The Condor Legion was a unit composed of military personnel from the air force and army of Nazi Germany, which served with the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War of July 1936 to March 1939. The Condor Legion developed methods of strategic bombing which were used widely in the Second World War shortly afterwards. The bombing of Guernica was the most infamous operation carried out by the Condor Legion. Hugo Sperrle commanded the unit’s aircraft formations and Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma commanded the ground element.
History of military aid to Spain
Following the military coup in Spain on 17th July 1936 at the start of the Spanish Civil War, the Nationalists requested the support of national socialist Germany and fascist Italy. The first request for German aircraft was made on 22nd July, with an order for 10 transport aircraft. Hitler decided to support the Nationalists on 25th or 26th July, but was wary of provoking a Europe-wide war. The Reich Air Travel Ministry concluded that Nationalist forces would need at least 20 Junkers Ju 52s, flown by Luft Hansa pilots, to carry the Army of Africa from Spanish Morocco to Spain. This mission became known as Operation Magic Fire (German: Feuerzauber). The joint Spanish-German “Spanish-Moroccan Transport Company” (Spanish: Companía Hispano-Marroquí de Transporte, HISMA) and an entirely German company, the Raw Materials and Good Purchasing Company (German: Rohstoffe-und-Waren-Einkaufsgesellschaft, ROWAK) were established. This involvement was kept covert, hidden from both foreign and economic ministries, and funded with three million Reichsmarks.
The organisation and recruitment of German volunteers was also kept secret. The first contingent of 86 men left on 1st August, unaware of their destination. They were accompanied with six biplane fighters, anti-aircraft guns and about 100 tons of other supplies. They were positioned at Tablada airfield near Seville, and accompanied by German Air transport began the airlift of Franco’s troops to Spain. Germany’s involvement grew in September to encompass the Wehrmacht’s other branches; Operation Magic Fire was renamed Operation Guido in November. A wide belief was that the soldiers would train the Nationalists, and not engage. The Kriegsmarine provided submarines from 24th October and also provided various surface ships and coordinated movement of German supplies to Spain. German U-boats were dispatched to Spanish waters under the codename Ursula.
In the two weeks following 27th July, German transport moved nearly 2,500 troops of the Army of Africa to Spain. By 11th October, the mission’s official end, 13,500 troops, 127 machine guns and 36 field guns had been carried into Spain from Morocco. Over this period there was a movement from training and supply missions to overt combat. The operation leader, Alexander von Scheele, was replaced by Walter Warlimont. In September, 86 tons of bombs, 40 Panzer I tanks and 122 personnel had been landed in Spain; they were accompanied with 108 aircraft in the July–October period, split between aircraft for the Nationalist faction itself and planes for German volunteers in Spain.
German air crews supported the Nationalist advance on Madrid, and the successful relief of the Siege of the Alcázar. Ultimately, this phase of the Siege of Madrid would be unsuccessful. Soviet air support for the Republicans was growing, particularly through the supply of Polikarpov aircraft. Warlimont appealed to Nazi Germany to step up support. Following German recognition of Franco’s government on 30th September, German efforts in Spain were reorganised and expanded. The existing command structure was replaced with the Winterübung Rügen, and the military units already in Spain were formed into a new legion, which was briefly called the Iron Rations (German: Eiserne Rationen) and the Iron Legion (German: Eiserne Legion) before Hermann Göring renamed it the Condor Legion (German: Legion Condor). The first German chargé d’affaires to Franco’s government, General Wilhelm von Faupel, arrived in November, but was told not to interfere in military matters.
In the years following the Spanish Civil War, Hitler gave several possible motives for German involvement. Among these were the distraction it provided from German re-militarisation; the prevention of the spread of communism to Western Europe; the creation of a state friendly to Germany to disrupt Britain and France; and the possibilities for economic expansion. Although the offensive on Madrid was abandoned in March 1937, a series of attacks on weaker Republican-controlled areas was supported by Germany; despite prolonging the Civil War, it would help to distract the other western powers from Hitler’s ambitions in central Europe. The offensive on Vizcaya, a mining and industrial centre, would help fuel German industry. On 27th June 1937, Hitler (in a speech at Würzburg) declared he supported Franco to gain control of Spanish ore.
