Germany and the Spanish Civil War

On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War the leaders of the military uprising immediately asked the German government for help. The first request was for ten transport planes to ferry Nationalist troops from Morocco to Spain. Constantin von Neurath, the German foreign minister, initially rejected the request, expressing fears that such a move could lead to a European war. Adolf Hitler did not agree with Neurath and after consulting with Herman Goering, Wilhelm Canaris and Werner von Blomberg, he told General Francisco Franco on 26th July 1936 that Germany would support his rebellion.

Hitler justified his decision by arguing that he was attempting to save Europe from "communist barbarism". Another reason was that it brought Germany closer to Italy, a country that was also supporting the military uprising in Spain. Hitler also knew that a Nationalist victory would give him an important ally in his struggle with Britain and France. He was especially interested in obtaining iron, copper, mercury and pyrites from Spain for his armaments industry.

Another factor in Hitler's decision was that providing military aid to the Nationalist Army would give him the opportunity to test out his commanders, weapons and tactics.

On 27th July, 1936, Adolf Hitler sent the the Nationalists 26 German fighter aircraft. He also sent 30 Junkers 52s from Berlin and Stuttgart to Morocco. Over the next couple of weeks the aircraft transported over 15,000 troops to Spain. The fighter aircraft soon went into action and the Germans suffered their first losses when airmen Helmut Schulze and Herbert Zeck were killed on 15th August.

In September 1936 a Non-Intervention Agreement was drawn-up in London and signed by 27 countries including Germany, Britain, France, the Soviet Union and Italy. Hitler continued to give aid but attempted to disguise this by sending the men, planes, tanks, and munitions via Portugal.

Lieutenant Colonel Walther Warlimont of the German General Staff arrived as the German commander and military adviser to General Francisco Franco in September 1936. The following month Warlimont suggested that a German Condor Legion should be formed to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

Hitler hoped this would not be necessary as General Francisco Franco claimed he was on the verge of victory. This prediction proved to be wrong and in November the International Brigades and aircraft and tanks from the Soviet Union began arriving in Madrid.

Hitler now gave permission for the formation of the Condor Legion. The initial force consisted a Bomber Group of three squadrons of Ju-52 bombers; a Fighter Group with three squadrons of He-51 fighters; a Reconnaissance Group with two squadrons of He-99 and He-70 reconnaissance bombers; and a Seaplane Squadron of He-59 and He-60 floatplanes.

The Condor Legion, under the command of General Hugo Sperrle, was an autonomous unit responsible only to Franco. The legion would eventually total nearly 12,000 men. Sperrle demanded higher performance aircraft from Germany and he eventually received the Heinkel He111, Junkers Stuka and the Messerschmitt Bf109. It participated in all the major engagements including Brunete, Teruel, Aragon and Ebro.

During the war Werner Moelders was credited with fourteen kills, more than any other German pilot. In the Asturias campaign in September 1937, Adolf Galland experimented with new bombing tactics. This became known as carpet bombing (dropping all bombs on the enemy from every aircraft at one time for maximum damage). German aircraft dropped 16,953,700 kilos of bombs during the war and air units expended 4,327,949 rounds of machine-gun ammunition.

Adolf Hitler also sent four tank companies under the command of Colonel Wilhelm von Thoma. He was also in charge of all German ground troops in Spain. He later commented: "Their numbers were greatly exaggerated in newspaper reports - they were never more than 600 at a time. They were used to train Franco's tank force and to get battle experience themselves."

A total of 19,000 Germans served in the Spanish Civil War. Of these, 298 were lost, with 173 being killed by the enemy. This included 102 aircrew, 27 fighter pilots and 21 anti-aircraft crew. A large number were killed in accidents and others died of illness. The Condor Legion lost 72 aircraft to enemy action. Another 160 were lost in flying accidents.

