Spanish Civil War

A military conflict resulting from a Nationalist rebellion, led by General Francisco Franco, against Spain’s Republican government.


Air power proved to be a major factor in the Spanish Civil War, a fratricidal conflict between Spain’s two major antagonists during the 1930’s. The Spanish Civil War resulted in the deaths of more than 300,000 combatants, of another 100,000 killed in murders and executions, and perhaps of an additional 200,000 who died from starvation and disease. Moreover, because most of the major European powers had become involved to a greater or lesser extent before the conflict finally concluded in March, 1939, the Spanish Civil War has been characterized as the opening round of World War II.

The war began in July, 1936, when Spain’s conservative faction, subsequently known as the Nationalists, rose up in an attempt to overthrow the country’s legitimate government, the Republicans, or Loyalists. Backed by the country’s wealthy elite and the Catholic Church, a group of army officers started an insurrection in Spanish Morocco, across the Mediterranean Sea in North Africa. Spain’s Republican government, also known as the Popular Front, supported by a wide spectrum of leftist elements and most of the country’s urban population, reacted immediately to the threat.

The Popular Front government quickly secured the support of the Soviet Union, and, to a lesser extent, the governments of France and Great Britain. The latter two countries, in backing Spain’s legitimate government, sought to stress the doctrine of nonintervention in what they considered Spain’s internal affairs. Despite their sympathy for the Republicans, the French and British offered little in the way of material assistance.

The army rebels, led by Francisco Franco, Spain’s youngest general, secured the backing of German chancellor Adolf Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Germany and Italy quickly began to furnish aid to the Moroccan rebels, who needed to transport their forces to the Spanish mainland. Also siding with Franco, although more or less surreptitiously, was Portugal’s dictator, Dr. António de Oliveira Salazar, who feared the spread of the leftist ideology espoused by the Spanish Republicans to his own country.

Republican Spain itself had little in the way of a military force by which to defend itself against the rebel threat. Most of the regular army had joined the Nationalists, leaving the government’s defense in the hands of inadequately armed and trained workers’ militias. The Republicans had to acquire materials from abroad to counterbalance the military strength of their adversaries.

Foreign Assistance

Mussolini had had strong contacts with the Spanish monarchist government that had preceded the Popular Front. After the civil war commenced, he immediately pledged Italian aid to Franco’s Nationalists. Both parties announced themselves as strongly anticommunist and saw the Loyalists as ideological enemies.

In the month following the outbreak of the rebellion in Morocco, Mussolini dispatched a number of trimotor Savoia bombers to both Melolla, Morocco, and Seville, Spain. The aircraft served both to bomb Loyalist naval vessels and military installations and to transport members of Franco’s Moroccan troops to the Spanish mainland. Mussolini sent more than seven hundred aircraft to the Nationalists in the course of the war. By 1939, some 192 Italian pilots were serving in the Nationalist air force.

Although Hitler sympathized with Mussolini’s ideological quarrel with the Republicans, his own decision to come to Franco’s aid had much more practical applications. First, he wanted an ally, or at least a neutral power, on France’s southern flank that would allow German forces access to the western Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean in the event of future hostilities. German submarines later used Spanish harbors to refuel and repair their submarine fleet during World War II. Hitler also sought to secure from Spain foodstuffs, wool, copper, and iron and pyrite ores to feed his war machine. Significantly, participation in combat against the Loyalist forces gave the Germans the opportunity to develop tactics that would be employed in the ensuing world war.

Within a month of the commencement of hostilities, Germany had dispatched eighteen new German Junkers trimotor bombers and six pursuit planes as well as thirty German pilots. As had the Italians, the Germans also furnished a substantial number of transport planes to aid the transfer of Franco’s troops, especially the hardened and tough Moroccans, to the mainland. These airlifts became the first major aerial troop transports in military history.

The German fighters ordered by Hitler to Spain adopted the name the Condor Legion. They represented the best military force and equipment available in Germany at the time. Some nineteen thousand Germans served in the Condor Legion, whose equipment included planes, tanks, antiaircraft guns, artillery, transports, and seaplanes.

By war’s end, the Germans had tried out twenty-seven different types of aircraft in Spain. In the combat’s final year, they had replaced the Heinkels He-51, an inferior airplane, with what proved to be the fastest fighter used in the war, the Messerschmitt Me-109E. The German ace Captain Werner Mölders shot down fourteen enemy planes. Over the course of the conflict, Germany produced a total of fifteen aces, fighter pilots with five or more kills.

Many leftists in the French government had initially expressed support for Spain’s Loyalist administration, but France nevertheless refused to supply arms to the Madrid government. Many of France’s conservative and religious factions sided with the rebels. The French chose to take the route of nonintervention, even though the Italians and the Germans had already begun to supply Franco’s forces with massive amounts of military aid, especially in terms of air power.

At the civil war’s commencement, the Spanish government bought a small, inadequate supply of armaments on France’s open market. The French writer André Malraux personally rounded up a number of aircraft, hired pilots to fly them, and delivered them to Spain. The aircraft involved were not state of the art, consisting of about thirteen unarmed Dewoitine and six Potex fighters. Malraux organized the Escuadrilla España, also called the First International Air Squadron, composed of volunteers and mercenaries, which represented the main air support for the Loyalist forces in the early stages of the war. At its beginning, Republican Spain’s air force had consisted of only about sixty planes, twenty-five of which were fit for combat.

