Condor Legion

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The Condor Legion (German: Legion Condor) was a unit composed of volunteers from the German Air Force (the Luftwaffe) which served with the Nationalist-Legitimist side against the quasi-communist Republican Government in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War of July 1936 to March 1939. The Legion was the “thunderclap” of Franco’s anticommunist struggle in Spain. This bloody confrontation would have ended in red victory had it not been for Hitler’s and Göring’s intervention with this corps of crack, disciplined, tough troopers. The communists were soundly defeated by the Legion and its Spanish patriot comrades as well as Italian Blackshirt soldiers and airmen.

Memorial for fallen German airmen of the Condor Legion, Almudena cemetery in Madrid

History of military aid to Spain

Feindflug of a new Bf 109 of the Jagdgruppe 88 (J/88) of the Legion Condor
Parade of the Condor Legion in Berlin after their return from the Spanish Civil War, June 1939; from left to right: Hugo Sperrle, Hellmuth Volkmann, and Walter Warlimont.

Called "Operation Fire Magic" (Unternehmen Feuerzauber), German military aid to the Spanish Nationalists began with a request for assistance by Spanish General Francisco Franco. This was received by German Chancellor Adolf Hitler on July 22, 1936, five days after the civil war commenced on 17 July. The first planes from Italy arrived in Spain on 27 July, 1936. Immediate German assistance to Franco resulted in the world's first airlift of troops (from Spanish Morocco). Hitler immediately called Hermann Göring, then Minister for the Economy, and Field Marshal General Werner von Blomberg, to plan methods of support for the Nationalists.


The organisation Sociedad Hispano-Marroqui de Transportes (HISMA) was incorporated in July 1936 to enable Spanish payment for German aid. HISMA's original intention was to allow for the organisation and transportation of German volunteers and equipment, and to organize purchase of additional supplies from the private sector in Germany. HISMA's control was later consolidated with the formation of Rohstoff-Waren-Kompensation Handelsgesellschaft (ROWAK) three months later. ROWAK's focus was on the German aspects of the economic relationship.

Through HISMA and ROWAK, Germany was able to exercise considerable influence on economic trade between areas under Nationalist control and the Reich. The two organizations dramatically increased imports of Spanish raw materials. To maintain control, the Reich Economics Ministry forbade business dealings between Spain and the German private sector from November 1936 onwards. All business transactions were channeled through ROWAK, which would then have dealings only with HISMA, the same process being implemented in Nationalist-controlled areas. Commission rates between 0.175 per cent and 5 per cent and were taxed on all transactions.

Francos opponents then and now argue that German economic exploitation and overall control of Spanish mineral wealth, specifically iron ore, tungsten, pyrite (iron sulfide), and cinnabarite were a prime motivator for German help. However the economic advantages are now generally thought to have been a prime motivator.[1]

Hitler's political motives

At the time of the civil war, Italian leader Benito Mussolini had agreed to provide Italian military aid for the Nationalists in the form of troops, the "Corps of Volunteer Troops" (CTV).[2] Units of the Regia Aeronautica also received postings to Spain and were organized as the Aviazione Legionaria (Aviation Legion). Hitler also immediately agreed and was anxious to see the conflict in Spain end in favor of Franco. Hitler's motives were threefold:

  1. Franco, if successful would represent a third nationalist power on the frontiers of France.
  2. Internal tension in France between the political Left and Right was exacerbated by the Civil war in Spain and in turn weakening organized opposition against Germany.
  3. Assisting the Italians in Spain kept the Western democracies of Britain and France in quasi-conflict with Italy and drove Mussolini toward Germany.

A communique in December 1936, from German ambassador in Rome Ulrich von Hassell illustrates each 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. The struggle for dominant political influence in Spain lays bare the natural opposition between Italy and France; at the same time the position of Italy as a power in the western Mediterranean comes into competition with that of Britain. All the more clearly will Italy recognize the advisability of confronting the Western powers shoulder to shoulder with Germany.