Primary Sources

(1) Hermann Goering, statement at Nuremberg War Crimes Trial (October 1946)

When the civil war broke out in Spain Franco sent a call for help to Germany and asked for support, particularly in the air. Franco with his troops was stationed in Africa and he could not get his troops across, as the fleet was in the hands of the communists. The decisive factor was, first of all, to get his troops to Spain. The Führer thought the matter over. I urged him to give support under all circumstances: firstly, to prevent the further spread of communism; secondly, to test my young Luftwaffe in this or that technical respect.

(2) William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1959)

Though German aid to Franco never equalled that given by Italy, which dispatched between sixty and seventy thousand troops as well as vast supplies of arms and planes, it was considerable. The Germans estimated later that they spent half a billion marks on the venture 37 besides furnishing planes, tanks, technicians and the Condor Legion, an Air Force unit which distinguished itself by the obliteration of the Spanish town of Guernica and its civilian inhabitants. Relative to Germany's own massive rearmament it was not much, but it paid handsome dividends to Hitler.

It gave France a third unfriendly fascist power on its borders. It exacerbated the internal strife in France between Right and Left and thus weakened Germany's principal rival in the West. Above all it rendered impossible a rapprochement of Britain and France with Italy, which the Paris and London governments had hoped for after the termination of the Abyssinian War, and thus drove Mussolini into the arms of Hitler.

From the very beginning the Fuehrer's Spanish policy was shrewd, calculated and far-seeing. A perusal of the captured German documents makes plain that one of Hitler's purposes was to prolong the Spanish Civil War in order to keep the Western democracies and Italy at loggerheads and draw Mussolini toward him.

(3) Ulrich von Hassell, German Ambassador in Italy (December 1936)

The role played by the Spanish conflict as regards Italy's relations with France and England could be similar to that of the Abyssinian conflict, bringing out clearly the actual, opposing interests of the powers and thus preventing Italy from being drawn into the net of the Western powers and used for their machinations. The struggle for dominant political influence in Spain lays bare the natural opposition between Italy and France; at the same time the position of Italy as a power in the western Mediterranean comes into competition with that of Britain. All the more clearly will Italy recognize the advisability of confronting the Western powers shoulder to shoulder with Germany.

(4) Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1952)

In the course of the next three years Germany sent men and military supplies, including experts and technicians of all kinds and the famous Condor Air Legion. German aid to Franco was never on a major scale, never sufficient to win the war for him or even to equal the forces sent by Mussolini, which in March 1937 reached the figure of sixty to seventy thousand men. Hitler's policy, unlike Mussolini's, was not to secure Franco's victory, but to prolong the war. In April 1939, an official of the German Economic Policy Department, trying to reckon what Germany had spent on help to Franco up to that date, gave a round figure of five hundred million Reichsmarks, not a large sum by comparison with the amounts spent on rearmament. But the advantages Germany secured in return were disproportionate - economic advantages (valuable sources of raw materials in Spanish mines); useful experience in training her airmen and testing equipment such as tanks in battle conditions; above all, strategic and political advantages.

It only needed a glance at the map to show how seriously France's position was affected by events across the Pyrenees. A victory for Franco would mean a third Fascist State on her frontiers, three instead of two frontiers to be guarded in the event of war. France, for geographical reasons alone, was more deeply interested in what happened in Spain than any other of the Great Powers, yet the ideological character of the Spanish Civil War divided, instead of uniting, French opinion. The French elections shortly before the outbreak of the troubles in Spain had produced the Left-wing Popular Front Government of Leon Blum. So bitter had class and political conflicts grown in France that - as in the case of the Franco-Soviet Treaty - foreign affairs were again subordinated to internal faction, and many Frenchmen were prepared to support Franco as a way of hitting at their own Government.

(5) The Manchester Guardian (25th July 1936)

A pessimistic view is taken here of events in Spain. There is no indication yet whether the Government or the insurgents are likely to prevail. Everything points to a protracted and sanguinary civil war.

The insurgents have the advantage of getting outside help whereas the Government is getting none. The latter has applied to the French Government for permission to import arms from France, but so far at least permission has not been given. The insurgents, on the other hand, are being assisted by the Italians and Germans.

During the last few weeks large numbers of Italian and German agents have arrived in Morocco and the Balearic Islands. These agents are taking part in military activities and are also exercising a certain political influence.

