Thursday, 25 June 2015

The Spanish Civil War

"Today Spain, tomorrow the world".
Considering my previous writings on the Spanish Civil War, not least my contribution to Chain of Command: España, it may seem a little odd that only now am I getting round to writing a post on what it was about and why you should consider gaming it. To a point this has also been driven by my re-organising of my blogs, so that I am only left with one for 20th Century topics and another for 15th Century ones. 

The most common throw-away lines I tend to encounter referring to the Spanish Civil War as a period, tend to be along the lines of; "A prelude to WWII", "Doesn't offer any tactical challenges... just frontal assaults", "a proxy war", "the proving ground for Blitzkrieg" and of course "I just don't get it". I will accept the last one, as it does indeed have a very complicated historical and political background. The other commonly encountered comments are entirely erroneous.

When it actually comes to playing a Spanish Civil War game it does not get much better. Concepts like including mechanisms for inter-party strife amongst the Republicans have little place on a SCW battlefield, unless it is to illustrate why one unit is better equipped than another. Make no mistake, for the men at the front, there was no confusion over who was the enemy. It would be an unusual rule set which would include a mechanism for Waffen-SS vs Wehrmacht strife, so why do it for the SCW?

The presence of armour is usually overstated too. Barring a brief action in Late October 1936, where an unfortunate Nationalist platoon of CV33/35s ended up facing a mixed company of T26 and Renault FTs, armour against armour clashes were quite rare, especially before Mid-'37. There was not an unlimited supply of vehicles either; the Soviets supplied sufficient tanks to keep just three to four tank battalions operational by Late-'37, the Nationalists had 150 or so CV33/35 and 120 Panzer I supplied to them, but only had around 150 of both types combined by 1939. Captured T26 tanks were refurbished or used for spares, allowing the employment of a company by Late 1937 and 50 by the time of the Ebro Offensive. At the war's end, there were almost as many T26 in service as there were CVs and Panzer Is combined.

In total each side had fewer tanks than some Panzer Divisions in 1940. In real terms and taking the peak strengths of the front-line formations prior to the Ebro (1938) as an example, there was one tank battalion per three infantry divisions. A company of tanks might support a brigade of some four to six battalions in an attack, but was unlikely to face other tanks unless the enemy immediately counter-attacked. While not always strictly true, the typical SCW engagement would see only one side with tanks, if there were any tanks at all. Given that all field guns and in some cases even machine guns with armour-piercing ammunition, could cause them severe damage, armour was not a deciding factor except at a localised level.

Tactical Warfare

The bulk of the fighting was undertaken by the traditional arms of infantry, artillery and to a lesser extent, horse cavalry. The Nationalists employed their cavalry division as a formation of rapid manoeuvre, while the Republicans used theirs in small divisional reconnaissance formations. Spain had developed its own system of infantry tactics, where the company was the unit of manoeuvre, but with its component half-platoons supporting each other using fire and movement tactics. The same principle was applied at company level, with each battalion supported by its own machine gun company, deployed as a 'battery' and not parcelled out in individual sub-units.

Initially only the Army of Africa possessed the training and experience to utilise these tactics, along with the necessary quantities of support weapons required. The less well-trained and equipped units of the Peninsular Army and especially the hastily-raised militias, were initially unable to employ the same tactics and instead relied on unsophisticated mass advances. If they came under heavy fire they would usually 'go to ground' and would need a lot of motivation to continue to advance. These formations rarely possessed the required number of support and automatic weapons they needed too.

Falangists take cover during the advance through the Sierra Guadarrama 1936. The haste in which units were raised in the initial weeks precluded anything but the most basic of training.

Eventually however the 'bounding manoeuvre' system became the universal method used by both sides. Each half platoon possessed a single light machine gun team which would support the advance of its two manoeuvre groups. Light mortars supported each company's advance and the battalion as a whole was supported from the rear by massed machine gun and mortar fire. In essence then the tactics of the Spanish Civil War owed more to 1918 than they did to 1939.

What made these tactics effective was that there was a general shortage of automatic weapons and artillery. While the Soviets, Italians and Germans did supply numbers of both types, they too were expanding their own militaries. The equipment supplied to Spain was typically used, abused and generally obsolete within the countries supplying them. Without the mass-bombardments, heavy concentrations of machine guns and deep defensive trench-lines of the Western Front, breakthroughs could be achieved, even if they could not be fully exploited for the most part.

The Genesis of The Blitzkrieg?