As did the French government, the British government, with a labor majority, expressed sympathy for the Loyalist cause. The British joined the French in maintaining a hands-off attitude in the struggle. They believed that the war would spread throughout Europe if they and the French entered the war on the Republican side. As events unfolded, however, a war involving most of Europe did break out as the Spanish Civil War itself came to a close in 1939.

The Soviet Union proved to be the only ally of Republican Spain that contributed any substantial aid to that country. The Russians provided both pilots and approximately eight hundred aircraft, consisting mostly of Polikarper 1-15’s, called “Chatas,” and Moskas. They also furnished military experts, guns, and tanks.

However, the distance from Russia to Spain proved to be a major obstruction in the Soviet’s aid program. Few Russian ships of the type needed to move this war matériel were available. Most of the equipment had to be moved by water. Any ships seeking to deliver goods to the Loyalists faced Italian and German fighter aircraft and bombers.

Despite this harassment, the Soviet Union managed to make some fifty shipments to Republican Spain during the course of the war. The Republicans responded by paying the Soviet Union more than 500 tons of gold, valued at $518 million, from the Spanish treasury. Much of the equipment and ammunition performed poorly once employed in battle, for the Soviets had shipped a great deal of miscellaneous armaments for which they no longer had any use. The tanks and planes, however, did prove to be critical to the Republican defensive effort and protected Madrid itself from capture for most of the conflict.

Although Soviet leader Joseph Stalin wanted to keep the nation’s aid program under wraps, the Soviets did make another major contribution to the Loyalist effort. They began a worldwide campaign to induce leftists and leftist sympathizers to join the ranks of the Republican government in their resistance to the Nationalists and their German and Italian allies. The International Brigades’ forces broke down into separate national units. The Eleventh Brigade consisted of anti-Nazi Germans; the Twelfth, of a combination of Germans, Italians and French; the Thirteenth, of Poles, Czechs, and other Eastern Europeans; the Fourteenth, of French and Belgians; and the Fifteenth, of British, and North and South American volunteers. Malraux’s First International Air Squadron had volunteers and mercenaries from countries throughout the world.

The Progress of the War

Despite the heroic efforts of the Spanish workers and their foreign volunteers, the poorly armed and equipped Loyalists proved in the long run to be no match for Franco’s regulars and his Italian and German allies. The Soviet Union, in its attempts to supply the Republican government, encountered increasing difficulties from both the aggressive German and Italian interference with shipping and the French refusal to allow supplies shipped into their seaports to cross the frontier into Spain.

The Nationalist air force, composed primarily of German and Italian aircraft, flew over Republican positions with impunity, subjecting the major cities held by the government to regular bombing attacks. The Nationalists had gained permanent air supremacy by as early as October, 1936. On April 26, 1937, forty bombers of the Condor Legion attacked the northern Basque city of Guernica. Although the city was not an important military target, it was virtually destroyed, with more than one thousand civilian casualties from among the city’s seven thousand inhabitants. The Germans would subject enemy cities to similar degrees of intense destruction during World War II.

As the Loyalist cause continued to deteriorate, aid furnished by foreign allies began to falter. The Soviet pilots who had made up a large part of the barely surviving Republican air force left the combat area by late 1937. Reduced to perhaps seven thousand volunteers near the conclusion of the war, the International Brigades withdrew at the request of the Spanish Republican government itself in November of 1938, ostensibly in a vain attempt to appeal for the withdrawal from Spanish soil of all foreign troops on both sides. Over the course of the war, the poorly armed Brigade forces suffered almost twelve thousand casualties: French, German, Italian, American, and Eastern European fighters who gave their lives in the struggle against Fascism.


Undoubtedly, the nonintervention pact signed by Great Britain and France played a major role in the ultimate defeat of the Spanish Republican government. Both Germany and Italy had poured both personnel and equipment into the Nationalist campaign. By the war’s end, the Germans and Italians made up the bulk of the Nationalist military effort. Soviet aid, in contrast, had to be moved far greater distances and under constant attack. Despite the support of the majority of Spain’s population, the Republican government could not survive Franco’s rebellion.


  • Howson, Gerald. Arms for Spain: The Untold Story of the Spanish Civil War. London: John Murray, 1998. A review of the different approaches and attitudes of the European countries providing aid to the Nationalists and Republicans during the Spanish Civil War.
  • Puzzo, Dante A. Spain and the Great Powers, 1936-1941. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962. An examination of the differences between the open support of Germany and Italy for the Nationalists, the limited support of the Soviet Union for the Republicans, and the refusal of France and England to aid the legitimate Loyalist government.
  • Wheatley, Robert H. Hitler and Spain: The Nazi Role in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 1989. A discussion of Hitler’s multiple objectives in providing aid to the Nationalists.

Antiaircraft fire


Fighter pilots

Guernica, Spain, bombing


Messerschmitt aircraft

Military flight

World War II