Weird Warriors: Irish Volunteers for Franco, 1936-1937

Weird Warriors is an ongoing series of posts featuring obscure military units throughout the history of warfare. This series seeks to spotlight a variety of obscure and exotic units ranging from Micronesian warriors armed with shark-tooth weapons to the Italian "human torpedoes" of World War 2. Special attention is paid to the details of the units’ battle honors, tactics, weapons, and equipment.

Spain’s Civil War (1936-April 1939) was a bloody struggle for not just the political and military control of the nation but for the soul of Spain as well. Many of the international volunteers fighting for both the republican government and the nationalist rebels have been discussed in a wealth of differing historical accounts. The Abraham Lincoln Battalion included Americans and some Canadians and maintains a well researched backlog. Some Irish soldiers fought for the Republican cause in the “Connolly Column” which was attached to the larger Lincoln Battalion or for the "British Battalion". Over 60 Irish brigadistas were killed fighting in Republican international volunteer units during the war in Spain. The two most prominent foreign interventionists on the Nationalist rebel side were the German Condor Legion and Italian Corpo  Truppe Volontaire, both providing thousands of soldiers and millions of dollars worth of weapons and war material. Several hundred additional volunteers came from neighboring Portugal as well. One brigade of more than 600 Irish soldiers, the Irish Brigade or Bandera, formally the XV Tercio de Bandera, was one of the most unique international volunteer units that fought for Nationalist Spain. A corps size unit attached to the Spanish Foreign Legion, the Irish Bandera traveled from Ireland to defend Catholicism and battle what was widely perceived as rising international communist putsch.

Irish Bandera Soldiers in the trenches at Ciempozuelos, 1937

The Irish Bandera, offer a most unique study in the international brigades who fought for Generalissimo Francisco Franco's Nationalist Army, 1936-1939. Fascist and Roman Catholic, the Irish Bandera came to Spain in a sign of solidarity between two historically Catholic nations, strongly influenced by a rising international anti-communist sentiment. The Irish Brigade served in Spain witnessing the aftermath of the Battle of Jarama in February and later taking part in operations supporting the Battle of Guadalajara in March 1937. Led to Spain by Brigadier-General Eoin O’Duffy (b.1890-1944)*, an Irish War of Independence and Civil War veteran who became a fascist activist, the Irish Brigade served a brief but costly tour of duty in Spain.

*An amateur athlete in his younger days, O'Duffy was the first leader of Fine Gael 1933-1934, after gaining an ironclad reputation commanding soldiers during the Anglo-Irish conflict and the Irish Civil War. A personal favorite of Michael Collins (b.1890-1922), O'Duffy served near concurrently as the Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army, the Chief of Staff of the Irish Free State Army, and the Garda (police) Commissioner, the latter from 1922-1933. Although he preached physical fitness and refraining from alcohol and tobacco use,  O'Duffy was a heavy drinker and smoker; which likely lead to his premature death at age fifty-four in 1944.

O'Duffy & The Blueshirts, 1932-1936

Fascism was a in-vogue political ideal throughout Europe and North America from 1932-c.1936. In December 1934, the first and only international fascist conference was held in Montreux, Switzerland, though Nazi representatives were conspicuously absent, dozens of lesser fascist movements were in attendance. O'Duffy was there representing The Irish National Corporate Party or "blueshirts", and was quoted in Italian newspapers as pledging "1000 [Irish] Blueshirts" for the planned Italian invasion of Abyssinia. This was mere posturing by O'Duffy but likely served as the impetus behind forming a volunteer Irish corps for the war in Spain. Some of the Irish flirted with fascism in the mid-1930's as did the citizens of neighboring Great Britain, though it was a small movement in Ireland with few hardcore adherents. Ideologically speaking, Irish fascists (corporatism) had anti-British sentiment in common with the Germans, similar to how a minority of Afrikaner South Africans supported the Nazi's during the Second World War.

