Breguet XIX planes
Repository: Archivo Histórico Nacional, Madrid, Spain
Repository: Causa General
Date Created: 1923
Extent: 1 item
Geographic Region: Billancourt, France
The Spanish army as it existed in 1936 was poorly suited for a foreign war. Spain had been neutral in World War I, and its recent military experience was limited to a colonial conflict, the Moroccan War (1909-1926). This was what today would be called an asymmetric conflict in which Spain fought the Northern Moroccan tribes. This, plus the fact of not having major external enemies and the weakness of the country’s economy, conditioned the situation of its military.
Spain’s army numbered some 170,000 men, in addition to around 67,000 members of the police. It was smaller than France’s colonial army, and much more poorly armed and equipped. It had barely 1,600 trucks and other mechanized vehicles, including a dozen World War I vintage Renault Ft-17 tanks. The artillery was dominated by 75 calibre pieces that France had used in WWI, and there were virtually no anti-aircraft guns. This shortage of equipment also characterized the air force, which had only 53 fighters, almost all Nieuport-Delage NID 42, and a hundred Bruguete XIX reconnaissance planes as well as a few hydroplanes. With the exception of a few transports, these were all biplanes that, by 1936, had been rendered obsolete.
The core of the Spanish army was its light infantry. It had minimal artillery support and was poorly suited to the new tactics based on large numbers of armoured weapons supported by a powerful air force that were being developed in Germany and the Soviet Union. This poverty of equipment carried over to the realm of military doctrine where the defensive tactics of the French army retained their prestige. The problem was that Spain lacked both the manpower and equipment to implement them and, unlike France, it did not have an obvious enemy.
What Spain did have was a potential enemy in the tribes of northern Morocco and, as a result, its army was prepared to fight small-scale infantry engagements in which troops advanced in columns against a small number of poorly armed and often scattered enemies entirely lacking air support.
Spain’s only truly dangerous enemy in the 1930s was Italy. Benito Mussolini’s imperial aspirations included a veiled desire to have a base in the Balearic Islands. In contrast to Spain, Italy had a powerful navy and a still up to date air force as well as a well-equipped and well trained infantry. To confront this threat, Spain had only its diplomatic relations with France and Great Britain’s desire to keep Italy in check in the Mediterranean.
All these factors: the nature of the army, its armaments and doctrine, and Spain’s external relations came into play in July 1936. It is no coincidence that the military units based in the peninsula were ineffective, even losing urban engagements to the Civil Guard, Assault Guard, and militias. Or that the Republican air force proved unable to blockade the Straits of Gibraltar, especially once the first German and Italian planes had arrived. Or that the Army of Africa would advance on Madrid in columns and that the Italians would establish their principal base in Mallorca. Foreign intervention would change both the hardware available to the Spanish armies and the way they would wage war.