Soviet Tank Operations in the Spanish Civil War

The use of Soviet tanks in the Spanish Civil War provides an intriguing example of the potential and problems of innovation in military technology. As the first major employment of armor since the end of World War I, the Spanish Civil War was seen by some observers as offering valuable lessons in the debate over the future role of tanks and tank warfare. Yet at the same time, other observers questioned whether the lessons had relevance to major armies due to the small scale of tank employment in Spain, the poor tactics employed, and the unique conditions of the Spanish experience. In the case of the Red Army, the Spanish Civil War experience did have some important consequences in tank technology, but on the tactical side, many lessons were ignored, distorted, or misunderstood.

In the face of German and Italian military aid to Franco’s insurgent Nationalist forces, Stalin decided to send military aid to the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. The first shipment of tanks and tank specialists left for Spain in September 1936. The cargo ship Komsomol arrived at the port of Cartagena on 12 October 1936 with a shipment of 50 T-26 light tanks and 51 “volunteer” tank specialists. In the meantime, the Soviet military attaché at the Madrid embassy, Kombrig Vladimir Gorev, had arranged for the creation of a training center near the town of Archene in Mursia, about 90 km. from the port. The Soviet government did not plan to provide crews for the tanks sent to Spain, but rather to train Spanish personnel to operate them. Archene became the main training and technical center for the Republican tank force for much of the war.

The T-26 light tank was the standard infantry tank in Red Army service at the time, and the most widely produced Soviet tank of the inter-war period. Indeed, it was manufactured in larger numbers than all of the other tanks of the world combined of the 1930s. The T-26 was a license-built copy of the British Vickers 6-ton light tank, but with a Soviet designed turret and gun. The Red Army followed the common European practice of the day, employing several different types of tanks for specific roles. While the slow T-26 tank was intended to provide support to Red Army rifle divisions, the BT-5 “fast tank” was intended for the cavalry and deep exploitation role, much like the contemporary British cruiser tanks. Due to the nature of the fighting, the T-26 was the main type of tank sent to Spain during the war, accounting for 281 of the 331 tanks sent to Spain. The T-26 was not ideal for infantry support. It was thinly armored, and vulnerable to contemporary anti-tank guns. In contrast, the newer generation of infantry tanks such as the French Renault R-35 and British Matilda I were significantly better armored. The T-26 had an advantage in firepower, however, being armed with a dual-purpose 45mm gun that was more versatile than the armament on British or French infantry tanks of the period.

The initial training program at Archene was headed by Kombrig Semen M. Krivoshein. Although the initial plans were to confine the use of Soviet personnel to training, by the end of October, the situation for the Republican forces around Madrid was becoming so desperate that the Soviet attaché V. Gorev was authorized to form some ad hoc combat formations from the Archene training center and send them to reinforce the Madrid front. At least three small groups were dispatched to the front, one headed by Komrot A. Novak with six BA-3 armored cars and seven T-26 tanks, a Spanish tank platoon under Major P. Villakansas, and a reinforced company-sized formation under Kombat Paul Arman. The two first groups went into action on the night of 27 October 1936 with little effect. The first significant action by the Republican tank force occurred on the morning of 29 October by Arman’s partially formed 1st Tank Battalion.

Arman was a flamboyant character, a Latvian who had served with the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War, who then served undercover as a Soviet agent in the Latvian Army until 1926 when he returned to the Soviet Union. After attending Soviet officer courses, he served as a company commander in a Red Army BT fast tank regiment prior to his transfer to Spain. Arman was selected to lead the first training group since, unlike most Red Army officers he spoke several western European languages. Arman had selected the best Soviet crews, mixed with some of the new Spanish crews, for a total of 34 Soviet tankers and 11 Spanish crewmen. In a conversation with one of the Spanish generals at the front, Arman is reported to have quipped “The situation is not so hopeless. They have fifteen thousand soldiers, we have fifteen tanks, so the strengths are equal!”. On the morning of 29 October 1936, Arman’s company was assigned to support a Republican infantry attack by Brigade Lister and Brigade Bueno against Italian and Spanish Nationalist units in the village of Sesena, on the southern approaches to Madrid.

The attack on Sesena displayed problems and potential of the tactical employment of tanks in the Spanish conditions. The Spanish infantry had no training to operate with tanks, and Arman had no patience to wait for them. So ordered his company forward without the accompanying infantry. Of his 15 tanks, three were disabled almost immediately by mines on the road to the town, a novel experience as anti-tank mines had been a relatively rare affair in World War I. Pressing ahead, Arman bluffed his way past a battery of Nationalist field guns in the western outskirts of Sesena and his forces then attacked the main Nationalist positions in the town itself. One of his tanks was destroyed in the street fighting when struck by a flaming bottle of gasoline. This was the first time “Molotov cocktails” had been used in combat in Spain. After shooting up the Nationalist forces in the village, Arman led his company out of town eastward in an attempt to strike at the rear of the Nationalist forces. After overrunning a field gun battery, the T-26 tanks encountered three CV 3/35 tankettes of the Nationalist 1st Tank Company. The little vehicles were armed only with machine guns, and their counterattack against Arman’s force was hopeless. One was destroyed at close range by tank fire, and another was pushed into a ditch and overturned by the much larger T-26 tanks. By noon, Arman’s tank group passed through the village of Esquivias, southward to Borax, and making a circle, finally stopped in a grove on the southeastern outskirts of Sesena. After a rest, the group again attacked Nationalist forces in Sesena, this time from behind the frontlines from the southwest, exited the town, and rejoined Republican forces. During the raid, Arman’s group lost three tanks to Molotov cocktails and artillery fire with three more damaged, and suffered casualties of 4 Soviet and 4 Spanish tankers killed and six wounded. Arman claimed that his group had destroyed two infantry battalions and two cavalry squadrons, ten 75mm field guns, 2 tankettes, 20-30 trucks, 5-8 automobiles, some tank transporters and captured two field guns. Although Arman’s raid was an important psychological boost for the harried Republican forces, the counterattack of which it was a part was a failure due to the inability of the infantry to fight their way into the town lacking the prmised tank support. The poor coordination of tank and infantry at Sesena would prove typical of the Spanish experience.

After several more days fighting around Sesena, the scattered Republican tank formations were united under by Kombrig Krivoshein to form the Aranjuez Group, with a strength of 48 tanks and 9 armored cars. There was no real effort made to concentrate the armor, and Arman’s company was broken off again to support Brigade Lister while the rest of Krivoshein’s force supported the main Republican column retreating to Madrid. The Republicans were unable to stem the Nationalist onslaught, although there was almost universal praise for the performance of Krivoshein’s scattered tank units. The Aranjuez Group took part in the fighting for Torrejon de Velasco and Valdemoro on 4-5 November 1936, the counterattack in the suburb of Cerro de los Angeles on 13 November 1936, and in almost continuous fighting inside Madrid itself through the middle of December 1936.

The pre-war Spanish Army had two tank regiments, the 1st Tank Regiment located in Madrid and the 2nd Tank Regiment in Saragossa. Most of the troops of the 1st Tank Regiment sided with the Republic, and their World War I vintage French Renault FT tanks were consolidated in a company under D. Pogodin to support Krivoshein’s tanks during the Madrid fighting.

The advisory team in Madrid sent this assessment to the Kremlin: “Arman’s tanks group created real miracles. It is possible to say with complete assurance that if the fighter group and Arman’s tanks would not have been present during the first period of the defense of Madrid, the defense of the city would have been an exceptionally catastrophic situation. It is impossible to adequately describe the heroism of the tankers; they prevented the retreat of the infantry: they were always in the vanguard; they fought single handedly with enemy gun batteries, and they demolished the battle plans of the opponent. They always took best advantage of the tanks in infringement of all technical and authorized norms and never refused or questioned orders to carry out a task. Tanks fought all day long; returned to the support area at night to repair the vehicles and during the morning returned to the fight. The impact on the whole staff of Arman’s group clearly demonstrated the best example of the heroism and readiness of our people.”

By the time of the siege of Madrid in mid-December 1936, Krivoshein’s small armored force was largely spent, not only due to battlefield casualties, but due to the mechanical exhaustion of the tanks themselves. Tanks of the 1930s were not as robust as tanks of the World War 2 generation. The T-26 light tank required intermediate overhaul at district workshops after 150 engine hours, and factory overhaul after 600 hours. The poor quality of the fuel of the time led to engine carbonization, fouled spark-plugs, and other problems which could immobilize the tank. Tracks and track pins began to wear out after 500 miles of travel; side clutches became worn out, and the powertrain was gradually knocked out of alignment from hard cross-country travel. In the desperate fighting during the defense of Madrid, Arman’s company had accumulated over 800 operating hours by mid-December, far beyond the regulations, leaving many of his tanks inoperable. Krivoshein’s other units were not in much better shape, as the inexperienced Spanish crews were unable to do field repairs, and their unfamiliarity with tank driving led to high rates of clutch and powertrain failures. There were no established maintenance facilities in the Madrid area, and spare parts were almost non-existent. While Krivoshein’s tank force had succeeded in its immediate mission of bolstering the Republican forces during the defense of Madrid, this was no way to operate a tank force for prolonged campaigns.

The immediate lessons from the autumn 1936 tank fighting mainly concerned technical issues to keep the force in a fighting state. The Red Army had never conducted any prolonged tank operations away from their peacetime training bases, so the combat experiences in Spain were an eye-opening introduction to the day-to-day technical realities that had plagued tankers ever since World War I. Indeed, until 1932-33, the Red Army had only handfuls of tanks and trucks, and the expansion of its tank force and its reliance on poorly prepared conscripts outstripped its ability to maintain a cadre of qualified technical specialists. As was clear from the initial fighting, tank units could not be employed non-stop, day-and-night like infantry, and had to be carefully husbanded for only the most important missions.

The experience with the new Spanish tank crews was discouraging, and the Red Army practice of assigning a junior crewman to driving duties usually left it in the hands of inexperienced Spanish crewmen. This led to abnormally high breakdown rates, and forced Krivoshein’s unit to reorganize crew tasks, with tank commanders shifted to the driver’s position in hopes of keeping the tanks operable. However, this adversely affected the combat capabilities of the tanks since the more experienced Soviet tanker was unable to command the tank and direct the gunner from the isolation of the driver’s station. To further extend the life of the tanks, the Soviet tank units began to use trains or heavy trucks to transport the tanks whenever units had to move more than a few kilometers. This was a technique picked up from the Spanish Army, which operated French Renault FT tanks and had copied the French practice and was not a Soviet practice.

There were few tactical lessons from the early fighting. Co-operation between the tanks and the infantry they were supporting was almost uniformly abysmal. There was no training by the tanks and infantry in cooperative tactics before missions, and the tank companies seldom worked with the same infantry unit for more than a few days, so no experience was accumulated. At the time, this was not viewed as a pressing issue given the desperate nature of the fighting, and the parlous technical state of the equipment. The Republicans could not afford to pull the tank companies out of the line for such training, and Krivoshein’s units were reluctant to expend precious engine hours drilling with the Spanish infantry. Krivoshein and Arman were ordered back to Moscow to recuperate and to brief senior Red Army leaders in January 1937.

As Italy and Germany blatantly violated the non-intervention policy and sent more troops and weapons to Franco’s forces, Stalin decided to reinforce the Spanish contingent. While the defense of Madrid was continuing, a second wave about 200 Soviet tank crews and tank specialists arrived aboard the steamer Chicherin on 26 November 1936. The group was a cadre from the 4th Separate Tank Brigade (Light) of the Byelorussian Military District from Stara Doroga headed by Kombrig D. G. Pavlov. The intention was to use these assets to form the 1st Armored Brigade (1.a Brigada Blindada) at the Archene camp. The larger size of this unit was not necessarily a signal that the Soviet advisory group in Spain planned to conduct large scale operations with concentrated tank forces. The Red Army’s light tank brigades were designed to provide infantry support to combined arms armies or rifle armies, and were organized to permit individual battalions to be assigned to the rifle divisions during operations. However, the brigade structure contained a more elaborate logistical infrastructure than Krivoshein’s group, which would help to address the serious maintenance problems plaguing the first Soviet tank units in Spain. Pavlov’s brigade in Spain was only about a third the size of a normal Red Army light tank brigade, with a nominal table of organization and equipment of 96 tanks and an actual strength through most of the winter and spring fighting of seldom more than 60 tanks. As in the case of Krivoshein’s units, there were not nearly enough Soviet tankers to man this unit, and as a result, Spanish crews had to be used. In practice, this usually meant Soviet drivers, platoon commanders and company commanders, with the Spanish tankers serving as turret crew. In total, some 351 Soviet tankers served in Spain during the course of the war, but from available unit records, the total at any one time was never more than 160 men, and usually not more than 100 tankers. Pavlov’s new brigade absorbed the surviving remnants of Krivoshein’s tank units which constituted the 1st Tank Battalion.

Pavlov’s partially formed brigade was pressed into action in early January 1937 with only 47 tanks on hand. The best equipped unit was the new 2nd Tank Battalion commanded by Kombat M. P. Petrov. The intention was to provide support for the 12th and 14th International Brigades during attacks from Las Rosas towards Majadahonda on 11 January 1937 on Madrid’s western front. The attacks began without the promised artillery or air support. In contrast the earlier experience with the Spanish units, the cooperation with the International Brigade infantry was somewhat more successful. The tanks were very useful in overcoming the Nationalist defensive line, which was based around the use of reinforced stone houses. However, once the initial defensive lines were overcome by the tanks and infantry, the infantry was unable to keep up with the tanks and became separated. The tanks could have penetrated the Nationalist lines more deeply, but as Arman’s initial raid had shown, penetrations without accompanying infantry were futile. In three days of fighting, the unit lost five tanks, mainly to enemy anti-tank guns. As Soviet aid to the Republicans increased, so too did German and Italian aid to the Nationalists. The scourge of the Republican tank force was the German 37mm PaK 36 anti-tank gun, though the Italian 47mm Italian infantry gun was also used with some success.

The Majadahonda offensive soon ended, and the Nationalist forces switched the focus of their assault on Madrid to the southeastern front along the Jarama river. Pavlov’s brigade was transported through the city to the new front, and broken up into small company sized detachments to reinforce the Republican lines. As the French had found in World War I, the precense of tanks provided a strong psychological reinforcement to demoralized infantry, and there was great demand for tank support across the madrid front. Even after the losses suffered in recent weeks, the brigade’s strength had increased to 60 tanks as more crews became available and more tanks repaired. The Republican forces went over to the offensive, supported by Pavlov’s scattered units.

