The Condor Legion (German: Legion Condor) was a unit composed of military personnel from the air force and army of Nazi Germany, which served with the Nationalist faction during the Spanish Civil War of July 1936 to March 1939. The Condor Legion developed methods of strategic bombing that were shortly afterward used widely during the Second World War. The bombing of Guernica was the most infamous operation carried out by the Condor Legion. Hugo Sperrle commanded the unit's aircraft formations and Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma commanded the ground element.
|Active||July 1936 – March 1939|
|Engagements||Spanish Civil War|
Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma
|Reconnaissance||Heinkel He 70|
|Transport||Junkers Ju 52|
After the military coup in Spain on 17 July 1936 at the start of the Spanish Civil War, the Nationalists requested the support of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The first request for German aircraft was made on 22 July, with an order for 10 transport aircraft. Hitler decided to support the Nationalists on 25 or 26 July but was wary of provoking a wider European war. The Reich Air Travel Ministry concluded that Nationalist forces would need at least 20 Junkers Ju 52s, flown by Luft Hansa pilots, to carry the Army of Africa from Spanish Morocco to Spain. The mission became known as Operation Magic Fire (German: Feuerzauber). The joint Spanish-German "Spanish-Moroccan Transport Company" (Spanish: Companía Hispano-Marroquí de Transporte, HISMA) and the entirely-German Raw Materials and Good Purchasing Company (German: Rohstoffe-und-Waren-Einkaufsgesellschaft, ROWAK) were established. That involvement was kept hidden from the foreign and the economic ministries and funded with three million Reichsmarks.
The organisation and the recruitment of German volunteers was also kept secret. The first contingent of 86 men left on 1 August. Unaware of their destination, they were accompanied with six biplane fighters, anti-aircraft guns and about 100 tons of other supplies. They were positioned at Tablada Airfield near Seville, and accompanied by German Air transport began the airlift of Francisco Franco's troops to Spain. Germany's involvement grew in September to encompass the Wehrmacht's other branches. Operation Magic Fire was renamed Operation Guido in November. A widespread belief was that the soldiers would train the Nationalists and not engage. The Kriegsmarine provided submarines from 24 October and also provided various surface ships and co-ordinated movement of German supplies to Spain. German U-boats were dispatched to Spanish waters under the codename Ursula.
In the two weeks after 27 July, German transport moved nearly 2,500 troops of the Army of Africa to Spain. By 11 October, the mission's official end, 13,500 troops, 127 machine guns and 36 field guns had been carried into Spain from Morocco. Over that period, there was a movement from training and supply missions to overt combat. The operation leader, Alexander von Scheele, was replaced by Walter Warlimont. In September, 86 tons of bombs, 40 Panzer I tanks and 122 personnel had been landed in Spain and were accompanied with 108 aircraft from July to October, divided between aircraft for the Nationalist faction itself and planes for German volunteers in Spain.
German air crews supported the Nationalist advance on Madrid, and the successful relief of the Siege of the Alcázar. Ultimately, that phase of the Siege of Madrid would be unsuccessful. Soviet air support for the Republicans was growing, particularly through the supply of Polikarpov aircraft. Warlimont appealed to Germany to step up support. After the German recognition of Franco's government on 30 September, German efforts in Spain were reorganised and expanded. The existing command structure was replaced with the Winterübung Rügen, and the military units already in Spain were formed into a new legion, which was briefly called the Iron Rations (German: Eiserne Rationen) and the Iron Legion (German: Eiserne Legion) before Hermann Göring renamed it the Condor Legion (German: Legion Condor). The first German chargé d'affaires to Franco's government, General Wilhelm von Faupel,[nb 1] arrived in November but was told not to interfere in military matters.
In the years after the Spanish Civil War, Hitler gave several possible motives for German involvement such as providing distraction from German rearmament, preventing the spread of communism to Western Europe, creating a state friendly to Germany to disrupt Britain and France, and having possibilities for economic expansion. Although the offensive on Madrid was abandoned in March 1937, a series of attacks on weaker Republican-controlled areas was supported by Germany. Despite prolonging the Civil War, it would help to distract the other western powers from Hitler's ambitions in Central Europe. The offensive on Vizcaya, a mining and industrial centre, would help fuel German industry. On 27 June 1937, Hitler, in a speech at Würzburg, declared that he supported Franco to gain control of Spanish ore.
