Spanish Civil War (1936–1939)

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Spanish Civil War (1936–1939)

Major Figures

Emilio Mola

General Emilio Mola (1887–1937), a dynamic and ruthless commander, was one of the principal planners of the coup that led to the Spanish Civil War. He died in a plane crash before his compatriots ousted the Republican government, leaving Francisco Franco the unchallenged leader of the Nationalists.

Early Career

Emilio Mola Vidal, born in Cuba, came from a military family. Like Franco and most of his contemporaries, Mola’s leadership abilities emerged during Spain’s tribal wars in Spanish Morocco. Mola was Director-General of Security when Spain’s king was forced into exile, and his conservative views made him many enemies in the Second Republic. In 1936 Mola took charge of the military in Navarre and transferred to the provincial capital, Pamplona. Navarre was a center of the Carlist party, and Mola became involved in its politics.

El Director

When Mola began actively planning the overthrow of the government, he realized that a civilian as well as a military uprising was necessary. His efforts and detailed strategies earned him the title “El Director.” The task put enormous strains on Mola, driving him at times to consider both suicide and murder.

In summer 1936, a string of political killings left the plotters no choice: if they did not act soon, they would lose all credibility. Mola set the date for the coup: July 18, 1936, at 5:00 a.m. in Morocco.

The revolt began, but the intended leader of the new Nationalist government (Jose Sanjurjo) died in a plane crash. In late July, Mola set up a ruling junta with General Miguel Cabanellas as president. Mola commanded one army, which had taken control of almost all of northern Spain except the coast, and General Franco commanded the southern army.

By October 1936, Mola led four columns of soldiers, poised to besiege Madrid. He told reporters he had a “Fifth Column,” referring to Nationalist sympathizers hiding in the capital city, who would rise and fight alongside the Nationalists when Madrid was taken. Although the phrase “Fifth Column” became famous, it led to the deaths of many in Madrid as anyone deemed disloyal to the Republican government could be executed.

Atrocities and Terror

From the earliest days of the war, Mola stated that, “It is necessary to spread an atmosphere of terror.” He decreed that all supporters of the government were to be shot, an order that was followed to varying extremes in the Nationalist-held provinces and cities of northern Spain. Men were seized and executed at night, with or without trials; mourning was prohibited. The point was to terrorize the populace into obedience. For this reason, the corpses of the dead were displayed publicly in the first few months of the war.

As communities changed hands, from Republican to Nationalist and back again, the atrocities defied belief. In Baena, for example, the Nationalists executed over ninety prominent men when they captured the town. When Republican forces took the town back months later, seven hundred were killed in reprisals.

Mola’s Death

The siege of Madrid dragged on, and by early 1937, the Nationalists realized it could last months more. Mola left the Madrid efforts in the hands of General Franco and began an assault on the northern Basque provinces that lay outside his control. His push to take Bilbao and the fighting in the area provides much of the background for Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.

On June 3, 1937—only a few days before his fortieth birthday—a plane carrying General Mola crashed near Burgos, into the hill of Alcocero. Mola and the pilot were killed. Although a few suspected foul play, no evidence of assassination was ever found. General Fidel Dávila took over the northern army, and Bilbao fell to the Nationalists on June 19.

Francisco Franco

Francisco Franco Bahamonde (1892–1975) led the rebellion against Socialist rule in Spain during the civil war. Victorious, he then ruled Spain as a dictator (he preferred the title El Caudillo) from 1939 until his death thirty-six years later.

Success in the Military

Franco was born in El Ferrol, a town in the Galician province of Spain, into a family with a long tradition of naval service. His relationship with his father was troubled; the elder Franco was known as a rake and abandoned his family. In response, the son modeled his own behavior on his mother’s austerity. Franco attended the Naval Preparatory Academy, expecting a naval career. Unfortunately, Spain’s navy had been largely destroyed in the Spanish-American War with the United States.

Many Parties

The two sides of the Spanish Civil War were made up of factions who often fought with each other. The ability of the Nationalist leaders to hold the different conservative groups together helped them win the war.

The elected Spanish government called their followers Republicans or Loyalists. Factions of Communists, Marxists, and Socialists were predominant. The poor and landless hoped for better lives under the Republicans. Liberals, some with relatively mild views, vied with more extreme anarchists for control of the government. Basques, Galicians, and Catalans supported the Republic because it promised them autonomy.

Parties united under the Nationalists or Insurgents included monarchists who supported the exiled king. The Carlists, who still exist today, fought for a different king. They supported a separate line of the royal Bourbon family. Fascists (or Falangists) wanted a strong man to rule a strong state and were against the liberal, elected government.