The Soviet advisers’ report to Moscow on the Jarama operation was not favorable. During the attack, there had been very poor coordination between the infantry and the tanks. There had been more Nationalist 37mm anti-tank guns present, resulting in higher Republican tank losses, nearly 35-40% in some attacks. The terrain did not favor the deployment of larger formations, seldom more than company strength of 10 tanks. Nevertheless, there were some successes. On 14 February 1937, the brigade was used in a more concentrated form and in a counterattack with the 24th Infantry Brigade, overcame a major Nationalist force, leading to the loss of about a thousand Nationalist troops killed or wounded. The brigade’s units were concentrated again in late February for the assault on Pingarron, and once against, the tanks supported the International Brigades. On 27 February 1937 alone, the brigade launched 5 attacks on Nationalist positions, but took very heavy losses from Nationalist anti-tank guns in the process. In one attack alone, Nationalist artillery destroyed eight tanks, leading Soviet artillery specialist Komkor G. I. Kulik to sarcastically remark that the anti-tank gun could sweep the battlefield of tanks the same way that machine guns swept it of infantry.

In March, the front shifted yet again, this time to the north of Madrid as an Italian offensive began at Guadalajara. Once again, Pavlov’s tanks were called on to save the day, and transported to the new sector. During the initial phase of the campaign, Pavlov’s units were used in a defensive role to rebuff major Italian attacks. On 13 March 1937, one of the few tank-vs.-tank fights took place when the Republican T-26 light tanks shot up a company of Italian CV.3/35 tankettes near Trijueque, destroying five and seriously damaging two more. There were many small unit encounters with Italian forces, and the Italian tankers soon learned to fear contact with the Republican rearguards when supported by T-26 tanks. When the Italian CTV Volunteer Corps’ offensive was finally exhausted, the Republicans went over to the offensive with Pavlov’s tanks in the lead. On 18 March, three Republican infantry brigades with tank support routed the lead Italian units and seized the town of Brihuega. By the end of the day, Pavlov’s force had suffered so many casualties, both to enemy fire and mechanical problems, that of its original 60 tanks at the beginning of the Guadalajara fighting, it was able to muster only nine tanks to chase the retreating Italians. The Republicans were unable to exploit their victory, achieved in no small measure with the support of the tanks.

Pavlov’s force received a major infusion of new equipment and manpower in March 1937 when two more transport ships arrived from the Soviet Union bringing with them 100 new T-26 tanks. This was nearly as many tanks as had been supplied since the beginning of the Soviet intervention. The main problem was to train enough Spanish crewmen to equip them. The unfavorable view held by many Soviet officers of the Spanish tank crew led to plans to recruit tankers from the better-regarded International Brigades. Since there were limits on the amount of training that could be undertaken in Spain, these foreign volunteers were sent to the Soviet tank school in Gorkiy. The first contingent returned to Spain in time to take part in the Brunete campaign in the summer of 1937.

Pavlov turned over command of the brigade in late May to Kombrig Rudoft, and returned to Moscow in June to brief Stalin and the Military Council along with a number of other prominent Spanish Civil War advisers. Due to the influx of new tanks in the spring of 1937, it was possible increase the number of tank battalions in Spain from three to four. These new units, and the demands from other fronts for armor support, led to the decision to organize three additional armored brigades in the spring and summer of 1937. Unlike the 1st Armored Brigade, these later brigades had only a single tank battalion, and two battalions of locally manufactured armored cars. Manned by Spanish personnel, they did not have the mobility or firepower of the 1st Armored Brigade and were not ready until late in 1937.

Soviet Tank Shipments to Spain

Date of Arrival Ship Quantity Type
12 Oct 36 Komsomol 50 T-26 light tank
25 Nov 36 Cabo Palos 37 T-26 light tank
30 Nov 36 Marc Caribo 19 T-26 light tank
6 Mar 37 Cabo Santo Tomas 60 T-26 light tank
8 Mar 37 Darro 40 T-26 light tank
7 May 37 Cabo Palos 50 T-26 light tank
10 Aug 37 Cabo San Agustin 50 BT-5 fast tank
13 Mar 38 Gravelines 25 T-26 light tank


By the time of the Brunete offensive, the 1st Armored Brigade had been raised in strength to its authorized level of three tank battalions, and there was a further reserve of about 30 tanks from the new battalion, bringing Republican tank strength to 129 T-26 tanks and 43 BA-3 and FAI armored cars. Under the plan for the offensive, the 1st and 4th Battalions with 70 tanks and 20 armored cars would support the main assault by the 5th and 18th Corps (one tank battalion per corps), while the 2nd Battalion with 30 tanks and 10 armored cars would support the separate offensive by the 2-bis Corps south east of Madrid.

The Brunete offensive was intended to relieve Madrid by an enveloping offensive, emanating from west of the capital to the southeast, trapping the Nationalist forces on the southern approaches of Madrid. The attack by the 18th Corps on Villanueva de la Canada on 6 July began badly. The tank battalion advanced across an open field with the infantry from the 34th Division following behind, but the tanks were stopped about 500-600 meters from the town by the Nationalists’ two well-concealed anti-tank guns and two field guns. Artillery and air support was requested. But four more attacks failed to overcome resistance in the town. One of the German 37mm guns had been mounted in a church steeple and was credited with a dozen tanks. The town was finally taken by the 15th Division, but the corps failed to reach its objectives during the first day of fighting. Although the 5th Corps made better progress, it too failed its main objectives. Over the next few days, the tanks were used to support the Republican infantry in a series of small local attacks, which largely failed to dislodge the reinforced Nationalist positions. Even after committing its reserve tank battalion, by 11 July, the 1st Armored Brigade in the Brunete sector was reduced in strength to only 38 tanks, all supporting the 5th Corps. On 18 July 1937, the Nationalists shifted to the offensive against the exhausted and demoralized Republican forces. They proved no more able to dislodge the Republicans, and the campaign ended in stalemate by the end of the month.

Brunete attracted far more attention by Western military analysts than most other tank engagements in Spain during the war due to extensive press coverage. The inability of the tanks to advance in the face of enemy anti-tank guns was cited by many as evidence of the failure of the tank to restore mobility to warfare. Even the noted British armor advocate B. H. Liddell Hart began to have his doubts in view of the Spanish experience. Yet to other observers, the tanks had been poorly employed, and there was skepticism whether many lessons could be learned from the Spanish experience. British armor advocate Maj. Gen. J. F. C. Fuller remarked: “Battles are not won by clichés or Liddell-Hartisms” and he dismissed most of the press remarks about armor, attributing the tanks’ poor performance to the abysmal tactics employed in Spain. Russian assessments of the lessons of the Brunete campaign pay little attention to the tank operations and focused instead on the poor quality of the Republican infantry, its continued inability to cooperate effectively with either tanks or artillery, and the inflexibility of the artillery in assisting in offensive operations. It was also pointed out that the sectors where the main attack was launched had an unusually high density of anti-tank guns and artillery, 26.6 guns per kilometer compared to an average of 13.8 guns per kilometer on the front as a whole.

Final Reinforcements

The International Tank Regiment was the last Soviet tank unit deployed to Spain. By the summer of 1937, the Soviet Union had shipped 256 T-26 tanks to Spain for the various tank battalions. The last major shipment of 50 tanks were BT-5 fast tanks. In contrast to the T-26 light tanks, the BT-5 fast tanks were intended for deep maneuver operations, not for close infantry support. They were a license built copy of the American Christie tank, but with a Soviet-designed turret and gun, identical to that on the T-26. They were considered by the Soviet advisers to be the most modern and best tanks in Spain, and were held in reserve through the late summer and early autumn, waiting for a major opportunity to exploit their capabilities. While Pavlov’s 1st Armored Brigade had been recruited from a unit trained and equipped to conduct close infantry support, Kondryatev’s unit had been raised from the Soviet Union’s premier mechanized formation, the 5th Kalinovskiy Mechanized Corps from Naro-Fominsk which had been the show piece formation for Tukhachevskiy’s experiments with deep maneuver. As in the case of other Red Army units deployed to Spain, Soviet crews made up only a small fraction of the personnel in the regiment. However, the International Tank Regiment was allotted the cream of the Spanish trainees and the personnel from the International Brigades who had been set to the Gorkiy Tank School in the Soviet Union in the spring of 1937. The training of the unit, though far better than any other Republican tank unit, was far from complete. In the hopes of preserving the mechanical state of the equipment, training was limited to stationary exercises, and there were no opportunities for the unit to practice platoon or company field exercises. For many of the Soviet advisors in Spain, the International Tank Regiment was the last, best hope to display the power of tanks on the modern battlefield. These hopes would be crushed in the autumn of 1937 during the Saragossa campaign.

Since August 1937, the Republican Army of the North had engaged the nationalist forces in the Aragon region, finally capturing the town of Belchite on 6 September 1937. In early October, another offensive was planned against the town of Fuentes de Ebro on the road to Saragossa. The immediate objective was the seize the town, but the hope was that the use of the International Tank Regiment would permit a breakthrough to Saragossa itself. The attack on the town would be conducted by Gen. Karol (Walter) Swierczewski’s 35th Division consisting of the 11th and 15th International Brigades. The preparations for employing the tanks were slapdash and incompetent. The International Tank Regiment was given its orders at 23:00 the night before the attack, and had a hasty 50 km road march that night to the assembly area. On arriving and refueling near the front lines, the regiment learned only two hours before the start of the attack that it was to carry infantry on the tanks during the attack. This decision was opposed by the Soviet advisers as well as by the tank regiment officers who felt that it would put the infantry at too great a risk. The BT-5 was not well suited to carrying troops, and there were no experiments in doing so prior to this battle. Although the troops from the 15th International Brigade who would ride the tanks were regarded as good troops, the infantry unit that was supposed to accompany the tanks during the attack, the 120th Brigade, was notorious for refusing to leave its trenches. There was no infantry reserve. The mission was planned in such haste that the regimental staff had no time to conduct a reconnaissance of the battlefield, and the Spanish command did not provide adequate details of the battle area or likely Nationalist anti-tank defenses, considering such issues “trivial”. This would prove fatal to the operation. There was virtually no artillery preparation since the paltry two batteries assigned the task were armed with 75mm guns captured a few weeks before with little ammunition. A T-26 battalion was supposed to be used in one of the neighboring sectors, but did not arrive in time to take part in the initial assault.

The attack began shortly after noon. The forty-eight tanks of the International Tank Regiment started the attack with a salvo of their guns, and then set off at high speed “like an express train”, with Spanish infantry clinging to their sides. In the din and dust of the attack, many of the infantry fell off the tanks, some to be run over and crushed by other tanks. Crossing the friendly trenches proved more complicated than expected as the Republican infantry had not been warned, and in the confusion there was some firing between the infantry and the tanks. Once clear of the friendly lines, the tank continued to race forward, only to find that the friendly positions were on a plateau about three to four meters over the plains below. The rushing tanks were brought to a halt, and the units had to find passageways to exit to the low ground. More discouraging still, the terrain in front of the enemy positions consisted of irrigated sugar cane fields, criss-crossed with irrigation ditches. The tanks continued their rush forward, but became bogged down in the cane and water-logged soil. They began to take fire from Nationalist field guns and anti-tank guns in neighboring buildings. The advance could not press forward due to the terrain, and there was not enough infantry to hold any territory that had been gained. After exhausting their ammunition, the tanks slowly began to make their way back to the start point with little direction or control, leaving behind several tanks stuck in the mud. The tanks rearmed and were instructed to return to extract the bogged down tanks. Instead, a T-26 battalion that was supposed to be employed in the original attack was sent out with some infantry support. The attempt to extract the tanks cost a further 80 troops. In total, the International Tank Regiment lost 19 of its 48 tanks in the attack and several more damaged, and a third of its tank crews were killed or wounded.

An American tanker in the regiment wrote shortly after the attack: “Courage and heroism are plentiful in Spain and the Spanish people have no lack of it. What they need is tactics. And as for tactics, on 13 October, Regiment BT was bankrupt.” In his report to Moscow, the commander of the 35th Infantry Division exonerated Kondryatev and his unit, and placed the blame squarely on the Army of the North commanders. With the Great Purges underway in Moscow at this time, the Soviet officers in the theatre undoubtedly thought it wise to explain their performance during the fiasco. This small battle on the afternoon of 13 October 1937 is undoubtedly the best documented of the entire war, with nearly a hundred pages of testimony being sent to Moscow by the regimental commander, his assistants, company commanders, and even several tank crewmen. Kondryatev was spared from political recriminations due to their testimony, but unlike most other major Spanish Civil War commanders, was denied the Hero of the Soviet Union decoration. He was severely wounded during later fighting in the Teruel campaign. The great expectations for the BT tank regiment had been foiled by the friction of war.

The fiasco at Fuentes de Ebro on 13 October 1937 was the swan song of the Soviet tank force in Spain. While Soviet tankers would continue to act as advisers, the number of Soviet tank crews continued to diminish and the force became mostly Spanish by the end of 1937. The Soviet Union ended large shipments of tanks after the delivery of the International Tank Regiment’s fifty BT-5 tanks. In October 1937, the head of the Republican tank forces, Col. Sanchez Perales, initiated a reorganization and consolidation of the force. The four armored brigades, one tank regiment, and assorted small units were to be merged into two armored divisions. These armored divisions should not be confused with World War 2 armored divisions as they were not combined arms forces, lacking organic infantry or artillery, and were smaller. With the end of Soviet tank shipments in early 1938, the Republican army attempted to make up for the equipment shortfalls by local production. There had been small scale production of a local tank design called the Trubia since 1926, but it was an archaic design and not very successful. Instead, large numbers of automobiles and trucks were converted into improvised armored cars using boiler plate and unhardened sheet steel. Some of these were quite professional, such as those built in Valencia, but many were slap-dash contraptions with little mobility, little real armor protection, and little firepower. As a result, in may 1938 the Republican armored force had 176 tanks and 285 armored cars, and in December 1938, 126 tanks and 291 armored cars. The character of the armored force continued to shift in the direction of a road-bound force tied to the improvised armored cars as the inventory of tanks shrank due to combat and mechanical attrition. The Republic had no success in purchasing tanks from other sources except for a dozen obsolete Renault FT tanks purchased from Poland.

