Italian members of the Corpo Truppe Volontarie which assisted Franco’s forces throughout the war. They wear mounted troops’ bandoliers, and most are armed with the M1891 Carcano carbine with a permanently attached folding bayonet.
The first foreign armour to enter service with the Nationalists were five Italian CV 3/35 tankettes, which arrived at the port of Vigo on 26 August 1936 accompanied by ten Italian crewmen to serve as instructors. This would be the most numerous type of AFV employed by the Italian corps in Spain, but – armed with two 8mm machine guns, and with a maximum armour thickness of 15mm – it proved quite inadequate when faced by the Republic’s Soviet-supplied T-26 tanks with 45mm guns.
The most important Nationalist Air Corps fighter type was the Italian Fiat CR. 32, of which seven squadrons were in service by August 1938. These two machines are `3-60′ and `3-62′ (type number – individual aircraft number), which served with Escuadrilla 2-E-3 during the Brunete campaign in summer 1937. By the end of hostilities 20 Nationalist pilots had been credited with five or more aerial victories; the topscoring three were Joaquin Garcia Morato (40 kills), Julio Salvador Diaz Benzumea (25), and Manuel Vazquez Sagistazabal (21½), all of whom won the great majority of their victories while flying the CR. 32.
By far the most important foreign support received by the Nationalists came from Fascist Italy; this would total some 78,000 men, about 750 aircraft and 150 armoured vehicles. Unlike the German armed forces, the Italians had recent combat experience from their invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in October 1935-May 1936. On 12 December 1936, after the failure of Franco’s attempts to capture Madrid, Mussolini decided to send complete Italian ground units to Spain, and the first 3,000 men of the Missione Militare in Spagna arrived on 23 December. By the end of January 1937 some 44,000 Italians were in Spain, mostly members of the militarized Fascist Party `Blackshirt’ militia (Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nationale, MVSN). On 17 February the expeditionary force was renamed the Corpo Truppe Volontarie, CTV; commanded by Gen Mario Roatta, in March it numbered more than 50,000 men.
The CTV initially consisted of four small divisions. The 4th `Voluntarii Littorio’ (`Lictor Volunteers’) Infantry Division was composed of Army volunteers organized as in a regular Royal Army formation, which had two infantry regiments each of three battalions, an artillery battalion with three batteries, plus a mortar and an engineer battalion. The other three divisions and an independent infantry brigade group were from the MVSN: infantry divisions designated 1st `Dio lo Vuole’ (`God Wills It’), 2nd `Fiamme Nere’ (`Black Flames’) and 3rd `Penne Nere’ (`Black Feathers’), plus the independent Grupo `XXIII de Marzo’ (`23rd of March’). An MVSN regiment (legion) had only two battalions (cohortes) each 670 strong. The CTV also had a battalion of armoured cars and light tankettes, and a corps artillery of ten field regiments and four AA batteries. It was motorized throughout, but the artillery was obsolete. In February 1937 the light armour was amalgamated with some motorized infantry and artillery into a Raggruppamento Reparti Specializzati (`Group of Specialist Units’, RRS).
In early February 1937 the 1st MVSN Div took part in the successful Nationalist attack on Malaga. In March, at Mussolini’s complacent insistence, the CTV was committed to another offensive near Madrid, at Guadalajara; this failed, however, with heavy losses among the MVSN divisions. The 3rd `Black Feathers’ Div was absorbed by the 2nd `Black Flames’ Div in April; Gen Roatta was replaced by Gen Ettore Bastico, and thereafter the CTV would not carry out operations independent of the Nationalist high command.
Many Italians served thereafter in mixed Italo-Spanish `Flechas’ (`Arrows’) formations, providing the officers and technical personnel while the majority of the rank-and-file were Spanish. From April to August 1937 the first of these mixed brigades, named `Flechas Azules’ (`Blue Arrows’), took the field in Extremadura. The second, `Flechas Negras’ (`Black Arrows’), fought in the Basque country on the Biscay front, supported by the `23rd of March’ and 11th Artillery groups. There, in August, the CTV played a successful part in the offensive against Santander; they were then transferred to the Aragon front.
In September 1937 the `23rd of March’ Group was redesignated as a division, and in October this was amalgamated, with the 1st `God Wills It’ and 2nd `Black Flames’ divisions, into a new consolidated `XIII di Marzo – Fiamme Nere’ MVSN division. In October 1938, with the repatriation of many time-expired personnel, this formation would in turn amalgamate with the `Littorio’ Div, leaving the CTV with a single consolidated Army/Blackshirt formation designated Assault Div `Littorio’, of two infantry regiments with support units. This fought in Catalonia from 23 December 1938 to 8 February 1939.
