By Alexander Clifford

Pen & Sword Military. 315 pages. £25. ISBN 978-152676-092-0

Reviewed by Jim Burns

When the Spanish Civil War started in July, 1936, it was confidently expected by most international observers that the Nationalists would quickly achieve an easy victory. They had the support of many senior figures in the ranks of the military, and could rely on what were the best-organised and battle-experienced troops, the Spanish Foreign Legion and the regiments of Moors recruited in Spanish Morocco. They were also soon supplied with guns, tanks, and other equipment by Germany and Italy, and Mussolini poured in troops (up to 70,000 served in Spain) and Germany provided the Condor Legion, a unit of airmen complete with their modern bombers and fighters. A useful book to look at for information about foreigners in the Nationalist Army is Christopher Othen’s Franco’s International Brigades; Adventurers, Fascists, and Christian Crusaders in the Spanish Civil War (Hurst, London, 2013).

Twelve thousand soldiers came from Portugal to support Franco. He was initially a member of the junta of officers who had planned and launched the offensive to topple the Republican government, but soon rose to be its leading figure. It’s also worth mentioning that the Nationalists ranks included militia units from the Falange (the Spanish Fascist Party) and the Carlists, a strongly-Catholic, pro-Royalist organisation with its roots in the nineteenth century. Elements of the para-military Guardia Civil and Assault Guards identified with the Nationalists, though others stayed loyal to the Republic.

What could the Republic call on to oppose the Nationalists? Some units of the army remained loyal, but they were largely composed of conscripts with no experience of warfare. A number of officers also continued to identify with the Republic. The Spanish navy remained loyal, as did the small, ill-equipped air force. Neither ships nor aircraft were of modern design, and at sea submarines from the Italian navy soon established control and kept Spanish vessels confined to port. They also played a part in preventing supplies arriving at ports in Republican-held territory.

A non-intervention pact supposedly signed by many countries, including Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, was ignored by the latter-two countries, but enforced by the others. In effect, it meant that the Republic would be denied support from outside, whereas the Nationalists, as already outlined, continued to be supplied by Germany and Italy. Russia did come to the aid of the Republic, though at a price. The Spanish paid heavily return for tanks, guns, and aircraft, and had to accept Russian “advisers” along with the equipment. The degree of control exercised by the Communist Party, both Russian and Spanish, over the conduct of the war is still a matter for debate.

In the circumstances it was inevitable that, when Madrid was under siege by Franco’s forces, the government had to bow to demands from militants and arm the workers. They were usually organised around their unions or left-wing political groups, with the result that they were often fighting with specific intentions in mind rather than simply to defeat the Nationalist uprising. The anarchists, a powerful force in Spain at the time, were determined to use the war as a basis for complete social change. And the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM) was a small anti-Stalinist party with a similarly revolutionary programme in mind. They were inevitably labelled as Trotskyists by the communists. The differences of aims and intentions between socialists, communists, anarchists, syndicalists, and Trotskyists would frequently hinder the Republican plans for military effectiveness. The anarchists, in particular, were often a problem, especially in the early stages of the war. Their determination to settle old scores with landowners, priests, and others they perceived as social enemies, led to atrocities which alienated some supporters of the Republic. The deaths of thousands of priests provided the Nationalists with propaganda for their claims that they were fighting to overthrow an uncivilised and anti-Christian tyranny.  

One of the often-written about elements of the Spanish Civil War was the formation, under communist control, of the International Brigades. There were basically five of these, each one largely based around a language classification. The Eleventh Brigade, for example, was primarily German-speaking, with many of its members exiles from Hitler’s dictatorship, and the Fifteenth was comprised of volunteers from Britain, Ireland, and the United States. There was a French-speaking Brigade and an Italian one, the latter made up of left-wingers who had escaped from Mussolini’s control. It’s difficult to arrive at an exact figure in terms of the total number of foreign recruits to the Brigades, but it was probably around forty thousand. The casualty rates, dead and wounded, for Brigaders were high. They were used as shock troops and often involved in most of the major battles of the war. As their ranks thinned, and the flow of fresh volunteers slowed to a trickle, Spanish conscripts were brought in to make up the numbers. The Brigades would eventually be withdrawn from Spain, but by that time their effectiveness as fighting units had been badly reduced by their experiences, and in any case the Republic was then nearing total collapse.

Alexander Clifford has chosen to focus on three major battles in order to present his outline of the successes, failure, and general problems affecting the Republic’s war efforts. It needs to be borne in mind that an attempt had been made to pull all the disparate parties – anarchists, POUM members, and other militias - into a cohesive force under one central command. There had been fighting in Barcelona between anarchists and government forces, and the POUM had been suppressed, largely at the behest of the communists. But it wasn’t easy to persuade militiamen, who had been used to the loose sort of training and organisation practised by anarchists, to accept the command structures and discipline of a proper army. Anarchists elected their own officers, and devised their own strategies with regard to how and when they fought. It was not unknown for individuals to sometimes simply leave their positions at the front and make a trip home. Although they might be brave when in actual combat, anarchists could be notoriously unreliable. They, and other militiamen, had played a vital part in the quickly-improvised defence of Madrid, but were less effective in a large planned operation.

The fact that the Republic could not rely on regular shipments of arms, other than from the Russians and occasionally a sympathetic country like Mexico, meant that its army did not have standard weapons with which to equip its troops. Clifford records that there were forty-nine different kinds of rifles in use. They were often old models, obtained from a variety of sources, and required varying kinds of ammunition. There were complaints that the best armaments were reserved for the International Brigades and the communist Fifth Regiment. But accounts by ex-members of the Brigades often refer to shortages of up-to-date guns, and to the lack of any sort of consistency in the varieties of ammunition available.

