Analysis 1 What Was The Significance Of German Aid To The Nationalist Side

Some of the reasons for Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy's intervention in the events in Spain from July 1936 were touched on briefly in the two previous chapters. What seems clear, however, is that a Nazi and Italian Fascist presence did not so much start the conflict as play a major role in sustaining it, manipulating and redefining it, and in determining its outcome: in Spain, victory for Franco; abroad, a deepening gulf (with significant qualifications) between fascist and anti-fascist powers. This analysis will focus principally on the significance of German aid to what, not so long after the initiation of hostilities, could be called 'Franco Spain'.

Vitally important in its timing, Operation Magic Fire conveyed troops of the Army of Africa - reputedly the best in the Spanish army - to the mainland. Denis Smyth has written of the 'isolation and piecemeal defeat' of the insurgents that would have occurred had the airlifts not taken place.2 Christian Leitz draws attention to a highly significant strategic gain which German transport soon made possible - namely, the Nationalists' capture of Badajoz close to the Portuguese border, which assured access to Lisbon, the port which became a major docking-point for high-quality German matériel.3

These weapons were to play a decisive role in helping the Nationalists to win what was, after all, an unexpected civil war. Admittedly, their effectiveness could not be taken for granted. For example, most aircraft initially lacked radio sets. However, by mid-1937 German successes had helped to reassert Nationalist air superiority. On the ground, the use of German triple-function (artillery, anti-tank and anti-aircraft) 88mm guns and MG34 machine-guns proved hard to match. However, as Alpert observes, without German naval patrols to protect the (disguised) arms-carrying ships, the matériel might never have arrived - nor the Republican naval lifelines been squeezed.4 Moreover, by the end of October 1936 Hitler authorized a significant expansion of Germany's aid programme, for he saw that the Spanish conflict would not be a 'short war' and he was determined neither to be outshone by Mussolini nor to allow the Russian aid now pouring in to swing the balance away from Franco's Nationalists.

The Condor Legion came to personify this new phase of German aid to those forces working to reinstate 'traditional Spanish values'. The legion's help was conditional: the Nationalists must try harder to win the war and accept German command of this force. Partly experimental, it was, in P.M.H. Bell's words, a 'compact and efficient body' whose contribution was 'out of all proportion to its size'.5 Research in the late 1980s by American historian Robert Whealey revealed that only about 5,500 CL personnel were based in Spain at any one time. Predictably, however, for Hitler it was the CL and its chief of staff von Richtofen who were the architects of Franco's victory.

The CL first saw action over Cartagena and Madrid in November 1936. South of the capital, at the Battle of the Jarama, the 88mm guns first saw action, their lethal accuracy restricting the air-support role of the Republican air force. To maximize the use of its own well-maintained combat planes and their equally well-trained crews, companies of air-communications specialists were also provided. The Condor Legion's support ensured the collapse of the defensive 'iron ring' around Bilbao which fell on 7 June 1937. This key development put naval shipyards as well as more iron, steel and artillery shell production in Franco's hands (Mola had been killed four days before); and now there were no cableheads left in Republican hands, strengthening Franco's grip on communications. As Preston has shown, the Germans masterminded this Vizcayan campaign, though it was not until late August 1937 that, east of Santander, the Basque army finally yielded.6

Inexorably, the Nationalists advanced west on the Asturias, where the Condor Legion used primitive napalm to subvert Republican morale. The fall of the Asturias was in some ways more signficant than that of Bilbao, for now coordination of Asturian coal and Basque iron ore production could in turn feed the munitions factories. Furthermore, local conscription swelled the ranks of the Nationalist armies for future campaigns.7 Beginning in December 1937, the eastern campaign would eventually split in two what remained of the Republic.

