At the beginning of the SXX, talking about the fight that Spain had in North Africa against the Kabyles was like referring to a bad nightmare. And it is that dozens of soldiers of our country died almost daily in that place when they were overtaken by the Rif troops. However, this war soon became synonymous with heroism and bravery, two characteristics that, precisely, can be attributed to infantry sergeant Mariano Garcia Esteban, a courageous tanker from our country who, crammed into his armored, continued to fight against the Moroccans on June 5, 1923, after going blind due to an enemy shot. Ultimately, this act earned him the San Fernando Laureate Cross, which made him the first crew member of a Spanish battle tank to receive such a high honor.
It was then 1921, a time when Spain was fighting, shot up, and saber down, against various tribes in North Africa. And it is that in those years our country sought to strengthen the Protectorate that, decades ago, had been granted by international decree in Morocco. In this way, thousands of soldiers left continuously from the Peninsula to the hot lands of the Rif with the sole objective of achieving peace in a territory that, raised in arms against the occupation, gave Hispanics more headaches than joys. However, despite how easy it seemed at first to end forces that lacked battle tanks and aviation, the Riffians became a constant nuisance for the troops of our country. At the same time, the appearance of leaders like Abd el-Krim, a native of Kabyle who rebelled against the peninsular authorities and managed to put the Hispanic officers in check thanks to his extensive knowledge of the terrain, did not benefit the Spanish.
Finally, the situation worsened when, at the end of July 1921, the Riffians surrounded the Spanish camp of Annual (60 km from Melilla) and, after several days, they ended the lives of between 8,000 and 10,000 Spanish soldiers when they were withdrawing. Such was the massacre that that event was recorded in letters of blood in the history books of the Peninsula as the Annual Disaster. The convoy to Tizzi Azza, In the months following this massacre, Abd el-Karim’s troops continued to take, with sword and spear, the different towns and forts where the red-and-yellow flew. This was too much for the Hispanic officers who, even to the point of reaping defeats in their records, decided to put on their boots and start, in 1923, a military operation to stop the enemy advance. Eager for revenge, the Spanish set their eyes on what would be one of their first targets, Tizzi Azza, a position located less than 100 km from Melilla and that needed help because it was besieged by the Kabyles.
Thus, the calendar marked the month of June when the Spaniards began preparations to help their encircled compatriots. Specifically, it was established that a convoy escorted by several columns of infantry would cross North Africa and bring supplies into the desperate position of Tizzi Azza. This was, of course, a difficult task, since the Riffians knew that the only way to dislodge the Hispanics from that place without losing a large number of men was to wait for the defenders to die of hunger and thirst or to run out of ammunition.
«In such an annoying situation it was essential to beat the daring provocateur and give him the true feeling of our strength and power. On day 1 a plan was drawn up to supply the positions of the Tizzi Azza sector and occupy and fortify some points that would guarantee with all guarantee the path that, from now on, the convoy would have to follow, beat the Barca by driving it out of the surroundings and evacuate the wounded and sick from those positions ”, highlights the Military Historical Service as a joint author of the work“ Histories of the Moroccan campaigns (located in the Institute of Military History and Culture).
However, it was necessary to wait a few days longer than expected to carry out the mission. “Until the 5th it was not possible to carry out the aforementioned plan, since with the wear suffered in the previous combats the strength of the shock forces had been reduced, in addition to the fact that it was necessary to concentrate a large number of them to give us superiority on the enemy and gather the elements of ammunition, links, and livestock for the convoy that had to be taken both to the occupied positions and to those that were intended to be established, ”the text added.
A thorough plan, Once the convoy was ready, it was established that seven columns would breakthrough and ensure advance through the multiple hills surrounding Tizzi Azza’s position. To do this, the forces were divided into three groups. The first, under the command of Colonel Fernandez Perez, would be made up of four units and would be in charge of protecting the left flank. The second, under the command of Colonel Salcedo, would be made up of two subgroups with the task of securing the positions of the right-wing. Finally, the last group, led by General Echague, would be placed in reserve.
The ‘Renault’ armored vehicles were the Spanish secret weapon Despite the apparent simplicity of the objective, the mission was extremely dangerous, because, when the Riffians discovered the Spanish intentions.
