Antitank Warfare in the Spanish Civil War

German Artillerymen of the Condor Legion prepare to fire a Flak 18 88mm cannon onto Republican lines at the Battle of Amposta during the Spanish Civil War; Catalonia, Autumn 1938.

Italian 47mm M-35 antitank guns were supplied for the use of the Italian Volunteer Corps only.

Spanish troops with a proto-Molotov.

“Out-gunned, out-maneuvered, and hard-pressed, the Spanish had no effective answer to the tank, in desperation they resorted to hand-to-hand fighting”

JOHN WEEKS, MEN AGAINST TANKS: A HISTORY OF ANTI-TANK WARFARE, 1975

The Spanish Civil War was the war which produced the “Molotov cocktail,” but Spain also witnessed the first widespread use of antitank weapons, especially guns and most notably the German Rheinmetall 37mm Pak 35/36 and its Russian copy, the Model 1932 45mm antitank gun. These weapons, when skillfully used, proved very effective against tanks. The light tanks were extremely vulnerable to them, and learning from this lesson, production of medium and heavy tanks began in several major European armies. Combat in Spain proved that better armor was needed, even if the main tank contributors—Germany, Italy, and the USSR—did not initially show much haste when it came to making new and more effective tanks.

Since the early days of armored warfare, improved artillery was seen as the quickest solution for antitank defense. In Germany, the Rheinmetall corporation commenced the design of a 37mm antitank gun in 1924, and the first guns were produced in 1928 as the 37mm PanzerabwehrkanoneL/45, later adopted by the Wehrmacht as the Pak 35/36. It made its first appearance during the Spanish Civil War, and the Soviet Army soon upgraded the design to a higher-velocity L/45 Model 1935, while also making a licensed copy of the German gun. However, the Red Army was taught several hard lessons about antitank warfare when many tanks sent to aid the Republican Army were destroyed in combat engagements with German guns.

At the time, the predominant ammunition used against tanks was the armor-piercing kinetic energy shell that penetrated armor by direct pressure, spiking or punching through it. In Spain, the antitank defense of the Nationalists was organized by German Condor Legion officers. The antitank guns were incorporated into a system of obstacles created to stop an armored attack, slowing tanks down, isolating them from the supporting infantry with machine-gun and mortar fire, and forcing them to conduct deliberate head-on assaults with engineer support or to seek a less-defended area to attack. The time thus gained for the defenders meant that Nationalist field artillery could also engage the Soviet tanks.

The only change to German World War I antitank tactics was that an effective antitank weapon was now available to support the defending infantry. However, the Soviet tanks armed with 45mm guns easily destroyed the German light tanks in Spain, establishing an urgent need for antitank guns to be included in mobile tank-led units due to the strong possibility of encountering enemy tanks. To many analysts, the Spanish Civil War reconfirmed the importance of defense over the offensive and of antitank weapons over tanks.

Poorly trained Spanish tank crews among both Nationalist and Republican forces proved undisciplined and prone to attacking heavily defended positions even when equipped with antitank weapons. Tank attacks occurred with little prior reconnaissance and without coordination with supporting infantry and artillery. Too often, tanks made themselves vulnerable to destruction by moving on their own through village streets or remaining on open roads. It was the poor tank tactics that made antitank warfare so successful.

A report presented in Berlin on September 12, 1936, by Lieutenant Colonel Walter Warlimont pointed out that antitank defense was one of the main weaknesses of the Nationalist Army. Consequently, the first German antitank guns came with the first tank shipment the following month, comprising 24 Pak 35/36 37mm guns. An antitank company with 15 guns was formed immediately, with the remaining nine guns kept for training purposes under the supervision of the Drohne group at the German base in Cubas de la Sagra.

A further 28 guns of the same model arrived with the second shipment of tanks in November. With these new guns and four more from the Drohne group, making a total of 32 guns, the Nationalists organized their first three antitank companies. At the end of May 1937, another shipment of 100 37mm Pak 35/36s arrived at Vigo’s harbor for the Nationalist Army, which organized 10 antitank batteries with 10 guns each within the artillery branch, while 50 more guns were delivered in August. On April 14, 1938, the last shipment of antitank guns was received by the Nationalists, with 100 more Pak 35/36s delivered at Cubas de la Sagra, making a total of 352 Pak 35/36 antitank guns supplied to the Spanish Nationalist Army by Germany.

