At the time the puro officers who had supported the coup were bitter about their political replacements. Perez (2002) notes that after the 1952 coup:
"Within a space of twenty-four months, the new (Batista) government had virtually dismantled the professional officer corps. More than ever, political credentials determined commissions and promotions. Nepotism within the septembrista (Note: the "septemberists" were those connected to the September 1933 "Sergeants Revolt" that had made SGT Batista Chief of Staff) command, converting the armed forces into a patrimony of a handful of families, specifically the Tabernillas, further contributed to undermining the army esprit de corps."
Now the remainder of the non-political officers were done for.

Unrecalled at that moment was the dire example of the better-known dictator who, nineteen years earlier, had decided to purge his most experienced and competent army officers just before he would need them the most.

The Cuban pot kept simmering.

Late in April an Autentico group attacked Goicuria Barracks in Matanzas.

In November the government closed Havana University. Groups such as the Sociedad de los Amigos de la Republica, or SAR, kept prodding the caudillo to hold fair elections and send the army back into its barracks. They failed.

More and more, Cuban politics was becoming polarized between the Batistianos and those who believed that only blood would remove the dictator.

In Mexican exile Castro found two new sources of strength; a supporter and lieutenant in Che Guevara, and pact with the urban revolutionaries of the DR. This organization was busy carrying out assassination and urban terror.

After the colonel in charge of the SIM, the Army secret police, was gunned down in a Havana nightclub a group of DR guerrillas took refuge in the Haitian embassy and the National Police assaulted the building. One of the DR gunsels killed the one-star leading the attack so in return the coppers forced ten rebels to their knees, shot them, and left the corpses lying on the embassy floor.

The shootout at the embassy left the police and the DR/student rebels pretty much in open war.

While the DR went after batistiano leadership the M-26-7 cells liked their explosives. While fewer in number the M-26-7 bombs were more bang-for-the-buck and their tactic of popping off low-ranking but especially greedy beat coppers was effective in both terrorizing the coppers and provoking nastily excessive retaliation that pissed off the surviving targets.
While all this was happening...
"In mid-November the Mexican press reported that Castro and his followers were not to be found in their usual gathering places in Mexico City. Sensing imminent danger, Castro had speeded up his plans...(purchasing) a 58-foot yacht, the Granma, for $15,000. (O)n November 25, 1956, Fidel Castro and his men boarded the Granma at Tuxpan, Veracrux, and set their compass for Cuba." (Bonachea and San Martin, 1974)
The final stage of the Cuban Revolution had begun.

November 1956-August 1958 - The Fuse is lit...but..."

The opening stages of what would become the Cuban Revolution were a complete and utter disaster.

The DR and M-26-7 urban groups tried an uprising in Santiago de Cuba that failed miserably and got many of the guerrillas killed. And when I say "failed miserably" I mean as in "Traffic cops stop the car with the mortar in it and give it a 30.06 caliber ticket" kind of "failed miserably".
The Batista regime had good intel on the Granma's arrival and Army patrols ambushed Castro's band in early December, 1957, scattering it and killing all but 20 of the 80-odd force. This little remnant managed to escape to the Sierra Maestra highlands of southeastern Cuba, where the M-26-7 outfit and a scattering of allies kept up a sporadic guerrilla war through the winter and early spring of 1957.

During this time the DR (remember them?) were getting impatient with Castro's backup plan of hiding and sniping in the mountains. Apparently in December, 1956, Fidel slipped a message to the DR leaders accusing them of being cowardly wastes of space, treasonous oxygen-thieves, and bad revolutionaries, too.

The DR honchos, particularly José Antonio Echeverría who was the boss of the student revolutionary wing, were not amused. This not only pissed off the DR but, it seems, convinced them to make some bold move to contrast themselves with the hairy Fidelistas yomping the Sierra Maestra.
This move blew up on 13 MAR 1957 when a group of about 150 divided into two elements attempted a decapitation strike. About fifty men tried to storm the Presidential Palace in Havana while another hundred or so attacked a major radio station.

The palace attack came close. The DR and their allies shot their way up to the second floor; Batista's office was not there, as the rebels had thought, but one floor higher. Many of the smuggled weapons (particularly the grenades) malfunctioned, the police and army guards rallied, and the attackers were driven back out into the street with heavy casualties.
The radio station attack went better, with Echeverría erroneously announcing the death of the caudillo before the group bailed. But an encounter with a random police patrol ended in Echeverría dying as his companions beat cheeks.
The resulting ratissage was vicious, and helped Castro in two different ways. The regime managed to track down and kill many of the leaders of the other opposition groups (Echeverría, in particular, was a significant loss to the anti-Castro revolution; well-respected and well-known, he might have provided an important post-war pole for anti-Castro forces to rally around).

