Men and tanks of the Spanish Civil War

Spain. Legion “Condor”. German tank Pz.1A

We raced dreaming
Comprehend quickly
The grammar of the battle –
Battery language.
The sunrise was rising
And fell again
And the horse is tired
To jump in the steppes.
M. Lights. Grenada

Behind the pages of civil wars. In addition to the Italian troops, the German legion “Condor” fought in Spain, in which the first 9 Pz.1A tanks arrived at the end of 1936, and in mid-September another 32 vehicles were sent. This is how the Dron tank group appeared in the legion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma. The groups consisted of the following units: headquarters, two tank companies, each of three sections, and the section, in turn, consisted of five Pz.1A vehicles plus one more command tank. The support unit included a transport section, a field repair shop, an anti-tank artillery unit, and a group of flamethrowers. Von Thoma later wrote that “Spaniards learn quickly, but also quickly forget what they have learned.” Therefore, if the crew was mixed, then the chief in it was always a German and the Germans performed the most important types of work.

Pz.1A in the Spanish city of El-Golos

The very first battles showed that the Pz.IA was a very weak tank. Therefore, in December 1936, supplies of “improved” tanks of the Pz.1В modification began to Spain. The result of German military assistance to Franco: by 1938, German tank units already had 4 battalions of 3 companies each, and 15 vehicles in each company. 4 companies (60 tanks) were formed from captured Soviet T-26s, which the Germans used with great success. Well, and stimulated their capture accordingly. So, for the capture of a T-26 tank, the German command gave a bonus of 500 pesetas, which was equal to the monthly salary of an American pilot in the service of the Republicans! By the way, the Soviet “Stalinist falcons” in Spain were paid less than everyone else! For some reason, the Moroccans were especially active in capturing our tanks. Well, in total, the nationalists were able to get more than 150 T-26, BT-5 tanks and BA-10 armored cars in the form of trophies. Moreover, these are only those machines that they managed to put into operation, and they captured some, but were able to use them only for spare parts.

The Pz.1B had a reinforced chassis and a more powerful engine. Armament has not changed

At the end of the war, there were already seven tank companies, armed with German and Soviet tanks, in the “Drone group”. The Germans even opened their own tank school, equipped a tank depot, but in the group itself they constantly had a company of anti-tank weapons, a repair shop, a supply company and a headquarters.

The coloring of the German tanks Pz.1A. Left emblem of the foreign legion

It is interesting that the Germans from the very beginning behaved completely independently of the Spaniards. For example, there is a known case when Franco personally demanded that von Thom send tanks to attack along with the infantry, and he was not afraid to answer him: “I will use tanks, not spraying them, but concentrating them.” And Franco listened to his answer and swallowed it! What about? Whoever pays a girl uses her, everyone knows that. Moreover, if we look at what republican forces opposed the Germans in Spain, it turns out that they were not at all great there. If they had 15 tanks in each company, this means that the total number was 180 vehicles *. Fire support was carried out by 30 PTO companies, six 37-mm RAK-36 guns in each. And all these forces did not act together, no, but on a wide sector of the front, while in Catalonia alone, the Republicans had about 200 Soviet tanks and BA at a time. And these were T-26 tanks, armed with a 45-mm cannon, while the German tanks had only two rifle-caliber machine guns! And what about the Spaniards? And with the Spaniards: the command of the Catalan front, these machines were assessed as too heavy and at the same time … not too effective! By the way, that is why BT-5 tanks were sent to them. However, even those did not show effectiveness in battles.

Pz.1A and two captured Soviet tanks behind it. It was already at least something …

But here the question quite naturally arises: what efficiency did they require from Soviet tanks when such vehicles as T-IA, T-1B and CV 3/35 tankettes fought against them? It was simply impossible to consider them as full-fledged opponents of the T-26 and BT-5 with their 45-mm gun. They say that the nationalist aviation, due to its domination in the sky, seemed to be bombing Republican tanks and inflicting heavy losses on them. However, was it so? It is known that the destruction of only one pontoon bridge during the offensive on the Ebro River required up to five hundred bombs from the nationalists. And how many bombs were then needed to destroy one tank? We must not forget that in the most critical days of November 1936, both the T-26 tanks and the I-15 and I-16 fighters simply dominated in Spain and on the ground and air of Spain **.

The weakness of the armament of the Pz.1A and B was so obvious that the Spaniards, together with the Germans, came up with the idea of ​​installing 20-mm automatic cannons “Brad” on them in an enlarged turret!

This makes us believe that the most important factors in the victory of the nationalists in the Spanish war were such factors as combat training, military discipline and even skillful command. M. Koltsov in his “Spanish Diary” mentions several times that in the army the nationalists had special sergeants who shot the retreating and cowardly soldiers, and placed machine guns behind the advancing units. Although the Republican General Enrico Lister also ordered to shoot his soldiers if they retreated. And the sergeants had orders to shoot even officers if they commanded a retreat without a written order from the headquarters. “Anyone who allows the loss of even an inch of land will be held accountable for it with his head,” it was said directly in one of Lister’s addresses to the troops, and despite this, the republican units suffered one defeat after another.