A problem arose when it was established that the antitank gun supplied by the Germans to the Nationalists had a maximum range of 900 meters, whereas the guns in Russian tanks could engage targets at up to 3,000 meters. The Nationalists, under German guidance, were forced to attach at least five antitank guns to each light tank company to provide some effective protection against Soviet tanks. However, the effect was minimal as understanding and coordinating the new tanks and antitank guns proved extremely difficult for the Nationalist forces. Despite much training, and to the dismay of German instructors, Nationalist troops often began shooting wastefully at targets far over 1,000 meters away.

The Condor Legion also made extensive use of the excellent 88/56mm Flak 18 antiaircraft gun in the civil war, where its usefulness as an antitank weapon and general artillery gun exceeded its antiaircraft role. The first four of these guns came to Spain even before the formal organization of the Condor Legion on August 6, 1936, landing with the first shipment of aviation equipment from the Usaramo cargo ship at Seville. They were part of the first heavy air defense artillery battery and arrived with a full complement of men and accessories. The battery was under the command of Luftwaffe First Lieutenant Aldinger, and the guns were to be used in Spain for the first time. The battery was soon combat-ready and was deployed at Seville’s military airfield as protection against Republican raids.

The air defense artillery unit of the Condor Legion was named Flak Abteilung 88 and was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Hermann Lichtenberger, with Lieutenant Colonel Georg Neuffer as second in command and chief of staff. All air defense artillery personnel belonged to the Luftwaffe and not to the Army. Initially, four batteries—16 guns—of Flak 18 88/56mm guns were sent to Spain as air defense artillery for the Condor Legion in 1936, but they were soon used in antitank, antibunker, and even antibattery roles. Further guns were sent later, and more 88mm guns were also supplied to Spanish units. At the end of the war, the Spanish Army took over five batteries— 20 guns—from the total of 71 Flak 18 guns sent for the Condor Legion.

Soviet tank superiority was clearly shown in combat around Madrid, where, by the end of November 1936, the Nationalists lost a total of 28 Panzer Is plus several Italian L3s, resulting in a stalemate. Here, the Spanish People’s Army made the major mistake of not going on the offensive but remaining in a defensive posture. It was here around Madrid where the Nationalist forces employed for the first time in an antitank role, and with great success, their Flak 18 88mm guns. Such was their effectiveness that the Germans later turned the “88,” with some modifications made for ground-to-ground combat, into one of the most dreaded weapons of World War II. The “88” gun literally obliterated T-26 tanks in Spain at the first hit. Luckily for the Republicans, the 88mm guns were not supplied to the Nationalists in large numbers.

Not much is known about the first combat actions of Flak units in Spain, but unconfirmed reports point at 88mm guns entering combat in early 1937 during the fighting around Malaga, when a battery of Flak 18s was assigned to support an infantry column. Bad weather had grounded the main bomber force, but the assault succeeded, mainly because of the concentrated and accurate fire of the supporting 88mm guns.

The Flak 18 guns were deployed mainly to protect airfields and bases used by the Condor Legion. However, the nature of war in Spain, with its wildly fluctuating front lines and the presence of Russian tanks, forced the Germans to employ the Flak 18 guns in a direct-fire role against ground targets. Furthermore, the initial scarcity of Nationalist Spanish artillery and the general low proficiency of its crews soon forced the use of the Flak 18 gun as a direct-fire infantry support weapon. The Flak 88 group fought at the battle of Jarama, in February 1937. The following month, the unit moved northwards and took part in all the battles along the Northern front, where their tasks were divided between antiaircraft duties and field artillery employment. Flak 18 guns took part in the assault against Bilbao’s line of fortifications, the so-called “Iron Belt” (Cinturon de Hierro), and following the battle of Brunete, went north again to contribute to the Santander and Asturias campaign.