Most Catholics favored the Nationalists because the elected government embraced atheistic communism. Likewise, the rich and the landowners were typically against the Republicans, who maintained Socialist policies that threatened their wealth.

Franco instead entered the Toledo Infantry Academy in 1907. Because of his small stature, high-pitched voice, and temperate habits, he was bullied and teased often. Yet Franco was determined and ambitious; after graduation, he quickly gained combat and leadership experience by fighting for Spain in tribal wars in Spanish Morocco. By age twenty-two, he was the youngest captain in the Spanish army. He was wounded, decorated, and promoted the next year. More success followed; by the time he was thirty-three, Franco was a brigadier general. At that point, after many years of combat experience, he took command of the General Military Academy in Saragossa. During this time Franco had married and become a father to Carmen, his only child.

Prelude to Civil War

The Second Spanish Republic began in 1931; Franco stayed neutral. Conservatives rewarded him with governorships and a promotion to major general, then to commander in chief of the army. As power swung to the left, though, Franco fell out of favor, and he was dispatched to a distant post in the Canary Islands. In July 1936, Franco flew to Spanish Morocco to take control of a new Nationalist Army of Africa. With this act, he joined generals Emilio Mola, Gonzalo Quiepo de Llano, and Jose Sanjurjo as they staged a coup d’etat.

The Civil War Begins

The civil war began as a failed coup and developed into a long, bitter war. The uprising started in Spanish Morocco on Friday, July 17, 1936, and took the Second Republic by surprise. The military in Morocco seized control of the radio station, airfield, and public buildings, shooting those who resisted. General Franco used the radio station to declare a state of war and proclaim that the army was rising in rebellion to restore justice, peace, and the constitution to Spain.

The next day, rebels took control of Navarre, Aragon, and other parts of Spain. They called themselves Nationalists or Insurgents. Supporters staged strikes throughout the country. The rebels failed to take control of major cities like Madrid, Valencia, and Barcelona, though they held much of Galicia and Andalusia.

In Morocco, Franco worked to secure German and Italian help to transport his army to Spain by air—an effort that would take months. On July 20, General Jose Sanjurjo flew from Portugal to take command of the insurgency. He died when his plane crashed, leaving Mola and Franco in charge. They realized they could only win the country by waging war.

Franco as War Leader

In September 1936, Franco was named Caudillo, a title designating him commander in chief as well as head of state of the Nationalists. He established his headquarters in Salamanca. By April 1937, Franco had built a coalition party he named the Falange, or National Movement. Under the Falange’s banner he unified the various right-wing groups who supported fascism, the Catholic Church, the monarchy, and the military.

During the war, Franco maintained law and order, and kept inflation down in the areas run by his Falange. The rights of the Catholic Church were respected, which gained him the support of the Vatican by late 1937.

Career as Dictator

Franco achieved victory over the Republicans, winning the civil war in 1939. The nation he inherited had been devastated by the war. Franco met with Hitler at Hendaye in 1940, but kept a war-weary Spain out of World War II.

At the end of World War II, fascism was a very unpopular form of government. The newly formed United Nations recommended the diplomatic isolation of Spain and its leader. Franco responded by removing the more extreme Fascists from his government and declaring Spain a monarchy with himself as head of state.

The United States restored diplomatic relations with Spain in 1950, and three years later, Spain signed a pact allowing four U.S. military bases in the country. Franco gradually allowed more freedoms to the Spanish people through the 1960s, and he led an industrial recovery that improved living conditions for many. In 1969, Franco designated Prince Juan Carlos, grandson of Alfonso XIII, as his successor.

Final Months

Franco suffered a series of health problems commencing in mid-1974: thrombophlebitis, partial kidney failure, bronchial pneumonia, pulmonary edema, peritonitis, gastric hemorrhage, and cardiac arrest. He died on November 20, 1975, when removed from life support. A simple tomb in the Basilica of Santa Cruz houses his remains. The Basilica, near Madrid, is carved from a granite ridge in the Valley of the Fallen (Valle de los Caidos), which is filled with forty thousand anonymous dead of the Spanish Civil War.

Juan Modesto

Juan Modesto (1906–1969), an officer with the Republican army and a Communist, organized and led forces in several key battles of the Spanish Civil War. He later fought for the Soviet Union in World War II, and died in exile in Czechoslovakia.

