The Spanish Civil War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In July of 1936, the government of Spain’s five-year-old Second Republic, an unstable popular front composed of liberal democrats, socialists, and communists, came under fire from the political right.

Political Considerations

In July of 1936, the government of Spain’s five-year-old Second Republic, an unstable popular front composed of liberal democrats, socialists, and Communism;Spanish Civil Warcommunists, came under fire from the political right. After failing to gain control in either February’s election or the ensuing wave of assassinations, the National Nationalism;Spanish Civil WarFront, an alliance of conservative democrats, monarchists, and fascist parties, including the militant Falange Falange (Spain)Española, now followed a clique of disloyal army officers in open revolt. The Spanish Roman Catholic Roman Catholic Church;in the Spanish Civil War[Spanish]Church sided with the revolutionaries.Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)

Like these civilian political factions, Spain’s armed services were divided. Ninety percent of the army’s officers and fifty percent of its enlisted men chose to follow their rebellious generals. In the navy, however, the crews of all but three ships mutinied against rebel officers, and more than half of the air force remained loyal. Further confounding the Nationalist bid for an early victory were numerous unity of command problems. The Nationalist general Francisco Franco, FranciscoFranco, FranciscoFranco (1892-1975), who had opposed an earlier coup, emerged as the sole leader of the rebellion only after one potential rival had fallen to a Republican firing squad and another had died in a plane crash while attempting to return from exile. During the early campaigns, Falangist militiamen often mobilized and operated beyond the pale of Franco’s authority. Carlists (Spanish Civil War)Carlists, who longed for the ultimate return of the monarchy, acted similarly. Although both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy provided military aid, foreign intervention did not decide the war’s outcome.

Whereas the socially disparate Nationalists gave vent to their hatred of the “Red Republic” by eventually conceding all command authority to Franco, Loyalists (Spanish Civil War)Loyalist hatred for fascism occasioned no parallel sacrifice. Although fighting on the side of the Republican Popular Republican Popular Army (Spanish Civil War)Basque separatistsArmy, Basque and Catalán Catalán separatistsseparatists continued to resist central authority, as did Spain’s two most powerful trade unions and its anarchists. Like the Falangists and Carlists, these groups mobilized their own militias and frequently fought independently of the army they should have been assisting. Some Republican dissidents also fought against the Popular Army and the government it represented. This resistance was often provoked by members of Soviet Union;Spanish Civil WarSoviet military- and political-aid missions who reserved Soviet tank, artillery, and air support for communist formations. Soviet operatives assassinated some noncommunist Popular Front members as well. Tyrannical acts such as these eventually damaged Republican morale beyond repair.

Military Achievement

More unified in spirit than their enemies, the Nationalists were ultimately successful in their bid to overthrow the Republic. Nevertheless, several factors limited their efforts. First, because trade unionists sided with the Republic, the rebels had to take Spain’s industrial centers by force; the two largest cities, Madrid and Barcelona, remained under government control until the war’s final weeks. Second, Nationalist objectives, like Republican ones, were often chosen for political rather than military reasons. Third, because Franco often differed with his German and Italian advisers on tactics, troop dispositions, and objectives, some of the advantage that otherwise would have accrued from foreign military assistance was negated.