The last major campaign in which Soviet tank crews participated was the bitter fighting for Teruel from 15 December 1937 to 22 February 1938. The first of the new tank divisions was committed to the fighting, consisting of two T-26 battalions, the survivors of the International Tank Regiment, and other supporting units. A total of 104 tanks took part in the operations, the majority of the Republican tank force at the time. The division was not used as a unified force nor had it ever been intended to be used as such. Instead, component battalions were assigned to support various attacks. The fighting took place under difficult circumstances- extremely cold weather, heavy snow, poor roads, and in mountainous country. The tank units were praised for their efforts by the infantry they supported. While the Teruel campaign has seldom attracted much attention, it was carefully studied by the Red Army. What was striking about the campaign was that the tank force was able to function at all. By the end of 1937, the tanks had exceeded their expected mechanical life span, yet the tank units were able to maintain a respectable fraction of their tanks in combat on a daily basis and overall tank losses were modest under the circumstances- 24 tanks of which seven were captured by the Nationalists. A total of 63 tanks, more than half the force, required intermediate or capital overhaul, which was managed by the units in the field. It was a remarkable accomplishment, and reflected the growing skill of the Spanish tank crews, the maintenance units, and the tank support infrastructure created by Spanish industry. This legacy helps account for the ability of the Republican tank force to maintain its size and fighting potential for most of the remainder of 1938, in spite of the cut-off in Soviet technical aid.

Lessons of the Spanish Civil War

A British attaché during the Spanish Civil War warned that “the greatest caution must be used in deducing general lessons from this war: a little adroitness and it will be possible to use it to ‘prove’ any preconceived theory”. Certainly in the case of drawing lessons on the utility of tanks on the modern battlefield, there was a wide disparity in assessments. Armies which were already committed to the offensive use of tanks, such as the German Wehrmacht, continued their programs in spite of the poor performance of their own tanks in Spain. The Wehrmacht was not convinced that the small scale use of tanks by poorly-trained foreign tankers supporting poorly-trained militia units was an accurate reflection of the operational potential of large armored formations. Other armies were less optimistic about the future of tanks after Spain, while others simply ignored the issue. The Spanish Civil War created more controversy than insight for most armies.

To preface any remarks about the impact of the Spanish experience on the Red Army, it is essential to note the tribulations of senior army leadership at this time. In June 1937, shortly before the Brunete operation in Spain, Stalin began his purge of the military leadership with the arrest of Mikhail Tukhachevskiy and a number of other senior military leaders. The rationale for these destructive purges remains controversial but the effect was not only to destroy the generals but “also their policies and prestige”. Tukhachevskiy had been the Red Army’s primary architect of its large armored force and its primary proponent of offensive deep battle doctrine. His execution, and the execution of other officers associated with these programs such as the head of the Auto-Armor Directorate, I. Khalepskiy, hung over any discussions of the future of the Soviet armored force. The decimation of the advocates of armored warfare in the Red Army was paralleled in 1938 by a scouring out of the tank design bureaus, which claimed the lives of the design teams who had developed the T-26 light tank and BT tanks used in Spain. In addition, many of the veterans of the Spanish Civil War came under suspicion for possible Trotskiyite contagion and were executed, including the military attaché Gorev who had been so instrumental in the defense of Madrid. In an atmosphere of paranoid suspicion, an honest opinion publicly expressed about the potential for tank warfare or tank technology could prove fatal.

The Red Army had authorized a new set of field regulations, PU-36 in 1936. It was hoped that the Spanish experience would help to amplify and correct the field regulations, and the Intelligence Directorate of the Red Army not only collected data from the Spanish theatre for this purpose, but tasked some of the unit commanders with comparing their understanding of PU-36 to their experiences in the field. The first and only unit to methodically do so was the International Tank Regiment, formed in August 1936 under the command of Kombrig S. I. Kondryatev. Part of the problem with PU-36 was that it provided only the broadest sort of guidelines for tank operations and did not foresee the actual types of difficulties faced by tank units in combat. The Red Army had a wealth of reports and studies on tank operations in Spain. In general, these studies noted the many difficulties attending the use of armor. But at the same time, they duly noted the strained local circumstances, and the significant contribution that tanks had made in bolstering the very shaky performance of Republican infantry in many battles. The poor training of the Republican tank crews, particularly in the 1936-37 fighting, was often mentioned. As a result of the Spanish experience, as well as field exercises, the General Staff began the preparation of a series of reports which amplified PU-36’s coverage of tank tactics.

The most thorny tactical problem in Spain was cooperation between tanks and infantry. In most cases, it had proven to be difficult if not impossible to accomplish. Many of the Republican infantry units had poor morale and little practical training, and would simply refuse to accompany tanks into action. Even the usually stalwart International Brigades found it difficult to operate in unison with tanks. Seldom if ever was there any training or instructions in such tactics for either the tank crews or the infantry formations. There was no established procedure for communications between the tanks and the infantry, and neither had effective tactical radios. The slow walking speed of the infantry and the much higher speed of the tanks in cross-country travel was also a problem, since once battle was joined, the tankers tried to use the speed of their vehicles to avoid being hit by Nationalist anti-tank guns and field guns. As a result, infantry units and their supporting tanks usually became separated. The tankers expected that the infantry would assist them in locating their main adversary, the concealed anti-tank gun. But even if the infantry did locate and identify the anti-tank guns, there was no reliable means to communicate this information to the tankers.

The poor level of training of the mixed Russian/Spanish crews did not foster much tactical innovation. For example, the use some of the tanks in an overwatch position to deal with the anti-tank guns, or the defense of the tanks against anti-tank guns by the use of artillery or mortar-fired smoke were seldom if ever attempted. The fighting in Spain led the Red Army to abandon the practice of tanks firing on the move since it was felt that this was ineffective and a waste of ammunition. This was an important shift in tactics and paralleled similar German tactics of the time. However, the British Army, lacking the Spanish experience, continued in this practice, much to its detriment in the tank fighting in the early years of World War II.

The coordination of tanks on the battlefield had proven far more difficult than expected. The Red Army provided only about one tank in three with a radio, allotting them to the company commanders and battalions commanders and sometimes to platoon commanders. The radios were nearly useless when the tanks were moving due to their fragility, the difficulty of keeping the radios tuned to the proper frequency when moving, and the vulnerability of the “clothesline” antenna to damage. The lack of reliable radios made it almost impossible to conduct operations above company size since units could not coordinate their activities once the battle had started. The prescribed method of communication within the platoon and company was the use of colored flags. This method proved not only useless but also dangerous. The flag colors were easily misidentified under all but the best lighting conditions, and using the flags made the platoon commander readily identifiable and vulnerable to enemy fire. The use of flags was abandoned almost immediately by Arman’s group in the autumn of 1936 and not widely used afterwards. In its place, the crews were told to keep an eye on the platoon commanders tank and to follow his example. Platoon commanders generally led the three-tank unit into action, and so as often as not were the first put out of action by enemy fire. Soviet tankers’ training was not entirely satisfactory, to say nothing of the Spaniard’s training, and Arman noted that crews seldom showed any initiative once commanders were lost.

The inadequate communications of the tank battalions was one of the root causes of the difficulty that tank units experienced in coordinating their actions with friendly infantry and artillery. If cooperation between tanks and infantry was poor, it was essentially non-existent between tanks and artillery. The lack of direct radio communication between the tanks and the artillery meant that it was impossible for the tanks to receive fire support against their most deadly enemy, the anti-tank guns. The tank radios seldom operated well while the tanks were in motion, and at longer distance, Morse code had to be used for which there were few trained radio operators.

Red Army theorists did not immediately reject the concepts of deep battle or of large mechanized formations in the wake of the Spanish experience. Judged against the inflated expectation of armor theorists such as Fuller and Liddell Hart in Britain, the performance of tanks in Spain may not have seemed impressive. But many judgements in western Europe were based on the very incomplete press accounts of the use of tanks in Spain. There was a popular simplification in the press, sometimes promoted by extremists in the tank warfare debate, denigrating the tactic of using “penny packets” of tanks for close infantry support as antideluvian in contrast to the bright shining future of massed tank formations. This false dichotomy cloaked the real debate. All successful armies continued to use armored vehicles for close infantry support throughout World War 2 whether in the form of the Wehrmacht’s Sturmgeschutz battalions, the US Army’s independent tank battalions, or the Red Army’s SU-76 regiments and separate heavy tank regiments. The real debate was over how much of any army’s armored strength would be divided between these different roles. Secondly, there was no consensus amongst armored force advocates over whether large mechanized formations should be used to achieve the breakthrough during offensive operations or whether they should be held back until the breakthrough was achieved by infantry, supported by tanks and artillery, and then deployed in the exploitation phase of the operation.

The Red Army’s lessons of the war in Spain were summarized in a 1939 study. The study began by noting that lessons of the war in Spain were important since all modern combat arms had participated in the fighting and the results were likely to be absorbed by all modern European armies. Specific tactical lessons of the conflict were highlighted including the need for the support of infantry attacks by tanks, the need for coordination between the infantry, armor, and artillery, and the vulnerability of tanks to anti-tank defenses without such coordination. In regards to the use of tanks in the defense, the report singled out the role of tanks as a key element in carrying out local counterattacks based on several examples of the 1st Armored Brigade in 1937. The study was extremely cautious is drawing any lessons about the use of armor in deep battle since there were no experiences of the use of large armor formations in Spain. The report was skeptical about the possibilities of using independent tank groups to achieve breakthroughs in the face of well prepared defenses. The General Staff view was that the full potential of tanks had not been displayed in Spain and that the Red Army should continue to pursue plans to use tanks, but on a mass scale, with full artillery support. Georgiy Zhukov’s successful use of mechanized formations in his defeat of the Japanese Kwangtung Army at Khalkin Gol in 1939 further reinforced the advocates of armored warfare.

The Red Army reorganized its tank force in 1938, enlarging the four mechanized corps and renaming them as tank corps. In addition, many of the scattered tank battalions and regiments were consolidated into 25 independent tank brigades, and efforts began to expand tank platoon strength throughout the army from three tanks to five. This last change was a direct consequence of the Spanish experience. The five tank platoon was introduced due to a string of reports from Spain complaining that the three tank platoon was too weak to carry out most tasks.

The importance of the tactical lessons for the Soviet armored forces drawn from the Spanish experience should not be exaggerated. Prior to the Polish and Finnish campaigns, Soviet studies of future tank warfare tended to employ examples from World War I tank fighting to establish combat norms, since the Spanish examples were on such a small scale. After the commitment of substantial Red army tank units to combat in Poland in September 1939, in the Far East at Khalkin Gol, and against Finland in December 1939, the focus shifted to lessons from these campaigns and the Spanish experience was pushed into the background. For example, during the 28 December 1940 meeting of the Military Council on the utilization of mechanized formations in contemporary offensive operations, chaired by Spanish Civil war veteran, Gen. Col. D. G. Pavlov, there was no mention of the Spanish experience while more recent campaigns involving armored vehicles including Lake Khasan, Poland, and Finland were discussed.

If some tactical lessons from Spain had been appreciated and acted upon, many had not. Spain highlighted the lack of durability of tank designs of the 1930s and the need for expanded technical support within the armored units. This was not acted upon, due to inertia in the industrial ministries from the paralyzing effect of the purges as well as Army inaction and complacency. The level of spare parts availability remained chronically low, and the level of technical competence of the burgeoning officer cadres was inadequate. As a result, the technical status of the Soviet tank park reached appalling levels by the time of the war’s outbreak in June 1941. The T-26 and BT tanks, which still made up the vast majority of the Red Army tank park, had engine reserves on average of only 75-100 hours and about 29% of all tanks were in need of capital overhaul, that is, factory rebuilding. The result was that in 1941, far more Soviet tanks were lost to mechanical breakdown during road marches than in combat.

Calls for better training of tank crews also went largely unheeded. While the traditional view has held that the Red Army’s poor performance in 1939-41 was due to the lingering effects of the purges, recent studies have begun to explore the broad range of difficulties of introducing novel technology and novel tactics into large armies dependent on conscripts and poorly trained reservists. In the 1941 campaign, Soviet tankers displayed a poor level of training and divisional records are replete with references to their inability to carry out simple functions such as driving the tank, operating the gun, or carrying out basic maintenance duties.

Of critical importance to the viability of large mechanized formation, the issue of command and control went unaddressed. This was in part due to the backward state of Soviet radio technology compared to German or American radio technology at the time. Although steps were taken to develop a new generation of tactical radios durable enough for armored vehicle use, they were not generally available until well into the war years, and even then in small numbers. It is no surprise that one of Germany’s prime architects of its armored force, Gen. Heinz Guderian, was a former signals officer. The importance of radios in particular, and command and control in general, remains one of the most inadequately studied issues of the development of armored warfare in the inter-war years.

The single greatest failure of the Red Army in assessing the Spanish Civil War experience was in the area of tank-infantry cooperation. It is difficult to find any of the Soviet after-action reports from Spain that did not begin with the lament that “tank-infantry cooperation was poor”. Soviet tankers held a very negative view of the average Spanish infantrymen, and this jaundiced view led them to discount the problem of tank-infantry cooperation, presuming that the situation would be better when operating with Red Army infantry. As was so evident in Finland in 1939-40 and in the opening phases of the war with Germany in the summer of 1941, this problem was not confined to Spain. The Red Army ignored institutional reforms to increase tank and infantry cooperative training and ignored the needs for improved communication between the tanks and infantry.

If Soviet tanks were not prepared to cooperate with infantry in small-unit operations such as Spain, they were even more poorly prepared to conducted coordinated maneuvers during deep offensive operations. The Red Army’s existing plans to employ trucks to transport infantry formations during deep operations was shortsighted given the poor cross-country capabilities of Soviet trucks of the late 1930s as would be so evident in the Finnish campaign of 1940. Attempts to move motorized infantry units forward in a timely fashion were frustrated by road congestion. While this was partly due to the severe weather conditions in Finland, it was exacerbated by the lack of cross-country capability of the Red Army trucks. Recognizing this problem, Germany at the time was developing its panzergrenadiers and the US Army its mechanized infantry battalions, using armored half-tracks capable of moving with the tanks. Infantry mechanization remained one of the singular failures of Red Army tactics in World War 2, and forced the adoption of wasteful and humanly-costly improvisations such as the use of tanks to transport troops into battle, so-called tank desant. The problems with tank-infantry cooperation in Spain could have acted as a catalyst to a debate on infantry mechanization, but the dilemma was not appreciated by the Red Army.

While the professional ranks of the Red Army did not reject the important role of armored warfare on the future battlefield, far more conservative views were held by the post-Purge leadership of the army, made up of cronies of Stalin from the 1920 Russo-Polish war such as defense minister Klimenti Voroshilov. Voroshilov was skeptical of Tukhachevskiy’s bold vision of deep battle and would have preferred to break up large mechanized formations and spread out their equipment to the rifle and cavalry divisions, thereby limiting their role to direct support. Voroshilov, and others in the army saw Spain as evidence of the difficulty of operating tanks, even in short range missions, and insisted on a larger role in maneuver warfare being played by horse cavalry.