Early Experiences

Born in Cadiz, Andalusia, Juan Modesto Guilloto became a woodworker, then a non-commissioned officer in Spanish Morocco. There, he defended his country’s interests in tribal warfare and proved himself a good organizer and soldier.

Modesto had joined the Communist Party by 1930, and within three years of that date he led the Milicias Antifascistas Obreras y Campesinas (MAOC), a Communist paramilitary group. Before the uprising that became the Spanish Civil War, Modesto organized Madrid’s Fifth Regiment, a large and efficient militia whose leaders were all members of the Communist Party. Unlike the other four regiments in the capital, the Fifth was known for its discipline.

The Nationalists under Emilio Mola and Francisco Franco began a drive to take Madrid in November 1936—an effort that would last two and a half years. Republican General Jose Miaja worked with Soviet commanders to defend the city. Government officials abandoned Madrid and fled to Valencia, so Miaja formed a junta to defend the city. Modesto’s Fifth Regiment, now sixty thousand strong, was a large part of the defense, and took the brunt of the Nationalist attack. Unfortunately, they also were responsible for an infamous massacre of over one thousand prisoners from the Model Prison, thought to be Insurgent sympathizers.

Many Battles

The Fifth Regiment was disbanded in early 1937 and reorganized into different army groups. By February 1937, Modesto was fighting at the Battle of Jarama, a river just east of Madrid. Although casualty figures vary widely, this fight—which ended in a stalemate after three weeks—may have cost each side up to twenty thousand soldiers.

In July 1937, Modesto, now a Lieutenant Colonel leading the Fifth Army Corps, engaged in the diversionary Battle of Brunete. By the end of 1937, he fought at Teruel. On July 25, 1938, Colonel Modesto led the Republican attack at the Battle of the Ebro. His force, also known as the Army of the Ebro, fought beside an army led by Enrique Lister. Lister and Modesto had been the Republic’s principal field commanders from the first fights in Madrid and often worked together, though the two men did not get along.

In the last weeks of the war, Modesto was promoted to general. He made plans to leave Spain and go to the Soviet Union—the one place where his military rank would be recognized. On the day after the city of Alicante fell, Modesto flew out of Spain at dawn. He fought for the Soviets during World War II. Although he is lionized in certain memoirs of the Spanish Civil War, he fought on the losing side and has been largely forgotten.

Modesto died at age sixty-three, on April 20, 1969. Newspapers reported that as a member of the Central Committee of Spain’s Communist Party, he had been living in exile in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and died after a long illness.

Major Battles

Guadalajara, March 1937

Searching for an easy win, Nationalists led by General Franco (and aided by Italian troops) attempted to capture the city of Guadalajara. However, they were defeated by a Republican force aided by Russian tanks and fortunate weather conditions.

Prelude to the Battle

The fight for possession of Madrid, begun in November 1936, threatened to drag on for years. General Francisco Franco needed quick victories to build morale among his Nationalist troops and gain credibility with other nations. With his Italian allies, he had taken Málaga in one week in February 1937, but intense fighting at Jarama ended in a stalemate.

In the hills of Sigüenza about forty miles northeast of Madrid, a force composed of thirty thousand Italian troops and twenty thousand Spanish Nationalists gathered. The infantry was supported by seventy planes and 250 tanks. The Italian troops led a downhill advance towards Guadalajara, twenty miles away. The thrust, which began on March 8, 1937, surprised the Republican general Miaja in Madrid, who was charged with defending the capital city and surrounding provinces.

The Attack Stalls

Unexpected ice, rain, and sleet, along with quick deployment of Republican troops by Miaja, stopped the attack three days later. The Italian planes were grounded by poor weather and the trucks could not move along the road. One of the groups dispatched to stop the Nationalist force was the Garibaldi Battalion, composed of Socialist Italian and Spanish volunteers. They used Russian planes to drop leaflets over the Nationalist positions, urging Franco’s Italian allies to surrender and desert the rebel cause.

As with many battles of the Spanish Civil War, diverse accounts exist describing the numbers of troops, planes, and guns, the maneuvers and counter-maneuvers of companies, and the casualties. Many eyewitness tales conflict with each other. Soldiers and journalists on opposite sides and in varying locations saw the action unfold differently.

International Brigades

To outsiders, Spain’s civil war looked like a battle of ideologies: socialism against fascism, an elected government fighting a military coup, atheistic communism against the Catholic Church and capitalism. The conflict attracted passionate fighters, many willing to give their lives to defeat fascism. In the first three months of the war, an estimated ten thousand volunteers crossed into Spain from France, most of them ready to wage battle for the Republican government.

