Members of the 1st Battalion, 269th ID “Blue Division of Spanish Volunteers.
By Wayne H. Bowen
Spain was not an official belligerent during World War II, but its military was deeply affected by the conflict. Born in the Spanish Civil War, the victorious armed forces of Nationalist Spain emerged in 1939 with an austere Catholic and authoritarian ethos. Partly out of necessity and partly out of the ideological preference of its master, the Spanish military maintained these principles of self-abnegation and Spartan existence for many years after the end of the Civil War. Despite the close ties of the Spanish military to the Axis, and the similarities between Spain’s Falangist Party and the fascist parties of Germany and Italy, the Spanish Army remained on its bases during the broader European war that began the year Spain’s Civil War ended. Many observers expected General Francisco Franco’s army, which had been trained and equipped by Germany, to enter World War II on the Axis side. Despite negotiations to this end, Spain did not join Nazi Germany in its war or undertake any major military operations during the conflict.
Nevertheless, some elements of his army and air force saw combat during the conflict. The Spanish Blue Division, a volunteer unit in the Germany army, served on the Eastern Front from 1941 to 1943, as did the Blue Squadron from the Spanish Air Force. Sent at the initiative of Franco, these forces demonstrated Spain’s solidarity with the Axis, without a declaration of war. Other smaller units, without authorization from the Franco regime, served in the German military and SS. The Spanish Army and security forces also fought on Spanish territory against communist-led guerrillas, the maquis, who invaded Spain from France beginning in late 1944.
The vast majority of the Spanish armed forces, however, remained in their barracks during World War II. Although its public image was one of heroism and glory, and on paper, its divisions seemed formidable, the Spanish military suffered from severe financial neglect, even as the Spanish state trumpeted the institution as the key to the Civil War victory and the foundation of the regime. Poorly equipped, so badly paid that even officers had to hold outside employment to survive, the Spanish military would have been hard pressed to defend against even a halfhearted invasion of the peninsula by the Axis or the Allies. This paper will demonstrate the weakness of Franco’s military during this critical time in the regime’s history. Although the military served as one of the key pillars of the regime, the weakness of Spain’s armed forces illustrates the overall fragility of the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. Despite an outward appearance of total unity, the Spanish government during World War II was divided between hostile factions, notoriously incompetent in almost all areas, and characterized by an ambivalent authoritarianism that reflected the broader disagreements within the government and in society at large. The armed forces echoed these divisions and magnified them at the level of general officers.
On April 1, 1939, General Francisco Franco, sick in bed with fever, issued this statement: ‘‘On this day, with the Red Army captive and disarmed, the Nationalist troops have reached their final military objectives. The war has ended.’’ The Spanish Civil War, which had begun almost three years earlier, ended with a Nationalist victory, leaving the nation in the hands of General Franco and his supporters. The Nationalists won because they had internal unity, a more cohesive and better-led army, and consistent foreign support from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The defeated Republicans, surrendered or fled into exile to France, Mexico, or the Soviet Union, the latter being the only nation to provide substantial military assistance to the Republic of the Popular Front. The war was over, with the Republican army in prisoner of war camps or huddled in refugee camps in southern France.
Even though the Nationalist armed forces had won the Civil War, within a few months of the end of the conflict its readiness and strength had declined precipitously. In a rush to demobilize large numbers of soldiers, the army retained far too many officers and lost its base of enlisted combat veterans. German and Italian military aid, which had provided the bulk of Spain’s modern weapons and training, ended suddenly with the victory. As a result, by the end of 1939, even as World War II was beginning on the continent, Franco’s armed forces, so recently arrayed in triumph and effectiveness, were in no condition to fight a protracted war. The Spanish Army was large, over 500,000 when mobilized, but had no oil, little ammunition, and only two under equipped motorized divisions. The rest of the divisions marched on foot and were perpetually short of food, uniforms, boots, and rifles, most of which were from World War I anyway. Even after several years of attempting to purchase arms from the Axis and the Allies, Spain was woefully short in almost every category. The air force had only a few modern fighter aircraft, mostly German Messerschmitt Bf-109s left over from the Civil War or purchased in small numbers thereafter. Most of the navy had been sunk during the Civil War, with one heavy cruiser, one light cruiser, one seaworthy submarine, and a handful of destroyers able to defend Spain’s coast and maritime interests. The army had almost no tanks, trucks, or modern artillery. This weakness came despite the high percentage of the national budget which went to the military: 45% in 1941 and as high as 34% even in 1945.
This was not the face of a nation prepared for modern war or even minor offensive operations against Gibraltar or French North Africa, both of which were seriously considered by Franco during World War II. Even with an Axis victory, Spain would have suffered yet another blow to its fragile economy, leaving even more of its citizens hungry and desperate. While new territories in North Africa would have helped with food supplies, the costs would have been high, as France, even after being defeated by Germany, was more than a match for Spain’s weak military. In the case of Spanish entry into the war, it seems likely that Hitler would eventually have sought to replace Franco with a more pliable leader, as happened in Hungary in 1944. Even facing an imminent Soviet invasion of Germany, Nazi leaders maintained the wherewithal to overthrow the aged Admiral Miklo´s Horthy, who had dared to open peace negotiations with the Allies, and gave power to the fascist Arrow Cross Party in Hungary.
