IN the 1930s European governments were worried about the spread of communism from the Soviet Union. The Civil War in Spain started in 1936 and pitted the ruling left wing Republicans against the right wing Nationalists in a fight which threatened to spill over into World War.
Before Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 so called ‘peace in our time’ speech he set up the Non-Intervention Committee to stop foreign powers from sending arms to either side. Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia all signed the agreement and all promptly chose a side to help or hinder.
The Germans had loftier ambitions than Spain and used the conflict to test troops and equipment. German armed forces personnel had to resign from the service to fight for the Spanish nationalists and about 16,000 enrolled into the Condor Legion. Hermann Goering sold arms to both sides but only sent modern armaments to the nationalists.
Older and less reliable equipment was sold to the Republicans and was sent first to Greece then transferred to ships supposedly sailing to Mexico and then diverted to Spain. Germany also supplied planes such as the Junkers JU 87 known by schoolboys both old and new as the infamous Stuka dive bomber. These planes were the first in history to deliver what is now known as Total War or bombing missions directed at civilian targets to cause absolute terror.
Guernica in the Basque region was amongst the first to be attacked, on its market day Monday April 26th 1937 between 400 to 1700 civilians were killed by the Stuka bombing raids. In January 1945 the same methods were used by the British and Americans in the infamous Dresden bombing raids which killed some 25,000 people. The painting Guernica by Pablo Picasso reminds us today of the act.
Italy took part in bombing raids on Barcelona that saw a thousand innocents die. They also sent 60,000 service personnel and huge amounts of equipment including warships, planes, arms and tanks. Mussolini billed Franco 100 million Euros for services rendered at the conflicts end, equivalent to nearly four billion Euros today.
Britain although neutral, allowed the Nationalists to set up a radio signals base in Gibraltar. HMS Queen Elizabeth protected the port of Algeciras from Republican bombing and most crucially allowed the German Luftwaffe to transport 30,000 soldiers from the Army of Africa over Gibraltar airspace to fight against the Republicans in Andalucía and western Spain. Within weeks Seville, Cordoba and Granada were under Nationalist control.
At the outbreak of hostilities Spain held the 4th largest gold reserves in the world. $500 million of this was used by the Republicans to buy arms from Russia and Poland. Half a million rifles, a billion machine gun bullets and over 700 tanks formed just a part. About a thousand Russian pilots flew for the Republican air force.
Foreign volunteers numbering over 40,000 helped the Republican cause in the International Brigades; many died including 2000 Germans, 1000 French, nearly a thousand Americans and 500 Britons. People such as George Orwell, Laurie Lee and Ernest Hemingway were involved.
Robert Capa the co-founder of Magnum Photo Agency followed the civil war and recently a collection of photos were uncovered with some published in the Spanish press. Many volunteers came from countries ran by far-right governments so when the brigades were disbanded in 1938 they did not return to their respective countries and were instead given Spanish citizenship. As recently as 1996 Spain granted citizenship to the remaining 600 or so Brigadists.
France followed suit granting its veterans former service personnel status. Other countries were not so generous with all 400 Swiss volunteers tried, imprisoned and losing the right to vote.
Perversely Britain recently was chastised by the European Court for not allowing its own prisoners the right to vote.