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ICG Risk Blog - [ Lessons for Lebanon from the Gran Chaco War and Spanish Civil War, part 2 ]

Lessons for Lebanon from the Gran Chaco War and Spanish Civil War, part 2


Part 1

Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939

I see the war in Spain as a likely model for future fractionalized combat in which there are many disparate groups that will not tidily line up, and that much effort will be required to understand each and then reach out to these groups in what may best be described as a 'herding cats' coalition:

The Spanish Civil War pitted two odd coalitions against each other. The split was essentially between the left and the right sides of the Spanish political spectrum, but many parties on each side of the conflict hated or feared other parts of their coalition. The Nationalist were a coalition of groups on the right side of the spectrum. That coalition contained Fascists, monarchists, old-line conservatives, many people who feared a communist or anarchist takeover of Spain, and many people who just happened to be in areas taken over by the Nationalists at the start of the revolt. The Republican side was primarily the left side of the political spectrum. It consisted of Socialists, Communists, Trotskyites, adherents of something called Anarcho-Syndicalism, and a lot of people who simply felt that the Republicans were the legitimately elected government of Spain.

The war started after the parties that became the core of the Republicans won a hotly contested election. The parties of the right never really accepted their defeat, and they became more and more radical in their opposition to the government as political violence spiraled out of control after the election. The Nationalists tried a coup on July 17-18 of 1936. That coup succeeded in Spanish Morocco and several parts of Spain. It failed in Madrid and several other major cities. Spain divided into a set of untidy enclaves, with the Republic controlling Basque country in northern Spain, the eastern coast of Spain, and a large part of Central Spain. The Nationalists controlled northwestern Spain, part of Central Spain and an enclave in southern Spain. Little pockets of territory held by the ‘wrong’ side were sprinkled on both sides of the line.

I find it very interesting that Germany advised both the losing side in the Americas and the winning side in Spain, i.e., Germany did not possess invincibility, failed to learn or value key lessons from Chaco, and misapplied key lessons from Spain.

Oppenheimer is one of the few to holistically discuss the lessons learned during Operation Magic Fire, 1936-1939, but ultimately misapplied, in which the Condor Legion (German military units sent to assist the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War) tested "air warfare doctrine and equipment in military action, [learning] much in the way of strategy, tactics, logistics, and operations." Oppenheimer fulfills a much overlooked mission by showing "the Spanish War provided ambiguous benefits to the nascent Luftwaffe. [That while] the Condor Legion [proved] an invaluable training and testing opportunity, the lessons it taught were occasionally interpreted erroneously." Lessons learned in Spain propelled the Luftwaffe through the early stages of WW II, but failed it in its latter stages:

In the concrete realm of day-to-day operations, the Spanish War furnished a mother lode of knowledge, although at time; this knowledge was misapplied. The combat experience gained by Condor Legion pilots was invaluable particularly because many of these pilots became instructional officers in pilot training schools in Germany. The pilots also learned the importance of detailed maps, the benefits from rapid, positive target identification and the need for adequate radio communications. As a catalyst for the development of technology, the conflict emphasized the value of weather forecasting. radio directional systems, [the] use of pathfinder aircraft, and incendiary flares for effective night bombing. With regard to aircraft. Spain was a very helpful testing ground and incubator. [Biplanes demonstrated obsolescence] as a fighter when matched against the Russian monoplanes and fruitfully exchanged that role for one of close ground support... During the course of 1937, the Bf109 fighter, the Ju87 Stuka dive bomber and the He111 and the Do17 bombers were introduced in Spain and all showed their value as combat aircraft.