In March 1938 the Italo-Spanish `Black Arrows’ brigade had been committed to the Aragon offensive towards the Mediterranean coast, and by November it had been enlarged to divisional status. The `Blue Arrows’ mixed brigade provided the nucleus for two other mixed Italo-Spanish divisions named `Blue Arrows’ and `Green Arrows’, which in 1939 also took part in the final offensive in Catalonia, alongside the all-Italian `Littorio’ Assault Division.
In all, some 78,500 Italian volunteers served in Spain, at a cost of 3,819 killed and about 12,000 wounded.
In the summer of 1936, many Spanish generals revolted against the country’s Republican government. They asked Italy and Germany for military support. Mussolini did not like the idea very much, but he saw it as an opportunity to outmaneuver France. From the Italian point of view, France appeared to have a peculiar ability to act in a way that drew the ire of other countries. In those years, not only did Italians view French attitudes as hostile toward Italy, but also premier Leon Blum made two policy errors, which further alienated Italy. The first was a FrancoSpanish pact. Spain allowed French troops transit through Spanish territory to reach North Africa in case of war against Italy. The second was his announcement of sending weapons, ordnance, and men to support the Spanish Republic.
Mussolini did not care about Spanish affairs, but if French intervention rendered Spain a sort of French protectorate, or strategic ally, Italy could find both the exits from Mediterranean closed to Italian shipping. Suez was owned by a French-British company. The Straits of Gibraltar were passable because Spain owned the African side, despite British possession of Gibraltar. What if France indirectly controlled that side as Britain controlled the European one? This could pose a threat to Mussolini’s strategic interests. Italian foreign minister Galeazzo Ciano convinced Mussolini to commit the Regio Esercito for the OMS-Oltre Mare Spagna (Overseas Spain)-operation.
The Italian Military Mission arrived first in Spain to coordinate with General Francisco Franco. Then the Regia Aeronautica sent him a squadron of twelve bombers. On August 4, 1936, Italian aircraft attacked and swept the loyal Republican Spanish fleet out of the Straits of Gibraltar. Then Italian and recently arrived German aircraft transported Spanish colonial troops from Africa to Spain. Italian military support gradually increased. Technicians, tanks, and specialists were sent to Franco as volunteers. He lacked modern weapons and used them not for training his troops, but directly in combat. Italian light tanks played a basic role in smashing the enemy front at Navalcarnero, on October 21. Three days later, Italian military advisers had to fight in Borox. Italian light tanks met Russian-made tanks for the first time and won. Just as the Spanish nationalists and Falange (the Spanish conservative-right party) received support from Italy and Germany, the Republic, which was dominated by Socialists, Communists, and anarchists, received substantial aid from the Soviet Union.
Italian armored forces acted as the Spanish Nationalists’ vanguard and reached Madrid University during the tenacious battle for the capital. The Italian General Staff realized this was no more matter of training the Spanish and, with Mussolini’s direction, increased its military involvement by committing forty thousand more men. “Who asked for it?” Franco curtly asked Lieutenant Colonel Emilio Faldella, chief of the Italian Military Mission, although he did not refuse them.
The CTV-Corpo Truppe Volontarie (Corps of Voluntary Troops)-arrived in Spain. It was composed of four light divisions supported by a large heavy artillery contingent-the Artiglieria Legionaria (Legionnaire Artillery)-and an air component, the Aviazione Legionaria.
Thousands of pages have been written to demonstrate that the CTV were anything but volunteers and that Italy’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War was unpopular; they are largely wrong. Although it is true that the first three thousand men sent to Spain in December originally applied to go to Ethiopia as civil laborers, it is also true that, according to archival documents, a lot of people asked to volunteer for Spain. The Army Archive contains many reports about it. For instance, L’Aquila Military District received hundreds and hundreds of applications. Campobasso Military District suddenly received more than one thousands volunteers.
Why such large participation in this civil war? There were two central reasons. The first was propaganda. News from Spain, more or less enhanced by state propaganda, depicted a terrible situation in Spain. The horror of the war being waged against the clergy, with monks and priests being tortured and shot, nuns raped, churches destroyed, and sacrilege committed, all played upon the Italian public. For a Catholic country such as Italy, these horrors were enough to encourage a sort of “crusade,” as the Nationalists called the war. The second reason was money. Each volunteer received a 300-lira enlistment bonus, 20 liras daily pay, and an additional 3 pesetas daily pay from the Spanish Nationalist government. It was a lot of money for the lower classes, especially in a period of high unemployment, even if the Fascist government did not admit it.
