Italy and the Spanish Civil War

When Benito Mussolini gained power in Italy he began to develop contacts with right-wing forces in Spain. In March 1934 Mussolini met a group of Spanish politicians and generals in Rome who were opposed to the Second Republic. At the meeting Mussolini promised the group 10,000 rifles, 10,000 hand grenades, 200 machine-guns and a million pesetas in cash in event of a military uprising.

On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Mussolini failed to keep his promise of immediate aid. After a week of negotiations he agreed to sell the Nationalists twelve Savoia S81 bombers.

Leon Blum, the prime minister of the Popular Front government in France, initially agreed to send aircraft and artillery to help the Republican Army. However, after coming under pressure from Stanley Baldwin and Anthony Eden in Britain, and more right-wing members of his own cabinet, he changed his mind.

Baldwin and Blum now called for all countries in Europe not to intervene in the Spanish Civil War. In September 1936 a Non-Intervention Agreement was drawn-up and signed by 27 countries including Germany, Britain, France, the Soviet Union and Italy.

Benito Mussolini continued to give aid to General Francisco Franco and his Nationalist forces and during the first three months of the Nonintervention Agreement sent 90 Italian aircraft and refitted the cruiser Canaris, the largest ship owned by the Nationalists.

On 28th November the Italian government signed a secret treaty with the Spanish Nationalists. In return for military aid, the Nationalist agreed to allow Italy to establish bases in Spain if there was a war with France. Over the next three months Mussolini sent to Spain 130 aircraft, 2,500 tons of bombs, 500 cannons, 700 mortars, 12,000 machine-guns, 50 whippet tanks and 3,800 motor vehicles.

In December Benito Mussolini began sending large numbers of Black Shirts to Spain. By the end of 1936 there were 3,000 members of the Black Shirts in Spain. They took part in the fighting around Madrid and participated in the fall of Málaga in February 1937. By this time their numbers had increased to 30,000. There were also 20,000 members of the Italian Army fighting in Spain.

The Italians also played a prominent role in the offensive at Guadalajara. Mussolini insisted that his forces should be used as a single unit. General Francisco Franco was unhappy about this as he wanted the Italians dispersed among his own Spanish units.

On 8th March over 35,000 Italian soldiers and 81 whippet tanks and a company of machine-gunners, went into action at Guadalajara. The Italians failed to breakthrough on the first day and on the 9th March the Republican Army reinforced the frontline with over 20,000 soldiers.

The Republicans held the Nationalist for over a week before launching its own counter-offensive on 18th March. Using its best troops, including the International Brigades, the Republicans were able to force the Italians to retreat.

During the failed offensive at Guadalajara, the Italians had 400 killed, 1,800 wounded and had 500 men taken prisoner. The Italians also lost significant quantities of arms and supplies, including 25 artillery pieces, 10 mortars, 85 machine-guns and 67 trucks.

General Francisco Franco blamed the Italians for the Nationalist defeat and banned them from operating again as an independent unit in Spain. He insisted that in future the Italians would have to operate in larger units made up primarily of Spanish troops and commanded by Spanish generals.

In August 1937 Italian submarines began torpedoing ships heading for Republican ports. The governments of Britain and France both made protests at this action and the following month Benito Mussolini brought an end to these attacks on shipping.

During the Spanish Civil War Italy sent 80,000 men, of whom almost 6,000 belonged to the Italian Air Force, 45,000 to the army and 29,000 to the fascist militia. Italy also supplied 1,800 cannon, 1,400 mortars, 3,400 machine-guns, 6,800 motor vehicles, 157 tanks, 213 bombers, 44 assault planes and 414 fighters.

Primary Sources

(1) 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.

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

Italian losses (at Guadalajara) included considerable stocks of equipment, among which 16,000 shells, 12,000 hand grenades, and 628 boxes of rifle ammunition. Their casualties, according to C.T.V. headquarters, amounted to 3,000 killed and wounded. In an article published in the review Ejercito, January 1945, Lieutenant-Colonel Lago, of the Spanish General Staff, gave approximate figures of the total losses in the battle: Nationalists, 148 killed, 300 wounded; Italians, 1,000 killed, 2,500 wounded, 800 missing. Republicans, 6,500 killed and wounded, 900 prisoners.

Guadalajara was a setback for our side, which failed to attain its objectives. But it was not a disaster, as our adversaries proclaimed. Republican losses onset those suffered by the Nationalists, and the equipment captured by the enemy was rapidly replaced. The twelve miles or so which we finally gained on the road to Madrid lacked miles or so which we finally gained on the road to Madrid lacked strategic value, but this also was the case with the territory re-won by the Republicans. Neither stretch of ground could influence the future conduct of the war or its outcome. Our opponents did not exploit the seized counter-offensive, as they would have done had they seized Alcolea del Pmar and Medinaceli, only twenty-five miles away from the points where they finally established their lines. They did not destroy the morale of our troops nor depress our rearguard unduly. But their victory made an impact on foreign public opinion which time has tailed to erase.

On our side the lessons of Guadalajara were not wasted. Before the battle was fought Franco had pointed out that Italian contingents, made up of militias officered by men who were not always professional soldiers, needed reorganization and training. Co-ordination and liaison services had to be established or speeded up to assure a fuller understanding between the respective Staffs, and to keep commanding officers suitably informed. This was done, systematically and fully Italian brigades and their commanders accepted in due course the idea of being flanked on the field by Spanish effectives.

(3) 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.

(4) Katharine Stewart-Murray, the Duchess of Atholl, wrote about visiting Spain in 1937 in her autobiography, Working Partnership (1958)

At Valencia the first thing we saw was one of the schools for refugee children, which showed clearly the interest in education taken by the Republican government. Next came a visit to a prison for political prisoners, until lately occupied by the present President and Prime Minister.

The prison consisted of a large well-lit building with a central hall from which radiated staircases to various galleries. Outside these there was a good-sized gravelled recreation ground in which some fifty men were standing about, looking well clothed and fed. We were allowed to call out for men who could speak French or English, and any who could do so were hastily pushed forward. In reply to our questions they said that little was wrong with the food, and that letters and gifts from friends were received regularly. The only complaint made to us was that no visitors had been allowed for a month.

In another prison we visited, two hundred Italian prisoners-of-war, Mussolini's so-called 'volunteers', were confined. We were allowed to talk to them freely and we asked them how they came to be here. Several replied that they had thought they were being taken to one of the Italian colonies. Others had come with their own officers, as a regiment. When we asked them how they were being treated, several ran off to fetch samples of the bread they were getting, which they obviously found satisfactory. They looked well cared for, and happy to be out of the fighting.

(5) The Manchester Guardian (20th February 1937)

Further detachments of Italian troops arrived last week in Spain just before the prohibition of volunteers came into force. Their total strength is estimated at about 10,000, so that there are now at least 70,000 Italian troops in Spain. Some 5,000 French volunteers also succeeded in reaching Spain just before closing time.

Amongst the war material shipped to Spain from Italy this month was a consignment of 100 Caproni bombers, which arrived in an aircraft-carrier. It does not seem that any Russian volunteers or war material have reached Spain during the last few weeks. Instead, it would seem that Russia has given up her intervention altogether.

All figures relating to numbers of troops - whether Spanish or foreign - in Spain are conjectural, but as far as can 'be judged at the moment there would seem to be between 30,000 and 60,000 volunteers on the Government side and between 80,000 and 100,000 on the rebel side, the latter, of course, bring supplies with an incomparably superior armament.