Voroshilov’s opportunity to impose his view arose following the Soviet participation in the invasion of Poland on 17 September 1939. The performance of Soviet armored brigades in Poland was disappointing. The uncontested Polish invasion was the largest employment of Soviet armor until the outbreak of the war with Germany in 1941, and involved the use of two tank corps, seven independent tank brigades, four cavalry tank regiments and six infantry tank battalions, totaling 4,120 armored vehicles. Combat losses were miniscule, only 42 armored vehicles. Yet the armored force lost nearly ten percent of its vehicles in the first few days of moving into Poland due to mechanical breakdowns, ten times the level of combat losses. In a November 1939 meeting of the Military Council, Voroshilov advocated the dismantlement of the four tanks corps, and was supported in this effort by the head of the Auto-Tank Directorate (ABTU), Gen. Col. D. G. Pavlov. While Pavlov’s support of Voroshilov’s effort to trim the wings of the independent armored force has often been tied to his experience in Spain, the broader political context of this decision cannot be ignored, particularly the lingering effects of the Purge. Pavlov had no personal experience with large armored formations in Spain, never commanding a unit much large than a battalion. His own lack of success in achieving tactical breakthroughs using tanks in Spain may partly explain his skepticism of the use of large armored formations. But he also realized that supporting the view of Stalin’s confidant, defense minister Voroshilov, was a prudent way to avoid an executioner’s bullet, a fate which it should be recalled, befell his predecessor I. Khalepskiy.

One of the largely unheralded lessons of Spain was in the area of tank design. There was general satisfaction with the performance of the T-26 light tank. It was considered a robust and capable vehicle, and was especially appreciated in comparison with the dreadful Italian CV.3/35 tankette, the weakly armored and poorly armed German PzKpfw I light tank, and the Spanish army’s old and worn-out Renault FT light tanks. Both of the Nationalist tank types were armed only with machine guns, and so could not defeat the T-26 in battle, and both were too thinly armored to resist the T-26’s 45mm gun. The T-26 was so superior to the Italian tankettes and German light tanks that the Nationalist army offered a bounty of 500 pesetas for every example captured; the Moroccan troops showed a special talent in this regard.

The T-26’s design had taken place before the Red Army had developed any experience in tank combat and the fighting in Spain revealed some significant shortcomings that had not been foreseen by its designers. It’s main failing was its poor armor, and immediate steps were taken to improve this through the introduction of sloped armor on the T-26S Model 1938. Its vision devices were completely inadequate in combat. When buttoned up, the crew was limited to small armored glass viewing slits, and in the case of the turret crew, a periscopic sight with a very limited viewing angle. The crews had an almost impossible time spotting enemy targets, especially the small anti-tank guns. So the crews tended to operate with the driver’s hatch and the turret hatch open for adequate visibility. As a result, 75% of tank casualties were inflicted on crews through the open hatches. Trophies from the 1939 Polish campaign provided a partial solution, with the Red Army adopting copies of the Polish Gundlach tank periscope on future tank designs.

At the time of the Spanish Civil War, the Red Army was debating the requirements for its new cavalry tank to replace the BT fast tank and a new infantry tank to replace the T-26. The Auto-Armored Directorate defined a requirement that was a modest evolution of the BT with the same gun, but with slightly better armor and improved mobility. The requirement for the T-26 infantry tank replacement was similar, retaining the same 45mm gun, but improving the armor protection. The Red Army did not see the need for a revolutionary change in tank design, but this view was not shared by some of the tank design teams.

In early 1938, the design team from the Kharkov Locomotive Plant attended a meeting of the Military Council in Moscow in which the assistant commander for technical affairs of the International Tank Regiment, Aleksandr Vetrov, answered questions about his experiences in Spain, including both the Fuentes de Ebro battle and the fighting in Teruel. The design team came away from the meeting further reinforced in their view that the ABTU requirement was misbegotten and that the new fast tank should have thicker armor to protect it against anti-tank guns better than the German 37mm gun encountered in Spain, and should have a better gun than the old 45mm “sparrow-shooter” of the T-26 and BT. The resulting tank would emerge in 1940 as the T-34, a revolutionary design which would be the benchmark for world tank design through the first part of World War 2. The T-34 replaced both the BT and the T-26, since by a fluke of timing, the new T-50 infantry tank was delayed in development. By the time it finally did appear after the outbreak of the 1941 war, it was recognized to be too expensive and inferior to the T-34. So the T-34 was deployed instead to fulfill both roles.

Recent research on the origins of the T-34 design contradicts the widely held view that Soviet weapons design was a simple conveyor belt process, with the army developing the requirement based on its tactical doctrine, and the industrial ministries and design bureaus simply obeying and turning out a precise reflection of the Army’s requirement document. Had the design bureau ignored the Spanish experience and followed the army requirements, the next generation Soviet tank would have been a mediocre design more akin to the British cruiser tanks of the period. The Kharkov design bureau’s actions in this case displayed a hallmark trait of successful technological innovation in weapons design- the ability to see past the current threat and base the weapon on a projection of what the future threat would resemble. Organizationally, it was able to do so as the Soviet design bureau were given a surprising degree of latitude in the design process. Their small size did not foster to the type of paralysis that affected larger bureaucratic institutions of the Red Army, caused at the time by the Purge and the lack of consensus about the nature of future tank warfare. As a result, the tank engineers were able to use the lessons of the Spanish Civil War more effectively than the Red Army itself in assessing future technological needs.

The Spanish Civil War is regarded by many military historians as a testing ground for the weapons and tactics of the ensuing Second World War. However, some caution must be using in assessing the lessons of the conflicts. The significance of the war for armored warfare tactics has often been exaggerated, often based on misperceptions of the size of the armored forces employed and the goals of the forces involved. The Soviet-led tank units in Spain never attempted to prove or disprove theories of deep battle since the units involved were much too small to carry out such army-level or front-level operations. Nevertheless, Spain did provide a number of valuable lessons in the area of technology, training, and tactics, some of which were appreciated, many of which were not.

Bibliographic Note

The primary archival source for this article was a collection of documents obtained from the Russian State Military Archives (RGVA) by Yale University and currently housed at the Manuscript and Archives branch of Sterling Memorial Library. The Russian State Military Archive Collection (RSMAC-Group 1670) deals with Soviet-German Military collaboration in the 1920s and with Soviet military participation in the Spanish Civil War. About half of the Spanish Civil War collection consists of a variety of documents including daily reports from various advisers to Moscow, reports on unit actions, and studies on various subjects related to the fighting. The other half of the collection consists of the Soderzhanie Sbornika (Digest Collection), a special document collection prepared by the Red Army intelligence directorate for senior government and army officials and consisting of reports on key battles as well as special digests of reports on specific technical subjects such as tank operations, aircraft tactics, air defense technology in Spain and so on. For example, the Soderzhanie Sbornika No. 37 (Technical Notes on the actions of Republican Tanks in Spain) prepared in 1937 was printed in eight copies including copies for Stalin, defense minister Voroshilov, first deputy for defense Yegorov, foreign minister Molotov, and chief of staff Shapashnikov. The Yale Sbornik collection is not complete, missing a run of volumes from the summer of 1937. The bibliographic citations here refer to the Yale archives notations, not the original Russian archives, since according to Yale archivists, the Russian collection subsequently has been closed to western researchers. The author would like to thank Mary Habeck and the staff of the Manuscript and Archives division for their kind assistance on this project. Many of the other contemporary reports as well as pre-war editions of Voenniy Mysl and Voenno-istorichesskiy zhurnal were found in the collections of the Lehman Library, School of International Affairs, Columbia University.

published in Journal of Slavic Military Studies Vol. 12 No. 3, Sep 1999

By Steven J. Zaloga 1999




Battle of Cajamarca and the capture of Atahualpa


Francisco Pizarro’s route of exploration during the conquest of Peru (1531–1533)


The Famous Thirteen by Juan Lepiani


Spanish Conquest of Peru, 1532

Francisco Pizarro conquered the largest amount of territory ever taken in a single battle when he defeated the Incan Empire at Cajamarca in 1532. Pizarro’s victory opened the way for Spain to claim most of South America and its tremendous riches, as well as imprint the continent with its language, culture, and religion.

Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the New World offered a preview of the vast wealth and resources to be found in the Americas, and Hernan Cortés’s victory over the Aztecs had proven that great riches were there for the taking. It is not surprising that other Spanish explorers flocked to the area-some to advance the cause of their country, most to gain their own personal fortunes.

Francisco Pizarro was one of the latter. The illegitimate son of a professional soldier, Pizarro joined the Spanish army as a teenager and then sailed for Hispaniola, from where he participated in Vasco de Balboa’s expedition that crossed Panama and “discovered” the Pacific Ocean in 1513. Along the way, he heard stories of the great wealth belonging to native tribes to the south.

After learning of Cortés’s success in Mexico, Pizarro received permission to lead expeditions down the Pacific Coast of what is now Colombia, first in 1524-25 and then again in 1526-28. The second expedition experienced such hardships that his men wanted to return home. According to legend, Pizarro drew a line in the sand with his sword and invited anyone who desired “wealth and glory” to step across and continue with him in his quest.

Thirteen men crossed the line and endured a difficult journey into what is now Peru, where they made contact with the Incas. After peaceful negotiations with the Incan leaders, the Spaniards returned to Panama and sailed to Spain with a small amount of gold and even a few llamas. Emperor Charles V was so impressed that he promoted Pizarro to captain general, appointed him the governor of all lands six hundred miles south of Panama, and financed an expedition to return to the land of the Incas.

Pizarro set sail for South America in January 1531 with 265 soldiers and 65 horses. Most of the soldiers carried spears or swords. At least three had primitive muskets called arquebuses, and twenty more carried crossbows. Among the members of the expedition were four of Pizarro’s brothers and all of the original thirteen adventurers who had crossed their commander’s sword line to pursue “wealth and glory.”

Between wealth and glory stood an army of 30,000 Incas representing a century old empire that extended 2,700 miles from modern Ecuador to Santiago, Chile. The Incas had assembled their Empire by expanding outward from their home territory in the Cuzco Valley. They had forced defeated tribes to assimilate Incan traditions, speak their language, and provide soldiers for their army. By the time the Spaniards arrived, the Incas had built more than 10,000 miles of roads, complete with suspension bridges, to develop trade throughout the empire. They also had become master stonemasons with finely crafted temples and homes.

About the time Pizarro landed on the Pacific Coast, the Incan leader, considered a deity, died, leaving his sons to fight over leadership. One of these sons, Atahualpa, killed most of his siblings and assumed the throne shortly before he learned that the white men had returned to his Incan lands.

Pizarro and his “army” reached the southern edge of the Andes in present-day Peru in June 1532. Undaunted by the report that the Incan army numbered 30,000, Pizarro pushed inland and crossed the mountains, no small feat itself. Upon arrival at the village of Cajamarca on a plateau on the eastern slope of the Andes, the Spanish officer invited the Incan king to a meeting. Atahualpa, believing himself a deity and unimpressed with the small Spanish force, arrived with a defensive force of only three or four thousand.

Despite the odds, Pizarro decided to act rather than talk. With his arquebuses and cavalry in the lead, he attacked on November 16, 1532. Surprised by the assault and awed by the firearms and horses, the Incan army disintegrated, leaving Atahualpa a prisoner. The only Spanish casualty was Pizarro, who sustained a slight wound while personally capturing the Incan leader.

Pizarro demanded a ransom of gold from the Incas for their king, the amount of which legend says would fill a room to as high as a man could reach-more than 2,500 cubic feet. Another two rooms were to be filled with silver. Pizarro and his men had their wealth assured but not their safety, as they remained an extremely small group of men surrounded by a huge army. To enhance his odds, the Spanish leader pitted Inca against Inca until most of the viable leaders had killed each other. Pizarro then marched into the former Incan capital at Cuzco and placed his handpicked king on the throne. Atahualpa, no longer needed, was sentenced to be burned at the stake as a heathen, but was strangled instead after he professed to accept Spanish Christianity.

Pizarro returned to the coast and established the port city of Lima, where additional Spanish soldiers and civilian leaders arrived to govern and exploit the region’s riches. Some minor Incan uprisings occurred in 1536, but native warriors were no match for the Spaniards. Pizarro lived in splendor until he was assassinated in 1541 by a follower who believed he was not receiving his fair share of the booty.

In a single battle, with only himself wounded, Pizarro conquered more than half of South America and its population of more than six million people. The jungle reclaimed the Inca palaces and roads as their wealth departed in Spanish ships. The Inca culture and religion ceased to exist. For the next three centuries, Spain ruled most of the north and Pacific coast of South America. Its language, culture, and religion still dominate there today.

Francisco Pizarro (c. 1475-1541)

Francisco Pizarro was born in Trujillo, Estremadura, Spain. He entered the Spanish army at an early age. Shaped by leaders such as Gonzalo Fernanadez de Cordoba, the Spanish military was the most advanced in Europe.

Pizarro went to Santo Domingo in the Caribbean in 1502 and served on the unsuccessful colonizing adventure of Alonso de Ojeda in 1509. He made the first crossing of Panama with the great explorer Balboa (1513) and settled there. Hearing of an Indian empire of enormous wealth, he formed a partnership with Diego de Almagro, a soldier, and Hernando de Luque, a priest. Pizarro and Almagro explored along the Pacific coast of present-day Colombia (1524-1525 and 1526-1528). On their second voyage, they reached a prosperous Indian town in present-day Ecuador and returned with gold, llamas, and Indians who spoke of the wealth of the Inca Empire.

Pizarro went to Spain in 1528, where the Council of the Indies made him captain-general and governor of any lands he might conquer. The Council provided no funds, however, and Almagro resented the lesser titles he received from Spain. Pizarro returned to Panama, and in January 1531, set out with 180 men, 27 horses, and two small cannons. Traveling both by land and water, he reached the town of San Miguel de Piura, which he used as a base. In September 1532, he entered the Andes mountain range with no more than two hundred men, a tiny force with which to confront the Incas.

In the Inca Empire, a civil war had just ended between two brothers: Atahualpa (at-ah-WHALP-ah) and Huascar. Atahualpa prevailed, only to learn of a new threat: Pizarro and his band of intrepid followers. Atahualpa allowed the Spaniards to come inland to the town of Cajamarca. There, the Spaniards lured the Inca leader into an ambush. The two hundred Spaniards, with their swords, guns, horses, and dogs, terrified and defeated several thousand Incas. The Battle of Cajamarca (November 16, 1532) gave Pizarro custody of Atahualpa and leadership of the Inca Empire. Although Atahualpa raised an enormous ransom-some records say it was a huge room filled to the ceiling with gold-Pizarro had the Inca leader executed on August 19, 1533.