Shipments of aid begin

Over the next weeks over fifteen thousand volunteer troops went to Spain. Just over one month later, in September 1936, Oberstleutnant Walther Warlimont of the German General Staff arrived as regional commander and military advisor to Generalísimo Francisco Franco. Due to the influx of aid and volunteers, Warlimont advocated in November 1936 that the troops be combined into the 'Condor Legion'. Meetings between Göring and Mussolini in Rome on 14 January 1937 agreed limits to the levels of German and Italian military assistance to Franco. Military aid from the USSR had also begun arriving for the Red Government in Madrid, including aircraft and tanks. This Soviet aid was mostly in the form of advisors and equipment. This, however, did amount to a significant amount of military equipment, particularly armour and tanks.

As the conflict began to snowball, it became apparent that the Condor Legion as it then existed, even with Italian help, may not be a force to tip the balance, only maintain it.

The German forces in Spain combined into the Condor Legion then consisted of the following:

These forces of 100 aircraft and 5,136 men were placed under the command of General, later Field Marshal, Hugo Sperrle. At the height of German military assistance, the force in Spain would total almost 12,000 men; although this was rotated and a total of 19,000 served. This was still well below levels of Italian aid, which numbered material, warships, hundreds of aircraft, and sixty- to seventy- thousand men.

Material costs

During the war German aircraft acting on behalf of the Nationalists dropped 16,953,700 kilos of bombs and expended 4,327,949 rounds of ammunition. Of the Germans who served, 298 died, with 173 killed in action. This included:

  • 102 aircrew,
  • 27 fighter pilots and
  • 21 anti-aircraft crew.

Over 50% died in accidents and/or disease. 72 aircraft were shot down. Another 160 were lost in accidents. The first to die were fighter pilots Helmut Schulze and Herbert Zeck on 15 August 1936.

In 1939, an official of the German Economic Policy Department estimated that German spending on military aid to Franco had to date cost half a billion Reichsmarks.



  • November 1936 until October 1937: Hugo Sperrle
    • Walter Warlimont represented him from 31.8.1936 until 6.11.1936 as "Bevollmächtigter des Reichskriegsministers bei General Franco in National-Spanien" until Sperrle arrived in November.
  • November 1937 until October 1938: Hellmuth Volkmann
  • October 1938 until March 1939: Wolfram von Richthofen

Chiefs of Staff

  • November 1936 until Januar 1937: Alexander Holle
  • Januar until October 1937: Wolfram von Richthofen
  • October 1937 until October 1938: Hermann Plocher
  • October 1937 until March 1939: Hans Seidemann

Military advantages gained


It is known that the leaders of the Army were hesitant about becoming 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 constituted a proving ground for troops employed later during World War II. This view is supported by the testimony of Hermann Göring, later Reichsmarschall of the Luftwaffe, when on trial at the International Military Tribunal in Nürnberg. When asked about the decision to use the Luftwaffe, Göring states:

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 Fuehrer [sic] 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.[3]

And it was also a view put forth in western media following the disengagement of German forces from Spain.[4]

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.[5] Each of these aircraft played a major role during the early years of the Second World War. The Germans also quickly realized that the days of the biplane fighter were finished. The Heinkel He 51 fighter, after suffering many losses during the first 12 months of the conflict, was switched to a ground attack role and later saw service as a trainer.

Hauptmann Gerhard Willing wearing the Tank Badge

Other units

Spanish Cross (Spanienkreuz)

The Condor Legion also included non-aircraft units. Panzer crews operating Panzerkampfwagen I light tanks were commanded by Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma. The Germans also tested their 88 mm heavy anti-aircraft artillery which they used to destroy Republican tanks and fortifications using direct fire, as well as enemy aircraft in their designed role.

German involvement in Spain also saw the development of the first air ambulance service for evacuation of wounded combatants.[6]

Condor Legion Tank Badge

Oberst von Thoma, commander of all armored personnel assigned to the Condor Legion, instituted the Tank Badge of the Legion Condor (Panzertruppenabzeichen der Legion Condor) in the autumn of 1936 to be awarded to panzer personnel under his command. Only 415 were awarded, but undoubtedly more were manufactured. The badge was in one class only and was worn as a pin-back badge and was made of silver, silver plate, or white metal. The minor variations that exist can be attributed to location and date of manufacture. Regulations prescribed that the badge could be worn by discharged personnel who had been awarded the badge, but only when the uniform was worn.