For the insurgents the belief that they have the support of the two great 'Fascist Powers' is an immense encouragement.

But it is also more than an encouragement, for many of the weapons now in their hands are of Italian origin. This is particularly so in Morocco.

The German influence is strongest in the Balearic Islands. Germany has a great interest in the victory of the insurgents.

Apparently she hopes to secure concession in the Balearic Islands from them when they are in power. These islands play an important part in German plans for the future development of sea-power in the Mediterranean.

The civil war is of particular interest to Germany because the victory of the insurgents would open the prospect (closed by Anglo-French collaboration and by the existence of a pro-British, pro-French, and pro-League Spanish Republic) of action in Western Europe. That is to say, a 'Fascist' Spain would, for Germany, be a means of 'turning the French flank' and of playing a part in the Mediterranean.

On the Spanish mainland Germany disposed of a numerous and extremely well-organised branch of the National Socialist party. This branch has been strongly reinforced by newcomers from Germany during the last few weeks. She also disposes of a powerful organization for political and military espionage, which works behind a diplomatic and educational facade. Barcelona in particular has a large German population, the greater part of which is at the disposal of the National Socialists.

The fate of Morocco is naturally of the highest interest to Germany, for if the insurgents are victorious she may hope to secure territorial concessions in Morocco and therefore a foothold in Northern Africa.

(6) Statement issued by German government on 18th November 1936.

Following the taking possession by General Franco of the greater part of Spanish territory and now that the developments of the past weeks have shown with increasing clarity that there can be no longer any talk of a responsible Government in the other portions of Spain, the Reich Government has decided to recognise the Government of General Franco and to appoint a Charge d'Affaires for the opening of diplomatic relations.

The new German Charge d'Affaires will proceed in due course to the seat of government of General Franco. The German Charge d'Affaires, who up to now has been in Alicante, has been recalled. The Charge d'Affaires of the former Spanish Government left Berlin by his own decision at the beginning of November.

(7) The Manchester Guardian (16th January 1937)

Two thousand 'S.S.' (Blackshirts) have been assembled at Munich and are about to leave for Spain. The assembled 'military division' of the SS are a fully trained and equipped military formation, 30,000 or 60,000 strong, and have the value of a Regular Army. Their function in case of war is chiefly the maintenance of order at home - this, as the German authorities conceive it, is a military task, for the menace of rebellion at home is reckoned with as the accompaniment of war abroad.

The reason why SS and not Regulars (Reichswehr) are being sent to Spain would seem to be, partly at least, that they are to gain experience in street fighting. The 2,000 men have been withdrawn from various 'divisions' of the SS and tanks have been assigned to them. They are to go via Austria to Italy, and will embark for Spain at an Italian port.

There is some discontent in the SS because their men are being sent to Spain as 'volunteers'. A good deal of grumbling is heard, and some SS men have been saying that the Regulars ought to go to Spain because 'that is what they are there for'.

The fact that German troops are fighting on the side of the Spanish rebels is becoming more and more widely known in Germany, in spite of the recent official German denial that there is a single German soldier in Spain. Reports of German casualties are spreading and have, no doubt, influenced the attitude of the SS.

(8) Resolution passed by the British Battalion on 27th March 1937.

We the members of the British working class in the British Battalion of the International Brigade now fighting in Spain in defence of democracy, protest against statements appearing in certain British papers to the effect that there is little or no interference in the civil war in Spain by foreign Fascist Powers.

We have seen with our own eyes frightful slaughter of men, women, and children in Spain. We have witnessed the destruction of many of its towns and villages. We have seen whole areas which have been devastated. And we know beyond a shadow of doubt that these frightful deeds have been done mainly by German and Italian nationals, using German and Italian aeroplanes, tanks, bombs, shells, and guns.

We ourselves have been in action repeatedly against thousands of German and Italian troops, and have lost many splendid and heroic comrades in these battles.