Discussions over German objectives for intervention occurred in January 1937. Germany was keen to avoid prompting a wider European war, which it then felt would occur by committing further resources to Spain. Contradictory views were held by German officials: Ernst von Weizsäcker suggested that it was merely a matter of graceful withdrawal, and Göring stated that Germany would never recognise a "red Spain". A joint Italian–German decision was agreed to that the last shipments would be made by early February.
It has been speculated that Hitler used the Spanish Civil War issue to distract Benito Mussolini from Hitler's own plans to annex Austria. The authoritarian, Catholic and anti-Nazi Vaterländische Front ran the government of Austria and had been allied with Mussolini. In 1934 the assassination of Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss had already successfully invoked Italian military assistance to prevent a German invasion.
A communiqué in December 1936 from Ulrich von Hassell, the German ambassador in Rome, illustrated another point:
The role played by the Spanish conflict as regards Italy's relations with France and England could be similar to that of the Abyssinian conflict, bringing out clearly the actual, opposing interests of the powers and thus preventing Italy from being drawn into the net of the Western powers and used for their machinations.... All the more clearly will Italy recognize the advisability of confronting the Western powers shoulder to shoulder with Germany.
The Condor Legion, upon its establishment, consisted of the Kampfgruppe 88Ju 52 bombers, and the Jagdgruppe 88, with three squadrons of Heinkel He 51 fighters; the reconnaissance Aufklärungsgruppe 88, supplemented by the Aufklärungsgruppe See 88, an anti-aircraft group, the Flakabteilung 88; and a signals group, the Nachrichtenabteilung 88. The anti-aircraft guns used by Flakabteilung 88 was the standard German anti-aircraft guns of the time: the 8.8cm Flak 18, 3.7cm Flak 18 and 2cm Flak 30. Overall command was given to Hugo Sperrle, with Alexander Holle as chief of staff. Scheele was transferred to become a military attaché in Salamanca. Two armoured units under the command of Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, with four Panzer I tanks each, were also operational., with three squadrons of
The Nationalists were supported by German and Italian units and materials at the Battle of Madrid. However, the military situation in Madrid remained poor for the Nationalists, and both German and Italian aircraft, under Franco's orders, began bombing raids on the city as a whole. The Germans were keen to observe the effects of the city undergoing civilian bombings and deliberate burning. Offensives involving German aircraft, as well as the bombings, were unsuccessful. Increasing Republican air superiority became apparent, particularly the strength of the Soviet Polikarpov I-15 and I-16 aircraft, but the historian Hugh Thomas described their armaments as "primitive". Faupel in November and December urged the creation of a single German unit of 15,000 to 30,000, which he believed would be enough to turn the tide of the war toward the Nationalists. Hans-Heinrich Dieckhoff argued that would be insufficient and that larger measures could provoke the wrath of the Spanish. Between late 1936 and early 1937, new aircraft were sent to the Condor Legion, including Henschel Hs 123 dive bombers, and prototypes of the Heinkel He 112 and Messerschmitt Bf 109, with the latter proving the most successful. The Heinkel He 111 was added to the bomber fleet,[nb 2] along with the Dornier Do 17 (E and F types). Older aircraft were passed onto the Nationalists. By the end of 1936, approximately 7,000 Condor Legion personnel were in Spain.[nb 3]
German forces also operated in the Battle of Jarama, which began with a Nationalist offensive on 6 February 1937. It included German-supplied ground forces, including two batteries of machine guns, a tank division, and the Condor Legion's anti-aircraft guns. Bombing by both Republican and Nationalist aircraft, including Ju 52s from the Legion, helped to ensure a stalemate. It showed up the inadequacy of the Legion's aircraft when faced with superior Soviet-made fighters. Von Thoma requested Irish nationalist support for a tank advance at one point, never to be replicated. The use of He 51 and Ju 52s and the Legion's anti-aircraft guns used in ground roles only partly mitigated the significant defeat for the Nationalists at the Battle of Guadalajara in March. A joint Italian-German general staff had been set up in January 1937 to advise Franco on war planning. The defeat of a significant Italian force and the growing Soviet superiority in tanks and aircraft led the Germans to support a plan to abandon the offensive on Madrid and instead to concentrate a series of attacks on weaker Republican-controlled areas. Many countries believed motorised troops had proved less effective than had first been thought, the inadequacy of the Italians as a fighting force became quite apparent to the Germans.