And, at the same time, the savagery of the batistianos helped darken the image of the caudillo and drive some neutrals into the revolution. As Batista's SIM and police were becoming very effective at hunting down urban guerrillas the ragged revolutionaries in the mountains seemed more and more like the best hope for removing the dictator. The DR had to go deep underground. It remained in place, but it was much less "visible" than the guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra.

The DR did do an effective job of fundraising, smuggling people and weapons in and out of Cuba, and - shades of 2016 - organizing the anti-Batista exiles in (where else) Miami.

(It's worth noting that in late 1957 the DR concluded that this whole "running around mountains with bad beards and rifles" thing seemed to be working - they set up their own guerrilla force in the Excambray Mountains of south-central Cuba...)
1957 was pretty much a stalemate for both sides. The revolutionaries remained in existence - if barely; the rebel groups in the mountains probably numbered less than 400 or so and the urban groups were lying low - but couldn't do more than knock off a small rurale post or two or shoot up the occasional copper.

The Army tried sporadically (and ineffectively) to root the guerrillas out of the mountains but never massed an effective force or executed a comprehensive plan. It seemed to some American military observers that the Cuban Army was trying to ignore the mountaineers to death.

But...in September the regime had to sent a substantial Army force (including an armored unit) to crush a major revolt in the city of Cienfuegos.

The rebels, many of whom had been Cuban Navy sailors, were brutally butchered after surrendering. This, by the way, was a feature of the Batista regime and contrasted with the rebels' humane treatment of soldier prisoners. It probably hurt the government more than it helped terrify the rebels and it added to the bestial reputation of the regime and its troopers.
The revolutionary broadcasts of Radio Rebelde began in early 1958. The "voice of the revolution" helped spread the M-26-7 message and served as a source of hope for anti-Batista forces that the rebellion was still alive.

I should note that the caudillo of the Dominican Republic, a joker named Trujillo, dabbled his dirty fingers in the rebellion. He first sent arms to the Prio group, and (might) have given some aid to the Fidelistas.

After '56, however, he tilted more towards Batista. An interesting post could be written about the two dictators...but this isn't it.

The year of 1958 opened with a huge boost for the rebels; the U.S. government formally cut off military assistance to the Cuban government. The "Arms embargo" was technically in response to the Cuban failure to secure "classified information" which, not coincidentally, included information about the arms shipments from the U.S. government to Cuba.
(The character in the tux below is the U.S. Ambassador to Cuba, one Smith. The babe with him is Mrs. Smith, a "former model". We'll be hearing from this joker more in a bit. Tho, perhaps unfortunately, not his wife.)
The primary effect of this embargo was political and psychological; it appeared that the Colossus of the North was backing away from Batista. Supposedly (at least according to Bonachea and San Martin, 1974) "...arms seem to have continued arriving aboard unmarked planes." in what may have well been a dress-rehearsal for the Air America shenanigans of Vietnam and the Iran-Contra skullduggery in Honduras and Nicaragua.

But the moral effect was significant.

One step forward...one step back. A "general strike" and urban sabotage and terror campaign was utterly smashed in April, 1958. The SIM, the Army, and police acted rapidly, effectively, and brutally. The failure of the April strike was the final blow to the urban challengers to the Fidelistas; after April any hope for revolution lay in the mountains.

Even that seemed a forlorn hope; in July 1958 the Cuban Army opened a major assault on the Sierra Maestra: Operation Verano.
July-August 1958 - "Springtime for Batista and Cantillo; winter for Fidel, and Che"

The Cuban Army chief of staff, GEN Cantillo, planned to mobilize nearly the entire Regular Army; 24 infantry battalions along with naval and air support. The idea was the about 14 battalions - 7,000-odd infantrymen - would push into the mountains to find and fix the guerrillas. Then the remaining 5,000 reserve infantry would pile on and finish the rebels. The main effort would be from the north and northeast, forcing the rebels to die in place or retreat onto the plains.

One problem with this plan - although not obvious to the planners or the caudillo himself - was that about 2/3rds of this force were conscript recruits, the so-called casquitos ("little helmets"), predominantly peasant cane-cutters who had chosen army service over poverty and unemployment and had been saturated with rebel propaganda.