Many of the shortcomings among Republican forces became obvious early in the war at the battle of Brunete in July, 1937. It was a diversionary plan to pull Franco away from the Republican-held territory of the Asturias. It did succeed in a way, though the capacity of the Nationalists to draw on numerous reinforcements, and the fact that, as Clifford describes, the Republican general staff could not agree on the tactics to be used to launch their offensive, affected the final outcome. He expresses his opinion in a blunt way: “Even before the troops had gone into action, the plan had begun to come apart”. Add to this the lack of air and artillery support for the infantry endeavouring to take well-entrenched Nationalist units, and the inevitable occurred. The Republican advance “ground to a halt”.  The troops were exhausted, and Clifford says that there were “considerable morale and discipline problems among a number of International units”. The worst cases seem to have involved the Thirteenth International Brigade, comprised of French and Poles, and came close to mutiny.

In August, 1937, the Republic embarked on another offensive, again with the intention of distracting Franco’s attention away from the Northern region around Santander and Gijón which stood isolated from the rest of Republican-held Spain. But in the background was the reality that the region had been a stronghold for the anarchists and syndicalists of the FAI-CNT, and it was an indication of the continuing divisions in the Republic that troops had been sent in to restore what Dolores Ibárruri, the famed communist known as La Pasionaria, referred to as “Republican order”. Many anarchists were arrested and imprisoned.

When the battle of Belchite got underway in August, 1937 (it lasted until October of the same year) it became obvious that the Republicans would be hampered by problems similar to those experienced at Brunete. Poor planning, a lack of reserves who could be brought up to exploit any advantages Republican troops might gain, and the shortage of supporting artillery fire, were all factors that caused problems for the soldiers of the International Brigades and their Spanish allies. Clifford records that one officer, Emilio Kléber, had only nine artillery pieces, six of which broke down, and that “half the shells they had been issued with were either duds or the wrong calibre for their aged cannon”.

In the end Belchite has to be seen as a Republican failure, if not a total defeat. Franco did take Gijón, and the Republic lost a great deal of valuable equipment. But Clifford thinks that its army came out of the battle in better shape than after Brunete. Its troops had generally fought well, and there was no need for the broad re-organisation required after the earlier battle. Still, Franco’s victory in the North enabled him to move troop and artillery to other fronts. In addition, he had captured thousands of Basque and Republican soldiers, many of them then being conscripted into the Nationalist army. Those who refused were placed in forced labour camps.

In late-1937 the Republican Army’s high command came up with a plan to divert attention away from Madrid, which was seen as the potential target for Franco’s next offensive. Various options were discussed, and it was finally decided that an attack would be launched on the Nationalist-held city of Teruel, “located in a cold, mountainous corner of Aragon”. It was small, but was “surrounded by a series of imposing heights that were fortified with bunkers and barbed wire and held the key to taking the city”.  The operation started in December, 1937, and initially involved only Spanish troops, though units of the International Brigades were eventually drawn into the fighting. Weather conditions were particularly bad, and Clifford refers to “Stalingrad in Miniature”.

The fighting continued until February, 1938, with Teruel falling to the Republicans and then being re-captured by the Nationalists. In March, 1938, Franco launched his Aragon offensive and punched his way through the collapsing Republican lines and on to the sea, thus cutting the Republic in two. In Arthur Landis’s The Abraham Lincoln Brigade (Citadel Press, New York, 1967) he refers to the Republican forces as a “frozen, ragged, ill-equipped, and hungry remnant of an army”. 

There was still a long way to go before Franco finally achieved victory in April, 1939, but Clifford describes the final year as “A Slow Agony”. There was one Republican “desperate last gamble” when, in July, 1938, its army crossed the River Ebro and initially gained some quick successes. Clifford says that the Ebro is often placed above other battles in terms of its importance, but he thinks that, in fact, it was something of a futile exercise “by an army that was already beaten”. It was the last major action that involved the International Brigades, though they were “now overwhelming Spanish units commanded by Spaniards”. By November, 1938, the Republicans had been driven back to their start lines for the operation. The remaining non-Spanish Brigaders had been withdrawn from Spain in October, 1938. Franco entered Barcelona in January, 1939, and the war ended on the 1st April. What remained of the Republican Army crossed into France and internment.

It is surprising that the Republic survived as long as it did, considering how much the odds were stacked against it. I referred earlier to the amount of aid that the Nationalists received from Italy and Germany when compared to that provided to the Republic, largely from Russia. And supplies from Russia slowed to almost nothing in the final months of the war. The presence of the International Brigades probably had helped stiffen the resistance mounted by loyal Republicans, though their military performance could be variable. Clifford rates the Eleventh (German-speaking) and Fifteenth (English-speaking) as the most-efficient units. But Spaniards made up most of the Republican Army, and their roles should not be under-estimated. When they had inspiring officers, such as Enrique Lister or Juan Modesto, they often fought well. There are always arguments about the suppression of the POUM and the anarchists, but it strikes me that without the formation of a disciplined and properly trained army the Republic would have collapsed long before April, 1939. It’s probably true to say that it was thanks to the efforts of socialists and communists that a People’s Army could be created in a short time, and under difficult circumstances.

Alexander Clifford has written a closely-detailed account of military aspects of the war in Spain. The facts of how each side was armed are essential for an understanding of what helped or hindered their activities. And the nature of the war was often shaped by political concerns, so they have relevance to what the soldiers did. His book is a useful addition to the vast library about what happened in Spain in the 1930s, It has notes, a bibliography, and an interesting appendix by Freddy Clifford about the different weapons used by combatants on both sides of the conflict.