Five brigades of these foreign volunteers were formed over the course of the war, and each held two to three thousand men and women. They fought heroically in Madrid and participated in battles throughout Spain until they were officially disbanded in 1939, during the Battle of the Ebro.

The Abraham Lincoln Battalion initially held 450 men, predominantly students from the United States. They were also an American interracial fighting force, a distinct rarity. One hundred twenty of the battalion’s members were killed in their first fight, the Battle of Jarama, in February 1937. Six months later at the Battle of Brunete, the Battalion suffered another loss when its African American commander, Oliver Law, was killed.

The End of the Battle and Its Aftermath

The Nationalists never reached Guadalajara. On March 18, Russian tanks led a Republican charge, driving Franco’s forces back north. The Nationalists abandoned stockpiles of equipment and paperwork, including documents proving that Franco’s Italian “volunteers” were, in fact, drafted army soldiers deployed to Spain by Premier Mussolini himself. These documents were eventually presented to the League of Nations Assembly. Italy’s participation in Spain’s civil war was out in the open, but the other European powers remained neutral.

The Nationalists were embarrassed. Their well-equipped and trained Italian soldiers had been stopped by a ragtag army and some exiled Italian Socialists. Reports of the Republican victory, written by international correspondents such as Ernest Hemingway (who had just arrived in Spain) and Herbert Matthews, brought the news to the United States.

Guernica, April 26, 1937

On Monday, April 26, 1937, the German Condor Legion bombed the Basque town of Guernica. Did the Germans set up the bombing to test their fledgling Luftwaffe? Was it an act of terror against civilians, or a strategic extension of previous, more limited bombing runs? In spite of many eyewitnesses and photographs, the meaning of the terrible air raid that nearly destroyed a city remains somewhat controversial.

The Setting

From late 1936, Basques in their home region of northern Spain fought Franco’s Nationalists, something they did quite effectively from mountains and trenches. The German allies were impatient with Nationalist general Emilio Mola. They faced fierce resistance in the Basque region, and the Germans expected them to push harder at Republican strongholds. The commander of the Condor Legion, Wolfram von Richtofen (a distant relation to the famed “Red Baron” ace of World War I, Manfred von Richtofen) selected Guernica as a bombing target because it was near the Rentería Bridge. The German airmen were not aware of Guernica’s sacred six-hundred-year-old oak tree, the town’s significance as a cultural center of the Basque people, or even that an arms factory stood at the edge of town.

The Attack Begins

Many witnesses lived to relate details of the attack. Guernica’s usual population of over five thousand was swollen by refugees, especially from nearby Bilbao, a large city on the verge of starvation due to war. April 26 was a market day. At four-thirty in the afternoon, a lone bomber, flown by Condor Squadron leader von Moreau, flew near the bridge to check for air defenses. There were none.

Church bells rang to signal an air raid, but few people sought shelter. Von Moreau dropped three thousand pounds of bombs, which missed the Rentería Bridge and hit a railroad station plaza and a four-story hotel. One witness, a fireman named Juan Silliaco, saw a group of women and children fly into the air. In seconds, arms, legs, and heads pelted Silliaco as he ran to help dig people out of the hotel rubble.

Three Hours of Bombs

Next came four new Heinkel HE-111 bombers. Their incendiary bombs missed the bridge, but hit a candy factory, the fire station, and the canvas spread over the market. People panicked and tried to escape along roads and over the bridge, but they were strafed by machinegun fire from ten Heinkel HE-51’s that flew low over the marketplace. More incendiary bombs fell.

Twenty-three additional warplanes in three separate waves dropped bombs, destroying homes, apartments, hospitals, banks, churches, convents, homes, civic buildings, people, and animals. Dust and smoke were too thick for targeting, but nine-tenths of the three hundred buildings in Guernica were destroyed. German Messerschmitt fighter planes strafed roads, fields, and towns just before seven, and a half-hour later, the last ten bombers appeared.

In total, forty-three planes dropped 100,000 pounds of bombs on Guernica, a third of them incendiary. Although German diaries record the bombing, the Nationalists and Germans initially denied that the attack took place, then claimed that Marxists had dynamited the town themselves to defame the insurgency.


The town burned for three days, and casualties were eventually announced as over 1,600 dead, nearly nine hundred wounded. The oak tree, arms factory, and Rentería Bridge were unscathed.

In 1999, the German Parliament issued a declaration formally apologizing for its role in the bombing of Guernica. However, the bombing of a civilian town like Guernica during wartime was not an isolated event; instead, multiple occurrences similar to Guernica—such as the bombing of Dresden in World War II, or the atomic bombs released on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in that same war—now happen in most large-scale military conflicts.

