Chapter CIX: Spain ’37 Part III – Thirty Four Good Reasons for Victory.
The war in the south of Spain has been described in many ways. For some it was yet another round of the ongoing Franco-German rivalry, others focused on the Hispanic dimension as the mostly colonial army of Franco clashed with the bulk of the ‘legitimate’ government army. While these interpretations have their merits they all, ultimately, fall down for the same reason; they assume there was actual fighting going on. Given the vast technological gap the tank ‘battles’ were so one sided as to more resemble slaughter than combat and, despite valiant efforts to close this gap, the Republican’s would retain their advantage until well into the summer of 1937.
The lambs to the slaughter would be the Panzer I ‘light tanks’ of the Falangist militias (technically they were Panzerkampfwagen I Ausführung A in the typically concise German style). Vying with the earlier marks of Light Tank and the indigenous Spanish efforts for the coveted accolade of ‘worst tank in Spain’, the Panzer I was not an impressive combat vehicle, but then that had never been the intention. The design process for the Panzer I had been convoluted, torturous and at times secretive, stretching back to the ideas of ambitious officers of the Weimar Republic era Reichswehr in the late 1920s. Never intended to serve as anything more than a training tank, circumstances it had been sent to Spain both to gain valuable combat experience and for the simple reason there wasn’t anything else. The Ausf. A models sent to Spain were particularly wretched, the engine was woefully under-powered and regularly over-heated, the gearboxes were terrible and the suspension inadequately damped. While all those problems were, eventually, rectified in the Ausf. B units, none of them were sent to Spain, leaving the Falangists to cope as best they could with the Ausf. As that the Wehrmacht was keen to be rid of. Armed with twin 7.92mm (0.31”) machine guns and ‘boasting’ up to 13mm of armour it was as badly protected as the Light Tanks in the north but lacked the better bite that came from the heavier 0.5” Vickers machine guns. Though in truth that wasn’t really a problem, as we shall see the entire force could have been armed with twin Vickers and it would have made precious little difference.
A Soviet T-27 tank in German markings, pictured sometime in the late 1930s. The T-27 was the link between the Panzer I and its oldest ancestor, the Carden-Lloyd tankette. The Carden-Lloyds were originally sold to the Soviet Union along with the Vickers 6 tonners and, after some cosmetic changes and swapping the Vickers 0.303” for the Soviet standard 7.62mm DT machine gun, soon entered service as the T-27. A handful of these T-27s made their way to Germany as part of the secret German-Soviet military co-operation of the late 1920s and early 1930s. The design was heavily copied in the many ‘tractors’ German industry produced to get around the Versailles ban on tank development. One of the ‘tractors’ most heavily ‘inspired’ by the T-27/Carden-Loyd was the Landswerk Krupp A (LKA) developed, obviously enough, by Krupp in 1932. The LKA, after some minor re-engineering and the replacement of the fixed machine gun casement with a twin machine gun turret, eventually became the Panzer I.
We turn now to the Hotchkiss H35, rightly considered the best tank in Spain at the time and pride of the Republican 1st Armoured Division. Yet on closer examination it is not immediately obvious why this should be the case because, to be blunt, the H35 was not without some serious faults. Beginning at the heart of the tank we find a less than impressive 3.5 litre Hotchkiss engine producing some 75 horsepower, in comparison the slightly heavier British A9 Cruiser Mk I (12 tons for the A9 against 11 tonnes for the H35) was propelled by a 9.6 litre 150hp AEC engine, and was still thought somewhat under-powered. In an almost inexplicable attempt to increase top speed, to the less than dizzying height of almost 17mph, a long ratio gearbox was fitted. This was an odd decision as the infantry’s design specification did not demand high speed (the eventual winner, the Renault R35, could barely make 12mph) and the engine was entirely unsuited to such a gearbox. The final irony was that the final production models were so hard to get into top gear (due to the mismatch of gearing and engine performance) that most drivers didn’t bother, giving an effective top speed comparable to that of the Renault. The problems continued throughout the mechanical elements of the design; the steering was both heavy and vague and the tank was a poor gun platform being unstable at almost any speed. These problems were related to the unreliable and unstable suspension, the less than successful horizontally sprung paired bogies then in vogue in French armoured design. When considering the mechanicals of the tank it is clear why the French infantry had rejected it and the cavalry fought so hard to avoid being lumbered with it.