Flak 18 batteries were also employed by the Nationalist Army in the Aragon offensive and at the battle of Ebro in 1938, being used for direct fire against pillboxes and indirect fire in the advance towards Barcelona during the final campaign in Catalonia. During the battle of Ebro, Flak 88 batteries took up positions in the neighborhood of the main bridgehead as direct support to the ground forces.

By the end of the war, the 88mm guns had performed far more missions as an antitank and direct-fire field artillery gun than as an antiaircraft gun. In total, German 88mm guns were involved in 377 combat engagements, and only 31 were against enemy aircraft. On the other hand, the use of the 88mm guns in close vicinity to the enemy made them vulnerable to infantry fire. Casualties among the Legion’s 88mm gun batteries in the Spanish Civil War were second only to those of bomber pilots and crews. According to two different sources, which provided information to U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Waite, the Germans alone manned their antiaircraft weapons. No one was allowed within a few hundred yards of them, especially the Spanish soldiers. The French War Department verified that “great secrecy surrounded the operation of these weapons.”

In May 1939, the Flak 88 unit returned to Germany, leaving practically all its equipment in Spain for the Nationalist Army. After the civil war, in 1943, more improved Flak models were sent to Spain—almost 90 88/56mm Flak 36s—and in the same year they were manufactured under license by the Spanish artillery factory at Trubia, near Oviedo, under the name FT 44. These remained in active service with the Spanish Army until the early 1980s.

Italy also sent various antitank guns to Nationalist Spain; however, these were only used by the Italian Volunteer Corps. They were mainly the Breda 47mm Model 35 antitank gun, but there were also some 37mm Models 36 guns, a copy of the German Pak 35/36 made in Italy under license from Rheinmetall.

The Republicans used a similar antitank gun to the German Pak 35/36, the Russian Model 19323 45mm gun. The first shipment of these guns took place on April 29, 1937, when the Republicans received just 15 guns. However, they later received 100 additional guns in May that year, and another 20 in December. In January 1939, the Republicans received through France the last three Soviet guns. The total number of Model 1932 guns delivered to the Republican Army was 138; however, throughout the war, the Republicans received a total of 494 guns of various calibers capable of antitank use. The Soviet Model 1932 45mm gun was a copy of the German Pak 35/36 after the Soviet Union purchased the rights for production from Rheinmetall in 1930 and began a small-scale procurement for the Soviet Army. However, the Soviet General Staff wanted a more “universal” gun able to fire both antitank and high explosive rounds, so the gun was scaled up to 45mm, entering production in 1932, created by Soviet artillery designer Loginov. Towards the end of 1937, the Model 1932 was pushed out by the Model 1937 45mm antitank gun. The new gun had better ballistics, a higher rate of fire, and was more reliable. The new wheels were also made of metal rather than wood (the Model 1932 also received metal wheels in 1937). However, due to insufficient armor penetration against the newest German tanks, it was subsequently replaced by the long-barreled Model 1942.

The Italian M35 47mm gun was a dual-purpose gun able to fire a high explosive round as well as an antitank projectile. It was originally an Austrian artillery piece produced under license in Italy. It was used both as an infantry assault gun and antitank gun, proving to be very successful, especially when equipped with HEAT (High Explosive Antitank) rounds. Due to its shape, the 47mm gun was commonly called the “elefantino” (little elephant) by Italian troops.

The British Major General Fuller wrote an interesting letter published in the London Times following a visit to Spain:

I have referred to the antitank gun several times. On the Nationalist side, the German 22mm gun, mounted on a small wheeled vehicle, has proved to be very useful. It is the gun that I saw in use with the German Army. Other German models are also reported to be in Spain, a 37mm and an Italian 47mm. From all the information that can be gathered, the German antitank gun is a very efficient weapon.

In May 1937, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Lee quoted an article by Liddell Hart, who said that “the defense against tanks has been developed and perfected more quickly and more effectively than the tank itself.” The antitank weapons used in Spain were clearly a threat to the tankers. As Colonel Fuqua, the U.S. Army attaché in Madrid, concluded, an infantryman with an antitank gun had no need to fear tanks.