BT-5 with the tower of the Mariupol plant

Yes, but could it be otherwise if the attacks themselves were carried out as follows. Known, for example, a tank attack of the Republicans to the height of 669. Tanks, not reaching 300-500 meters to the height, opened fire from cannons and machine guns. When 200 meters were left to the height, eight anti-tank guns from that height opened fire on them. The tanks had no support from their own artillery and therefore withdrew. In this case, two tanks were lost and three people died, one was wounded, and two were saved. The tanks managed to destroy two anti-tank guns of the nationalists, and the infantry was able to occupy the northwestern slope of the attacked height. The low effectiveness of the attack was a consequence of the lack of intelligence data on the state of the enemy’s anti-tank defense and the lack of support from the artillery. And here we can say that if you fight like this, then no tanks simply will not be enough!

He is in the coloring of the nationalists

Another example, just as typical.

On February 23, at 13:00, five Republican tanks received an order, together with the infantry, to attack enemy positions at altitude 680. The tanks began to move, but one 700 meters from the target was out of order: the driver burned the main clutch. The second tank dropped the track and rolled down the slope into the hollow onto its own infantry, but the crew could not put on the track on their own. Next, the second tank dropped the caterpillar, but its tankers Danilov and Shambolin managed to put on the caterpillar, although the nationalists were firing at them heavily. But … they missed! The tank joined the remaining four vehicles and continued towards the olive grove, which was the target of the attack at Hill 680. That is, four tanks entered it. But then three of them, turning around on the stones, dropped their tracks. To put on, one tank had to be jacked up and the other was towed back. Fiddling with the caterpillars took about two hours. Only after that, the remaining two tanks were able to enter the olive grove and there open fire on the Franco trenches at an altitude of 680. But then the enemy’s anti-tank artillery, in turn, began to shoot at them, and five minutes later knocked out both of these tanks. The first tank got a hole near the telescopic sight (while platoon commander Eugenio Riestr was fatally wounded), and the tower commander Antonio Diaz was wounded in the left arm. The tank burst into flames, and people jumped out of it. However, the platoon leader died ten minutes later. Only one driver was not injured. At the second tank, a shell hit the cannon mask, and it went out of order, although the crew was not injured. After the shells stopped bursting in the burning tank, he was taken in tow. The fire was somehow extinguished with the ground, the tank was taken to its original position, and it was completely repaired in 20 hours. It is noted that the reason for such serious losses was the lack of artillery and infantry fire on the anti-tank guns of the nationalists, as a result of which all three tanks failed to attack it, and as a result, the surviving tanks returned to the line of attack at 17:00.

BT-5 with standard turret

And what, by the way, was the Republican infantry doing at this time? And the infantry just stayed in the ravine to dine. It’s lunchtime. All the machine guns of the machine gun battalion turned out to be faulty, so there was no one to support the tanks and nothing. Meanwhile, there were two battalions of infantry in the ravine: the Aria battalion together with a carabinieri battalion. Having received the order from General Walter to advance to Hill 680, they dispersed: instead of the indicated height, the Carabinieri moved to the height occupied by the Republicans. The battalion “Aria” nevertheless entered the olive grove. The battalion of carabinieri were able to turn and also send to the olive grove. The infantry occupied the abandoned trenches there, but, although the enemy did not fire almost any fire on the infantry, they did not go forward. Why? But the battalion commander simply said that he would not attack her, but would capture her at night and without any help from tanks. As a result, the tanks with losses retreated to their original positions, destroying only one enemy anti-tank gun. A report was written to the division commander Walter about the actions of the commanders of the Aria battalions and the carabinieri, and … that’s it!

BT-5 in nationalist livery

It often happened like this: the tanks ran out of ammunition or fuel. They went to refuel at the base, but, returning back, they never knew exactly where they would find their infantry, and where the enemy’s. Because of this, the number of cases of “friendly fire” from tanks against infantry increased sharply. Moreover, it follows from the reports that they happened almost every day.

BT-5 captured in the battle at Fuentes de Ebro

It was only possible to negotiate with the anarchists about whether they would go into the attack: the form of the order was unacceptable for them! Often they demanded that the “Commander Russo” take the rifle in his hands and lead them into the attack! By the way, the fact that among the tankers there were losses not only wounded and killed, but also … those who went crazy, speaks of what the situation was at the front! By the way, the production of military products at the factories of the republicans was also completely insufficient, at the fronts there was absolutely not enough of it, so without the help from the USSR they simply would not have resisted, but this is what no one seriously wanted to admit.

Men and tanks of the Spanish Civil War

Nationalist artillery fires at Republican tanks during battles on the Ebro River in 1938. Fig. Giuseppe Rava

But it is especially significant how in the fighting in Spain both sides used their cavalry.

* In total, about 200 units of German armored vehicles were sent to Spain, according to Hugh Thomas.

** According to Hugh Thomas, a total of 1,300 nationalist aircraft fought in Spain at the beginning of the war, while the Republicans had 1,500.

*** In December 1938, the Spanish industry produced monthly 100,000 rifles and 10 million cartridges, 700,000 grenades and 300,000 shells, 80,000 mines and 100 mortars, which in the most direct way made the Republicans dependent on supplies from Russia.

PS Colored drawings of tanks by A. Sheps.

To be continued…

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