In fairness the mechanical problems above were not unique to France, engines were generally under-powered and suspension was the bane of tank designers the world over. As we have seen tank establishments the world over are prone to ‘manias’ about badly thought out features, for instance the worldwide obsession with multi-turreted tanks, despite their obvious problems. In that context French perseverance with a fundamentally defective suspension system is far more understandable, especially given the alternative chosen by German tank designers – delay indecision. Such were the problems caused by the constant swapping of suspension design for the anti-tank tank (the Panzer III) and the infantry support tank (the Panzer IV) that a stopgap was sought, the Panzer II. Amusingly the Panzer II itself suffered almost eighteen months of delay between initial prototype and volume production due to suspension problems, hence why only the Panzer I could be sent to Spain – there was nothing else in the Wehrmacht arsenal. However, while the mechanical problems can be understood, the problems with the ‘fighting’ parts of the design, which are the main purpose of a tank, are less excusable.
We begin with the main gun, the 37mm SA18 semi-automatic, the main problem with which is shown in the name; 18 refers not to a barrel length but to the guns age – 1918. Almost twenty years old at the time of the Spanish Civil War, the SA18 was a short barrelled, low velocity gun originally designed for firing HE shells at machine gun nests and infantry. While a new AP shell had been developed, anti-armour performance was still not overly impressive; perhaps as much as 20mm of vertical armour at 500m, the 45mm 20K on the T-26 could expect to punch through twice the thickness at that range. That said, in the context of the light tanks and tankettes that made up the Monarchist armoured units, such figures were more than enough in most engagements. What was not good enough was the crew provision, despite being the heaviest and largest tank in Spain at the time (barring the handful of ancient FT-17s that had survived the previous year) the H35 had only a two man crew, almost every other tank had three, save the very dregs of the Light Tanks. One man was driver and engineer while the other was expected to serve as gunner, loader and commander, in such circumstances it is tempting to see the lack of radio was something of a relief to the over-worked crew, though it is doubtful the archaic semaphore system was that much easier to use. The remaining issues ranged from the serious, the lack of a hatch in the cupola, to the merely eccentric, the commander didn’t have a seat in the turret, instead a suspended saddle that turned with the turret. We now come to the one undeniable strength of the H35 in Spain and the single reason that it, and not the T-26, was rated the best tank in the country at the time; armour. The H35 had 34mm of armour on its hull and 40mm on the turret, over double its nearest rival and impenetrable by any machine gun or anti-tank rifle in Spain at even point blank range. The only widely available gun in Spain that had a chance of penetrating that much armour was the 45mm 20K, which was only in service with the Soviet backed Republican militias in the north, nothing the Monarchists could muster had a chance.
The Hotchkiss H35, note the three pairs of two wheel bogies and the horizontal spring linking the two halves of each pair. This form of suspension system, and various variants using rubber cylinders not helical springs, would appear on almost all French tanks of the 1930s but could never be made to live up to it’s theoretical capabilities. Interestingly the greatest strength of the H35 in Spain, its 34mm thick armour, was one of the reasons it had been rejected by the infantry; the infantry support tank specification had called for at least 40mm of armour.
For all the focus on tanks it was the entirely un-armoured Army of Africa that made the first move of the southern campaigns, General Juan Yagüe capturing the coastal city of Malaga with relative ease. Yagüe’s troops would then push on, along the thin coastal strip between the Mediterranean and the mountains of the Sierra de Almijara, as they drove towards the rich mining region of Almeria. As the Monarchist had hoped the Republican commanders reacted, determined to stop the Army of Africa before it created another large salient in their lines. It was at this point that the problems began for the Monarchists; the plan had been for the Flangist militias to drive out of Cordoba and use their armour to take first Jaen, and then Granada. They would then form the anvil to the Army of Africa’s hammer and destroy or capture the Republican Army of the Coast. While the Republican commanders duly obliged by moving their troops out of garrison and towards Malaga, the Assault Guards were not so co-operative.