Technical advances

One factor important in World War II which 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 these were joined by type C aircraft with type Es being first fielded in December 1938.

As a result of combat in Spain improvements were also made to the 88 mm gun.


Alongside the potential for gains in combat experience it is also thought that various strategic initiatives were first trialed as part of Luftwaffe involvement in the conflict. Theories on strategic bombing were first developed by the Luftwaffe with the first exhibition of "carpet bombing" in the September 1937 Asturias campaign. As the fighting progressed into March 1938 Italian pilots under Fieldmarshal Hugo Sperrle were involved in thirteen raids against Barcelona involving fire and gas bombs. These particular raids resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians.reference required It is worth noting that a subsequent commander of the Legion in Spain, Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen was to become heavily involved in the operation of the Luftwaffe as part of 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 which maximized the fighting ability of the Nationalist air force and troops, the Italian CTV, and pilots from the Aviazione Legionaria (Aviation Legion). German Air ace Adolf Galland was to claim after World War II that although there was a focus on taking lessons from the conflict in Spain, he believed 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.

Kriegsmarine and La Marina

Both German and Italian forces engaged in seaborne operations during the conflict in Spain. While Kriegsmarine personnel were involved in training of naval forces loyal to the Francoist cause they also served as part of the German presence in the International Non-Intervention Patrol.[7] German U-boat operations against Republican shipping by the Kriegsmarine were carried out covertly and codenamed Unternehmen Ursula (Operation Ursula). At least eight U-boats operated in the area but had relatively little success. Alongside the service of surface ships from the Italian Navy, fifty-eight submarines acting as Sottomarini Legionari ("legionnaire submarines") were sent.


The German Intelligence service, the Abwehr, working independently of the Legion Condor was secretly involved in Operation Bodden. This was to later play a part in the detection of the Operation Torch invasion fleet.[8]

Operational record

Hitler had initially incurred opposition from Göring, who, being keen not to erode Luftwaffe strength in supporting the Falangists, preferred to commit modified Lufthansa airliners that were converted to carry significant bomb loads. Hitler dismissed this, and soon afterward Göring recognized the opportunity to garner invaluable experience for 'his Luftwaffe'.

This battle experience, fighting against the most modern Soviet fighters crewed by experienced pilots, allowed the Luftwaffe to develop some sound tactical doctrine covering almost all aspects of air combat operations in the combined arms battle. Some 19,000 members of the Luftwaffe gained direct combat experience in Spain, giving the Luftwaffe a crucial advantage over its enemies during the first part of World War II, in particular future fighter wing commanders like Werner Mölders, who scored 14 victories in Spain, and Adolf Galland.[9] Of the Luftwaffe's Jagdgruppen, 136 Bf 109s were sent to Spain, and of these 47, including Bf 109Bs and Ds, as well as the "E" variant remained in service with the Spanish Air Force. The Republican fighters were no match for the Bf 109. Equipped mostly with Soviet built Polikarpov I-15 and Polikarpov I-16s the Republican forces suffered heavy losses.[10]

During the Spanish Civil War, the Luftwaffe's Condor Legion participated in the first mass terror bombing of civilians. On 26 April 1937 Guernica, a city in the Basque region of northern Spain, was destroyed in an ominous portent of strategic bombing campaigns in World War II and hundreds of people were killed or injured. The Condor Legion lost only 72 aircraft to enemy action during the Civil War.[11]

During the conflict the Luftwaffe learned valuable tactical lessons, particularly the Jagdwaffe. Developed by Günther Lützow and Werner Mölders, it employed more flexible four-aircraft Schwarm, which consisted of a leader and a wingman, in loose formation. Each Schwarm flew a staggered formation with considerable space between each fighter, making the formations difficult to spot at large range. It also allowed pilots to scan the sky for the enemy, which meant four pairs of eyes on the look out rather than just the leader. In battle the wingman would protect his Rottenführer while he scored the kills.