General Eoin O'Duffy in Spanish Legion Uniform c.1936

From 1933-1935, the “Blueshirt Scare” in Ireland involved some street violence but mostly public demonstrations and small marches. One of the most prominent groups became known as the "National Guard", led by a cadre of the Irish blueshirts and veterans. A proposed ‘March on Dublin’ was banned by the Irish government, never deterred, O'Duffy, a former police commissioner and commander-in-chief of the Free State Army, formed a new independent party called the Young Ireland Association which preceded and then followed several different and amorphous groups. Rallies were held throughout the country by various Irish fascists groups from 1933-1936, but most attracted only a few hundred followers. The far-flung idea of sending a brigade of Irish soldiers to Spain became a reality after O’Duffy first traveled to the country in August 1936 on the invitation of fascist activists in Navarre. Upon his return, O'Duffy chartered a ship with his own funds from Galway in December 1936 which took the bulk of the Irish volunteers to Ferrol, Galicia. Roughly 200 Irish volunteers arrived in separate groups, many of the officers traveled through Portugal by train beforehand or by ship immediately after the arrival of the German transport Urundi, which transported the majority of the Irish soldiers to Spain. An additional group of another 600 volunteers awaited transport but the Irish government kept them from departing the country in early 1937.

Training at Cáceres, November 1936-January 1937

O’Duffy’s brigade began their training at Cáceres in November-December 1936 under the Spanish Legion's Tercio XV Bandera. Still active in the present day, the Spanish Legion was the back-bone of Franco's Nationalist military during Spanish Civil War. Formed in 1920, the Legion earned a bloody but efficient reputation as the "Bridegrooms of Death" fighting in Morocco during the Rif War of 1920-1927. Many in the Irish Brigade disliked the local cuisine and were unaccustomed but delighted at the ready availability of inexpensive and tasty Spanish wines. Few spoke Spanish (besides a couple of officers or detached Irish-born Legionnaires) or knew a thing about their surroundings, alienating them from their Spanish comrades. The Spanish Legion's training officers spoke German which further hindered their acclimation to Spanish service. The Irish volunteers were given German surplus equipment and their rifles would have been German or Spanish Mausers. See, Weapons & Equipment of the Irish Bandera, below, for more.

Major Patrick Dalton, a confidant of O'Duffy's, was named jefe of the Irish Bandera, which was divided into four companies, A-D. Many in the Bandera had previous combat experience in the Easter Rising of 1916, the Anglo-Irish War, or the Irish Civil War of 1922-1923. Officers and enlisted men who had fought with the IRA or for the Irish National Army during the bitter civil conflict of 1921-1922, now served together again as they had in War of Independence, 1919-1921. Some of the Irish volunteers, including the commanding officer of B company, Captain Thomas F. Smith of Belfast, had experience in the trenches of the Western Front during the First World War. Although some Irishmen in the brigade were supporting fascism, Catholicism, or anti-communism, others were simply soldiers, mercenaries, or adventurers seeking a new battle and new paycheck in another war. At least two Irish nationals had been enlisted in the Spanish Legion before the war, Gilbert Nangle and Noel Fitzpatrick, both had been hunting jungle cats in Brazil when the war came and eagerly sailed back to Spain.

Irish Brigade Officers, Lt. Tom Smith (R)

Ciempozuelos, February-March 1937

Ordered to assist in the occupation of the town of Ciempozuelos which had recently been taken by Nationalist Moroccan troops during the ongoing Battle of Jarama, February 1937, the Irish Brigade left for the front traveling by train on 15 February 1937. Two days later the brigade suffered their first casualties when they were fired upon by Nationalist soldiers during their approach to Ciempozuelos, roughly twenty-one miles south of Madrid. Mistaken for Republican international volunteers by Nationalist sentries newly arrived from the Canary Islands, the Irish Brigade returned fire, an unknown number from both units were likely wounded and two Irishmen, Lt. Tom Hyde and Private Dan Chute, were killed. This was an embarrassing and demoralizing start to O'Duffy's grand crusade in Spain.