The first action of the Republican 1st Armoured Division occurred outside the town of Andújar, the high water mark of the previous years Monarchist campaign. After the fierce fighting the previous year the Falangist garrison had rebuilt the bridges across the river Guadalquivir destroyed by the retreating Republicans and fortified the approaches to the town. Despite its distance from the main garrison in Cordoba where the new Panzer force was preparing, the town was well garrisoned and considered secure. This was not the case. It is commonly stated that mechanical reliability did more damage to the H35 force than the enemy, while technically true this misses the point – the defending Monarchists failed to destroy even a single Republican tank. Though the defenders fought fiercely their fire was ineffective and Andújar fell swiftly, the retreating Monarchists only surviving due to the lack of vigorous pursuit. This would become the hallmark of the campaign, a combination of cautious French doctrine (armoured units should never advance beyond friendly artillery range) and mechanical unreliability would limit the 1st Armoured to a slow, but inexorable, advance. After the next strong point, the town of Villa del Río, fell in similar circumstances the Monarchists were forced to react, the Army of Africa was left to it’s own devices and the Falangist armour deployed to the town of El Carpio to stop the Republican advance.
The battle of El Carpio is notable for two things; the obliteration of the Falangist armoured squadron and the appearance of the Flandin Cocktail. Of the former there is little to be said, the Panzer Is advantages of speed and radio communication where irrelevant when they were incapable of damaging the H35 and were vulnerable at ranges of almost 1000m away. The battle on the plains outside El Carpio was as one sided as you would expect, out of the entire force a handful of shattered survivors escaped and the field was littered with dozens of burning Panzers along side the very occasional H35 having trouble with it’s tracks. The Flandin Cocktail is an interesting story, essentially just a petrol bomb it was a creature of Propaganda more than anything else. It began when the French foreign minister, Pierre Flandin, was widely quoted at a Franco-Spanish diplomatic dinner as ‘toasting the victories’ of the Republican government. With the Monarchist commanders reduced to ordering their troops to use petrol bombs, the only weapon that stood a chance of taking out a H35, one of the German ‘advisors’ spotted the Propaganda opportunity; the petrol bombs became Flandin Cocktails, so the Monarchist could ‘Return the toast’. An effective and memorable piece of propaganda perhaps, but it didn’t make the situation any less desperate. El Carpio still fell, though the petrol bombs took their toll on the H35 and the victory was not quite so quick or so painless for the Republicans. By the start of summer the road to Cordoba, the main Monarchist base in the region, was wide open and the Falangist militias still had no way to stop a H35 in open country.
As we leave Spain there is one loose end to clear up, the Linares Breakout. The story of the Republican 4th Division, one of the few regular army units to stay loyal to the Republic, could have been one of the great stories of the war. Having escaped from Badjoz at the outbreak of the war and then over-wintered in Salamanca the scene was set for Linares to lead his men north, break the Monarchist lines and make it home to Republican territory. Alas warfare cannot be relied upon to produce such narratives and the 4th Division faced not ragged militias but the highly motivated and well equipped Carlist Requetés. Despite fighting hard the bulk of the Linares breakout didn’t even escape from Salamanca province, the remainder being killed or captured before reaching the halfway point. Yet there would be one long term consequence beyond a boost to Carlist morale (and a dip to the Republican’s morale). General Linares himself would escape along with much of his HQ and eventually turn up in the Basque pocket. Linares would eventually become the de facto Republican government representative in northern Spain, while the Basque ‘government’ would remain defiantly separate, Linares would become the catalyst for improved co-operation between the Republican militias in the Basque country and the rest of Spain.
Another big update and ore than you ever wanted to know about various not-that-good tanks I’m sure. Thankfully for the non-tankers among you we’re moving off armour for the foreseeable future, so those of you who feel over-tanked can relax. As always all tank facts are true, including the well travelled British-Soviet-German Carden-Lloyds and the saddle in the H35, truly a triumph of French engineering.
The Flandin cocktail is of course the OTL Molotov cocktail, but with a different name. Once I though of that idea I just couldn’t resist and thought it was a good way of showing just how the French are slowly becoming more and more drawn into the Spanish Civil War. OTL there were petrol bombs regularly used against T-26s, TTL it’s the H35 on the receiving end as things get desperate for the Monarchists.
I had hopes for Linares, given how inept the AI is I thought he would make it out, certainly it looked for a while that he might, but then he inexplicably stopped, turned around, tried to attack Madrid and then got destroyed. The general then promptly appeared commanding a militia in the Basque pocket so I added that explanation just for the challenge really.