Brunete, July 1937

The Republican government and its Soviet advisors attempted to weaken the insurgency with an attack in the center of Spain. Instead of hurting Franco’s cause, though, the Battle of Brunete showed how quickly the rebels could respond and counterattack.

The First Summer of the Civil War

In the early half of 1937, the troops of General Francisco Franco were busy in Madrid and the north of Spain. Juan Negrín, newly appointed prime minister of Republican Spain, plotted with Soviet advisors in Madrid to move troops south. They would then hit Franco’s Nationalists from an unexpected place about fifteen miles east of Madrid, breaking their ranks.

France had recently closed its border with Spain, cutting off supplies, and the Soviet Union balked at risking more of their ships to help the Republic. A strong strike would not only drive out the rebels, but prove to other countries that the elected government of Spain was strong and could hold onto power. Convincing other countries to support Negrín’s government was crucial.

Juan Negrín

As Prime Minister of Spain, Juan Negrín Lopéz (1887–1956) embodied optimism, enthusiasm, and bravery. Unfortunately, his critics say he was blind to the problems of factionalism within his government and became a tool of the Communist Party. The records left behind do not tell conclusively whether the accusation is fair or not.

Negrín was a doctor, academic, and administrator before the war, and joined the Socialist Party in 1929. He served as Finance Minister before being appointed Prime Minster in April 1937 (his actual title was President of the Government). Praised for his generosity, humanity, and energy, he also inspired men to fight. He was instrumental in the planning and execution of not only Brunete, but the actions at Belchite, Teruel, and the Battle of the Ebro.

As defeat became certain, Negrín fought unsuccessfully for a surrender to Franco that guaranteed no reprisals against the citizens and soldiers who fought for the Republic. Franco refused all conditions. When the Spanish government collapsed, Negrín fled to Paris, where he died years later.

Initial Attack

With a force of fifty thousand men, including the International Brigades, the Republic launched their attack on July 6, and quickly captured Brunete. The town’s position on a major supply road gave it strategic importance. The Republican assault, carried out with artillery and air support that dated to World War I, caught the Nationalists by surprise.

Within days, though, Franco moved enough troops to the area to stop the Republican advance. The following two weeks were among the bloodiest of the war, as the Nationalists pushed the Republican army back out of Brunete, aided by German tanks and air support.


By the time the battle ended on July 26, 1937, the Republicans held onto only a small strip of the territory they had originally taken. Their losses included 25,000 dead, injured, or captured troops. The Nationalists, who had deployed a smaller force, lost about half as many troops. The battle could be seen as a draw in terms of territory, but the Republic suffered a loss of prestige and morale, while the Nationalists used the battle to build a stronger relation with Germany.

Teruel, 1937–1938

The Republican assault on Teruel is considered a turning point of the Spanish Civil War. Government troops attacked the city in December 1937, fought for possession, and then were ousted by a Nationalists counterattack. By February 1938, the Nationalists were again in control of the city, and the Republican army was exposed as weak and unable to hold its ground.

Plans for the Battle

As the winter of 1937 started, the leaders of the Spanish Republican government learned that General Francisco Franco planned an assault on Guadalajara, a city viewed as a stepping stone to an all-out attack on Madrid. The Republic therefore planned an attack of their own at Teruel, the provincial capital of Aragon. Teruel, a poor city of twenty thousand people, sat in the mountains above the Guadalaviar River. Republican lines surrounded two-thirds of the ancient walled capital, making it an easy target. One hundred thousand troops massed to circle and attack on December 15, 1937.

Franco had planned to begin his march toward Madrid on December 18. Completely surprised by the Teruel offensive, he called off the Madrid action and deployed troops under the experienced general José Varela to counterattack.

Teruel’s winter temperatures were the lowest in Spain, so it was no great surprise when Republican forces suffered through a snowstorm days after their assault began. Planes were grounded, trucks could not move along icy roads, and communications were down. Only the infantry troops could forge ahead, and they did so.

Street by Street Battles

The Republican army entered Teruel on December 21, using dynamite and machine guns to clear out Nationalist forces. Against four thousand defenders (half of them civilians), they battled street by street, and building by building. Grenades were thrown onto soldiers from upper stories, and hand-to-hand combat with bayonets and knives was common.

