The Equatorial Campaign was a Spanish military campaign conceived by King Juan III of Spain in 1954 with the intent of capturing the Congo, a colonial possession of Belgium. The move was part of Juan III's plan to re-establish the Kingdom of Spain as a global power and rebuild the Spanish Empire. With Spain becoming an economic center of gravity in Western Europe due to its being spared the destruction of The Great War, Juan III had the means of making his dreams of a new Spanish Empire a reality. After seizing Gibraltar from the British who had been incapacitated by crippling anarchy and post-war economic devastation, the Spanish monopolized the vital Straits of Gibraltar, and made their push on Africa.
Preparing for the AssaultEdit
Juan III knew that the Belgian Congo was very rich in natural resources and vast. He was also apparently under the impression that the Belgian colonial forces would be no match for a determined invasion by Spain. In February of 1955, two divisions of the Spanish Army were ferried from Gibraltar to Arguin and from Arguin to the island of Malabo off the coast of Equatorial Guinea, where the Spanish forces waited for recon planes to scout the best possible route into the Congo. The Spanish leaders, citing the need for the element of surprise, decided against detailed reconnaissance fearing that the Belgians would become suspicious of the Spanish reconnaissance planes. They also felt that the sooner the invasion began, the less time the Belgian colonial garrison would have to prepare an adequate defense. Within a week of the arrival of the Spanish army at Malabo, the soldiers were ferried to the mainland. On February 23, the first Spanish battalions crossed into the Belgian Congo.
Outbreak of HostilitiesEdit
The first eight days were almost completely bloodless for the Spanish. Native auxiliaries fighting for the Belgians engaged the forward Spanish battalions in light skirmishes in the jungle, but liberal use of napalm by Spanish aircraft quickly routed the natives before the guerrillas could ever inflict significant damage. The adverse jungle terrain of the Congo was the greatest enemy of the invading Spanish in the first two weeks of the invasion. The Spanish tanks were incredibly cumbersome in the dense jungle and slowed the Spanish advance into the country considerably. It is speculated that the slow speed of the Spanish invasion gave the Belgians enough time to plan their defense of the colony.
As the Spanish lumbered south toward their primary target, Kinshasha, Belgian colonial forces and native auxiliaries joined forces to harass the Spanish incursion with much more determination and greater frequency than before. These attacks were also driven back by overwhelming firepower and by Spanish air support, but the raids were enough to dissuade the Spanish from making a direct assault on Kinshasha. Instead, the Spanish leadership opted to swing around the Belgian stronghold and cross the Congo River to the North, move south along the Congo to pin the Belgians down in Kinshasha, and then take the coast to prevent the Belgians from sending reinforcements by sea. The Spanish forces forded the shallow, slow moving tributaries of the Congo easily enough, but the Congo River itself proved too wide and too deep to ford. The Spanish had no choice but the ferry their forces across the river. Squad by squad. Tank by tank. The Spanish leadership chose to cross river at the narrows of Coquilhatville.
The Battle of CoquilhatvilleEdit
Early in the morning on March 10, 1955, the Spanish began to ferry their forces across the Congo River into the river port of Coquilhatville. Realizing how vulnerable the crossing would make them, the first battalions across the river set up a defensive perimeter around the town, occupying local buildings. The Spanish made sure to cut telephone wires to Kinshasha the moment it was possible. Despite their precautions, three Belgian battalions were waiting in the jungle outside of Coquilhatville for the Spanish and assaulted Spanish-occupied Coquilhatville at around 6:30 in the morning. The Spanish forces were cut in half, divided by the Congo River. The Spanish in Coquilhatville lost some of the town to the Belgians, but eventually regrouped and were managing to hold the line by noon. The Spanish armored divisions, almost entirely stuck on the other side of the Congo, did their best to support the infantry across the river, but the smoothbore tanks were extremely inaccurate and were of little use. Spanish mortars and artillery, once put into place, were a major help and along with air support, which was slow to arrive to Coquilhatville due to the town's distance from the airfields in Equatorial Guinea, allowed the Spanish on the Coquilhatville bank to force the Belgians back into the jungle by nightfall. However, Belgian snipers and mortars prevented the Spanish from making any more river crossings.
At 2:00 in the morning on March 11, the armored battalions and the remaining Spanish forces were ambushed by some 2,000-3,000 native auxiliaries. Using molotov cocktails, grenades, and a few rocket launchers, most of the Spanish armored battalions were obliterated by the nocturnal attack. The infantry only barely managed to push the natives back into the jungle. The nighttime aerial napalm strikes were often wildly inaccurate and were not frequent enough to flush the auxiliaries from the jungle - in fact, the explosions of napalm in the night prompted the Belgians outside of Coquilhatville to renew their assault. By sunrise, the Spanish in Coquilhatville were commandeering civilian vessels, rafts, and canoes to get back across the Congo and retreat. It is believed that a large minority of the Spanish casualties occurred as the retreating infantry were shot or mortared as they desperately tried to cross the Congo.
By noon of March 11, the Spanish forces were in full retreat. Many tanks were simply abandoned as the Spaniards fled back to Equatorial Guinea. The retreating Spanish forces were constantly harried by the Belgian auxiliaries, with the only relief coming from Spanish air support. On March 22, what remained of the two Spanish divisions had arrived at the coast of Equatorial Guinea awaiting transport back to Malabo. The Battle of Coquilhatville, and the Equatorial Campaign, had ended in a disastrous failure the likes of which hadn't been seen since the Spanish-American War.
After routing the Spanish from the Congo, Belgian forces began to launch a counter-invasion of Equatorial Guinea. On March 25, King Juan III requested a ceasefire and on April 1, 1955, hostilities ended with the signing of the Treaty of Bruges. The treaty provided for the return of Spanish prisoners of war and a cease to hostilities in Equatorial Guinea and the Congo in return for ceding Equatorial Guinea to Belgium and the payment equivalent to 100 million USD in reparations to the Belgian government.
To say that the political consequences were severe would be an understatement. The embarrassing military debacle was deemed to be entirely King Juan's fault. The Spanish democratization movement took advantage of the public's fury, demanding Juan's abdication of the throne. Juan III, fearing the fate of Louis XVI, complied with the demands for his abdication and abandoned the Spanish throne, ending the Kingdom of Spain and heralding the start of the Second Spanish Republic.