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General José Sanjurjo y Sacanell, 1st Marquess of the Rif (Spanish: [saŋˈxuɾxo]; 28 March 1872 – 20 July 1936), was the senior of the three leaders of the Nationalist coup of July 1936, which started the Spanish Civil War.

The Marquess of the Rif
Retrato fotográfico del óleo del general José Sanjurjo Sacanell.jpg
Oil on canvas portrait of Sanjurjo
Nickname(s)"El León del Rif"
(The Lion of the Rif)
Born(1872-03-28)28 March 1872
Pamplona, Spain
Died20 July 1936(1936-07-20) (aged 64)
Estoril, Portugal
Buried (40°38′31″N 4°09′19″W / 40.641944°N 4.155278°W / 40.641944; -4.155278)
AllegianceSpain Kingdom of Spain (1896–1931)
 Spanish Republic (1931–1936)
Spain Nationalist Spain (1936)
Service/branchSpanish Army
Years of service1896–1932
RankLieutenant General
Battles/warsCuban War of Independence
Spanish–American War
Rif War (1909)
Rif War (1920)
Spanish Civil War
AwardsLaureate Cross of Saint Ferdinand
Order of Charles III

He was killed in an air crash on the third day of the rebellion, when he was flying in from Portugal, to take up his position in command of Franco and Mola. Surprisingly, he had chosen to fly in a small, overloaded plane, because the pilot was a friend of his. Sabotage was suspected, but never proven.


Early lifeEdit

Sanjurjo was born in Pamplona. His father, Captain Justo Sanjurjo Bonrostra, was a Carlist. His mother was Carlota Sacanell Desojo.

Military careerEdit

Early careerEdit

He served in Cuba in 1896, in the Rif War (1909) in Morocco, and in the Rif War (1920), including the regaining of the territory in Melilla lost after the Battle of Annual in 1921. In 1922, he was assigned to investigate corruption in the army command of Larache. He was High Commissioner of Spain in Morocco and reached the rank of lieutenant general. In 1925 he participated in the amphibious landing at Alhucemas. With the completion of the 1920 Rif War, King Alfonso XIII awarded him the Gran Cruz de Carlos III on 28 March 1931. In 1928 he was made chief of a main directorate of the Civil Guard.

During the Second RepublicEdit

In 1923, Miguel Primo de Rivera came to power in a military coup, ruling Spain as dictator.[1] Gradually, Primo de Rivera's support faded,[2] and he resigned in January 1930.[3] General Dámaso Berenguer was ordered by the king to form a replacement government,[4] which annoyed Sanjurjo, who considered himself far better qualified.[5] Berenguer's dictablanda dictatorship failed to provide a viable alternative to Primo de Rivera.[4] In the municipal elections of 12 April 1931, little support was shown for pro-monarchy parties in the major cities, and large numbers of people gathered in the streets of Madrid.[6] Asked if the government could count on the support of Sanjurjo's Civil Guard, he rejected the suggestion.[7] King Alfonso XIII abdicated,[6] and the Second Spanish Republic was formed.[4]

Despite Azaña's military reforms of 1931, Sanjurjo retained his post as the commander of the Civil Guard; under his command they continued to use their traditionally brutal tactics such as the "ley de fugas", the excuse of shooting prisoners and later claiming that they were attempting to escape during an incident of unrest in Seville.[8]

Sanjurjo became one of the first generals appointed to the command of the Spanish Republican Army. His sympathies, however, remained with the monarchist cause.[9] When he clashed with Prime Minister Manuel Azaña over the military reforms, he was replaced by General Miguel Cabanellas. He was demoted to chief of the customs officers in 1932 as a result of the events of Castilblanco and Arnedo involving the Civil Guard. His confrontation with the ministry, Azaña's military reforms, and the grants of regional autonomy to Catalonia and the Basque Country, led Sanjurjo to plot a rebellion with some Carlists under Manuel Fal Conde, Tomás Domínguez Arévalo, and other military officers. This rebellion, which was known as the Sanjurjada, was proclaimed in Seville on 10 August 1932.[10] Sanjurjo asserted that the rebellion was only against the current ministry and not against the Republic. It achieved initial success in Seville but absolute failure in Madrid. Sanjurjo attempted to flee to Portugal, but in Huelva he decided to give himself up.