Before December ended, a Nationalist response began. German fliers of the Condor Legion provided air support and created havoc as early as New Years Eve, but Varela’s ground troops did not take advantage of the situation. In the first week of 1938, defenders holed up in a convent, a hospital, and the governor’s residence were killed, and only pockets of resistance remained. The bishop of Teruel and the garrison commander surrendered to the Republicans. Civilians were evacuated. Now the Republicans came under assault as they tried to hold on to the city they had taken.


In mid-January, the International Brigades arrived to reinforce Teruel in the face of heavy air and artillery strikes from the Nationalists, who had captured the high ground over the city. Slowly, the Republican forces were pushed south.

Superior numbers defeated the government; they had no more troops to throw into the battle. A constant push from the north isolated the Republicans, who were forced to retreat and abandon their hard-won gains, as well as munitions and supplies. On February 18, 1939, the Nationalists encircled Teruel, just as the Republicans had done in December. A few days later, the Republicans evacuated Teruel.

Turning Point

The action at Teruel convinced many nations that Franco’s forces would eventually win. With state-of-the-art air support form Germany and an almost unlimited supply of trained Italian troops, they had turned battles to their favor—even when the timing and place of battle was chosen by the government.

The Republican army suffered double the casualties as the Nationalists, according to most estimates. With his forces already assembled in Aragon, Franco pushed east after the Battle of Teruel, capturing parts of Catalonia south of the Ebro River, all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. This isolated a pocket of Republican resistance and led to the Battle of the Ebro.

Ebro, July–November 1938

The Battle of the Ebro was fought in the mountain gorges along Spain’s largest river. It signaled the end of organized resistance to Franco’s cause and was the final fight of the International Brigades.

Before the Battle

After achieving a bloody victory at the Battle of Teruel, the Nationalists pushed east and isolated the part of Catalonia east of the Ebro River. This pocket of Republican Spain was further hemmed in by France to the north and the Mediterranean Sea to the east. The Ebro and Segres rivers marked the limits of Nationalist territory conquered since February 1938.

France was neutral, but arms, oil, and food flowed into Catalonia through the border until late May, fueling Republican resistance to the Nationalists. Juan Negrín, appointed Republican Prime Minister for the second time, focused his attention on a military confrontation where the enemy would be weakest: a bend in the Ebro. He presented his proposed fight as a diversion to take the pressure off Valencia and massed one hundred thousand troops at the Ebro.

The Fight Begins

Under commanders Juan Modesto and Enrique Lister, Republican soldiers crossed the Ebro from north to south on the night of July 24, 1938. Within a week, fifty thousand men occupied the hills, using anti-aircraft guns to keep the Nationalist planes (mostly German) from bombing their pontoon bridges.

By August, General Francisco Franco deployed enough troops to stop the Republican advance short of their objectives: the cities of Gandesa and Villalba de los Arcos. Enemy artillery on both sides kept men pinned all day against the hilly, rocky ground. Negrín had hoped to prove to the world that his government was still fighting and had a chance at victory, but after a fierce and costly battle near Gandesa on August 1, the fighting degenerated into trench warfare. As the weeks went by, the Nationalists pushed the Republicans back from the territory they had won. The outcome of the civil war itself seemed inevitable.

End of the International Brigades

Negotiations between Spain’s Republican government, the League of Nations, and Europe’s Non-Intervention Committee continued, but events moved quickly. Negrín’s popularity waned as the Battle of the Ebro stalled through late summer. Hitler took over Czechoslovakia in September, and the democracies of Europe faced the growing probability of war. Italy recalled ten thousand troops from Spain (less than one-fourth the total Italian force deployed). Germany agreed to supply more arms to Franco’s forces. The Soviet Union, unable to agree with Britain and France, began to consider an alliance with Germany, withdrawing active support for the Spanish government. The International Brigades by this point were mostly made up of Spanish volunteers, and Negrín officially disbanded them in October.

End of the Battle

On October 30, 1938, the Nationalist forces began a heavy bombardment of the Republicans, east of Gandesa. They forced the Republicans from the hills and thus took control of the area. By November 18, the Nationalists were victorious, and stories tell of Ernest Hemingway, Herbert Matthews, and other American reporters rowing across the Ebro, the last to abandon the contested hills.

Estimates of deaths in the Ebro River action were at least six thousand for the Nationalists and twice that for the Republicans. Both sides may have suffered sixty thousand wounded or captured. In two months, Barcelona—the capital of Catalonia—fell to the Nationalists. By the end of March 1939, Republican forces all over Spain had surrendered to the Nationalists, and the war was over.