Division of Spain, 1936

During the war’s first phase, from July, 1936, to March, 1937, four Nationalist columns converged on the capital at Madrid but failed to break in, partly because of fanatical Republican resistance at University City, on the Jarama River, and at Guadalajara, and partly because Nationalist general EmilioMola, EmilioMola, EmilioMola’s (1887-1937) estimate that a “Fifth Column” of sympathizers would disrupt the defenses from within had proven unduly optimistic. Stalemated around Madrid, both Franco and his Republican counterpart, José Miaja, JoséMiaja, JoséMiaja (1879-1958), looked elsewhere for advantages during the war’s second phase, from April, 1937, to February, 1938. Franco reinforced Mola’s Army of the North and took the ports and industrial centers along the Bay of Biscay, whereas the next Republican offensives focused on Aragon, where in the spring of 1937, a handful of Nationalist troops were holding a 200-mile front. The Republic’s Army of the East was slow to attack, and the Nationalists reacted, saving Saragossa Saragossa, Battle of (1937)(1937) and retaking Teruel Teruel, Battle of (1937-1938)(1937-1938). The Republic’s loss of Teruel proved especially costly in terms of men, equipment, and the consequent loss of Soviet aid. During the war’s final phase, the Republic was in a state of collapse, and only the rebels were capable of strategic offensives. Franco drove eastward to the Mediterranean in March and April of 1938 and isolated Catalonia from the remainder of Republican territory. In January, 1939, he took its key city, Barcelona. The defenses of Madrid finally collapsed on March 27, 1939, ending a war that had cost more than 600,000 Spanish lives.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

Despite some small-scale experimentation with tactical aviation and armor, the opposing armies were composed mainly of nonmechanized infantry. Often poorly supported and partially equipped with leftovers from World War I, the Riff War Riff War (1919-1926)(1919-1926), and the Russian Civil War Russian Civil War (1918-1921)(1918-1921), both armies also used captured weapons extensively. Because the prewar Republic’s standard-issue service Rifles;Spanish Civil Warrifle, the bolt-action, 7.65-millimeter Model 1893 Mauser, was in short supply, a number of substitutes appeared, including the Italian 6.5-millimeter Carcano and the Russian 7.62-millimeter Mosin-Nagant. Far less common were submachine Submachine guns;Spanish Civil Warguns, which included the Italian Beretta MP-28, the Soviet PPD-34, and the Spanish-built Lanchester. French military aid to the Republic included some World War I surplus air-cooled machine Machine guns;Spanish Civil Warguns: the Hotchkiss Mk1 and the notoriously unreliable Chauchat. The Italian Breda 30 appeared more often in Nationalist ranks. Belt-fed, water-cooled machine guns of the Maxim-Vickers type were more common on both sides, but their heavier weight rendered them less suitable for highly mobile operations. The proliferation of rifle and machine gun calibers and types produced logistical nightmares for Nationalists and Republicans alike.

All but a few pieces of artillery on both sides were towed, and these guns, like the infantrymen they supported, were far more thinly scattered than they had been on the western front from 1914 to 1918. The road and rail networks of Spain could not have supported massive World War I-style artillery barrages or supplied World War-sized armies.

The numerous irregular units, foreign volunteers, and shortages of supplies during the Spanish Civil War gave rise to a multitude of Uniforms;Spanish Civil Waruniform types, but there were a few frequently recurring features. The prewar Spanish Peninsular Army-issue khaki pants,Khakiskhaki shirt with pleated patch breast pockets, and thigh-length guerra tunics were numerous on both sides. Civilian items were especially common in Republican ranks. These included corduroy pants and jacket, usually brown, the leather or cloth cazadora windbreaker, and the mono, a lightweight brown corduroy coverall. Although both sides used the Spanish M-1926 helmet, augmented by the Republic with French Adrian M-1916’s and M-1926’s, prewar-issue isabellinos, or forage Headgear;Spanish Civil War caps, were more common in the two armies. Black, brown, and olive drab berets were especially common on the Republican side, but these colors rarely reflected the wearer’s arm of service, as in other armies. The red beret was more frequently seen on Carlist monarchists fighting for Franco than on communist Republicans. Woolen field caps, such as the peaked pasa montana, were more popular with both sides in winter. Footwear was similarly nonstandard. In the summer, prewar-issue boots often gave way to lower-cut brogans or the cooler but flimsier alpargato sandals.

