Guevara atop a mule in Las Villas province, Cuba, November 1958The first step in Castro's revolutionary plan was an assault on Cuba from Mexico via the Granma, an old, leaky cabin cruiser. They set out for Cuba on November 25, 1956. Attacked by Batista's military soon after landing, many of the 82 men were either killed in the attack or executed upon capture; only 22 found each other afterwards. Guevara wrote that it was during this bloody confrontation that he laid down his medical supplies and picked up a box of ammunition dropped by a fleeing comrade, finalizing his symbolic transition from physician to combatant.
Only a small band of revolutionaries survived to re-group as a bedraggled fighting force deep in the Sierra Maestra mountains, where they received support from the urban guerrilla network of Frank País, the 26th of July Movement, and local campesinos. With the group withdrawn to the Sierra, the world wondered whether Castro was alive or dead until early 1957 when the interview by Herbert Matthews appeared in The New York Times. The article presented a lasting, almost mythical image for Castro and the guerrillas. Guevara was not present for the interview, but in the coming months he began to realize the importance of the media in their struggle. Meanwhile, as supplies and morale diminished, and with an allergy to mosquito bites which resulted in agonizing walnut-sized cysts on his body, Guevara considered these "the most painful days of the war''
During Guevara’s time living hidden among the poor subsistence farmers of the Sierra Maestra mountains, he discovered that there were no schools, no electricity, minimal access to healthcare, and more than 40 percent of the adults were illiterate.As the war continued, Guevara became an integral part of the rebel army and "convinced Castro with competence, diplomacy and patience." Guevara set up factories to make grenades, built ovens to bake bread, taught new recruits about tactics, and organized schools to teach illiterate campesinos to read and write. Moreover, Guevara established health clinics, workshops to teach military tactics, and a newspaper to disseminate information. The man who three years later would be dubbed by Time Magazine: "Castro's brain", at this point was promoted by Fidel Castro to Comandante (commander) of a second army column.
As the only other ranked Comandante besides Fidel Castro, Guevara was a harsh disciplinarian who sometimes shot defectors. Deserters were punished as traitors, and Guevara was known to send squads to track those seeking to go AWOL. As a result, Guevara became feared for his brutality and ruthlessness. During the guerrilla campaign, Guevara was also responsible for the sometimes summary execution of a number of men accused of being informers, deserters or spies. In his diaries, Guevara described the first such execution of Eutimio Guerra, a peasant army guide who admitted treason when it was discovered he accepted the promise of ten thousand pesos for repeatedly giving away the rebel's position for attack by the Cuban air force. Such information also allowed Batista's army to burn the homes of rebel-friendly peasants. Upon Guerra's request that they "end his life quickly", Che stepped forward and shot him in the head, writing "The situation was uncomfortable for the people and for Eutimio so I ended the problem giving him a shot with a .32 pistol in the right side of the brain, with exit orifice in the right temporal [lobe]." His scientific notations and matter-of-fact description, suggested to one biographer a "remarkable detachment to violence" by that point in the war. Later, Guevara published a literary account of the incident entitled "Death of a Traitor", where he transfigured Eutimio's betrayal and pre-execution request that the revolution "take care of his children", into a "revolutionary parable about redemption through sacrifice."
Smoking a pipe at his guerrilla base in the Escambray Mountains.Although he maintained a demanding and harsh disposition, Guevara also viewed his role of commander as one of a teacher, entertaining his men during breaks between engagements with readings from the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Cervantes, and Spanish lyric poets. Together with this role, and inspired by José Martí's principle of "literacy without borders", Guevara further ensured that his rebel fighters made daily time to teach the uneducated campesinos with whom they lived and fought to read and write, in what Guevara termed the "battle against ignorance."
His commanding officer Fidel Castro has described Guevara as intelligent, daring, and an exemplary leader who "had great moral authority over his troops." Castro further remarked that Guevara took too many risks, even having a "tendency toward foolhardiness." Guevara's teenage lieutenant, Joel Iglesias, recounts such actions in his diary, noting that Guevara's behavior in combat even brought admiration from the enemy. On one occasion Iglesias recounts the time he had been wounded in battle, stating "Che ran out to me, defying the bullets, threw me over his shoulder, and got me out of there. The guards didn't dare fire at him ... later they told me he made a great impression on them when they saw him run out with his pistol stuck in his belt, ignoring the danger, they didn't dare shoot."
