| Years 1919-1939, commonly called
"years of peace", in fact were abundant in armed conflicts, and even
wars of different scale and intensity. Among the
biggest ones was the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Its classification
among the biggest military conflicts of the
inter-war period came out of both its intensity, and political
significance. In that war clashed large regular armies;
it also became a shooting range, where were tested new weapons and
equipment, as well as new tactical concepts of
warfare. In particular, it was the German Wehrmacht that treated Spain as an
excellent range, furnishing an opportunity
to test the military doctrine on the eve of preparations for the war
the European and world
Political significance of the Spanish Civil War was in the attempt of
democratic forces to stand
against growing fascist expansion. That is why the rebels had gained
support from Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, while
the progressive world supported the legal government. That is why the
civil war in Spain became a revolutionary war.
Radical moods, and the need to mobilize broad social masses, created
the necessity of far-going reforms and social
Fascist states, and trans-national corporations were supporting the
rebels, fighting for
destruction of the republic, and introduction of totalitarian, fascist
dictatorship. On the other side were blocked
supporters of democratic processes, evolving towards radical
transformations, and progressive forces backed by the
first socialist state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which
provided political support, weapons, and all
materials that the Spanish republic needed to conduct the struggle.
Finally, the Spanish civil War is of interest
to military historians, due to its specific character. During tits
initial phase, which lasted till November 1936, it
was a mobile war, conducted by small forces in vast operational zones.
At that time it was not possible to create
stable, continuous fronts, and engaged forces were limited. Their
objective, as a rule, was to capture main cities and
administration centres. It was so-called column's war. The name comes
from columns of thousands of soldiers that both sides used to form to
operate in individual, isolated sectors, and endeavour to seize
designated objects. There was no centralized command at that stage.
Improvising dominated the hostilities.
As the fascist régimes of Italy and Germany came to the aid
of the rebels, first with transporting Moroccan troops to Spain, and
then with open intervention in the Spanish civil war, fascists were
first to come out with a uniform plan of waging the war. Its first
stage foresaw joining isolated operational zones remaining under the
control of the rebel forces, and then concentration of all fascist
forces for the final objective, which was Madrid. At the same time
republicans, mainly due to incompetence of consecutive governments, had
no clear and uniform strategy, and did little to organize armed forces.
Parties forming the Popular Front constantly quarrelled over the basic
principles of organization of the republican army. With time two of
them became particularly popular and gained most of the supporters. The
first one, proposed by socialists, provided for creation of a popular
militia made of armed volunteers. The other one, advocated by
communists, called for a regular, professional army. The war proved
that the communists were right: popular militia lacked professionalism
and combat spirit in fights with regular rebel troops, and its defeats
menaced with a total annihilation of the republic.
In August 1936, after isolated rebel zones merged into one area under
uniform control, the commander of the rebel forces, Gen. Francisco
Franco Bahamonde, planned to take Madrid. It was the rebels' strategic
plan that was supposed to lead them to a swift victory and annihilation
of the republic. Yet, factional fights among the fascist leaders
postponed that plan till October 1936.
Franco - already as the sole fascist leader - began realization of his
plan on 6 October 1936. He expected that it would be a swift campaign,
and his forces would march into Madrid on 7 November - the anniversary
of the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia. But the reality
proved different. The danger of overthrowing the republic had united
and mobilized the Spaniards. The concept of the professional army
gained a broad popular support, and the government was forced to start
formation of the regular units, and undertake other measures to build
up the republican military potential.
Active engagement of the German and Italian regular forces on Franco's
side caused that volunteers from 54 countries rushed with aid to the
Spanish republic. During the whole war somewhere between 35 and 42
thousand of them fought on the Spanish soil. In different periods of
the war that constituted from 4% to 15% of the republican People's
Army, and could not balance the aid delivered to the rebels by the
fascist governments of Germany and Italy, but at the very difficult
time of the battle for Madrid international volunteers came as a
substantial reinforcements of the fighting troops. The biggest merit of
the International Brigades (formed since 22 October 1936) was to set a
practical pattern of organization and training for newly formed
Upon the dramatic appeal of the Spanish government to the world's
public opinion for help in the struggle with domestic rebellion and
international fascist intervention, the Soviet Union was the first
country to answer positively. During the particularly difficult first
weeks of the defence of Madrid it provided modern military equipment
(tanks and aircraft), and allowed Soviet military specialists to
volunteer for Spain and help with organization of the republican army.
Consolidation of the Spanish army and society in the defence of their
capital brought spectacular effects. The first fascism offensive on
Madrid collapsed on 16 November 1936. The "lightning war" that Franco
announced did not happen. After the first shock that the defence of
Madrid became to the fascists, they did not abandon their design, and
in mid-January 1937 they launched another offensive. It failed too. The
young Popular Army started gaining combat experience and increasing
systematically its strength. It allowed for formation of divisions
comprised of several brigades, which in the initial phase of the battle
for Madrid were the biggest combat units of the republican army.