Already at Brunete the value of the new Messerschmitt 109 monoplane fighter had been demonstrated: the Nationalists achieved, and would not yield, air superiority in the central theatre. Now, following Franco's successful recapture in February 1938 of Teruel in southern Aragón - thanks partly to CL aircover - thirty-six of these cutting-edge aircraft, along with 200 tanks, were deployed in the offensive which would take Franco's forces north to the French border. Simultaneously, in the Nationalists' march east to the sea, over 1,000 German and Italian planes saw action, though such impressive numbers were offset by disagreements over tank tactics and by France's allowing Republican supplies across the border into Spain. Nevertheless, by mid-April 1938 the Nationalists had reached the eastern coast.

The subsequent Ebro Valley Campaign between July and November 1938 began as a Republican offensive but ultimately positioned the Nationalists for their final thrust in Catalonia. Here, the Condor Legion again proved significant. Indeed, as Thomas, Smyth and Preston have suggested, the two waves of CL reinforcements and delivery of new German equipment, in return for mining concessions, reinvigorated the Nationalist forces for their success on the Ebro and final push on Barcelona.8

If the Condor Legion symbolized Nazi intervention, then Guernica, which in Picasso's painting would become the hell of war as art form, expressed the full horror of Nazi military tactics in Spain. On 26 April 1937, as a result of 185 minutes' bombing, the market town was left a smouldering and bloody skeleton - an act of grotesque perfection by over fifty aircraft of the Condor Legion and Italian Aviazione Legionaria. Although as a communications base and escape hatch for retreating Republican Basques the town was a military target, Guernica was also part of Mola's plan to destroy the morale of the Vizcayan population and thus wipe out their will to resist. But submission was not forthcoming: the Basque army fought on for four months. Furthermore, because of the particular brutality of this assault and the fact that thousands of Basque children were welcomed abroad as refugees, Guernica permanently raised the war's international profile.

This can be seen to exemplify the 'wider contribution' of Nazi intervention, but within Spain the role of pro-Nationalist German personnel (estimates vary from 10,000 to 16,000) went beyond that of direct combat. Many were instructors or communications experts. The battleship Deutschland had among its crew signals specialists to help Franco intercept Republican merchant shipping.

The Third Reich's contribution to the Nationalist war effort was valued by Hugh Thomas at 540 million Reichsmarks, of which the Condor Legion cost 354 million.9 How was it all to be paid for? HISMA/ROWAK operated the symbiotic connection between the Spanish Nationalist war machine and the German war economy. Franco needed German matériel right through to the winter of 1938 and beyond; Germany needed Spanish raw materials to offset the export of military hardware to Franco and to fuel its own rearmament programme. These links represented a very narrow economic corridor for Franco's foreign exchange; they also excluded many business interests within Germany.

Christian Leitz, a leading expert on economic relations between Germany and Spain whose researches in Germany include the Federal Archive in Koblenz, has presented a clear and concise analysis of HISMA/ ROWAK and its significance. As he explains, the original function of HISMA, from its first base in Spanish Morocco, was to arrange the carriage of Franco's troops and equipment. A later branch of HISMA was set up in Bilbao, the leading source of iron ore: HISMA's additional, and thereafter central, role was to process Franco's debt repayments in the form of raw materials. Apart from iron ore and pyrites (for explosives), these included zinc, tin and tungsten, all of which were required by IGFarben-werke, Germany's leading chemical conglomerate. ROWAK was HISMA's twin company, operating as the import distributor in Germany and locking in to the 'massive exploitation of Franco's dependence on German military and economic aid', forwarding these Spanish minerals to industrial plants in the Ruhr.10