The isolated area of Vizcaya, a predominantly-Basque region of northern Spain, was the most immediate target in what was called the War in the North. It was largely a Nationalist and Italian offensive, but it was supported by a consistently re-equipping Condor Legion. The terrain was favourable, with the planes coming over a range of mountains to the south, which masked their entrance. Sperrle remained in Salamanca, and Wolfram von Richthofen replaced Holle in January as deputy and in actual command. Since the Basque air force was very limited, even fighters were used in ground-attack roles. The Legion's air force initially attacked the towns of Ochandiano and Durango. Durango had no anti-aircraft defence and only a few other defences. According to the Basques, 250 civilians died on the 31 March, including the priest, nuns and congregation of a church ceremony. The Germans, with their air raids, were hated. The Basque ground forces were in full retreat towards Bilbao through the town of Guernica, which was attacked on 26 April in one of the most controversial attacks of the Spanish Civil War.
In Operation Rügen, waves of Ju 52 and He 111 planes bombed and strafed targets in Guernica. The number of casualties is a matter of controversy, with perhaps 200 or 300 people killed; the number reported dead by the Basques was 1,654 dead and 889 wounded. Several explanations were put forward by the Nationalists, including blaming the attack on the Republicans or claiming the attack on the town to have been a prolonged offensive or that the Rentería bridge, outside Guernica, was the true target. However, the nature of the operation itself, including the formation and armaments that were used, makes that seem unlikely. Guernica was a clear target of the Condor Legion, rather than the Nationalists as a whole. The offensive on Bilbao, when it eventually came on 11 July, was supported by ground units of the Condor Legion and extensive air operations. It proved the worth of the Condor Legion to the Nationalist cause.
The first English-language media reports of the destruction in Guernica appeared two days later. George Steer, a reporter for The Times, who was covering the Spanish Civil War from inside the country, wrote the first full account of events. Steer's reporting set the tone for much of the subsequent reportage. Steer pointed out the clear German complicity in the action.[nb 4] The evidence of three small bomb cases stamped with the German Imperial Eagle made it clear that the official German position of neutrality in the war and the signing of a Non-Intervention Pact were only nominal and that German forces were participating in the war. Steer's report was syndicated to the New York Times and then worldwide and generated widespread shock, outrage and fear.
The Condor Legion also took part in the Battle of Brunete, which was designed as a Republican offensive to take the pressure off northern Spain, where the fighting was ongoing. The Legion was sent from the north to reinforce the broken line. There were repeated raids on Republican armoured vehicles and later defensive positions by bombers and by fighters based at Salamanca. The Republican aircraft were ineffective, despite Nationalist fears, compared with German aircraft. The Messerschmitt Bf 109 was shown to be superior to the I-15 and I-16 models used by Republican forces. The Legion lost 8 aircraft but claimed 18 victories. German tactics were also improved with the experience of Brunete, particularly the en masse use of tanks by the Nationalists.
The Nationalists returned to focus on the capture of northern Spain. German test aircraft, with the latest models, faced an outdated Basque air force, but it had some Russian planes. Heavy aerial bombardment from 200 Nationalist, German and Italian planes occurted far behind Basque lines in August 1937 and lef to the fall of Santander after the Battle of Santander on 1 September. The formal battle in Asturias ended with the fall of Gijon on 21 October. A large amount of ammunitions had been used by the Legion, including a million machine gun rounds and 2,500 tonnes of bombs. Germany immediately began to ship industrial production back to the country. Sperrle argued repeatedly with Faupel and against HISMA's monopoly. Faupel was replaced by Franco through Sperrle. Sperrle also returned to Germany and was replaced by Hellmuth Volkmann . After disagreements with Volkmann, Von Richthofen would be replaced with Hermann Plocher in early 1938.