General Mario Roatta commanded the CTV-under the name Mancini, because officially Italy was not involved. They fought successfully at Malaga and Motril in February 1937.
On the Republican side, a lot of volunteers were coming from everywhere to fight Fascism. George Orwell from England, Ernest Hemingway from the United States, and, incidentally many Italians, too, who composed a battalion. Italians were present on both sides, but Franco did not like it. When he thought that strategic suggestions from Rome were becoming too intrusive, he sought to reduce their presence, yet events convinced him otherwise. On February 15, 1937, he asked the CTV to launch an offensive on Guadalajara within a month. Three days later, however, after a victorious Republican counterattack, Franco asked Roatta for immediate intervention. It was the turning point.
On March 8, 1937, Italian troops attacked along the Carretera de Francia, the route from the south to Madrid, Saragossa, and France. Snow and ice pelted the advancing troops, and bad weather over Nationalist airfields prevented any air support for the Italian offensive. On the Republican side, good weather did not restrict Republican aircraft from providing air cover. Moreover, when the Republicans counterattacked, the Nationalists gave no support to the Italians. Despite these circumstances the CTV initially advanced 22 miles, lost 12, and then held the remaining 10 miles. But they failed to reach their objectives, and the battle had to be considered a loss. After this, Franco did not accept Italian strategic advice.
Republican propaganda exploited this victory: No pasara`n-They will not pass! Mussolini was so angered by this propaganda that he determined to commit greater forces to the war. Italian troops increased in quality and quantity and Mussolini finally admitted official involvement on October 20, 1937. His admission also ended the grotesque “piracy” in the Mediterranean. Since the early days of the civil war, merchant ships en route to Spain had been sunk by “mysterious” submarines. The Regia Marina, did not admit responsibility, but it was well known. After a League of Nations initiative, the Regia Marina together with German Kriegsmarine, the British Royal Navy, and French Marine Nationale participated in antipiracy control in the Mediterranean and along Spanish coasts.
The Italian and German secret services in the Black Sea and Dardanelles observed Soviet ships carrying supplies and ordnance to Spain. Italian submarines acted accordingly and “pirates” sank the ships. But it was thanks to the operations against piracy that the Royal Navy was able to decipher the Regia Marina’s secret codes. This would become a problem for the Italian navy in a few years.
On land, Italian forces fought on all Spanish fronts. The Legionnaire Air Force, as the Regia Aeronautica was called in Spain, lost 175 pilots in combat. Troops were used in the north; and Legionnaire Artillery support played a fundamental role in the campaign in the north. Italian troops took part in seizing Bilbao, and the following battle of Brunete was won with the decisive role of the Aviazione Legionaria: It destroyed 100 enemy aircraft, and its close air support halted enemy counterattacks. Italian troops later attacked and, on August 26, seized Santander. When Italian tanks reached the center of the city, Nationalist supporters acclaimed them, crying, “Han pasado! Han pasado!”-they passed! After that battle, General Ettore Bastico was recalled to Rome. In fact, Franco protested because Bastico allowed many military and local civilian Republican officers to seek refuge on British ships. It was not the first time Italians acted differently from Spaniards. Italian troops considered Republicans as prisoners of war. The Nationalists did not. In the early days of the war their military courts sentenced prisoners to death. A first Italian formal protest made little impact. When Italian headquarters protested again, the Nationalists replied that they were being more careful about who was sentenced to death: they acquitted up to 30 percent of the total!
Further operations proved decisive for the war in northern Spain. Franco’s troops were hard-pressed near Huesca in December and were saved by the Legionnaire Artillery and Air Force. In March, Italian troops fought in Catalonia. They took Huesca and marched to the mouth of the Ebro. By the time they reached the sea they had lost 3,000 men, taken 10,000 prisoners, and captured three cities and fifty towns. The Spanish Republic was now cut in two.
The war ended on April 1, 1939. Italian support had clearly been decisive. Mussolini presented Franco with all the vehicles and heavy weapons used by the CTV. He did so because it was cheaper to leave them instead of shipping them back to Italy, but as it was the spring 1939, it was the worst possible time to give such a present to anyone. Italy would sorely miss the heavy equipment