Discussions over German objectives for intervention occurred in January 1937. Germany was keen to avoid prompting a Europe-wide war, which at the time they felt committing further resources to Spain would do. Contradictory views were held by German officials: Ernst von Weizsäcker suggested it was merely a matter of graceful withdrawal; Göring stated that Germany would never recognise a “red Spain”. A joint Italian–German decision, that the last shipments would be made by the start of February, was agreed.
It has been speculated that Hitler used the Spanish Civil War issue to distract Benito Mussolini from Hitler’s own plans to annex Austria. The authoritarian, Catholic, and anti-Nazi Vaterländische Front government of autonomous Austria had been allied with Mussolini, and in 1934 the assassination of Austria’s authoritarian president Engelbert Dollfuss had already successfully invoked Italian military assistance in case of a German invasion.
A communiqué in December 1936 from Ulrich von Hassell, the German ambassador in Rome, illustrates another point:
The role played by the Spanish conflict as regards Italy’s relations with France and England could be similar to that of the Abyssinian conflict, bringing out clearly the actual, opposing interests of the powers and thus preventing Italy from being drawn into the net of the Western powers and used for their machinations. […] All the more clearly will Italy recognize the advisability of confronting the Western powers shoulder to shoulder with Germany.
The Condor Legion, upon establishment, consisted of the Kampfgruppe 88 , with three squadrons of Ju 52 bombers and the Jagdgruppe 88 with three squadrons of Heinkel He 51 fighters, the reconnaissance Aufklärungsgruppe 88 (supplemented by the Aufklärungsgruppe See 88), an anti-aircraft group, the Flakabteilung 88, and a signals group, the Nachrichtenabteilung 88. Overall command was given to Hugo Sperrle, with Alexander Holle as chief of staff. Scheele was transferred to become a military attaché in Salamanca. Two armoured units under the command of Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, with four tanks each, were also operational.
The Nationalists were supported by German and Italian units and materials at the Battle of Madrid. However, the military situation in Madrid remained poor for the nationalists, and both German and Italian aircraft (under Franco’s direction) began bombing raids on the city as a whole. The Germans were keen to observe the effects of civilian bombings and deliberate burning of the city. Offensives involving German aircraft, as well as the bombings, were unsuccessful. Increasing Republican air superiority became apparent, particularly the strength of the Soviet Polikarpov I-15 and I-16 aircraft, though historian Hugh Thomas describes their armaments as “primitive”. Faupel, in November–December, urged the creation of a single German unit of 15,000–30,000, believing it would be enough to turn the tide of the war to the Nationalists. Hans-Heinrich Dieckhoff argued this would be insufficient, and that larger measures could provoke the wrath of the Spanish. Between late 1936 and early 1937, new aircraft were sent to the Condor Legion, including Henschel Hs 123 dive bombers, and prototypes of the Heinkel He 112 and Messerschmitt Bf 109, with the latter proving the most successful. The Heinkel He 111 was added to the bomber fleet, along with the Dornier Do 17 (E and F types). Older aircraft were passed onto the Nationalists. By the end of 1936, approximately 7,000 Condor Legion personnel were in Spain.
German forces also operated in the Battle of Jarama, which began with a Nationalist offensive on 6th February 1937. It included German-supplied ground forces, including two batteries of machine guns, a tank division, and the Condor Legion’s anti-aircraft guns. Bombing by both Republican and Nationalist aircraft, including Ju 52s from the Legion, helped ensure a stalemate. It showed up the inadequacy of the Legion’s aircraft, faced with superior Soviet-made fighters. Von Thoma requested Irish nationalist support for a tank advance at one point, never to be replicated. Use of He 51 and Ju 52s, and the Legion’s anti-aircraft guns used in ground roles, only partly mitigated what was a significant defeat for the Nationalists at the Battle of Guadalajara during March. A joint Italian-German general staff had been set up in January 1937 to advise Franco on war planning. The defeat of a significant Italian force and the growing Soviet superiority in tanks and aircraft led the Germans to support a plan to abandon the offensive on Madrid and instead concentrate a series of attacks on weaker Republican-controlled areas. Whilst many countries believed motorised troops had proved less effective than was first thought, the inadequacy of the Italians as a fighting force was quite apparent to the Germans.