Pizarro founded Lima as the capital of his new domain. Almagro became his bitter rival. Almagro, after failing to capture Chile, returned to Peru and seized the city of Cuzco. Pizarro’s brother captured and killed Almagro, whose followers were deprived of their land and estates. Bitter over their losses, Almagro’s followers and friends formed a conspiracy, and they killed Pizarro at his palace in Lima on June 26, 1541.

Spain: Tradition and Enlightenment II

Manuel Godoy

The apparent indifference of many of the top people of Spain to the arts and sciences is reflected in the scant production of much that was memorable. Valencia’s university, long strong in science, benefited from Philip V’s temporary closure of Catalan universities. The medical research of Andres Piquer added to Valencia’s renown and led to improvement in Spanish medical practice. The best known literary figure was a Benedictine professor in Galicia, Padre Benito Feijoo (1676-1764), who wrote critical works about the shortcomings of his countrymen. In music, the Catalan composer Antonio Soler (1729-1783) worked with Domenico Scarlatti in Madrid and headed the choir at the Escorial, where the Bourbons established new royal apartments. The Bourbons also brought opera to Spain, and Spanish composers wrote operas. Architecture had a late Baroque fling with a style named after the brothers Churiguerra, who did the elegant Plaza Mayor of Salamanca. It soon settled into the respectable classicism of the era, as evidenced by the Royal Palace of Madrid. Carlos III imported his chief painters, but he also gave work to a rising Spanish painter, Francisco de Goya, who would prove to be one of the great artists of all time. Under Carlos, Goya began for the royal tapestry factory the Bourbons established in Madrid a series of cartoons that depict scenes of Spanish popular life. The tapestries graced royal apartments; Goya’s cartoons are now in Madrid’s Prado Museum. Commissions from the king introduced Goya to high society, and he painted splendid portraits of the rich, titled, and famous, as well as of the royal family, and circulated in their company.

Beneath a colorful veneer the clash of Enlightenment and Church simmered and took its most dramatic turn with the expulsion and suppression of the Jesuits. In control of secondary education, the Jesuits remained current with developments in philosophy and science but kept them in a religious framework. The Jesuits’ successes earned them the hostility of rival Catholic religious orders and people who believed that Jesuits compromised morality with worldliness. The Jesuits tended to smear any Catholic opponent, including regalists, as “Jansenists.” The papacy had condemned Jansenism, derived from the austere theology of Cornelius Jansen, a seventeenth-century Flemish bishop, and by mideighteenth century, it had become largely confused in politics.

The Jesuits also dominated the Inquisition, which many enlightened ministers found an embarrassment, and they opposed the spread into Spain of freemasonry, which many enlightened ministers found attractive. Freemasonry on the European continent had a decidedly political dimension. In Masonic lodges, differences of creed and social class were suspended, and members talked of the brotherhood of mankind. While Freemasons admitted a Supreme Being, they accepted the validity of many religions. The papacy lost no time in condemning freemasonry for Deism (a belief in God but no single church), immorality, and intent to subvert the true Catholic faith. Among secular rulers, reaction to freemasonry was mixed. While instinctively suspicious of secret societies, many thought freemasonry to be a viable alternative to the power of organized religion as well as a clearinghouse for fresh ideas. In Madrid, the count of Aranda was grand master of the Masonic lodge.

The downfall of the Jesuits began in neighboring Portugal, where the enlightened chief minister, the marquis of Pombal, had them expelled in 1759. In France the Jesuits’ enemies had them expelled in 1764. In Madrid, the Jesuits were made scapegoats for the Esquilache riots of 1766, and the count of Aranda proposed that they be expelled from Spain, too. Aranda had traveled widely, studied military tactics in Prussia, fought in Italy, and met the famous Voltaire, who detested the Jesuits. Aranda arranged an investigation of the Jesuits, which a panel of bishops and councillors hostile to them carried out. As a result, Carlos expelled the Jesuits from Spain in 1767. Aranda then joined with the Bourbon courts of France and the Two Sicilies to pressure the pope to suppress the Jesuit order entirely, which he did in 1773.

Without its Jesuits, the Inquisition investigated the bishops who recommended their expulsion but failed to find sufficient evidence. They also went after Aranda and his colleagues until Carlos III stopped them. Yet he and Aranda both knew that the Inquisition remained popular among ordinary Spaniards and would not abolish it. The days of burning heretics and torture waned as even inquisitors yielded to Enlightenment ideas. Still, a woman was burned as a witch in Seville in 1787, though she was strangled before the fire was lit. The most sensational case involved Pablo Olavide, royal. intendant of the province of Seville. Peruvian born, Clavicle, like Aranda, had met Voltaire and knew the intellectual life of the Parisian salons. In Seville he held salons to discuss new ideas and the arts in his home, which he hung with contemporary French paintings. At the same time, he made vigorous efforts to improve provincial agriculture, which aroused opposition from many landlords, including churchmen. His enemies had him hauled before the Inquisition for the possession of pornographic pictures and forbidden books, for unorthodox ideas, and for interfering with the Church in the management of its lands. The number of witnesses ready to testify against Olavide convinced even the king to let the trial proceed. It was held behind closed doors and resulted in his conviction. Humiliated, forced to wear the sanbenito and dunce cap, Olavide protested that he had not lost his Catholic faith. He was stripped of his offices and confined to a monastery for reeducation. He escaped to France and was lionized by the intellectual set. Not until 1798 was he allowed, at age seventy-three, to return to Spain.

The cases of Olavide and several other intellectuals convicted by the Inquisition chilled but did not stop the spread of the Enlightenment among its small Spanish following. Not only public servants and some of the better educated clergy but also many members of the prosperous middle class continued to seek the latest ideas in the press and periodicals, although they remained wary. Even though religious censorship prevented the publication of Denis Diderot’s French Encyclopedia, lesser encyclopedias that emphasized science and technology and avoided criticism of religion and the Church did appear. However, the prosperity that permitted a few to keep up with new ideas and developments did not extend to the many, whose incomes failed to keep pace with inflation. Envious of the few whose lives seemed ever more dedicated to private fulfillment and pleasure, the many clung to Spain’s old traditions and considered the new ideas disturbing, foreign, atheistic, and potentially dangerous to the God-given order of society.

However disturbing some of their ideas and reforms seemed to many, Carlos and his ministers persisted in what they believed best for Spain. After Aranda went to Paris as ambassador, the counts of Campomanes and Floridablanca and Asturian legal expert Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos emerged as the ministers with the greatest influence over policy. Floridablanca provides a good example of the kind of men who served the eighteenth-century Bourbon kings. Born Jose Monino to a hidalgo family of Murcia, he studied law at Salamanca, proved a successful lawyer, and was brought into government by Esquilache. Jovellanos was arguably the most brilliant of Carlos’s ministers, with the broadest range of knowledge. Though his father wanted him to be a priest, he pursued the study of law with the support of his uncle, a duke. He wrote essays, poetry, dramas, and histories and was active in the royal academies of language and history, founded by the Bourbons to promote scholarship.

Carlos III remained interested in foreign policy and kept Spain in the company of the great powers when he joined France in 1778 against Great Britain during the War of American Independence. In Paris, Aranda met Benjamin Franklin and John Jay and favored the American cause, though he acknowledged the differences between Spain and the infant republic over Florida and the Mississippi Valley. Unlike Louis XVI of France, Carlos did not recognize or directly ally with the new United States, because of territorial issues and because he did not wish to encourage his own American colonies to seek independence. In Spain there was talk that Spanish America should be divided into three independent kingdoms, each under a younger son of the king, but the most obvious candidates all died young.

In the war the Spanish army and navy failed to recover Gibraltar, despite a bitter siege. The Spaniards did combine with the French to take Minorca, and in the Atlantic the Spanish and French fleets joined to threaten England with invasion, which prevented the English from sending General Charles Cornwallis needed reinforcements and led to his surrender in 1781 at Yorktown. The Spanish navy also found time to bombard Algiers and force its corsairs to forgo further raiding of Spanish commerce and coasts. The Spanish governor of New Orleans defeated the British in the Mississippi Valley, then took Mobile, and proceeded to reconquer Florida. The 1783 Peace of Paris, which recognized the independence of the United States, conceded Florida and Minorca to Spain, although Britain kept Gibraltar. Carlos earlier recovered Uruguay from Portugal but failed to get the Falkland Islands back. Disputes between Spain and the United States over Florida and the Mississippi, valley remained unsettled, despite negotiations in 1785-1786 between Spain’s emissary, Diego de Gardoqui, and John Jay, appointed by Congress to deal with him.

Under Carlos III Spain’s overseas empire reached its greatest extent. In distant Alta, California, Franciscan friars established missions as far north as San Francisco, where a statue of Carlos III, a recent gift from Spain, graces the Embarcadero. To defend California the Spaniards had fewer than 200 soldiers, scattered among the presidios of San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco and doing sentry duty at the missions. Unruly California Indians were their chief concern. Only three cannons defended the Golden Gate, although both Great Britain and Russia had interests in the Pacific that potentially menaced California and New Spain.

Aged seventy-two, Carlos III died in December 1788. To Spaniards, his reign in retrospect seemed a second golden age, at least in international prestige, prosperity, and domestic tranquility, if not in literature and the arts. While the reign of his son, Carlos IV, began with good reason for hope, it would end in national calamity and the terrible war that gave the world the word guerrilla.

Carlos IV kept his father’s principal ministers of state, with Floridablanca as chief. Yet during the first year of his reign, revolution erupted in France and threatened the throne of his Bourbon cousin, Louis XVI. News of developments in France caused great stir in Spain and alarmed Floridablanca. Though he favored reform, it was reform from the top directed by an absolute sovereign, not reform promoted by an unruly constitutional legislature. Alarmed by the irreligion of many French revolutionary leaders, the Spanish Church shared Floridablanca’s fears. The French Civil Constitution of the Clergy of 1790 caused many French clergymen to seek refuge in Spain, where they spread horror stories about the revolution. Floridablanca put the Inquisition to the vain task of keeping news of French developments from Spain. Enemies of enlightened reform in Spain linked reformist ideas with revolution, and leading ministers began to waffle. Floridablanca censored new ideas in Spanish periodicals. Campomanes refused to support a minister under attack from the Inquisition, and Jovellanos, who defended the minister, was ordered home to Asturias.

In February 1792, Carlos IV replaced Floridablanca with Aranda, whose connections in Paris seemed helpful to Louis XVI. Aranda restructured Spain’s government around the Council of State, which unfortunately put more power into the hands of the weak-willed king and allowed less independence to ministers. Aranda pursued a friendly policy toward France until events overwhelmed him. In September 1792, France became a republic and put Louis XVI on trial. War had broken out between France and a coalition headed by Austria and Prussia. Carlos IV intervened on behalf of Louis XVI, who was guillotined in January 1793. French propaganda aimed at Spain called for the Cortes to arise, overthrow the Bourbon dynasty, and end the Inquisition. In Spain the most effective response came from the pulpit. Inspired by their priests, most Spaniards saw the brewing conflict as a struggle on behalf of God, fatherland, and king, against a nation of regicides leagued to the devil. Even enlightened Spaniards like Jovellanos were appalled by the spectacle of the Reign of Terror in France. Lingering sympathy for the ideals of the French revolution was reduced to university students, whom the Inquisition hounded.

In March 1793, France declared war on Spain. Spanish troops invaded Languedoc, while French troops occupied two enclaves in the Pyrenees. In 1794 the death of Spanish General Antonio Ricardos and the appearance of more aggressive French commanders led to a French invasion of Catalonia. While French officers spread revolutionary propaganda, French soldiers plundered the countryside and aggravated the hatred already incited by the clergy. French promises of Catalan independence fell on deaf ears. The French invasion of Navarre and the Basque Country met similar popular resistance.

The cost of war was stiff, and in early 1794 Aranda proposed that Spain seek peace. By then Aranda had been supplanted as chief minister by Manuel de Godoy, newly made duke of Alcudia. A handsome, twenty-five-year-old guards officer of rough charm, from a poor but proud hidalgo family of Extremadura, Godoy had become the favorite of the queen, Maria Luisa of Parma, sixteen years his senior. They met when she was still princess of Asturias, her looks not yet faded, and became constant companions and perhaps lovers. The king accepted and genuinely liked Godoy, which caused people to call him “the royal cuckold.” In Godoy’s explanation, Carlos IV and Maria Luisa knew that he was utterly loyal to them. They promoted him to ever higher posts and gradually demoted or eliminated the ministers who had served Carlos III. When Carlos IV rejected Aranda’s proposed peace with France and dismissed him, an uproar followed. Almost everybody-nobles, intellectuals, clergymen, and commoners-clamored for Godoy’s removal.

Peace did not come until the regicide government in Paris fell. By the Treaty of Basel made with the new French government in July 1795, Spain recovered the Pyrenean regions lost but ceded Santo Domingo on Hispaniola, where France already possessed what is today’s Haiti. Carlos bestowed on Godoy the title prince of the Peace and elevated him above all other grandees of Spain. In October, Spain signed the Treaty of San Lorenzo with the United States, represented by minister-extraordinary Thomas Pinckney, that settled differences over Florida and the Mississippi Valley. Spanish Florida’s border was adjusted roughly along the line of the thirty-first parallel. Spain accepted the Mississippi as the western boundary of the United States and permitted Americans free navigation through New Orleans.

The restoration of peace stifled the opposition to Godoy, who now opened negotiations with the French for an alliance. Spain had too many outstanding differences with Great Britain and feared for the future of Bourbon Parma when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded northern Italy. In August 1796, Spain and the French Republic became allies through the Treaty of San Idlefonso. Spain declared war on Britain, for which the price proved to be not o my higher taxes but a British blockade of Spanish commerce. In February 1797, off Cape St. Vincent, the Spanish battle fleet was beaten by a British squadron and the heroics of its Rear Admiral, Horatio Nelson. The English captured Trinidad and in 1798 again seized Minorca. The combined fleets of Spain and France could not match Britain’s, and Spain’s century-long effort to recover the Spanish-American market for Spanish shipping and manufactures collapsed. Under pressure, Carlos IV allowed his colonists to trade legally with neutrals, which benefited the merchant marine of the United States. Great Britain came to dominate the Spanish-American market and encouraged the tendencies of Spain’s colonies to seek independence.