Another problem was the caudillo, who stated that ten of the proposed battalions could not be released from static guard duties ranging from sugar mills to individual security details for influential batistianos. The actual force was reduced to 14 battalions, about 7,000 infantrymen
(It's worth noting that several sources, including the Wiki entry for Operation Verano as well as Bonachea and San Martin (1974) use 12,000 as the infantry numbers for this operation.

But assuming that a Cuban battalion was organized roughly on U.S. infantry battalion lines the authorized strength should have been between 500 and 600 all ranks. That would give a full-strength 14-battalion force between 7,000 and 8,400 troops. I can buy the idea that Cantillo rounded up all the ash and trash he could as well as useful non-infantry outfits like MP companies and might have run his total effectives up to somewhere around 9-10,000, but the 12,000 figure just sounds too high to me. You are welcome to calculate your own estimate.)
Batista also diddled with command arrangements, first relieving, then reinstating one GEN Chaviano, a Batista crony and a rival of Cantillo (who had been tapped as the maneuver commander) as part of a dual command in Oriente province.

The arrangement worked about as well as you'd expect; troops and officers alike resented the political general and Chaviano did everything he could to fuck with his rival even while Cantillo tried to make Operation Verano a go. (That's our boy Chaviano, below. He even looks like a political officer...)
The initial assault began on JUN 28; a two-battalion force pushed into the mountains near a sugar mill named Estrada Palma. The lead battalion moved into the foothills, spreading out and thinning down along the rough roads in the dense forest. After about four miles Guevara's first guerrilla ambush killed and wounded men in the point elements.

The casquitos panicked and the unit fell apart. Supporting armored vehicles (probably armored cars rather than tanks) ran into hommade mines - what we today would call "IEDs" - and several were destroyed or disabled. The supporting battalion refused to advance to give their buddies a rally point and the force commander pulled both units back to the mill, harassed and bled by the guerrillas in their flight for much of the way.

A similar two-battalion force was ambushed near Santo Domingo and driven in flight the same day.
And that was how the first two weeks went; the army would push into the mountainous forests, get ambush, and run, leaving equipment - and their wounded - behind.

An amphibious assault from the south in July failed, and the entire landing battalion surrendered after a ten-day fight.

Then the rebels fucked up and nearly lost the war.

29 JUL - 9 AUG 1958 - Las Mercedes
The engagement as Las Mercedes is a complex study in counterguerrilla warfare and worth a post of its own, but the tl:dr version is that Castro allowed himself to forget that the primary objective of his little army was, like Washington's in the earlier revolution in El Norte, to simply stay in existence. There is very little digital information of value on this engagement; the Wiki entry is poor.

Trying to inflict a decisive defeat on the veteran Cuban Army Battalion 17 he allowed his forces to be closely engaged by the Army forces that eventually included four battalions with armored (including tank) support. GEN Cantillo had worked up a tactical envelopment plan that worked like a mechanical ass-kicker; by the end of the first week in August Castro had to plead for a cease-fire. What's more, the troops of Battalion 17 refused to collapse when the G's ambushed them and, instead, close-assaulted into the rebel positions. Suddenly the guerrillas were the ones taking casualties, and the Army was holding on to their equipment and their wounded.

By the first week of August Castro's little force (except for the column under Guevara) was pinned and encircled. Two of Castro's better officers had been killed in the fighting along with perhaps 60-70 of his some 300-odd troops. The M-26-7 forces were unable to exfiltrate and were both outnumbered and outweighed by the Army's heavy weaponry. The end of the rebellion seemed inevitable.

Amazingly, Castro managed to talk his way out of the vise his tactical stupidity had jammed his little army into.

Rather than continuing the fight the Cuban Army took a break in place. Batista sent the Army's top legal officer, one LTC Neugart, to negotiate. Somehow, though some bizarre Castroesque magic, by 8 AUG this worthy had been maneuvered into offering Fidel a general cease-fire and new elections supervised by a military junta who would replace the caudillo.

Honestly, the damn guy must have been able to sell icemakers to eskimos and talk the panties off a Mother Superior. What a hell of a salesman ol' Fidel was, it just boggles the mind.

Within the next couple of weeks the guerrillas slipped away.

The wily Fidel and his troops' escape was like a magic trick. It discouraged and demoralized the Army, setting the "fighters" against the "dodgers" - the officers who preferred to avoid going into harm's way fighting guerrillas. It shook public confidence in the regime, and emboldened its enemies. It revitalized the urban cadres and fomented a great spike in attacks on both the Cuban armed forces as well as the regime's supporters. And it set the stage for the final act of the revolutionary drama, the rebel advance to the west.