Guevara was instrumental in creating the clandestine radio station Radio Rebelde (Rebel Radio) in February 1958, which broadcast news to the Cuban people with statements by the 26th of July movement, and provided radiotelephone communication between the growing number of rebel columns across the island. Guevara had apparently been inspired to create the station by observing the effectiveness of CIA supplied radio in Guatemala in ousting the government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán.
In late July 1958, Guevara played a critical role in the Battle of Las Mercedes by using his column to halt a force of 1,500 men called up by Batista's General Cantillo in a plan to encircle and destroy Castro's forces. Years later, Major Larry Bockman of the United States Marine Corps would analyze and describe Che's tactical appreciation of this battle as "brilliant." During this time Guevara also became an "expert" at leading hit and run tactics against Batista’s army, and then fading back into the countryside before the army could counterattack.
As the war extended, Guevara led a new column of fighters dispatched westward for the final push towards Havana. Travelling by foot, Guevara embarked on a difficult 7 week march only travelling at night to avoid ambush, and often not eating for several days. In the closing days of December 1958, Guevara’s task was to cut the island in half by taking Las Villas province. In a matter of days he executed a series of "brilliant tactical victories" that gave him control of all but the province’s capital city of Santa Clara. Guevara then directed his "suicide squad" in the attack on Santa Clara, that became the final decisive military victory of the revolution.In the six weeks leading up to the Battle of Santa Clara there were times when his men were completely surrounded, outgunned, and overrun. Che's eventual victory despite being outnumbered 10:1, remains in the view of some observers a "remarkable tour de force in modern warfare."
After the battle of Santa Clara, January 1, 1959Radio Rebelde broadcast the first reports that Guevara's column had taken Santa Clara on New Year's Eve 1958. This contradicted reports by the heavily controlled national news media, which had at one stage reported Guevara's death during the fighting. At 3 am on January 1, 1959, upon learning that his generals were negotiating a separate peace with Guevara, Fulgencio Batista boarded a plane in Havana and fled for the Dominican Republic, along with an amassed "fortune of more than $ 300,000,000 through graft and payoffs." The following day on January 2, Guevara entered Havana to take final control of the capital. Fidel Castro took 6 more days to arrive, as he stopped to rally support in several large cities on his way to rolling victoriously into Havana on January 8, 1959. In mid-January 1959, Guevara went to live at a summer villa in Tarara to recover from a violent asthma attack. While there he started the Tarara Group, a group that debated and formed the new plans for Cuba's social, political, and economic development. In addition, Che began to write his book Guerrilla Warfare while resting at Tarara.
In February, the revolutionary government proclaimed Guevara "a Cuban citizen by birth" in recognition of his role in the triumph. When Hilda Gadea arrived in Cuba in late January, Guevara told her that he was involved with another woman, and the two agreed on a divorce, which was finalized on May 22. On June 2, 1959, he married Aleida March, a Cuban-born member of the 26th of July movement with whom he had been living since late 1958. Guevara returned to the seaside village of Tarara in June for his honeymoon with Aleida. Guevara had children from both his marriages, and one illegitimate child, as follows: With Hilda Gadea (married August 18, 1955; divorced May 22, 1959), Hilda Beatriz Guevara Gadea, born February 15, 1956 in Mexico City; died August 21, 1995 in Havana, Cuba; with Aleida March (married June 2, 1959), Aleida Guevara March, born November 24, 1960 in Havana, Cuba, Camilo Guevara March, born May 20, 1962 in Havana, Cuba, Celia Guevara March, born June 14, 1963 in Havana, Cuba, and Ernesto Guevara March, born February 24, 1965 in Havana, Cuba; and with Lilia Rosa López (extramarital), Omar Pérez, born March 19, 1964 in Havana, Cuba.