Finding Spain pressed by war and its costs, Godoy sought the assistance of experienced ministers who had served Carlos III, including Jovellanos and his associate Mariano Luis de Urquijo. Jovellanos had refined his economic theories by reading Adam Smith and the French physiocrats, who favored the combination of free enterprise and private property. Smith emphasized commerce and manufacture, whereas the physiocrats held that all wealth came from the soil. Jovellanos drafted a detailed proposal for agrarian reform in Spain that became gospel for future reformers and anathema to the old landowning class. He believed that the system of entail, legitimized in the late Middle Ages, had resulted in the indifferent management of land, since the great clerical and noble landowners ran no risk of losing their estates, however encumbered they became with debt. Jovellanos argued that independent farmers with smaller estates, operating in a free market with its risks and profits, would prove more productive, and all Spain would benefit. Despite stubborn opposition, the needs of war forced the implementation of some of Jovellanos’s ideas to pay off government bonds. The crown appropriated some 10 percent of the Church’s property, sold it to private investors, and compensated the Church with low-paying annuities.

When Godoy fell victim to French intrigue and left court, Jovellanos and Urquijo carried on but were soon overwhelmed by religious issues thought dormant. When the French occupied Rome, in a gesture of charity Carlos IV allowed exiled Spanish Jesuits to return on an individual basis to Spain. They returned with a vengeance, leagued with the Inquisition, and pursued their enemies. They reached the ear of Carlos, who caved in to their demands. In 1798, he forced Jovellanos to resign and retire to Asturias. To placate Pope Pius VII, who negotiated with Napoleon Bonaparte a concordat that restored harmony between France and Rome, Carlos sacrificed Urquijo. Urquijo went to jail, and Jovellanos was sent to prison on Majorca. Rome and the Spanish Church had the upper hand over regalists and reformers.

Carlos recalled Godoy to power. Although his youthful instincts favored reform, Godoy cannily steered a cautious course between reformers and traditionalists. He won a bit of military glory in the brief War of the Oranges (1800-1801) against Portugal, when Carlos made him generalisimo of Spain’s army and began to see himself as Spain’s Napoleon. The war netted Spain the border district of Olivenza, although Carlos refused to annex Portugal from his son-in-law, the prince-regent, as Napoleon urged him to do.

In 1800 concern for another son-in-law, the duke of Parma, caused Carlos to cede Louisiana back to France. Bonaparte had annexed Parma to France but promised to establish an Italian kingdom of Etruria for the duke. Although Bonaparte agreed not to surrender Louisiana to a third party, in 1803 he sold it for hard cash to President Thomas Jefferson of the United States.

In March 1802, Spain and France made peace with Great Britain at Amiens. Spain recovered Minorca but not Trinidad. Peace did not last, and Spain’s renewal of war in December 1804 put an end to a brief recovery of prosperity and resumption of trade with Spanish America. In war, all the conflicting currents that developed during the eighteenth century would come to a violent head.


Villaviciosa, December 1710 confirmed Bourbon supremacy in Spain.

Europe in 1700, at the beginning of the War of the Spanish Succession.

Dynastic and governmental collapse in Spain coincided with the emergence of France as the dominant power in Europe. Louis XIV assumed full responsibility for the government of France when Mazarin died in 1661, and ruled for more than half a century with considerable skill and an infallible instinct for political theater. France became the political and cultural center of Europe with “the Sun King” as its visible symbol. More practically, Louis intended to secure his borders through the annexation of lands he regarded as historically French. These included the Spanish Netherlands which he claimed as the rightful inheritance of his queen. In 1667 he invaded the southern Low Countries, but was driven off by the Dutch with English and Swedish assistance. A second more successful war from 1672 to 1678 gave him parts of Luxemburg, Hainaut, and southern Flanders, together with Lorraine and the Franche-Comté. All except Lorraine had been part of the Burgundian inheritance of Charles V.

Spain may have lost the ability to defend its possessions in northern Europe, but it was not entirely helpless. The wars of Louis XIV enabled Spain and the Dutch Republic to formalize a relationship that had begun to develop even before the Treaty of Münster reopened the Spanish trade to Dutch ships. As the chief economic beneficiaries of the Spanish empire—and its chief creditors—the Dutch had a keen interest in its preservation. Dutch warships began to provide an escort for Spanish vessels in European waters. With the Treaty of the Hague (1673), the commercial alliance became a military pact. Spain’s remaining troops in the Army of Flanders found themselves under the command of the Dutch stadholder, William, Prince of Orange. William was the husband of Mary Stuart, daughter of James II of England and a Protestant. When the Glorious Revolution of 1688 deposed James, Parliament recognized Mary as queen of England and her consort as King William III. Louis XIV now faced one of the greatest crises of his reign. In the War of the Grand Alliance, also known as the War of the League of Augsburg or the Nine Years’ War (1688–1697), a Dutch, English, Austrian, and Spanish coalition fought the French to a standstill. The Treaty of Rijswick (1697) allowed Louis to retain his earlier conquests with the exception of Luxembourg, but a later agreement placed some of the most important fortresses in the Spanish Netherlands under Dutch control. To console Louis XIV, Spain had to cede the western portion of Hispaniola to the French, who developed it into the rich sugar colony of St. Domingue (modern Haiti).

The southern Netherlands remained at least nominally under Spanish rule for another 17 years, but it had changed greatly since the time of Philip II. The reduction in Spanish subsidies and the lack of direction from Madrid weakened the States-General and left provincial and municipal governments to fill the political void. Its cities, however, retained little of their former greatness. Heavy war taxation, the ongoing closure of the Scheldt, and Anglo-Dutch competition crippled their economies while leaving the countryside relatively prosperous even in the midst of almost constant warfare. The wars of Louis XIV, although bloody for combatants, were less harmful to civilians than those of the preceding age. Improved discipline and the logistical systems designed by Louis’s ministers of war (and copied to some extent by the armies of William III), reduced looting and other forms of direct contact between soldiers and the general population. Some rural districts actually prospered by selling supplies to the armies. Others benefited when the breakdown of trade restrictions forced cloth manufacturers to leave the cities in search of cheaper labor. The great days of Flemish cultural achievement had faded, but the society itself remained largely intact.

Spain’s new relationship with the northern powers helps to explain another great paradox of the age. Despite the appearance of governmental paralysis under Charles II, the Spanish empire did not collapse. In fact its economy and that of metropolitan Spain slowly began to revive. The ministers who served Charles in his last years, notably the count of Oropesa and the marquis of Los Velez, demonstrated a tough, quiet competence that had long been needed. By 1675 the premium of silver over vellón had reached 200 percent. In 1680 the government was forced to devalue even the vellón minted since 1660 by half, producing a nationwide flood of bankruptcies and riots in the major cities. Tax receipts from Castile dropped, but the crown’s ministers held firm. From 1677 to 1687 they also attacked the juros that consumed so large a proportion of the crown’s income. By annulling much of their value, reducing the interest rates, and taxing the remaining proceeds at 15 percent the government added to the prevailing misery, but by the end of the reign inflation was under control, the economy was growing, and the king was solvent for the first time in memory.

Silver shipments from Mexico and Peru continued at a high level, although the government’s share still amounted to only a small fraction of the total. There were even a few modest efforts at expansion overseas. Expeditions from Manila established the Marianas (formerly the Ladrones) as a Spanish colony between 1668 and 1685. In a demographic catastrophe that recalls the fate of the Canaries and West Indian islands two centuries earlier, the native Chamorros died or fled in great numbers, and by century’s end only Guam and Rota remained populated. The new colony served primarily as a place for the Manila Galleon to take on food and water, supporting itself through the cultivation of tobacco, sugar, and native crops. Another expedition claimed the Carolines in 1686. These islands were placed under the government of the Marianas in 1696, but no effort was made to settle them until late in the nineteenth century. In North America, the French expeditions undertaken by LaSalle between 1682 and 1687 inspired the Spanish authorities to authorize the first circumnavigation of the Gulf of Mexico followed by the establishment of Texas as a province in 1691. The Texas garrisons proved unsustainable, but the permanent settlement of Pensacola in 1698 gave Spain an important base with which to counter French ambitions on the Gulf Coast and Lower Mississippi valley. These developments proceeded from local initiative with only nominal support from the crown.

On a broader scale, Catalans and Basques began to take a larger role in Spanish economic life, and the informal deregulation of trade seems to have benefited even Castile. In the Americas, improved access to European markets strengthened the economy. It certainly increased the wealth and political influence of the landholding and merchant elites, a development that would have important consequences in the century to come. In short, the government’s inability to regulate commerce or even to protect parts of its empire without the help of foreigners may have profited its subjects even as it revealed Spain’s eclipse as a military power.


The death of Charles II on November 1, 1700 marked the end of the Habsburg dynasty in Spain and the beginning of a gradual but revolutionary transformation in imperial government. On his deathbed Charles staunchly resisted the influence of his Austrian queen and chose Duke Philip of Anjou, second son of the French dauphin and grandson of Louis XIV, to succeed him. The choice had been difficult and would lead to a world war of 12 years’ duration.

When the War of the Grand Alliance ended with the Peace of Rijswijk in 1697, there were three potential candidates for the Spanish throne: Philip of Anjou, Prince Joseph Ferdinand of Bavaria, and Archduke Charles of Austria, second son of the Holy Roman Emperor. Louis XIV naturally favored the candidacy of his grandson, while Charles II’s queen, Mariana of Neuberg and some members of the Spanish elite supported the Austrian claimant. The Dutch and English favored the Bavarian because the acquisition of Spain and its empire by either France or Austria would threaten the balance of power in Europe. Knowing that France was in no condition to fight another war, Louis XIV signed the First Partition Treaty (October, 1698), a compromise agreement with William III of England and his allies that would give Spain, the Spanish Netherlands, and Spain’s American colonies to Joseph Ferdinand. Archduke Charles would get Milan. The rest of Spain’s Italian possessions plus the Basque Country would go to the French dauphin.

Charles II, however, was determined to avoid the breakup of his monarchy and drew up a will giving the entire inheritance to Joseph Ferdinand. When the seven-year-old Joseph Ferdinand died in 1699, a second partition treaty between Louis and William gave his inheritance to the Archduke Charles. Still unwilling to countenance the breakup of his empire and fully supported by his Council of State, Charles II wrote a second will in the days before his death that named Philip of Anjou as his sole heir. Louis XIV now realized that war was inevitable. Even if he honored the second treaty of partition he would have to fight the emperor and his maritime allies for Spain’s Italian possessions. If he did not, he would still have to fight, but he might at least be able to place a Bourbon on the Spanish throne. With nothing to lose, he refused to exclude Philip from the French succession and in December, 1700, Philip of Anjou became Philip V of Spain.

When the 17-year-old king entered Madrid for the first time in April, 1701 he discovered, apparently to his surprise, that he commanded only a vestigial fleet and an army that was in the last stages of decay. Its 10,000 infantry and 5000 cavalry had obsolete equipment or none at all. The kingdom’s fortresses were in disrepair, and the available military budget amounted to no more than about 3 million escudos. Spain was for all practical purposes defenseless. Alarmed, Louis XIV tried to support his grandson’s succession by garrisoning Spanish fortresses in the Netherlands with French troops and sending an army to protect Milan. These actions convinced the English, Dutch, and Austrians that Louis still harbored aggressive intentions. They renewed the Grand Alliance in September, 1701 and declared war against France and Spain in May, 1702. Portugal and Savoy joined the Alliance in 1703.

When the War of the Spanish Succession ended in 1713, Spain and its American colonies remained intact, but the European empire assembled by Charles V no longer existed. The 1688–1697 war had provoked an economic crisis in France, and by 1705 it was apparent that France could no longer confront the allies on equal terms nor could it fully protect Spanish interests. The English navy now dominated the seas because Louis had allowed his fleet to deteriorate after the treaty of Rijswijk. France could still raise formidable armies, but they were rarely a match for the allied forces in the north under the Duke of Marlborough or for the Austrians in Italy under Prince Eugene of Savoy. In Spain, the Archduke Charles captured Barcelona and Valencia with the help of the English fleet in 1705, and in 1706 the Portuguese army, to its own amazement, captured Madrid. Spain itself might have been lost had not a Franco-Spanish army under the Duke of Berwick defeated the English and Portuguese in the battle of Almansa on 25 April, 1707. Berwick, one of Louis XIV’s greatest commanders, was the illegitimate son of the exiled King James II of England. His victory paved the way for the re-conquest of Aragon and Valencia. Outside the peninsula, however, Spain’s position continued to deteriorate. Eugene of Savoy, who had grown up at the court of Louis XIV, forced the French out of northern Italy, and in July, 1707 an Austrian army occupied Naples. One year later, Marlborough having already defeated the French at Ramillies in 1706, defeated them again at Oudenarde, thereby securing most of the Spanish Netherlands for the allies. After the failure of peace talks in 1709, Marlborough completed his conquest of the Netherlands.

The treaties that ended the war, Utrecht (April 11, 1713) and Rastatt (September 7, 1714), reflected conditions on the ground with only a few modifications. Philip V retained Spain, including Catalonia which had been under Austrian control since 1705, and the Indies. The British (as they may now be called after the union of England and Scotland in 1707) retained Gibraltar and Minorca which they had captured during the war. Gibraltar’s importance was, and is, largely symbolic, although its survival as a British colony on Spanish soil is still deeply resented today. Minorca became an important base for the British navy which could now hope to control the Western Mediterranean by monitoring the French fleet based at Toulon. The Archduke Charles, who had been elected Emperor Charles VI in 1711, gained the most without actually signing the treaties. The allies gave him Naples, Sardinia, Milan, and the Tuscan forts, all of which enabled him to dominate the remaining states of northern Italy as Spain had done since the 1550s. The Spanish Netherlands was gradually transferred to Austrian rule as well after 200 years of Spanish rule, while Sicily went to Victor Amadeus II of Savoy.

Spain preserved its American empire primarily because France and the maritime powers knew that Philip’s cause was popular in America and had little stomach for waging war on the other side of the Atlantic. They hoped in any case to maintain the existing arrangement by which they harvested the profits of the Indies trade without the expense and trouble of maintaining a colonial government. Philip had already granted the French the right to trade in the Caribbean as a condition of Louis XIV’s support. By the Treaty of Utrecht he ceded the slave trade to to Britain as well.