The Campaign

Rebel activities in eastern Cuba flamed up in September and October; by mid-autumn almost the whole of the eastern tip of the island was a "no-go" area for the Army. With this base of operations secure, Castro gave two of his senior commanders the marching orders.

MAJ Cenfuegos was directed to march his column northwest into Pinar del Rio province and from there, eventually, to the western tip of Cuba.

MAJ Guevara was to move into Las Villas, and operate there to sieze the province and cut the communications between eastern and western Cuba.

While they were doing this Raul Castro would secure the eastern end of the island.
The two columns moved through the east central plains of Cuba in October and November, alternately hiding and moving, avoiding Army ambushes and roadblocks. When they came across isolated troop units, or poorly-secured convoys, they attacked to secure weapons and equipment. The Army and rurale garrisons were usually unwilling to risk engaging the guerrillas, while Army mobile units, unfamiliar with the terrain and disliked by the locals, had a hard time finding the rebels.

Bonachea and San Martin (1974) describe conditions in east central Cuba in November 1958 as;
"...isolated from the capital; the main bridges blown up; sugar cane ready to be harvested with very little chance that the job would be done...(t)he regular army was tired and decimated by "two years of a prolonged campaign. It had completely lost its combat power. Desertions to the enemy increased daily."
While all this drama was going on early November was enlivened by a little farce; under pressure from the US Ambassador, our boy Smith of the pretty wife, Batista was pressured into holding an "election".

It would be pointless to detail this nutroll. Batista's candidate, a pal of his named Agüero, "won" with a brazen theft that would have embarrassed a Chicago alderman.

Castro announced that running for the office was a capital crime.

Meanwhile, the rebel forces kept moving closer and closer to the critical towns of central Cuba. The Army was finding it increasingly difficult to find soldiers who wanted to die, or even take a risk making other people die, for their country. By late December the rebel forces had effective control of most of Las Villas province.

The Engagements

The first of the two fights was for Yaguajay; the town wasn't particularly important in itself, but rather as an approach to Santa Clara. But MAJ Cienfuegos and his column found that the small garrison there was tougher than the typical Army unit in December 1958.

Likewise the fight itself wasn't particularly technical or tactically complex; it was a straightforward siege between two relatively small forces.

The fight opened in 21 DEC, with the rebels trying to bum-rush the town from several directions. The police station and ayuntamiento (the city hall) fell in about three days, but the power station, central hotel, and the barracks itself held out.

The Yaguajay Barracks was a brickwork fortification located on level ground with no buildings or vegetation for about one hundred meters in all directions. The combination of sturdy construction and lack of cover or dead ground meant that it would be hard for the attackers to lay down accurate fire to suppress the defensive positions and made a ground assault suicidal.
At this point, after the Army defenders retreated to the barracks, what you had was effectively a siege. And we've talked about sieges, one of the oldest forms of human combat, back when discussing the Opium War and the siege of Guangzhou.

What applied then applied to Li's and Cienfuego's troops in 1958; without effective siege engines the only way for the besiegers to win was 1) starve the defenders out, or 2) assault the fortress. And as we agreed than, an assault meant either under, over, or through (by treachery)

Without sappers the rebels couldn't tunnel in; without suicidal bravery and a lot of luck they couldn't go "over" (that is, rushing the barrack wouldn't work); and so long as Li's guys hung tough nobody was opening a side door for the rebels.

So, even though we have no actual description of the mechanics of the siege itself, we can picture pretty well how it went.
Cienfuegos would have deployed his attackers in the best covered and concealed positions around the barracks, using whatever dead ground or buildings were in the line of sight. His unit leaders probably tried to use the slightest fold in the ground or the thinnest concealment to try and get close to the walls to huck grenades in to the windows.

Every one of these little rushes would have been marked by a sudden burst of shooting, first from the rebels as they tried to provide covering fire for the assault party and then from the defenders as they frantically attempted to shoot down the attackers before someone lucky or slick enough could get close and get a grenade in a window.

Then the attack would falter, the survivors would scamper back to the closest cover (dragging their wounded with them...) and the shooting would spatter out until the next time.

The two sides took a break Christmas Eve but were fighting again Christmas Day. According to Bonachea and San Martin (1974) the rebels got close enough to the Army positions for the fighting to go to handwork on Christmas Day. The rebels were pushed back.
While the fighting was going on Cienfuego's support guys from the local sugar mill were welding sheet metal plate to a dozer frame. This contraption was dubbed the "Dragon I", and it had a .50 cal on the roof to give it some sting. The Dragon I was sortied against the barracks during the nights of 26 and 27 DEC, but without success, and on 27 DEC this homemade "tank" was damaged badly enough to put it out of action for the next day.