Guernica & Operation Rügen

The bombing of Guernica, a stronghold of Red troops, on 26 April, 1937 resulted in varying degrees of international condemnation fueled by the Left-wing generally, notably the newspapers. It was at this point that international attention was drawn to German and Italian involvement in the conflict. Up until that point the German policy had been to publicly deny the transit of military aid and personnel in keeping with the signing of the Non-Intervention Pact.

Although not the first time that German air power was employed, or the first time that large civilian casualties (by the standards of the day) resulted, the destruction received wide media coverage and created a public perception of German involvement. The unreliable Basque government figures of the time put the toll at 1,654 dead and 889 wounded, a then unprecedented scale.[12] The release of these figures caused an international outcry, inspiring Pablo Picasso to name a painting which he had been working on Guernica, a portrayal dramatizing grotesque suffering. Guernica was in some ways more of a turning point signalling how the Spanish Nationalist forces had come to rely on increasingly devastating sophistication and expertise of Axis pilots. For many commentators Guernica was also a signal of what would be played out against civilian areas during World War II.

Reaction to German involvement

Various left-wing writers participated in condemning the support given by Germany and Italy to the Spanish Nationalists. An example was the novelist Heinrich Mann, who appealed from his self-imposed exile in France with the slogan "German soldiers! A rogue sends you to Spain!" in response to the Legion's involvement. Other states tacitly approved the fight of the German Legion against the Soviet-supplied Spanish Republican side, which had come to be dominated entirely by Stalinists and other Communists.

Treatment in Germany

As part of his long-term "Blumenkrieg" (flower war) strategy Hitler drew parallels between the conflict in Spain and the democratic manner he used to gain control in Germany, evidenced in a speech to the Reichstag on 30 January 1937.[13] Numerous publications about the war appeared in Germany, including:

  • Wir funken für Franco (literally We transmit for Franco) by Hellmut Führing,
  • Als Jagdflieger in Spanien (As fighter pilots in Spain) by Hannes Trautloft. (This was also reprinted after World War II ended.)
  • Das Buch der Spanienflieger (The book of Spanish Fliers) by Hauptmann Wulf Bley.

Each book had a high circulation: in the case of Bley the circulation was estimated at over 1 million books sold.

External links


  1. Thomas, Hugh, The Spanish Civil War, and Leitz.
  2. General histories of events e.g., Shirer, Beevor usually vary in the exact timeline. Leitz gives an exact account of the timeline in detail.
  3. See Testimony of Göring, Trial of the Major War Criminals, International Military Tribunal, Nuremberg, 14 November – 1 October 1946, Volume IX. Available via Avalon Project. NOTE: Frequently misquoted along the lines of: "The Spanish Civil War gave me an opportunity to put my young air force to the test, and a means for my men to gain experience." or other permutations.
  4. See 1939 report from TIME Magazine detailing the departure of Italian and German forces from Spain; Farewell TIME Magazine Monday, May. 22, 1939.
  5. The Stuka's first mission flown in Spain was February 1938.
  6. Details on the 1936-39 operation can be found in The History of Anesthesia - Contributions of the Legion Condor to the Wehrmacht's surgical care during World War II by R.J. Defalque and A.J. Wright).
  7. The battleship Deutschland was later attacked by the Republican Air force and Navy.
  8. 'Bodden' is a reference to the strait separating the Baltic island of Rügen from the German mainland and the Abwehr operation represented a network of coastal listening stations overseeing a seabed detection system across the Gibraltar straits. Bodden's aim was to gather SIGINT via the underwater detection system and via fourteen infra-red ship surveillance stations (nine in Spain, five in Morocco) which later relayed shipping information to U boats in the Mediterranean and threatening convoys.
  9. Corum, J. p. 293
  10. E.R Hooton 2007 Vol.1 , p. 52
  11. E.R Hooton 2007 Vol.1, p. 62
  12. The most recent study on casualties resulting from the raid are in the more conservative (by today's standards) range of between 250 — 300 total dead. See Jesus Larrazabal, "El Bombardeo de Guernica", El Mundo, volume 12, October 2005 and Jesus Larrazabal, Guernica, 1990.
  13. Available via the German Propaganda Archive.