Among these two opposing armies, the intervening powers placed small numbers of up-to-date weapons and advisory groups to train Spanish clients in their use. Several hundred German 5.8-ton Pzkw I light Tanks;Spanish Civil Wartanks (but never more than 180 at a time) served on the Nationalist side, as did a similar number of the Italian 4.6-ton CV-33 tankettes. Both were thinly armored–the CV-33 had no turret or roof armor–and equipped with machine guns only. In crew protection and gun power the Soviet-supplied Republican tanks, the 9-ton T-26B and 11-ton BT-5, were far superior; both mounted 45-millimeter cannons. Low-wing fighter Aircraft;Spanish Civil Waraircraft with retractable landing gear made their debut in Spain, but here the Soviet Polikarpov 1-16 was quickly outclassed by the German Messerschmitt Bf-109. Later variants of the Bf-109 and the Junkers Ju-87 Stuka Dive-bombers[Dive bombers]dive-bomber would play prominent roles in Germany’s early victories of World War II (1939-1945), as would the twin-engined Dornier Do-17 and Heinkel He-111 bombers, also introduced in Spain. However, these modern aircraft served side by side with more numerous biplanes of the previous generation and, like the tanks, in numbers too small to tip the strategic balance. Among the German antiaircraft contingent were four batteries of 88-millimeter guns, which proved equally effective in the direct-fire role against ground targets at Brunete (1937) and after. Unlike other weapons tested in Spain, the dual-purpose “88” neither became obsolete nor required significant improvement during World War II.

Military Organization

Both opponents in the Spanish Civil War were undersupplied and employed semi-independent militias, and neither had an effective centralized replacement system. For these reasons, standardized tables of organization and equipment were slow to take hold. During the first year of the war, for example, the all-communist Fifth Regiment grew into the Popular Army’s V Corps. Other Republican units, notably the component battalions of the five International Brigades, shrank and consolidated as they sustained severe losses. Nationalist formations consolidated as well but more often retained prewar schemes of organization, which varied from Spain’s Army of Africa to its Peninsular Army.

By 1938, the Infantry;Spanish Civil Warinfantry division commanded by a coronel had become the basic building block of both armies, its strength fluctuating between 6,000 and 10,000 men. The Republican division usually comprised three Soviet-style mixed brigades, each of which was authorized as four battalions, but usually assigned three; a grupo of four artillery batteries; and an antitank battery. In some Nationalist divisions, the less standardized agrupación supplanted the brigade, and a single agrupación might include both African and Peninsular formations. Army of Africa formations included the tabor, a company-sized unit, and the bandera, two tabores supported by a heavy-weapons company. These sometimes served in the same divisions as Peninsular Army battalions. In both armies, a corps generally comprised three divisions, and an army, two or more corps.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

Historians who wrote during and immediately after World War II often regarded the Spanish Civil War as an ideal laboratory in which the Condor Condor LegionsLegions, the military aid sent by Germany;Spanish Civil WarGermany, could test the technologies and tactics of what later became known as BlitzkriegBlitzkrieg, or “lightning war.” Such a view supported contemporary efforts to explain the Allied failures from 1939 to 1941 and stemmed from a germ of truth: German advisers had indeed preferred to coordinate the movement of tanks with that of the other arms and, sometimes, to mass the mechanized elements in tactically independent formations. However, more recent scholarship indicates that, although often frustrated in their efforts, many Soviet advisers to the Popular Army had favored similar improvements.

Although Spain often proved a viable testing ground for prototypes of weapons later variants of which would see action in World War II, those prototypes were too few for reliable assessments of doctrine. Other factors compounded this deficiency. First, few Spanish commanders assigned doctrinal reform a high priority. Second, foreign luminaries who did, such as Germany’s Heinz Guderian, HeinzGuderian, HeinzGuderian (1888-1954) and the Soviet Union’s Mikhayl Nikolayevich Tukhachevsky, Mikhayl NikolayevichTukhachevsky, Mikhayl NikolayevichTukhachevsky (1893-1937), saw their nations’ respective Spanish commitments as politically imposed burdens to be dealt with by subordinates. They preferred to conduct tactical experiments at home, away from prying eyes.

