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The success of the Nationalist cause in the Spanish Civil War Essay

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The success of the Nationalist cause in the Spanish Civil War was due primarily to the help it received from its foreign allies: For what reasons would you agree or disagree with this statement?

A snapshot of 1936-1939: Britain and France tiptoe around Italy’s conquest of Abyssinia and their second conquest of the football World Cup. Stalin delivers a constitution, an illusion, distracting from his bloody purges. Austria and Czechoslovakia are devoured into The Third Reich. The Fair Labour Standards Act comes into play in the US fighting recession, and unemployment. The Popular Front of France makes sweeping social changes under the guidance of Leon Blum.

In 1937, the 999-telephone number for emergency services is introduced in the UK. The Empire is falling apart, and Mahatma Ghandi leads a campaign of civil disobedience against British rule. The Irish Free State becomes Eire, Japan invades China. Spain has its own problems: disorganised parliamentary government a problem solved by military rule. Upon its becoming a problem, is saved by farmers, and in turn, by socialists. Yet confusion and deterioration reign and soon the actual landscape of Spain is covered with that which the weather cannot wash away.

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“No, painting is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy”

-Pablo Picasso, 19451

In support of the reasoning that Foreign aid won the nationalists the war, using a chronology full of examples can support this.2 As the war begins, Franco is flown from Las Palmas to Morocco by an unsuspecting British pilot, Captain Babb, who visits General Sanjurjo in Lisbon the previous week. The Nationalist initiative is gained and a week later the rising begins.

To apply common-sense investigative techniques to this, intervention doesn’t quite begin until both forces make requests on July 20th. Hitler joins with Mussolini in providing transport for Franco and The Army of Africa to cross the Straits of Gibraltar. The importance of this act of intervention in holding the initiative shouldn’t be underestimated.

“…Franco’s “Army of Africa”, (was) composed of foreign legionnaires and Moorish mercenaries – perhaps the blood-thirstiest and certainly one of the most professionalised troops at the disposal of any European nation at the time…”3

Within two months of German and Italian involvement, Army of African troops were involved in two separate but decisive victories. Under Colonel Juan Yague they were responsible for capturing Badajoz, and thus linking the two parts of Nationalist Spain. In Alcazar, a besieged garrison of Falange and Guardai were saved from near-certain defeat when troops reclaimed the military academy. An offensive early in 1937 in the Southern province of Malaga showed the Italian addition was having a definite impact, much better organised than the Republicans defending the city.

The Non-Intervention Committee under the order of Britain put a clamp on France, the only external power assisting the Republicans after only three weeks. Arms and aircraft ceased from supply, and a week later, the Nationalists mounted a successful battle taking Majorca, Catalan troops fled, under cover of Jamie I. Surely a note of nationalist planning that ten days later an air attack badly damaged the ship off Malaga by the Straits. Majorca stricken, was thenceforth the base for many of the 660 Italian aircraft set to bomb the Republic through three years. As for the Navy, the Nationalists had few ships.

Two heavy cruisers under construction were important in sea battles, weight and direction provided by the purchase of four Italian destroyers, and two Legionarii class submarines from the November of 1936. Italians manned these almost entirely, independence lessened on occasion by the presence on ship of one Spanish liason officer. Twenty-six vessels were over-all involved. Technical and logistical support was offered, also from the Germans, to the Nationalist Navy. These ships were used in long and hard convoy warfare, shore bombardment, blockade and counter-blockade, and they were deadly, as stated below,

“Despite a common lack of personnel, the nationalist Navy was better organised and commanded, and that would translate into a more aggressive attitude”4

It is also interesting to note that Spanish naval construction was monopolised by the SECN5, it largely owned by British firm, Vickers-Armstrong. Almost all ships were designed referring to Royal Navy vessels and many British technical advisors continued to work in Spanish shipyards during the course of the war.