The next major campaign, Madrid or Barcelona, was discussed, the Condor Legion was moved to Soria and began a week of strikes against Republican airfields, halted by the Republican advance on Teruel and the ensuing Battle of Teruel. The Legion's land and air forces were used, and the Legion moved to Bronchales. Poor weather resulted in few flights, and the town fell to Republican forces on 6 January. Up to 100 sorties a day were launched during the Nationalist's counter-offensive through the Alfambra Valley. The Junkers Ju 87A was used for the first time on the advance on Teruel, which was retaken on 22 February. The continued Nationalist offensive on Aragon in April to June 1937, including the Battle of Belchite, involved bombing raids and the use of the Legion's ground forces. The Legion was switched to focus in the north, towards the Segre River, before it moved south again following Nationalist successes. The Legion moved its main headquarters to Benicarló; single-engined planes operated from airfields nearby and twin-engined planes from Zaragoza. Hitler's words to his colleagues belied a change in attitude about the war in Germany: a quick victory in the war was not desirable, and a mere continuation of the war would be preferable. German policy would be to prevent a Republican defeat. However, casualties were beginning to mount for the Legion, and combined with a resurgence in Republican air activity, the Nationalist advance stalled, perhaps because of the reluctance of commanders in Germany to supply reinforcements, with the Czechoslovak crisis mounting. Arguments over the bill to the Germans, which was now rising at 10 million Reichsmarks a month, continued unresolved. The Legion's materiel had been exhausted.
On 24–25 July, Republican forces launched the last major offensive of the war, the Battle of the Ebro. Reconnaissance units of the Condor Legion had noticed a troop build-up and warned Nationalists forces, but the warning went unheeded. Although the Republicans gained ground, they failed to gain control of Gandesa, with 422 sorties by the Legion (with around 70 aircraft operational) having considerable effect. The rest of the battle saw a series of attacks using artillery or air strikes, followed by a Nationalist ground advance. However, tensions in Czechoslovakia and a shortage of pilots in Germany led to the return of 250 pilots from the Legion, around half of them being bomber crews. Although trained Spaniards made up some of the shortfall, Volkmann complained to central command in Berlin, which would lead to his recall in September. During the battle, which saw 113 days of fighting, only 10 aircraft were lost (some by accident) and 14 were badly damaged. The Legion claimed around 100 Republican aircraft, a third of those lost. Only 5 aircrew had been killed and 6 captured. Aid from Germany temporarily halted in mid-September. Germany and Nationalist Spain settled the issue of German interests in Spanish mines.
The Legion took a short break from active duty to receive new aircraft, including Bf 109Es, He 111Es and Js, and Hs 126As, which brought its strength to 96 aircraft, around a fifth of the Nationalist's force as a whole. Richthofen returned to Spain in overall command, with Hans Seidemann as chief of staff. That reinforcement may have been the single most important intervention by a foreign side in the war by enabling a counterattack after the Battle of the Ebro. It mainly took part in operations against the remaining Republican air force during January–February 1939, with considerable success. After it took part in parades in Barcelona and elsewhere and minor duties over Madrid, it was rapidly dissolved. The men returned on 26 May, the best aircraft were returned to Germany and the rest of the equipment was bought by the new Spanish regime.
The Condor Legion claimed to have destroyed 320 Republican planes using aircraft (either shot down or bombed on the ground) and to have shot down another 52 using anti-aircraft guns. It also claimed to have destroyed 60 ships, including Spanish Republican Navy vessels. It lost 72 aircraft from hostile action and another 160 from accidents.
The Maritime Reconnaissance Staffel 88 (German: Aufklärungsstaffel See 88) was the Condor Legion's maritime unit under the command of Karl Heinz Wolff. Operating independently of the land-based division, it acted against enemy shipping, ports, coastal communications and occasionally inland targets such as bridges. It used floatplanes, starting with the Heinkel He 60, which began operating at Cadiz in October 1936. Missions started as reconnaissance, but after the move from Cadiz to Melilla in Spanish Morocco in December 1936, the focus shifted to attacks on shipping. It was again moved in February 1937 to Málaga, which was newly captured, and then to Majorca when Málaga proved unsuitable. In June, operations began to be expanded to allow attacks on all Republican ports as long as British ships were not present. There were 10 ships attacked in the second half of 1937, but the Norwegian torpedoes that were used proved ineffective, and strafing or bombing targets was used instead.