The mistakes engendered by the Spanish War, more than the successes, indicate the difficulty in drawing general conclusions from an unusual and specific conflict. Because Legion bomber squadrons rarely encountered much opposition after the Nationalists attained air supremacy, the introduction of the He111 fast bomber suggested incorrectly that bombers required only a light armor and little fighter protection. The high command mistakenly believed that bombers could rely on speed alone to penetrate the enemy's defenses. Berlin failed to perceive that even high performance, well-armed bombers in mass formation could not protect themselves against detetmined fighter opposition, particularly dluring daytime missions. This oversight caused the Luftwaffe to neglect the coordination of fighter and bomber development. After realizing that bombers needed fighter escorts. the Luftwaffe command discovered that their fighters lacked the range to protect the bombers during the missions. A similar nearsighted rationale approved of the concept of an all-purpose aircraft for strategic and tactical operations. Indeed, Hitler demanded that heavy, multi-engined bombers possess both a strategic and dive bombing capability. The resulting hybrid aircraft, the Ju88, was unable to carry out either mission properly. The success of the 88mm flak guns in Spain suggested that flak cannons wete the best weapon for air defense, and that therefore little attention need be paid to a fighter defense system to protect Germany. The horrific losses inflicted on Germany by USAF and RAF bombers attest to the inaccuracy of this belief. The most valuable lessons taught in the laboratory of the Spanish War was the tactical concept of combat operational doctrine. The Spanish experience established within the Luftwaffe the belief in close ground support tactics as the preeminent and foremost task of the German air force. This belief produced both the Luftwaffe's most spectacular success in Poland and later contributed to the Third Reich's utter defeat...

Over four years, the Luftwaffe showed the world air power unexcelled. The essense of its strategy was air superiority. Without superiority in the air, troops could not be easily transported, motorized ground units could not move rapidly, enemy troop concentrations could not he disrupted, and enemy fortifications and communications could not he destroyed. When the Luftwaffe failed to attain air superiority, as at Dunkirk, it failed to win. The lessons learned in Spain, and enlarged and elaborated in the succeeding European campaigns, were faithfully though not always correctly applied. After the fall of France, the Luftwaffe's neglect of heavy bombers, long-range fighters and radar manifested itself. The British began to outproduce the Luftwaffe, and the Russian quagmire swallowed entire squadrons. There can be no question that the Spanish Civil War decisively affected the development of LuftwaffeLuftwaffe rendered indispensable assistance in the triumphs over Germany's enemies. At the same time, the Luftwaffe's deceptively easy victories hid the seeds of its defeat. Although this defeat was a long time in coming, often masked by brilliant German inventions and innovations, come it did. Like the air forces it had helped vanquish, the Luftwaffe too learned defeat.

Germany and the USSR made financial bonanzas from Spain that helped to accelerate their rearmament programs. Spain divided Western states "while giving the Soviet Union an opportunity to portray itself as the only active opponent of fascism," a position that "drew many opponents of fascism in the west toward communist parties." Overlooking Chaco, Spain was widely seen as the "first conflict between reasonably modern armies since World War I" and so drove protagonists and bystanders alike to draw lessons that took them into WW II with varying degrees of success.

McNerney submits a tall order for the US to achieve necessary preconditions for innovation to meet 4GW threats:

  • Expand education opportunities for both officers and non-commissioned officers, including varied global institutions not "limited to the institutionalized professional military education programs currently offered"
  • Eliminate parochial barriers within and between individual services
  • Eliminate "disproportionate service representation in joint agencies and creating service regulations that actually match joint regulation"
  • Shift from centralized, hierarchical HQ control "toward a "top-sight" function in order to provide deconfliction and intelligence to combatants"
  • Expand "investment in human intelligence, informal network exploitation, and surrogate recruitment [to] expand the awareness of the battlespace characterized by insurgents and sub-state actors

It is cold comfort that McNerney sees the "prognosis for U.S. military innovation today [as] questionable [but not] impossible."

Military Innovation in Times of Conflict--Is It Too Risky?
Major Michael McNerney, USAF
Air & Space Power Journal
15 June 2005

The Visual Front
Posters of the Spanish Civil War from UCSD's Southworth Collection
by Alexander Vergara, with Kevin Ingram, Enrique Sanabria, Theresa Smith
UC San Diego

Art and Propaganda in Republican Spain

ALBA Educational Modules
The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA)

Shouts From The Wall: Posters and Photographs Brought Home from the Spanish Civil War
The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA)

German Propaganda Archive
Randall Bytwerk
Calvin College

The Spanish Civil War: Lessons Learned and Not Learned by the Great Powers
James S. Corum
Journal of Military History
Vol. 62, No. 2, 313-334.
April 1998

Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military
Stephen P. Rosen
ISBN 0801481961
Cornell University Press, 1991, 1994

From the Spanish Civil War to the Fall of France: Luftwaffe Lessons Learned and Applied
Journal of Historical Review
Volume 7, No. 2 -- Summer 1986

Gordon Housworth

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