The isolated area of Vizcaya, a predominantly Basque part of northern Spain, was the most immediate target, in what was called the War in the North. It was largely a Nationalist and Italian offensive, but was supported by a consistently re-equipping Condor Legion. The terrain was favourable, with the planes coming over a range of mountains to the south, masking their entrance. Sperrle remained in Salamanca; Wolfram von Richthofen replaced Holle in January as deputy and in actual command. Since the Basque air force was very limited, even fighters were used in ground-attack roles. The Legion’s air force initially attacked the towns of Ochandiano and Durango. Durango had no anti-aircraft defence, and only minor other defences. According to the Basques, 250 civilians died on the 31st March, including the priest, nuns and congregation of a church ceremony. The Germans, with their air raids, were hated. The Basque ground forces were in full retreat towards Bilbao, through the town of Guernica, which was attacked on 26th April in one of the most controversial attacks of the Spanish Civil War.
In Operation Rügen, waves of Ju 52 and He 111 planes bombed and strafed targets in Guernica. The number of casualties is a matter of controversy, with perhaps 200–300 people killed; the number reported dead by the Basques was 1,654 dead and 889 wounded. Several explanations were put forward by the Nationalists, including blaming the attack on the Republicans, that the attack on the town had been a prolonged offensive, or that the Rentería bridge, outside Guernica, was the true target. However, the nature of the operation itself, including the formation and armaments used, makes this seem unlikely. Guernica was a clear target of the Condor Legion, rather than the Nationalists as a whole. The offensive on Bilbao, when it eventually came on 11th July, was supported by ground units of the Condor Legion, and extensive air operations. It proved the worth of the Condor Legion to the Nationalist cause.
The first English-language media reports of the destruction in Guernica appeared two days later. George Steer, a reporter for The Times, who was covering the Spanish Civil War from inside the country, wrote the first full account of events. Steer’s reporting set the tone for much of the subsequent reportage. Steer pointed out the clear German complicity in the action. The evidence of three small bomb cases stamped with the German Imperial Eagle made clear that the official German position of neutrality in the Civil War and the signing of a Non-Intervention Pact were only nominal and that German forces were participating in the war. Steer’s report was syndicated to the New York Times and then worldwide, generating widespread shock, outrage, and fear.
The Condor Legion also took part in the Battle of Brunete, designed as a Republican offensive to take the pressure off northern Spain, where fighting was ongoing. The Legion was sent from the north to reinforce the broken line. There were repeated raids on Republican armoured vehicles and later defensive positions by both bombers and fighters based at Salamanca. Republican aircraft were ineffective, despite Nationalist fears, compared with German aircraft; the Messerschmitt Bf 109 was shown to be superior to the I-15 and I-16 models used by Republican forces. The Legion lost 8 aircraft, but claimed 18 victories. German tactics were also improved with the experience of Brunete, particularly the en masse use of tanks by the Nationalists.
The Nationalists returned to focus on the capture of northern Spain. German test aircraft, with latest models, faced an outdated Basque air force, although it did have some Russian planes. Heavy aerial bombardment from 200 Nationalist, German and Italian planes was used far behind Basque lines in August 1937, leading to the fall of Santander after the Battle of Santander on 1st September. The formal battle in Asturias ended with the fall of Gijon on 21st October. A large amount of ammunitions had been used by the Legion, including a million machine gun rounds and 2,500 tonnes of bombs. Germany immediately began to ship industrial production back to Germany. Sperrle argued repeatedly with Faupel, and against HISMA’s monopoly. Faupel was replaced by Franco, through Sperrle. Sperrle also returned to Germany and was replaced by Hellmuth Volkmann ; following disagreements with Volkmann, Von Richthofen would be replaced with Hermann Plocher in early 1938.