The arrival of Martin Harlinghausen (known as "Iron Gustav") saw operations expand, and operations targeted Alicante, Almería, Barcelona and Cartagena. As naval activity declined, inland targets became more numerous, and night missions began. Activities in support of ground forces became the main focus of the unit until the end of hostilities. Both Wolff and Harlinghausen received the Spanish Cross in Gold with Swords and Diamonds. In total, eleven men were killed in action, and five others died due to accident or illness.
Overtly, the Kriegsmarine was partly used to enforce the Non-Intervention Agreement from interfering in the war. However, the agreement was clearly broken by Germany. As a result, the German pocket battleship Deutschland stood guard over Ceuta to prevent interference from Republican ships while Franco transported troops to the Spanish mainland. By mid-October, the German North Sea Group around Spain consisted of the pocket battleships Deutschland and Admiral Scheer, the light cruiser Köln, and four torpedo boats. After the Germans claimed that Leipzig had been attacked by an unidentified submarine, it was formally withdrawn from international patrols.
Operation Ursula, named after the daughter of Karl Dönitz, saw a group of German U-boats active around Spain. It began on 20 November 1936, with the movement of the U-33 and the U-34 from Wilhelmshaven. Identification marks were obscured, and the whole mission was kept secret. Difficulties in identifying legitimate targets and concerns about discovery limited their operations. During their return to Wilhelmshaven in December, the Republican submarine C-3 was sunk; the Germans claimed that had been caused a torpedo fired from U-34 although the Republican enquiry claimed its loss to have been caused by an internal explosion. Their submarines' return marked the official end of Operation Ursula. However, further submarines seem to have been sent in mid-1937, but details of the operation are not known although six are believed to have been involved.
The German Intelligence service, the Abwehr, working independently of the Condor Legion, was secretly involved in Operation Bodden. It later played a part in the detection of the Operation Torch invasion fleet.[nb 5]
On 20 May, the KdF fleet, including the MV Wilhelm Gustloff and 7 other ships, were given secret orders and diverted from their regular pleasure cruise schedule to arrive in Vigo, Spain. They arrived on the 24th to pick up the triumphant legion and departed on the 26th to bring them on a five-day voyage to Hamburg, Germany. There, they arrived to ecstatic crowds, parades and ceremonies celebrating their success, with Hermann Göring and other high-ranking officials in attendance.
It is known that army leaders were hesitant to become involved in the conflict and resisted a call made by the Italian government for a dual transfer of ground troops to fight in Spain. The involvement of the Luftwaffe, however, was not entirely restricted, and a commonly-held viewpoint is that the involvement of the Luftwaffe in the Civil War was a proving ground for troops fighting during World War II. That view is supported by the testimony of Hermann Göring, when he was on trial at Nuremberg. When asked about the decision to use the Luftwaffe, Göring stated:
When the Civil War broke out in Spain, Franco sent a call for help to Germany and asked for support, particularly in the air. One should not forget that Franco with his troops was stationed in Africa and that he could not get the troops across, as the fleet was in the hands of the Communists, or, as they called themselves at the time, the competent Revolutionary Government in Spain. The decisive factor was, first of all, to get his troops over to Spain. The Führer thought the matter over. I urged him to give support [to Franco] under all circumstances, firstly, in order to prevent the further spread of communism in that theater and, secondly, to test my young Luftwaffe at this opportunity in this or that technical respect.[nb 6]
That was also a view put forth in western media after the disengagement of German forces from Spain.
Dozens of Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters and Heinkel He 111 medium bombers and, from December 1937, at least three Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers, first saw active service in the Condor Legion against Soviet-supplied aircraft. The Stuka's first mission flown in Spain was February 1938. Each of the aircraft played a major role during the early years of World War II. The Germans also realised that biplane fighters were quickly becoming less effective than newer monoplane designs. The Heinkel He 51 fighter, after suffering many losses during the first twelve months of the conflict, was switched to a ground attack role and later saw service as a trainer.