Alexander Farnese, The Duke of Parma

The negotiations between France and the Netherlands have been massed, in order to present a connected and distinct view of the relative attitude of the different countries of Europe. The conferences and diplomatic protocolling had resulted in nothing positive; but it is very necessary for the reader to understand the negative effects of all this dissimulation and palace-politics upon the destiny of the new commonwealth, and upon Christendom at large. The League had now achieved a great triumph; the King of France had virtually abdicated, and it was now requisite for the King of Navarre, the Netherlands, and Queen Elizabeth, to draw more closely together than before, if the last hope of forming a counter-league were not to be abandoned. The next step in political combination was therefore a solemn embassy of the States-General to England. Before detailing those negotiations, however, it is proper to direct attention to the external public events which had been unrolling themselves in the Provinces, contemporaneously with the secret history which has been detailed in the preceding chapters.

By presenting in their natural groupings various distinct occurrences, rather than by detailing them in strict chronological order, a clearer view of the whole picture will be furnished than could be done by intermingling personages, transactions, and scenery, according to the arbitrary command of Time alone.

The Netherlands, by the death of Orange, had been left without a head. On the other hand, the Spanish party had never been so fortunate in their chief at any period since the destiny of the two nations had been blended with each other. Alexander Farnese, Prince of Parma, was a general and a politician, whose character had been steadily ripening since he came into the command of the country. He was now thirty-seven years of age — with the experience of a sexagenarian. No longer the impetuous, arbitrary, hot-headed youth, whose intelligence and courage hardly atoned for his insolent manner and stormy career, he had become pensive, modest, almost gentle. His genius was rapid in conception, patient in combination, fertile in expedients, adamantine in the endurance or suffering; for never did a heroic general and a noble army of veterans manifest more military virtue in the support of an infamous cause than did Parma and his handful of Italians and Spaniards. That which they considered to be their duty they performed. The work before them they did with all their might.

Alexander had vanquished the rebellion in the Celtic provinces, by the masterly diplomacy and liberal bribery which have been related in a former work. Artois, Hainault, Douay, Orchies, with the rich cities of Lille, Tournay, Valenciennes, Arras, and other important places, were now the property of Philip. These unhappy and misguided lands, however, were already reaping the reward of their treason. Beggared, trampled upon, plundered, despised, they were at once the prey of the Spaniards, and the cause that their sister-states, which still held out, were placed in more desperate condition than ever. They were also, even in their abject plight, made still more forlorn by the forays of Balagny, who continued in command of Cambray. Catharine de’ Medici claimed that city as her property, by will of the Duke of Anjou. A strange title — founded upon the treason and cowardice of her favourite son — but one which, for a time, was made good by the possession maintained by Balagny. That usurper meantime, with a shrewd eye to his own interests, pronounced the truce of Cambray, which was soon afterwards arranged, from year to year, by permission of Philip, as a “most excellent milch-cow;” and he continued to fill his pails at the expense of the “reconciled” provinces, till they were thoroughly exhausted.

This large south-western section of the Netherlands being thus permanently re-annexed to the Spanish crown, while Holland, Zeeland, and the other provinces, already constituting the new Dutch republic, were more obstinate in their hatred of Philip than ever, there remained the rich and fertile territory of Flanders and Brabant as the great debateable land. Here were the royal and political capital, Brussels, the commercial capital, Antwerp, with Mechlin, Dendermonde, Vilvoorde, and other places of inferior importance, all to be struggled for to the death. With the subjection of this district the last bulwark between the new commonwealth and the old empire would be overthrown, and Spain and Holland would then meet face to face.

If there had ever been a time when every nerve in Protestant Christendom should be strained to weld all those provinces together into one great commonwealth, as a bulwark for European liberty, rather than to allow them to be broken into stepping-stones, over which absolutism could stride across France and Holland into England, that moment had arrived. Every sacrifice should have been cheerfully made by all Netherlanders, the uttermost possible subsidies and auxiliaries should have been furnished by all the friends of civil and religious liberty in every land to save Flanders and Brabant from their impending fate.

No man felt more keenly the importance of the business in which he was engaged than Parma. He knew his work exactly, and he meant to execute it thoroughly. Antwerp was the hinge on which the fate of the whole country, perhaps of all Christendom, was to turn. “If we get Antwerp,” said the Spanish soldiers — so frequently that the expression passed into a proverb — “you shall all go to mass with us; if you save Antwerp, we will all go to conventicle with you.”

Alexander rose with the difficulty and responsibility of his situation. His vivid, almost poetic intellect formed its schemes with perfect distinctness. Every episode in his great and, as he himself termed it, his “heroic enterprise,” was traced out beforehand with the tranquil vision of creative genius; and he was prepared to convert his conceptions into reality, with the aid of an iron nature that never knew fatigue or fear.

But the obstacles were many. Alexander’s master sat in his cabinet with his head full of Mucio, Don Antonio, and Queen Elizabeth; while Alexander himself was left neglected, almost forgotten. His army was shrinking to a nullity. The demands upon him were enormous, his finances delusive, almost exhausted. To drain an ocean dry he had nothing but a sieve. What was his position? He could bring into the field perhaps eight or ten thousand men over and above the necessary garrisons. He had before him Brussels, Antwerp, Mechlin, Ghent, Dendermonde, and other powerful places, which he was to subjugate. Here was a problem not easy of solution. Given an army of eight thousand, more or less, to reduce therewith in the least possible time, half-a-dozen cities; each containing fifteen or twenty thousand men able to bear arms. To besiege these places in form was obviously a mere chimera. Assault, battery, and surprises — these were all out of the question.

Yet Alexander was never more truly heroic than in this position of vast entanglement. Untiring, uncomplaining, thoughtful of others, prodigal of himself, generous, modest, brave; with so much intellect and so much devotion to what he considered his duty, he deserved to be a patriot and a champion of the right, rather than an instrument of despotism.

And thus he paused for a moment — with much work already accomplished, but his hardest life-task before him; still in the noon of manhood, a fine martial figure, standing, spear in hand, full in the sunlight, though all the scene around him was wrapped in gloom — a noble, commanding shape, entitled to the admiration which the energetic display of great powers, however unscrupulous, must always command. A dark, meridional physiognomy, a quick; alert, imposing head; jet black, close-clipped hair; a bold eagle’s face, with full, bright, restless eye; a man rarely reposing, always ready, never alarmed; living in the saddle, with harness on his back — such was the Prince of Parma; matured and mellowed, but still unharmed by time.

The cities of Flanders and Brabant he determined to reduce by gaining command of the Scheldt. The five principal ones Ghent, Dendermonde, Mechlin, Brussels Antwerp, lie narrow circle, at distances from each other varying from five miles to thirty, and are all strung together by the great Netherland river or its tributaries. His plan was immensely furthered by the success of Balthasar Gerard, an ally whom Alexander had despised and distrusted, even while he employed him. The assassination of Orange was better to Parma than forty thousand men. A crowd of allies instantly started up for him, in the shape of treason, faintheartedness, envy, jealousy, insubordination, within the walls of every beleaguered city. Alexander knew well how to deal with those auxiliaries. Letters, artfully concocted, full of conciliation and of promise, were circulated in every council-room, in almost every house.

The surrender of Ghent — brought about by the governor’s eloquence, aided by the golden arguments which he knew so well how to advance — had by the middle of September (19th Sept. 1584), put him in possession of West Flanders, with the important exception of the coast. Dendermonde capitulated at a still earlier day; while the fall of Brussels, which held out till many persons had been starved to death, was deferred till the 10th March of the following year, and that of Mechlin till midsummer.

The details of the military or political operations, by which the reduction of most of these places were effected, possess but little interest. The siege of Antwerp, however, was one of the most striking events of the age; and although the change in military tactics and the progress of science may have rendered this leaguer of less technical importance than it possessed in the sixteenth century, yet the illustration that it affords of the splendid abilities of Parma, of the most cultivated mode of warfare in use at that period, and of the internal politics by which the country was then regulated, make it necessary to dwell upon the details of an episode which must ever possess enduring interest.

It is agreeable to reflect, too, that the fame of the general is not polluted with the wholesale butchery, which has stained the reputation of other Spanish commanders so indelibly. There was no killing for the mere love of slaughter. With but few exceptions, there was no murder in cold blood; and the many lives that were laid down upon those watery dykes were sacrificed at least in bold, open combat; in a contest, the ruling spirits of which were patriotism, or at least honour.

It is instructive, too, to observe the diligence and accuracy with which the best lights of the age were brought to bear upon the great problem which Parma had undertaken to solve. All the science then at command was applied both by the Prince and by his burgher antagonists to the advancement of their ends. Hydrostatics, hydraulics, engineering, navigation, gunnery, pyrotechnics, mining, geometry, were summoned as broadly, vigorously, and intelligently to the destruction or preservation of a trembling city, as they have ever been, in more commercial days, to advance a financial or manufacturing purpose. Land converted into water, and water into land, castles built upon the breast of rapid streams, rivers turned from their beds and taught new courses; the distant ocean driven across ancient bulwarks, mines dug below the sea, and canals made to percolate obscene morasses — which the red hand of war, by the very act, converted into blooming gardens — a mighty stream bridged and mastered in the very teeth of winter, floating ice-bergs, ocean-tides, and an alert and desperate foe, ever ready with fleets and armies and batteries — such were the materials of which the great spectacle was composed; a spectacle which enchained the attention of Europe for seven months, and on the result of which, it was thought, depended the fate of all the Netherlands, and perhaps of all Christendom.

History of the United Netherlands, Volumes I-IV, Complete

by John Lothrop Motley – written 19856-07


BORN 27 August 1545

DIED 3 December 1592

KEY CONFLICTS Habsburg-Ottoman Wars, Eighty Years War

KEY BATTLES Lepanto 1571, Gembloux 1578, Siege of Antwerp 1584–85

Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, a nephew of Philip II of Spain, learned the principles of command from Don John of Austria, whom he followed to Lepanto in 1571, and subsequently to the Netherlands. Parma was given credit for the rout of the rebels at Gembloux in 1578 and succeeded Don John as governor-general soon after. He was a thorough professional with a lucid grasp of strategy, and showed his skill in siege warfare from the outset, taking Maastricht in 1579.

From 1582 he embarked on a systematic campaign of reconquest, capturing a series of strategic towns culminating with Antwerp.


Just as Parma was poised to reconquer all of the Netherlands, he was stopped. Philip II, frustrated by English piracy, resolved on an invasion of England. He ordered Parma to keep his Army of Flanders on standby at coastal ports, waiting for Spanish vessels to carry it to England. Parma opposed this plan, which ended in a debacle for Spain, and it deprived him of the chance of suppressing the Dutch revolt.


CAMPAIGN Eighty Years War

DATE September 1584-August 1585

LOCATION Antwerp, southern Netherlands

In September 1584 the Duke of Parma laid siege to the major port city of Antwerp. He knew that the answer to reducing the city lay in cutting it off from supplies arriving by sea, so he built a 750-m (2,460-ft) pontoon bridge blocking access to the port from the Scheldt estuary. On land Parma surrounded the city with siege lines and forts. Antwerp’s defenders responded by opening the dykes to flood the land around the city and attempting to destroy the bridge with fireships and floating explosives. Parma’s thorough conduct of the siege resisted all such efforts to break it, however, and after almost a year the starving city had no choice but to surrender.

Capturing Gibraltar I

Charles Holloway, the engineer, is amongst the principal officers recorded in the commemorative painting of the Siege of Gibraltar by George Carter.

Chevalier D’Arcon’s ‘floating batteries’ (Unknown 1781)

At the start of the siege in 1779, King Carlos III had asked for ideas on capturing Gibraltar. Of the sixty-nine replies, most were too outlandish to consider seriously. One that came to the fore was presented by Pedro Pablo Abarca de Bolea, the Count of Aranda, who proposed a massive Franco-Spanish invasion of England in order to force the British government to concede to various demands, including Spain taking possession of Gibraltar. This plan was received favourably, but shrank in size and scope after being discussed, amended and agreed with the French, resulting in the invasion attempt that had failed so dismally.

When the sustained bombardment of Gibraltar also failed to bring the garrison to its knees, the other plans were considered once again, and in July 1781 that of the forty-seven-year-old French military engineer, Jean-Claude-Eléonor Le Michaud d’Arçon, was chosen. His suggestion was for a combined attack from land and sea, relying especially on a bombardment from formidable floating gun batteries. There had been few previous attempts to build and use such vessels, and d’Arçon’s planned attack against Gibraltar would be the first to employ elaborately designed and constructed floating batteries as the main thrust of an attack. Warships were effectively floating batteries, because their main purpose was to carry as many cannons as possible to counter enemy warships, but they did not have a great deal of protection against cannonballs fired at them. At close range, solid shot could smash through both sides of a warship, and they were particularly vulnerable to red-hot shot, which might burn right through the bottom of a ship, set it on fire or ignite the gunpowder magazines. They could not withstand prolonged artillery fire from batteries on land and had no chance of making a dent in strongly built masonry defences, such as those on Gibraltar. D’Arçon therefore wanted to create gun batteries that floated on the sea, but had the resilience and firepower of land batteries.

By April 1782 he had been working on his plan for several months and had spent a considerable time surveying the coastline and defences of Gibraltar. From time to time suspicious activity was noticed, as on one occasion when Horsbrugh recorded: ‘At five in the morning the Vanguard and Repulse prames fired each a shot at a small boat they supposed to be sounding or reconnoitring.’ Using such a small boat in the dead of night, d’Arçon avoided being wounded or captured while he took soundings close to Gibraltar, but the surveying was only the beginning, because the major work was in the preparation of the floating batteries, which started in Cadiz and then shifted to Algeciras.

British newspapers also published other details they had learned about d’Arçon:

His plan has been adopted, and requires only 18,000 men. He is now at Algesiras, busy in the construction of boats, which are so formed as not to be overset or burnt. It is supposed that the principal attack will be made by sea, towards the New Mole … and the advanced works, which are daily encreasing, will unite in the general onset, the success of which, if not beyond doubt, appears at least very probable to those who are acquainted with the abilities of the engineer.

The attack on the Rock would be a battle between engineers: d’Arçon and his staff, who were devising novel methods of assault, pitted against William Green and his engineers, who were doing everything they could think of to defend Gibraltar.

News of d’Arçon’s scheme soon reached the garrison, and on 11 April one soldier wrote in his diary:

By letters from Portugal, by a boat this morning, we learn that the enemy are fitting up a number of ships, at Cadiz, intended for floating batteries to come against the walls: it is said they are to be lined with cork and oakum, and rendered shot and shell proof; that the Duke de Crillon is to have the command of the army in camp, and that, as soon as he arrives with the conquering troops from Minorca, the regular siege against this place will commence.

Having suffered so much for nearly three years, the soldier was appalled by the arrogance of the suggestion that, up to now, it had not been a proper siege. ‘In the name of all that is horrible in war,’ he raged, ‘what is meant by a siege, if bombarding, cannonading, and blockading on all sides … is not one?’ The idea that the French would now start a ‘regular siege’ probably emanated from their disdain for the Spanish military effort.