Whilst the next major campaign – Madrid or Barcelona – was discussed, the Condor Legion was moved to Soria and began a week of strikes against Republican airfields, halted by the Republican advance on Teruel and the ensuing Battle of Teruel. Both the Legion’s land and air forces were used, and the Legion moved to Bronchales. Poor weather resulted in few flights, and the town fell to Republican forces on 6th January. Up to 100 sorties a day were launched during the Nationalist’s counter-offensive through the Alfambra valley. The Junkers Ju 87A was used for the first time on the advance on Teruel, which was retaken on 22nd February. The continued Nationalist offensive on Aragon in April–June 1937, including the Battle of Belchite, involved bombing raids and the use of the Legion’s ground forces. The Legion was switched to focus in the north, towards the Segre river, before moving south again following Nationalist successes. The Legion moved its main headquarters to Benicarló; single-engined planes operated from airfields nearby, and twin-engined planes from Zaragoza. Hitler’s words to his colleagues belied a change in attitude about the war in Germany – that a quick victory in the war was not desirable, a mere continuation of the war would be preferable. German policy would be to prevent a Republican defeat. However, casualties were beginning to mount for the Legion and, combined with a resurgence in Republican air activity, the Nationalist advance stalled. This was, perhaps, because of the reluctance of commanders in Germany to supply reinforcements, with the Czechoslovakia crisis mounting. Arguments over the bill to the Germans – now rising at 10 million Reichmarks a month – continued, unresolved. The Legion’s materiel had been exhausted.
On 24th–25th July, Republican forces launched the last major offensive of the war, the Battle of the Ebro. Reconnaissance units of the Condor Legion had noticed a troop build-up, and warned Nationalists forces. The warning went unheeded. Although the Republicans gained ground, they failed to gain control of Gandesa, with 422 sorties by the Legion (with around 70 aircraft operational) having considerable effect. The rest of the battle saw a series of attacks using artillery or air strikes, followed by a Nationalist ground advance. However, tensions in Czechoslovakia and a shortage of pilots in Germany led to the return of 250 pilots from the Legion, around half of them being bomber crews. Although trained Spaniards made up some of the shortfall, Volkmann complained to central command in Berlin, which would lead to his recall in September. During the battle, which saw 113 days of fighting, only 10 aircraft were lost (some by accident) and 14 were badly damaged; the Legion claimed around 100 Republican aircraft, a third of those lost. Only 5 aircrew had been killed, and 6 captured. Aid from Germany temporarily halted in mid-September. Germany and Nationalist Spain settled the issue of German interests in Spanish mines.
The Legion took a short break from active duty to receive new aircraft, including Bf 109Es, He 111Es and Js, and Hs 126As, bringing its strength to 96 aircraft, around a fifth of the Nationalist’s force as a whole. Von Richthofen returned to Spain in overall command, with Hans Seidemann as chief of staff. This reinforcement may have been the single most important intervention by a foreign side in the war, enabling a counterattack after the Battle of the Ebro. It mainly took part in operations against the remaining Republican air force during January–February 1939, with considerable success. After it took part in parades in Barcelona and elsewhere, and minor duties over Madrid, it was rapidly dissolved. The men returned on 26 May; the best aircraft were returned to Germany and the rest of the equipment bought by the new Spanish regime.
The Condor Legion claimed to have destroyed 320 Republican planes using aircraft (either shot down or bombed on the ground), and shot down another 52 using anti-aircraft guns. They also claimed to have destroyed 60 ships, including Spanish Republican Navy vessels. They lost 72 aircraft due to hostile action, and another 160 to accidents.
The Maritime Reconnaissance Staffel 88 (German: Aufklärungsstaffel See 88) was the Condor Legion’s maritime unit under the command of Karl Heinz Wolff. Operating independently of the land-based division, it acted against enemy shipping, ports, coastal communications and occasionally inland targets such as bridges. It used floatplanes, starting with the Heinkel He 60, which began operating at Cadiz in October 1936. Missions started as reconnaissance but, following the move from Cadiz to Melilla in Spanish Morocco in December 1936, the focus shifted to attacks on shipping. It was again moved in February 1937 to Málaga, newly captured, and then to Majorca when Málaga proved unsuitable. Beginning in June, operations were expanded to allow attacks on all Republican ports, as long as British ships were not present. 10 ships were attacked in the second half of 1937; however, the Norwegian torpedoes being used proved ineffective, and strafing or bombing targets was used instead.