Again, we have no description of these "armored" assaults but the pattern seems pretty obvious. The defenders would have been alerted by the roaring and snorting of a heavy engine and dropped their paperback novels or tin of beans and rushed to their firing ports.

The goofy tank-thing would waddle out from behind a house, a little comet-tail of guerrillas duck-walking along behind it where the bulk of the monster provided cover from direct fire.

The Dragon would rattle and clank its way towards the barracks, the trailing guerrillas hipshooting where they could and the fifty-cal gunner blasting into the dark from up top.
The problem for the attackers, though, would come as the "tank" approached the barracks wall; as it did the guys hiding behind it would be exposed to enfilade fire from windows and firing ports out wide to the right and left. Plus the defenders would be more likely to get a lucky shot into a vision slit or nail the machinegunner on top.

Without a main gun, all the galvanized bulldozer would be able to do would be to butt up against the wall. By that time I'm guessing that its trail of guerrillas would have been beating cheeks for the horizon, shot to pieces by defensive fire. All that would remain would be for the Dragon driver to throw the track levers into reverse and waddle away, another good idea shot to hell.
Two attempts to mine the barracks using sugar cane locomotives and rolling stock loaded with explosives failed.

The real story of Yaguajay is the tough defense of CPT Li and his guys. Fighting for a bad cause, in what was clearly by that time a very likely losing effort, cut off from support, low on food, water, and ammunition, forted up in a barrack stinking with festering wounds, corpses, and a nastily backed-up sewer system...Abong Li's troopers kept fighting.

On 30 DEC Guevara sent Cienfuegos some help in the form of a mortar and a gunner, a bazooka and several rockets.

It's hard to be sure whether these weapons were decisive; we have no record of whether they were actually employed.

It's possible that the rebels made a great show of parading the heavy weapons out of range of the Army rifles. The prospect of being on the receiving end of high explosive with little or no hope of responding would certainly have helped convince me to sod that for a game of soldiers.

By the time the rebels got their cannons the defenders were almost out of ammunition along with all the other miseries of their fortification. On 30 DEC CPT Li asked for, and received, a surrender on terms. Li's troopers marched out of the barracks - proving thoroughly that good men can fight for a bad cause - and Cienfuego's rebels were now free to keep moving towards Santa Clara.
Santa Clara was an entirely different business.

Different in scale, for one. Instead of a couple of companies worth of infantrymen the town was garrisoned with as many as two brigades worth of infantry and armor troops as well as the rurales and a large police force. The rebel forces attacking included Guevara's "Column 8" as well as urban cells of the DR and M-26-7; the attackers mobilized a much larger force than the small unit Cienfuegos led into Yaguajay.

But the principal difference was one of significance. The loss of Yaguajay was a blow to the regime (for one thing, it lead directly to the fall of the nearby ports of Caibarien and Isabela de Sangua and the defection of the naval units at Caibarien) but Santa Clara was the key to the defense of central Cuba and the last real obstacle before the capital. To lose Yaguajay was painful; to lose Santa Clara would be disastrous.
Guevara and his commanders had their planning meeting on 27 DEC. The plan was, in my opinion, unnecessarily complex, involving a coordinated envelopment with Cienfuegos attacking from the north and Guevara's units from the south and southwest. Cubela's DR group would attack what I believe was the rurale Barracks 31, Guevara would seize the university district and from there push on into the town. A subunit would take the topographic highpoint of Capiro Hill by assault.

Presumably the idea was to get into the streets and buildings quickly so as to neutralize the Army's armor and air support. On 29 DEC the guerrillas got their final op order briefing and the fighting began in earnest the following day.

Guevara's force pushed into the U district easily enough and the DR unit under Cubela pushed up against Barracks 31 but seems to have been unable to take it; at least, the capture of this position is not mentioned in any of the accounts of the engagement I have read.

The "suicide squad" and a bunch of guerrillas toting grenades by the sackful began climbing Capiro Hill only to find that the Army defenders had grabbed a hat. The surprised and grateful attackers occupied the position and notified their commander of their success.
Critical to the assault were the small-scale operations of the urban cells. Every report of the action emphasizes how difficult movement within Santa Clara was for the Army units. While these attacks were individually miniscule - largely single shooters sniping at Army columns and random IED-type mines and booby-traps - collectively they seem to have caused considerable disruption at the unit level, confusion and delay of the Army command and control.