Despite its penury, the military remained a powerful force within Spain’s borders. The most important interest groups working within the Spanish government were the military, the Catholic Church and its lay organizations, Bourbon monarchists, the Falange, and Carlist monarchists. Of these groups, the first three were the most consistently influential over the life of the regime, with the earlier influence of the Falange fading with the defeat of the Axis during World War II. During World War II, ‘‘the Falange, Church and army shared power, with clear pre-eminence to the military.’’
During the first year of peace, Franco dramatically reduced the size of the Spanish Army, from almost one million at the end of the Civil War to 250,000 in early 1940, with most soldiers two-year conscripts. Concern about the international situation, Spain’s possible entry into the war, and threats of invasion led him to restore some of these reductions, leaving Spain with almost double the 1940 figure for the remainder of World War II. In November 1942, with the Allied landings in North Africa and the German occupation of Vichy France bringing the war closer than ever to Spain’s border, Franco ordered a partial mobilization, bringing the army to over 750,000. The air force and navy also grew in numbers and in budgets, to 35,000 airmen and 25,000 sailors by 1945, although for fiscal reasons Franco had to restrain attempts by both services to undertake dramatic expansions.
With the end of the Civil War, the Nationalist army demobilized most of its soldiers, but the internal and international situations required the maintenance of a large army. Conscription, revised in August 1940 to include all able-bodied males, provided the vast majority of enlisted soldiers, but the officer corps remained not only a volunteer force but also one that was oversubscribed by young men hoping for a military career. For every place in the Academia General Militar (General Military Academy, GMA), the service school that trained most Spanish cadets destined for military service during World War II, there were at least two applicants, a ratio rising to 4.3:1 in 1945.
Even though the armed forces consumed 35–45% of all government expenditures, figures that remained constant as the overall budget rose, procurement was very limited during World War II. One of the reasons the navy, air force, and even army had to limit construction and acquisition of new weapons systems, despite the weakness of the armed forces to cope with any external threat, was that the vast majority of their budgets, at least 49% and as much as 80%, went toward salaries. The bulk of this went to the Spanish Army’s ‘‘bloated officer corps,’’ which included both generals over the age of seventy and thousands of provisional lieutenants (alféreces provisionales) commissioned during the Civil War and kept on active duty for political reasons, even though their services were no longer needed in a smaller military. Additionally, many of the mid-level officers—majors and lieutenant colonels—had been Franco’s infantry cadets when he had been director of the GMA in Zaragoza, 1927–31, and retained loyalty for the former teacher.
Thus, the Spanish Army entered the period of World War II ‘‘with a great mass of soldiers poorly fed, clothed and shod, supplied with antiquated weapons and equipment, practically without any automobiles and using obsolete tanks and aircraft.’’ There were so few tanks in the army that many cavalry officers argued that Spain should ignore the tank and keep cavalry units on horseback. The military, especially the army, suffered from poor equipment and a lack of standardization. Even with the most basic kinds of military equipment, Spain was unable to afford one system. Instead of one type of rifle, which would have improved readiness and made training and logistics easier, the army had to rely on domestic weapons from the Spanish-American War, World War I, and eight other foreign variants. Even at the end of World War II, after six years of peace, the army still had ten different kinds of machine guns.
Despite his extensive battlefield and administrative experience, ‘‘the problem of military efficiency never seriously preoccupied General Franco.’’ Franco even argued that Spanish soldiers could make up through strength of will what they lacked in war materiel. Spain’s international defiance of Allied demands to lessen German ties also had a negative impact on readiness. For example, the British and U.S. oil embargo in early 1944 was so catastrophic that military aircraft and armored vehicles did not have sufficient fuel to participate in the victory parade on April 1, commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Nationalist triumph in the Spanish Civil War.
For good reason, Franco was able to refer to the Army and Falange as ‘‘the two pillars of the Nation,’’ by which he meant his regime. This contentedness also continued despite the inactivity of the armed forces during World War II. Aside from the Blue Division, Blue Legion, and Blue Squadron, which fought on the Eastern Front as late as 1944, and the few units involved in fighting communist guerrillas in northern Spain, 1944–45, the Spanish military did not gain any experience, or even participate in any major military exercises, during World War II.
The only significant domestic use of the military, against the maquis guerrillas beginning in 1944, also had a consolidating impact on the regime. Faced with such an obvious threat to national security, the military rallied to Franco. In October 1944, the first insurgents entered Navarre, Spain, from France. This geographic choice, attempting to seize the Valley of Inclan, was a serious mistake, as it brought the communists into the Carlist heartland, surrounded by tens of thousands of conservative and Catholic peasants who had been nearly unanimous in their support of the 1936 Nationalist uprising. Still, several thousand rebels infiltrated and remained in the region for up to ten days before being crushed by the army and Guardia Civil. From Navarre, the communists spread throughout many of the mountainous areas of Spain, committing over 300 armed attacks on Spanish military, police, and civilian targets. The invasion had the effect of rallying the military around Franco, through raising fears of another Civil War. With the failure of the maquis on the battlefield, the French ended their tolerance for these incursions and closed the Spanish border on March 1, 1945.