Beyond such interdependent military and economic considerations, what else was significant about German aid to the Nationalists? It certainly gave a vivid insight into Germany's wider perceptions of Europe. A Spanish Nationalist victory could divide France's forces in time of war by burdening it with the defence of a second front. It could also block the passage of French colonial troops by sea and land. France was also allied to Russia: therefore, it was vital to defeat the Spanish Republic which might have aligned with a Franco-Russian 'axis' and reinforced Germany's encirclement by foreign powers. As Denis Smyth has put it, 'Prevention was the mother of intervention.'11 German hopes for Britain were somewhat contradictory: seduced by the Fuhrer's relentless assault on Bolshevism in Spain, 'England' would favour Germany and distance itself from 'passive' France; on the other hand, a Franco victory could disrupt the British navy. Italy (and the other powers) must be diverted from central Europe, where Germany's expansionist policies were soon to enter a more dynamic and dangerous phase. The Axis, however, must be sustained, for it was the 'new arbiter' in European affairs. Another aspect of keeping Italy involved in Spain was to get it to play the larger part in feeding Franco's war machine. For Germany did not want to incite France to an anti-German war by unrestricted Wehrmacht assaults on the Spanish Republic.

However, German aid to Franco would serve both the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe well. At the Hossbach Conference in November 1937 Hitler contemplated war in Europe; Spain provided a combat environment in which weapons and tactics could be tested and refined. For example, two advanced monoplane fighter aircraft were tried out. The Heinkel 112 was sent for experimental missions, but it was the Messerschmitt 109 that proved the more impressive. In the Spanish arena at least four variants of the Messerschmitt were put through their paces, and tactics in aerial combat were developed and established. The campaigns in Vizcaya and the Asturias baptized the 'flying pencil' - the new Dornier 17 bomber which was faster than the Heinkel 111s - and Junkers 87 divebombers which were to become the screaming scourge of Poland in 1939 and of France in 1940.

Yet recriminations peppered the relationship between Germany and the Nationalists. The haughty General Faupel, the Reich's first ambassador to Franco, was a notorious meddler and extremely unpopular. Conversely, German (and Italian) aid frustrated its donors because Franco seemed to be manipulating it to pursue his own slow agenda of near-genocidal attrition against the 'reds'. His enemies could then be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Among historians, subjects for debate have included the economic dimension, and the obliteration of Guernica. Were economic advantages of intervening in Spain a 'by-product' (Smyth) or did they 'loom large' (Alpert) in Germany's thinking?12 Who was responsible for the Guernica atrocity? Was it the Basques themselves aiming to reap a propaganda advantage that, in a tragically ironic sense, they achieved anyway? Or was it the Francoist hierarchy releasing the Condor Legion over Guernica with orders to kill the spirit of Basque resistance and open the way to Bilbao twenty kilometres to the west? In his seminal 1977 dissection, 'Guernica! Guernica!' A Study of Journalism, Diplomacy, Propaganda and History, Herbert R. Southworth has shown the latter to have been the case.

In conclusion, thanks to intervention by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and despite or because of the Non-Intervention Committee, the Spanish Civil War became a war about international fascism. But how universal and how durable was the conviction with which this war was waged? It has been said that the intervention kept the war going but that the extent of German aid was calculated to prevent a general war. Even so, military success in Spain compensated for Hitler's frustration over the Sudetenland in September 1938. It also formed the technical and tactical precedent for the German triumphs of 1939 and 1940. Historians have also argued that Germany and Italy did not try to impose political influence on Franco as Stalin had done over the Republicans. But Hitler and Mussolini did not need to wield this control, for there was a much greater meeting of minds, and there were few internal divisions on the Nationalist side to fracture their military and economic conduct of the war. Finally, German and Italian aid (and British and French non-intervention) forced the Soviet Union to shore up the Republic. In turn, the Third Reich and Fascist Italy, partners in an anti-communist crusade, cemented the Rome-Berlin Axis, which paved the way for the Pact of Steel in May 1939 and Italy's intervention in the Second World War thirteen unlucky months later. In 1940 both Hitler and Mussolini would themselves experience humiliating failures; in the Battle of Britain and invasions of Greece and Egypt, respectively. Hitler's attention then focused on the Soviet Union and detailed planning of the ill-fated Operation Barbarossa. It would be Franco's turn, via the Falangist Blue Division, to support Hitler, to show his gratitude in blood for the Fuhrer's help in defeating Bolshevism in Spain.

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  • carl
    How important was german aid to the nationalists?
    8 years ago

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