Key Elements of Warcraft

Air Bombardment

The State of Air Power in 1936

Airplanes had played a role in World War I, so many foresaw an increased role for air power in future conflicts. In the 1920s, military experts such as General Giulio Douhet and Sir Hugh Trenchard predicted that air power and strategic bombing would be of huge importance in warfare.

By 1936, planes could travel up to 250 miles an hour while carrying two tons of bombs. Most planes did not have radios. Radar had not been developed by the time of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, so planes could strike lethally, without warning. No one knew how to measure the effectiveness of a bombing raid or what sort of impact it would have on a civilian population. Defenses—anti-aircraft guns and air sirens and shelters—were untried.

Foreign Air Forces Aid Spain

Spain did not have much of an air force, so both sides in the country’s civil war accepted air support and intervention from other countries. Germany and Italy supplied Francisco Franco and the Nationalists with bombers and pilots, and the Soviet Union did the same for Spain’s Republican government. An estimated one thousand airplanes came from Russia to Spain’s government throughout the war, while Italy and Germany provided between six hundred and seven hundred airplanes each.

In the first year of the war, the Republican army and its Soviet allies had the advantage of better air power. At the Battle of Guadalajara, poor weather stranded the Nationalists and grounded their Italian Fiat planes. Newer Soviet planes flying from better airfields were effective, and the Nationalists were forced back.

Although this early battle went well for the Republicans, eventually they lost their advantage in the air. Two key factors in this demise were the ineffective deployment of their planes, and the fact that Germany began manufacturing the superior Messerschmitt warplane in 1937, eventually shipping 136 of them to Spain. The Soviets answered with Supermoscas and Superchatos the following year, but they arrived too late in the war to save the Republic.

The Contribution of the German Luftwaffe

The Versailles Treaty of 1919 forbade Germany’s development of an air force, but in 1935 Hitler broke the treaty and reinstated its Luftwaffe. Germany hoped to use its involvement in Spain to train its pilots and design effective bombing campaigns. Additionally, Germany supplied effective anti-aircraft guns, especially the eighty-eight millimeter gun. In all, nineteen thousand German soldiers served in Spain between the summer of 1936 and the end of the war in 1939.

The Condor Legion

The Condor Legion, a German combat unit under German commanders Major-General Hugo von Sperrle and Colonel Wolfram von Richtofen (cousin of the World War I pilot), officially formed in Spain in November 1936. Initially a force of one hundred planes (mostly Junker dive-bombers and Heinkel fighter planes), it eventually numbered five thousand men and included tank companies.

The Condor Legion fought in Teruel and Santander; the bombing campaigns of Barcelona, Asturias, and the Basque provinces in the north; the Battle of the Ebro; the Battle of Brunete; and many other sites. Their most infamous action came at Guernica, a Basque town with no real military significance. Although the attack was denied for years, the Condor Legion bombed and strafed the civilians of Guernica for hours.

Luftwaffe commander Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring is often quoted as saying that the Spanish Civil War provided a testing ground for his pilots. The truthfulness of his statement is debated by historians. The use of airplanes in Spain showed how effective they could be at waging war, but their limitations were showcased as well.

Effectiveness of Air Strikes

Air raids over Madrid in late 1936 and Barcelona in the spring of 1938, and on other cities and towns such as Guernica, probably claimed between five thousand and ten thousand lives. The Spanish Civil War killed up to half a million people, including those executed by either side, so the deaths attributed to air raids were not decisive.

While air raids inflicted horrifying damage on towns like Madrid and Guernica, military targets were not hit. Infrastructure was destroyed, but not the type that would stop arms manufacturing or shipping. Accurate targeting of factories, depots, and ports—sites of strategic importance, in other words—was still beyond the ability of the bombers and fighter planes of the 1930s.

To most observers, however, air strikes were valued and anticipated more for their propaganda and terrorist influence, rather than for the actual casualties and physical damages they inflicted. Yet the bombings of large and small cities in Spain did not produce panic or demoralize the civilian population. In fact, the opposite seemed to happen. In the face of brutal bombing raids, civilians grew more determined to back their government.

One other lasting effect of the bombardments of the Spanish Civil War was that other countries—Britain and Germany, for example—instituted Civil Air Defense training programs.

Air Transport

The First Big Air Lift

Air transport got an early test in the Spanish Civil War; in fact, there likely would have been no war if not for air transport. The original coup by the rebel army officers in July 1936 captured less than half of the country, and Spain’s navy remained loyal to the elected government. Neither side had much of an army or air force in Spain itself. The well-trained Nationalist troops under General Francisco Franco were stranded in Spanish Morocco, in Africa.