No effective large-scale Army counterattacks are reported to have occurred during the struggle for Santa Clara.
Perhaps the oddest feature of this fight was the episode of the Tren blindado, the "armored train".

Now, first of all, so far as I can tell this wasn't an actual "armored train". THIS -
- is an armored train.

What the Cuban Army seems to have had at Santa Clara was some sort of homemade rolling stock contraption with some metal plates hung on it. The pictures I can find show no heavy weapons or much of any sort of integral weapons at all.

It was a train with some soldiers on it, yes, but nothing like the sort of railroad battleships the image conjures up or were employed in Europe during both World Wars.

This military Thomas-the-Tank-Engine seems to have rolled out towards Capiro Hill early on 30 DEC, dithered about there without much effect, and then started back towards the center of town.

Here it was derailed after a rebel with a dozer tore up the tracks.
What happened next is up to you to decide. In Fidelista legend the bold guerrillas torched their enemies with Molitovs and scourged them with gunfire, the beleaguered batistianos gave up, and Good triumphed over Evil.

According to at least one correspondant - our man Gomez - the whole thing was a huge put-up job and the nefarious Guevara brided his way to "victory".

Regardless of how it happened, the effect was to gift the guerrillas with a trainload of military goodies as well as take a battalion's-worth of Cuban troops out of the fight.
As we noted at the top of the post, the Army fortified five positions within Santa Clara. This in itself tells me that the single biggest problem for the Cuban Army was moral. Individual bunkers aren't really a "defense". So far as I can tell none of the five positions could support the others and didn't try.

These were corrals for reluctant soldiers; their purpose was less military than coercive, a way of forcing otherwise demoralized troops to fight by giving them a big bunker to hide in and shoot from. The Army had, at this point, completely ceded the initiative to the rebels.
Even this doesn't seem to have helped much. One of the earliest rebel moves was against the courthouse (the "Palace of Justice"). According to Bonachea and San Martin (1974) even before the rebel point elements were close enough to begin taking the courthouse under fire "at least two Army companies" - so about 100-200 guys - hatted out.

Within half an hour after initial contact both Shermans rumbled off (not an entirely stupid decision; assuming that the Army defenders refused to move outside the walls the tanks were hideously vulnerable to even cheap home-made antitank weapons such as Molitovs that the cowering infantry couldn't keep off them...) and the remaining defenders seem to have put up no more than a cursory fight before going hands-up.

The hotel and the city hall didn't hold out very long, either, leaving the "Leoncio Vidal" barracks and the police station.
The Army (and, presumably, national police) at the cop shop fought a good fight. The OIC, a full-bird colonel of police named Rojas, led an active defense that included several sorties that drove the rebels back, but the isolated position was too vulnerable to envelopment.

Each time the attackers - a mix of DR and M-26-7 troops and urban-cell fighters - were driven back they seem to have converged on Rojas' push and (probably because the defenders were now unsupported from the sides and rear) drove them back by sheer weight of fire.

Finally, with their ammunition running low, the police station defense collapsed. The ferocious COL Rojas broke loose and had to be re-captured; the guy was just a seriously hard case.

As opposed to the remaining soldiers at the Vidal Barracks. When the rebels approached they were greeted like long-lost relatives, hugged, kissed, and generally given the sort of love that die-rather-than-surrender troops are unlikely to display. The Army officers must have recognized this as a sign that they had already lost this battle.

Antonio Núñez Jiménez describes the scene:
"The enemy soldiers opened the heavy iron door. Outside, an automobile driven by Lieutenant Ríos was waiting for us. The people who saw us go by greeted us with shouts of "Long live the revolution!" "Death to the tyranny!" and "Down with tyranny!" The high-ranking Batista officer lowered his head, as if ashamed, confronted with the first sight of a rebel people giving free rein to their genuine feelings. The scene was indescribable -thousands of men and women, many of them with Cuban flags and the flags of the July 26 movement, shouting out with burning enthusiasm. And amid this sea of people our car passed through, bearing a white flag. The crowd cooperated and opened a small passageway among them. Occasionally a car or truck blocking our path had to be moved, so that we could reach the building of the Third District of the Ministry of Public Works, where Che was waiting for us."
Guevara refused to negotiate, insisting on unconditional surrender. The officers of the garrison held a brief discussion before agreeding

The last batistiano Army elements surrentered at midday, 1 JAN 1959.