* * * * * * * * * * *

“The conclusion is inescapable that the defeat and destruction of the Spanish Republic must be attributed as much to British diplomacy in the years 1936 to 1939 as to German aircraft and Italian infantry”


Baldwin and Chamberlain’s 1936 Non-Intervention committee was about as successful as the rest of their appeasement policy. ‘While the rules of the NIC were observed by the democracies, they were openly flouted by the dictatorships’7 Choking the French aide meant that the Spanish Republics only course of action was to flee into the arms of Russia. Outside of the international brigades, the Soviet Union was the biggest supporter of Caballero and Negrin’s defending armies.

Paradoxically, their help was also a hindrance. Stalin’s opening gestures in the war, and much of the way through, were in their own way a form of appeasement. He had hoped to keep out of Hitler’s view for as long as possible. Lee suggests he had been trying to warn Britain and France of the danger the Fuhrer represented, pulling out when it became clear they were no longer interested. Whatever the actual truth, Stalin had not supplied the Republic with enough arms to do the job properly. On October 25th, a substantial part of the third largest gold reserve in the world was transferred to Russian hands.

The army of Africa while fighting for Madrid, were still occupying Spanish-Morocco without problem, aided by the Moroccan government, who had matched Italy’s number, sending out seventy-five thousand troops.8 Along another border, Dr. Salazar sent 20,000 Portugese soldiers to assist the generals. Portugal also provided the Nationalists with places to plot during the Civil War, and geographically, a route for the importing of arms and war materials.

As touched upon briefly in the paragraph dealing with Russia, an obstruction, which benefited Franco, was the corporate factor. The Texas Oil Company, The Standard of New Jersey and Atlantic Refining, Texaco, Shell all had a stake in a Nationalist victory: while the U.S government and its people favoured ‘cosy isolationism’9, the corporate face was happy enough to supply credit, but only to the Nationalists, as was the Bank of Westminster; Britain had a big foreign investment in Spain: ownership of the Pyrite factories and mining operations for an essential ingredient in ammunition was another factor leading to it’s decision to play at tacit neutrality.

Demoralisation must have hit hard on the 26th April 1937, when the merciless ‘Legion Condor’ bombed the towns of Guernica and Durango, and Bilbao fell under heavy artillery bombardment. Hauptmann Werner Molders, an inspired and gifted combat leader and tactical leader and his crew had recently been fitted with brand new Messerschmitt Bf109Cs & Ds in July 1938. More than a match for (Russian) Polikarpov’s new creations, these fighters were accompanied by 6,000 men, Heinekel 51s and Junker 52 bombers. Eleven aircraft squadrons laying down a landscape of destruction from Guernica to Ebro, and far beyond. With much of the Basque mountain range already taken, the town of tradition was certainly a target, and it’s status as a communications centre made it more so. The ruthless destruction of people and buildings brought international condemnation and a sense of loss difficult to forget through the decades.

Clearly, “mass influx” could be the term applied to foreign assistance in this war. The Republicans were assisted with international brigades while Eoin ‘O’ Duffy’s Blueshirts and the young French monarchists joined with the Falange in aiding Franco. There are however a number of other factors connected with the Nationalist victory having little to do with outside involvement. The superior military organisation and structure is one such factor, they possessed a greater number of middle-ranking officers and experienced soldiers.

An example of this can be found by studying The Battle of Santander, were General Fidel Davila’s forces were vastly outnumbered, but won due to Gamir’s soldiers being poorly trained and low on weaponry. Franco’s armies were better supplied, with imaginative yet solid strategies. His motto, ‘Duty, Discipline and Order’. He was careful not to let one group become too dominant, and successfully united the politically diverse. The advance on the Mediterranean coast successfully cut the Republic in two; yet before crossing the Ebro, Franco handled the decisive factor sensibly and allowed his troops time to rest and re-equip. His campaign was one fought with caution and discretion, confidence and well timed capture of opportunity.

In stark contrast, the Republicans were in a state of disunity such was their ideological range, and this is typified by the situation in Barcelona in 1937 and by the civil war within a civil war on the streets of Madrid at wars close. Divisions over the primary objective of the war can only have made easier the nationalist mission.