Franco requested anti-aircraft guns and five bombers from Germany. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring urged Hitler to aid Franco for two reasons: to stop the spread of communism and to test German pilots in technical areas. After much hurried consultation, Hitler established a special department to assist Spain and sent a fleet of bombers, mostly Junker JU-52s.

The bombers could be used for transport. For the next few months the Junkers ferried an average of 2,800 troops per week—as well as their equipment—over the Straits of Gibraltar into Spain. It was the first large military airlift. By October 1936, Franco had twenty thousand experienced troops to command because of German help. Payment to Germany was made in the form of mineral resources such as coal and iron ore from Spanish mines.

The impact and effectiveness of air transport was not lost on observers. Even the head of the Unites States Army Air Corps soon ordered an increase in its air transport capabilities, though the United States remained neutral and isolationist throughout the 1930s.

Foreign Air Support

Franco procured immediate air support, including planes, pilots, and advisors, from Germany and Italy. Months later, after France and Britain declared their neutrality, the Soviet Union offered similar help to Republican Spain. New Russian-made planes, pilots, and advisors bolstered the government troops and gave the Republicans an air advantage from late 1936 to the middle of 1937.

Organizing Ground and Air Forces

German commanders and advisors were quick to observe the importance of coordinating air and ground forces for maximum effectiveness. Field commanders directing planes, tanks, infantry, and truck convoys learned to communicate frequently, work towards common goals, share data, and guard each other. This resulted in quicker deployment of forces and more military successes.

The importance of air transport in getting supplies, munitions, and troops to the right areas quickly was demonstrated repeatedly during the Spanish Civil War. Not only did such air convoys avoid danger from bomber attacks, but planes could fly over steep, narrow, often impassable roads to deliver soldiers and equipment where they were needed.

Germany employed this lesson in later campaigns. The tactical, coordinated use of air transport with naval and infantry backup, first developed in the Spanish Civil War, was used in German actions in Scandinavia, Belgium, and Holland in 1940, and the capture of Crete in May 1941.

Impact of the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939)

Spain spent nearly forty years under the rule of Francisco Franco, so much of the country’s history in the twentieth century was shaped by the civil war that brought Franco to power. In addition, the military actions of Italy, the Soviet Union, and especially Germany during the civil war preview the tactics of the second World War. The sheer brutality of the war also had an impact on world sensibilities that continues to this day.

Would Spain have fought in World War II had it not been devastated by its own civil war? Would it have remained a Socialist state, or was fascism—under Franco or another strong man—inevitable? These questions cannot be answered. They are raised only to point out that before the civil war, many paths were open to Spain. The impact of the civil war and the subsequent thirty-six-year reign of Franco set the course of Spain’s future for generations.

Spain lost half a million citizens to death due to the war, out of a total population of about twenty-four million. Many died in battle, others were executed after the war or died of starvation. Another 300,000 fled Spain and did not return. The country rebuilt itself economically under Franco, but was isolated by other nations for years. Spain’s royal family remained out of power while Franco ruled; it was only after Franco’s death that Juan Carlos, the grandson of the exiled Alfonso XIII, became ruler. Juan Carlos, as head of state, then established a constitutional democracy in the country and allowed many liberal reforms.

The initial use of planes to move Franco’s troops from Africa to Spain showed the world how powerful a deployment tool air transport could be. In terms of aerial bombardment, concepts like dive-bombing tactics, close air support, as well as blitzkrieg (“lightning war”) were developed by German pilots during the Spanish conflict. Certainly, nations at war would have figured out these effective military procedures eventually, but the Spanish Civil War allowed practice that would shape later air attacks over France, Poland, and Great Britain.

Germany’s air force was newly formed, which may explain why Germany—rather than Italy or the Soviet Union—was most effective at translating techniques learned in Spain into military victories elsewhere. The surviving pilots of the Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion became the trainers and commanders of World War II.

Lessons and innovations learned by the Soviet pilots and advisors in Spain were lost during the army purges of Josef Stalin during the late 1930s. Italy’s officers also gained experience in air attacks, bombing runs, and even submarine attacks, but did not benefit as the Germans did, perhaps because Italy’s resources were stretched too thin during World War II.

The civil war brought poets, writers, and artists to Spain, and inspired them to influence millions with books such as For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, and artworks like Guernica by Picasso. Though the world would soon be overwhelmed by the greater horrors of World War II, these cultural icons still inspire people throughout all civilized countries to consider the brutal effects of war on the innocent.

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Spanish Civil War (1936–1939)

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