In February 1937 Franco launched the third offensive on Madrid. This
time the design was to lure the defenders out of the city and crush
them in open. There took place the battle of Jarama. In the course of
pitched and bloody fights the fascist offensive was brought to halt.
That meant fiasco of another plan to take the capital. Those were not
republican forces, which bled in the battle of Jarama, as Franco
expected, but his own cadre units.
Therefore, to the fourth offensive was assigned the Italian Corps of
Volunteer Troops composed of three well trained and supplied infantry
divisions and one armoured division. This way fascist Italy had marked
its involvement in the Spanish civil war on Franco's side without
taking care of appearances.
In March 1937 began the battle of Guadalajara near Madrid. After the
initial Italian success the republicans mobilized necessary
reinforcements, halted, and then forced the Italian corps to retreat.
This way the fourth attempt to take Madrid had completely failed. The
Italians had suffered a miserable defeat.
Gen. Franco's four major offensives on Madrid failed and the young
People's Army proved its combat worthiness. It was the triumph of the
Soviet model of the army. From then on, on the republican side were
formed big tactical and units - corps. It meant further development of
the People's Army. Francoists were forced to change their whole
strategy - after the battle of Guadalajara they gave up attempts to
take Madrid, and concentrated their efforts in the northern provinces
Yet, the battle for Madrid did not end in March 1937. Although the
fascists gave up the plans to take Madrid directly, such a danger was
still clear and present. In the summer of 1937 the republicans tried to
relieve the Northern Front and the capital city again found itself in
the thick of military operations. In July the republicans launched a
counter-offensive near Brunete in order to push the enemy from Madrid.
In case of success, the immediate danger to the city would be
dismissed. Yet, the Brunete operation, although relieved the Northern
Front, failed to bring any substantial changes in the frontlines, and
failed to push the enemy away from the suburbs of Madrid.
The battle of Brunete closed the battle of Madrid; since July 1937 till
March 1939 no major military operations were conducted in that sector.
Nevertheless, the battle of Madrid was of big importance to the Spanish
Civil War. Efficient defence of the capital forced the fascists to
reconsider their strategic plans, and determined the character of the
further military operations. The defence of Madrid made the first
significant breach in the concept of "lightning war" before it was
implemented in the battlefields of the Second World War. It stalled the
manoeuvre and transformed the war into trench warfare. Yet, the
opposing sides did not give up manoeuvre operations. However, their
offensive operations had limited range and local importance; the war
was becoming protracted, and the strategic objective of the opposing
sides became not annihilation of the enemy forces in a decisive battle,
but such an economical attrition of the enemy, which would deteriorate
his ability to wage the war. Francoists were able to impose the war of
attrition on the republicans because they were drawing on practically
unlimited support of Italy and Germany. On the other hand the Spanish
republic was deprived of the possibility to buy weapons and supplies
due to the non-intervention policy proclaimed by France and Great
Britain, and many other countries of Europe and the world. In such an
international isolation the Spanish Republic had no chance to win the
war of attrition.
The battle of Madrid also contributed new experience to the modern
warfare, and constituted a very significant prelude to the Second World
War in this respect. Particularly valuable was the experience in
preparation and conduct of defence of big urban areas. The battle of
Madrid had proved that in the modern warfare efficient anti-tank and
anti-aircraft defence played a crucial role. Republican
counter-offensives in January (Algora and Almadrones) and March
(Guadalajara) 1937 brought particularly interesting conclusions. There
for the first time in the history of human conflicts was organized
co-operation and co-ordination of big masses of main branches of
service: infantry, armour and air forces.
Republican forces in defence of Madrid were able to neutralize the
enemy's superiority in manpower through efficient use of the
operational factors, which utilized concentration of technics in the
axes of attack and the element of surprise. During their
counter-strikes and counter-offensives they started to pursue
outflanking the enemy and striking against its rears as opposed to the
traditional frontal attack applied on the fascist side.
During the battle for Madrid fascists, and especially the German air
squadrons from the Condor
Legion, practically tested relevance of the theory of the air war by
Gen. Giulio Douhet, who in 1921, in his book Command of the Air, formulated the
theory that the air forces can independently achieve strategic
objectives of a war, that is the victory over the enemy. Therefore,
within 52 days they carried 30 air raids on Madrid, each engaging 20 to
50 bombers carrying about 50 tons of bombs. It turned out that
intensive bombing alone does not lead to the victory. On the other
hand, in the battles of Jarama and Guadalajara the tactical support to
the ground troops demonstrated its practical advantage.