At Ciempozuelos the Irish Bandera hunkered down in the trenches and fortifications within and immediately outside the small village. The town had been heavily shelled by Republican artillery but the church had remained intact for their daily Catholic mass. Static skirmishing in the no-mans-land outside of Ciempozuelos had pockmarked the once lush valleys around the town, turning the countryside and the defensive fortifications into a disease ridden pen. Typhoid and lice were common with the cold and dampness contributing to the flu and rheumatism. Two rivers dotted the valley near Ciempozuelos, making it difficult terra to fight in. Ciempozuelos was the middle salient, to the left was the hotly contested Jarama Valley, and to the right, the Tajuna River valley.

Gen. O'Duffy (x) Hands Out "lucky" Shamrocks to the Irish Brigade, Ciempozuelos 1937

The prime objective in the immediate region lay roughly four miles across the trenches at the Republican held town of Titulcia. Situated atop a 150 foot tall outcropping above the river bank, Titulcia was heavily defended with a multitude of machine guns and garrisoned by the battle hardened Republican 11th Division. Adding even greater difficulty to the situation, a Republican armored train harassed the local Nationalist forces-rolling down the tracks and using their light guns to some effect on the Irish Brigade and Nationalist forces garrisoned at Ciempozuelos. An unauthorized mission led by Lt. Tom Smith sought to destroy the rail tracks but it was a failure and Smith was soon dismissed by O'Duffy.

Morale and general conditions deteriorated in all ranks of the Irish Bandera throughout the month of February into March 1937. Spanish observers found most of the brigade to be drunk, disobedient, and demoralized, although some of the Irish soldiers were well respected by their Spanish comrades. Multiple Spanish and English sources confirm that alcohol consumption played a role in another instance of friendly fire with Spanish soldiers. This was followed by a knife and pistol fight between the Irish and North Africans, leaving one North African soldier dead. Maj. Dalton was invalided in early March forcing him to be replaced by Capt. Dermot O'Sullivan. The Spanish command disapproved of Gen. O'Duffy's choice, driving a further rift between O'Duffy, the Bandera's officer cadre, and the Nationalist command. The Irish General seemed to be totally lacking any awareness of the strategic situation in Spain during 1937. Father Alexander J. McCabe, who met O'Duffy and Franco during the conflict, wrote "O'Duffy had a 'pet' idea (cherished from Black-and-Tan days, perhaps) that Franco would have won the war long ago, if he had adopted a campaign of ambushes. This in a war with fixed lines and fronts, and in a country with no trees!"

Attack on Titulcia, 13-14 March 1937

On 13 March, during a cold and torrential rain, the Irish Brigade was ordered to attack the Republican fortress at Titulcia. German artillery fire supported the initial movements of Nationalist troops beginning in the early morning, but they had little effect on the Republican fortifications overlooking the river. Counter batteries soon answered back. In fact, the largest Republican artillery base in the region was stationed just behind the lines of Titulcia. One German officer who observed the Irish attack that evening noted that the Republican battery was highly accurate and most effective. A Moorish cavalry unit screened the Bandera's first drive towards the front but they were quickly bloodied and beaten back by machineguns and mortars. Under intense machinegun and artillery fire, the Irish Brigade moved on the waterways below their target, consisting of a small canal and the Jarama river itself. Most of the Bandera's companies crossed the canal but became bogged down in the mud on riverbanks and were unable to advance further. The Bandera had been encumbered with makeshift boats and pontoons which became a useless hazard under the well aimed Republican defensive fire. The Spanish mules that were employed to carry excess equipment were unable to muster the Bandera's heavy weaponry through the mud, meaning little covering fire could be offered to the Irish legionnaires attempting to cross the river.

Three of the Bandera died of mortal wounds received at Titulcia and more than a dozen were wounded but no accurate numbers were counted. Sgt. Gabriel Lee, died a week later in a Madrid hospital from his wounds. O'Duffy, who observed the operation from afar and had initially believed that his casualties would number in the hundreds, was surprised when they were relatively light, despite the heavy artillery and machine gun fire which faced the Irish Bandera. O'Duffy was never near any of the true combat in Spain but he had been technically in command of the Bandera at Titulcia. Following the first attempt to take the fortress which ended in retreat, the Nationalist command ordered a renewed attack on Titulcia but the Bandera's officers refused. Gen. O'Dufy initially agreed (this is disputed) but may have held doubts about disobeying a direct order, so he allegedly traveled to the battle headquarters to confirm. Soon after, the Irish Bandera made a full retreat back to Nationalist lines.