Three tanks in battle during the Spanish Civil War, which proved a testing ground for the European forces that later fought World War II.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Guderian, the principal designer of Germany’s tank forces, believed that Tanks;Heinz Guderiantanks should attack in large, dense concentrations against narrow segments of the enemy’s line. Unlike the Allied tank attacks of World War I, Guderian’s attacks were to be accompanied by mechanized infantry and engineers and supported by Dive-bombers[Dive bombers]dive-bombers rather than conventional towed artillery, which could not be expected to keep up. Once through the thick crust of forward defenses, the ground arms were to avoid dense concentrations of enemy troops where possible and spread out, making counterattack difficult. These densely packed Panzer spearheads were necessary not only to overcome enemy resistance but also to maintain the momentum of the advance even when some of the tanks suffered mechanical failure.

Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, Wilhelm Ritter vonThoma, Wilhelm Ritter vonThoma (1891-1948), Guderian’s proxy in Spain, faced not only prohibitive shortages of tanks and crews but also difficulty in training the Spanish. They were, in his words, “quick to learn but also quick to forget.” Thoma also came to doubt that a battalion of tanks could be controlled by radios during the attack, and he urged Guderian, unsuccessfully, to have them removed. In the latter phases of the Ebro CounteroffensiveEbro Counteroffensive (1938)(1938), Nationalist tank operations began to resemble Guderian’s ideal, but previous Republican losses were largely to blame for that.

The Italians also experimented with mechanized forces, but the Italian Guerra celere (Italian unit)guerra celere, “fast war,” suffered even more from lack of training, leadership, and resources. At Guadalajara in March, Guadalajara (1937) 1937, a battalion of CV-33’s was destroyed when it outran supporting infantry and air cover. The subsequent Republican counterattack regained almost all of the lost territory, and all but a few Western observers interpreted the Italian failure as an indictment of all independent mechanized operations. Later Italian success in the Catalonia Offensive Catalonia Offensive (1938-1939) (1938-1939) drew far less commentary, as the Popular Army was then in its final stages of collapse.

The senior Soviet tank officer in Spain, Dmitri Pavlov, DmitriPavlov, DmitriPavlov (1897-1941), interpreted similar Republican failures as proof that the independent mechanized formations designed by Tukhachevsky in 1932 should be cannibalized and tied piecemeal to nonmechanized infantry. Tukhachevsky, like Guderian, believed that only tactically independent mechanized penetration could win land wars and, during 1936 and 1937, some of Pavlov’s subordinates agreed. Two events settled the debate. The first was Tukhachevsky’s trial and execution during the Purge of Purges (Soviet)1937, which rendered “Deep Battle” tank doctrine politically incorrect. The second was the failure of two Republican tank battalions to break through Nationalist defenses at Fuentes de Ebro on October 13, Fuentes de Ebro (1937)1937. Although this defeat had been foreordained by poor planning and training, it nevertheless provided the ambitious Pavlov with more ammunition to use against a rival philosophy. His victory, and the consequent dismantling of Tukhachevsky’s large formations, contributed to the Soviet defeat in 1941.

The relationship between Spanish Civil WarAir forces;Spanish Civil Warair operations and doctrinal progress was also inconsistent. The most strategically significant use of aircraft–the airlifting of Nationalist forces from Spanish Morocco–made little impression on the Germans, for whom Airlifts;Spanish Civil Warairlift capacity was to remain a third priority during World War II. Dive-bombing was indeed a higher priority, but the Germans had already committed to it by 1936, and only one Stuka ever appeared over Spain before January, 1938. CondorCondor Legions Legion fighter pilots, led by Werner Mölders, WernerMölders, Werner[Molders]Mölders (1913-1941), developed the “finger four” Finger four formationformation that they would use so effectively during World War II, whereas the bombers they escorted sometimes flew against civilian targets, as at Guernica Guernica (1937)(1937). Even so, the Luftwaffe (German air force)Luftwaffe never developed strategic bombardment or long range escort capabilities.