The Condor Legion also included non-aircraft units. Panzer crews operating Panzer I light tanks were commanded by Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma. The Germans also tested small numbers of 88 mm Flak 18 anti-aircraft artillery guns to destroy Republican tanks and fortifications with direct fire, as well as enemy aircraft in their designed role.
One important factor in World War II that is thought to have directly resulted from the conflict is the technical development of the Messerschmitt Bf 109. The V3 – V6 types entered service in Spain directly from operational trials around January 1937. In the spring of 1938, they were joined by type C aircraft with type Es being first fielded in December 1938.
Besides the potential for gains in combat experience, it is also thought that various strategic initiatives were first tried as part of Luftwaffe involvement in the conflict. As the fighting progressed into March 1938, Italian pilots under Fieldmarshal Hugo Sperrle were involved in 13 raids against Barcelona involving fire and gas bombs that resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians. It is worth noting that a subsequent commander of the Legion in Spain, Wolfram von Richthofen would rise to the rank of Field Marshal during World War II and serve in high positions of Luftwaffe throughout the conflict, mostly as a specialist in ground attack, with his units spearheading German offensives such as in Poland, France and the Low Countries, the Balkans, and Operation Barbarossa.
Tactics of combined or joint operations were a particular focus. Close air support for Nationalist troops, attack bombing of Republican troop concentrations and strafing became features of the war. The Legion worked closely in missions to maximise the fighting ability of the Nationalist air force and troops, the Italian CTV, and pilots from the Aviazione Legionaria (Legionary Air Force). The German air ace Adolf Galland claimed after World War II that although there was a focus on taking lessons from the conflict in Spain, he believed that the wrong conclusions were drawn by the German High Command with particular respect to the Luftwaffe:
Whatever may have been the importance of the tests of German arms in the Spanish Civil War from tactical, technical and operational points of view, they did not provide the experience that was needed nor lead to the formulation of sound strategic concepts.
The recrimination for the activities of the Condor Legion and the shame at the involvement of German citizens in the bombing of Guernica have surfaced since German reunification in the 1990s. In 1997, the 60th anniversary of Operation Rügen, German President Roman Herzog wrote to survivors of the raid to apologise on behalf of the German people and state. Herzog said that he wished to extend "a hand of friendship and reconciliation" on behalf of all German citizens. That sentiment was later ratified by members of the German Parliament who went on to legislate in 1998 for the removal of all former Legion members' names from associated German military bases. The process was then carried out, but the issue surfaced again in 2005 after media revelations about the role of the pilot Werner Mölders, who had volunteered to serve in Spain. Although he was not involved in the bombing of Guernica, it was decided by German Defence Minister Peter Struck that in keeping with the law, Mölders' name should be removed from the barracks at Visselhoevede and from the association with Luftwaffe wing 74 (Jagdgeschwader 74) based in Neuburg an der Donau. Until 2005, it had not been established that Mölders had flown as a Condor Legion volunteer before his death in 1941.
On 26 April 2017, at the 80th anniversary of the Guernica bombing, the Madrid City Council announced that it had dismantled the memorial to the Condor Legion at the La Almudena cemetery, pictured right. The tomb was removed at the request of the German embassy in Madrid and was to be replaced with simple name plaques.
The Spanienkreuz (Spanish Cross) campaign medal was awarded by the German authorities in seven classes from April 14, 1939.[nb 8] The clandestine nature of German activities in Spain caused no awards to be instituted until April 1939, at the end of German involvement in the conflict. The Spanish Cross complemented the Condor Legion Tank Badge, which was approved on 10 July 1939, and cuff titles issued to those who served. Legionnaires could also expect a Campaign Medal struck by the Spanish authorities to thank German volunteers for their service. See both websites listed below for examples of each medal and others issued to Legion veterans.
Other notable events on the return of the Legion included an assembly for a personal address by Hitler on 6 June 1939 and a parade as part of the celebrations organised for Hitler's 50th birthday 20 April 1939.[nb 9] Also by way of commemoration the activities of the Legion were memorialized in a special edition of Der Adler, the Luftwaffe's magazine for service members, which was then also circulated in both Spain and the United States.
|N/A||Generalleutnant||General de división|
|N/A||Generalmajor||General de brigada|
|N/A||Feldwebel, Oberfeldwebel, Stabsfeldwebel||Alférez|
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