Irish Bandera Volunteers from Sligo

Following a tour of the front by Gen. Franco and other Legionnaire officers, the XV Bandera was withdrawn to La Maranosa outside Madrid. Franco and the other Nationalist officers decided that after witnessing insubordination, drunkenness, and their inefficient combat record, the Irish volunteers would be distributed into different units within the Legion or released from service all together. In late April, the Irish Bandera was formally disbanded and broken up having already been disarmed and demobilized a few weeks previously. The officers protested giving up their sidearms but an argument between Col. Juan Yagüe and Capt. Sean Cunnigham, who threatened desertion to the Republicans, made this a necessity. O'Duffy tried to save face by claiming that a phantom six month enlistment period was up and that the 15th Bandera would return home with honor. At least two Irish soldiers, Daithi Higgins and Austin O'Reilly, were killed fighting for the Nationalists at the Battle of Ebro in 1938.

Arriving 21 June 1937 aboard the Mozambique, the Bandera was met by a crowd of curious but supposedly quiet onlookers. Interest quickly dissipated and the Irish Bandera soon faded from the public concise all together. Unfortunately, all the official records relating to the Bandera were destroyed by the Irish government during The Emergency, when the government feared foreign invasion during the Second World War 1939-1940. In 1938, O'Duffy published his recollection of the Bandera's history, The Crusade in Spain, through British publishers Browne & Nolan. Traces of the Irish Bandera, even if faint, are still evident today. A plaque residing on a pew in St. Mary's Cathedral, Dublin reads "In memory of Gabriel Lee. Who died fighting with The Christian Forces in Spain."

Weapons, Equipment, & Composition of the Irish Bandera, 1936-1937

Irish soldiers in 15th Bandera were issued surplus German uniforms which would have been similar to old Irish Free State uniforms from the early 1920's. The uniforms had a green tint and were highlighted with small Irish harp badges on the collar. [Alejandro de Quesada] They sported the distinctive Spanish Legion fez, green with a red tassel. Each Irish soldier was issued a haversack and blankets, gas mask, canteen, and 200 rounds of ammunition. Bayonets were issued but their use was nil in the dynamic combat of the Spanish Civil War. The primary rifle issued to the Bandera was likely the Spanish licensed Mauser M1893, mass manufactured before the war at the Oviedo arsenal. German Gewehr 98 rifles may have also been used by the Spanish Legion and their Irish volunteers. Each company in the Bandera had a Browning machine gun unit, depicted in the first photograph at the top of this post. Further sources state that the Irish Bandera was to have the support of light artillery and mortars including a pair of 77mm mine throwers, but it's unclear if they were ever deployed during Irish operations at Ciempozuelos and Titulcia.

Rank-and-file soldiers in the Irish Brigade would have been basic cabos or privates in the Spanish Foreign Legion. Officers included Captain O'Sullivan, Capt. Smith, Capt. Quinon, Capt. Cunnigham, and O'Duffy's aide-de-camp Capt. Tom Gunning, were among nearly two dozen Irish officers who served in Spain. The Bandera had the use of a small medical corps which distinguished itself by caring tirelessly for the wounded and for the hundreds who became sick in addition to a chaplain service.

Suggested Further Reading
The Irish and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939: Crusades in Conflict By: R.A. Stradling.

Fighting For Franco: International Volunteers in Nationalist Spain During the Spanish Civil War By: Judith Keene. (Bloomsbury Academic). 2001-2007.

El Capitán Irlandés: The Biography of Tom F. Smith By: Stephen Myall (Self Published).

The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 (1) Nationalist Forces By: Alejandro de Quesada, Illustrated by Stephen Walsh. (Osprey Publishing). Cited.

Ireland and the Spanish Civil War, O'Duffy's Bandera: Fighting for Franco