The caudillo had already fled the country by then. The Batista period was over, and the nation of Cuba waited to see what would come next.
The Outcome: Decisive Rebel Victory, and the end of the armed phase of the Cuban Revolution
The Impact: Obviously, the single most important effect of the lost battle of Santa Clara was the collapse of morale and flight of the rallying point of the regime, the caudillo Fulgencio Batista. Without the dictator a dictatorship has no point.

It's worth noting that the engagement also seems to have had several other effects, political, military, and moral.

Politically it exalted the leaders of M-26-7, and particularly Fidel Castro, above the other revolutionary leaders. The Fidelistas were the most visible, most successful, and most dramatic of the rebel commanders. Bonachea and San Martin (1974) sum this up well:
"At this point, Fidel Castro represented a giant among all the previous caudillos in Cuba. Ramon Grau San Martin ("El Lider"), Eduardo R. Chibas ("El Adalid"), and Batista ("El Hombre") all seemed like clay figurines compared to Fidel. The people viewed Fidal as the nation's savior. Fidel's intelligence was compared to José Martí, while in physical appearance he was compared to General Antonio Maceo, the great hero of the wars of independence. He had just defeated Batista, thus his machismo was beyond challenge. As for his military strategies, Cubans compared him favorably to Simon Bolivar."
The political capital this military success generated was immense, and once the revolution became "Fidel's revolution" then the future steps the new caudillo took - imprisoning and murdering his political rivals, including former revolutionary comrades - could be accounted as defending the revolution.

Militarily and morally the Army - historically the great force in Cuban politics - had utterly collapsed, the humiliating defeats of December 1958 robbing the organization as well as its leaders of any influence politically and convincing them that they could not rely on their soldiers to stand up to the rebels in arms.
This was shown up forcibly in the early days of January 1959, when GEN Cantillo attempted to force a junta-led government into power before Castro could take over. Deciding that only COL Barquin (leader of the attempted "pure ones" coup back in 1957, remember him?) could intervene between the rebel juggernaut and the power vacuum in Havana he pulled the colonel from his prison on the Isle of Pines and attempted to set him up as a deal broker.

Instead, Barquin had Cantillo arrested. The U.S. government "recognized" the short-lived "provisional government" that the junta threw together to no visible use. The Army was a spent force and the Cuban nation wanted Fidel and nothing but nothing but Fidel.

In his triumphant entry to Havana on 8 JAN, Fidel spoke to the nation. "We can not become dictators." he said "We shall never need to use force because we have the people, and because the people shall judge, and because the day the people want, I shall leave."

One of the many "war criminals" given a show trial and executed was COL Rojas, the badass copper of the Santa Clara police station. He insisted on giving the final words of command to his firing squad in the tradition of firing-squad-heroics everywhere. Here he is, poor sod, his hat flying off as the bullets rip into him.

The good colonel wouldn't be the last man to die "for the revolution" and, as we now know, Fidel left, feet-first, just this autumn, long after I suspect the Cuban people would have been pleased to see the back of him.

For all the good that he may have done - and he DID do good, in his autocratic manner - Caastro's legacy is in the main part no less dictatorial and no less unjust than the man he replaced this month fifty-eight years ago.

Supposedly COL Rojas is said to have given his killers a warning of this, on that day he faced the line of rifles, that sounds in retrospect, frighteningly prescient.

The last words he said - before giving the command to fire - were: "Muchachos, ahora tienes tu revolución. No la pierda."

"Boys, now you have your revolution. Don't lose it."

8 comments:

Leon said...

Nice. It's really an under-investigated little war.

Ael said...

Thanks kindly Chief. Excellent write up as always.

The thing that really sticks in my mind from your article is the huge change in government stability. Before the revolution, governments changed frequently, largely as a function of one looting opportunity or another. After the revolution, Cuba has had a stable government for over a half century. It will be very interesting to see if Cuba can maintain its internal coherence as the economy changes in the years ahead.

Or will Cuba the follow the tradition of Ukraine and Russia where public assets will be sold to oligarchs for a song and many of those left to fend for themselves will look back at the days of communist rule with wistful nostalgia.

FDChief said...

Leon: Unfortunately, it's largely because, as noted in the post, the military aspect of the revolution is kind of underwhelming. Before the 1958 Summer Offensive it's pretty much all the government; the guerrilla groups just hit and run and try to stay alive. After August 1958 it's all the other way; the rebels advance and the government troops fold. The primary sources are obscure where they're available and often biased, and not available as often as not.

