German-made Stuka dive bombers, part of the Condor Legion, in flight above Spain on May 30, 1939, during the Spanish Civil War. The black-and-white “X” on the tail and wings is Saint Andrew’s Cross, the insignia of Franco’s Nationalist Air Force. The Condor Legion was composed of volunteers from the German Army and Air Force.
The first opportunity the Germans had to put their rediscovered operational doctrine to the test was in Spain. Following the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936, the Luftwaffe dispatched nine Ju-52 transport aircraft that played a critical role in bringing Gen Francisco Franco’s forces over from Africa to the homeland. Subsequently, the Condor Legion, commanded by Gen Hugo Sperrle with Col Wolfram von Richthofen acting as chief of staff, was expanded. At its peak, it was comprised of about 5,000 men and 100-150 aircraft, including liaison and reconnaissance machines, ground-attack aircraft, fighters, light bombers, and transports (Ju-52s) that were occasionally able to double as bombers. This organization never exceeded more than one-third of all the air forces fighting on Franco’s side, including both Spanish and Italian. The German contribution in ground troops was nil.
If the Germans had hoped to make Spain into a showcase of modern operativ warfare, they were disappointed. Spain, by virtue of its geography, was not a single theater of war but several. The various provinces are separated by mountain chains. They have a markedly dissimilar character and are often linked solely by a handful of roads that twist and wind their way through high passes. During wintertime some of the passes are usually blocked by snow. Much of the terrain is very broken and rugged, offering little scope for sweeping operations by large mechanized forces even if such forces had been available to either side. Both the nature of the terrain and the fact that this was, after all, one of the poorest countries in Europe meant that many, perhaps most, supplies had to be carried in horse-drawn wagons or even on the backs of pack animals. The commanders of the Condor Legion, trying to establish their forward headquarters at places where they could observe the action, routinely relied on horses.
Besides, this was not simply a trinitarian conflict between the armies of two opposing states. Instead, it was a many-fronted civil struggle in which operativ warfare drawing arrows on a map, cutting lines of communication, overrunning bases, encircling the enemy’s armed forces counted for little. General Franco’s own military experience had been gained almost entirely in colonial warfare in the Sahara. Perhaps for this reason, among others, he and his advisers put great value on guaranteeing the political security of one province before proceeding to conquer the next poco a poco (stage by stage), as his deputy, Gen Emilio Mola Vidal, once put it. The character of the struggle was such that objectives were sometimes of great symbolic value; they could not simply be bypassed, abandoned, or ignored. As a result, throughout the war, Franco repeatedly rejected his German advisers’ proposals for launching bold strokes deep into the enemy’s rear or for going straight toward the center of his power. Three instances come to mind.
In the summer of 1937, Franco refused to advance directly to Madrid, preferring to conquer the north-western provinces first. In February 1938, considerations of prestige caused him to refuse to bypass the town of Teruel south of Madrid. That same summer, he refused to carry out another would-be decisive stroke, rejecting a northward move from the river Ebro into Catalonia in favor of a campaign aimed at overrunning Valencia. The German commanders of the Condor Legion suffered agony as they saw their most cherished principles of war-concentration, maneuver, the quest for the enemy’s center of gravity, and the decisive battle that would quickly end the war-thrown away Looking back, however, one finds it hard to avoid the conclusion that they were wrong and Franco was right.
In the absence of wide-ranging, fast-moving, deep-penetrating mechanized forces and country suitable for their support, the struggle took one of two forms. In the northwest, and later during the Nationalist drive toward the Mediterranean, it was a question of infantry fighting for the mountain approaches, often converging on a town or province from several directions at once, as during the north-western campaign. The central plains north and south of Madrid initially saw some attempts at operativ warfare in the form of a Nationalist pincer movement on two sides of the capital (January-February 1937); however, this was halted and a brutal struggle of attrition took its place at Jarama and Guadalajara. The major battle that developed on the river Ebro after the Republicans crossed it from the north in July 1938 was also one of attrition and has, indeed, been compared to Verdun.
In essence, Spain offered few opportunities for maneuver warfare if by maneuver warfare we mean the operations of armored or mechanized forces exploiting weak spots to slice through the enemy’s country while aiming at objectives deep into the enemy’s rear. The character of the country and of the conflict itself, as well as Spanish misgivings, all combined to prevent this.
Under such circumstances, it was perhaps inevitable that the German air operations should be prolonged and conducted in piecemeal fashion. The forces themselves did not arrive all at once. Once they arrived, strategic surprise had been lost, though tactical surprise still could be, and sometimes was, achieved. There were many attempts to gain air superiority both by striking at enemy airfields and by aerial combat. However, given the number and quality of machines on both sides (during much of the conflict, the Republicans actually outnumbered their enemies, and until the end of 1937, their Soviet-built fighters were clearly superior to the German craft), there was no possibility of gaining a rapid, overwhelming advantage in this respect. Strategic air warfare, even if it had been possible with the primitive means available, was generally rejected by Franco as contrary to Spanish national interests. He felt that Spain did not have sufficient armament factories to justify attacks on them, and, wishing to avoid escalation, he refrained from bombing the ports. German aircraft flew numerous deep interdiction missions behind the front, “deep” here being dozens rather than hundreds of miles. They certainly hit marching columns, supply lines, depots, and military installations of every kind, particularly during the last phase when they helped interdict reinforcements trying to move from France southward through the Pyrenees . Generally, however, the dispersed nature of the conflict did not allow their operations to follow any particular pattern or to focus on any particular Schwerpunkt except perhaps on a purely tactical scale. The war was anything but a neat, classic blitzkrieg (lightning war), and subsequent attempts to present it as a prelude to one do not carry conviction.