They could use their greater knowledge of the terrain to entrench themselves on top of the mounds and, from an advantageous elevated position, drop a deadly rain of fire on the Hispanic soldiers. However, the troops of our country had a new weapon that, a few months ago, had arrived from the Peninsula to defeat the Riffians a company of Renault FT-17 battle tanks -mainly armed with machine guns- and against those that the Moors could do little. Specifically, the unit was part of one of the four columns on the left flank and was divided, in turn, into two companies (each of four armored vehicles) willing to give the Riffians more than a headache. His objective was clear to cover the advance of his companions on foot.
The battle begins
The operation began with the first breakthroughs of dawn on June 5. However, and to the surprise of the peninsular officers, the Riffians anticipated the movements of the Spanish troops and, after a brief Spanish advance, opened fire on them from several nearby ravines. This attack was especially violent on the left flank, where the two “Renault” car companies were located. Under constant fire, the captain of the tanks did not hesitate and ordered his eight chariots to head at full speed towards Abid el-Karim’s men to contain the attack. Immediately, the Spanish armored devices (although of French manufacture) turned their turrets and, wheels in motion started the way through an intense hail of bullets.
It was at approximately seven-thirty in the morning when the “Renault” opened intense machine-gun fire on the Riff, who, far from retreating, took cover behind all kinds of trenches and boulders and continued firing bullets at those strange devices. The situation was, to say the least, tense since the tankers knew that they had to resist in that position to prevent the Spanish infantry from being harassed and flanked. A good part of the weight of the battle was, in short, on the broad metal backs of this armor and on the shoulders of the military who, from within, fired at the Kabyles.
During the next few minutes, the fire intensified on the armor, which, although they could withstand enemy fire, also had openings and sights through which enemy bullets could enter. Unfortunately, the section that had to resist the most bullets was the second. In fact, the violence of the Kabyle attack was such that the lieutenant who was in command of this group was seriously wounded and had to retreat to the Hispanic lines to be treated. With his superior wounded, the command of the armored section was in charge of the infantry sergeant Mariano Garcia Esteban, the person in charge of the battle tank number 9. This soldier, far from being overcome by fear, prepared his weapon from the guts of the “Renault” and, machine gun in hand ordered his driver to advance on the enemy positions at full speed. “Esteban advanced by virtue of orders received on the enemy trenches, being received with enormous fire, nevertheless managing to dislodge them and cause numerous casualties”, determines a report made years later in the Peninsula on the events and that has been ceded to PRESS by the Institute of Military History and Culture.
The blind hero
Once the proposed objective had been reached, and the line of trenches had already been crossed, (Esteban) ordered the driver to stop with the double objective of avoiding consumption and firing more precisely on a group of Moors who discovered parapets in a marabout to his left, but as soon as the fire started, a projectile fired at a very short distance penetrated the sight of the tower from which he was observing the enemy, causing injuries that instantly caused him to lose his right eye and seriously injure his left with the (severe) loss of sight “, highlights the document.
Esteban fired until he finished with his last cartridge, seriously wounded and with hardly any vision, the logical thing would have been for Garcia Esteban to retreat to the Spanish rear to be treated urgently. Instead, the sergeant knew that if he left his post, the Kabyles would enter through the gap left by his “Renault.” Therefore, ignoring the advice of his driver, he decided to maintain his position and continue firing at the enemies. Overcoming the intense pain produced by the wounds, preserving the image and situation of the enemy and demonstrating a strength of spirit and self-denial hardly equaled, he continued to fire by bursts, in order to avoid the moral effect that it would have produced on the enemy if they did not continue shooting from the car, “completes the text provided by the Institute of Military History and Culture.
The sergeant continued firing for several minutes and only consented to be evacuated when he had fired each of the remaining projectiles in the machine gun of his. Once in the Hispanic camp, and according to several witnesses, Garcia Esteban addressed the following phrase to the officer of the car company “All for the homeland, my captain. What can we do!”. Meanwhile, on the rest of the battlefield, the fight stopped due to the huge number of enemies. A year later, Garcia Esteban went blind after a long and painful convalescence. This misfortune caused him to be referred to the Corps of Invalids, where, with time, he was promoted to brigadier general. For its part, Spain recognized his merits and bravery by awarding him the Individual Military Medal in 1923 and, five years later, the San Fernando Laureate Cross – which made him the first Spanish tanker to achieve such a distinction.