In the summer and fall of 1940 Spain came closest to entering the war, with the Falange and military in ascendancy over more moderate monarchists, the Church, and business interests. Uncertainty pervaded the mood of Spain during those months, with Spain’s edging closer to war coinciding with the heights of the black market and corruption in postwar Spain. Most of the military believed that a Nazi victory was imminent and that Spain needed to affiliate quickly with the Axis to take its proper share of the spoils of war. Franco was still hesitant to embrace belligerency on the side of the Axis, barring financial and military guarantees from Hitler and Mussolini. When Air Force Minister Yagüe proposed at a cabinet meeting that Spain should immediately enter the war on the side of Germany, Franco told him to keep quiet and dismissed him from office shortly thereafter. The Caudillo also fired General José López Pinto, the Captain General of the frontier Sixth Military District, after allowing excessive Hispano-German fraternization at the border.
The German attack on the USSR transformed Spanish politics overnight and genuinely stimulated ‘‘a patriotic clamor’’ and anticommunist demonstrations throughout Spain. While Falangists, Alfonsin monarchists, Carlists, Catholics, and business interests may have had significant political differences, they coincided in their hatred of communism and anger at the Soviet Union for having assisting the Second Republic and prolonging the war. Franco appears to have briefly considered declaring war, as requested by Nazi Germany, but his nation’s economic dependence on Great Britain prevented this from being possible.
Instead, following the suggestion of Ramón Serrano Suñer, his foreign minister and brother-in-law, Franco offered to send a volunteer division of Spaniards to serve in the German army, a proposal accepted immediately by Nazi leaders. Recruiting began with a massive demonstration in central Madrid, during which Serrano Suñer declared: ‘‘Russia is guilty’’ of beginning the Spanish Civil War, murdering José Antonio Primo de Rivera (the founder of the Falange), and otherwise contributing to the destruction of Spain’s economy and prospects. Within a few weeks, tens of thousands of Falangists, Carlists, and other anticommunist Spanish youth had volunteered for the unit, leaving it oversubscribed several times over.
The Spanish Volunteer Division, its official name, left Spain for Germany in mid-July 1941, witnessed in Madrid by four cabinet ministers and most of the leading Falangist leaders, with the noted exception of Franco, who perhaps wanted to maintain some official distance from such an obvious breach of neutral behavior. Serrano Suñer, even though Foreign Minister, felt no such hindrance, declaring to the Nazi newspaper Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung that the creation of the Blue Division signaled Spain’s position as one of ‘‘moral belligerency on the side of our friends and against the most hated of all the enemies of the Spaniards,’’ the Soviet Union.
The Blue Division received the official support of the government for its first two years on the Eastern Front. Newspapers contained frequent mentions of the heroism of the unit, memorializing fallen soldiers and denouncing the evils of communism. The Falange opened a special office in Madrid to assist families of the division and sponsored radio broadcasts featuring soldiers calling back to their friends and relatives in Spain. Congregations throughout Spain held special masses in honor of the troops, attended by prominent figures in the Falange and government, and the Women’s Section of the Falange organized drives to collect winter clothing and other gifts for the unit, especially around Christmas. Upon their return from battle, Blue Division veterans gained the same hiring preferences as those who had fought in the Civil War, and one year of service in the unit credited a soldier with two in the regular Spanish Army.
One result of the dispatch of the Blue Division was the rise of General Agustín Muñoz Grandes, the unit commander, as a popular figure. As a young officer, he had served with distinction in Morocco and had held key positions during the monarchy and republic. During the Spanish Civil War, after making a daring escape from the Republican zone, he had been a skilled Nationalist commander. With his army background, experience as Secretary General of the Falange, and proven battlefield leadership, he became the focus of a tremendous amount of attention. The Spanish press covered his speeches, which were also broadcast over Spanish radio hailing the courage of his soldiers.
Hard is the enemy, and harder still is the Russian winter. But it does not matter: even harder is my race, supported by reason and the courage of its sons who, embracing their heroic German comrades, will in the end achieve the victory, towards which we fight without ceasing.
In addition to the Spaniards who followed his exploits, Muñoz Grandes also garnered the attention of Hitler, who saw in him a potential replacement for Franco. The German leader met several times with the Spanish general, awarding him the highest military decoration and encouraging him to remain involved in politics. Franco heard about these discussions, and replaced Muñoz Grandes as commander of the division, a replacement delayed several months at the insistence of the Nazis. Hitler wanted to ensure that the Blue Division’s commander gained sufficient victories to become even more popular in Spain. Upon his eventual return, to a hero’s welcome, Franco promoted Muñoz Grandes to the rank of lieutenant general—too high to command an army division again—and appointed the general in March 1943 to head his military household. Despite the celebrations and banquets in his honor, it would not be until March 1945—just before the end of World War II—that Franco would trust Muñoz Grandes with troops, giving him command of the prestigious Madrid Military District.