We protest against this disgraceful and unjustifiable invasion of Spain by Fascist Germany and Italy; an invasion in our opinion only made possible by the pro-Franco policy of the Baldwin Government in Britain. We believe that all lovers of freedom and democracy in Britain should now unite in a sustained effort to put an end to this invasion of Spain and to force the Baldwin Government to give to the people of Spain and their legal Government the right to buy arms in Britain to defend their freedom and democracy against Fascist barbarianism. We therefore call upon the General Council of the T.U.C. and the National Executive Committee of the Labour party to organise a great united campaign in Britain for the achievement of the above objects.

We denounce the attempts being made in Britain by the Fascist elements to make people believe that we British and other volunteers fighting on behalf of Spanish democracy are no different from the scores of thousands of conscript troops sent into Spain by Hitler and Mussolini. There can be no comparison between free volunteers and these conscript armies of Germany and Italy in Spain.

Finally, we desire it to be known in Britain that we came here of our own free will after full consideration of all that this step involved. We came to Spain not for money, but solely to assist the heroic Spanish people to defend their country's freedom and democracy. We were not gulled into coming to Spain by promises of big money. We never even asked for money when we volunteered. We are perfectly satisfied with our treatment by the Spanish Government; and we still are proud to be fighting for the cause of freedom in Spain. Any statements to the contrary are foul lies.

(9) The Manchester Guardian (10th January 1938)

Germany's new Messerschmidt aeroplanes have been tested in the Spanish civil war. The pilots are pledged before they leave Germany never to let their planes fall into the hands of the enemy. Each pilot has orders to set fire to his plane if it is brought down or has to make a forced landing on enemy soil. Each plane has a special tank of inflammable matter that can be ignited at once for this purpose.

The German pilots in Spain are used more in combined infantry and air attacks than in air raids, which are chiefly carried out by the Italians. The German military experts are particularly interested in developing the art of offensive operation by all arms combined, the air arm included, and Spain is proving to be a valuable experimental field. They are of opinion that the decisive blow in future wars will be delivered by combined operations of this kind.

(10) Wilhelm von Thoma was interviewed by Basil Liddell Hart after the war for his book The Other Side of the Hill (1948)

I was in command of all the German ground troops in Spain during the war. Their numbers were greatly exaggerated in newspaper reports - they were never more than 600 at a time. They were used to train Franco's tank force and to get battle experience themselves.

Our main help to Franco was in machines-aircraft and tanks. At the start he had nothing beyond a few obsolete machines. The first batch of German tanks arrived in September, followed by a larger batch in October. They were the Panzer I.

Russian tanks began to arrive on the other side even quicker - at the end of July. They were of a heavier type than ours, which were armed only with machine-guns, and I offered a reward of 500 pesetas for every one that was captured, as I was only too glad to convert them to my own use.

By a carefully organized dilution of the German personnel I was soon able to train a large number of Spanish tank-crews. I found the Spanish quick to learn though also quick to forget. By 1938 I had four tank battalions under my command - each of three companies, with fifteen tanks in a company. Four of the companies were equipped with Russian tanks. I also had thirty anti-tank companies, with six 37 mm guns apiece.

General Franco wished to parcel out the tanks among the infantry-in the usual way of generals who belong to the old school. I had to fight this tendency constantly in the endeavour to use the tanks in a concentrated way. The Francoists' successes were largely due to this.

I came back from Spain in June, 1939, after the end of the war, and wrote out my experiences and the lessons learned.

(11) Luis Bolin, Spain, the Vital Years (1967)

In 1936-9 Great Britain and other European and American countries were beginning to think in terms of the coming world conflict. The fact that Hitler and Mussolini helped the Spanish Nationalists was a cause of great and perhaps natural prejudice in those countries, though it should be noted that those who criticized us for accepting Hitler's help saw nothing strange in the acceptance of Stalin, who had invaded Poland with Hitler, as their ally in World War II. When men are fighting for all that is dear to them they accept help from wherever it comes. But the loose habit of referring to all authoritarian regimes other than the Communist as 'Fascist' made it hard for people to appreciate the vast differences that separate the Spanish Falange from Nazism.