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aircraft of the Condor Legion, 1939

The Condor Legion ( ) was a unit composed of "volunteers" from the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and from the German Army (Wehrmacht Heer) which served with the Nationalistsmarker during the Spanish Civil War of July 1936 to March 1939. Hugo Sperrle commanded the aircraft units of the Condor Legion and Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma commanded the ground units.

History of military aid to Spain

Called "Operation Fire Magic" (Unternehmen Feuerzauber), German military aid to the Spanish Nationalist rebels began with a request for assistance dispatched by Spanish General Francisco Franco. This was received by German dictator Adolf Hitler on July 22, 1936, five days after the rebellion began on 17 July. Hitler immediately called Hermann Göring, then Minister for the Economy, and Field Marshal General (Generalfeldmarschall) Werner von Blomberg, to plan methods of support for the Nationalists.

Dornier Do 17 E-1 of the Condor Legion


The organization 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, Nazi Germany was able to exercise considerable influence on economic trade between areas under Francoist 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 Francoist-controlled areas. Commission rates between 0.175 — 5 % were taxed on all such transactions.

Economic exploitation and overall Reich control of Spanish mineral wealth specifically iron ore, tungsten, iron sulfide, and cinnabarite are now thought to have been a prime motivator from the perspective of the Third Reich.

Hitler's political motives

At the time of the revolt, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had agreed to provide Italian military aid for the Nationalists in the form of troops, the "Corps of Volunteer Troops" (Corpo Truppe Volontarie, or CTV). Hitler also immediately agreed and was happy to see the conflict in Spain both continue and eventually end in favor of Franco. Hitler's motives were threefold:
  1. Franco, if successful would represent a third unfriendly fascist power on the frontiers of rival Francemarker.
  2. Internal tension in France between the political left and right was exacerbated by Civil war in Spain and in turn weakening any organized opposition against Germany.
  3. Assisting the Italians in Spain kept the Western democracies of Britain and France in conflict with Italy and drove Mussolini toward Nazi 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'. Military aid from the USSRmarker had also begun arriving for the Republican Government, including aircraft and tanks, and 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. Hitler then gave his agreement for the formation of the troops into the Condor Legion.

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.

Material costs

German aircraft 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. The dead included:

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

Over 50% died in accidents and/or disease. The first to die were fighter pilots Helmut Schulze and Herbert Zeck on 15 August 1936.

72 aircraft were shot down. Another 160 were lost in accidents.

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.

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 Nürnbergmarker. 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.

And it was also a view put forth in western media following 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. 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.

Other units

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.

Technical advances

Bf 109 C-1, Jagdgruppe 88, Legion Condor
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 Barcelonamarker involving fire and gas bombs. These particular raids resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians. 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. 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 Torchmarker invasion fleet.

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 Lufthansamarker 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. 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.

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.

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

Operation Rügen — the bombing of Guernicamarker on 26 April 1937 resulted in fierce international condemnation. It was at this point that international attention was focused on 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. This was evidenced by the public position of neutrality and fanfare over the signing of a Non-Intervention Pact.

Although not the first time that German airpower was employed, or the first time that large civilian casualties resulted, the destruction received wide media coverage and created a public perception of German involvement which persists. Basque government figures of the time put the toll at 1,654 dead and 889 wounded — an unprecedented scale. 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 sympathetic writers participated in condemning the scarcely concealed interference by Germany and Italy. An example was Heinrich Mann, who appealed from 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.

Treatment in Nazi Germany

As part of his longterm "Blumenkrieg" strategy Hitler drew parallels between the conflict in Spain and the relatively peaceful methods he used to gain control in Germany. The regime also made use of the conflict as an opportunity for political education and aggrandizement. Highlighting of the military aspects and success story for German arms is also evident with the publication of various pulp semi-autobiographical works in 1939, most notably:

Although accurate in part these works are now accepted by scholars on the period and conflict as laced with propaganda which emphasizes daring escapades and fails to address the realities of military combat in general.

Composition (November 1936)

  • Commanding officer: Generalmajor Hugo Sperrle
  • S/88: General staff

Air units (136 aircraft overall):
  • J/88: Fighter group with four squadrons of He 51 (48 aircraft)
  • K/88: Bomber group with four squadrons of Ju 52 (48 aircraft)
  • A/88: Reconnaissance group with four squadrons:
    • Three long range reconnaissance squadrons with He 70 (18 aircraft)
    • One short range reconnaissance squadron with He 45 (6 aircraft)
  • AS/88: Naval reconnaissance group with two squadrons:
    • One He 59 squadron ( 10 aircraft )
    • One He 60 squadron ( 6 aircraft )
  • LN/88: Aerial information battalion with two companies
  • F/88: Anti-air battalion with six batteries:
    • Four 88 mm Flak batteries ( 16 pieces )
    • Two 20 mm Flak ( 20 pieces )
  • P/88: Two Luftwaffe maintenance companies


The Spanienkreuz (Spanish Cross) campaign medal was awarded by the German authorities in seven classes from April 14th, 1939. Due to the clandestine nature of German activities in Spain, no awards were instituted up to April 1939 and the end of German involvement in the conflict. The Spanish Cross complemented 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 the two websites listed below for examples of each medal and others issued to Legion veterans.