D’Arçon’s plan was to convert a number of merchant ships into floating batteries. The work had already begun at Cadiz, where the internal frames of each ship were strengthened and the hull covered with cork and oakum. The unpicked fibres from lengths of old rope were called ‘oakum’, while ‘junk’ was the old rope itself. On Gibraltar, the floating batteries were not only referred to as battering ships, but also as ‘junk ships’ because of the old rope used in their construction. Over this flexible layer of cork and oakum, a complete hull was built of new timber, resulting in a triple-thickness hull designed to absorb the impact of cannonballs, in the same way that worn-out rope made into mats was used by the garrison to absorb the impact of cannonballs fired at their gun batteries. In March one batch of ships had been brought to Algeciras for the next stage of conversion into floating batteries, and more arrived in early May, but Ancell heard that onlookers were not impressed: ‘The eight large ships that arrived over the way the 9th instant [9 May] are hauled close to the shore, and are unrigging, and those that arrived on the 24th March have proceeded to the Orange Grove. It is currently reported that they are lined with cork, and are to be converted into batteries, but most people think that they are more fit for fire-wood, than attacking a fortress.’

This work was taking place within sight of Gibraltar, and the progress of the ships was a subject of constant interest, with Horsbrugh recording what was happening only a few days later: ‘in the Bay of Algaziras they are begun to cut down the quarter deck and poops of the two ships lately hauled in shore, on which work a number of boats and men appear to be employed’. They were being prepared for one or two specially strengthened gun decks within the hull that could support large cannons. Towards the end of May, it became obvious that the ships were also being given additional protection. ‘This forenoon we had a tolerable good view of the Enemy at work on their shipping at Algaziras,’ wrote Horsbrugh. ‘They are covering their larboard [port] sides with timber or planks, which is no doubt intended as a defence against our shot &c.’ Speculation was rife, and another soldier commented: ‘The enemy have been fully employed these ten days past on two very large ships at Algesiras, thickening the larboard side with light materials. They have cut out eleven or twelve ports between decks, and shortened the larboard waist. I suppose they intend to make the upper deck splinter proof, as well as the sides shot proof. From every appearance, they will be snug batteries on the water.’

Because the starboard side was not being reinforced, the assumption was that the floating batteries were intended to fire only from their port side towards the garrison. They would therefore need to be towed into position by boats and be securely anchored, which would make them stationary targets. There was widespread scepticism, and Ancell remarked that ‘most of the garrison are of opinion, from their construction, that they will be found of very little use when they attack our walls, as they never will be able to tow them near enough to do any material execution, for should they daringly come on, their boats will be inevitably cut off by the grape shot from the garrison’.

Progress on the siegeworks slowed down while every effort was concentrated on the floating batteries. The Spanish firing also began to be aimed much more at the garrison’s upper batteries – including Koehler’s guns – that overlooked the isthmus, as Drinkwater saw: ‘The cannonade from the Enemy was now principally directed at our upper batteries. The rock-gun, mounted on the summit of the northern front, was become as warm, if not warmer than any other battery, and scarcely a day passed without some casuals [casualties] at that post.’ Most of the guns at the northern front were positioned on a series of terraces at the western side of the Rock, allowing gun batteries to be ranged in lines to face Spain. On the eastern side of Gibraltar at the north front, the terrain was too steep to establish many gun batteries. Although the sheer cliff face made an assault impossible, the lack of guns able to cover the eastern approach meant that the Spaniards could get very close this way. One legend is constantly repeated about the search for a solution:

the Governor, attended by the Chief Engineer [William Green] and staff made an inspection of the batteries at the north front. Great havoc had been made in some of them by the enemy’s fire, and for the present they were abandoned whilst the artificers were restoring them. Meditating for a few moments over the ruins, he said aloud, ‘I will give a thousand dollars to anyone who can suggest how I am to get a flanking fire upon the enemy’s works.’

At this point, Sergeant Major Henry Ince apparently proposed a tunnel, though there is no evidence that a reward was ever paid or even offered. After discussing such an idea in detail with Colonel Green, Eliott had in fact issued official orders for a tunnel a few days earlier than this supposed conversation, on 1 May: ‘To carry on a cannon communication by means of a souterrain gallery six feet high and 6 feet broad cut thro’ the solid rock beginning … above Farrington’s Battery, proceeding round towards the North East to a very favourable Notche in the Rock, nearly under the Royal Battery, in a commanding situation, being about 640 feet above the Isthmus, and will admit to form a level for a well shouldered establishment of two guns at least.’

The plan was to drive a tunnel eastwards, behind the cliff face, emerging at what they called ‘the Notch’ or ‘the Hook’, a projecting part of the rock face that was topped by an inaccessible platform nearly halfway up the cliff face, which it was hoped would be suitable as a gun emplacement, rather like a bastion, giving a wide field of fire over the area that they were currently unable to reach. It would then be possible, Eliott said in his orders, to respond to ‘any attack or approaches the Enemy may endeavour to push from the Devil’s Tower towards the pass of the Inundation at Lower Forbes, and will flank in an eminent degree any works they may advance towards the outer line … and may also command the access to, as well as the anchorage behind the mountain, all between the north east and south east quarters’.

It took until 25 May to start the tunnel: ‘This morning Sergt. Major Ince of the Artificer Company with 12 miners and labourers begun a new work at Greens Lodge above Willis’s to cut a dreft or subterraneous passage through the Rock to a declivity where a battery is to be made to annoy the enemy.’ Gibraltar nowadays has over 30 miles of tunnels and chambers, but tunnelling had never been attempted before Ince began his work. The mining was done using basic hand tools, with gunpowder for blasting, and the resulting debris was cleared away by hand. It would be a slow process, and time was pressing considering that an assault on the Rock was imminent.

D’Arçon’s plan was that after the floating batteries, gunboats and some warships had battered the garrison into submission, backed up by the gun batteries of the Spanish Lines and the advance works, thousands of troops would invade the Rock in several places, rather than a single massive assault against the strongest defences at the north end of Gibraltar. The attack would be supported by numerous warships of the combined French and Spanish fleet, as well as by every available smaller boat from the locality. Many of the troops were to be transported in small landing craft that had been specially designed by him so that they could attack weaker points in the defences to the south.

Capturing Gibraltar II

A projected assault upon Gibraltar.

The build-up of forces ranged against Gibraltar was increasing daily, and just as the tunnelling started, one soldier noted: ‘above ninety sail of Spanish transports arrived this evening, with a bomb-ketch, from the east, with troops and stores for the camp’. A few days later, he observed: ‘the number of vessels that have arrived at Algesiras exceeds a hundred: about ten battalions of troops have been landed from them’. Horsbrugh was more precise: ‘the enemy are pitching tents for a regiment in white to the right of the Catalan Camp on the south west face of the Queen of Spains Chair, and for the regiment in blue uniform on the west of Bona Vista Barracks’. This was a massive reinforcement of French forces who were no longer needed on Minorca.

The floating batteries were being monitored from Gibraltar, with increasing concern as more and more of the old merchant ships were converted. Although the garrison now had gunboats – some completed, others nearly so – to cope with the menace of the Spanish gunboats, it was difficult to see how they could withstand an attack by floating batteries. Spain was pouring everything into the scheme, and in Boyd’s journal it was acknowledged that Gibraltar’s inhabitants were in a state of terror: ‘The Enemy have now, about two hundred sail of vessels between Algaziers and the Orange Grove … This show of shipping before us puts our inhabitants and women in a great panic. They are hourly gathering up the little remains that devastation has left them, and carries it to caves, creeks and corners in the Rock, in order to save what they can of their remaining substances, as we daily expect a very heavy attack and storm both by sea and land.’ The inhabitants were still in makeshift huts and tents in the south, as were many of the soldiers, and after coming off guard duty, William Maddin from the 12th Regiment raised his musket, ‘making believe to shoot a girl in camp’. He had forgotten to unload his weapon and shot nine-year-old Maria Palerano, an inhabitant, through the head. She died instantly. Towards the end of May, Maddin was put on trial for murder and acquitted.

In spite of the anxiety of waiting for the attack, unexpectedly good health was recorded within the garrison at the start of June: ‘The Doctors reports does not show one man in the scurvy, and the fever brought here by the 97th Regiment is almost spent (as the men recovers very fast), neither has it been very fatal, so that we are at present, in general, in a much better state of health through the Garrison than we’ve been in since the Siege begun.’ It probably helped that supplies were managing to reach the garrison from Leghorn, Algiers and Portugal, and one Portuguese boat recently obtained thirty thousand oranges and a few casks of oil at Tetuan by the captain claiming the cargo was for Cadiz, then bringing it undetected to Gibraltar. Although the most effective remedy for scurvy was known to be fruit and vegetables, other ideas were still being pursued, and the Garrison Orders in early June said: ‘One quarter and half of a pint of vinegar to be issued to every ration, till further orders. The surgeons of the different corps are of opinion that this will be a great preventative in the sad effects of the scurvy.’

One asset to the garrison was the completion of the gunboats, with the final one being launched on 4 June, the king’s birthday. There were twelve in all, bearing suitable names such as Dreadnought and Vengeance. The day was celebrated with a royal salute of forty-four guns, the age of the king, all directed towards the Spanish siegeworks, while the ‘Governor honoured himself this morning with a captain’s guard and a standard of colours of the 73rd Regiment of Highlanders dressed in their tartan plaids’. There was also another glimmer of hope – that red-hot shot or heated cannonballs might deal with the floating batteries. Although known for decades as a theoretical technique, this dangerous procedure had until now been rarely used. It also required a great deal of fuel, which was in short supply. Solid cast-iron cannonballs were heated in a furnace and were fired by placing a cartridge into the gun, ramming down a well-soaked wad, followed by a heated cannonball. Another wet wad was rammed in on top of the red-hot shot if the cannon was to be fired while pointed downwards. Experiments at the beginning of the siege had established that a cannonball took about twenty-five minutes to heat and was still hot enough to ignite gunpowder after fifty minutes. On hitting the target, the intense heat made red-hot shot extremely difficult to deal with, and it set fire to anything combustible.

The technique of using red-hot shot was difficult to master. Early on, some equipment for heating shot had been set up, with Captain Paterson noting that ‘a detachment of artillery ordered to practise the motions of firing red hot shot daily’. These ‘motions’ were probably done with cold shot, but now that an attack was imminent, the gunners needed to be able to use the real thing. The red-hot shot furnaces, sometimes called grates or forges, comprised a strong iron framework to support a grid or rack to hold the cannonballs, with a fire of wood, coal and coke underneath. The heated shot was manhandled with specially made tools such as tongs and two-handled shot carriers, which were all made on Gibraltar by blacksmiths from the artificers.

The loaded cannons had to be aimed and fired quickly before the shot burned through the wad and fired the gun prematurely, which is what occurred at a practice session in early June: ‘On the 7th, our artillery practised from the King’s Bastion with red-hot shot against the Irishman’s brig.’ A few weeks earlier, this brig had sailed towards the Old Mole, but ran aground when fired on by the Spaniards. After being rescued, the captain was severely rebuked, but he explained that before leaving Cork in Ireland he had heard about the successful sortie and was told that the Old Mole, his old anchoring place in peacetime, was open. The garrison gunners were now using his vessel for red-hot shot practice: ‘In the first round, one of the artillery-men putting in the shot, the fire by some means immediately communicated to the cartridge, and the unfortunate man was blown from the embrasure in some hundred pieces. Two others were also slightly wounded with the unexpected recoil of the carriage.’

By now, the tunnel being cut by Ince was progressing steadily, but on the same day as this accident, Horsbrugh said that two miners were injured: ‘two men of the 72nd Regiment had the misfortune to lose each a leg by the blowing up of a mine in the communication we are making through the Rock to get at the Notch on the North Front, and one of them died soon after being carried to the Hospital.’ Because they were mercifully rare, such accidents were more newsworthy than the commonplace casualties caused by the Spanish bombardment, but an incident a few days later, on 11 June, turned out to be the worst single day for casualties in the last three years. Garrison working parties were making considerable improvements and repairs to the defences while the Spaniards were focused on the floating batteries and their guns remained fairly quiet, but during a random episode of firing, a single shot caused havoc. An emotional description was set down in Boyd’s journal:

Between 10 and 11 o’clock this forenoon a large shell from the enemy fell in the door of one of the small magazines at Willis’s, on Princess Ann’s Battery (where a great working party were repairing the fortification there); the shell on its explosion blew up the magazine which contained about 96 barrels, or, 9,600 pounds of powder, killing 13 men and wounding 12 more. This has been the most fatal day since the beginning of the siege. How horrid and dreadful to behold the terrible blast and explosion! To feel the town and the Rock tremble, and to see men, stones, timber, casks, mortar and earth flying promiscuously in the dark smoky cloud far above the surface, in the air; and on their coming down are dashed to pieces on the craggy rocks, some thrown headlong down the dreadful precipice into the Lines, a most shocking exit! having not time to offer up to God a single prayer preparatory to their acceptance in an everlasting state.

The huge explosion was clearly visible to those at the Spanish Lines, who were heard cheering at the sight of the disaster. Their firing continued to concentrate on the same spot, in the hopes of another spectacular hit: ‘The enemy poured in shot and shells upon that part as thick as hail, so that it was night before all the killed and wounded were gathered up.’ Because a mixture of soldiers had been drafted into the working party doing the repairs, the final casualty list was thirteen rank-and-file soldiers and one drummer killed, with many more injured.

Over at Algeciras, tents were now visible for the workmen who were converting the old warships into floating batteries. Even with powerful telescopes, though, observations from the Rock could yield only a limited amount of information about what the Spaniards and French were preparing, and all kinds of rumours circulated. Definite information at last arrived on 21 June from two former Genoese inhabitants, who had been captured when bringing a cargo to Gibraltar from Algiers. They had been taken to Algeciras, from where they had just managed to escape in the prison-ship’s boat. From them, it was learned that French reinforcements had indeed arrived, that ten ships were being converted into floating batteries, though a shortage of carpenters was causing delays, and that the Spaniards were in high spirits.

On the same day, the French troops finished landing, and it was said that there were now thirty thousand men in the camp. The commander of the Minorca siege, the Duc de Crillon, had also arrived to take over command of the siege of Gibraltar, and the two Genoese, Drinkwater said, ‘informed us that the grand attack was fixed to be in September, but that all, both sailors and soldiers, were much averse to the enterprise’. If they were correct, then the garrison still had at least two more months to prepare.