If Nationalist and Republican commanders had been more receptive to tactical innovation, a thoroughgoing doctrinal revolution would have been difficult anyway. Unlike the European battlefields of World War II, much of Spain was too mountainous for mechanized operations, and its road and rail networks were poor. Foreign instructors were few, and conducting hands-on training through translators was exceedingly difficult. On the Republican side, this lack of communication was especially problematic: In the first Soviet tank training detachment to arrive in October, 1936, only one man spoke Spanish.

Contemporary Sources

Ferdinand Miksche’s Attack: A Study of Blitzkrieg Tactics (1942) argues that Spain was the perfect tactical laboratory for the intervening powers who would later fight World War II, and that the Allies failed to conduct the proper experiments or draw the correct conclusions when the Condor Legion did. More general accounts from the International Brigades are plentiful, but most mix political ideology with more strictly military matters. Arnold Vieth von Golssenau’s Der spanische Krieg (1955; the Spanish War), written under the pseudonym Ludwig Renn, is among the best. English-language sources concentrate mainly on the Fifteenth Brigade, in which most of the American, British, and Canadian volunteers served. These include Our Fight: Writings by Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Spain, 1936-1939 (1969), edited by Alvah Bessie and Albert Prago, and English Captain (1939) by Tom Wintringham. Spanish Republican accounts, even when useful, often mix polemics and tactics, as in the memoirs of rival communist commanders Juan Modesto, JuanModesto, Juan Modesto, Soy del Quinto Regimiento (1969; I am of the Fifth Regiment) and Enrique Líster, EnriqueLíster, Enrique[Lister, Enrique] Líster, Nuestra Guerra (1966; our war). Ramón Sender, RamónSender, Ramón Sender includes a revealing account of the first Republican tank operation in Counter-attack in Spain (1937), whereas Jose Miaja’s chief of staff VicenteRojo, VicenteRojo, VicenteRojo provides a view from Popular Army headquarters in España heroica (1942).

Fewer Nationalist sources have made it into English, but no study of the tank attack at Fuentes de Fuentes de Ebro (1937)Ebro can be complete without the interview related by Henry J. Reilly in the article “Tank Attack in Spain,” published in the July/August, 1939, issue of Cavalry Journal. German frustrations in the area of doctrinal development are recounted by Gustav Diniker in his article “Betrachtungen über die Bewertung von Erfahrungen mit Kriegsmaterial in Spanien,” in the June, 1937, issue of Wissen und Wehr.Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)

Books and Articles
  • Baxell, Richard. British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War: The British Batallion in the International Brigades, 1936-1939. New York: Routledge, 2004.
  • Beevor, Antony. The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.
  • Bolloten, Burnett. The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
  • Carver, John. Airmen Without Portfolio: U.S. Mercenaries in Civil War Spain. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997.
  • Coverdale, John F. Italian Intervention in the Spanish Civil War. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975.
  • Eby, Cecil D. Comrades and Commissars: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007.
  • Elstob, Peter. The Condor Legion. New York: Ballantine, 1973.
  • Henry, Chris. The Ebro, 1938: Death Knell of the Republic. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 1999. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004.
  • Howson, Gerald. Arms for Spain: The Untold Story of the Spanish Civil War. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
  • Jensen, Geoffrey. Franco: Soldier, Commander, Dictator. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2005.
  • Keene, Judith. Fighting for Franco: International Volunteers in Nationalist Spain During the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. New York: Leicester University Press, 2001.
  • Landis, Arthur. Death in the Olive Groves: American Volunteers and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. New York: Paragon House, 1989.
  • Lannon, Frances. The Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2002.
  • Proctor, Raymond. Hitler’s Luftwaffe in the Spanish Civil War. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983.
  • Wyden, Peter. The Passionate War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.
Films and Other Media
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls. Feature film. Paramount, 1943.
  • Land and Freedom. Feature film. Kino Film Company, 1995.
  • Libertarias. Feature film. Warner Home Video, 1996.
  • Pan’s Labyrinth. Feature film. Warner Bros., 2006.
  • The Spanish Civil War. Documentary. MPI Home Video, 1987.
  • The Spanish Earth. Docudrama. Prometheus Pictures, 1937.

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