Ael: "Stable", yes...but in a sort of dragonfly-in-amber stability. It hasn't been the stability of a mature, stable democracy (tho, frankly, the U.S. doesn't have much ground to lecture anyone else on the stability of its democracy at this point, having just elected a transparently idiotic and vastly mendacious demagogue based on the populace's desire to hear comforting lies rather than painful truths) so much as the stasis of a senile autocracy. My estimation of Cuba's chances of going from that to a genuine liberal democracy are slim and none. It will very likely become a post-Soviet-style kleptocracy.

As we here in the U.S. are finding out, the rapacity of the rentier class is bottomless and also endlessly patient. Much as they've been waiting here for 2016 since 1932 there are Cuban exiles still waiting for a return of 1958. We'll see whether they can triumph as their American counterparts have...

StoneMason said...

(^ above comment, posted as anon)

Thanks, excellent read. It took me 2-3 attempts to get through it but I put that down to blogspot turning in into a giant column of text. Well worth the wait.

I wonder how much of the of the suppression of the urban groups was down to local policing and intelligence, or just that major operations and overreach are can badly attrit an organisation, as the army discovered I suppose, trying to operate outside of it's comfort zone.

From a non-American perspective it's easy to be optimistic about the potential for positive change in modern day Cuba, perhaps due to a lack of understanding of the history and demographics (Cuban-American's giving Trump Florida, wtf). My hopes would lie in a body of realists and semi-technocrats, waiting all these years for the death of a totalitarian populist. Hopefully they're well studied.

FDChief said...

StoneMason: Thanks for persevering. I know that the Blogger format makes for a long scroll down. If I wasn't such a cheap bastard I'd hire someone to craft me a specialty format that makes these easier to read as text.

I didn't pay as much attention to the urban war as the guerrilla war in the hills, so I'm not sure why the SIM and the Policia Nacional did so well against the "action groups". I thin part of that may have been the fragmented and squabbling nature of those groups; it seemed like every time I'd read something about them one outfit would be feuding with another, or sulking over some perceived slight, or vowing to do this because Group B did THAT...it seems like it was a very rich environment for double-agents and police spies.

Add to that, I think, your point; that what would happen is that one or more of these urban terror/guerrilla outfits would go big and either a) exceed its own level of incompetence, or 2) do enough damage so as to bring the authorities down on them.

As far as post-Fidel Cuba...well, first you gotta get shut of Raul. FWIW, the Bonachea and San Martin book has a kind of creepy vignette about brother Raul. Apparently Fidel used to do everything he could to get out of the business of administering "revolutionary justice" when the gang was up there in the Sierra Maestra short of physically running and hiding every time the firing squad would assemble. He may have been a ruthless caudillo but, apparently, not personally violent.

Raul, supposedly, was a different kind of cat. He LIKED shooting people, so much so that he would often insist on using his pistol to deliver the quietus. He seems unlikely to be less despotic than Big Bro, to say the least.

Once past the Castro brothers, though...well, the sad part is that even if there were to be a critical mass of realists and technocrats there's nothing like the support required for a genuinely stable democratic nation. The economy is still largely sugar, the population is still brutally poor, the expectation and preconditions for peaceful transfer of power aren't there, there are no institutions capable of providing any sort of framework for civil disagreements. And all the old rapacious predators are there, waiting. I have very little hope for Cuba.

I hope I'm wrong.

Brian Train said...

Chief, your writeups just keep getting better and better... sure you don't want to write books? Or at least, articles for pay.

The exiles of 1958 have forgotten nothing nor learned anything. They will come, seeking "compensation". Cuba will likely be back to latifundia and donkey shows by 2020.

Big Daddy said...

Now we know what you were up to during the long silence. Thanks for another great post about a little known war. All I had known about the revolution was that in 1959 Fidel made his big push and the Batista regime folded like a cheap suit due to a lack of popular support. Now I have the full sordid details of what went on between 1898 and Castro. As an aside it seems like the Germans were the least bad colonial overlords, because they were only interested in having colonies and didn't really care about exploiting them.
Speaking of nonagenarian autocrats, what do you think will happen to Zimbabwe when Mugabe finally pops his clogs?

FDChief said...

I don't feel confident assessing the "relative badness" of the minor European colonial efforts (other than the Italians; as Stroheim says in "Five Graves to Cairo", I do not count in, or on, the Italians). The problem being that colonization was one of those things that the best it could be was not-good, so trying to rate the efforts of Imperial Germany is problematic even without taking the limited geographic and temporal dataset into account.

Not optimistic about Zimbabwe. Rhodesia was a pretty nasty piece of work and since independence Mugabe has been a disaster.