The length of Franco’s leadership of Spain, his keeping the Republic of World War II through to his good choice of successor are aspects of evidence of the Nationalist strength outside foreign allegiance. With a view to the statement and the scope of 1936-39 to which this essay refers, I cannot judge. Much of the corporate world acted as if their involvement was necessary, whilst seeing a Nationalist victory as something of a safe bet. I can neither agree nor disagree with the statement, these facets of fact, are inseparable.

“To have stopped Franco’s ‘Army of Africa…and its well-trained Civil Guards and police auxiliaries, would have been nothing less than miraculous once it established a strong base on the Spanish mainland. That hastily formed, untrained and virtually unequipped militiamen and women slowed up Franco’s army’s advance on Madrid for four months and essentially stopped it on the outskirts of the capital is a feat for which they have rarely earned the proper tribute from writers on the civil war of the past half century”10

Indeed, for Bookchin has not mentioned that the first rising in Madrid failed on July 1936, and was continually thwarted until the Nationalists entered on March 28th, 1939. The capital Madrid was relentlessly defended time and time again over those three years, with and without foreign aid. Perhaps not such a safe bet after all.


Picasso , Alfred H. Barr (1946)

International Brigades, Legion Condor, Spanish Civil War Factbook, www.skalman.nu

Spanish Civil War, http://history.acusd.edu

The main events of the Spanish Civil War, www.users.dircon.co.uk

Spanish Civil War, www.sispain.org

Warships of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), Author unknown


‘Spain and The Great Powers, 1936-1941’, Dante Puzzo ,Columbia University Press, 1962. European Dictatorships 1918-1945, Stephen J. Lee, Routledge.

The Spanish Civil War, Hugh Thomas, Penguin, 1992

Roper-Fortune Poll, Janurary 1939, Mach 1939 , reprint.

Mastering Modern World History, Norman Lowe, Palgrave 1997

Modern World History Made Simple, K. Perry, Heinemann/London, 1976

Paul Preston, “The Spanish Civil War: Right Versus Left in the 1930s”

Oxford Concise Dictionary of Quotations, ed. Elizaeth Knowles, OU Press, 2001.

Chambers Concise Dictionary, ed. Catherine Schwarz, Chambers Harrap, 1997

Encyclopedia Britannica

Hutchinson Encyclopedia- The Millenium Edition, ed. Roger Tritton, 2000

World Atlas, European Map Graphics Ltd, 1996

This text may be reprinted as the user sees fit. Feedback on its facility is welcome.

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1 In interview with Simone Tery, 24 March, 1945, in Alfred H. Barr, Picasso (1946)

2 I have chosen to use a combination of five chronologies along with other materials for greater clearness. The components of this timeline are internet-based, www.skalman.nu http://history.acusd.edu www.users.dircon.co.uk and www.sispain.org, with addition to the chronology from The Encyclopedia Britannica.

3 After 50 Years: The Spanish Civil War by Murray Bookchin, www.spunk.org

4 Warships of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) , Author’s name not searched http://webforodigital.es/uphm/mgl/buques/spanishcivwar.htm

5 ‘Sociedad Espanola de Construccion Naval’ aka The Spanish Corporation of Naval Construction, from the same source as above.

6 If I’m correct, this is from Dante Puzzo’s ‘Spain and The Great Powers, 1936-1941’, Columbia University Press, 1962. I got it from pg. 253 of Stephen J. Lee’s ‘European Dictatorships 1918-1945’, published by Routledge.

7 That ones direct from Lee on the same page, it just seemed to fit right in.

8 Hugh Thomas, ‘The Spanish Civil War, Penguin, 1992

9 Roper-Fortune Poll, Janurary 1939. It’s worth noting that the same poll conducted amongst Americans at the end of the Spanish Civil War, the March edition, recorded a preparation amongst readers for war, and their involvement in it.

10 After 50 Years: The Spanish Civil War by Murray Bookchin, www.spunk.org

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