The arrival of Martin Harlinghausen (known as “Iron Gustav”) saw operations expand, and operations targeted Alicante, Almería, Barcelona and Cartagena. As naval activity declined, inland targets became more numerous, and night missions began. Activities in support of ground forces became the main focus of the unit until the end of hostilities. Both Wolff and Harlinghausen received the Spanish Cross in Gold with Swords and Diamonds. In total, eleven men were killed in action, and five others died due to accident or illness.
Overtly, the Kriegsmarine was partly used to enforce the Non-Intervention Agreement from interfering in the Civil War. However, this agreement was clearly broken by Germany. As a result, the German pocket battleship Deutschland stood guard over Ceuta to prevent interference from Republican ships while Franco transported troops to the Spanish mainland. By mid-October, the German North Sea Group around Spain consisted of the pocket battleships Deutschland and Admiral Scheer, the light cruiser Köln, and four torpedo boats. After the Germans claimed that Leipzig had been attacked by an unidentified submarine, it was formally withdrawn from international patrols.
Operation Ursula (named after the daughter of Karl Dönitz) saw a group of German U-boats active around Spain. It began on 20th November 1936, with the movement of the U-33 and U-34 from Wilhelmshaven. Any identification marks were obscured, and the whole mission was kept secret. Difficulties in identifying legitimate targets and concerns about discovery limited their operations. During their return to Wilhelmshaven in December, the Republican submarine C-3 was sunk; the Germans claimed this was due to a torpedo fired from U-34, although the Republicans’ enquiry claimed its loss was due to an internal explosion. Their return marked the official end of Operation Ursula. However, it does seem that further submarines were sent in mid-1937, but details of the operation are not known; six are believed to have been involved.
Military advantages gained
It is known that the leaders of the Army were hesitant about becoming involved in the conflict, and resisted a call made by the Italian government for a dual transfer of ground troops to fight in Spain. The involvement of the Luftwaffe, however, was not entirely restricted and a commonly held viewpoint is that the involvement of the Luftwaffe in the Civil War constituted a proving ground for troops employed later during World War II. This view is supported by the testimony of Hermann Göring, when on trial at Nuremberg. When asked about the decision to use the Luftwaffe, Göring states:
When the Civil War broke out in Spain, Franco sent a call for help to Germany and asked for support, particularly in the air. One should not forget that Franco with his troops was stationed in Africa and that he could not get the troops across, as the fleet was in the hands of the Communists, or, as they called themselves at the time, the competent Revolutionary Government in Spain. The decisive factor was, first of all, to get his troops over to Spain. The Führer thought the matter over. I urged him to give support [to Franco] under all circumstances, firstly, in order to prevent the further spread of communism in that theater and, secondly, to test my young Luftwaffe at this opportunity in this or that technical respect.
This was also a view put forth in western media following the disengagement of German forces from Spain.
Dozens of Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters and Heinkel He 111 medium bombers, and from December 1937, at least three Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers, first saw active service in the Condor Legion against Soviet-supplied aircraft. The Stuka’s first mission flown in Spain was February 1938. Each of these aircraft played a major role during the early years of the Second World War. The Germans also realized that biplane fighters were quickly becoming less effective when compared to newer monoplane designs. The Heinkel He 51 fighter, after suffering many losses during the first 12 months of the conflict, was switched to a ground attack role and later saw service as a trainer.
The Condor Legion also included non-aircraft units. Panzer crews operating Panzer I light tanks were commanded by Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma. The Germans also tested small numbers of 88 mm Flak 18 anti-aircraft artillery guns which they used to destroy Republican tanks and fortifications with direct fire, as well as enemy aircraft in their designed role.
German involvement in Spain also saw the development of the first air ambulance service for evacuation of wounded combatants.
One important factor in World War II which is thought to have directly resulted from the conflict is the technical development of the Messerschmitt Bf 109. The V3 – V6 types entered service in Spain directly from operational trials around January 1937. In the spring of 1938 these were joined by type C aircraft with type Es being first fielded in December 1938.
