Achtung Panzer in Spanien! The Condor Legion's infantry contingent and the Bombing of Guernica in 1937

Further military intervention in the Spanish Civil War involving the Condor Legion began in January of 1937 with the Imker-Drohne (Armor) and Imker-Ausbilder (Infantry) landing in Spain. Very soon they would they take a prominent role in training the fascist Spaniards cadres of officers and enlisted men. They would participate actively in the ground campaign as well while preparing for the eventual drive into the heart of Spain led by Franco's rebels and the battle hungry Italians. This runs contrary to the belief that German involvement in Spain was solely for the testing and experimentation of tactics and equipment, especially armor and aviation technologies which though developed intensively before in the inter-war were untested in any large scale combat operations.

Condor Legion banner/marching standard

Tank commanders in the Wehrmacht simply learned the tactics as they went along by trial and error, with their collective experiences influencing the later tactics of Blitzkrieg which defined the early course of World War II. Berlin was interested in the war effort but kept it secret, not allowing news or personal correspondences to be passed from Spain to Germany.

For military history and tactical understanding the German armor contingent of the Condor Legion is especially interesting because of its rather unfocused and ineffective use throughout the conflict from 1937-1939. In Spain the Germans used the wholly inadequate Panzerkampkwagen I (Panzer Mark I).

This first Panzer tank had been designed to be used as a training tank only. The Soviet built T-26 dominated the Panzer on the battlefield and captured models were used by only the best Nationalist tank crews [1]. With around 300 men, the Panzergruppe Drohne trained the Spaniards in the usage and tactics of both tanks, greatly bolstering the rising power of Franco’s army.

Panzergruppe Drohne on the move, note the crewman's unique black deaths head & swastika berets

The Panzer commander for the Condor Legion was Colonel Wilhelm von Thoma (b.1891-1948), who gained fame as a tank commander in France and in the low-countries from 1940-1942.  He served merely as adjutant advisor to the Spanish tank columns, however he was personally in charge of the German crews and later all of the ground forces in Spain but they saw little combat during the Civil War.

Von Thoma sent repeated dispatches to Berlin noting the weakness of the Panzer I armor against Russian and Western anti-armor guns. Furthermore the tank crews noticed in the field the overall better power and quality of the Soviet light tanks armaments.The Panzer I had an inferior defense and the two machine guns which served as its main armaments were useless against the Soviet armor. The design and production of the Panzer II, III, and the Tiger I tanks had not been started just yet so the Germans had to experiment with how to effectively use the Panzer I. General Heinz Guderian’s Achtung-Panzer had been recently published and Germany’s infatuation with the mechanized division had only just begun.

Meanwhile the German Heer (Army) was instrumental in the transformation of the rebel army into the Nationalist army, a professional rank & file corps which would become the backbone of Franco’s forces. By extension the Nationalist military cemented his control over the country itself. The German armies casualties were small; only 28 would lose their lives while in the service of the Imker-Ausbilder, very few of them in actual combat operations [2]. Overall Germany seemed to be very reluctant to field large numbers of infantry in combat and instead focused their efforts more on training as opposed to the more involved actions of the armor divisions and especially the Luftwaffe. The Spanish Nationalist forces of Franco and his generals strategic initiative was greatly bolstered by the Italian intervention.

Into the new years celebrations and the spring of 1938 the ultimate turning point in Civil War for the Nationalists came rather swiftly. Though opposition lasted well into the 40's and 50's (with the Maquis guerillas), Franco slowly but assuredly reigned in complete power and authority. While the Condor Legion had seen very little action comparatively, the Italians had fought in some of the bloodier and decisive battles of the Civil War including Malaga in February 1937 & Guadalajara in March of 1937, eventually committing some 60-80,000 troops in total for the Corpo Truppe Volontarie, who suffered 15,000 casualties including 4,000 killed in the action.

Guernica, Terror Bombing and the end of the Condor Legion’s campaign in Spain

In April of 1937 the capabilities of German air power were put on full display with the bombing of the town of Guernica in a Basque region of northern Spain. The tragedy which befell the town that day would in turn eclipse the legacy of the Condor Legion, the horrors of the raid that day forever immortalized in Pablo Picasso’s famed 1937 painting.

Italian Bombers in attack formation during the Spanish Civil War

The first modern example of “terror bombing,” a tactic which uses the theory of total war, bringing aerial devastation to a civilian populace in order to break the region or nations ability to wage war through desolation and fear. While military installations and factories are often prime targets, like the Imperial German Zeppelin airships of 1915-1918, bombing civilian targets at whatever the cost was worth the risk to destroy the enemies moral at home.

Ironically this tactic would be used on a much grander and destructive scale by the Allies to defeat the Nazi’s and the other Axis powers in 1944 and 1945. For this reason alone the legacy of Guernica remains the most powerful symbol of Nazi involvement in Spain which leads in part to the false historical assumption that the Germans used the conflict solely to test their emerging aerial weapons.

On the morning of the 26th of April a joint German and Italian flight squadron planned a bombing run in order to destroy several rail lines and a bridge outside of Guernica to prevent Republican forces near the town from using them. Nine German aircraft flying in a squadron consisting of He 111’s and some Do 17’s dropped nine 250 kg bombs and at least 120 50 kg bombs in the opening minutes of the raid. [3] Houses within the small village were mostly made of wood and straw and as a result they burned quickly as hundred of civilians were likely killed in the first few minutes of the raid alone. Several bombs also hit a hospital causing many of the close to 300 deaths. 

Though the Luftwaffe performed much better at the tail end of the conflict Sperrle was eventually recalled back to Berlin on the 1st of November 1937 and replaced by the much less eccentric Generalmajor Hellmuth Volkmann. Chief-of-staff for the Condor Legion, Oberstleutnant Wolfram von Richthofen remained in his post for longer however. His insight particularly into how to best use the Stukas combined with troop and mechanized divisions on the ground was invaluable to the Wehrmacht and after vacating his Spanish command in January of 1938 he eagerly returned to Berlin to report on the fighting aptitude of the Condor Legion.

General Field Marshall Wolfram von Richthofen cousin of the famous Red Baron

Massive aerial bombardment, unheard of before the Spanish Civil is common after the Condor Legion's intervention-the Nationalists dropping over 500 tons of bombs on the coasts of the Ebro River in a single day during the conclusion to the conflict in 1938. Though the the Condor Legion had left for Germany by this time, their impact and greater role in the Spanish conflict cannot be overlooked. [4]

The Condor Legion lost 298 personel during active service in Spain, 173 of those men loosing their lives in combat, mostly in the air campaign. In combat during the Condor Legions limited operations against their enemies they collected 72 air victories, destroying another 160 enemy planes on the ground 

Like in most civil wars the civilian death toll is always the most staggering and the death toll in Spain can be put no lower than 500,000 during the course of three year conflict. Remaining officially neutral throughout the coming World War in 1939, fascist Spain did send a force to fight the Russians on the Eastern Front during 1941-1943, a rather infamous unit in Spanish military history known simply as the Blue Division (operational from June 1941-October 1943).

Theater of War during the conflict, red dotes represent major cities, tanks denote major battles, and dropping bombs denote major and/or significant aerial assaults

[1] Jurado, Carlos & Bujeiro, Ramiro German Troops in the Spanish Civil War pgs.44-45
[2] German Troops in the Spanish Civil War pgs. 45-46
[3] Ries, Karl Ring, Hans pgs. 67-69
[4] The Luftwaffe in Spain 1936-1939 pgs.  88-92

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