Other notable incidents 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 organized for Hitler's 50th birthday 20 April 1939. 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 at the time was also circulated in both Spain and the United States.

German shame

A second Condor Legion?
1966 Student placard draws comparison with USAF bombing in Vietnam.
Recrimination for the activities of the Condor Legion and shame at the involvement of German citizens in the bombing of Guernica surfaced following German reunification in the 1990s. In 1997, the 60th anniversary of Operation Rügen, then German President Roman Herzog wrote to survivors of the raid apologizing on behalf of the German people and state. Herzog said he wished to extend "a hand of friendship and reconciliation" on behalf of all German citizens. This 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. This process was then carried out but the issue surfaced again in 2005 following media revelations about the role of pilot Werner Mölders who had volunteered to serve in Spain. Although not involved in the bombing of Guernica it was decided by then German Defense Minister Peter Struck that in keeping with the law Mölders name should be removed from the barracks at Visselhoevedemarker and from association with Luftwaffe wing 74 (Jagdgeschwader 74marker) based in Neuburg an der Donaumarker. Up until 2005 it had not been established that Mölders flew as a Condor Legion volunteer before his death in 1941.

Memorial for the Condor Legion, Almudena-graveyard, Madrid

Notable participants

(in alphabetical order)


  • During World War II, Franco would permit Spanish volunteers to fight alongside the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front as part of Operation Barbarossa. These men were formed into the "Blue Division". Like the Condor Legion, these fighters were entirely voluntary and although it is widely imagined that they were sent as a form of payment or aid to Hitler for the services of the Condor Legion, Franco in fact resisted their service in the Wehrmacht. Following reverses for the German forces operating in Russia, he demanded their recall; the penalty for disobedience being removal of Spanish citizenship.

See also


  1. The first planes from Fascist Italy arrived in Spain on July 27, 1936. Immediate German assistance to Franco resulted in the world's first airlift of troops (from Spanish Morocco).
  2. While the economic advantages are now thought to have been a prime motivator, it more general treatments of events political advantages allied to military advantages are usually cited as the only or main factor. See Hugh Thomas The Spanish Civil War, and Leitz.
  3. General histories of events e.g., Shirer, Beevor usually vary in the exact timeline. Leitz gives an exact account of the timeline in detail. The units of Regia Aeronautica which received postings to fight in Spain were organized as Aviazione Legionaria (Aviation Legion).
  4. Meetings between Göring and Mussolini in Rome on 14 January 1937 capped levels of German and Italian military assistance to Franco.
  5. 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.
  6. This was still well below levels of Italian aid, which numbered material, warships, hundreds of aircraft, and sixty- to seventy- thousand men.
  7. 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.
  8. See 1939 report from TIME Magazine detailing the departure of Italian and German forces from Spain; Farewell TIME Magazine Monday, May. 22, 1939.
  9. The Stuka's first mission flown in Spain was February 1938.
  10. 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. (R.J. Defalque, A.J. Wright).
  11. The battleship Deutschland was later attacked by the Republican Air force and Navy.
  12. '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.
  13. Corum, J. p. 293
  14. E.R Hooton 2007 Vol.1 , p. 52
  15. E.R Hooton 2007 Vol.1, p. 62
  16. Rügen is a Baltic island off the coast of Germany.
  17. 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.
  18. Evidenced in a January 1937 speech (prior to the outcry over Operation Rügen). Hitler speech to Reichstag 30 January 1937 available via the German Propaganda Archive.
  19. For example, political education of Hitler Youth by way of the conflict is apparent in the Worldview Education for Winter 1938/39 available at the German Propaganda Archive.
  20. This was also reprinted after World War II ended. Each book had high circulation, in the case of Bley the circulation was estimated at over 1 million books sold.
  21. This campaign medal is not to be confused with the Spanish War Cross which began being awarded in 1942 for acts of gallantry on the Eastern Front. The Spanish War Cross was awarded to Spanish volunteers of the Blue Division.
  22. Color images of this address were taken by Hugo Jäger and are available via Getty images. The formal return to Germany and parade by of the Legion was captured by Ufa studios.
  23. See Exhibit recalls German destruction of Spanish town of Guernica April 25, 2000.
  24. See Germany Army Drops Name of Nazi Pilot January 28, 2005.
  25. The men were given no assistance from the Spanish authorities and force-marched to Germany.

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