He was condemned to death, a sentence which was later commuted to life imprisonment in the penitentiary of the Dueso. In March 1934 he was granted amnesty by the Lerroux government and went into exile in Estoril, Portugal.


When Niceto Alcalá-Zamora was replaced as President of the Republic by Azaña on 10 May 1936, Sanjurjo joined with Generals Emilio Mola, Francisco Franco and Gonzalo Queipo de Llano in a plot to overthrow the republican government. This led to the Nationalist uprising on 17 July 1936, which started the Spanish Civil War.

Determined to annihilate the Spanish Republic, when he was asked to become the leader of the rebellion by envoy Luis Bolín on 12 July 1936, Sanjurjo declared:

... to make political parties disappear, to sweep from the national spheres every liberal structure and to destroy their system.[11]


On 20 July 1936, Sanjurjo was killed in Estoril in a plane crash, when he tried to fly back to Spain. He chose to fly in a small biplane aircraft piloted by Juan Antonio Ansaldo. One of the main reasons for the crash was the heavy luggage that Sanjurjo insisted on bringing. Ansaldo had warned him that the load was too heavy, but Sanjurjo answered back:

"I need to wear proper clothes as the new caudillo of Spain."[12]

Unaccountably, Sanjurjo chose to fly in Ansaldo's plane rather than a much larger and more suitable airplane that was available. The larger plane was an 8-passenger de Havilland Dragon Rapide, the same one which had transported Franco from the Canary Islands to Morocco. Sanjurjo, however, apparently preferred the drama of flying with a "daring aviator" such as Ansaldo (who himself survived the crash).[13]

When Mola also died in an aircraft accident, Franco was left as the sole effective leader of the Nationalist cause. This led to rumors that Franco had arranged the deaths of his two rivals, but no evidence has ever been produced to support that allegation.[14]

In 2017 the Historical Memory Law was applied by the authorities of Navarre and required that the general's remains be disinterred, over the objections of surviving family, and reburied in the military section of a municipal cemetery in the Spanish city of Melilla—an enclave on the coast of Morocco where the general had once been in command. Further controversy ensued when the general was buried with military honors in a military Pantheon of Heroes, as confirmed by the army.[15] The government of Navarre received assurances from the Ministry of Defense that special "honors were not offered" and that the remains were received as "just one more soldier".[16]

In fictionEdit

The opening of the alternate history fiction writer Harry Turtledove's novel Hitler's War, in his series The War That Came Early, begins with Sanjurjo's flight from Portugal. The point of divergence is that he accepts the pilot's advice and abandons the luggage, the flight no longer being overloaded and thus arriving safely. His behaviour from that point on is described as if he diverged from that of the actual Franco, with Spain taking a less isolated role in World War II, joining the Axis Powers.

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ Thomas (1961). p. 16.
  2. ^ Preston (2006). p. 34.
  3. ^ Preston (2006). p. 36.
  4. ^ a b c Preston (2006). p. 37.
  5. ^ Beevor (2006). p. 18.
  6. ^ a b Thomas (1961). pp. 18–19.
  7. ^ Beevor (2006). p. 19.
  8. ^ Beevor (2006) p. 2
  9. ^ Paul Preston. The coming of the Spanish Civil War: reform, reaction, and revolution in the Second Republic. 2nd ed. Routledge, 1994. Pp. 51.
  10. ^ Thomas, Hugh. The Spanish Civil War. Penguin Books. London. 2001. pp.95-97
  11. ^ Desaparición de los partidos políticos, barrer de las esferas nacionales todo tinglado liberal y destruir su sistema in Juan Eslava Galán, Una Historia de la Guerra Civil que no va a Gustar a Nadie, Ed. Planeta. 2005. ISBN 8408058835 p. 11
  12. ^ Nicholas Whitlam (2017). Four Weeks One Summer: When It All Went Wrong. Australian Scholarly Publishing. p. 10. ISBN 1925333922.
  13. ^ Stanley G. Payne, Politics and the Military in Modern Spain, 1967, p. 352
  14. ^ Jose Sanjurjo Archived 2007-01-02 at the Wayback Machine at
  15. ^ histórica, Memoria. "Defensa entierra con honores al general golpista José Sanjurjo en Melilla". (in Spanish). Retrieved 2018-12-28.
  16. ^ "El general Sanjurjo fue enterrado en Melilla como un soldado más". abc (in Spanish). 2017-04-23. Retrieved 2017-06-04.