The British antitank battery was formed within the International Brigades in May 1937 from 40 volunteers and was issued with three Soviet Model 1932 45mm guns, capable of firing both armor-piercing and high explosive shells that, at the time, represented state-of-the-art of military technology. Well led, trained by Russian instructors, and comprising a high proportion of students and intellectuals, they represented somewhat of an elite unit, and quickly became a highly efficient force in the 15th International Brigade.

After cutting its teeth at Brunete in July 1937, the battery was heavily involved in the battles at Belchite in August, where, according to Bill Alexander, the battery’s political commissar, the antitank guns fired 2,700 shells in just two days. During October 1937, the 15th International Brigade took part in the disastrous operation at Fuentes de Ebro, where the new BT-5 tanks were mauled. Initially, the antitank battery was held back from the main battle until the panicked brigade staff ordered it to advance on the Nationalist lines. None of the guns were able to fire and the battery’s second in command, Jeff Mildwater, was injured before the battery was eventually wisely withdrawn.

During the Aragon front retreat in the spring of 1938, the antitank battery was virtually surrounded and forced to fall back swiftly from Belchite, to avoid being cut off. The battery had to destroy one of its guns that could not be moved, while low-flying Nationalist aircraft destroyed another. With the battery no longer in existence, the men were incorporated as riflemen into the British battalion of the International Brigades.

The remark that antitank weapons had surpassed tank development was perhaps the most important conclusion reached about the use of tanks and antitank weapons in Spain. And if the trend was toward heavier tanks trying to overcome the threat of antitank weapons, there was also a trend for more powerful antitank guns.

In an article sent by American Lieutenant Colonel Lee to the Military Intelligence Division in the spring of 1937, Liddell Hart had argued that light antitank weapons had the advantage of being easily shifted from location to location and quickly brought up to the front lines. Other sources observed that antitank defense needed to be coordinated and that antitank guns were only part of the defensive plan. The U.S. Army attaché in Paris, Lieutenant Colonel Waite, commented that antitank weapons worked most effectively when they were used in combination with obstacles.

All tanks employed in Spain often faced antitank weapons that could immobilize or destroy them at any moment. The tank, that was supposed to return maneuver and offense to the battlefield, was countered with modern antitank weapons that gave the advantage back to the defense. To overcome the threat of antitank weapons, military attachés, observers, and their sources stressed the need for tanks to be employed en masse, not as separate weapons or in small groups. They also recommended that tanks be combined with infantry, which could hold the ground gained, and with artillery and aviation, that could protect the tanks by destroying or suppressing enemy antitank fire.

Although little technical data about antitank and antiaircraft weapons was gathered, there was general agreement on antitank weapons being effective in meeting their enemies in Spain. However, with the trend toward heavier tanks, there was an implied corresponding trend toward more powerful antitank weapons, as has been mentioned. With clouds of war gathering all over Europe, some countries looked to Spain to see what, if anything, they could learn. Unfortunately, most of the lessons were misleading, especially those relating to tanks being defeated. The issue seems to have been that whereas the designers of tanks saw clearly that they had to improve armor and gunnery, those whose specialty was antitank weaponry were quite happy with what they had achieved and took few active steps to improve anything. Such thinking was to work to the detriment of the German Wehrmacht when World War II began, as the Pak 36 was no longer as effective.

Regarding the war in Spain, when expectations about tank performance was not met, it was concluded that circumstances were so specific to the Spanish situation and its kind of war that battles fought there were unlikely to provide useful lessons for most European armies. Others, who had their predictions fulfilled, pointed to specific incidents as evidence that the testing ground of war had proven them right. Nowhere was this more apparent than regarding the efficacy of antitank weaponry. Officers who did not like the tank argued that combat in Spain clearly demonstrated the superiority of antitank guns over tanks. Tanks in Spain had proven themselves as less than the decisive force that some battles of World War I had promised, while antitank weapons now had an advantage in development over tanks.

Yet while the war on the ground was similar in its trenches and infantry battles to World War I, it was also a signal of changes to come in a future European war. Each country was confident that it had in service an adequate antitank defense. Yet, by 1939–40, before a year had passed, each was to find how over-optimistic these predictions had been, how vulnerable troops were, and how poorly the designers had prepared for the onset of the German blitzkrieg.

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