Alongside the potential for gains in combat experience it is also thought that various strategic initiatives were first trialed as part of Luftwaffe involvement in the conflict. As the fighting progressed into March 1938 Italian pilots under Fieldmarshal Hugo Sperrle were involved in thirteen raids against Barcelona involving fire and gas bombs. These particular raids resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians. It is worth noting that a subsequent commander of the Legion in Spain, Wolfram von Richthofen was to become heavily involved in the operation of the Luftwaffe as part of Operation Barbarossa.
Tactics of combined or joint operations were a particular focus. Close air support for Nationalist troops, attack bombing of Republican troop concentrations, and strafing became features of the war. The Legion worked closely in missions which maximized the fighting ability of the Nationalist air force and troops, the Italian CTV, and pilots from the Aviazione Legionaria (Legionary Air Force). German Air ace Adolf Galland was to claim after World War II that although there was a focus on taking lessons from the conflict in Spain, he believed the wrong conclusions were drawn by the German High Command with particular respect to the Luftwaffe:
Whatever may have been the importance of the tests of German arms in the Spanish Civil War from tactical, technical and operational points of view, they did not provide the experience that was needed nor lead to the formulation of sound strategic concepts.
Commemoration and reevaluation
Recrimination for the activities of the Condor Legion and shame at the involvement of German citizens in the bombing of Guernica surfaced following German reunification in the 1990s. In 1997, the 60th anniversary of Operation Rügen, then German President Roman Herzog wrote to survivors of the raid apologizing on behalf of the German people and state. Herzog said he wished to extend “a hand of friendship and reconciliation” on behalf of all German citizens. This sentiment was later ratified by members of the German Parliament who went on to legislate in 1998 for the removal of all former Legion members’ names from associated German military bases. This process was then carried out but the issue surfaced again in 2005 following media revelations about the role of pilot Werner Mölders who had volunteered to serve in Spain. Although not involved in the bombing of Guernica it was decided by then German Defence Minister Peter Struck that in keeping with the law Mölders’ name should be removed from the barracks at Visselhoevede and from association with Luftwaffe wing 74 (Jagdgeschwader 74) based in Neuburg an der Donau. Up until 2005 it had not been established that Mölders flew as a Condor Legion volunteer before his death in 1941.
On 26th April 2017, at the 80th anniversary of the Guernica bombing, the Madrid City council announced they have dismantled the memorial to the Condor Legion at the La Almudena cemetery, pictured right. The tomb was removed at the request of the German embassy in Madrid, to be replaced with simple name plaques.
The Spanienkreuz (Spanish Cross) campaign medal was awarded by the German authorities in seven classes from April 14th, 1939. Due to the clandestine nature of German activities in Spain, no awards were instituted up to April 1939 at the end of German involvement in the conflict. The Spanish Cross complemented the Condor Legion Tank Badge, approved on 10th July 1939, and cuff titles issued to those who served. Legionnaires could also expect a Campaign Medal struck by the Spanish authorities to thank German volunteers for their service. See the two websites listed below for examples of each medal and others issued to Legion veterans.
Other notable incidents on the return of the Legion included an assembly for a personal address by Hitler on 6th June 1939, and a parade as part of the celebrations organized for Hitler’s 50th birthday 20th April 1939. Also by way of commemoration the activities of the Legion were memorialized in a special edition of Der Adler, the Luftwaffe’s magazine for service members which at the time was also circulated in both Spain and the United States.
Alphabetically by surname:
- Oskar Dirlewanger
- Rudolf Demme, head trainer
- Adolf Galland
- Hajo Herrmann
- Werner Mölders
- Hugo Sperrle, commander
- Hannes Trautloft
- Heinrich Trettner
- Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen, commander
- Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, commander
Hobbymaster 1/48th scale”BF 109E-3 Spanish Civil War” Oblt. Hans Schmoller-Haldy, 3.J/88, March 1939
Hans Schmoller-Haldy was a member of the German Condor Legion and arrived in Spain at the end of the Spanish Civil War and because of the late arrival didn’t score any victories. However his Bf-109E-3 did have one of the more unique paint schemes. Not only did it have the 3. Staffel Mickey Mouse emblem but he added his personal touch, an overflowing beer stein with the initials CP marked on it. The CP stood for “The Order of Cardinal Puff”, a pilot’s beer club in Belgium. Later in WWII he scored 14 victories.
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