For the most part there is very little of the Second World War to be found in the Spanish Civil War. Communications were still primitive, with the heliograph and semaphore flag the most practical 'mobile devices', and the field telephone most useful in static positions. Radios were used but would typically only be found at battalion, brigade or divisional level and their supporting artillery groups.  Ground to air communication was difficult at best and vehicle radios were largely confined to command vehicles. This typically led to vehicle platoons manoeuvring in the 'hen and chicks' fashion if they were to remain as a cohesive unit. The exception was the Panzer I, where the platoon commander had a two-way radio and his subordinates had receive-only sets.

Combined-arms tactics were accordingly very difficult to promote. The majority of artillery fire was pre-planned, as there was no immediate way of requesting support fire. The most obvious 'new' method of warfare was the close air support provided to the Nationalists by their air force and the Cadena (chain) formation, whereby a flight of aircraft would attack a ground target in-line, was adopted by the Luftwaffe and used to great effect from 1939. With no efficient method of communication between ground and air however, air attacks were usually pre-planned like artillery fire, with the use of smoke to identify enemy targets by ground forces.

While they were never quite as uniformly equipped as the Nationalists, the idea of the Republican Army as an irregularly-dressed rabble does not hold true past Mid-1937 and for many units sometime before that.  

The one technological advance that can be attested to, is the increasing use of vehicles during the conflict. The Spanish Army of 1936 was almost totally reliant on the horse and the mule for its transport needs. Its Armoured Corps consisted of a mere fourteen tanks (Renault FT tanks and related designs), there was an M.1932 armoured car unit of similar numbers and an assault artillery unit of six decrepit Schneider CA-1. Besides a small number of motorised supply and artillery units, Spain did not have a mechanised military.

The German and Italian formations deployed in Spain were wholly reliant on motor vehicles. Both they and the Soviets were to supply such vehicles to their respective sides in the Civil War too. While horses and mules were not entirely replaced by 1939 and much of the infantry still walked, as early as October 1936, infantry units were being deployed in their areas of operation by truck, even if these were not integral to their parent brigades and divisions.

Excavation of Republican defensive positions constructed during the Ebro Offensive of 1938 (report), demonstrates a degree of sophistication not normally attributed to the Republican Army in most histories. While under artillery and air attack their engineers managed to construct concrete emplacements not dissimilar to those found in Normandy in 1944. The eventual assault on these positions included artillery and aerial bombardment, followed by a combined tank and infantry assault.

Wargaming the Civil War

The Spanish Civil War offers a unique conflict for the wargamer. In the earlier phases of the conflict there is a small Nationalist 'elite' attempting to force its way to the capital through a larger untrained, ill-equipped, but motivated mass. In the North in the same period a trained but lack-lustre military is attempting to overcome a similarly motivated but un-trained opposition as exists in the South. In the space of a few months there is the addition of armoured forces, although these fail to operate effectively with their supporting infantry.

By the end of the first twelve months the Nationalist 'elite' has been shorn of its best and while it still has an enviable esprit de corps and superior discipline and equipment, it is not the formation it once was. Its opponents and its own conscript formations have become more experienced, somewhat better equipped and still retain their motivation by and large. Co-ordination between the respective service arms is becoming more effective and localised air power is becoming more influential.

In the final year of the conflict there is actually little difference between the capabilities of the two combatants in terms of experience and equipment, although the Nationalists are still receiving support from their international supporters, while the Soviets are reluctant to support what they see as a failing initiative. There are no further shipments of Soviet tanks after March 1938, although the Republic is able to manufacture some vehicles in its own factories. Similarly the Germans and Italians had already reduced the level of their support for the Nationalists in February 1937.  

While the original Spanish tactical doctrine and organisation has been maintained by both sides, it now integrates its supporting elements far better. The obsolescence of some their equipment aside, to all intents and purposes, both protagonists are fielding armies at least the equal in sophistication of any other military in Europe at the time. Numerically however the advantage is with the Nationalists and the Republicans are increasingly losing the initiative.

Members of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion 1937. The Spanish Civil War was the first time black and white Americans would fight together in the same units. Not until the Korean War would this happen in their own military. 

In some respects the SCW resembles WWI and in others WWII. There is no 'armoured steamroller', or range of gimmick weapons to use to dominate the game. While a faceless khaki-clad horde is present, so too are units that are far more varied than their WWII counterparts in appearance. You have a range of troop types and capabilities to choose from and despite a common organisation pattern for both sides, there are variations in equipment levels which can be utilised to give variety, or to suit your style of play.